Why did Ancient Historians write history?

So often, modern historians are asked to justify why they choose to study history and to demonstrate its usefulness. It is not always easy; people often choose not to listen. Exploring why a historian who lived two thousand years ago — or perhaps more — chose to write history is no easier. Yet there is something intransient in the desire to study history that makes it a valuable exercise for the modern historian. Furthermore, understanding why and how ancient historians wrote what they did improves the modern historian's interpretation of their texts.

Throughout their works (well, actually, more often than not in the opening paragraph), historians such as Herodotus, Thucydides and Tacitus set out their reasons for writing history. These reasons can be organised into four categories: monumentality, glory, moralising, and truth and understanding. These categories do interlink quite heavily and sometimes the differences between them are subtle, but divisions do have to be drawn somewhere.

"...it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past." So wrote Thucydides in the opening to his History of the Peloponnesian War. For Thucydides, history was — in part — the necessity to record something for its unprecedented nature or scale: its monumentality. When writing about wars for their uniqueness, Thucydides was not alone. Herodotus and Josephus recorded the Persian war and the Jewish rebellion respectively in the belief that these were the greatest conflicts ever experienced. They were monumental, it made them worth remembering. For the modern historian, the historical record offers far more than the details and facts of an event; it is a window into the world and the mentality of the ancient historian. By looking at why someone chose to write about an event, it can reveal what was significant or important to those living at the time.

However, monumentality is not just about something being worthy of rememberance. History instils in people a sense of identity, a feeling of belonging. Thus, an event can be important to a group of people because it strengthens their idea of who they are, what their roots are. This is monumentality for its relevance to the human condition, to the progress of society and its development. At times of crisis or instability, a sense of identity and the knowledge of the defining events in a people's history can be a pacifying or strengthening force. In particular, Josephus was aware of the significance of history to the cultural understanding of mankind: "Surely to leave a permanent record of events not previously recorded for the benefit of posterity is worthy of the highest praise..." (Josephus: The Jewish War, I.20) Writing history was not just about the past, or the present, it was about the future, too: posterity would benefit from the knowledge of the ages.

For those living in Greek or Roman times, glory was a quality regarded as essential to the esteem in which a person was held. For Romans, it was a constituent of the concept of virtus, a word with no direct translation in English that encompassed piety, honour, valour and respectability. Being applicable only to men, it comes across as "manliness". Consequently, glory was a reason given for the writing of history; being associated with how a figure was remembered, it also related to monumentality. "Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not be forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds — ... — may not be without their glory..." (Herodotus: The Histories, I.1) For Herodotus, praise and glory was instrinsic to history, for these ideals made something worth recording.

However, glory was not just about the direct glorification of historical figures, it was also about the reflected glory of the historian himself. In writing a history, an historian had some chance of being remembered himself in the future. "Countless others have written on this theme and it may be that I shall pass unnoticed amongst them; if so, I must comfort myself with the greatness and splendour of my rivals, whose work will rob my own of recognition." (Livy: The Early History of Rome, I.1) Of course, we all know of Livy because of the history of Rome that he wrote.

Feeding from the ideas of monumentality and glory comes moralising through history. Both Tacitus and Sallust were exponents of using history to moralise to their readers. They saw their works as valuable tools to instruct their contemporaries and descendents as to acceptable modes of behaviour and as to the consequences of failing to act in a responsible, moral fashion. In this way, history was not just about education, but also about amelioration. "As I see it, the chief duty of the historian is this: to see that virtue is placed on record, and that evil men and evil deeds have cause to fear judgement at the bar of posterity." (Tacitus: Annals, III.65.1) For Tacitus, the writing of history was a responsibility; monumental and glorious deeds needed to be recorded in order to educate. "...it was at this time that the first challenge was offered to the arrogance of the Roman nobles — the beginning of a struggle that played havoc with all our institutions, human and divine, and reached such a pitch of fury that civil strife was ended only by a war which left Italy a desert." (Sallust: Jugurthine War, I.5.1) Sallust's aim was clear: to morally educate Romans, thus create a stable Rome.

The final reason offered for the writing of history is truth and understanding, which again relates closely to the other three reasons. The issue of truth is one with which all historians wrestle: trying to establish the actual facts, the real events. This was part of the motivation for Josephus' writing of The Jewish War. He believed that everybody deserved to know the reality of the 66BCE uprising in Judea. This desire to report the truth was important for various reasons. First of all, from the perspective of monumentality, posterity deserved to know what really happened. Generally, it is the victor that writes the history; Josephus had the opportunity to redress the balance by virtue of being a Romanised Jew: "Yet persons with no first-hand knowledge, accepting baseless and inconsistent stories on hearsay, have written garbled accounts of it, while those of eyewitnesses have been falsified either to flatter the Romans or to vilify the Jews, eulogy or abuse being substituted for factual record." (Josephus: The Jewish War, Pre.1) Furthermore, as part of a process of constructing an identity, this was relevant to both the Romans and the Jews. Secondly, by recording what he regarded as the truth, Josephus was both preserving the glory of the Romans and preserving the glory of the Jews who rose up against them: "For they wish to establish the greatness of the Romans while all the time disparaging and deriding the actions of the Jews. But I do not see how men can prove themselves by overcoming feeble opponents!" (Josephus: The Jewish War, Pre.7) It was far more satisfactory all round if the behaviour and actions of both groups had been exemplary.

