The Ancient Historians

‘So that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two people fought with each other’

— Herodotus on the purpose of history



As an academic discipline, History is a relatively new field of study; it was professionalized in the 19th century, radiating from German universities and in particular, Leopold von Ranke. Yet the roots of this vast and complex field are ingrained in the Ancient World. In fact, many of the earliest histories date back to the Ancient Egyptian World. These histories, however, are anonymous.

It was in Ancient Greece where we begin to see what can be regarded as the earliest historians as opposed to the record keepers who came before them, in particular Herodotus (484 – 425 BCE) – the ‘father of history’ – and Thucydides (460 – 400 BCE). What separated these historians from their Egyptian and Babylonian predecessors was the sense of inquiry they had in their work. They were self-consciously even-handed, focusing on eyewitness accounts rather than working from original documents. Hence, for them, reliable history was largely contemporary. Despite an emphasis on the ideas of military strength and states (which were used as a guide for contemporary rulers), their work also contained aspects of cultural, religious and social history. 

Original page from ‘The History of the Peloponnesian War’ by Thucydides

Roman historians held similar values in their writing, especially the idea of analysis with a purpose to instruct. Polybius (200 – 118 BCE), one of these authors, was originally from Greece, but was taken hostage by Rome. He valued truth and political history, and chose to promote the idea of universal history (a result of the rise of Rome). Like the Greeks, Roman historians emphasised the idea of states and empire, particularly their rise and fall. During the fall of the Roman Empire, Tacitus (56 – 117 AD) displayed interest in connecting the success of the empire to the moral fibre of its people. This was done by contrasting the luxury of the declined Roman Empire to the simplicity of the Germanic people on the northern edges of their empire.

Of course, one must not place too much focus on the classical world; it does not provide a complete picture. Rather, one must also look at the Eastern World, especially the writing of history in Ancient China and the often overlooked Ancient India, Persia and Mesopotamia. Similarly, the understanding of Judeo-Christian historiography and its origins can be gained from the Bible. There are certain themes that can be seen in the writing of these historians, yet at the same time, key differences (something that this website aims to demonstrate). In ancient historiography, there was a great awareness of their predecessors working in a tradition. Furthermore, the historians were also keen to record portents; signs that something momentous will soon happen. This led to the production of large-scale histories – local histories were rare.

The Legacy of the Ancient Historians

Modern historians are becoming increasingly interested in the work of ancient historians, and in particular, how they chose to write history, in an attempt to answer the complex question: What is History? There was a change in the historiography, shown through the works of modern historians; this change was a shift from grouping all ancient historians together into one group and finding general attributes, to more specific research into individual historians and how they fit into a greater narrative. Moreover, historians are beginning to challenge the traditional views of past historians. John Burrows, for example, demonstrates the change in attitudes to the field by debunking four myths that were often stated by historians regarding ancient historiography:

1.     All history was contemporary history.

2.     Ancient historiography was exclusively political and military.

3.     There was no conception of long term historical change.

4.     There was a notion that all change was cyclical.

In the past, the views of ancient historians were different. During the Renaissance, the writings of many of these authors was highly regarded; much more so than it is now. There was less criticism than there is at present. Much emphasis was placed on occidental historians from Greece and Rome, rather than that of the East. The educated and cultured believed themselves to be on par with their ancient ancestors, hence an interest in a classical renewal. Thus, one can gain some understanding of how people of the period viewed time – there were three periods, the Ancient period, the Renaissance period, and in-between these was what became termed the ‘Middle Ages’. There was a sense of an upcoming apocalypse (highlighted by such events as the Reformation). By naming the period between the Ancient and Renaissance periods as the ‘Middle Ages’, it was thought that at this time the ancient historians were largely ignored, their insight and knowledge lost. After all, literacy rates were low, and as a result the ancient texts could not be read. But to what extent was this true?

The Concept of Late Antiquity

When did the Ancient World stop and the Medieval world begin? The fall of the Roman Empire is often cited as a divisive point between these two periods. However, in recent historiography (led by Peter Brown) a new, transitional period has been promoted: Late Antiquity. This period loosely spans the period between c. 150 AD and c. 750 AD, suggesting that the decline of the classical world was not necessarily the decline of the Ancient World. Particular emphasis is placed on the continuing power of the Byzantine Empire in the East, and the unity of the Mediterranean land before the rise and expansion of Islam.

As a result of this new period in historiography, writers such as Gregory of Tours (538 – 594 AD) and the Venerable Bede (672 – 735 AD), who has been named the ‘Father of English History’, can, to some extent, be regarded as ancient historians. Indeed, similarities are present between Bede and classical writers. Of particular importance is the focus on the history of peoples – it was Bede who is regarded as being the first person we know of who referred to the inhabitants of lowland Britain as ‘English’. This is demonstrated by his major work, written in 731 AD, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). Of course, there is much debate regarding whether Bede and other writers of his time were truly ancient historians; there are certainly differences in the ways they wrote their histories. Yet it is clear that in the Middle Ages, there was a greater sense of historical awareness than those in the Renaissance would like to believe.

