In This Article Greco-Roman Historiography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Attitudes toward the Gods
  • Roman Imperial History and Late Antiquity

Biblical Studies Greco-Roman Historiography
by
Eric M. Orlin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0254

Introduction

The practice of writing history in the ancient world differed markedly from the practices employed by historians today, in large measure because ancient historians conceived of their task differently. The term “history” derives from the Greek word historiê, which means “inquiry,” used by Herodotus to describe his work. This inquiry could take many forms, and the boundaries between history as we understand it and such genres as ethnography, geography, and biography were never clearly defined. To the extent that ancient historians did practice their craft in a way familiar to us, the choice of genre impacted the work that each has left to us. In addition, deep connections with other forms of writing, including prose genres such as oratory as well as poetic genres of epic and tragedy, contributed to the development of historical writing in ways not always recognizable to the modern practice of history. Most ancient histories were explicitly didactic in nature. They aimed to be useful to the reader either imparting practical knowledge on how to address certain situations or lessons for moral improvement through the provision of historical examples; sometimes they aimed at both at the same time. Even making sense of the past meant something different in a world where the gods might be considered to play active roles in human affairs. Modern scholars have therefore expended energy in exploring the ways that ancient historians approached issues that are central to our own notions of historical writing, including most prominently the truth value of a text, a historian’s use of sources, and his objectivity. These studies have made it abundantly clear that ancient writers aimed both to make sense of the past and to produce works of literary merit and that the boundaries between history and other genres always remained fluid. There is considerable disagreement among modern scholars over how far individual historians pushed the boundaries in balancing their aims with their understanding of their task, and modern readers must constantly work to be aware of the differences between ancient and modern historiography to make use of these texts in an appropriate fashion.

General Overviews

A number of texts provide an entry point into understanding the Greek and Roman historians. Duff 2003 provides a general introduction to the authors, while Kraus and Woodman 1997 focuses on historians writing in Latin. For historiography in particular, Pitcher 2009 offers an introduction to the overall topic, while Marincola 1997 offers a more scholarly approach to the question of how ancient historians conceived of their enterprise. Hornblower 1994 offers a collection of essays on Greek historiography while Mehl 2011 covers the topic for the Romans. Momigliano 1977 and Walbank 1985 provide collections of articles from two of the leading scholars of ancient historiography in the 20th century. Feldherr 2009 is an important recent collection on specific questions relating to the Roman historians only, while Marincola 2007 offers a comprehensive look at the field covering a range of topics in both Roman and Greek authors.

  • Duff, Timothy. The Greek and Roman Historians. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    A brief introduction meant primarily for undergraduates. Covers the major historians and places them in their literary and historical contexts, with discussion of how historiography developed as a genre, with its roots growing out of Homeric epic.

  • Feldherr, Andrew, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Historians. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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    A collection organized by theme that is explicitly intended to stimulate new thinking as well as to highlight key aspects of history writing in the Roman world. Particularly good articles in the collection on rhetoric in Roman historiography, the use of exempla, and characterization, as well as an explicit chapter on religion in Roman historiography.

  • Hornblower, Simon, ed. Greek Historiography. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

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    An excellent collection of essays from leading scholars. Each approaches a different topic and often different authors, but all focus on the balance between rhetoric and reality found in historical writing and in different ways attempt to differentiate the genre of history from other genres in the ancient world.

  • Kraus, Christina S., and A. J. Woodman. Latin Historians. Greece and Rome New Surveys in the Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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    An excellent blend of an introduction to the state of Roman historiography and critical discussion of emerging trends and so useful both for students and scholars. Primary focus is on the major historians (Sallust, Livy, Tacitus), but discussion of other authors also included.

  • Marincola, John. Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511584831E-mail Citation »

    Considers a series of questions across the range of ancient historians from Herodotus to Ammianus Marcellinus, including why they wrote, how they arrived at their facts and conclusions, how they presented themselves to their audiences, and how they managed discussion of their own participation in events. Particularly interesting is a concluding section on how ancient historians both set their work against predecessors by polemic and while also claiming continuity.

  • Marincola, John. A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography. 2 vols. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781405185110E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive collection covering major topics in both Greek and Roman historiography. Sections focused on the major components of ancient historiography (origins, use of sources, speeches, characterization), on types of history (local, universal, memoir, war monograph), and on related genres (biography and ethnography but also epic, tragedy, and the novel) provide a good overview, while the middle section provides detailed readings of a wide range of texts.

  • Mehl, Andreas. Roman Historiography: An Introduction to Its Basic Aspects and Development. Translated by Hans-Friedrich Mueller. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

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    A comprehensive study of almost every Roman historian, from the 3rd century BCE annalists through Christian historians and up to Procopius in the 6th century CE. The influence of both Greek historical precedents and the Roman traditions of family accounts is discussed, and context is provided to trace development over the centuries. A short concluding chapter on “The Basic Principles of Ancient Historical Thought” is a well worth a read.

  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1977.

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    Presents twenty-one essays from one of the foremost scholars of ancient historiography of the 20th century. Essays treat key themes such as time in ancient historiography or the place of tradition, and the volume reprints an important article comparing pagan and Christian historiography in the fourth century CE.

  • Pitcher, Luke. Writing Ancient History: An Introduction to Classical Historiography. London: I. B. Tauris, 2009.

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    Aimed primarily at undergraduates, this book tries to suggest that ancient historians aimed both to tell what happened and to create a work of artistic merit and analyzes the choices they made to do so. Methodology, including the use or omission of evidence and speeches, is a key focus. Suggests that ancient historians, at least in their aims, were not as different from modern historians as often believed.

  • Walbank, Frank W. Selected Papers: Studies in Greek and Roman History and Historiography. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

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    A collection of twenty-one previously published papers, including eight specifically on historiographical issues. Of these, several focus on Polybius, but there is a seminal article on speeches in Greek historians as well as an important article on history and tragedy.

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