How to Make History with Words
Oscar Wilde once remarked: ‘The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.’ That epigram tacitly acknowledges the uneasy relationship between two ways of making history. The more obvious consists in actually doing something, or taking part in events, then or later deemed worthy of public remembrance, such as fighting in the First World War, or inventing the internal combustion engine, or being the first human being to set foot on the moon. This kind of history-making makes history of the kind the Romans called res gestae. But history is also made by the persons and processes involved in recording memorable events for posterity. The people who specialize in making history in this second way are commonly known in Western culture as ‘historians’. Historians do not necessarily witness personally or participate in the events they give an account of. Occasionally, exceptional individuals can claim to be history-makers on both counts. Julius Caesar would be an example. He was not only the first Roman general to conquer Gaul, but wrote an authoritative account of this achievement in his Gallic Wars.