The Roman historians seem happy to mix history with myth with no discussion on the reliability of one's sources — or even a mention of the sources in the first place. I would like to imagine that the Romans did not believe all myths told to them as such, and I am looking for doubts expressed by the Romans to support this thought.

Are there instances in Roman literature where a writer doubts the historicity of a specific event or person? I am not looking for a general "myth an history are mixed and we cannot know what is really true" but something specific like "I don't think Aeneas ever existed". If you think such mentions are entirely absent, that would be quite interesting.

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    Does someone living within a province of the Empire count, even if they wrote in Greek rather than Latin? – Draconis Jul 24 '19 at 18:02
  • @Draconis That would indeed count. It sounds like you have something specific in mind, and I'd be happy to see that. My only reason to restrict to Latin is that my Greek is... rusty. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jul 24 '19 at 18:04
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    Tacitus also often gives several versions of what happened at a certain time, and mentions how credible they are, e.g. in the Annales. I'm sure various historians other than Tacitus and Livius did this as well. – Cerberus Jul 24 '19 at 18:40
  • @Cerberus Would it be possible to expand that into an answer, even a short one? – Joonas Ilmavirta Jul 24 '19 at 18:47
  • @JoonasIlmavirta♦: I'm afraid I don't have any specific passages at hand. – Cerberus Jul 24 '19 at 19:12

Titus Livius, an excellent scholar even by modern standards, was very conscious of the problem of source reliability.

Consider the beginning of Liv. 26 49:

tum obsides ciuitatium Hispaniae uocari iussit; quorum quantus numerus fuerit piget scribere, quippe ubi alibi trecentos ferme, alibi tria milia septingentos uiginti quattuor fuisse inueniam.—aeque et alia inter auctores discrepant. [2] praesidium Punicum alius decem, alius septem, alius haud plus quam duum milium fuisse scribit. capta alibi decem milia capitum, alibi supra quinque et uiginti inuenias. [3] scorpiones maiores minoresque ad sexaginta captos scripserim, si auctorem Graecum sequar Silenum; si Ualerium Antiatem, maiorum scorpionum sex milia, minorum tredecim milia; adeo nullus mentiendi modus est. [4] ne de ducibus quidem conuenit. plerique Laelium praefuisse classi, sunt qui M. Iunium Silanum dicant; [5] Arinen praefuisse Punico praesidio deditumque Romanis Antias Ualerius, Magonem alii scriptores tradunt. [6] non de numero nauium captarum, non de pondere auri atque argenti et redacta pecunia conuenit; si aliquis adsentiri necesse est, media simillima ueri sunt. (Livy, Ab urbe condita. Robert Seymour Conway. Stephen Keymer Johnson. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 1935. 4.)

Here is the English translation from Livy, Books XXVI-XXVII With An English Translation, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1943 (ed. Frank Gardener Moore, Professor Emeritus in Columbia University):

then he ordered the hostages of the states of Spain to be summoned. how great was their number I dislike to state, since in one source I find that they were about three hundred, in another three thousand seven hundred and twenty —four. [2] there is no less disagreement on other matters also between the authorities. one writes that the Carthaginian garrison consisted of ten thousand men, another of seven thousand, another of not more than two thousand. as for the captives, in one writer i find ten thousand persons, in another above twenty —five thousand. [3] i should set down about sixty larger and smaller scorpions as captured, if I were to follow a Greek authority, Silenus, if Valerius Antias, then six thousand of the larger scorpions, thirteen thousand of the smaller; so lacking is any limit to his mendacity. [4] even as to the generals there is no agreement. most say that Laelius commanded the fleet, there are some who say it was Marcus Iunius Silanus. [5] Valerius Antias relates that Arines was in command of the Carthaginian garrison and surrendered to the Romans, other writers that it was Mago. [6] there is no agreement as to the number of ships captured, none as to the weight of gold and silver and of money brought in. if one must agree with some authorities, moderate figures are the most probable.

I beg to disagree with this translation. I would write "average figures" instead of "moderate figures", but that’s off topic here.

From many specific examples I quote just a couple, both involving Valerius Antias:

Liv. 30 19.11:

[11] idem consul cum Hannibale in agro Crotoniensi acie conflixit. obscura eius pugnae fama est. Ualerius Antias quinque milia hostium caesa ait, quae tanta res est ut aut impudenter ficta sit aut neglegenter praetermissa. [12] nihil certe ultra rei in Italia ab Hannibale gestum…

(res impudenter ficta, a good translation for fake news?)


[11] The same consul engaged in battle with Hannibal in the territory of Croton. The story of that battle is not clear. Valerius Antias says five thousand of the enemy were slain—a victory on such a scale as to have been either shamelessly fabricated or else carelessly passed over. [12] What is certain is that nothing further was accomplished by Hannibal in Italy…

Or Liv. 36 38.6:

[6] duodetriginta milia hostium occisa Antias Valerius scribit, capta tria milia et quadringentos, signa militaria centum viginti quattuor, equos mille ducentos triginta, carpenta ducenta quadraginta septem; ex victoribus mille quadringentos octoginta quattuor cecidisse. [7] ubi ut in numero scriptori parum fidei sit, quia in augendo eo non alius intemperantior est, magnam tamen victoriam uisse apparet…


[6] Valerius Antias states that 28,000 of the enemy were slain and 3400 made prisoners, and that the spoils included 124 standards, 1230 horses and 247 wagons, whilst in the victorious army 1484 men fell. [7] Though we can place little confidence in this writer so far as numbers are concerned, for no one is more reckless in exaggerating them, it was evidently a great victory…

(All quotations, Latin and English, copied and pasted from texts found at Perseus.)


