Is fiction superior to history?

Should the education of the young rely on the lessons of history, or should it instead employ fiction to convey the core observations we wish future generations to understand about human behavior?

One could argue that the lessons of history are more real and more true than anything that could be represented in fiction, and that therefore history is clearly superior as a tool for educating the young. On the other hand, a well written novel can convey a story in a manner that is far more immediate and personal, and therefore fiction can appear more directly relevant. Histories, by contrast, are generally long, nuanced, and encumbered by innumerable details that can readily distract the reader. Fiction, therefore, is better than history in the respect that it can tell a story in a clear and direct manner that is readily appreciated by both young and old.

Before we attempt to resolve this dispute we should ask if there are indeed lessons of history, and if so, how does one discover them?

Absolutely history has important lessons to teach us. The moment when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River was the point from which the Roman Republic would inevitably slide into autocracy. World War I should inform us all about the horrors of modern weapons. The Iraq War of 2003 should serve as a warning not to go to war on the basis of falsified evidence.

How does one discover such lessons? By hard, detailed research. Much of history has been buried in dust and deceit. The job of the historian is essentially that of a journalist– to discover the truths that some people are doing everything they can to hide. The difficulty for the historian is that there are generally no living witnesses to interview. So much of the historian’s task is to piece together a picture of the past from those bits of data that still survive.

Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar tells the story of the assassination of one of the most influential individuals in human history. The speeches by Brutus and Mark Antony of Act III Scene 2 are absolute masterpieces of elocution, regardless of how historically accurate they may be, though they do sound rather stilted to modern ears. Regardless, the play certainly conveys the revulsion that the Roman public must have felt toward Caesar’s murderers, and it realistically portrays the anger that erupted from the aftermath of his death into civil war.

But there is so much more that the play does not relate about the background of Caesar’s rise to power, and about the impact of his assassination on the broader sweep of Roman history. The play begins with Caesar being offered a crown by Mark Antony, which Caesar refuses three times. But Brutus and the other assassins had already made up their minds to kill Caesar. Here is Brutus considering his options in Act II Scene 1:

But ’tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus; that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which, hatch’d, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene 1, William Shakespeare

There is little mention in Brutus’s ruminations of the long sequence of events that preceded his decision. When Caesar crossed the River Rubicon with his one legion of troops, he didn’t simply violate a time honored tradition– he started a civil war. That war created such bitterness that there was from that moment forward little chance of reconciliation. He pursued his primary adversary, Pompey, to Greece where, in 48 BCE, Pompey’s forces were defeated at Pharsalus. In 46 BCE Caesar defeated Pompey’s supporters, under the leadership of Scipio, at Thapsus in what is now Tunisia. And finally Caesar defeated Pompey’s eldest son Gnaeus Pompeius in 45 BCE at the Battle of Munda in what is now southern Spain. In honor of his victory at Munda he was appointed dictator for 10 years.

On return to Rome he worked tirelessly to diminish the power of the other institutions of Roman authority. He packed the Senate with his own supporters, effectively making that body a submissive advocate for his own objectives. He increased his own powers. When tribunes attempted to obstruct his agenda, they were brought before the Senate and were stripped of their offices. And he pushed through legislation that imposed term limits on governors, to insure that none of them would be able to ascend through the ranks as he had done.

And yet the other elements of Roman society and government were willing participants in Caesar’s ascent. In 49 BCE, Caesar was appointed dictator. (He resigned after 11 days.) In 48 BCE he was reappointed dictator for an unspecified period. After his victory at Munda he was again appointed dictator for a term of 10 years. Also in 48 BCE he was given the powers of a tribune permanently. And in February 44 BCE he was named dictator for life.

Caesar’s assassins intended to put an end to Caesar’s ambitions and thereby to preserve the Roman Republic. But in fact the longer term outcome of their plot was literally the opposite of what they had intended. After yet another lengthy civil war Gaius Octavius emerged as the sole victor and authority, and Rome was transformed into an empire that bore little resemblance to the Republic it replaced.

None of this nuance is mentioned in Shakespeare’s play. So is the play something that the young should be encouraged to read? Well, first we should acknowledge that fiction is entertainment first and foremost. It may in addition provide some life lessons, but that is not a requirement. Readers are perfectly entitled to read works of fiction with little thought about what, if anything, might be learned from their reading.

In this specific case, Shakespeare’s play is clearly intended to inform the viewer about the events of March 15, 44 BCE, one of the most momentous days in history. And as it does an excellent job of portraying the emotions that raged through the Roman people it is certainly a worthy study for anyone hoping to understand those tumultuous times. But I don’t see how it is possible to fully appreciate the motivations of the conspirators or of Mark Antony without having a broader understanding of the events that led up to Caesar’s assassination. Those events are complex, nuanced, and not fully understood, even today.

The longer term consequences of his assassination encapsulate the most important lesson of Caesar’s life and times– that whenever the transfer of power is anything other than peaceful and ordered, society will likely veer toward authoritarianism in its attempt to avoid chaos. That is a lesson that people in any society, in any time, and under any system of government can benefit from learning.

So I would recommend that this play be included in the syllabus of a high school literature class only if it is accompanied by an extensive history of the broader context of the times in which Caesar rose to power. And it should be followed with a discussion of the longer term consequences to the Republic. The evolution from Republic to empire gave rise to the imbalance of Tiberius, Nero, Caligula, and Commodus. And that imbalance led inexorably to the death of the Empire and the centuries of chaos that ensued.

In this broader context the lines between fiction and history blur. History provides the hard evidence, the factual basis for our visions of the past; and fiction can turn those hard facts into raw emotion that makes history come alive. These are dual elements that can work together to provide a broader understanding of the past, and which together can convey the lessons of human behavior that we wish future generations to learn.

Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore

All rights reserved.

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