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HOME > Classical Novels > Theory & History of Historiography > II GR?CO-ROMAN HISTORIOGRAPHY
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After what we have said as to the nature of periodization,[1] the usual custom, to which I too bow here, of beginning the history of historiography with that of the Greeks, and with the Greeks of the fifth or sixth century before Christ, will be taken for what it is really worth, but it must not be thought that we thus intend to announce the beginning of historiography, its first appearance in the world, when, on the contrary, all we wish to say is that our interest in the investigation of its course becomes more vivid at that point. History, like philosophy, has no historical beginning, but only an ideal or metaphysical beginning, in so far as it is an activity of thought, which is outside time. Historically speaking, it is quite clear that prior to Herodotus, prior to the logographs, prior indeed to Hesiod and to Homer, history was already, because it is impossible to conceive of men who do not think and do not narrate their deeds in some way or other. This explanation might seem to be superfluous if the confusion between historical beginning and ideal beginning had not led to the fancy of a 'first philosophical step,' made by Thales or Zeno, or by somebody else, by means of which thinking the first stone is supposed to have been laid, as it was believed that by thinking another last step the pinnacle of the edifice of philosophy was or would be attained. But Thales and Herodotus should really be called rather the 'sons' of our interest in the development of those[Pg 182] disciplines than the 'fathers' of philosophy and history, and it is we whom those sons salute as their 'fathers.' We have not usually much interest in what occurred prior to them or among people more distant than they from our point of view, not only because there is a scarcity of surviving documents concerning them, but above all because they are forms of thought which have but little connexion with our own actual problems.

From its point of view, too, the distinction that we laid down between history and philology suggests refraining from the search hitherto made for the beginnings of Gr?co-Roman historiography by means of composing lists of magistrates and of adding to these brief mention of wars, treatises, embassies from colonies, religious festivities, earthquakes, inundations, and the like, in the ?ροι and in the annales pontificum, in archives and museums made in temples, or indeed in the chronological nails fixed to the walls, spoken of by Perizonius. Such things are extrinsic to historiography and form the precedent, not of it, but of chronicle and philology, which were not born for the first time in the nineteenth or seventeenth century, or at any rate during the Alexandrine period, but belong to all times, for in all times men take note of what they remember and attempt to preserve such memorials intact, to restore and to increase them. The precedent of history cannot be something different from history, but is history itself, as philosophy is the precedent of philosophy and the living of the living. Nevertheless the thought of Herodotus and of the logographs really does unite itself with religions, myths, theogonies, cosmogonies, genealogies, and with legendary and epical tales, which were not indeed poetry, or were not only poetry but also thoughts—that is to say, metaphysics and histories.[Pg 183] The whole of later historiography developed from them by a dialectical process, for which they supplied the presuppositions—that is to say, concepts, propositions of fact and fancy mingled, and with that the stimulus better to seek out the truth and to dissipate fancies. This dissipation took place more rapidly at the time which it is usual to fix by convention as the beginning of Greek historiography.

At that time thought deserts mythological history and its ruder form, prodigious or miraculous history, and enters earthly or human history—that is to say, the general conception that is still ours, so much so that it has been possible for an illustrious living historian to propose the works of Thucydides as an example and model to the historians of our times. Certainly that exit and that entrance did not represent for the Greeks a complete breaking with the past; and since earthly history could not have been altogether wanting in the past, so it is not to be believed that the Greeks from the sixth and seventh centuries onward should have abandoned all faith in mythology and prodigies. These things persisted not only with the people and among lesser or vulgar historiographers, but also left their traces among some of the greatest. Nevertheless, looking at the whole from above, as one should look at it, it is evident that the environment is altogether changed from what it was. Even the many fables that we read in Herodotus, and which were to be read in the logographs, are rarely (as has been justly observed) put forward ingenuously, but are usually given as by one who collects what others believe, and does not for that reason accept those beliefs, even if he does not openly evince his disbelief; or he collects them because he does not know what to substitute for them, and rather as matter for reflection[Pg 184] and inquiry: qu? nec confirmare argumentis neque refellere in animo est, as Tacitus says, when he recounts the fables of the Germans: plura transcribo quam credo, declared Quintus Curtius. Herodotus is certainly not Voltaire, nor is he indeed Thucydides (Thucydides, 'the atheist'); but certainly he is no longer Homer or Hesiod.

