Classical historians

The father of history: 5th century BC

Human societies, in pre-literate times, invariably pass down in an oral tradition the group's memory of what has happened in the past. This involves much legend and a certain amount of fact. When writing becomes available, the scribes record these stories. Two such collections form the western world's greatest shared store of anecdotes, cautionary tales, heroes and villains. They are the Bible and the poems of Homer.

But these are not history in the full sense. The first deliberate attempt to discover, record and analyze the past is made in Greece in the 5th century BC.

Herodotus is the first writer to make a conscious attempt to discover and explain past events. He is rightly known as the 'father of history'.

The saga which inspires him to undertake anything so new and so difficult is the one which has overshadowed his own childhood and youth - the clash between Greeks and persians. Herodotus grows up in Halicarnassus, in Asia Minor. At the time of his birth the Greeks are winning great battles in mainland Greece. During his adult life they drive the Persians from the Greek colonies of Asia Minor.

Asia Minor lies between these two great civilizations, Greece and Persia. Brought up within the first, Herodotus determines to find out about the second. He spends much of his life travelling within the Persian empire, which extends at this time into Egypt. So this first work of history is also, in a sense, the first travel book. In the way of travel books, it includes exotic details - such as how the Egyptians make Mummies.

Copies of Herodotus are available by 425 BC. By then his story has a patriotic urgency, with its account of a time when all the Greeks combined against a common enemy. In strong contrast is the bitter contemporary squabbling of the Peloponnesian war, which has entered a new phase in 431 BC.

Thucydides and contemporary history: 431 - 411 BC

The second Greek historian, Thucydides, adds a new dimension - that of contemporary history. An Athenian, born probably in about 460 BC, he is a young man when war is renewed between Athens and Sparta in 431, after a peace of sixteen years.

Although the complete work of Herodotus is not yet published, Thucydides is certain to know the work of the older historian - who has made his living by reciting the highlights of his narrative. Herodotus has told the story of the last great war, between Greeks and Persians. In 431 Thucydides recognizes the onset of the next major conflict, between Greeks. He resolves to record the Peloponnesian war as it happens.

He is immediately in the thick of events. In the summers of 430 and 429 Athens is stricken by plague. The Athenian leader, Pericles, dies of the disease. Thucydides himself catches it but survives. His account of the symptoms is a first-hand report of unprecedented vividness.

In 424 he is elected one of the ten strategoi or military commanders for that year. Put in charge of an Athenian fleet in the northern Aegean, he fails to prevent the Spartans capturing an important city in the region. As a result he is exiled from Athens. He says later that the misfortune helps him in his great task, forcing him to travel and enabling him to view the conflict from different perspectives.

An important characteristic of Thucydides' work is his determination to achieve an objective view of what has happened, and of its causes. He states this clearly at the end of his introduction, saying that he will begin by listing the precise complaints of each side which, in their view, led to war.

But he then adds that he believes such arguments obscure the issue. In his own considered opinion, 'what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta'.

A clear statement of the available evidence, leading to an informed conclusion, has remained the basic principle of history. The serious historian is advocate for both sides as well as presiding judge. To this end Thucydides uses a method which seems strange to a modern reader. His protagonists put their points of view in long speeches, perhaps in an assembly or before a battle. In the narrative these fall naturally enough. But since Thucydides himself was usually not there, his method is a fictional one which now seems out of place in history.

His account ends abruptly in 411. Whatever the reason may be, it is not his own death. He returns from exile to Athens at the end of the war, in 404.

Xenophon and eyewitness history: 400 BC

Thucydides' history is continued from 411 BC by the third and last of the great trio of Greek historians - Xenophon. The fact that a contemporary continues the work so precisely from this date proves that Thucydides did indeed finish his work there, rather than the remainder being lost. But Xenophon, though a vivid writer, proves a very inadequate historian at a serious level. A supporter of Sparta, he lacks any sense of objectivity.

Fortunately this does not spoil the work which has made him famous. In 400 BC he finds himself part of a Greek force making a desperate Retreat from persia. Objectivity is irrelevant. He describes only what he sees and hears. The result is vivid eyewitness history, akin almost to journalism.

