Is a storyteller a meaning maker or a truth teller? Simple facts were not enough for the mammoth hunter who recorded the hunt in broad strokes on the dimly lit walls of an ancient cave; or the buffalo hunter on the plains who drummed what was coming or what had been; or for Aesop (the Michael Moore of ancient Greece). Facts never got in the way of truth for Homer or Ovid or Virgil.
The stories of ancient Rome, in many cases, are the stories of ancient Greece… old myths with a new twist. New names. New backdrop. Togas. Story is not just a magic carpet that transports us– it is a red carpet rolled out as an invitation to lead us back in time. There is enough truth in the wildest tale to help us understand what the Romans were thinking. We stand shoulder to shoulder with citizens in the coliseum as we ponder kindness and gratitude and freedom in the story of Androcles and the Lion. This story was was told by Aulus Gellius in his Gesta Romanorum. I use it to teach social studies. After all, he said he saw the scene in the Coliseum with his own eyes. Could it be true?
Katherine Lee Bates (author of America the Beautiful) wrote about mythology in her 1924 introduction to A Child’s Book of Myths:
“Don’t say these stories are too beautiful to be true. They are too beautiful not to be true… Let them persuade you that you and all about you, home and school and out-of-doors, the lives you live and the world in which you live them, are made up of beauty and marvel and splendor… The only thing that does not exist is the commonplace.”
My father used to tell us some wild stories about his West Virginia childhood and the people he grew up with (his supporting cast). “Was that True?” we would ask at the end of each story. “Did that really happen?” His answer was always the same…
It’s true enough.