Further Reading

Arnold, John, History: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Black, Jeremy, Historiography: Contesting the Past, Claiming the Future, The Social Affairs Unit, 2011.

Breisach, Ernst, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval and Modern, University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Brown, Peter, The World of Late Antiquity. Thames & Hudson, 1997.

Burrows, John, A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus & Thucydides to the Twentieth Century, Penguin Books, 2009.

Ancient Greek Perceptions of History 

The word ‘history’ comes from Greek, originally meaning ‘to inquire’, and more specifically came from the older Greek word ‘histor’, which indicated a wise or learned person who was able to choose wisely between conflicting accounts (Arnold, 2008, p. 18). However, it is not clear whether or not the ancient Greeks treated history as an individual subject, but it is likely that it was seen as part of a larger body of non-philosophical writing. Nevertheless, history was often looked at in relation to other subjects such as poetry, rhetoric, and philology – connections revived during the Renaissance (Kelly and Smith, 2011, p13).

Although the ancient Greeks were not the first to record human events, they were the first to criticise and analyse events, and thus can be seen as being the first historians (Bay, 1908, p. 1). Yet, the famous ancient Greek historians, such as Herodotus and Thucydides did not necessarily have converging ideas of what the study and documenting of history should involve. Herodotus, known as ‘The Father of History’, says in his preface to Histories that his purpose is to describe the deeds of men, and to discover what they have done, and why they have done it (Collingwood, 1946, p 19). However, Herodotus also believed the aim of the historian to be similar of that of an epic poet – essentially to entertain, which perhaps explains why much of his work is narrative, and appears to accept oracles, dreams, divine apparitions as evidence (Rhodes, 1994, p. 118).

In contrast, the later ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, repudiates the idea that the purpose of history was to entertain, instead believing history should be studied because ‘The accurate knowledge of what has happened will be useful, because, according to human probability, similar things will happen again’ (Bay, 1908, p. 243). Additionally, Thucydides focused on the role of the individual, and how an individual could change the course of history, and, unlike Herodotus, explicitly contends that historical enquiry rests on evidence (Collingwood, 1946, p.19).

The only ancient Greek work on the methodology of historical enquiry to survive is Lucien of Samosata’s How to Write History. In it, Lucien does not seem to agree strongly with either Herodotus or Thucydides, but instead believed the task of historians was to include recording events whilst avoiding praise, providing a political understanding, and using literary skills (Kelly, 2001, p. 83).

Bibliography/ Further Reading

  • Arnold, J. History: A Very Short Introduction (London, 2000)
  • Bay, J.B., The Ancient Greek Historians (New York, 1908)
  • Collingwood, R.G.,  The Idea of History (Oxford, 1946)
  • Kelly, D.R., and Smith, B.G, Historians, contained in A Concise Companion to History (Oxford, 2011)
  • Rhodes, P.G, In Defence of the Greek Historians, Greece & Rome, Vol.41, No.2 (October, 1994)


Cyclical Time

The view that ‘history repeats itself’ is commonly seen as characteristically Greek. The cyclical model for change, popular among the Ionian thinkers with whom Greek historian Herodotus is associated, became widespread in Greek popular and philosophical conceptions. Greek historians Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius have in turn been described as historians with a cyclical view of time and it is to these men whom this cyclical theory largely attributed to. However, whilst we must be aware of cyclical theory of time in that ‘history repeats’ itself, we must also be conscious of the fact that the idea of cyclical theory is not something that can be attributed to all Greek historians, nor can it be solely related to the Greek way of thinking. As Donald R. Kelley points out, Titus Luvius, or Livy, a Roman historian also displayed this cyclical belief in recurring ‘founders and crises’.

In his works The Persian Wars, Herodotus described a dynamics of history that he characterised as a wheel or cycle, whereby:

“Many states that were once great have become small: and those that were great in my time were small formerly.” – Herodotus, The Persian Wars (Book 1)

Historians such as C.W. Trompf believe that the Polybian Anacyclosis is a key example of that cyclical thinking about history so commonly related with the Greek view of life. Identifying six types of constitutions, Polybius tried to show how they always followed one another in a field of sequence: Kingship, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy and finally mob rule.

“This is the regular cycle of constitutional revolutions and the natural order in which institutions change, are transformed, and returned to their original state.” – Polybius, The Histories

Thucydides himself felt that events would happen in a fashion identical or similar to a way that they had already taken place: he declared that he had written his record of the Peloponnesian wars to teach men its lessons since identical events were bound to happen again.