Xenophon's Anabasis (Greek for 'the journey up') is full of fascinating detail, as the Greek mercenaries struggle homewards from defeat in Persia. Desperate for provisions, they are constantly skirmishing with hostile tribesmen. Xenophon is voted into the leadership group and he gives himself much of the credit (possibly with justification) for their safe return to Greece, five months later.

The most famous moment in his account is when the leaders of the column come over the ridge of a mountain and begin shouting thalassa, thalassa (the sea, the sea). They have reached the Black Sea and relative safety.

Sima Qian and Chinese history: from the 2nd century BC

The most ambitious undertaking of ancient history is achieved by a Chinese historian of the 2nd century BC, Sima Qian.

China at this time already has a long tradition of carefully kept archives, dating back to the Shang oracle bones of about 1500 BC. The Confucian classics from a millennium later contain works of history. But these are dry documents, mere annals of reigns and dates and public events. By contrast Sima Qian, who has a hereditary post as Grand Historian at the Han court, sets himself the task of describing in narrative terms everything of significance that has happened in the known world - China and its surrounding territories.

His adopted method is an original blend of chronicle and encyclopedia. The great work, amounting to more than half a million Chinese characters, is divided into five sections. In the first he gathers together the annals of the rulers of China. It is a measure of the thoroughness of his predecessors that he can give accurately the names of Shang kings more than 1000 years before his time (modern scholars assume these details to be legendary, until they are confirmed by inscriptions on the Shang oracle bones).

Sima Qian's second section is effectively a time chart, of a kind now once again fashionable. He puts in graph form the chronological sequence of important events.

Section three is the encyclopedia, with entries on such subjects as music, ritual, astronomy, the calendar and economics. The fourth section gives the histories of the rival kingdoms during the long Zhou dynasty.

The final part is the one which gives rein to Sima Qian's narrative and descriptive skills. It consists of biographies of influential people, covering a very wide range. Here can be found good and bad officials, generals, self-made men in the merchant class and even the homosexual favourites of the emperors. Sima Qian extends this section with accounts of people in China's neighbouring territories, in southeast Asia, central Asia or Korea.

Sima Qian holds a special place in the affections of those who toil in the vineyards of history, offering as he does a shining example of courage and good sense. One day he displeases the emperor Shang oracle bones by speaking in defence of a general who is out of favour. The unfortunate historian, in this brually autocratic world, is sentenced to castration. This is intended to be a sentence of death, since no gentleman can live with such dishonour.

But Sima Qian decides (as he explains in a letter to a friend) that his unfinished history is more important than his honour as a gentleman. He accepts castration and lives on, in a shameful existence, as 'a remnant of the knife and saw'. But he finishes the work.

The achievement of Sima Qian launches a historical tradition in China unmatched anywhere else in the world. His work stands at the beginning of an unbroken series of what become known as the Standard Histories. They continue until the final year of the Chinese empire, in 1911. By the 7th century, under the T'ang dynasty, there is a department of the civil service called the College of Historians. These people keep a day-by-day record of the present administration, while writing from the archives the official history of the previous dynasty.

Civil-service style means that the vitality of Sima Qian is not often matched. But his example inspires an unparalleled historical endeavour.

Cato and Caesar: 2nd - 1st century BC

The first man to attempt a Latin history of Rome is Cato, a statesman and orator famous for his implacable opposition to Carthage. He writes his Origines ('Origins', from the founding of Rome to his own time) in about 160 BC. But only a few fragments remain.

The earliest surviving work of Roman history is therefore from the next century. A short volume, and one of the most famous in its field, it can lay no claim to historical objectivity. It is written for a specific and polemical purpose. It is Julius Caesar's own account of his greatest military campaign.

The Gallic War: 52 BC

It is probably in the autumn of 52 BC, after his defeat of Vercingetorix, that Caesar settles down in his winter quarters at Bibracte (to the northwest of modern Lyons) to record for posterity his successes in Gaul over the past six years.

The title he writes at the head of his Papyrus is 'Gaius Julius Caesar's Notes on his Achievements' - though historians will come to know his book simply as The Gallic War. When the work is finished a copy goes off to Rome, where it is probably published during 51. Caesar has been assiduously cultivating support back in the capital, for political struggles to come. The book of his achievements is an important shot in this other campaign (see Caesar and his book).

