I was looking the other day at a post on Sean Manning's Book and Sword blog about Livy's account of the battle of Magnesia, which Sean reads as a clear example of 'suppression of the truth being equivalent to spreading a falsehood'.
"Livy", he asserts, "has cut something out of his sources and tried to hide it."
Invoking Appian as the control (it being accepted that both writers read and used Polybius, whose account is no longer extant), the post goes on to enumerate the aspects Sean feels Livy deliberately omitted, with the motivation for these omissions being that Livy was a Roman writing for a Roman audience who would not want to include things that showed the Romans in a less than favourable light.
I'm not entirely convinced by the argument myself. I don't think that Appian is as reliable a control as he is asked to be, and nor do I think that the items supposedly suppressed show the Romans in a particularly bad light, but what I do find particularly interesting are the modern parallels to this situation.
Just ten days ago there was a fierce rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand. Two weeks prior to it, Ireland had beaten New Zealand for the first time ever in their 100-odd year history of playing rugby internationals. The New Zealand All Blacks do not like losing, and the rugby world geared up for an exciting rematch.
What followed was a bruising encounter. The All Blacks won the game by the most ancient of methods - ie, scoring points on attack and denying their opponents from doing the same - but they also had men yellow carded for dangerous or illegal play.
After the match, the narratives in the two countries tended to be quite different. In New Zealand newspapers the All Blacks had kept cool under pressure despite having been harshly treated by a referee who overlooked suspect Irish play while penalising every minor little nothing the All Blacks did. From the Irish perspective the All Blacks were cynical thugs who would stoop to any low behaviour to avoid losing - including targeting the head in tackles, no doubt in an attempt to maim - and who used their aura to intimidate a refereeing team that signally failed to police the game as impartially as right and justice demanded.
In short, both sides took a shared set of events and interpreted them very differently. What from one perspective was an heroic tackle that unfortunately slipped up a little high was, for the other, a blight on the game. What for one side was a score that rewarded skill and perseverance in the face of an indomitable opponent and refereeing inconsistency/incompetency was, for the other, a bitter example of referee blindness and institutional bias in favour of a higher-ranked team and a scarier looking jersey.
But in New Zealand two voices went against the prevailing attitude. One used the high penalty count and and lack of forward dominance to mount his familiar hobby horse in a tirade against the New Zealand captain and the New Zealand administrators; the other dared to say that the All Blacks' tackling was a a disgrace, but as his last name is Reason (and rumour has it that his father is English), his column could be safely disregarded as mere trolling.
I have exaggerated a wee little bit, but the way that these voices interacted after an event just ten days ago and which is on video for all to see seems to me to be an excellent example of just how difficult it is to come to grips with key events and motivations when they are clouded by one's own stake in the result.
It is from sources akin to these for our Ireland versus All Blacks game that Polybius, Livy, Appian et al had to prepare their own histories. They had no youtube go go back to, and so had to work with a shared set of 'facts' - "We lost/won" - the writings of officials, official historians, and the folk and campaign histories that resulted.
On the whole I think the ancient historians did pretty well. Some are more Daily Mail / Guardian than others, but we've got a lot to be grateful for, and I think we need to be cautious of being too dogmatic about our assumptions of bias because in the end we can't be entirely sure what the biases are.
After all, even New Zealand has its Mark Reasons!