There is a saying: “history is told by the winners”. It seems intuitively true, and that is usually a warning sign that we’re not thinking things through.

Recently a new thesis has been advanced: history is told by the losers. For an example of the argument:

History is Written by the Losers

This makes a compelling case - when you have an erudite person who is the winner, they don’t have time to write anything, but when that person is shoved aside, that person may just write a history that’s more palatable to them. The two cases cited cover the origins of history-from-historians.

Here’s how I look at it. There are two ways that history is written. The first is that history is written by consensus; over time, we mostly converge to the same view. This maps to the “history is written by the winners” side of things, because of course the winners have an outsized influence on what is said.

But the other way that history is written is the auteur approach - a single person or small group that selects what it thinks should be recorded. In the case of Siam Qian or Herodotus or Thucydides, the stories are powerful enough to survive when the consensus history did not. And over the very long stretch of time, when we have wars or other catastrophes that upset and destroy specific civilizations, the consensus form of history doesn’t survive.

It’s an interesting thought. I’m still not sure that history is only or even largely written by losers, but maybe with enough research we’ll determine this is true.

Or maybe this view will be the one that survives because some loser will write it down and promote it.


Another bit on history written by losers:

Is history always written by the victors?