Livy and the Augustan Age: 27 BC - AD 17

When Rome settles down at the end of the 1st century BC, after the civil wars provoked by Julius Caesar, the mood of consolidation brings with it a wish to celebrate Rome's past.

This need is met in legendary form and epic verse in Virgil's aeneid. Meanwhile a related appetite, for slightly more sober facts, is satisfied in ample measure by Livy. His History of Rome, from the supposed arrival of Aeneas down to the Augustan Age, runs to 142 books of which 32 survive (each filling at least 50 pages in a modern paperback). In the next century the poet Martial complains that in his entire library there is not room for the works of Livy.

Livy is on the whole uncritical of his sources (and anyway there are no sources to be critical of for the early centuries). His main interest, apart from the underlying one of glorifying Rome, lies in telling a dramatic story. The great work is published as he writes it, over a period of more than forty years from 27 BC to his death in AD 17.

Fortunately the surviving sections include the Second punic war. The popular memory today of Hannibal's difficulties in getting his elephants across the Rhône, and then over the Alps, derives largely from Livy's brilliance in narrating a good story.

1st - 5th century AD

Josephus and The Jewish War: AD c.77

Josephus is exceptionally interesting among early historians, as a writer in a neglected field who has first-hand experience of his subject - the Jews in Judaea and their struggle against Rome.

A member of an aristocratic priestly family, Josephus is in Jerusalem when the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule breaks out in AD 66. He is sent to command the Jewish forces in Galilee, but the advance of the Roman army soon results in Josephus and his men being besieged in the town of Jotapata. His escape from this predicament (by proposing to his followers a suicide pact from which he contrives his own survival) is told with the shameless self-exposure which gives his writing an added interest.

Josephus is now a prisoner of the Romans. He compounds his betrayal of the Jewish cause by changing sides, justifying himself on the grounds that the Zealots (whom he describes as bandits) are leading the Jews to disaster by their policy of confrontation with all-powerful Rome.

Josephus soon finds himself in a position which follows logically from this viewpoint. As Titus's spokesman during the siege of Jerusalem, he revels in his own eloquence - yelling up at the defenders on the walls, urging them to capitulate. It is a shameful position for a leading Pharisee, but an excellent one for a historian. He is perfectly placed to record the events leading up to the destruction of the Temple.

Josephus claims that Titus, no doubt aware of the Temple's contents, attempts to save it from harm. He says that Jewish partisans first set fire to the Temple colonnade after enticing Roman soldiers into a trap. Whatever the truth, the great building with its golden trimmings is soon destroyed by fire and by looting Romans. The best loot, taken by Titus himself, later features prominently on Titus's triumphal arch in Rome.

So ends the central shrine of Judaism. In the words of Josephus, 'neither its long history, nor its vast wealth, nor its people dispersed through the whole world, nor the unparalleled renown of its worship could avert its ruin'. The destruction of the Temple is another turning point in Jewish history (see the Temple in Jerusalem).

In the bitter aftermath of the disaster, Judaea is no place for a man regarded with some justification as a traitor. Josephus returns with Titus to Rome, becoming a Roman citizen and receiving a pension.

He immediately sets to work on his history, writing it in Aramaic - the lingua franca at this time of the Middle East, where he hopes that his account will discourage further uprisings against Rome. The book is ready for publication by about AD 77 (see publishing in Rome), and Josephus later provides a Greek version for an educated readership elsewhere in the empire. Late in his life he publishes another major work in Greek. Known now as Jewish Antiquities, it attempts to explain the Jews and their history to outsiders.

Tacitus and the empire: AD 98-c.115

The wayward and tyrannical behaviour of Roman emperors during the 1st century AD provides a lively subject for historians. Two seize the opportunity - Tacitus, who views the scene with the analytical eye of the historian, and Suetonius, whose interests are those of a biographer.

The earliest works of Tacitus are on specialized topics. They are both published in the same year, AD 98. One, Agricola, describes in eulogistic vein the career of his father-in-law, the governor of Britain. The other, Germania, is an attempt to understand the barbarian German tribes, pressing on the Rhine frontier who, as Tacitus foresees, will soon prove a threat to the empire.

The major works of Tacitus are the Histories, appearing in about 109, and the Annals, published around the time of the death of Trajan in 117 (see publishing in Rome). They cover the period from the accession of Tiberius in AD 14 to the death of Domitian in 96 (though several sections are now lost).

