How much do we really know about the history of the Roman Empire? We have enough that Edward Gibbon could write a massive series just on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — when Gibbon presented a new volume to his patron, the Duke of Gloucester, the duke responded, “Another damn’d thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?” — but I get the feeling that mostly the most vivid anecdotes and most biased accounts survived the Dark Ages. We have extremely interesting accounts of various Roman Emperors, but they seem rather sure of themselves, making them more like political punditry than history of the “but on the other hand” genre.
How many surviving detailed sources do we have on each Roman Emperor? For those for whom we have multiple sources, how many times do they disagree in general on the quality of the man?
We have a lot of surviving carved inscriptions in stone, although they tend to be fairly short. But manuscripts only lasted a few centuries on average until they were eaten by mice or flooded or burned up in library fires. So we only have what later people felt like laboriously copying.
Overall, we seem have had come down to us a lot of wonderful gossip from Roman times about politicians, but little in the way of nuts-and-bolts books on how things worked. I read Edward Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire over Christmas. He makes the point that we have little in the way of written documentation come down to us about Roman strategy in particular or its military in general. We do have a lot of archaeological evidence about the Roman legions, so from that he tries to reverse engineer what the Roman strategy must have been. Being Luttwak — very smart and very self-confident — he manages to come up with a plausible-sounding tale.
Similarly, we have very little in the way of business books from Rome, although judging by the sophistication of the Roman economy there must have been some How To Succeed in Business manuscripts.
But, apparently, they weren’t interesting enough to the medieval monks doing the copying, while the juicy tales that Gibbon eventually wrote up were.