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Ancient Greek and Roman Historians

Philosophical ideas effected the development of history-writing (historiography) by the Greek geographers and historians Hecataeus, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius. The British classical scholar J.B. Bury described and commented on these for the 1908 Lane Lectures.

In Bury's view history is the story of man's exercise of power. And that alone is the proper subject of historiographers.

Outline of this page ...

Ionian skepticism and the birth of history

... in Homer a legal dispute is brought before a ïstor ... who inquires into the alleged facts and decides what the true facts are, [and] istoríe meant an inquisition of this kind. (J.B. Bury. Ancient Greek Historians (1909) i, 2)

Our English word 'history' comes from the Greek word istoríe whose earliest meaning was "an inquiry into the alleged facts to decide what the true facts are", and the "historian" was one who made an inquisition of this kind. Hecataeus of Miletus is identified with the birth of history (i.e. history-writing or "historiography"), although he was primarily a geographer (who may have traveled as far as southern Spain). He was born near the middle of the sixth century (i.e. circa 500 B.C.) His work, fragments of which are known from Herodotus, whose own work begins --

"What I write here is the account which I considered to be true. For the stories of the Greeks are numerous, and in my opinion ridiculous." (i, 2) "the logoi of the Hellenes are absurd" (Bury, ii) [In his history, W.K.C. Guthrie called the Greek word logos a "maid-of-all-work". Among its many meanings are 'word', 'proposition', 'definition', 'discussion', 'story', 'saying', 'principle', 'reason', 'cause'.]

[Herodotus Histories (tr. G. Rawlinson (1862)) begin] "I write what I consider to be the truth; for the traditions of the Greeks seem to me many and ridiculous." (p. 140, 676)] To Hecataeus and the other logographoi ... historia meant any inquiry into the facts of any matter, and was applied to science and philosophy as to well as to historiography in the modern sense. The term had a skeptical connotation in Ionia ... (p. 140) [The word historia comes from] histor or istor, knowing .... Story is a shortened form of history. (p. 140n) (Will Durant, Life of Greece (1939), vi and bibliography)

Bury says that the spirit of Ionia was "flippant and skeptical", a spirit which could lead to "incredulity" such, I think, as Hecataeus expresses by/with the word 'ridiculous'. Hecataeus, like Thales, was from Ionia. Before 500 B.C. Xenophanes of Colophon (in Ionia) had "branded Greek myths as ancient fictions" as he applied the principle of later rationalist historians that "what was possible once is possible still, and what is incredible now is incredible always". (i, 2)

By the word 'historiography' we mean not only a record of historical events, but a critical judgment about what the events were. Thus the earliest meaning of the Greek word for our word 'history'. Skepticism, in contrast to an acceptance of the ideas of the traditional community of thought, may give birth to criticism. [A theory of the historical origin of philosophy in skepticism, the geography of Greece, and travel. Thales' project, now called 'philosophy', was to seek to know natural causes by the natural light of reason alone.]

Rational interpretation of myth

The work of Hecataeus "is a landmark in the progress of criticism; but the Hecataean method could not advance positive knowledge" (i, 3); its followers "never got beyond criticism of details and rationalistic interpretation of miracles". (i, 5) A later example of this method comes from Herodorus of Heraclea (in Magna Graecia) who interpreted the legend that Apollo and Poseidon had built the walls of Troy by saying that what really happened was that the walls were built in the ordinary way but paid for with funds taken from the shrines of Apollo and Poseidon. (i, 3)

Historians believe, Bury says, that about the same time as Xenophanes of Colophon "arraigned the credibility of Homer and Hesiod" (i, 2), namely before 500 B.C., "a western Greek, Theagenes of Rhegium (in Magna Graecia), was attempting to interpret Homer allegorically" (i, note 5).

Benjamin Jowett uses the word "allegories" in his translation of Phaedrus 229c-e, where Plato gives an example of this method in ("The North Wind fell in love with a girl and carried her off to his realm in the north"). Hackforth calls its inventor a "skeptic [who seeks to reduce the myths to] the standard of probability".

The method of rationalizing myths [to rationalize = to make credible] -- but a rationalized myth is still a myth: it is not knowledge [plausible ≠ true]; it is not history. Bury uses the expression "rationalistic interpretation", but I think the word 'naturalize' ("naturalistic interpretation") might make the method clearer in these cases.

