Interpreting History: the Importance and Limitations of Source Materials

Aristotilian Constitution of the Athenian

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Critically analyze the validity and accuracy of historical source materials.

Looking forward

How do we know what we know about ancient art, its context, and its role within society in the world?

Modern scholars of ancient history are notoriously obsessed with evaluating their primary sources critically, and with good reason. Studying ancient history, especially in its earliest periods, is like putting together a puzzle, most of whose pieces are missing, and some pieces from another puzzle have also been added in for good measure. Ancient history requires careful consideration of a wide range of sources, which fall into two broad categories: literary sources (including both fiction and non-fiction), and material culture. The job of the historian, then, is to reconstruct the story of the ancient world using these very different sources.

As foundations of our research, these sources of information are typically classified into two main typological definitions — primary and secondary.

primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person or work of art. Characteristically, primary sources are contemporary to the events and people described and show minimal or no mediation between the document/artifact and its creator. As to the format, primary source materials can be written and non-written, the latter including sound, picture, and artifact.

secondary source lacks the immediacy of a primary record. As materials produced sometime after an event happened, they contain information that has been interpreted, commented, analyzed or processed in such a way that it no longer conveys the freshness of the original.

The main difference between primary and secondary sources is how far away you are from the original event. In other words, a primary source is one that originated in the time/region that is under study, while a secondary source is one in which someone else has already analyzed and summarized the primary sources for you.

At this point in your academic career, you are probably very familiar with secondary sources. Secondary sources are important introductory materials to a variety of topics and include documents such as:


Magazine/journal articles




When you need a deeper understanding of a topic, primary sources serve as the most immediate materials and raw data. For scientists, primary research includes experiments and the raw data gleaned from that experimentation. For historians, primary sources are documents and/or physical objects that were written/created during the time period and location under study. These sources were present during a specific experience and offer an inside view of a particular event. Types of primary sources include:

Formal documentations: Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, film footage, autobiographies, contracts, birth/death/marriage certificates, etc.

Literary sources: original works of art such as poetry, drama, novels, music, paintings, sculptures, architecture, etc.

Material culture: Furniture, clothing, bones, tools, etc.

While historians of the modern world rely on such archival sources as newspapers, magazines, and personal diaries and correspondence of individuals and groups, historians of the ancient world must use every available source to reconstruct the world in which their subject dwelled. Literary sources, such as epics, lyric poetry, and drama, may seem strange for historians to use, as they do not necessarily describe specific historical events. Yet, as in the case of other early civilizations, such sources are a crucial window into the culture and values of the people who produced them. For instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a key text for the study of early Mesopotamia.

The Imperfect Historical Record

The earliest literary sources for Greek history are the Homeric epics, the Iliad and Odyssey.  They are, however, one of the most challenging sources to interpret, with one modern historian dubbing them a “historian’s headache[1].” Composed orally before the existence of the Greek alphabet, the epics were not written down until sometime in the sixth century BCE. The epics most likely do not reflect the society of any particular Greek city-state in any one period, but rather consist of an amalgam of features from the Bronze Age to the early Archaic Period. Their value for historians, as a result, rests more on their impact on subsequent Greek culture, rather than on their providing information about Bronze Age Greeks. More than any other literary source, the Homeric Epics influenced the mentality of the Greeks in thinking about war and what it means to be a hero.

Most other literary sources from the Archaic and Classical periods are easier to interpret than the Homeric Epics, as we often can date these later sources more precisely and thus know the period whose values or problems they reflect. There is, however, one important limitation to keep in mind: the overwhelming majority of surviving literature is from Athens, with very few sources from other city-states. Some of this distribution of evidence has to do with the differing values of the city-states themselves. For example, while Greeks of the Classical period considered Sparta to be as great a city as Athens, Spartans valued military valor over all else, so they did not cultivate arts and letters the way Athenians did. As a result, the only literary sources from Sparta are the works of two poets, Alcman and Tyrtaeus. Tyrtaeus’ military elegies, like the Homeric epics, glorify heroic death in battle over life without honor and were likely sung by Spartan warriors as they marched into battle.

