Just as school children in the United States today learn about the founding fathers, ancient Greeks listened to their Homerian epics. In his book, "Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern," Gerald Schlabach says “to attempt to live without a memory is to attempt to lose one’s humanity,” and, thus, we learn history today to give the individual a place rooted in their wider society.
Mythology served the same purpose to ancient societies. Today we separate theology from history. In fact, Schlabach makes a point to mention this in the essay on his website when he states “to suggest the ways that God may be involved in human history is to move into theology or philosophy of history. Those are different from the documentary study of history.” However, the ancients did not always see it this way.
Early Greek writers such as Homer carried on the tradition of heroic history when they wrote down tales that had been passed down orally.
This early form of history had no need for chronology, it simply sufficed to understand that these events happened in the past.
Herodotus and Thucydides were revolutionary in their attempts to formulate chronological time in their historical writings (Breisach, 11).
These writers also differed from their predecessors in other ways. Instead of focusing on great heroes, these historians discussed the wars of their day in a socio-cultural context, discussing how commoners experienced them (Breisach, 12).
Unlike Homer who wrote about the Trojan War some two hundred years after it occurred, Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War at the outset.
In fact, he makes a point to tell his reader that Homer did not witness what he recorded, whereas Thucydides himself recognized the importance of the Peloponnesian War from the very beginning and so he began writing about it immediately (Thucydides 431 B.C.E ).
Thucydides seems to take the role of historian very seriously as he conspicuously drops tropes employed by Homer which seem present purely for entertainment value, such as poetic meter and supernatural elements.
The earliest historical records were kept by priests who had no need for chronological conception outside of the calendar year. Therefore the Romans were adept at keeping a strict lunar calendar to observe religious dates, but lagged behind the Greeks in viewing history in sync with accurate chronology (Breisach, 41) until Rome had expanded to conquer other regions and the need to synchronize multiple cultural histories became apparent (Breisach, 42).
As Roman expansion widened through the Mediterranean, Roman historians broadened their techniques in the field of history.
Just as Herodotus and Thucydides took Greek historiography from the realm of heroic legend into a more factual story of the common man, Polybius took Roman history to the next level and was a pioneer in historical analysis.
Rather than simply relaying events, Polybius asked why events occurred (Breisach, 46).
As evidence of his deep contemplation about history, Polybius developed his “Regular Cycle of Constitutional Revolutions,” based on his observations of great civilizations in the Mediterranean region (Breisach, 47).
We can see that the Greco-Roman era was groundbreaking in the development of historiography.
But, some of the issues that those early historians grappled with still require addressing today.
This is evidenced by Schlabach’s point that “God may indeed intervene in human history, but this is hard to document,” which is likely aimed at those who conflate theology with history.
In 21st Century America, when we see historiography bearing assaults by the likes of religious fundamentalists and “ancient alien theorists,” we can learn a great deal from our Greco-Roman predecessors and their own views on how history ought to be told.
- Breisach, Ernst. 2007. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Polybius. n.d. The Histories of Polybius. Accessed 10 2, 2015. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Polybius/1*.html.
- Schlabach, Gerald W. n.d. A sense of history: some components. Accessed 10 2, 2015. http://www.geraldschlabach.net/about/relationships/benedictine/courses/handouts/sense-of-history/.
- Thucydides. 431 B.C.E . The History of the Peloponnesian War. Accessed 10 2, 2015. http://classics.mit.edu/Thucydides/pelopwar.1.first.html.