“Whoever shall wish to have a clear view both of the events which have happened and of those which will someday, in all human possibility, happen again in the same or similar way.” – Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.22.4

This conception of cyclical time, whereas that events passed through identical patterns of development in periodically repeated rounds, was also expressed as a popular axiom through Ecclesiastes:

“There is no new thing under the sun” – Ecclesiastes: King James Bible 1:9

However, we must acknowledge that the Greeks were neither unanimous nor consistent in this presumed Grecian belief in cyclical theory and that this theory cannot solely be attributed to a Grecian way of thinking. Arnaldo Momigliano in particular is of the view that Herodotus, attributed to the Persian war as a unique, non-cyclical significance and that it was chiefly a conflict between men and slaves. In addition to this, neither Herodotus’ Solon nor Croesus supports the notion of cyclical time. Momigliano also implies that whilst most supporters of the cyclical view in Greek historiography generally fall back on Polybius, Polybius himself liked cyclical time only as a philosophical theory and not particularly as a historical one. C.W. Trompf shares a very similar view and makes it a point to note that whilst it is regarded that Polybius shared this cyclical view, he also used a variety of paradigms. He was also primarily interested in human affairs rather than in the general laws of nature or in metaphysical questions about changing phenomena.

So whilst we can see why it is a generally shared conception by historians that the theory of cyclical time is characteristically Greek, we can also see instances where this view is not completely shown by ancient Greek historians and that it is also a theory picked up by other ancient historians e.g. Livy.

Suggested Reading

Herodotus, The Persian wars, translated by George Rawlinson (1964)

Polybius, The Histories, translated by Robin Waterfield (2010)

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Charles Foster Smith (1919-)

Stephen Usher, The Historians of Greece and Rome (1969)

Luther H. Martin, ‘Fate, Futurity and Historical Consciousness in Western Antiquity’, Historical Reflections, Vol. 17, No. 2 (1991), pp. 151-169

Arnaldo Momigliano, ‘Time in Ancient Historiography’ in his Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (1977), pp. 179-204

C. W. Trompf, The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, from Antiquity to the Reformation (1979)

John Burrow, A History of Histories, Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century (2007)

John Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction (2000)

Donald R. Kelley and Bonnie G. Smith, ‘Historians’, in Ulinka Rublack (ed.), Concise Companion to History (2012), pp. 81-102.

J. Cobet, ‘Herodotus and Thucydides on War’ in I.S Moxon, J.D Smart, A.J Woodman (eds), Past Perspective Studies in Greek and Roman Historical Writing (1986).

David Gallop, ‘Plato’s ‘Cyclical Argument’ Recycled’, Phronesis, Vol. 27, No. 3 (1982), pp.207-222

Bernard Williams, ‘What was wrong with Minos? Thucydides and Historical Time’, Representations Vol. 74, No. 1 (2001) pp. 1-18.


The role of historians in classical society.

This piece of work will look at how historians were viewed in their society and how they were treated. It will discuss their social status and will also look at how their work was viewed by society at the time and how important they were to the community.


Herodotus on his travels throughout the Greek islands experience a large number of myths which were essentially ‘historical stories’ which had been told for a large period of time in certain areas. Herodotus decided to record these accounts and recorded the events he heard which he then would write about and read to people.

Herodotus would often give readings to large groups in public places. He made money from such events and was often paid by officials. He was considered highly by society and people would gather to hear of events he had recorded and to listen to his works in general. He often visited Athens, ‘In 445 B.C., the people of Athens voted to give him a prize of 10 talents–almost $200,000 in today’s money–to honour him for his contributions to the city’s intellectual life.’( This quote shows the extent that historians but in particular Herodotus were highly regarded in society. People saw historians as being important to them and their information as not just interesting but entertaining. The entertainment side of the Herodotus’ talks has however been questioned by other historians of the time period. Thucydides criticises Herodotus as Thucydides was more concerned with the factual side of history and was therefore sometimes criticised for some of his accounts including questionable stories and therefore Thucydides tried to limit the strength of Herodotus’ work. It is a view that has been agreed with by a number of historians. In David Pipes, ‘Herodotus: Father of History, Father of Lies’ he states, ‘He (Herodotus) inflates the incidents that he tells with dramatic detail, while at the same time deflating, or even ignoring, other episodes-- sometimes days, weeks, or even centuries go unrecorded all for the sake of dramatic telling’ (Pipe, 1998-9). This quote supports the idea that some of Herodotus’ work was questioned due to the factual content meaning some of society may have questioned his work. However the masses were indeed fascinated by his work which led to large crowds and Herodotus being known as the ‘father of history’.



 Unlike other authors before him and in fact around his time, Thucydides’ work can be seen as much more factual than others of his time. He used eye witnesses more so than ever before and his experiences from the war himself to create a strong account of what happened during the wars that his work was written on. His work was especially highly regarded at the time he wrote it and even to the present day due to the fact that his work, although concentrated very much on the wars he experienced, included questions that still hold relevance to the present day.

Thucydides didn’t rely much on fable or the God’s which Herodotus had used in his work, which led to Thucydides critiquing Herodotus’ work. Thucydides work was well respected due to the factual content. Thucydides and his fame was concreted much later after his death. It wasn’t until the fourth century when Theophrastus put Thucydides in the same category as Herodotus and his work became highly regarded. Herodotus was seen as a great historian during his time alive however Thucydides can be argued as to having just as large of an influence however his greatness wasn’t secured until after his death.