[Does James Frazer follow the Hecataean method when he interprets magic as being "really" a false science, as if that were "the true meaning" of human rituals? Is there a common reductionism here: "A is really B rather than A", or is that not an apt comparison?]

Herodotus. Method and comparative mythology

[Herodotus' skepticism about the] divine parentage of heroes like Heracles and Perseus ... was not due to the canons of Ionian science or the influence of Ionian philosophy. [Herodotus' birthplace, Halicarnassus, although on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea, was a Dorian city, and Herodotus' own sympathies lay with Athens rather than Ionia.] It was due to the study of comparative theology which had opened for Hecataeus a new perspective of the world's history. (Bury, ii)

Herodotus accepted that there was an ancient god Heracles. But the Egyptian god who corresponded to the Greek Heracles lived 17,000 years before the Greek Heracles, as "the Age of the Gods" had ended in Egypt long before the time the Greeks said was the age of the gods and their miracles in Greece, meaning to Herodotus that the Greek Heracles must be sharply distinguished from the god. (This is an example, Bury says, of comparative mythology.)

An example of naturalistic or rationalistic interpretation of myth in Herodotus (History viii.8), Bury states is: "He duly records the story that a certain man dived underwater a distance of several miles. It was the private opinion of Herodotus that the man arrived in a boat", however.

[Herodotus'] maxims of historical criticism may be set down as three: (1) Suspect superhuman and miraculous occurrences, which contradict ordinary experience [, although for Herodotus this suspicion doesn't include portents (omens, signs),] oracles and dreams. (2) When you are confronted by conflicting evidence or different versions of the same event, keep an open mind; audi alteram partem .... (3) Autopsy [from Greek autopsiā: "seeing for oneself, with one's own eyes", whence English "critical examination (after the fact)"] and first-hand oral information are superior to stories at second hand, whether written or oral. This tends to take the naïve form, "I know, for I was there myself" [in Herodotus]." (ii)

The general rule of Herodotus

Herodotus' general rule, "I am bound to state what is said, but I am not bound to believe it" (History vii.152; cf. vi.96), may be seen as an instance of "hearing the other side", i.e. of not hearing only his own skeptical voice but also recording the story that is told, which would be "the other side".

Comparisons, myths, customs of peoples

Herodotus wrote that the Egyptians kneaded bread dough with their feet, the opposite of the Greeks who kneaded bread dough with their hands (History ii.35-36) ... but Bury says that Herodotus' description of Egypt "largely reproduces the account which Hecataeus had given in his Map of the World".

The immense power of custom was an observation redolent [reminiscent, suggestive] of the age of the Wise Men; Pindar [(518-438 B.C.)], Herodotus quotes, designated Custom as king of the world; and the idea afterwards became the basis of sophistic theories.

[Herodotus] adopts from Hecataeus a critical attitude towards the ancient myths, aided by a rudimentary comparative mythology.... [But Herodotus (c. 480-425 B.C.)] belonged entirely in temper and mentality to the period before the sophistic illumination, which he lived to see but not to understand. (Bury, ii)

The first thoroughgoingly critical historian, Bury says, was Thucydides. In contrast, Herodotus' "common practice is to state conflicting accounts and leave the matter there" which shows him "a collector of historical material ... rather than as what we mean by an historian, who considers it his business to sift the evidence, and decide, if possible, between conflicting accounts."

Herodotus and the Persian Wars

[Herodotus'] theme ... possessed for him a deeper meaning than the political result of the Persian war. It was the contact and collision of two different types of civilisation ... and different political institutions.... where the final struggle of Persia and Greece is related, this contrast between the slavery of the barbarian and the liberty of the Greek, between oriental aristocracy and Hellenic constitutionalism, is ever present and is forcibly brought out. (Bury, ii)

From the point of view of Herodotus' History, it seems, that were it not for the Athenian victories at Marathon and Salamis, Western civilization would not exist, because our civilization is based on our Greek (and Roman) inheritance. Whether culturally Attic Greece would have conquered Persia as it conquered Rome, I don't know, but Alexander "the Great" of Macedon seems to have taken Persia rather than Greece as his own model for government and culture.