The following are a few examples of leading problems which ancient historians had before them, dictated by the conditions and events of Greek and Roman life; they were treated from a mental point of view, which no longer found in those facts episodes of the rivalry of Aphrodite and Hera (as formerly in the Trojan War), but varying complex human struggles, due to human interests, expressing themselves in human actions. How did the wars between the Greeks and the Persians originate and develop? What were the origins of the Peloponnesian War? of the expedition of Cyrus against Artaxerxes? How was the Roman power formed in Latium, and how did it afterward extend in Italy and in the whole world? How did the Romans succeed in depriving the Carthaginians of the hegemony of the Mediterranean? What were the political institutions developed in Athens, Rome, and Sparta, and what form did the social struggle take in those cities? What did the Athenian demos, the Roman plebs, the eupatrides, and the patres desire? What were the virtues, the dispositions, the points of view, of the various peoples which entered into conflict among themselves, Athenians, Lacedemonians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Gauls, and Germans? What were the characters of the great men who guided the destinies of the peoples, Themistocles, Pericles, Alexander, Hannibal, and Scipio? These problems were solved in a series of classical[Pg 185] works by Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Livy, Tacitus, etc., and they will certainly not be blamed for failing to exhaust their themes—that is, for failing to sound the bottom of the universe, because there is no sounding the bottom of the universe—nor because they solve those problems only in the terms in which they had proposed them, neither more nor less than as we solve the problems of our day in our own terms. Nor must we forget that since modern historiography is still much as it was left by the Greeks, the greater part of those events are still thought as they were by the ancients, and although something has been added and a different light illumines the whole, the work of the ancient historians is preserved in our own: a true "eternal possession," as Thucydides intended that his history should be.

And just as historical thought had become invigorated in its passage from the mythological to the human stage, so did research and philology grow. Herodotus was already travelling, asking questions, and listening to answers, distinguishing between the things that he had seen with his own eyes and those which depended upon hearsay, opinion, and conjecture; Thucydides was submitting to criticism different traditions relating to the same fact, and even inserting documents in his narrative. Later appeared legions of learned men and critics, who compiled 'antiquities' and 'libraries,' and busied themselves also with the reading of texts, with chronology and geography, thus affording great assistance to historical studies. Such a fervour of philological studies was eventually attained that it was recognized as necessary to draw a clear distinction between the 'histories of antiquaries' (of which a considerable number survive either entire or in fragments)[Pg 186] and 'histories of historians,' and Polybius several times said that it is easy to compose history from books, because it suffices to take up one's residence in a city where there exist rich libraries, but that true history requires acquaintance with political and military affairs and direct knowledge of places and of people; and Lucian repeated that it is indispensable for the historian to have political sense, ?δ?δακτον φυσ?ω? δ?ρον, a gift of nature not to be learned (the maxims and practices praised as quite novel by M?ser and Niebuhr are therefore by no means new). The fact is that a more profound theoretical consciousness corresponded with a more vigorous historiography, so inseparable is the theory of history from history, advancing with it. It was also known that history should not be made a simple instrument of practice, of political intrigue, or of amusement, and that its function is above all to aim at truth: ne quid falsi dicere audeat, ne quid veri non audeat. In consequence of this, partisanship, even for one's own country, was condemned (although it was recognized chat solicitude and sympathy were permissible); and quidquid Gr?cia mendax audet in historia was blamed. It was known that history is not chronicle (annales), which is limited to external things, recording (in the words of Asellio, the ancient Roman historian) quod factum, quoque anno gestum sit, whereas history tries to understand quo Consilio, quaque ratione gesta sint. And it was also known that history cannot set herself the same task as poetry. We find Thucydides referring with disdain to histories written with the object of gaining the prize in oratorical competitions, and to those which indulge in fables to please the vulgar. Polybius too inveighed against those who seek to emphasize moving details, and depict women dishevelled and in tears, and dreadful[Pg 187] scenes, as though composing tragedies and as though it were their business to create the marvellous and pleasing and not impart truth and instruction. If it be a fact that rhetorical historiography (a worsening of the imaginative and poetic) abounded in antiquity and introduced its false gold even into some masterpieces, the general tendency of the better historians was to set themselves free of ornate rhetoricians and of cheap eloquence. But the ancient historians will never fail of lofty poetical power and elevation for this reason (not even the 'prosaic' Polybius, who sometimes paints most effective pictures), but will ever retain what is proper to lofty historical narrative. Cicero and Quintilian, Diogenes and Lucian, all recognize that history must adopt verba ferme poetarum, that it is proxima poetis et quodammodo carmen solutum, that scribitur ad narrandum, non ad demonstrandum, that ?χει τι ποιητικ?ν, and the like. What the best historians and theorists sought at that time was not the aridity and dryness of mathematical or physical treatment (such as we often hear desired in our day), but gravity, abstention from fabulous and pleasing tales, or if not from fabulous then from frivolous tales, in fact from competition with the rhetoricians and composers of histories that were romances or gross caricatures of such. Above all they desired that history should remain faithful to real life, since it is the instrument of life, and a form of knowledge useful to the statesman and to the lover of his country, and by no means docile to the capricious requirements of the unoccupied seeking amusement.

