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The Historiographic Nature of Lucianic Polemic in the Quomodo Historia Conscribenda Sit

Luther Karper

Brown University

This paper offers a new interpretation of the first half of Lucian’s How to Write History (Quomodo historia conscribenda sit), which is characterized by scathing invective against the supposed historians of the Parthian Wars of the 160s.  This first section of the work has traditionally been read as a series of examples of how not to write history (Marincola 1997), but it has likewise been noted that the hyperbolic nature of Lucian’s negative examples suggests that he either exaggerated or fabricated the targets of his invective (Macleod 1991).  If this is so, then it greatly diminishes their pedagogic utility as negative examples.  Furthermore, if we accept this interpretation, then we are left with an apparently comical first half attached to a serious guide to writing history, and this presents readers with a seemingly unbalanced work that is neither completely humorous nor entirely useful.  Rather than reading the “non-Quomodo” section of Lucian’s work as a purely comedic satire meant to entertain, I argue in this paper that it should instead be read as a component of Greek historiography meant to educate the reader by providing examples of historiographic polemic and invective.

Although Lucian is, ostensibly, concerned with the canonical trinity, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, and how they might be emulated, his instructions clearly belong to the historiographic school of Polybius.  If we turn to the second half of Lucian’s Quomodo, we find that the methods he recommends are astoundingly similar to those followed by Polybius (Georgiadou and Larmour 1994; Hall 1981; Baldwin 1973).  To cite just one example specifically, Lucian (Hist. Conscr. 37) states that a man who is to write history must know how to command, employ siege equipment, make use of weapons, and maneuver cavalry.  Polybius advocated for the same sort of historian (12.25h; 12.25g), and argued that one should only write about war if one has been to war.  Both Lucian and Polybius recommend that historians avoid encomium, be experienced in military and political affairs, practice autopsy, employ geographic descriptions scientifically, and consider carefully the evidence before composition. 

The many clear links between the style of historiography described by Lucian and the method advocated by Polybius suggest that Lucian also knew of and appreciated Polybius’ use of polemic and invective against other historians.  To note one clear parallel, Lucian accuses a shoddy historian of failing even to achieve barbershop-levels of knowledge (Hist. Conscr. 24).  This rebuke coincides with Polybius’ critique of Chaereas and Sosylus, whose words he compares to the babbling of barbershop gossip (3.20.5).  Polybius, moreover, was not the only post-Classical historian to rebuke his rivals (Baron 2013; Schepens 1990; Walbank 1962).  Indeed, Timaeus himself is said by Polybius (12.25c.1-2) to have bolstered his own credentials by indicting rival historians, and Josephus (Ap. 1.15-18) and Cicero (Fin. 2.80) criticize Greek scholars for their many disagreements and indictments of one another.  Polybian polemic may have been unusually caustic (Walbank 1962), but the fact that polemic in general was not uncommon in Greek historiography strengthens the pedagogic utility of the many examples provided by Lucian.

We can conclude, I argue, that Lucian, satirical showman that he was, nevertheless wrote a useful historiographic guide in line with a Polybian-style historiography.  The stinging invective therein, so characteristic of Lucian, was every bit at home in the sort of history that he argued one should write.  The latter half of the Quomodo, I contend, was not a pro forma appendix to a primarily satirical work, and it worked in tandem with a pedagogically relevant first half that sought to do more than show readers “what to avoid.”  I further argue that Lucian not only understood, but employed polemic of a Polybian sort that likewise fits within a wider Greek historiographic tradition, thereby creating a fully serious, yet pleasantly humorous Quomodo.  If Lucian never mentioned the rhetorical power of historiographic invective, so much the cleverer his mastery of it becomes.

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Literature of Empire

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