Athena's owl. 5th Century Attic silver coin

Reverse of a four drachmæ Attic silver coin (The front has the head of Pallas Athena). From the time of the Persian Wars (c. 490-480 B.C.). To the right of Athena's owl are the Greek letters A-TH-E (alpha theta epsilon). (Seyffert, Classical Dictionary)


Thoroughgoing sophistic skepticism (Thucydides)

In contrast, Thucydides [of Athens, c. 460-400 B.C.] set out to write the history of what really happened in the Peloponnesian War, 431-404 B.C. (History of the War between Athens and Sparta ii.48.3), the facts in contrast to the myths that had grown up or would soon grow up to replace the facts. (Bury, iii, 2)

[The] first fundamental principle of his ideal of history was accuracy. [Thucydides notes] small blunders in Herodotus [because this] was of importance to illustrate his doctrine that tradition cannot be taken on trust, and that the facile methods of current historiography inevitably led to inaccuracy.

Pre-sophistic versus Sophistic

The distance between Thucydides and Herodotus can be compared [-- but the bracketed quotations that follow are mine --] to the distance between Sophocles ["Thy writ, O King, hath not such potence as will overweigh the laws of God ..."] and Euripides ["If gods do evil, they are not gods", but a clearer contrast to Sophocles is Protagoras: "About the gods, I don't know; the question is obscure, and life is short"] -- i.e. between pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment Greece [cf. Aristophanes' The Frogs]. Thucydides' historiographical method is thoroughgoingly secular (atheistic and materialist), as is our own, which rejects what Bonhoeffer called "God as a working-hypothesis" as superstition in our accounts of natural and human events. Thucydides' method is, like Thales, to assign natural causes alone, working by the natural light of reason alone.

[The mind of Thucydides was formed] under the influence of that intellectual revolution which we associate with the comprehensive name of the Sophists, the illumination which was flooding the educated world of Hellas ... he learned the greatest lesson of these thinkers: he learned to consider and criticize facts, unprejudiced by authority and tradition. He came to be at home in the [sophistic] way of thinking. (iii, 1)

By "the illumination" I think Bury means the Greek Aufklärung, but were the Sophists philosophers as Kant was to be? They were skeptical about human belief and morality being given by nature rather than by custom, but they could not say how man should therefore live his life or acquire knowledge of reality itself.

The Rationalist Historian - acknowledging neither oracles nor Providence

Bury speaks of a "rationalistic view of history", and gives examples.

... the key to the decline of Athenian power was the fact that Pericles had no successors. The city began to fall away from her eminence when her government was no longer controlled by an able leader.... This analysis, which is furnished by the historian's own comments, eliminates entirely the then superstitious notions of doom and nemesis [The gods punish men who exalt themselves], which do duty for Providence in Herodotus ...

Oracles and historiography

Thucydides deals with purely human elements ... Herodotus credits the oracles with mysterious knowledge; Thucydides occasionally refers to oracles, but their sole significance for him lies in the psychical effect they produce on those who believe them. (iii, 3)

The general cycle of history (Thucydides)

Thucydides did nevertheless, according to Edith Hamilton, identify a general cause of the decline of states, namely insatiable power and wealth. It was a natural cause, but nonetheless it was a general cause, independent of individual leadership. [The temptations in the desert: wealth (to change stone into bread), status (to be seen as the light to the nations), power (to have dominion over all the nations). (Matthew 4.1-10; Luke 4.1-12)]

[Whether Plato believed in oracles, I don't know. But Socrates did, if Plato's Apology 21a-d is regarded as history, as well as in his "divine sign" (ibid. 31c-d, Euthyphro 3b, and, although Plato's more literary Socrates, Phaedrus 242b-c). The historiographer, Herodotus says, must report the beliefs of others, but he needn't share those beliefs.]


[Thucydides'] object is to examine and reveal political actions from the exclusively political point of view. He does not consider moral standards; his method is [1] realistic and [2] detached ... (iv, 4)

Thucydides presumes what is now called realpolitik (real = practical + politics) -- i.e. that ruler-perceived self-interest is the real driver of the history of states, and that good and evil have no place in its calculus. "To advance the national interest in whatever way possible" is its motto -- Its only aim is military and economic dominance of rival states. In Machiavelli this is called "the supremacy of reason of state".

In Thucydides' (1) "realistic" historiography "portents (omens, signs) and oracles and dreams" are treated as superstition, as are absolute good and evil, although, Bury says, Thucydides notes their effects on those who believe in them. In his (2) "detached" historiographical method, the historian makes no moral judgments.

[When Thucydides describes] the internal condition of Greek states, he recognizes the important operation of ethical beliefs and religious sanctions in holding a society together. But where national aims are at stake and international rivalries are in motion, no corresponding beliefs and sanctions appear ... [The] immediate and far-reaching result [of Thucydides' work was to establish] political history.

