history: Greek and Roman Historiography

Greek and Roman Historiography

It was not until the time of the Greeks that historiography, the writing of organic history, emerged. The compilations of the logographoi in the 6th cent. b.c. were organized records. It is with some justice, however, that Herodotus is considered the first historian, because in his work appears the conscious desire to record all the significant and noteworthy circumstances surrounding a set of events and motivating the actions of people in those events. Herodotus was remarkable, too, for the scope of his interests; he recorded myths, described customs, and made speculations. He used much unverified information, however, and failed to differentiate clearly between fact and fable.

The second great Greek historian, Thucydides, was of a different stamp. In writing the history of the Peloponnesian War he limited himself to matters of state and war; he tried to establish chronology and facts with some exactitude, avoiding the digressions of Herodotus; though his attempt at writing a factual and impartial history was not entirely successful, he wrote a grave work, conveying the lessons he drew from his story. The third of the great Greek historians, Xenophon, was more devoted to the purely storytelling aspects of history.

The influence of Thucydides was early in the ascendant, and the two important Greek historians of the Roman period, Polybius and Dio Cassius, more or less modeled themselves on that master. The Roman historian Livy was more of a teller of tales, and he invoked the intervention of the gods to explain cause and effect. The great commentaries of Julius Caesar were more like inspired reporting than pure history writing, and the personal element in them was strong. Tacitus followed more or less the pattern of Thucydides but with a brooding moral interest in the decay of Roman society.

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