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Accuracy of Portrayals of Historical Persons

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The Czar
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Accuracy of Portrayals of Historical Persons

Post by The Czar » Wed August 17th, 2011, 2:27 pm

As I read more and more historical fiction, I am sometimes surprised by differing portrayals of historical persons. One example...

I have recently been very interested in Roman historical fiction. I knew little Roman history, and have gotten into the period. The first foray I made into Rome was Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series.

McCullough, in the latter volumes of the series, portrays Octavian (later Augustus) as a sickly, cold, calculating man, with little passion, particularly in sexual matters. She portrays Livia Drusa, his wife, (later Augusta) as a partner, sharing his bed and work, but generally a pretty "good" character.

Ok, fine.

Now, I am reading I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Graves' portrayal of these characters is almost diametrically opposed to McCulloughs. Graves paints Augustus as a "boy himself" who loved playing with the schoolboys, and generally as an affiable, good natured man. He was unable to "perform" with his wife, who arranged for Syrian slave girls to be introduced into his bed. No mention is made of the athsma that plauged him much of his life, which featured prominantly in McCullough's telling.

Livia, in Graves' account, is portrayed as an evil, contolling, manipulative monster, poisoning at least half a dozen characters, most of them her relatives, in the first seven chapters alone.

So I find myself wondering... Which is right? Is either? Is it really possible to know? Obviously, these people lived 2000+ years ago, and probably, it was not safe to write accuate portrayals of their character down. Is it possible that Augustus, a man, was praised by fawning self-serving writers of the day, while Livia, a woman, suffered from character assassination, much like other female figures such as Mary Magdalene, Mary Stuart, Elizabeth Tudor, etc.?

Anyway, I don't really have a point here. I just find it amazing that, apparently, there is no real accurate portrait of such important historical figures, and they have, like Achilles, Oddysseus, and other mythical figures, basically vanished into legend.
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sweetpotatoboy
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Post by sweetpotatoboy » Wed August 17th, 2011, 3:09 pm

Now, this is kind of what I love about historical fiction. I can read countless novels about the same historical characters and each portrayal is a different 'take', sometimes - as you say - diametrically opposed.

In most cases, even for relatively recent characters, the only thing we can reliably depend on is events. (And even then, not so much in some cases.) Building the motivations and characters behind them is the challenge. And it's no wonder each historian or novelist comes up with a somewhat different response. Even if we have contemporary accounts of the character's personality, that is a subjective interpretation and may come with its own agenda.

By the way, I'm pretty sure Colleen McCullough acknowledges that her asthma for Augustus is pure conjecture - a condition that she feels fits the facts, rather than it having any specific foundation. I'm sure she says as much in one of her author's notes.

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The Czar
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Post by The Czar » Wed August 17th, 2011, 3:21 pm

[quote=""sweetpotatoboy""]By the way, I'm pretty sure Colleen McCullough acknowledges that her asthma for Augustus is pure conjecture - a condition that she feels fits the facts, rather than it having any specific foundation. I'm sure she says as much in one of her author's notes.[/quote]

She does, but she seems pretty certain that there was some kind of ailment with his breathing, and just took the best stab she could. Graves (so far) doesn't mention it at all. He even refers to Augustus as "despising the weak and infirm" whereas in McCullough, his own weakness made him somewhat sympathetic of others.
Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.
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Divia
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Post by Divia » Wed August 17th, 2011, 5:07 pm

I don't mind the different interpretations because we really don tknow what they thought in their daily lives. So writers have to make it up.

Even with historians you see this. One of my professors in undergrand was sure that Jefferson was a man dedicated to his books, thinking and trying to expand his knowledge and had no time for slave concubines.


Someone else I knew was sure Jefferson was a sexual man who had issues and thats why he went with that chick whose name escapes me now.


Maybe both are true. Or maybe Jefferson was a busy man who needed a distraction and found it in the arms of a slave woman.
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Michy
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Post by Michy » Wed August 17th, 2011, 7:04 pm

[quote=""sweetpotatoboy""]Now, this is kind of what I love about historical fiction. I can read countless novels about the same historical characters and each portrayal is a different 'take', sometimes - as you say - diametrically opposed.

[/quote] I'm with you. In fact, I'm usually disappointed when a historical character tends to always be interpreted the same way by authors, especially when little is known about the person.

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Post by princess garnet » Thu August 18th, 2011, 1:35 am

[quote=""sweetpotatoboy""]Now, this is kind of what I love about historical fiction. I can read countless novels about the same historical characters and each portrayal is a different 'take', sometimes - as you say - diametrically opposed.

In most cases, even for relatively recent characters, the only thing we can reliably depend on is events. (And even then, not so much in some cases.) Building the motivations and characters behind them is the challenge. And it's no wonder each historian or novelist comes up with a somewhat different response. Even if we have contemporary accounts of the character's personality, that is a subjective interpretation and may come with its own agenda. [/quote]
Chime. When the novel was written can be a factor as well. How a particular person or event was viewed at one time may contrast later on with more research or reassessment.

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Post by boswellbaxter » Thu August 18th, 2011, 7:47 pm

Moved the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings discussion over to the Debate/Rant forum, as it was getting far away from the original topic. Not trying to shut off that discussion, just to relocate it.
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