Lucian of Samosata, a satirist writing in the second century CE, never had much regard for historians. His most famous work, the Alēthē Diēgēmata ("True Histories"), specifically mocks the sort of ridiculous stories that historians liked to recount as true. Here's how he puts it in the introduction:

…τῶν ἱστορουμένων ἕκαστον οὐκ ἀκωμῳδήτως ᾔνικται πρός τινας τῶν παλαιῶν ποιητῶν τε καὶ συγγραφέων καὶ φιλοσόφων πολλὰ τεράστια καὶ μυθώδη συγγεγραφότων, οὓς καὶ ὀνομαστὶ ἂν ἔγραφον, εἰ μὴ καὶ αὐτῷ σοι ἐκ τῆς ἀναγνώσεως φανεῖσθαι ἔμελλον…

…each of the stories I tell hints, not without humor, at one of those ancient poets, historians, and philosophers, who have written down quite a lot of myths and legends as "history". I would mention them by name, if not for the fact that they're likely to be made clear by your reading…

There's a short lacuna in the text after this point, but Lucian does indeed go on to single out a few historians for particular ridicule, and then:

ἀρχηγὸς δὲ αὐτοῖς καὶ διδάσκαλος τῆς τοιαύτης βωμολοχίας ὁ τοῦ Ὁμήρου Ὀδυσσεύς, τοῖς περὶ τὸν Ἀλκίνουν διηγούμενος ἀνέμων τε δουλείαν καὶ μονοφθάλμους καὶ ὠμοφάγους καὶ ἀγρίους τινὰς ἀνθρώπους, ἔτι δὲ πολυκέφαλα ζῷα καὶ τὰς ὑπὸ φαρμάκων τῶν ἑταίρων μεταβολάς, οἷα πολλὰ ἐκεῖνος πρὸς ἰδιώτας ἀνθρώπους τοὺς Φαίακας ἐτερατεύσατο.

The founder and teacher of this whole school of charlatanism is Homer's Odysseus, who told Alcinous's court about winds being enslaved, one-eyed men, cannibals, savage men, animals with too many heads, and sailors transformed [into pigs] with magic drugs—this nonsense, and plenty more, was how he tricked the gullible Phaeacians.

Interestingly, he doesn't blame Homer for passing myths off as truth, but blames Odysseus; the frame narrative of the Trojan War and all that might well have happened, but the stories Odysseus tells within that frame were clearly nonsense he made up to get sympathy from the king of Phaeacia.

τούτοις οὖν ἐντυχὼν ἅπασιν, τοῦ ψεύσασθαι μὲν οὐ σφόδρα τοὺς ἄνδρας ἐμεμψάμην, ὁρῶν ἤδη σύνηθες ὂν τοῦτο καὶ τοῖς φιλοσοφεῖν ὑπισχνουμένοις.

Well, reading through all of these, I couldn't really blame the authors too much for their lies, seeing as this was the standard, even for the ones who claim to be philosophers.

According to one scholiast, this is a not-particularly-subtle jab at Plato's dialogues.

ἐκεῖνο δὲ αὐτῶν ἐθαύμασα, εἰ ἐνόμιζον λήσειν οὐκ ἀληθῆ συγγράφοντες. διόπερ καὶ αὐτὸς ὑπὸ κενοδοξίας ἀπολιπεῖν τι σπουδάσας τοῖς μεθ᾿ ἡμᾶς, ἵνα μὴ μόνος ἄμοιρος ὦ τῆς ἐν τῷ μυθολογεῖν ἐλευθερίας, ἐπεὶ μηδὲν ἀληθὲς ἱστορεῖν εἶχον—οὐδὲν γὰρ ἐπεπόνθειν ἀξιόλογον—

But, I was somewhat amazed that they thought they could write these falsehoods and not have anyone call them on it. Driven by my vanity, I was eager to pass something down to future generations, so that I wouldn't be the only one left out of the mythological record. Except—I had nothing true to write down, since I'd never done anything worth writing about.

This is probably a jab at another writer, but I'm not sure which one.

ἐπὶ τὸ ψεῦδος ἐτραπόμην πολὺ τῶν ἄλλων εὐγνωμονέστερον· κἂν ἓν γὰρ δὴ τοῦτο ἀληθεύσω λέγων ὅτι ψεύδομαι.

So, I turned to lying, but in a much more honest way than the others—because, see, I will tell you this one thing truly, that I'm making it all up.

He then goes on to write what some people consider the world's first science fiction novel, in which he launches a ship to the moon, gets involved in a space war, meets gay plant-based aliens, accidentally arrives in Elysium, discusses literary criticism with Homer's ghost, finds an island made of cheese, and eventually discovers an entire ecosystem built inside a giant sea-monster's stomach.

There are some parts that are definitely mocking Herodotus specifically, and I'm sure some lesser-known authors too (though I probably missed most of those references). But overall, it seems clear that Lucian had very little respect for most of the ancient writers of history.

(All Greek text is from the LCL; all translations are mine.)


Plutarch wrote a famous treatise on "the malice of Herodotus" (Περὶ τῆς Ἡροδότου κακοηθείας) in which he accused the Father of History of having spread malicious lies.

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