Error and Ancient History

Edward Gibbon, A Vindication (§ 12):

After a short description of the unworthy conduct of those Apostates who, in a time of persecution, deserted the Faith of Christ, I produced the evidence of a Pagan Proconsul, and of two Christian Bishops, Pliny, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Cyprian. And here the unforgiving Critic remarks,

“That Pliny has not particularized that difference of conduct (in the different Apostates) which Mr. Gibbon here describes: yet his name stands at the head of those Authors whom he has cited on the occasion. It is allowed indeed that this distinction is made by the other Authors; but as Pliny, the first referred to by Mr. Gibbon, gives him no cause or reason to use them,” (I cannot help Mr. Davis’s bad English) “it is certainly very reprehensible in our Author, thus to confound their testimony, and to make a needless and improper reference.”

A criticism of this sort can only tend to expose Mr. Davis’s total ignorance of historical composition. The Writer who aspires to the name of Historian, is obliged to consult a variety of original testimonies, each of which, taken separately, is perhaps imperfect and partial. By a judicious re-union and arrangement of these dispersed materials, he endeavours to form a consistent and interesting narrative. Nothing ought to be inserted which is not proved by some of the witnesses; but their evidence must be so intimately blended together, that as it is unreasonable to expect that each of them should vouch for the whole, so it would be impossible to define the boundaries of their respective property. Neither Pliny, nor Dionysius, nor Cyprian, mention all the circumstances and distinctions of the conduct of the Christian Apostates; but if any of them was withdrawn, the account which I have given would, in some instance, be defective.

Thus much I thought necessary to say, as several of the subsequent misrepresentations of Orosius, of Bayle, of Fabricius, of Gregory of Tours, etc, which provoked the fury of Mr. Davis, are derived only from the ignorance of this common historical principle.

Another class of Misrepresentations, which my Adversary urges with the same degree of vehemence (See in particular those of Justin, Diodorus Siculus, and even Tacitus), requires the support of another principle, which has not yet been introduced into the art of criticism; that when a modern historian appeals to the authority of the ancients for the truth of any particular fact; he makes himself answerable, I know not to what extent, for all the circumjacent errors or inconsistencies of the authors whom he has quoted.

BBC206171 Portrait of Edward Gibbon (1737-94) c.1779 (oil on canvas) by Reynolds, Sir Joshua (1723-92)
Private Collection
English, out of copyright

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