It is noteworthy that in the Funeral Oration of Pericles [History ii.35-46] ... [not] a word is said of [the Athenians'] piety, and they were certainly pious [Thucydides has Pericles not refer to the gods in his oration]. (iv, 4)

The Thucydidean historian is interested only in saying what the game was, not in judging whether the game should have been played at all, which distinguishes historiography from philosophy and religion, for which the "whether" is the only question.

Natural historiography and science. Communities of ideas. Comment

From childhood we are taught to make a sharp distinction between history and religion, until this becomes second nature to us and what "all right-thinking people do". In other words, that distinction is a foundation of our community of ideas. Thus the "detached and realistic" method of Thucydides' historiography seems so natural to us that we are unable to appreciate how radical a change it was. It is this way also with Thales of Miletus, because his method of seeking to know natural causes by the natural light of reason alone is a foundation of our community of ideas.

Those principles were the birth of natural science and natural historiography, and anyone who tried to introduce contrary principles now would be regarded as wrong-headed and not taken seriously. The sacred history taught by Catholic Christianity (the liturgy at Christmas) is in conflict with this; despite the Jesuits ["You are a Catholic. You believe in reason." -- "Yes, we were both brought up by the Jesuits," I said. "They taught us to reason" (Greene, The Comedians ii, 1, 4)], its religious doctrine belongs to a pre-sophistic, pre-Enlightenment way of thinking. And it can hardly be said that "science and religion cannot come into conflict" -- because quite the contrary, in the case of natural historiography they are in conflict.

The moral lessons of history

[In contrast to Thucydides, Polybius and later Sallust and Tacitus] regarded the application of moral standards and the pronouncement of moral judgments as pertinent in history. (Bury, vi) [They "insisted further that history supplied object lessons in ethics". (Bury, viii)]

[Bury says that] one of the few examples to be found in ancient writers of what we call an historical sense [, is Thucydides suggestion] that, if the Greeks of his day regard piracy as an offense against morals, they must not apply their standard to a different age of civilisation, when piracy was esteemed an honourable profession. (Bury, viii, note 1)

Relative versus Absolute standards for historical judgment

I take Thucydides to mean that if you want to see their civilisation as they saw it, through their eyes, and understand them in that way, you must look at the world according to their moral standards, the moral standards of their time, not you own. But maybe more so, that morality is relative to its time, not absolute, and therefore it is an unfit standard of judgment for the historiographer.

The statesman according to Thucydides (Machiavelli)

Thucydides simply observes facts; Machiavelli lays down maxims and prescribes methods; but the whole innuendo of the Thucydidean treatment of history agrees with the fundamental postulate of Machiavelli, the supremacy of reason of state. To maintain a state, said the Florentine thinker, "a statesman is often compelled to act against faith, humanity, and religion".... it was part of the method of both of them to eliminate conventional sentiment and morality.

A certain use of the term areté by Thucydides has an interest in this connection.... Thucydides has used areté ... to express the intelligence, dexterity, and will-power of a competent statesman, in sharp contradistinction to the conventional areté of the popular conception. (Bury, iv, 4)

In other words, Thucydides designates by the word areté the specific excellence proper to the statesman, but it is a designation which is also "in sharp contradistinction" to Plato's view of the statesman (Gorgias 517b).


The method of the dramatist ("showing")

[Thucydides'] general plan was that the men, as well as the events, should speak or be made to speak for themselves, with little or no direct comment from the writer.

This method produced the illusion that the actors showed themselves to the reader independently of the author. It really meant that the author had framed a psychological estimate of them ... an estimate founded on his knowledge of their actions, but nevertheless no more than his own ... interpretation.

The reader is here almost as completely in the author's hands as in a drama [stageplay]. He does not know the means of forming a corrective judgment for himself; for he does not know how the historian has arrived at his results. (iv, 2)

Thucydides' plan would be, I think, an instance of Wittgenstein's showing rather than saying distinction ... although, Bury says, what is shown is chosen by the author (it is not bare reality); it is an interpretation of selected data, not as it were God's truth. (Bury says "... his own subjective interpretation", but I have removed the word 'subjective' above because Bury does not say what he means by it; every interpretation is only one of various possible, but that does in itself make an interpretation arbitrary, which is what the word 'subjective' suggests here.)

