I’m sure each of us has heard an incredible story at one time or another. It seems to be one of the ubiquitous experiences of people in general, and it seems that everyone enjoys a good story. We just have to look at the success of entertainment in modern culture and our deep-seated love for stories in general, whether scandalous, violent, loving, hateful or hilarious, becomes apparent.
While most of our favorite stories seem to wax fictional, I would like to assert something a little different: history is the greatest story ever told. Whatever else it is or can be, it is at its core the greatest and most important story ever told.
While it is in fact, factual, it is at the same time a direct product of the storyteller. Take for example Caesar’s Commentaries: While it is considered a credible source for the Gaelic War, it also clever propaganda in favor of Caesar, as he is writing it in order to spread the news of the grand success of the war that launched him into a position to have the power he does. Caesar tells the “true” tale of the wars he fought with the Gaelic tribes, true in that they indeed transpired but “true” in that it is still a story that Caesar was telling. He skews the data, so to speak, making sure, and understandably so, that he comes across as capable and intelligent, heroic and brilliant. Once again, the wars in Gaul happened, and Caesar undeniably won them, yet was he as firm and sure in that victory as it appears? Maybe. Regardless, when faced with dilemmas such as this, historians pass it as a mildly unreliable source and must leave it at that. Yet I argue that history need not be brought down by that. Indeed, often history gets a reputation for being dry and boring, yet it truly is perhaps the greatest entertainment ever.
Take “Lord of the Rings”spiced up with magic and elves, it seems to offer much higher entertainment value than anything that actually happened. Yet, while I’ll readily admit that many spend more time with “Lord of the Rings” than history, when I break it down, all the machinations of “Lord of the Rings” cannot even begin to touch the complexity and sheer interest factor of Roman politics, even what little we know of them.
If ancient history is not your cup of tea, consider something more recent (relatively): the court of King Henry XIII was so entertaining and farcical that it has been the topic of many entertainment outlets recently. I know for a fact that there are at least three shows on Netflix right now that cover that tumultuous time. Thus, we can see how entertaining history can be.
History is more than just an account of what happened. It’s the story of the human race. That story is complete with all the intricacies of both true events and storytelling.
The Aeniad, a full blown “fictional” story, still has some great historical value. For the Romans, it may have even been a part of their historical understanding. Indeed, that story details the mythical origins of Rome. In this story the gods and goddesses lead Aeneas through a series of mythical events, fighting monsters and gods. Yet the story also details a series of relatively mundane wars and battles that the early Latins fought. The text details multiple wars that clearly have some historicity. Indeed, while much of the Aenied is “story” there is likely hidden in that story some very real historical facts that otherwise are lost to the mists of time. Either way, the Aeneid, fictional in many senses, has given so much to the study of history and the languages that flesh history out seem to point to the enmeshment of history and stories. History is literally the greatest, and most important, true story ever told.