Thucydides wasn’t as popular with the wider public as Herodotus due to his work being less entertaining meaning less interest in his work which meant crowds didn’t gather in as large numbers and he wasn’t as much of a ‘celebrity’ as the ‘father of history’ however Thucydides although celebrated much more after his death still had a role in society during his lifetime. Thucydides was given command of a fleet as a commander however he wasn’t so successful and his failure at Amphipolis led to him being exiled by the Athenian people. This shows he didn’t have a ‘celebrity’ status. He wasn’t trying to be a particularly popular figure. Instead he was much more concerned with a factual analysis of the Peloponnesian war. Thucydides work is seen as accurate because of this due to the fact that he, ‘was able to become acquainted with affairs on both sides’ (Thucydides, trans. by Charles Forster Smith, 1928)This explains why Thucydides work was so highly regarded as it was one of the first that had a detailed understanding and record of both sides and asked questions that could be applied to wars to come. Thucydides may not have been as influential or important in society at the time but his work is seen as being the first that used modern ideals, in terms of his use of eye witnesses and how his work was structured and the questions asked. There is no doubt to the importance of Thucydides to History and rightly is considered one of the great historians.


Xenophon like Thucydides was heavily involved in combat. He was not at first put into a leadership but quite impressively took charge of an army that was left confused after they were stranded and Xenophon helped save as many as possible and recorded events in his book Anabasis. Although he is described as having basic training this feat was hailed as impressive by his peers.

Xenophon’s work is based on his experiences and the endeavours that he encountered during combat. This therefore meant his work was interesting for a large group in society as they were interested of evets that happened. His work, similar to Thucydides, is about combat situations however Xenophon’s work was much more well received at the time due to the fact of it being more of a recollection of events rather than asking the probing questions that Thucydides did.

At the time of his death, Xenophon was considered as a respected author and somewhat a war hero from his endeavours. It was held as very important for a long time after it occurred due to the importance of the events to the Greeks and this led to Xenophon being regarded as a highly respected figure in society for a number of reasons. He was well respected before his death and his legacy was secured much quicker than some other highly regarded historians such as Thucydides.


Thucydides, translated by Charles Forster Smith (1928)

David Pipes, ‘Herodotus: Father of History, Father of Lies’, Loyola University Student Historical Journal 1998-1999 - accessed 19/04/2016 - accessed 19/04/201

Women washing clothes. Side A from an Attic red-figure pelike by the Pan Painter, ca. 470 BC–460 BC.

The Women and History in Ancient Greece

Perceptions of women in Ancient Greece

Writers of history and philosophy in Ancient Greece were predominantly men, who wrote predominantly for men. In their writings about women in Ancient Greek society, a clear picture of the inferiority and subordination of women is evident, for example Thucydides wrote in the fifth century BC that ‘The greatest glory [for women] is to be least talked about among men, whether in praise or blame’ (Michael Scott, 2009). Plato described women as ‘property’ in his book Republic and also said that ‘females were created from the souls of the most wicked and irrational men’, however he also wrote that ‘if boys and girls were given identical training, their abilities as adults would be the same’ (Susan Moller Okin, 1977). Homer described Penelope, the faithful wife of Odysseus as a good woman because she was good at weaving and running the household, she was steadfast and motherly; but despite her subordinate role she was also portrayed as a strong character.

Not all Greek philosophers, however, were men. Women in ancient Greece also participated in philosophical study. In Pythagorean communities women were admitted equally with men (Wider, 1986, p.26). One such Pythagorean was Theono, who while being able to contribute to philosophical debate still held the traditional view of women. Plutarch recorded that Theono explained the duty of married women as “to please her own husband” (Wider, 1986, p.32).  

Different Greek cultures had different perceptions of women which can clearly be seen when comparing the roles of Athenian women to the roles of Spartan women. While many ancient Greek philosophers and historians focussed on Athenian women, Herodotus wrote about women from different cultures including Spartan women. Known as the ‘Father of History’, he is considered to be one of the first objective historians to write about what actually happened, and in his writing on Spartan women he talks about their political and social power and how beneficial this is to Spartan society. Herodotus was one of the few Greek historians to write about women who were not Athenian.

While most ancient Greek writers tended to give the viewpoint of a particular period, city, or region, and tended to view women as subservient, tied to the home and almost slave-like, Herodotus collected oral histories from all over the Mediterranean creating a broader set of ideas about the role of ancient Greek women (Carolyn Dewald, 1980). In doing this, he gained knowledge about the many roles women played in Greek society. He wrote about women in roles from bakers to prostitutes, from family women to priestesses (Dewald, 1981).

