Greek And Roman Historiography Research Paper

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Historiography, the rational reconstruction of the past in the medium of a prose that claims to literary quality, was developed in Greece during the fifth century BC. Its emergence reflects the peculiar intellectual and political developments of this age. The high cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia had known lists of rulers, their foundations, festivals, and wars that represented the official version according to which the monarch inevitably would crush enemies. There was no need and no chance to develop a conception of the past in which the course of events would be ascribed to the contending efforts of multiple actors, the result of which was unpredictable and thus needed to be reconstructed and narrated in each case. The historical books of the Old Testament, in a certain sense, took account of the contingency of human affairs but at the same time attributed the outcome of events to God’s intervention.

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1. The Origins Of Greek Historiography

After the development of literacy during the eighth century BC, Greek commemoration of a distant past had materialized in the epic tradition (Homer, Hesiod). Its combination of ‘historical’ and ‘mythical’ elements became subject to criticism in an age when Ionian sixth century philosophy (as represented by the Milesians Thales, and Anaximander) had attempted at a ‘scientific’ explanation of the physical word and of human society. About 500 BC Hecataeus of Miletus tried to reconstruct the genealogical facts out of the mythological traditions. He wrote a pioneering work of geography which reflected the expansion of the geographical and historical horizon of the Greeks as a result of their colonization (since c. 750 BC). This included their expansion on the shores of the Mediterranean and Black Seas, their voyages of discoveries, and the information that the Eastern Greeks (as subjects of the vast Persian Empire) had acquired about parts of Asia. Historiography, in a narrower sense, developed out of the experience of the Persian Wars. However, the realization that the great victories of the Greeks in 490 and 480–479 BC had been achieved, so to speak, against all probability apparently developed only with a certain distance to the events themselves.

Herodotus (c. 485–after 425 BC; a widely-traveled native of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor) opened his account of the Persian Wars with the statement that he wanted to present the results of his research (historie) in order to commemorate the deeds of both Greek and Barbarians and to establish the cause of their conflict. Historie is a general term for a rational inquiry. It was only later (especially with Aristotle’s Poetics) that it became the label for the literary genre which Herodotus had created. Herodotus pointed out that his study was the work of an individual and that he felt obliged to an impartial approach. Greek historiography was developed by free intellectuals and did not start as officially committed accounts. Apparently, especially exiles like Herodotus—and later inter alia Thucydides, Xenophon or Polybius—were able to take on the position of an (at least, subjective) neutral observer. Herodotus did not only provide the first work of an histoire evenementielle based on stories which might have been generated two generations before his own time; he also continued the tradition of geographical and ethnographical accounts by incorporating digressions on the various peoples (from the Egyptians to the Scythians) under Persian control. Here he relied on local traditions and autopsy and sometimes reported stories, the authenticity of which he himself doubted.

Herodotus’ younger contemporary Thucydides of Athens (c. 460—c. 400 BC) created a quite different model of historiography. He deliberately distanced himself from Herodotus (though without naming him) since he thought Herodotus to have shown too much confidence in his sources. Thucydides’ statements on his methodological principles are (with the notable exception of Polybius) almost without parallel in ancient historiography. He chose as his subject the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies (431–404 BC; Thucydides’ account, however, is incomplete and breaks off at 411 BC). According to his own words he had started to take notices already with the outbreak of the war since he had anticipated the unprecedented dimensions of this war which affected the whole Greek world. Later, he used his time in exile (the consequence of his defeat as an Athenian general in 424) to collect all available facts by interrogating protagonists and eyewitnesses of both sides. Being confident that he was able to reconstruct the objective course of events he did not name his sources or quote varying, or even conflicting, versions by different witnesses but digested all information into an authoritative account of ‘how it had really happened’ (an aside of his which was later to be taken up by Ranke). He wanted to differentiate the long-term causes, which led to a climate of mutual distrust between the two powers, from the immediate occasions, which made them take military action. War and civil war were seen by Thucydides as revealing the condition humaine, love of power, ambition, greed, and fear as constituents of people’s invariable nature; thus the thoroughgoing analysis of human action should provide insights of everlasting value.

