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.