Historiography and Censorship Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Greek Historiography

Scholars have traced the beginnings of Greek historiography, or the writing of history, to the body of mythical tales, first transmitted orally in Greek culture, that made up its earliest literature. One of the main purposes of Greek myths, in fact, was to create a sense of the past and to make that past intelligible to the average citizen. Greeks first learned something about their origin as a people through Homeric poetry, some of which is now known to have a basis in fact and some of which was wholly imaginative. In some ways, as critics have observed, the events of the distant past became more real than the present, as stories of the gods and such mythical heroes as Odysseus and Agamemnon took hold of the national psyche. The Theogony, a work dating to the eighth century B.C. and generally attributed to Hesiod also supported this tradition by presenting the story of the beginning of the world based on legends of the Greek gods; the Works and Days, likewise attributed to Hesiod, related a kind of history of civilization by describing the various "ages" of the world. Early Greek poetry recited by bards at festivals and in private homes presented a past that was customarily viewed as at least partly factual; it also certainly kept alive an interest, albeit highly ethnocentric, as scholars have pointed out, in the idea of history.

The Greek worldview began to expand, however, in the mid-sixth century B.C., when Anaximander of Miletus began writing prose accounts about geography and eventually went on to construct a map of the known world. These two strands—mythical history and observational geography—helped to provide the impetus for what is often referred to as the Ionian intellectual revolution of the fifth century B.C. The chief two characteristics of this revolution were a new spirit of scepticism toward received myths and an interest in inquiry (historia) into matters concerning man and his world. During this period Greece was ruled first by Lydian overlords who controlled lands from Asia Minor to Sardis, and later by the Persians. Apparently inspired to find out more about their occupiers and about the other people with whom they came into contact through trade and travel, prose writers known as logographers, writing in the Ionian dialect of Greek, composed numerous accounts dealing with ethnology and anthropology, and preserving in writing many legends, folktales, traditions, and myths. The writings of the logographers have not survived, but they are thought to have played a key role in the development of Greek historiography, since, combined with later prose such as chronicles, genealogies, and reports of journeys, they constitute among the earliest of historical accounts. The culmination of this phase of historiography came in two works by Hecataeus of Miletus, Journey round the World and Genealogies—the first a geography interspersed with commentary, and the second a chronological generational scheme probably based on the Spartan king-list. As Michael Grant has observed, these two works "did not reject the [traditional] myths, but modified them here and there on commonsense, rationalistic grounds, examining them on their supposed merits in the light of [Hecataeus's] own judgment so as to make them more sane and credible." From there it was a relatively short leap to the historical approach of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and, later, Polybius.

Scholars often point out that, in discussing Greek historians, it is important to remember that they were not all Greek and not all historians. Herodotus came from bilingual Helleno-Carian Halicarnassus, Thucydides was of partly Thracian descent, Josephus was a Jew, and Procopius a Philistine. Further, they were influenced and inspired by contact with other cultures—the Syro-Iranian in the case of Herodotus, and Roman Italian in the case of Polybius. Many were voluntary or forced exiles from their country (for example, Diodorus of Sicily and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, first century B.C. Greek immigrants in Rome), and all did not even compose their works in the Greek language. Finally, they were in no sense "professional" historians, for many also composed poetry, philosophy, romance, anthropological works, and studies in physical science. Yet they all shared, to various extents, the basic Greek attitude toward history.

According to the prevailing view in Greek metaphysics, it ought to be impossible to know history: the Greeks believed that only certain unchangeable things and concepts can be understood and known and that anything changeable cannot be grasped by the mind. R. G. Collingwood has noted in this context how truly remarkable it is that the early Greek historians attempted to write history at all. As a result, Greek historians tended to concentrate on contemporary history—on what they witnessed in their own time. Another characteristic of the Greek attitude toward history is the belief that any written history must be treated simply as a collection of facts, without any causation necessarily implied, yet with the inherent possibility of clarifying future events. As Collingwood has written, "history has a value; its teachings are useful for human life; simply because the rhythm of its changes is likely to repeat itself, similar antecedents leading to similar consequents; the history of notable events is worth remembering in order to serve as a basis for prognostic judgments, not demonstrable but probable, laying down not what will happen but what is likely to happen, indicating the points of danger in rhythms now going on." History, then can teach; but ancient writers continued to consider poetry superior to history because, while history presented man with facts, poetry presented timeless truths. In the words of Aristotle in The Poetics, "Poetry…is a more philosophical and higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular." Scholars traditionally credit Thucydides with being the best of the Greek historians in terms of style and narration. Herodotus and Thucydides both used eyewitness accounts as evidence for their narratives, indicating that they carefully screened eyewitnesses by cross-examining them to ensure the truthfulness of their testimony. At the same time, however, they felt free to embellish their narratives with at least some measure of the fictional, as in the speeches attributed to historical personages in their histories.

Scholarship on Greek historiography has concerned itself with various questions, but chief among the topics studied have been the limitations of and the problem of the continuity of Greek historical writing, the investigation of the competency of the ancient historians, and inquiry into the influence and reception of their ideas. One of the main problems of studying Greek historiography is that so little of it survives: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Polybius are the only Greek historians whose work has reached us in anything but fragments. Based on the available texts, critics have identified the fundamental problems inherent in the Greek view of history as being its small scope (the idea that history should only be written about events in living memory), the lack of choice with which the historian is presented (because contemporary subjects are deemed most suitable for study), and the fact that no comprehensive history can ever be written under the Greek model, since only a limited view of events is afforded each historian. For these and other reasons, scholars have concluded that, compared to other kinds of texts, Greek literature is comparatively poor in historical writing. They have explored some of the factors responsible for the break in the continuity of Greek historiography—or the question of why Herodotus's lead was not followed—and have cited such factors as Herodotus's unique ability to see his subject as part of a larger process, his interest in Egyptian and Asian "barbarian" cultures, and his unusually literary prose as partly responsible. As Arnaldo Momigliano has pointed out, "The fact is that Greek historiography never replaced philosophy or religion and was never wholeheartedly accepted by either. The status of historiography was never clearly settled among the Greeks." In fact, it seems more unusual that a figure like Herodotus ever emerged from the Greek tradition than that he was not the start of a new way of thinking about history. The validity of the historians' techniques and the question of disentangling the strands and degree of myth in their writings has long been a topic of debate. The statement made by the English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay in the nineteenth century still holds true: "The fictions [in Greek historical writing] are so much like the facts, and the facts so much like the fictions, that, with respect to many most interesting particulars, our belief is neither given nor withheld, but remains in an uneasy and interminable state of abeyance. We know that there is truth, but we cannot exactly decide where it lies."

Greek historiography has greatly influenced the later course of western historical writing as a discipline and has even made contributions to the growth of related genres such as biography, ethnography, geography, travel narratives, and romance. Momigliano has written that "Modern history-writing has been by choice a continuous confrontation with the Greek originals and with what the Romans made of their models." The major characteristics of Greek historical writing shaped the way that historians approached their work through the Roman and early Christian periods. The idea of using texts as evidence, concentrating on contemporary events, the notion of the historian as a witness and recorder of events, and the need to explain rather than merely enumerate events remained vital hallmarks of early historical thinking. The question, too, of the balance between instructing and giving pleasure to the reader of a given historical narrative, first debated by the ancient historians, still remains a point under discussion in modern times.