With an incisive style, and a talent for the barbed epigram, Tacitus emphasizes the damage done to the social fabric by tyrannical rulers. It is a theme on which he writes with painful knowledge. His own career as a public figure has flourished under the oppressive Domitian. The appalled and perhaps guilty fascination of an insider seems to have been part of the original impulse behind his great historical undertaking.

Plutarch and biography: AD c.105-c.115

The Greek historian Plutarch can validly be called the father of biography, though he treats his theme in an unusual and moralistic manner in his Parallel Lives. The lives consist of paired biographies, comparing a famous Greek with a Roman whose career is in some way related and then drawing a conclusion. Thus the story of Alexander the great is linked with that of Julius caesar, as great conquerors.

The parallels, often strained, have not necessarily been of much interest to subsequent generations of readers. But the biographical details gathered together by Plutarch, and his dramatic way with a good story, have made him one of the most popular of classical authors.

With the renewal of interest in Greek literature in the Renaissance, Plutarch is published in Greek and Latin in Italy in the early 16th century and is subsequently translated into French (1559) and from French into English (1579).

Thomas North's English translation of 1579 is the source from which Shakespeare derives the plots and characters for his Roman plays. Indeed Plutarch provides almost word for word the famous description of the golden barge in which Cleopatra meets antony.

Suetonius and the emperors: AD c.120-c.130

The racy Lives of the Caesars, by Suetonius, deals with the ten emperors who feature in the Annals and Histories of Tacitus and adds the two founders of the empire, Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar.

Suetonius moves in royal circles. Under Trajan he is director of the imperial libraries; he later becomes personal secretary to Hadrian, in charge of all the emperor's correspondence. These appointments give him access to archive material and to the lively gossip about the past which is current in court circles. Suetonius makes vivid use of both - often on the principle of the more scurrilous the better.

Many of the details which make the lives of the Caesars so vivid derive from Suetonius: Julius caesar, silent as the assassins stab him until the blow from Brutus prompts the single question used by Shakespeare as Et tu Brute?'; or Claudius, hiding in terror in the palace when a Roman soldier discovers him and hails him as emperor.

In touches such as these Suetonius demonstrates the value of one lasting element of the biographer's repertoire. A telling anecdote, even if unsubstantiated, is always worth slipping in. The detail of Caesar's question to Brutus is introduced by Suetonius with the cautionary phrase 'Some say that..'. Such words are soon forgotten.

Medieval and modern

Two early medieval historians: 6th - 8th century AD

History is not a discipline well suited to the medieval mind, which is more attracted to mysteries, miracles and monsters than to the cool analysis of evidence. But the early medieval centuries are blessed with two historians who provide invaluable accounts of the time when northern Europe and Christianity are moving into a fruitful relationship.

The earlier of the two is Gregory of Tours. A busy bishop of Tours, at a time of unrest and uncertainty, he somehow contrives to write numerous books. The most important is his Historia Francorum (History of the Franks) to the year 591, in which he recounts what he regards as the great achievement of his age - the spread of Roman Catholic Christianity in Gaul.

Gregory's hero is Clovis, the founder of the Frankish kingdom and a pagan convert to Roman Catholicism, who has died only a generation before Gregory's birth. Before the time of Clovis, Gaul was in the hands of Arian Christians - Visigoths and Burgundians.

Gregory is therefore celebrating the victory of the faith in his own region. To this end he tells the story of the Franks (kings, clerics, martyrs) who have achieved that victory. Precisely the same blend - of pious purpose, involving a particular people - is found in the work of the other great medieval historian, known affectionately in England as the Venerable Bede.

Bede, living a century later than Gregory, is a more humble cleric than his predecessor. He is a monk in the monastery at Jarrow, rarely leaving it apart from a rare visit to York or Lindisfarne. But he is a prolific author, particularly of the lives of saints and abbots, and his fame is sufficient for an abbot of Canterbury to suggest that he undertake a history of the English church. The abbot sends Bede some historical documents from Canterbury, and arranges for a priest to go to Rome to transcribe others.

Bede completes the work in 731. The title reveals its Christian slant (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Ecclesiastical History of the English People). But it is also, as it says, a book about the English.