The truth is that in general Thucydides is dramatic, but he has not carried his methods to extremes. (iv, 2)

That is to say, Thucydides' general method is that of a dramatist = playwright who lets the players through their speeches reveal their characters to the reader rather than have the narrator characterize them. There are a few exceptions, e.g. Thucydides does comment on the character of Themistocles, but this is because Themistocles "does not come into the main narrative and cannot reveal himself dramatically" (ibid.).

Historiography as "myth-writing"

The word 'myth' contrasts, of course, with the word 'fact', because by 'myth' we mean 'the facts plus imagination' (cf. 'theory' and 'historical hypothesis': the biblical scholar Albert Schweitzer described the theologian's "historical hypotheses", i.e. possible ways of accounting for the facts in a self-consistent way that solves more problems than it creates). F[rancis] M[acdonald] Cornford wrote a work called Thucydides Mythistoricus (Bury, iv, note 14), where I think he says that what the historiographer writes is "mythology" -- natural mythology rather than supernatural mythology, but mythology nonetheless. It is myth-making when Thucydides says "This is what really happened" (History 2.48.3), because his is not the only selection of conceived historical facts or the only way to assign meaning to ("interpret") those facts possible.

The role of the historian according to Bury

The historian has to do more than chronicle events.... In order to understand the meaning of historical facts, he has to measure the characters and penetrate the motives of the actors, as well as realize the conditions in which they acted. A psychological reconstruction is thus always involved in history, a reconstruction carried out in the mind of the individual historian ... (iv, 1)

Is that what we want when we read a history book? Or do we want a chronicle of events only, the known facts only, a chronicle where its compiler says, as Newton says, "and I make no hypotheses"? As if to say, "Just record the facts. I will think about their meaning for myself."


Between Thucydides and Polybius

Bury says of Xenophon of Athens (c. 428/7-354 B.C.) that --

he was as far from understanding the methods of Thucydides as he was from apprehending the ideas of Socrates.... his mind was essentially mediocre, incapable of penetrating beneath the surface of things. (v, 1)

But Bury doesn't say what he takes to be "the ideas of Socrates", and Xenophon's Memoirs or Memories of Socrates (Memorabilia) is full of interesting philosophical ideas which may or may not have more to do with the historical Socrates than Plato's writings have (with the possible exception of Plato's Apology. Plato had philosophical genius of his own, which he dedicated to his own ideas and work; he did not as it were need to crib from his own literary character Socrates).

About Xenophon's Hellenica, which takes up "the story of the Peloponnesian War where Thucydides had left it", Bury says that Xenophon's --

ideas about historical happenings were those of the average, conventional Athenian; and he ascribes the fall of the Spartan supremacy to divine nemesis, avenging the treacherous occupation of the Thebean citadel. He cannot resist the commonplace attraction of commonplace moralizing ...

Isocrates (436-328 B.C.), Athenian orator

Biography was founded by Isocrates ["the sophist" (v, 3), teacher of rhetoric (v, 2)] and the pupils of Socrates. [The] original personality of Socrates ... made a deep impression on his disciples .... after Xenophon and Isocrates, historians generally considered sketches of character and biographical facts to be part of their business. [The] word bios, life, acquired a new meaning ...

"Isocrates ... called his general education philosophía" (Eduard Zeller, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy), meaning by that word what we call general learning. Note that although Plato has Socrates call himself "a lover of learning" (Phaedrus 230d), Plato rejects that statement as too broad in Republic 475c-d: a philosopher isn't someone who wants to know just anything but only, as philosophy is classified by the Stoics, about metaphysics, logic, and ethics.

Plutarch's character studies

[Plutarch, Bury says,] was not an historian; his interest was ethical [but his] gallery of great men is invaluable to us, because the author consulted many books which are now lost ... (v, 1)

Birth of National History (pan-Hellenic history)

[Ephorus of Cyme (c. 405-330 B.C.) was the first to write a history] of all Greek-speaking communities, and thus produced what might be called a quasi-national history ... a history of Greece, Hellenica .... [Ephorus made the] acute observation ... that in the history of modern times the most detailed accounts are the most credible, but for ancient history those who profess to know most particulars are the least worthy of belief. (v, 2)

Athens and Thebes

A rhythmic verse by Timaeus of Tauromenium (c. 356-260 B.C.) has that Athens and Thebes are in Greece what the sun and moon are in the sky, or they may be likened to the two eyes of Greece, and Alexander in destroying Thebes has deprived Greece of one eye. Now Timaeus' metaphors, because their comparisons are clear, seem to me quite good (Although the moon takes its light from the sun, that is not Timaeus' meaning, which is that both cities are lights ("an education") to the Greeks, but Athens' light is stronger). But Bury is discussing ways of writing history and calls Timaeus' verse "third-rate"; he contrasts that verse with "the canons of Attic style, which drew a sharp line between poetry and prose". In an earlier discussion Bury has said that prose is the language of historiography (i, 2), as he contrasts Hesiod and Homer with Herodotus.