This theory of historiography, which may be found here and there in a good many special treatises and in general treatises on the art of speech, finds nowhere such complete and conscious expression as in the frequent[Pg 188] polemical interludes of Polybius in his Histories, where the polemic itself endows it with precision, concreteness, and savour. Polybius is the Aristotle of ancient historiography: an Aristotle who is both historical and theoretical, completing the Stagirite, who in the vast expanse of his work had taken but little interest in history properly so called. And since so great a part of the ancient narratives lives in our own, so there is not one of the propositions recorded that has not been included and has not been worthy of being included in our treatises. And if, for example, the maxim that history should be narrated by men of the world and not by the simply erudite or by philologists, that it is born of practice and assists in practice, has been often neglected, the blame falls on those who neglect it. A further blunder committed by such writers has been to forget completely the τι ποιητικ?ν and to pay court to an ideal of history something like an anatomical map or a treatise of mechanics.

But the defect that ancient historiography exposes to our gaze is of another sort. The ancients did not observe it as a defect, or only sometimes, in a vague and fugitive manner, without attaching weight to it, for otherwise they would have remedied it when it occurred. The modern spirit inquires how the sentiments and conceptions which are now our ideal patrimony, and the institutions in which they are realized, have been gradually formed. It wishes to understand the revolutionary passages from primitive and Oriental to Gr?co-Roman culture, how modern ethic was attained through ancient ethic, the modern through the ancient state, the vast industry and international commerce of the modern world through the ancient mode of economic production, the passage from the myths of the Aryans to our philosophies,[Pg 189] from Mycenean to French or Swedish or Italian art of the twentieth century. Hence there are special histories of culture, of philosophy, of poetry, of the sciences, of technique, of economy, of morality, of religions, and so on, which are preferred to histories of individuals or of states themselves, in so far as they are abstract individuals. They are illuminated and inspired throughout with the ideas of liberty, of civilization, of humanity, and of progress. All this is not to be found in ancient historiography, although it cannot be said to be altogether absent, for with what could the mind of man have ever been occupied, save by human ideals or 'values'? Nor should the error be made of considering 'epochs' as something compact and static, whereas they are various and in motion, or of rendering those divisions natural and external which, as has been demonstrated, are nothing but the movement of our thought as we think history, a fallacy linked with the other one concerning the absolute beginning of history and the rendering temporal of the forms of the spirit. Whoever is gifted with the patience of the collector will meet here and there with suggestions and buddings of those historiographical conceptions of which, generally speaking, we have denied the existence in the writings of the ancients. He who finds diversion in modernizing the old may travesty the thoughts of the ancients, as they have been travestied, so as to render them almost altogether similar to those of the moderns. In the first book of Aristotle's Metaphysics, for instance, is to be admired a sketch of the development of Greek philosophy, of the various naturalistic interpretations which have been in turn proposed for the explanation of the cosmos, and so on, up to the new orientation of the mind, when, "compelled by truth itself," it turned toward a different order of[Pg 190] principles—that is to say, till the time of Anaxagoras, "who seems to be a sober man among the intoxicated," thus continuing up to the time of Socrates, who founded ethic and discovered the universal and the definition. A sketch of the history of civilization is to be found at the beginning of the History of Thucydides, and Polybius will be found discoursing of the progress that had been made in all the arts, while Cicero, Quintilian, and several others trace the progress of rights and of literature. There are also touches of human value in conflict with one another in the narratives of the struggles between Greeks and barbarians, between the truly civil and active life of the former and the proud, lazy habits ............
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