Already Herodotus had incorporated some speeches into his narrative in order to explain the motives behind the decisions of protagonists but Thucydides went much further by systematically using this stylistic device based on the techniques of rhetoric that were taught by contemporary Sophists. As Thucydides explained, his methodical principle was ‘to make the speakers say, what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used.’ Those speeches served to present opposing arguments (in pairs of speeches ascribed to antagonists) and to discuss the political, moral, and juridical implications of certain decisions or to express the self-image of a society (especially in the ‘Funeral Speech’ attributed to Pericles). The unity of style, the high level of abstraction, the implicit cross-references, and the shortness of the speeches point out that they were primarily a medium to carry the historian’s interpretation. Since Thucydides, the inclusion of more or less fictitious speeches was a standard feature of ancient historiography. Thucydides made two exceptions to his principle of writing a strictly contemporary history. He gave an account of the development of early Greek history in order to prove that due to the level of its material culture, a war of such dimensions like the Peloponnesian War would have been impossible. That was a sort of conjectural history based on theories of societal development and on the interpretation of cultural survivals. He also gave a selective description of the 50-year period between the end of the Persian Wars and the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in which he stressed the rise of Athenian power and the distrust it fostered with the Spartans. This account also served to bridge the gap between Herodotus’ narrative and his own.

Thucydides’ model of historiography differed from the Herodotean one by eliminating the features of cultural history and ethnographical discourse. But both corresponded with respect to concentrating on large-scale wars, which involved great parts of the Greek world, and with regard to treating matters of constitutional history and internal politics of the states concerned only insofar as they were relevant for the course of events. Their different attitudes to the period of time that could be reconstructed by drawing on oral traditions notwithstanding, they both primarily relied on oral sources. As a rule, down to the Christian historians of Late Antiquity ancient historiographers did not consult documentary evidence systematically like inscriptions or state papers in archives and did not engage seriously in ‘antiquarian’ research on constitutional, legal, and religious institutions. That is why they could not think of replacing the narratives of former historians by a new account based on other better sources. Thus Thucydides was a continuator of Herodotus, Xenophon, and other fourth century historians who started their Greek histories at the point where Thucydides’ narrative had broken off. Historians who wanted to treat former times again, cannibalized (often in combination with harsh criticism) the accounts of their predecessors.

2. The Variety Of Greek Historiographical Production

Thucydides had shaped the trend-setting model of military and political history that was followed by a great number of Greek writers including the historians of Sicily. However, his successors, embellished the rhetorical elements or amplified scenes with emotive appeals to readers. Throughout antiquity, Herodotus enjoyed a dubious reputation as being at the same time the father of history but also a narrator of fabulous stories (in Cicero’s famous phrase). The broader Herodotean approach, however, was not totally outdone; it was taken up again by the historians of Alexander the Great and survived in later works with strong geographical and ethnographical interests like that of Posidonius (c. 135–c. 50 BC) and in the specialized geographical works from Eratosthenes (third century BC) to Strabo (Augustan age).

Besides the mainstream of military and political history, a number of specialized historical genres developed since the late fifth and during the fourth centuries. These included: universal history (Ephoros of Cyme, fourth century BC, whose—later lost—work was used by Diodorus Siculus, first century BC); foundation histories, local chronicles, and constitutional histories (e.g., on Athens); cultural histories (Dicaearchus, pupil of Aristotle, late fourth century BC); biographies (late fifth century BC sketches later to be used by Plutarch, c. 45–c. 120 AD; and Xenophon’s life of the Spartan king Agesilaus II, fourth century BC).

During the Hellenistic Age, an enormous number of historical works of various kinds have been produced by nearly a thousand historians known to us by name. This tremendous increase of historical production reflected the political reorganization of the Mediterranean world by the establishment of the vast Hellenistic empires (and later the rise of Rome to a world power). It was fostered by the patronage of Hellenistic monarchs and the establishment of libraries and scholarly institutions, especially in Alexandria and Pergamum. Almost all of this extremely rich production has, however, got lost and is only known from quotations and references in later works. For example, the various reports on Alexander’s campaigns by court historiographers, officials, and generals only emerge with the compilation of Diodorus; comprehensive accounts of Alexander’s history based on the works of his companions date from the second and third centuries AD (Arrian and Curtius Rufus).

Polybius (c. 200–c. 120 BC) is the only Hellenistic historian of whose historical work a substantial amount has survived. Polybius, a military of the Achaean Confederacy (on the Peloponnese) was one of 1,000 leading Achaeans who were deported to Italy after 167 BC. He came into close contact with prominent figures of the Roman nobility, especially Scipio Aemilianus (the destroyer of Carthage). The subject of his historical work was Rome’s rise to world dominion in the time from the Punic Wars to the destruction of the Macedonian state (167 BC). Polybius calls it a ‘pragmatic history’; it focuses on political and military actions and is especially based on eyewitness reports and first-hand knowledge of the theaters of war. His intentions and explicit methodological reflections (combined with polemic against several former historians) imply a conscious return to the Thucydidean model of historiography. But Polybius understood Rome’s military success as having depended on its uniquely stable, and at the same time flexible, political system. In order to explain this point to his Greek readers he incorporated a description of the Roman constitution and military system and thus gave a systematical treatment of institutions otherwise not to be found in ancient historiography. (His analysis of Rome’s ‘mixed constitution’ should become one of the most important subjects in the reception of ancient political theory since the Renaissance.)