Origin of the idea of World History

After these national histories, from Alexander's conquest of the East, arose --

the idea of the oecumene, -- the realization of the inhabited world as a whole of which account must be taken. This idea had no immediate influence on history. We can trace its influence in Stoic philosophy and it gave rise to the conception of the Romans that their domain was potentially conterminous with the orbis terrarum. As an historical principle ... we can see it in the universal histories of the first century B.C., and it prepared the way for the Christian conception of world-history. (v, 2) (Cf. Stoicism's impulse to the writing of universal human history.)

Specialization and Antiquarianism

... the Peripatetic idea of collecting and classifying facts of every order. [The Peripatetic school promoted] specialization, and it produced a considerable historical literature on all kinds of special subjects. (v, 3)

Aristotle and natural science and historiography. Comment

Contrast Aristotle's effect on historiography, namely specialization -- which I don't think Plato, who did not even divide philosophy into parts, would have accepted to be an excellence proper to man (as both the wrestler and the distance runner were examples of imbalanced human development) -- with the Renaissance ideal "A man can do all things if he wills" (Alberti), which is the all-rounder in contrast to the specialist.

It has been by the Lyceum-Aristotle rather than the Academy-Plato model that the natural sciences and historiography have advanced, although to Socrates those studies were "extraneous matters" when one could not as yet solve the Delphic riddle of "Know thyself" (as Socrates says in Plato's Phaedrus 230a. Cf. "But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that" (Luke 1.42)).

The Greeks also invented "antiquarian study", the study of ancient times

... the ancient antiquarians tended to be rather learned than critical [, but there were exceptions] such as Eratosthenes [of Cyrene (c. 275-194 B.C.)], the ... most original geographer of the ancient world. His studies in physical science helped him to prosecute his antiquarian researches with freshness of insight. I would [, Bury writes], in particular, point out his attitude to Homer. One of the most serious impediments blocking the way to a scientific examination of early Greece was the orthodox belief in Homer's omniscience and infallibility ... Eratosthenes boldly asserted the principle that the critic in studying Homer must remember that the poet's knowledge was limited by the conditions of his age, which was a comparatively ignorant age. [The source for this information about Eratosthenes is the Greek historian and geographer Strabo of Pontus (64/3 B.C. - c. 21 A.D.), Geographía vii.3.6 (Bury, v, note 39).]

Polybius in contrast to Eratosthenes on Homeric geography

[Polybius was] concerned for the geography of the West [and] in Homeric criticism. Eratosthenes held that Homer had [in the Odyssey] created a world of poetical imagination, and that the places are as imaginary as the people. [In contrast, Polybius] accepted the common opinion that the poet's geography was realistic [and identified] the passage of Scylla and Charybdis with the [Strait of Messina]. (Bury, vi)


Truth is to the historian what eyesight is to the living creature.

Polybius, "the Greek Historian of the Rise of Rome"

[So Polybius of Megalopolis (c. 198-117 B.C.) is called by the Oxford Classical Dictionary 2e. He] played a public part in the politics of the Achaean League [a federation of cities on the Gulf of Corinth which first sided with Rome against Macedonia, but then was suspected by Rome of preparing to side with Macedonia against Rome,] and having served as commander of cavalry, he had been taken with other hostages, after the battle of Pydna (168 B.C.), to Rome [where he live for sixteen years] before he was allowed to return to Greece. (Bury, vi)

Qualifications of an historian

Polybius is not less express than Thucydides in asserting the principle that accurate representation of facts was the fundamental duty of the historian. He lays down that three things are requisite for performing such a task as his: [1] the study and criticism of sources ["He ... criticized the authorities whom he used with fearless independence of judgment ... he declined to render unreserved credit to a writer on the ground that he was a contemporary or a man of character"]; [2] autopsy, that is, personal knowledge of lands and places ["He travelled for the purpose of historical investigation"]; and [3] political experience. (ibid.)

