European historians trace the origin of their history writing from the Greco-Roman period. For a long time the history of ancient Greece remained in oblivion and not much was known about the ancient Greeks. The discovery and publication of Hesiod’s Theogony and Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey open the secrets and unknown aspects of its ancient history.
Homer’s Iliad brought to light the 10-year Trojan war and its heroes. Later, the German archaeologist Schliemann (d.1890 AD) excavated the ancient city of Troy which showed that the war between Greek and Troy was not a fiction but a reality. It appears that there were other historians besides Hesoid and Homer but their writings were destroyed before the advent of the modern ages. When Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, some scholars fled the city taking with them the manuscript of Herodotus (d.425 BC) and Thucydides (d.395 BC) to Italy where these were edited and published.
Roman politician and scholar Cicero (d.44 BC) called Herodotus the father of history for his famous work Histories featuring the Greco-Persian wars. “Historie” is a Greek word which means inquiry. Herodotus shared his views on the foundation of Greek democracy, compared and contrasted democracy and monarchy, portraying the Athenian democratic form as the exemplary form of government. He glorified the 300 Spartans, who fought bravely but were killed by the Persian army at Thermopylae. He also narrated in his book the countries he visited, their customs, traditions and institutions. However, for his exaggeration or his concoction of a good story by adding a bit of fiction to it, Herodotus has also been called the “father of lies”. Despite all his weaknesses, his history is regarded as the foundation of European historiography.
Not always separating fact from fiction, the Greeks were the first to start writing the history of Europe
Thucydides, who witnessed and experienced the Peloponnesian Wars fought between Sparta and Athens, narrated in detail the important events which happened during the conflict. His philosophy of history was based on realism and that the strong should rule the weak, as they have the power to do so. Generally the Greeks believed in the cyclical concept of history in which the same events occurred again and again in similar conditions. These two historians provided historical methodology and style of writing to the future generations of European historians.
The founding of the Roman Empire and its conquests expanded the scope of historiography. As generals, consuls, nobles and administrators played important roles to conquer other countries, their contribution was included in history and they were eulogised as the founders of the empire.
Besides wars, other aspects of society especially the formation of law and the administrative structure of the state were significant areas of interest for Roman historians. They also critically examined the role of the Roman Senate, the assemblies and the judicial system of the state. We can also find plenty material regarding the activities of common people which were centred around the Forum of the city as well as how gladiators were their entertainment source. Historians also described the triumphant march of the generals who returned home after a conquest, bringing war booty with them which pleased the public. The knowledge of history became further enriched when Romans conquered lands, learnt their languages, customs and traditions and in this way brought to light their history.
When the Roman nobility became conscious of history, they wanted to safeguard the achievements of their families in order to retain their high social status and in this regard, they began to preserve the historical documents of their families which later provided original sources for history writing. However, the biographies which were written on the basis of these documents were not impartial and paid glowing tributes to the nobility, which were seldom deserved. Some generals wrote accounts of the wars that they fought, for instance Julius Caesar’s (d.44BC) commentaries on his conquests of Gaul and Britain were lauded for being rich sources of history.
Other historians of the Roman Empire were Livy (d.17AD) whose monumental work The History of Rome comprises 142 books, and Plutarch (d.120AD) whose work Parallel Lives a series of biographies of Greek and Roman nobility is fascinating and absorbing. Polybius (d.118BC) and Tacitus (d.117AD) wrote about the moral degeneration caused the downfall of the Roman Empire. Modern historians were deeply inspired by Roman history which became their preferred field of research. One such historian is Edward Gibbons (d.1794) whose masterpiece The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire published in six volumes remains one of the best sources of knowledge about the vicissitudes of Roman society.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 28th, 2016