Sallust, Bellum Catilinae: History is Better than Action

Earlier, we read Aristotle’s opinion concerning the superiority of poetry over history. The Roman historian Sallust would insist that history, slandered so viciously by that scholastic walking enthusiast, is actually the best and most difficult of pursuits:

Bellum Catilinae , Chapter 3

“It is a fine thing to do good works for one’s country, and even eloquent speaking is hardly a trifling thing, since one may then become renowned either in war or in peace. Many of those who have done great deeds, as well as those who have written about the others, are justly praised. But it seems to me – even if nothing close to the same glory attends upon the writer and the doer of deeds – that it is rather a difficult thing to write history. The first difficulty is that you must take care to make your words equal to the deeds performed. If you upbraid a person’s faults, many readers will attribute this to your own malicious envy; but if you make a mention of the great virtue and glory of good people, then your readers will accept with calm equanimity all of those  recorded deeds which they think are easy enough to perform, but anything which supersedes this limit will be considered little more than embellishment heaped on falsehood.”

Bellum Catilinae, Chapter 8

“The achievements of the Athenians were great and impressive enough, but as I see it, perhaps a little less so than is generally supposed. However, because the greatest authorial talents congregated there, the accomplishments of Athens are celebrated the whole world over as the greatest ever.”

Pulchrum est bene facere rei publicae, etiam bene dicere haud absurdum est; vel pace vel bello clarum fieri licet; et qui fecere et qui facta aliorum scripsere, multi laudantur. 2 Ac mihi quidem, tametsi haudquaquam par gloria sequitur scriptorem et actorem rerum, tamen in primis arduum videtur res gestas scribere: primum, quod facta dictis exaequanda sunt; dehinc, quia plerique, quae delicta reprehenderis, malevolentia et invidia dicta putant, ubi de magna virtute atque gloria bonorum memores, quae sibi quisque facilia factu putat, aequo animo accipit, supra ea veluti ficta pro falsis ducit. -Section 3

Atheniensium res gestae, sicuti ego aestumo, satis amplae magnificaeque fuere, verum aliquanto minores tamen, quam fama feruntur. Sed quia provenere ibi scriptorum magna ingenia, per terrarum orbem Atheniensium facta pro maxumis celebrantur. -Section 8

One thought on “Sallust, Bellum Catilinae: History is Better than Action

  1. Sallust is always a good voice of reason (and a great Latin stylist too).

    To be honest, I have never really believed Aristotle’s comments about history. I think if he were writing an ‘Historica’ instead of Poetics he’d probably provide the opposite answer. Philosophers are tricky that way.

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