The Trouble With Primary Sources

160425hoplitePrimary sources are great. They are essential. Without them, we would know vastly less about history than we do.

Because primary sources are so essential to our knowledge of history, it is easy to make the mistake of taking them too much at their word. Primary sources are like every other piece of writing: limited by the author’s perspective and subject to scrutiny and challenge. The trouble isn’t even just that primary sources can be wrong (although they can), but that the really interesting questions rarely have just one right answer. The answer we get from one primary source may be incomplete, even if it’s not wrong.

For example, suppose you’re writing a story about an ancient Greek who ran away from a battle. What would his fellow Greeks think of him? What would he think of himself? With a little research you might come across this fragment of a poem by Tyrtaeus:

That man dies well who falls in the front line
when fighting for his homeland.
He who abandons his city and rich fields
is the most wretched of all, wandering as a beggar
with his beloved mother, old father,
little children and wedded bedmate.
He will be hated wherever he goes,
an image of need and bitter poverty.
He disgraces his family and sullies their splendid image;
dishonor and shame follow them all.
– Tyrtaeus, quoted in Lycurgus, Against Leocrates 107

(My own translations)

Which all sounds rather dire. It sounds like it would be a horrible disgrace to abandon the battlefield, one which wold cling not just the deserter himself but to his family and descendants.

So, you have your answer. Your character is a miserable wretch who is hated by everyone and probably hates himself, too.

On the other hand, you might come across this little poem by Archilochus:

Some Saian delights in my shield, the one I dropped beside a bush.
It was a perfectly good shield and I didn’t want to leave it behind.
But I saved myself. What’s the shield to me?
I’ll buy a new one just as good.
– Archilochus, quoted in Plutarch, Spartan Institutions 34

Well, this makes it sound like fleeing the battlefield was no big deal. It just means you have to shell out for a new shield, but there’s nothing here about bringing shame down upon the family line.

So, which is it?

The answer is probably both, for different people in different circumstances. Tyrtaeus and Archilochus were both responding to the same cultural pressures. Tyrtaeus seems to be very earnest about it, Archilochus rather flippant, but neither one of them is wrong. Each of them gives us just a small part of a much bigger picture.

This is the trouble with primary sources. No matter how good and reliable they are, they always represent just one person’s point of view. For many eras of history, the sources that we have represent only a very limited range of points of view: mostly male, upper-class, and wealthy. As far apart as Tyrtaeus and Archilochus are on the question of fleeing the battlefield, they both come from an elite male perspective. We have no idea what women, poor people, slaves, or lots of other folks would have said on the matter.

Primary sources are essential. We can’t study history without them. But we also can’t just point to a single source and say: “That’s how it really was.”

Image: Running hoplite carrying his helmet and shield, photograph by Ad Meskens via Wikimedia (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; c. 495 BCE; red-figure pot; by the Nikosthenes Painter)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.


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