What we know about the ancient times comes to us through the efforts of storytellers. Before humans developed a written language, storytellers were our only link to what happened “way back when.” We refer to this as history’s oral tradition. But I must emphasize that these people were storytellers, not historians. Good storytellers often embellish facts to make their stories interesting, exciting, and mystifying.
At some point, after the development of written language, people began to write the stories down, in their own language, of course. They were known as scribes. And these scribes were kept busy because the materials they used to record the stories were rudimentary: the inks they used faded, the paper they used back then dried up, and, over time, their manuscripts became unreadable.
Thus, the work of the scribes became an effort to preserve manuscripts written at an earlier time — a somewhat earlier version of a copy machine. One challenge for the scribes is that language changes over time. A good example of this is that a modern person would have a difficult time understanding anything spoken by Benjamin Franklin or George Washington, and I’m only talking about a time difference of 250 years. So, occasionally, a scribe would add or remove words and reframe sentences so that the writing made better sense to whomever might read it later. This is one of the reasons why modern historians, working with anthropologists and archeologists, spend so much time trying to validate the claims of ancient storytellers and scribes.
Titus Livius (known as Livy) was a Roman historian responsible for a monumental narrative of Rome. Much of what he wrote down occurred long before his birth, so while historians are keenly interested in what Livy had to say about Rome, historiographers and others strive to validate his claims so that we can differentiate between Livy’s facts and his fictions.
In Telling the Story …
If one were to take the greatest story ever told and remove the people from the narrative, it would be similar to watching a Hollywood film in faded black and white, without any actors or accompanying music.
That “greatest story” would become thoroughly disappointing. This is why good history relies so much on its human element. History is a series of short narratives, interwoven over time to tell us far more than what happened and when … they tell us about the people who made those events possible.
These event-makers, by the way, were our ancestors. Their story is our story. Just like us, the people of history lived in a particular environment, they interacted with others in a certain way, they had their strengths and weaknesses, and they made mistakes along with great accomplishments.
Because history is interesting and interrelated, it’s often difficult to know where to begin the tale. My attempt in telling our story always involves short summaries of what happened before the main event. I do this because some background makes the main event easier to understand and, I think, more interesting.
I hope you agree. Thank you for reading.