Shelby Foote on the Roman View of History

Shelby Foote (1916-2005) was a novelist and historian whose magnum opus was a three-volume narrative of the America Civil War that took him two decades to research and write.  That single work took up 3,000 pages, which amounts to some 1,500,000 words.  (An average non-fiction book might be 75,000 words; on that basis, his tome was the equivalent of 20 books.)

Throughout his life, Foote was a voracious reader of quality literature, as familiar with Homer and Shakespeare as he was writers closer to his own time.  Given his reading and research achievements, his view of Roman history is worth noting.  First, because it explains his own style, and, second, because its helps explain the Gospels.

Foote once told a Paris Review interviewer that he subscribed to the Roman belief that “history was intended to publicize, if you will, the lives of great men so that we would have something to emulate.”

Foote mentioned that he had been reading Tacitus over and over. “Tacitus writes about high-placed scoundrels. He’s so damned good. He said that he wrote so that people would be ashamed of bad things and proud of good things.”

(Source: Shelby Foote. – Slate Magazine)

Elsewhere, it has been recorded:

Facts, Mr. Foote said, are the bare bones from which truth is made. Truth, in his view, embraced sympathy, paradox and irony, and was attained only through true art. “A fact is not a truth until you love it,” he said.

(Source: New York Times obituary of Mr. Foote)

Given that the Gospels were written at the height of the Roman Empire, therefore, it should not be surprising to us that they take the shape that they do.  Many skeptics today reject the Gospels because they don’t address the subject as a modern biographer would.  People who expect ancient writers to conform to modern literary styles might as well ask why Hannibal marched over the Alps when he could have taken a plane.

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