Several genres of non-fiction survive as well, allowing historians to study specific events and problems in the history of the Greek world, and especially Athens. The works of three major historians survive from Classical Athens. Herodotus, dubbed the “Father of History”, wrote the Histories about the Persian Wars in mid-fifth century BCE. Thucydides, an Athenian general in the Peloponnesian War, wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War over the course of the war (431 – 404 BCE). Finally, Xenophon wrote a history of the end of the Peloponnesian War, starting with 411 BCE, where Thucydides’ work ended, and into the fourth century. In addition to the works of the historians, philosophical treatises – most notably, those of Plato and Aristotle – provide crucial insight into the political thought, moral values, and perceptions of the world in late fifth and fourth centuries BCE. The approximately 100 surviving courtroom speeches from the same period likewise provide us with a window into the Athenian legal system. Finally, the Hippocratic corpus, a series of medical treatises and physicians’ journals from the Classical period, help us to understand the Greeks’ views of the human body and diseases. But in addition to the geographical restrictions of these sources, which largely document Athens, it is also important to note two other key limitations of the available evidence. First, virtually all of the literary sources were written by men and provide very little evidence of the lives and perspectives of women in the Greek world, except as seen through the eyes of men. Second, most of the authors were wealthy and socially prominent individuals; thus, their perspective does not reflect that of less affluent citizens and slaves.

Ideally, a historian will use as many primary sources that were created by the people involved at the time under study as can be accessed. In practice however, some sources have been destroyed, while others are not available for research. In some cases, the only eyewitness reports of an event may be memoirs, autobiographies, or oral interviews taken years later. Sometimes, the only evidence relating to an event or person in the distant past was written or copied decades or centuries later. Manuscripts that are sources for classical texts can be copies or fragments of documents. This is a common problem in classical studies, where sometimes only a summary of a book or letter, but not the actual book or letter, has survived. While some sources are considered more reliable or trustworthy than others (e.g., an original government document containing information about an event vs. a recording of a witness recalling the same event years later), historians point out that hardly any historical evidence can be seen as fully objective as it is always a product of particular individuals, times, and dominant ideas. This is also why researchers try to find as many records of an event under investigation as possible and attempt to resolve evidence that may present contradictory accounts of the same events.

Material Culture as a Primary Source

Fresco that depicts a pair of middle-class Pompeians believed to be man and wife.
Unknown artist, The Portrait of Terentius Neo, c. 55 – 79 C.E., fresco, 65 x 58 cm, Museo archeologico nazionale, Naples

This fresco would not tell much to historians without corresponding textual and archaeological evidence that helps to establish who the portrayed couple might have been. The man wears a toga, the mark of a Roman citizen, and holds a rotulus, suggesting he is involved in public and/or cultural affairs. The woman holds a stylus and wax tablet, emphasizing that she is educated and literate. It is suspected, based on the physical features of the couple, that they are Samnites, which may explain the desire to show off the status they have reached in Roman society.

Archaeology is one discipline that is especially helpful to historians. By dealing with buried sites and objects, it contributes to the reconstruction of the past. Archaeological evidence thankfully allows historians to fill some of the gaps in the literary evidence, but also comes with problems of its own. One joke that refers to the speculative optimism of archaeologists reflects some of these problems of interpretation: whenever an archaeologist finds three stones that are together, he labels the find as a palace. Whenever he finds two stones that are together, he thinks he has found a city wall. Whenever he finds one building stone, he thinks he has found a house.

The Megara Hyblaea; main road, looking north.
Megara Hyblaea, main road, looking north

Still, archaeological sources provide us with key information about different aspects of everyday life in different city-states. For example, the excavations of the sixth-century BCE colony Megara Hyblaea in Sicily shows that Greek colonists were interested in city planning and in equality of citizens, as demonstrated by the equal size of the lots.

Photo of an Attic black-figure hydria, which depicts women getting water from a public fountain.
Painter of the Madrid Fountain, Attic Black-Figure Hydria, c. 520 B.C.E. black-figure pottery, 45.6 x 35 cm, Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid

Material finds, such as pottery remains, in different sites across the Mediterranean also allow historians to map trading routes – for instance, the image above shows a vase made in Corinth, but was found in Greek colonies in Italy. In addition, images on pottery provide information about stories and myths that have entered popular culture and that sometimes reflect further aspects of everyday life. For instance, the prevalence of images of women gathering at public fountains on Athenian hydriae (water pots) from the late sixth century BCE shows the importance of the public fountains for the social life of women in Athens in the period.

Finally, written archaeological sources, such as inscriptions on stone or pottery shards from all over the Greek world, and papyri from Hellenistic Egypt, are the equivalent of documentary archives from the ancient world. The evidence from epigraphy (inscriptions) includes laws that were written on large stones and set up in public, such as the monumental law-code from Gortyn, Crete, and lists of war-dead, as well as private tomb inscriptions.