When researching the ancient Greek history of women, it is important to consider who was writing and why. It is also important to be aware of any preconceptions you might have about the lives of ancient Greek women and how they might affect your approach when reading certain texts. While some Ancient Greek historians often ignored women in their writing (Thucydides for example), others portrayed women as subservient (Plato), and Herodotus mentioned them often, using a factual approach to writing (Dewald, 1980). Different Greek historians were selective about what they included when writing about women.

Modern perceptions of Ancient Greek women

It is only during recent decades that historians have taken a fresh look at the women of ancient Greece, due to new approaches such as gender studies. The previously held perception that Greek women were entirely subservient to men, did not participate in the same rituals, and did not have the same social influence as men, has been challenged.

Historians of centuries past have at times been influenced by their own cultural values and ideologies, for example European historians in the nineteenth century often used western perspectives when studying ancient Greece (Brown, 2011). The study of the status of ancient Greek women was associated with their level of emancipation within society; a topic of increased interest during the Enlightenment in nineteenth century Europe. According to Joanna Brown (2011), historians from this period were also susceptible to the use of orientalism when studying ancient Greek women; their own western ideas of what these women were like, how they behaved and their place in society influenced their historical study (Joanna Brown, 2011).

These approaches, however, have been challenged by historians in recent years as evidence has been re-evaluated to show that women did hold power in ancient Greece.

In Michael Scott’s The Rise of Women in Ancient Greece he states that the economic and political crisis that occurred after the Peloponnesian War forced women to work outside the home and gave them opportunities to become more involved in public life (Scott, 2009). He also lists other ways in which Greek women had influence; such as the words of women on ‘curse tablets’; inscribed sheets of metal upon which prayers and questions are put to the Gods; show that they were active in seeking advice and often in seeking revenge concerning sexual relationships. Tomb markers for women became more elaborate and detailed in the fourth century BC, showing an increased social importance of these women. There has been a re-examination of the power of women across the social hierarchy, including the power of divine female Gods, the women both behind and on the throne, the religious power of female priests, and the increased influence of working women in Greek society (Scott, 2009).This shows that despite their subservience to men, Ancient Greek women played an increasingly important role in Greek society and were far more than just mothers and housewives.

Further Reading

Brown, J. (2011), 'The Athenian Harem: Orientalism and the Historiography of Athenian Women in the Nineteenth Century', New Voices in Classical Reception Studies (6), 1-12.

Okin, S. M. (1977), 'hilosopher Queens and Private Wives: Plato on Women and the Family', Philosophy & Public Affairs , 6 (4), 345-369.

Scott, M. (2009),'The Rise of Women in Ancient Greece', History Today , 59 (11), 34-40.

Wider, K. (1986), 'Women Philosophers in the Ancient Greek World: Donning the Mantle', Hypatia , 1 (1), 21-62.


The Roman Historians Sallust and Livy.

Sallust was born in 86 BC, to a wealthy family that lived in Amiternum. Apart from writing history he was also very political. He started his political career as a novus homo (new man). In 52 BC he got his first political office as the Tribune of the Plebs and remained in the senate until 50 BC when he was expelled for immorality.

 Looking at his political background is vital when discussing Sallust because it clearly affected his writing. His body of works, The Conspiracy of Catiline, The Bellium Ingurthinum and The Histoires. Written in that order were released between 43 BC and 34 BC, although the precise dates of their release are unknown.

 Sallust shows acquaintance with Demosthenes’ Olynthiac Orations and De corona, Plato’s Seventh Epistle and Menexenus, and Xenophan’s Cryopaedia, Memorabilia, Agesilaus, And Anabasis. His links to the works of Greek philosophers strengthens his own work by demonstrating his knowledge on a variety of different subjects and arguably he demonstrates a primitive form of referencing, by constantly referring to his predecessors by name whenever his is analysing or criticising their work.   We can use this not only when looking at Sallust but also compare him to other historians to study the evolution of referencing which we take for granted today.

Sallust focused his writing like many other Roman historians on War, civil unrest and political affairs. The reason for studying war apart from it being a popular topic amongst the Ancients, was that he led a legion for Caesar and had other involvements in military campaigns despite himself being unsuccessful. His motivation for writing political works is almost certainly to do with his role within the senate and after his removal from the senate his political works are more than likely an attempt to criticise his political enemies. Like Sisenna before him, he developed the historical method by instead of arranging his material in a strictly chronological order; he attempted to carry out a regional grouping of events within a larger chronological framework. As a result of this style of writing his body of works were widely read in the Middle Ages.

However, Sallust is not without flaws, despite assuring his readers that he will be as truthful as possible and free from political bias, his works have been criticized for being incredibly biased and there are some variances when compared with other ancient sources on the same events, for example Sallust would often exaggerate troop numbers and glorify Roman victories while politically being incredibly biased when addressing his oppositions ideas. However, the themes he covers in his writings are arguably more important than the historical accuracy. This therefore, does not render his work useless but it must be considered when reviewing his works.