The majority of historians in the ancient world believed that human nature was a constant that did not alter through time. In this way, history was a valuable educational tool that could be used for the benefit of politicians, especially. For Polybius, history was not just an accumulation of facts and details, but it was a development of an understanding as to why things did happen and will happen again. For Thucydides, human existence was part of a great cycle and knowing one's position in this cycle was clearly beneficial when making decisions. However, the process was lengthy and the cycle had to be observed and recorded over many generations for it to be of any relevance. For these historians, understanding the past meant a better grasp of the present and an indication of the future.

There is a suggestion that entertainment was another reason for ancient historians to write history. Although the narrative method employed by these historians can lead to an enjoyable read, many historians, Josephus, Polybius and Tacitus amongst them, denied that they wrote for entertainment. To them, history was a serious occupation, not a frivolous undertaking.

For the modern historian, the reasons that the ancient historians gave for the writing of history are not always applicable to them, too. It is not about seeking or propounding glory, or trying to teach a lesson. Yet, there are resonances: it can be about trying to understand ourselves better, it can be about not wanting things to be forgotten. Nevertheless, the existence of these writings provides a valuable window into the world of thousands of years ago. They offer evidence not only as to the events themselves, but also to the situation when they were written. As with any history, it is not just the reading, it is the reading between the lines.


For CloudStrife, with thanks for the encouragement whilst writing the original essay on which this was based.
Thanks also to Noung.

This writeup is intended as a complement to the one above. Generally, where the first writeup addresses the stated aims of classical historians, this one discusses their other motives. This writeup also defines "history" rather more broadly and sometimes strays to the question of why historians produced the sorts of history they did.


Environment. Precedent.
First, because they could. Classical historians wrote in an established genre; they emulated writers they had read and liked. There is a chain of imitation extending in Greek history back to Herodotus and beyond. Cato the Censor, the first to write a Latin history, did it after the Greek model. Later writers looked to earlier ones; some explicitly continued where existing histories left off. The writing of history was, for Greeks or Romans of a certain era, a possibility This is significant; there have been literate societies which simply produced no history at all.

Like a murderer, a historian needs both motive and opportunity. The opportunity to write history was a rare thing. It depended on the political climate (which was often a compelling reason not to write history) and on the writer's social position: Their nationality, their status (the leisure and education required meant that all historians were aristocrats), their personal involvement in events or their access to (very inaccessible, by our standards) oral or literary sources. In a sense, once the the genre had been formed, history -- like civilization itself -- simply emerged wherever the conditions were right.

Under more central and more oppressive governments, works that could be interpreted as subversive -- and history is naturally political -- were not safe to write. Most of the less attractive reasons listed here apply particularly to Roman historians, especially those writing after the death of Augustus in 14 CE. From this time, writing a disinterested history was increasingly likely -- depending on the ruler of the moment -- to result in exile or death. In Livy, Polybius, Herodotus and Thucydides, we may simply have more dispassionate writers than historians of the later imperial period could afford to be. Some of these reasons also apply best not to the writers of the great monumental histories but to the minor figures in the history of history.

Prestige. Boredom. Love.
"Because" is a reason that should never be underestimated. Once history was established as a respectable literary pursuit, it was written for the same reasons as works of poetry, drama, philosophy and fiction -- to demonstrate learning, to be remembered, to win admirers (especially rich or influential ones), to continue the work of writers they admired, or simply because the writer felt that it was important or that they had something to say or because they liked writing history.

Writing history was also an occupation particularly suitable to respectable public figures in exile or retirement. Xenophon is likely to have written while banished; for the future emperor Claudius, who was initially denied a political career by family members who thought him too embarrassing for public life, the goal may also have been in part to offer evidence that he was not a dribbling idiot after all.

Personal ambition.
Some ancient figures wrote about their own roles in contemporary events with an eye towards their own legacy or ambitions. Augustus' Res Gestae was intended to glorify himself and his memory. Caesar's war reports enhanced his reputation in Rome -- both as a general and a man of letters -- at times when gathering support from the senate and the people was critical to his plans. Similarly, Cicero's assorted boastings about his role in the defeat of the conspiracy of Catiline (though not intended as "histories" in the formal sense) served to remind the Romans of his services at a time when the state was still nominally a republic and even famous leaders had to go through at least the formality of an election before taking up the power of office.

Ideology. Philosophy. Patriotism.
Many Greek histories of the Roman period are apologias by Romanized Easterners. Polybius and Josephus were outsiders who entered the Roman elite and wrote (essentially) pro-Roman histories addressed to their countrymen. They wrote to advertise the irresistibility of Roman power and to give the Roman elite -- in whose power they were and in whose approval they sought power and status -- proof of their loyalty and gratitude. Plutarch tried, in a series of "parallel lives" in which biographies of Greek statesmen were paired with those of famous Romans, to emphasize the links between the two classical civilizations -- to reconcile Romans to Hellenization from within and the Greeks to rule from Rome.

