What is the significance of this quote from Cicero? "The first law of historiography is daring not to say anything false, and the second is not refraining from saying anything true: there should be...

What is the significance of this quote from Cicero? "The first law of historiography is daring not to say anything false, and the second is not refraining from saying anything true: there should be no suggestion of prejudice for or bias against when you write."

Expert Answers
thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This quotation is taken from Cicero's De Oratore and reflects a debate in antiquity about the purpose, style, and methods of historical writing. For Cicero, as for many ancient authors, history was considered a branch of rhetoric. The purpose of history was not simply to be a record of facts, but to teach moral lessons. This led to significant debates about how much a historian should simply stick to bare known facts versus the degree to which it was necessary to include commentary and even imaginative reconstruction. 

Thucydides, for example, famously stated in his history, The Peloponnesian War:

With reference to the speeches in this history ...  it was ... difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.

Cicero seems to be arguing, contrary to Thucydides, that rather than dramatically reconstruct speeches or events, the historian should refrain for doing so even when the reconstructed speeches may be relatively close to the originals. The debate here focuses on the question not so much of commentary versus facts but of readability versus accuracy.

We should also note that De Oratore is itself written in the form of a dialogue in which Cicero uses real characters and invents for them imaginary speeches; thus we might not want to take the argument of one character in the dialogue as a reflection of Cicero's actual views. 

knifeandlantern | Student

It should, first of all, be noted that the correct quote is actually:

"... the second is not refraining from saying anything true ..."

This changes the intent from something sarcastic or witty to a rather straightforward meaning.

Cicero was a Roman orator from the 1st century BCE, famous for being a massively influential politician, philosopher, and speaker.

The rest of the quote, when put in context, is about the difficulties of writing about historical content. He contrasts these first two rules—that one should say nothing false and leave out nothing true—with the expectations of the readers, who desire opinion, analysis, and explanation.

These last two are, for the historian, particularly difficult, since they must rely, on some level, on speculation. As such, including them is in direct violation of the first two rules, which demand nothing but facts be reported. Further, including opinions on events, as is often asked, conflicts with the last clause about being free from bias for or against.

This quote, then, is simply about the contradiction between the strict rules for the historiographer and what is actually demanded of them. It is impossible to fulfill both.  

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question