Livy was a Roman historian born in 59 BC and wrote after Valerius. It was his desire to provide his countrymen with a more sober and trustworthy version of their history than his predecessor had done. This is illustrated in one of Livy’s more prominent traits with his desire to be factual and support his claims. His main body of work was called History, it took Livy approximately forty years to complete and a rough calculation suggests that the entire History would have filled twenty-four crown-octavo volumes of 300 pages each. Unfortunately less than a quarter of the History has survived. Much like other Roman historians Livy wrote about campaigns and military affairs, believing strongly in their outstanding significance to Rome and the Roman Empire. He was writing during the reign of Augustus whom came to power through civil war against Roman Generals who believed they were defending the Republic, this could explain why he has such a focus on military history because at the time of writing there was a lot of conflict. Livy alludes to his sources with a frequency unusual among ancient historians. Besides his referencing to Fabius, he mentions Claudius Quadrigarius by name twelve times, Coelius Antipater eleven, Licinius Macer seven, Piso six and Valerius Antias’ name occurs on thirty-six occasions. One of the reasons Livy is such a crucial ancient historian is because of this early referencing and desire to be factual. He provides us with a more reliable source of the ancient world and a better understanding of how history itself has developed.

Further Readings

Laistner, M. L. W., The Greater Roman Historians. London: Cambridge University Press, 1963.

Mellor, Ronald, The Roman Historians. London: Routledge, 1998.

Sorek, Susan, Ancient Historians. New York: Continuum, 2012.  


Tacitus and his Time

The exact date of Cornelius Tacitus’ birth and death is unknown, but he is believed to have been born round about 56 A.D. and died around 117 A.D. Even his first name is uncertain, being either Gaius or Publius. He was born a Gaul of the equestrian order, a noble administrative class which ranked far beneath the senatorial order, to which he would later ascend.

As an adolescent, Tacitus enthusiastically studied rhetoric, in preparation for a public career. The ancient method of study dramatically differed from ours, with Tacitus attaching himself to the retinues of leading orators, following them in court, on the street, and even into their homes.

The young Tacitus lived through the horrors of Nero’s rule and the Civil War of 69 A.D. The first civil war in a century, it was a war which broke the previous unwritten code of conduct. Neither Caesar and Pompey, nor Augustus and Antony were so unpatriotic as to fight pitched battles on Italian soil, much less sacrilegiously burn the Capitoline Temple of Jupiter. For the first time in Roman history, a Roman army swore servitude to a foreign rebel. In later life, Tacitus would grimly excoriate the Civil War in his Histories. Small wonder that Tacitus is so unrelentingly dark. Yet worse was to come.

In the years 69-81 A.D. under the comparatively benign rules of Vespasian and Titus, Rome was content. Domitian’s tyrannical fifteen years of rule proved so traumatizing for Tacitus, that he claimed they had been blotted out of his life. The glittering career which Tacitus had commenced during the reign of Vespasian, progressed brilliantly under the patronage of Domitian. Therefore, some twentieth-century historians such as Mellor have speculated as to whether Tacitus felt the guilt of a collaborator or survivor, attributing modern post-Nazism sensibilities to the ancient historian (1994, p. 166).

The reigns of Nerva from 96-98 A.D., and of Trajan, from 98-117 A.D., brought a return to good government. Nonetheless, though praising the new age of freedom, Tacitus retired from politics to become a historian, declaring that there were no great orators in an autocracy, only toadies.

How Tacitus’ view of History differed from modern perceptions

Historical writing was seen as the province of senators, this view was challenged by gifted non-politicians such as Livy (Dorey, 1969, p. 119). However, as they were not insiders of the political arena, lack of privileged information made it impossible for this belief to be fully unseated. Moreover, their only method of achieving distinction was through superior literary skill, which was a formidable challenge, owing to the extensive oratorical training of senators. By Tacitus’ time, the Romans considered rhetorical education to be the basis of all intellectual activity. Thus, Roman historians were expected to demonstrate sublime artistry, whilst deploying the persuasive techniques of orators. Tacitus was an extraordinary artist, one of whose literary techniques was appropriated by Shakespeare, who translated the scene of Germanicus eavesdropping upon his soldiers on the eve of battle, to Henry V on the night before Agincourt. Frederich Leo declared Tacitus “one of the few great poets of the Roman people”. Shades of Vergil (70-19 B.C), one of Rome’s greatest poets, and in the eyes of many Romans their greatest historian, appear in Tacitus’ work.

The Romans adhered to the concept of the impartial historian which had been pioneered by the Greek Thucydides. The ancients believed that it was impossible for posterity to be biased against those whose deaths preceded them. Thus, Tacitus sincerely declared in the Annals that it was impossible for him to be biased against the Julio-Claudians, as none of them had harmed him, notwithstanding his loathing of autocracy, and what may only be described as a vendetta against Tiberius.

