In This Article Chronicles

  • Introduction
  • What Is a Chronicle?
  • The Question of Genre
  • Pre-Greek Chronicles

Classics Chronicles
R. W. Burgess
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0240


Most classicists only know of chronicles in relation to the Middle Ages or perhaps Late Antiquity, and they are chiefly thought of as Christian texts. But chronicles were one of the most common forms of historiography throughout the classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods and were probably inspired by Babylonian chronicles, so they are not in origin Christian at all. Indeed, because of the general ease of creating and maintaining a chronicle and their enduring appeal to readers, chronicles are in fact the oldest and longest-lived genre of historiography in Western civilization. Unfortunately, almost no pre-Christian classical chronicles have survived and that is why so little is known or has been written about them. They probably first appeared in Greece in the late fourth century BCE, but they proliferated in the Hellenistic period and continued right through into the third century CE. In the first century BCE they first came to be composed in Latin in Rome, arising from both native traditions involving consular fasti (consularia) and the influence of Hellenistic Greek chronicles. But the latter influence proved to be fleeting and only consularia continued to be compiled into the fourth century CE, when Christian chronicles on the Hellenistic model first came to be written in Greek at the beginning of the century and then in Latin at the end. Even these later, more well-known chronicles are little studied, in relation to the standard canon of Greek and Roman histories, and so the purpose of this bibliography is less to analyze and discuss the literature surrounding these obscure texts, since there is little to comment upon, but more to introduce readers to the texts themselves and to the important studies of these works so that those interested may have a kind of primer on the works individually and as a whole.

What Is a Chronicle?

As can be seen in The Question of Genre, the definition of a chronicle can vary considerably and has become somewhat contentious. Since this is a survey of Hellenistic, Roman, and Late Roman chronicles, with a brief introduction concerning their Near-Eastern antecedents, it is best to follow the definition of a chronicle generally accepted among Near Eastern and classical scholars, one that derives from ancient descriptions and the surviving works themselves. This definition is set forth, elaborated, and justified in Burgess and Kulikowski 2013, a history of the chronicle genre from its beginnings through to the high Middle Ages. Therefore, even though modern medievalists and Byzantinists have quite different definitions of a chronicle (see The Question of Genre), only the classical definition will be employed here since only classical chronicles are being discussed. This explains why such often cited “chronicles” of Late Antiquity as Hippolytus, Julius Africanus, John of Antioch, Malalas, Panodorus, and Annianus are not discussed here: by the classical definition employed here they are not chronicles. Chronicles are, in their most basic form, designed to make sense of the chronology of past events: “When did X happen?” After all, the name χρονικά is simply the adjective from χρόνος (“time”). That chronicles develop into more complex histories over the millennia does not change this fundamental fact. A chronicle is therefore an annalistic framework that attempts, if feasible, to mark each year, be it with a number (like years counted forward or backward from a fixed point, or regnal years) or a name (like year names, eponyms, archons, or consuls), into which is inserted a collection of reports of individual historical events that are recounted briefly—a word that cannot be given a rigid definition—and in strict chronological order. Often years can be presented in succession with no historical content at all. This stress on the reporting of an annalistic chronology, with or without historical content, is the fundamental characteristic that separates chronicles from all other forms of universal historiography. Indeed, in the earliest surviving Greek chronicle, the Parian Marble (see Parian Marble (Marmor Parium)), as well as the early imperial Chronicon Romanum, the main clause of each historical “entry” is the chronological statement, and the historical content is placed within a subordinate clause or prepositional phrase: “From the time when X happened/From X, (it has been) Y years, and Z was archon in Athens.” Chronicles have no set ending and simply stop when the writer or compiler ceases. Conversely, because of their natural brevity, they usually tend to start at the “beginning” of history, however that is interpreted, be it Creation, the first king of Athens, the Trojan War, or the first Olympiad. As a result they can cover hundreds and thousands of years in a small compass. Such brevity generally did not allow the lengthy explanatory, descriptive, and didactic narrative intrusions that characterize usual Greek and Latin historiography. As a result, chronicles are paratactic, which means that historical events are related as a series of “and”s, not “because”s or “as a result”s, and there is no necessary connection between one report and the next, no matter how important or unimportant, apart from the natural succession of time. Because of the lack of an ending and their brevity, chronicles can often be the work of different successive individuals.

  • Burgess, R. W., and Michael Kulikowski. 2013. Mosaics of time. The Latin chronicle traditions from the first century BC to the sixth century AD. Vol. 1, A historical introduction to the chronicle genre from its origins to the High Middle Ages. Studies in the Early Middle Ages 33. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.

    DOI: 10.1484/M.SEM-EB.5.106285E-mail Citation »

    This is the only diachronic study of chronicles as a genre ever undertaken. The arguments in favor of the definition adopted here appear on pp. 1–62. See also pp. 278–287 for a short discussion of the development of the word “chronicle” (χρονικά/chronica) in the classical world.

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