Rules for writing history (Polybius on historiography)

[Polybius] possessed the art of telling a moving story, as in his description of Hannibal's passage of the Alps [, and he] seems to have reflected much [on psychology, as e.g.] in the account which he gives of the mental process of learning to read (History x.47) (Bury, vi, note 34) [, but] Tragedy [meaning the style of writing that plays up scenes of high emotion] and history, says Polybius severely, have different objects. The aim of tragedy is to move the soul; but the aim of history is to instruct the mind. [However, Bury does not say which Greek words he is rendering by the English words 'soul' and 'mind'.]

There is a sharp contrast] between [the] methods of treatment [of] Thucydides [who] is an artist, [and] Polybius [who] is a teacher. Thucydides ... employs the objective treatment of a dramatist, and rarely comes forward himself to address directly to the reader brief criticisms or explanations.

Polybius on the contrary ... is always on the stage himself, criticising ... emphasizing ... propounding and defending his personal views. We might indeed say that the history of Polybius contains the material for a handbook of historical method; and this adds greatly to its value for us. (ibid.)

... I deny that [historians] should make assertions inconsistent with facts. We writers must unavoidably fall into many errors through ignorance, but if we write what is false, for our country's sake or to please our friends or to win favour, and measure truth by utility, we shall discredit the authority of our works and be no better than politicians. (Polybius, History xvi.40) (Bury, vi, note 41)

Instructive and universal history

The historians of whom Polybius seems to have most highly approved were Ephorus ["the first and only writer who undertook to write universal history," Polybius says (History v.33) (Bury, vi, note 11)] and Aratus [, an Achaean statesman who wrote his Memoirs, which] satisfied [Polybius'] doctrine that history is a practical and not an antiquarian study [He believed "that history is a school of statesmanship as well as of the art of war" (Bury, viii)] ...

His view of history is pragmatical ... [By "pragmatical history" Polybius] means history which ... furnishes practical instruction [which is why "a mere narrative of events is inadequate", namely because] the historian must investigate the causes and the inter-connections.

[Polybius' view of history is as well] universal.

"A causes B, but not because B is a reaction to A"

[Polybius] conceives causation in an external and mechanical way, and he does not proceed beyond the idea of simple onesided causation to the idea of reciprocity, or of action and reaction, which is often required to express adequately the relations of historical phenomena. (Bury, vi)

Speculative philosophy of history

So much then for critical philosophy of history. With respect to speculative, Polybius came to hold "the principle of anacyclosis ... the theory of a cyclic succession of forms of government" or "recurring cycle of political constitutions" [rule by one, then by few, then by many (monarchy, aristocracy, democracy)], an idea "which comes from Plato and the Stoics", and an eternal pattern of "growth, bloom, and decay" [rise, stand, and fall] in each of those forms.

According to Cicero (De Republica i.21.34) (Bury, vi, note 21), "Scipio [(185/4-129 B.C.), Roman soldier and later statesman who fought at Pydna, and while in Greece formed a friendship with Polybius] often conversed with Panaetius [of Rhodes, Stoic philosopher (c. 185-109 B.C.)] in the presence of Polybius". Before he was assassinated, Scipio had said to Polybius (History ii.21.8) (Bury, vi, note 26) "on the ruined site of Carthage; --

"Some time will come the day
Of doom for Troy divine and Priam's sway,
And Priam and his folk shall pass away.

"More than an epitaph on Carthage, it was a prophecy on Rome," Bury says, and events around Scipio effected a change in thought for Polybius: he had earlier believed that Rome would not decline, but now believed that Rome too would decline. (Cf. Thucydides' cycle of history.)

Hypotheses (Tyche, Fortune)

Polybius accepted "God as a working-hypothesis", but only at the limit of what could be explained by natural causes. "... when you can discover the cause of an event it is not, in my opinion, admissible to impute it to God" (History xxxvi.17.1-4) (Bury, vi, note 18). Polybius "deprecates the practice of ascribing to fortune or the gods what is due to man's ability and prudence". Nevertheless he "shared the popular belief" expressed by the Peripatetic philosopher Demetrius of Phaleron [born c. 350 B.C.] "that, apart from regularly operating natural and human causes, a superhuman power which men call Tyche, exerts a control over events", and he comments on the instability, paradoxes, and caprices of Fortune (Tyche).

On religious belief

Polybius does not hold that religious belief has any value for an educated person; it would be superfluous in a state consisting exclusively of wise men.... The only use of mythology is to preserve the religion of the multitude. (History xi.12.9) (Bury, vi, note 38)


The Roman historians

The earliest Roman historians used Greek models of historiography and wrote in the Greek language.