Polybius and Josephus are also among the historians who wrote partly in support of philosophical ideas. These included arguments for the stoic conception of history, presentations of evidence for the divine preordination of Rome's ascendence, and various attempts to see patterns in history on the grand scale.

Entertainment.
Light entertainment was indeed not a goal of the taciturn serious historians, who wrote to edify and educate, but biographer-historians like Suetonius (and his many continuators) certainly hoped to titillate and amuse, and the author(s) of the maddening and hilarious Historia Augusta -- which may actually have been written as a joke -- also aimed at these sorts of effects.

Money.
Though there is some reason to think that some writers may have profited directly from publication, the lack of copyright protection meant that most of the cash that supported those writers not independently wealthy (and most historians were) would come from a powerful patron. Patronage was not as important for historians as it was for poets (poets were often relatively poor, or claimed to be; historians never were), but it did exist. As time went on, the support of a patron becomes visibly more important in the decision to write history.

Demand.
Writers write, consciously or unconsciously, for their audiences. In the classical world, histories were written for other members of the elite, who were literate and in a position to buy works or attend readings. When the composition of this elite changed, literature changed with it.

From the third century, the top ranks of Roman society were increasingly filled by soldiers who had risen through military merit -- men capable of controlling troops, repelling barbarians, and fighting civil wars, but men without much use for Livy. In earlier times, the military and civil elite had been drawn from the same small pool of senators. Governors, magistrates, army officers and generals had all been given the same intensive rhetorical education (but, like Gilbert and Sullivan's Modern Major General, little formal training in military matters -- which may have played some role in their displacement); they expected one another to have broad intellectual interests. When they were gradually replaced by men who were good at war but had grown up poor in the provinces, the types of history written changed perceptibly to meet their demand.

The result was the epitome -- a "briefing" on the history of the state or simply an executive summary of a wordier historian. In the fourth century, such works became very common. Their purpose was to give the gist of a thousand years of Roman history to a new elite. Men like Sextus Aurelius Victor turned out works that were little more than lists of emperors with short biographical sketches, with recent ones shaded to flatter the patron or current ruler (in Victor's case, Constantius II). The audience had no time for the Livian detail, Tacitean psychoanalysis, Polybian philosophy. The writers may have written simply for the money of their patron.

Propaganda (political).
Men seeking to advance their own careers wrote on recent events. Historians with broader goals sometimes produced works that tried to pull the reader in line with their own beliefs through a judiciously coloured presentation of the more distant past. Tacitus wrote in part to defend and to glorify the senate and to make infamous the names of emperors -- Tiberius and Domitian -- who had executed senators. Cassius Dio was another Greek who wrote (though this was not his principal motivation) in support of the imperial system but also of the senate.

In the later empire, historians were frequently little more than mouthpieces of the regime. Panegyrists and court historians wrote directly for the emperors who supported them. Eusebius, in his panegyrics to and life of Constantine, praised the first Christian emperor in terms verging on the ridiculous. Procopius did the same, with slightly more dignity, for Justinian -- and also produced, in his "Secret History", a libellous attack on his patron and on Theodora that was hardly more balanced. While this sort of thing is most obvious from the fourth century, imperial patronage of historians was well-established much earlier. In a letter of 166 CE, Lucius Verus (then co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius) wrote to his friend Marcus Cornelius Fronto, who was planning a history of the recent campaign against Parthia:

I am ready to agree to any suggestions as long as my achievements are highlighted by you. Naturally you will not omit my speeches to the senate and addresses to the army. I shall also send you the text of my negotiations with the enemy. They will be a great help to you... You should spend a lot of time on the causes and early stages of the war, and particularly on the poor progress in my absence. You should come slowly to my role. Moreover, I think that it is essential to make clear how much the Parthians had the upper hand before my arrival, so that the extent of my achievements may be highlighted. (Fronto, Ad Verum Imp. 3.2)

Propaganda (religious).
With the sole exception of Ammianus Marcellinus, who deserves to be bracketed with thoughtful historians like Livy and Thucydides, history was by the fourth century a weapon to be used without scruple in arguments about higher truths. This is clearest in the writings of Christians who wanted to complete the demolition of earlier religions and in those of pagans reacting against Christianity. Lactantius, in De Mortibus Persecutorum ("on the deaths of the persecutors") tried to demonstrate that those who had attacked the Christians had suffered divine retribution; Eunapius, Libanius, and many others used it simply to ridicule the Christians.

For later writers, history -- like philosophy and art and the rest of the world -- did not exist outside of a Christian context. Those pagan writers who survived into the fifth and sixth centuries did little better. History dwindled to almost nothing in the West, ending up in the custodianship of the Church, and in the East became increasingly a tool of the church and the state.

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