3. Roman Republican Historiography

Roman history was first made the subject of historiographical works by Greek authors like the Sicilian Timaeus of Tauromenium (c. 350–c. 260 BC) and other Greek writers who were especially interested in the stories about the foundation of Rome. Latin literature only developed since the mid-third century BC as a product of the reception of Greek culture. Certain records of the past, however, had been preserved since early times: public documents like laws, decrees of the senate and international treatises, and family records of the aristocracy. And there were the annales kept by the pontiffs in which the names of consuls (the eponymous magistrates) were listed, triumphs and religious prodigies were noted, and some miscellaneous information was collected. About 200 BC, the senator Fabius Pictor provided the first history of Rome written by a Roman yet in Greek. Drawing on the models of Hellenistic historiography Fabius Pictor covered the time from the founding of the city until 200 BC. He probably gave elaborate accounts of the early, and of the contemporary periods and only a sketchy one of the time in between, a proportion that should become typical of many later writers. He was followed by other historiographers writing in Greek until the mid-second century. The older Cato (234–149 BC) was presumably the first to write a historical work in Latin. His Origines applied the interest in foundation history not only to the earliest history of Rome but also to the emergence of the cities in Italy and paid particular attention to the unification of Italy. His treatment of political history focused on the justification of his own policy and thus provided the model for the ex parte tendency of Roman contemporary historiography. Roman historiography was ethnocentric and it was the product of the leisure-time activity of senators. Their intentions were to demonstrate Rome’s cultural equality with the Greeks, to justify her domination over the Mediterranean world, to praise the wisdom and success of the ruling aristocracy, and to take sides with respect to contemporary conflicts. From the late second century onwards, a number of Latin historiographical works were composed which followed in their structure the pontifical annales (which were published in a full version in 120 BC) and gave a year-by-year account from the origins of the city. They apparently embellished their descriptions of the early republic and especially the ‘Struggle of the Orders’ between patricians and plebeians by projecting back features of the internal conflicts that had become almost endemic since the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus (133 BC). Some historians seem to have taken into account certain results of serious antiquarian research, others had no scruples and they invented ‘documents.’ (It was the Greek author Dionysius of Halicarnussus who, living in Augustan Rome, showed the greatest interest in evidence of antiquarian nature.) All these Latin ‘annalistic’ works (as well as the earlier historiographical attempts previously mentioned) are only indirectly known. They were used by Livy (c. 59 BC–AD 17) who was the first Roman historian without a record of political and military experience of his own. His history covered the time from the foundation of the city to 9 BC. Out of his 142 books, only 35, which reach down to 167 BC (with lacunae) have survived. Livy often struggled with the contradictory accounts of his predecessors and the quality of his own descriptions obviously depends on the quality of the sources available to him. He did not invent his own versions of the course of events but his work shows the problematic nature of a history totally made on the basis of other, often overtly partisan, historical works that were mostly accepted at face value.

The Thucydidean model of contemporary history was imitated by Sallust (86–35 BC) who after the failure of his political career wrote monographs on the conspiracy of Catiline (63 BC) and on the Roman Wars against the Numidian king Jugurtha (111–106 BC). He interpreted the political crisis of the Late Republic as the consequence of a moral decline following from the abandonment of traditional values. (No other contemporary work on the Late Republic has survived; a comprehensive account of this period is only available in works by later authors such as Appian, second century, and Cassius Dio, third century, who both wrote in Greek.)

4. Roman Imperial Historiography

Writing contemporary history might become a dangerous job under the Emperors as the fate of the historian Cremutius Cordus demonstrates. Under the reign of Tiberius (in AD 25) he was indicted for lese majesty because of the republican sympathies he had shown in his work on the Civil War period (he committed suicide; his work was burnt). The short sketch by his contemporary Velleius Paterculus, a former military, covered Roman history from the very beginnings to his own days in only two books and culminated in the panegyric of the emperor Tiberius.