Close-up of part of the inscription of the Gortyn Code. Image shows Dorian text.
Detail of inscription, The Gortyn Code, c. fifth century B.C.E, marble 100 x 150 cm, Gortyn, Crete | Close-up of part of the inscription.

Papyri, on the other hand, include such private documents as prenuptial agreements (among the strangest are prenuptial documents for brother-sister marriages – legal in Egypt but nowhere else in the Greek world), divorce documents, loans, and village police reports (cattle theft appears to have been a serious problem in the Fayum in the Hellenistic Period!).

Archaeology provides an illustrative example of how historians can be helped when written records are missing. Unearthing artifacts and working with archaeologists to interpret them based on the expertise of a particular historical era and cultural or geographical area is one effective way to reconstruct the past.

Taken together, the literary and archaeological sources allow the historian to complete much more of the puzzle than would have been possible with just one of these types of sources. Still, significant gaps in knowledge remain nevertheless, and are, perhaps, one of the joys of studying ancient history: the historian gets to play the part of a sleuth, attempting to reconstruct the history of events based on just a few available clues.

The Battle of Kadesh: a case study

Ramses II slays an enemy while he tramples on another in the battle of Kadesh
Ramses II slays an enemy while he tramples on another in the battle of Kadesh. Abu Simbel, Egypt

Almost thirty-three hundred years ago, in 1275 B.C.E., the first recorded pitched battle and the largest chariot battle ever fought took place on the shores of the Orontes River outside the walls of the city Kadesh. Here, the Egyptian and Hittite empires fought for control of the land now known as Syria in the first battle about which modern man has detailed contemporary accounts.

After expelling the Hyksos’ 15th Dynasty around 1550 BCE, the native Egyptian New Kingdom rulers became more aggressive in reclaiming control of their state’s borders. Many of the Egyptian campaign accounts between c. 1400 and 1300 BC reflect the general destabilization of the Djahy region (southern Canaan), and during the late Eighteenth Dynasty, specifically during the reign of Akhenaten, Egyptian influence in the Canaan region declined. The Egyptians showed flagging interest here until almost the end of the dynasty. Horemheb, the last ruler of this dynasty, finally began to turn Egyptian interest back to this region. Under Horemheb, Egyptian military activity had begun afresh in Syria when an expeditionary force was sent to the region to support the rebellion against Hittite. On this occasion the invading force was repulsed, but the very fact of Egyptian intrusion into territory claimed by the Hittites made it clear that Egypt had by no means relinquished its political and military interests in Syria. It was only a matter of time before it would once more pursue these interests with determination and vigor.

With Hittite influence in the area growing, other vassal states of Egypt revolted, forcing the second king of the 19th Dynasty, Seti I, to make a foray into Syria to try to re-establish Egyptian influence. His success was only temporary; as soon as Seti I returned to Egypt, the Hittite king, Mursilis II, marched south to take the town of Kadesh. Once taken, Kadesh became the strongpoint of the Hittite defenses in Syria.

Map showing the extent of the Egyptian and Hittite Empires
The Hittite Empire at the height of its power (red), bordering on the Egyptian Empire (green).

In spite of their aggressive activities in expanding their political influence in Asia Minor, the Hittite kings actually tried to avoid a direct confrontation with the Egyptians. Nevertheless, the two powers were on a collision course, and war finally erupted as the result of the political maneuvering of Ramses II, who had succeeded his father, Seti, in 1301 BCE.

The contest which finally took place between the armies of Hatti and Egypt in the vicinity of the city of Kadesh is recorded in two primary versions: textually in the Poem of Pentaur and visually attested on the walls of five Egyptian temples: the Ramesseum (Ramesses’ temple near the Valley of the Kings), and the temples at Karnak, Luxor, Abydos, and Abu Simbel. Both versions deal not only with the battle itself, but also with events leading up to it, including the progress of the Egyptian forces from the time of their departure from Egypt. In fact, there is more evidence in the form of texts and wall reliefs for this battle than for any other in the Ancient Near East.