Roman historians rejected the emotionally detached method of the Greek historians. The Roman mode was established by Cato the Elder (234-149 BC), a senator whose outspoken prejudices provided a pattern for subsequent historians (Dorey, 1969, p. 119). Tacitus’ moralistic, anti-Hellenist attitude harks back to Cato (Dorey, 1969, p. 119). Another tradition established by Cato was the use of aphorism, and by Tacitus’ day, witty quips were considered essential to intellectual activity (Mellor, 1994, p.131-2). Tacitus excelled at blackly ironic epigrams. So striking was his virtuosity that, even today the Tacitean phrase ‘conspicuous by its absence’ remains a valued English expression.

Roman historians considered it their duty to serve as moralists. Like most Roman authors, Tacitus regarded moral character as fixed at birth, he used the character types found in rhetorical school exercises, such as the Martyr or the Tyrant. Thus he concluded that power corrupted all emperors save Vespasian, because it enabled them to unveil their true nature. Yet it is advisable to remember the wise words of Montaigne, who observed that, despite his biases, Tacitus took pains to fairly present the evidence, which frequently contradicted his own perceptions, especially in the case of Tiberius (Montaigne, no date, cited in Burrow, p. 131). He did this despite the fact that Roman historians were not constrained to present evidence as modern historians are. Resolutely resisting temptation, Tacitus relied solely upon his masterful rhetorical skills to blacken Tiberius’ name. They were well up to the task, and despite presenting ample evidence of Tiberius’ nobility of character over the majority of his life, Tacitus rendered him the archetypal depraved tyrant, an image which remains prevalent today.

Tacitean Geography

Tacitus evinces the painfully cavalier classical attitude towards geography and chronology. His geography is especially agonizing, determining locations is a Sherlockian exercise in deduction. This tendency is encapsulated in an instance particularly grating to modern sensibilities, where the site of the Vitellian camp at Cremona, vital to understanding the civil war in A.D. 69, on which Tacitus wrote, was omitted, requiring the reader to piece it together over two books from scattered clues. Perhaps he assumed that all knew its location, but this seems unlikely, as in no society are the entire literate populace well versed in history.

Yet regrettably, this was one of the less trying of the ancient geographical writing idiosyncrasies to which Tacitus laid heir. The Romans, unlike the Greeks were not brilliant or enthusiastic geographers, and it is hardly surprising that Tacitus, who despised the Greek intellectual tradition, was an erratic geographer.

However, Tacitean geography is multifaceted fluctuating wildly between the meticulous description bestowed upon the Island of the Batavians, and elucidation of the difficulty of transporting supplies when the Rhine is low, to the conflation of two Greek words indicating an Antiochian suburb, endowing Syria with a fictitious locale.

Further complicating the situation, Tacitus’ motivations for taciturnity also fluctuate. Often, like Thucydides, the father of scientific history, Tacitus merely offers a name, as with Urvinum, a name shared between two towns, confident in the geography commanded by his contemporaries, to ensure clarity. Whilst conversely, on the outskirts of the Empire, Tacitus’ spotty geography probably originated from a lack of knowledge amongst Romans. Yet even in this Tacitus remains an enigma, for he alternates between a purposelessly thorough description of one of Corbulo’s marches, to declining to take advantage of readily accessible sources for Britain and Israel. This possibly hints at what Tacitus considered important to his own aims and those of his audience. Although, as the Jews were an ongoing irritant to the Romans, this appears somewhat unlikely. Apparently, his status as an Imperial politics survivor rendered Tacitus habitually enigmatic, even in such a seemingly harmless area.

Further Reading

Burrow, John. A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century. London: Penguin Books, 2009.

Dorey, T. A., ed. Tacitus. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1969.

Livy. History of Rome, vols 1-14, see the Loeb Classical Library edition (multiple editors).

Maro, Publius Vergilius. The Works of Virgil. Translated by John Dryden. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Mellor, Ronald. Tacitus. London: Routledge, 1994.

Tacitus, Cornelius. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Translated by Michael Grant. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962.

Tacitus, Cornelius. The Histories. Translated by Kenneth Wellesley. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986.

Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Thomas Hobbes. London: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

The Historiography of Ancient India

The history of India is a complex matter. From the eighteenth century onwards India was under colonial rule and thus colonial perceptions have strongly influenced the writings of Indian history. Scholars from Europe began to search for historical writings about India but found nothing that they felt was tailored to their interpretation of what a history should be, an interpretation that had been influenced by the thinking of European Enlightenment (Thapar, 2002, p. 1). The only exception they found was the Rajatarangini – an account of the history of Kashmir.

According to Thapar, the Rajatarangini has been measured against the nineteenth-century positivist definition of history and has also been mined as a historical source. The translators of the Rajatarangini argued that the text was more than just an example of Indian historical writing; they used it as a tool to debate and rethink the definitions of literature and history, amongst other things (Zutshi, 2011, p. 5).

