A History of Histories

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The word “history” means both the remembered past and the process of telling the past. The second sense indicates that what is known of the world before the present always comes from someone’s telling, and the different ways in which people have told about the world have been shaped by their understandings, goals, and preoccupations. The recorded past is presented in particular human voices, so that reading history is the double act of hearing the tellers and hearing what they are telling us. John Burrow, in A History of Histories, describes the variety of the voices.

Burrow begins with what he considers the first recognizable voices of historians, those of Herodotus and Thucydides. Before Herodotus (born between 450 and 430 b.c.e.), there had been recordings of events, notably by the Egyptians, but no reflections on events or interpretations of them. Herodotus, inspired by the rise of the Persian empire and its invasion of Greece, wrote the work known as Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709) in order to memorialize the great human achievements of the struggle between the Greeks and the Persians. This would be the motivation of most of the ancient histories in Burrow’s recounting and even a number of the more modern ones. It was certainly a motivation for the writings of the successor of Herodotus, Thucydides, who investigated the events of the Peloponnesian War, when the Greeks proceeded to fight among themselves in the years following their defeat of the invading Persians. Both Herodotus and Thucydides, wishing to create memorials, wrote epic narratives, creating one of the forms of history that would pass through the centuries.

Following a generally chronological approach, Burrow moves from the two Greek founders to histories of the Greeks in Asia, as mercenaries of the Persians and then as invaders. In reaching the historians of Alexander’s campaigns, there appears a curious chronological quirk of historical writing. While Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon (author of the epic of the adventures of Greek mercenaries in Persia) were writing about events that had occurred in their own lifetimes and in which they were involved, Alexander’s historians wrote centuries after the Macedonian conquests. Should a chronological telling place the historian according to the historian’s lifetime or the time of the historical narrative? Grouping all of the “ancients” together, Burrow uses the latter strategy for the Alexander historians Arrian and Curtius Rufus, but waits until the Enlightenment to deal with Edward Gibbon’s Roman history.

Following the Greeks with the Romans, Burrow considers the major historians of Rome. Consistent with the expansion of this new empire and its inclusiveness, several of the historians were not acutally Roman. Polybius, for example, was Greek. Josephus, who wrote on the Jewish revolt, was a Jewish Pharisee. The Roman historians also looked at peoples who were new to historical consideration, as when Tacitus provided observations on the Germans. The Roman historians, especially Tacitus and Livy, would also provide models for future historians, down to the modern period.

Because of the chronological approach, Burrow’s A History of Histories is also, necessarily, a history of the world (or at least the Western world), requiring divisions into epochs and periods. Burrow’s epochs are fairly traditional. He moves from the ancient world to that of Christendom, which presented a new, forward-moving scheme of history derived from theology. The Bible gave a new theme to historians, the idea of the people of God. It also gave them a new subject, the church. With the general decline in literacy, though, early Christian historical writers, such as Gregory of Tours, tended to lose their analytical capacities and fall into chronicling. The English historian Bede, as Burrow presents him, played a unique role, telling the story both of the English church and of the English people, preparing the way for the revival of secular history.

Secular history returned through the writing of annals and chronicles of the deeds of the knights. Burrow derives the sophisticated historical works of the Italian humanists Giovanni Villani, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Francesco Guicciardini...

(The entire section is 1783 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, no. 16 (April 15, 2008): 22.

The Evening Standard, December 3, 2007, p. 39.

The New Republic 238, no. 10 (June 11, 2008): 37-41.

The New Yorker 84 (March 24, 2008): 79.

Policy Review, no. 150 (August/September, 2008): 106-111.

The Times Literary Supplement, February 15, 2008, p. 14.

The Wall Street Journal 251, no. 92 (April 19, 2008): W9.

The Washington Times, March 9, 2008, p. B06.