Battle scene from the Great Kadesh reliefs of Ramses II

But we must be wary; almost all of the records are from an Egyptian perspective, proclaiming the siege a great victory for Rameses II. Take, for example, a relief depicting the Battle of Kadesh from the Ramesseum. Within the image we see the city of Kadesh (top right), beside which the battle was fought. The Hittite chariotry (above and below) enfolds Ramses within its extended wings while the Pharaoh drives into the river those in his immediate front, including many prominent allies, officials, and even relatives of the Hittite king. The king of Aleppo is held head downward by his soldiers on the farther shore (lower right), that he may disgorge the water which he has swallowed. The primary inscriptions over Rameses’ horses and chariot (middle left) state:

The Good God, mighty in valor, great in victory, crushing all countries, King of Upper and Lower Egypt: Usermare-Setepnere; Son of Re; Ramses-Meriamon[2] (…) He charged into the midst of the foe belonging to the vanquished chief of Kheta, while he was alone by himself, and no other with him. (…) He slew all the chiefs of all the countries, the allies of the vanquished chief of Kheta, together with his own great chiefs, his infantry and his chariotry. He overthrew them prostrate upon their faces, and hurled them down, one upon another into the waters of the Orontes.

By the King of Kheta (lower right):

‘The vanquished, wretched chief of Kheta, standing before his infantry and chariotry with his face turned round, and his heart afraid. He went not forth to battle, for fear of his majesty, safter he saw his majesty prevailing [against the vanquished chief] of Kheta and all the chiefs of all the countries [who] were with him. His majesty – – – he overthrew them – – -.

However, the Hittite records from Hattusa[3] tell of a very different conclusion. While no detailed records of the battle from the Hittite perspective survives, the few records we have proclaim Ramesses was forced to depart from Kadesh in defeat, with the outcome favoring Muwattalli[4].

When Muwattalli, the brother of the father of My Sun, became king, the people of Amurru broke faith with him, and had this to say to him: ‘From free individuals we have become vassals. But now we are your vassals no longer!’ And they entered into the following of the king of Egypt. Thereupon Muwattalli, the brother of the father of My Sun, and the king of Egypt did battle with each other over the people of Amurru. Muwattalli defeated the king of Egypt and destroyed the Land of Amurru with his weapons and subjugated it.

Both sides claimed Kadesh as a triumph, so which interpretation is more trustworthy?

The main source of information is in the Egyptian record of the battle for which a general level of accuracy is assumed, despite factual errors and propaganda. The Hittite army was ultimately forced to retreat, but the Egyptians were unsuccessful in capturing Kadesh. In truth, the outcome was inconclusive.

“This romanticized record of the Battle of Qadesh cannot be treated as a truthful account of what happened, and I doubt whether many ancient Egyptians would have accepted it wholly as an historical record.” However, the “broad facts” are “probably reported with a fair degree of accuracy.”

TG James, Pharaoh’s People: Scenes from Life in Imperial Egypt, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, London, 2007, pp. 26-7

The Hittite king, Muwatalli II, continued to campaign as far south as the Egyptian province of Upi (Apa), which he captured and placed under the control of his brother Hattusili, the future Hattusili III. Egypt’s sphere of influence in Asia was now restricted to Canaan, and even that was threatened for a time by revolts among Egypt’s vassal states in the Levant—Ramesses was compelled to embark on a series of campaigns in Canaan to uphold his authority there before he could initiate further assaults against the Hittite Empire.

In the eighth and ninth years of his reign, Ramesses extended his military successes by successfully capturing the cities of Dapur and Tunip, where no Egyptian soldier had been seen since under Thutmose III, almost 120 years earlier. But Ramesses’s victory proved to be ephemeral; the thin strip of territory pinched between Amurru and Kadesh did not make for a stable possession, and within a year it had returned to Hittite control. An official peace treaty[5] with Hattusili III, the new king of the Hittites some 15 years after the Battle of Kadesh, and in the 21st year of Ramesses II’s reign (1258 BC in conventional chronology), finally concluded running borderlands conflicts.

  1. Kurt Raaflaub, “A Historian’s Deadache: How to Read ‘Homeric Society’?” in N. Fisher and H. Van wees eds., Archaic Greece: New Approaches and New Evidence (London: Duckworth: 1998).
  2. Ramses II (the Great); King of Egypt.
  3. the capital city of the Hittite Empire
  4. Muwattalli (II); King of the Hittites
  5. The Egyptian-Hittite peace treaty is the earliest known peace treaty and the only Ancient Near Eastern treaty for which the versions of both sides have survived. The treaty was inscribed on a silver tablet, of which three clay copies survived in the Hittite capital of Hattusa, now in Turkey. An Egyptian version survives on inscriptions at the Great Hypostyle Hall at the Temple of Karnak and at the Ramesseum. An enlarged replica of the agreement hangs on a wall at the headquarters of the United Nations, as the earliest international peace treaty known to historians.


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