Inscription in Brahmi

Further texts that are thought to play a role in forming Indian history are the Vedas and the Puranas. Mahesh Sharma, author of the book Tales from the Puranas, argues that the Vedas and the Puranas are ‘the invaluable heritage of the Hindu faith which have gone to form our psyche and morals’ (Sharma, 2005, p. 7). However, whereas native Indians may accept this literature as the history of their country, colonialists do not due to the fact they are based on ancient myths and not solid facts. Solid facts in the form of text are difficult to find however, as most of what we know about ancient India comes from epigraphic and archaeological evidence; for example, a fragment of an Ashokan pillar covered with Brahmi script.

Because we lack historical writings from actual Indian historians, the work of colonialists on ancient Indian history has overruled and thus has formed a colonial perception of ancient Indian history rather than an authentic Indian one. As Professor Cowell comments, ‘it is only at those points where other nations came into contact with the Hindus, that we are able to settle any details accurately (Smith 1999, p. 1).’

Colonial perceptions of Indian history may explain why the history of India is so lean. For example, in the case of Alexander the Great who invaded India, English historians’ accounts ‘treat the story as an appendix to the history of Greece rather than as part of that of India’ (Smith 1999, p. 3).

To conclude, the main reason why Indian history is so difficult to decipher is because it is formed by colonial perceptions. Colonial perceptions of Indian history means that an authentic Indian history is hard to come by.

Further Reading

Sharma, Mahesh, Tales from the Puranas. New Dehli: Diamond Books, 2005.

Smith, Vincent A., The Early History of India, New Dehli: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 1999.

Thapar, Romila, Early India: From The Origins to A.D. 1300, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Zutshi, Chitralekha, ‘Translating the Past: Rethinking "Rajatarangini" Narratives in Colonial India’, The Journal of Asian Studies 70, 1 (February 2011): 5-27.



Most of the older historical texts of China were compiled in the ‘Shangsu’, also known as the ‘Book of Documents’. The earliest surviving Chinese historical texts date back to the official chronicle of the State of Lu, known as the Spring and Autumn Annals, which cover the period of 722-481 BC (Schwartz, 1985, p. 43). The key organising concepts of Chinese historiography are comparable to that of the Greeks. For example, Chinese historians took on the theory of a ‘dynastic cycle’, which is not unlike the Greek poet Hesiod’s ‘Three-age system’, in which he clearly defined human history under the three consecutive time periods of the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages (Schwartz, 1985, p. 80). Unlike this, however, the ‘dynastic cycle’ theory places emphasis on man’s fall being a cyclical occurrence. The theory believes that each dynasty rises to its absolute peak, and then declines due to moral corruption and eventually gets replaced by the next dynasty. This was ultimately how Chinese history was recorded – each new dynasty brought with it a new period in time, a new ‘Mandate of Heaven’ (Feng, 2013, p. 34).  The Mandate was the idea that whichever dynasty that had power did so because of divine favour; when it was time for a new Mandate, this was manifested in the form of bad fortune for the dynasty that was to be replaced, such as natural disasters and corruption (Feng, 2013, p. 67).

Sima Qian

Portrait of Sima Qian

A Chinese historian of the Han dynasty, Sima Qian is considered the founding father of Chinese historiography. His most famous work, the ‘Records of the Grand Historian’, was a general history of China covering a span of over two thousand years, and was mainly presented as a series of biographies. His works were considered hugely influential on general writing and historiography not only in China, but also in Japan and Korea (Schwartz, 1985, p. 150). His great use of building up historical figures as real characters in his writing had a significant impact on the way Chinese texts were recorded, with many subsequent historians choosing to use his method of recording history in the form of biographies (Friedman, 2010, p. 85). Sima Qian could quite easily be compared to Herodotus – what Herodotus is to western European history, so Sima Qian is to Chinese. It can be argued that Sima Qian is largely responsible for the popular theory about Chinese dynastic change. He introduced the idea that dynasties would begin with a strong and virtuous leader, and then would continue through a series of rulers until finally reaching a bad leader, who would be overthrown (Friedman, 2010, p. 87).

Confucius, 551-479 BC


Confucius was a philosopher of the ‘Spring and Autumn’ period of Chinese history. He is credited with either authoring or editing many of the classical Chinese texts, such as the ‘Five Classics’. These texts included collections of: poetry, documents and speeches written by rulers of the Zhou period and earlier, descriptions of ancient ceremonies and rites and more (Scientific & Technological Museum, 1983, p. 205). The ‘Five Classics’ can has been provided a huge wealth of information for historians of China in the time since its inception, with them being acknowledged as semi-legendary chronicles of earlier periods, covering a huge variety of information including: philosophy, literature, history, technology and economy (Feng, 2013, p. 117). They were essentially an encyclopaedia for society ancient China.


Friedman, M., Ancient China. Scholastic: Columbia University (2010).

Feng, L., Early China: A Social and Cultural History. Cambridge

University Press: Cambridge (2013).

Schwartz, B. I., The World of Thought in Ancient China. Belknap Press: Massachusetts (1985).

Scientific & Technological Museum, China China: 7000 Years of Discovery. China Books & Periodicals (1983).