Sometimes I read in history that someone said something, but it seems, it's just a daily conversation, or even in private, or a secret event. So how do history writers know these details?

It seems impossible, e.g. when there are only two people, and one of them killed, and then the conversation between them was revealed to history. But similar situations can be met many times. Maybe the history writer imagined or invented those things? That is the only possible scenario, isn't it?

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    One interesting example is the story of the emperor Commodus of whom almost all we know was written by Dio Cassius who happens to be on the principle characters in that story. He was witness to the events so he would be privy to information that would be considered private. The question is how much do we believe his version of events which happen to put him in a fairly good light?
    – JimmyJames
    Jun 2, 2017 at 20:09
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    Writing memoirs was popular back in the days...
    – vsz
    Jun 2, 2017 at 20:12
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    Attitudes of historians have changed over time, from Herodotus on. Herodotus was happy to include fables in his histories. Thucydides tries to be more factual, but still gives accounts of many long speeches verbatim that he could not possibly have heard himself. Modern day historians require a higher level of scholarship and attribution. Jun 2, 2017 at 22:27

3 Answers 3


The simple answer is that often the people involved write down (or verbally pass on information that is later written down by other people) these 'private communications' after the event, in memoirs, journals, letters, etc. Also 'official' secrets don't have to permanently stay secret, especially if the original reason for keeping them secret no longer applies, so 'private' correspondence and documents can be released to the public (and therefore to historians) once the need for secrecy is gone.

The issue of fabrication is a different one and opens up a wider discussion of intended and accidental bias in historical reporting. There's also the issue of (mis)interpretation if the original language of the parties in the conversation is different to the language used by the historian.


This is why it is important to always keep the writer's intention in mind when studying some historical source. There are some different scenarios how that could happen:

  • A contemporary writes down the conversation exactly as he heard it from the survivor. But we don't know how trustworthy that witness is. Obviously, most people will try to justify why they killed the other guy, and are tempted to paint him in a bad light.
  • A contemporary writes down the conversation, but maybe he has reasons himself to fabricate it, too. Common scenario: After a successfull coup, most writers are too afraid to mess with the winner and will try to paint him in a good light, even without direct input from the guy. Or if two nations are at war, there is a good amount of propaganda flying around that is exaggerated for obvious reasons.
  • A non-temporary writes down the conversation later. Maybe he tries to record the "general knowledge" about it that is still living within the populace (and might or might not be the truth at this point). Or worse, a lot of historical events we think to "know" were actually completely made up by fiction writers, and people started to forget about the "fiction" part after some centuries and took everything for a fact. Especially after the primary source gets lost.

In the end, you are right with your scepticism. Never assume that a conversation happened the exact way it was written down. We only have a chance to approximate truth by studying and comparing many different sources .. if several people with independent backgrounds (e.g. from different neighbouring cultures) agree on a thing, it might actually have happened that way. Maybe.


Firstly, the author's intentions are important. If this book/movie/article/game is intended to be historical fiction (think Downton Abbey or Apocalypse Now), then the author/creator would have full license to create their own dialogue and events. Within reason, of course - such fictional works typically have to retain a certain level of authenticity in the dialogue and costumes.

If the book is intended as an academic study of an event or period in time, many authors these days choose to refrain from using apocryphal quotes. In cases where there is no verbatim (or reliable) record of a conversation or meeting, authors will often choose to discuss the intentions or outcomes of the meeting, rather than speculate on what each participant said.

In cases where someone has given exact quotes, you could always check their footnotes or endnotes (which a reliable book should have). There will often be references to the author's sources for these quotes, which will also help to give you a better idea of the reliability of the quote.

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    Here's an example. I'm always a bit uncomfortable with historical fiction and films such as 'The Imitation Game' (to pick one at random) because I think they are far too often perceived, or remembered, as the truth.
    – peterG
    Jun 2, 2017 at 18:23
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    Well, what Hilary Mantel says in that article is very true. "I think historians worry about the prospect of the public being misled." I'm a historian myself, and there's a lot of historical fiction out there that I don't like. However, there is also some stuff out there that I do like. For example, I'm a fan of Bernard Cornwell's medieval novels. They're thoroughly researched, but never presented as anything but a fictionalised representation of the events presented. If more authors and directors started doing likewise, those of us who are historians wouldn't have as much to worry about.
    – user25308
    Jun 2, 2017 at 22:03

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