Bede begins his story with the Romans in england, but he concentrates on the centuries after their departure - the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, the emergence of the Anglo-saxon kingdoms, and the rivalry between the Celtic and Roman strands of Christianity.

This a burning issue of his own time (the Synod of whitby is held only a few years before his own birth), and it is one of the subjects which he treats most fully. On many other topics he records details which would have been otherwise lost, and records them with a good sense of narrative and a critical eye. His work is the main source for a later undertaking in medieval English history - the anglo-saxon chronicle.

History in the recent millennium

For the non-specialist reader, works of history written in recent centuries are only familiar if they have also acquired a high reputation as literature. A good example is Gibbon's Decline and Fall.

Previously the most famous historical works, such as those of Thucydides, Julius Caesar, Josephus or Bede, are themselves the main sources of surviving information for the periods or events which they describe. From the later Middle Ages to our own time this ceases to be the case. Chronicles of the times are written, often with some distinction (by Jean Froissart, for example, in 14th-century France). But the information they convey can be more reliably assembled by modern scholars from other sources.

An exception to this rule is the personal accounts of people involved in great events, such as the vivid contemporary histories written about the Spanish Conquistadors in Mexico and Peru.

Another rather different example from the same period is Francesco Guicciardini's Storia d'Italia (History of Italy), which describes - with a properly critical attitude to his sources - four eventful decades (1494-1534) during which he has himself played an active part in the tumultuous politics of the Italian states.

Works of this kind remain of enormous value to the specialist and often of great interest to the layman as well.

But in general it is true to say that history written in the past 1000 years lasts, for the non-specialist reader, only until a more recent work on the same subject (introducing new material thrown up by research, or reinterpreting old material in keeping with more recent theories) displaces it on the shelf - if only for another equally brief spell of tenure.

Historical materialism: 19th - 20th century AD

A new feature of history in the 19th century is the development of explanatory theories, claiming to discover some pattern in the past and a related chance of predicting the future. Until now God's will has provided historians with an unassailable (even if also incomprehensible) explanation of why past events have happened. But this convenient opt-out is no longer available to the rational minds of the Enlightenment.

Outdated theories of history soon become, for the most part, of interest only to the specialist. But the historical materialism postulated by Marx and Engels achieves its own historical status, as the official dogma of half the world in the 20th century.

Marx and Engels argue that development in human society is driven not by people's will or by any cultural, legal or political achievement, but by a single economic factor - the inexorable advance in the technology of production.

In the Marxist theory of history, changes in methods of production lie behind mankind's progression through certain predictable stages. In the recent past there has been feudalism, which has now given way to the 19th-century triumph of the bourgeoisie. In the future there is the imminent Dictatorship of the Proletariat, after which an interim period of Socialism will give way to the final achievement of Communism.

This progression is not, as liberals would wish, a gradual evolution. It is a series of violent upheavals in the struggle between the classes. One such occasion has been seen in France, where the bourgeoisie has overthrown the remains of feudalism in the Revolution of 1789.

Once the new production methods of the Industrial revolution have reached a critical point, crowding together a sufficient number of exploited workers in slum conditions in the cities, the stage will be set for the next revolution. The proletariat (a word used by Marx for the industrial working class) will smash the bourgeoisie and will appropriate their accumulated wealth for the common cause.

In the subsequent Dictatorship of the Proletariat all other considerations will be subordinated to safeguarding the revolution. This stage ends once everybody is a member of the proletariat. With only one class left, the class war is over. The next and penultimate stage is Socialism.

In the classless society of Socialism it is anticipated that mankind will live in harmony (class exploitation being the root of all evil). Now it will be possible for the apparatus of state gradually to wither away. The final Marxist paradise of Communism will operate on a simple and just distribution of work and wealth - in Marx's words, 'from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs'.

It is a safe rule of thumb that most theories are false (except in the physical sciences, where they can be tested), and that the more confident the theory the more likely it is to be wrong. Moreover the strident certainties of Marxism seem all too evidently rooted in their own time, in the squalor of 19th-century slums and factories.

But Marxist theory has itself been a profoundly important part of history. Its optimism has been the lifeblood of left-wing politics (the guarantee of a better future for the working class, like Christianity's promise of a heaven for the poor, gives Marxism a religious quality). At the same time the ruthlessness of Marxist analysis has served to justify many 20th-century dictatorships.
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