The historiography of Tacitus (AD c. 55–c. 120) reflects a new climate of intellectual freedom during the reigns of Nerva and Trajan in comparison to the experience with the tyrannical regime of Domitian (under whom Tacitus had started his public career). His (only partly preserved) works, the Histories and the Annals, cover the time from AD 69–96 and AD 14–68, respectively. Tacitus kept the annalistic form and he paid special attention to the proceedings of the senate. But the form was often at odds with the contents of the works since the policies of the rulers could not easily be fitted to a chronological scheme that had been adequate for a senatorial regime with yearly changing consuls at the head. Tacitus showed certain nostalgia for republican liberty without indulging into illusions about a return to a republican constitution. Though claiming to write sine ira et studio his personal judgments on rulers (especially the gloomy picture of Tiberius) should serve to uphold the mirror of an honest ruler and his comments on senatorial proceedings reflected his standards for dignified behavior under a monarchy. Tacitus’ work with its stress on the psychology of emperors and senators marks the final point of Latin senatorial historiography. (However, later there was an annalistic history of Rome from the beginnings to AD 229 written in Greek by the senator Cassius Dio.)

Apart from short summaries of Roman history, during the second century serious historiography gave way to imperial biographies. Suetonius (AD c. 70–c. 140, secretary for the library and subsequently for the imperial correspondence under Hadrian) gave the life of 12 rulers from Caesar to Domitian. They were arranged in a more topical than strictly chronological manner and drew on archival materials as well as traditions stemming from court gossip. Modeled on Suetonius but of a highly fictitious character (with numerous references to imaginary sources) was the Historia Augusta, a series of biographies of emperors for the time from Hadrian (AD 117–138) to the accession of Diocletian (AD 285) which was probably produced in the late fourth century by one or more anonymous writers who took on the names of bogus authors.

5. The Impact Of Christianity

The religious tensions of Late Antiquity due to the rise of Christianity did only partly affect pagan historiography which continued to concentrate on short summaries of Roman history. The general restraint from religious polemic holds also true for the work of Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330–395), a Greek from Syrian Antioch and former military. His history, written in Latin, is otherwise a great exception since he embarked on a continuation of Tacitus that treated the time from Nerva’s accession to the throne (96) to the emperor Valens’ disastrous battle of Adrianople against the Goths in 378 (only the exhaustive parts on the years from 353 onwards have survived).

Christian authors did not enter into a competition with pagan ones on the traditional fields of political and military historiography but they developed models of historical writing that should become the most important innovations until Renaissance times. Since the third century they compiled chronicles of universal history which synchronized the data of biblical, Greek, and Roman history. The chronicle—in Greek—by Eusebius (c. 260–339, bishop of Caesarea, adviser, and later biographer of Constantine the Great), its Latin translation and continuation (until 378) by Hieronymus and several successor works provided the model for a view of world history since the creation. Eusebius, again, created with his Church History a new historiographical genre not only with concern to the subject, the history of the Christian ‘nation,’ but in formal respects as well by his dispensing with speeches, his giving bibliographical surveys, and his verbatim quoting from letters, official documents, and other sources. The awareness that their theological approach might make their accounts challengeable led Eusebius and later inter alia Socrates and Sozomenus (both early fifth century) to prove thus the accuracy of their factual reports.

6. Concluding Remarks

Given the complexity and variety of ancient historiography it is almost impossible to summarize its impact on the later Western tradition, especially since the Renaissance, in a few sentences. The most important legacy of Greek historians was the development of a critical attitude to the past, the invention of methods that made it possible to discern between facts and fiction. The shortcomings of their attempts in view of modern eyes should not obscure this unique contribution to the development of the Western mind. The adoption of historiography by the Romans provided the model for constructing the past in the shape of national history. The Christian writers invented ecclesiastical historiography as a subject of its own and a model for universal chronicles and histories starting from the creation. Since the Renaissance, Thucydides and Tacitus were taken as the masters of political history, Polybius as the model military historian. With the growing interest in Oriental cultures Herodotus gained a new reputation as a cultural historian. Ancient historiography, which had covered republican city-states as well as world monarchies, was as a whole considered as teaching political and moral lessons of everlasting value (and thus was also of great importance for political theory). The tradition that historiography and antiquarian studies were two quite different subjects survived until the late eighteenth century. There were a vast number of commentaries on ancient texts, collections of inscriptions and coins, learned dissertations on the constitutional, legal, military, and religious institutions of the ancient world but nobody thought of replacing the ancient historiographical works by writing anew narrative histories of antiquity. Gibbon was one of the first to do this and to integrate the results of antiquarian research but he still avoided the period covered comprehensively by ancient historiography and thus started his own narrative only with the second century AD. The doubts on the reliability of ancient historiography, especially of the Roman annalistic tradition, that had been developed in learned dissertations since the seventeenth century led only in the early nineteenth century, starting with Niebuhr, to compose a modern historiography of antiquity based on source criticism and systematic researches on the monumental remains of the ancient world.


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