To break the tradition required an unconventional man who carried national feelings to the length of miso-Hellenism and who was determined to go his own way, M[arcus] Porcius Cato [also called "Cato the Elder" and "Cato the Censor" (234-149 B.C.); Cato's view of Socrates]. (Bury, vii)

The language of Roman historians was thenceforth Latin, but the models were still Greek.

Personal morality versus Statecraft, Tacitus versus Thucydides

[The Roman historians] Tacitus [c. 55-117 A.D.] [and] Sallust [c. 86-35 B.C.] looked at history from an ethical point of view, I mean from the point of view of the morality which is valid for the individual. [Tacitus] judged actions by the ideals of virtue and nobility; he was not prepared to take time and circumstances into account, nor to acknowledge that the standard applied to private conduct may be inapplicable to public transactions.

[The] first principle [of this point of view] was the application of the strictest rules of private morality to the actions of public men. [In Bury's opinion, Thucydides is] more reasonable and ... his political analysis more instructive ... than the ethical criticism of Tacitus. (Bury, vii)

"The quandary of statecraft." Comment

In his Philosophy of Civilization Albert Schweitzer recognized and accepted the personal-public distinction: States -- which can only mean statesmen -- must sometimes do things that it would be evil for individuals to do, he says. But Ignazio Silone, having known both Italian Fascism and Soviet Communism, condemned it (although he wasn't talking about statesmen but about ordinary citizens who lived privately by one morality, but publicly conformed to another, the other being the immorality demanded by the state).

The Lord Advocate in R.L. Stevenson's David Balfour says, "I press on you a political necessity. Patriotism is not always moral in the formal sense", as if to say "There are worse things consequent on not slaughtering these innocents". When is the national good not good, and when is it better not to live at all rather than to live at that cost?

"If statesmen do evil, they are not statesmen" -- I wonder, would Plato have said that? If the philosopher-king does evil, surely he is not a philosopher. Indeed --

Nor can the good harm anyone? -- Impossible. -- And the just is the good? -- Certainly. -- Then to injure a friend or any one else is not the act of the just man, but of the opposite, who is the unjust? -- I think what you say is quite true, Socrates. (Republic 335d, tr. Jowett)

Justness is a moral virtue, life in accordance with which is the good for man. Or will Plato distinguish between the statesman as statesman and the statesman as human being, and say that the statesman as statesman is a statesman regardless of whether he is just or unjust? The Lord did not make these distinctions.

Stoicism's impulse to the writing of universal human history

... the cosmopolitan doctrines of the Stoics ... gave stimulus to the construction of comprehensive works embracing the annals of the known peoples of the world. The value of universal history, on the Stoic assumptions, has been stated ... by Diodorus of Agyrion [Diodorus Siculus, fl. c. 30-60 B.C.; his work Bibliothéke includes Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Scythia, Arabia, north Africa, Greece and Europe]. (Bury, vii)

"All men," he says, "living, or who once lived, belong to the common human family though divided from one another by time and space; and the universal historian who aims at bringing them all under a common view is a sort of minister of divine providence. That providence orders alike the stars and natures of men ..."

Christianity and universal history writing

... the idea of the unity of mankind [had with] the Stoics [only a vague application; but] with the Christians it acquired a real and intense meaning, inasmuch as they believed all the inhabitants of the earth to have a common and vital interest ... in the Christian dispensation.

In so far as it accustomed men to realize the conception of a solidarity among all the races of humanity, the Christian interpretation assisted in the transition from the ancient to the modern conception of universal history. [Of course Christian historiography was based on the authority of scripture; it was religious history, quite distinct from the secular historiography which had been the model of the Greek and Roman historians.] (Bury, vii)

[Many, many years ago in a philosophy of history class, Professor Thomas McTighe told us that he did not think there could be a Christian speculative philosophy of history because the Christian view is not cyclic, but rather that history is divided into two halves, marked by Christ.]


The ancient way of thinking about history versus our way, Bury's view from more than one hundred years ago

The absence of an idea of an indefinite progress in Greek and Roman speculation is one of the gulfs that separate us from the ancients.

... the general conditions of their own life and thought seemed to the Greeks final, capable only of modification and improvement in details; they never dreamed of more complex forms of civilization, and entirely different from theirs, might be reached by a gradual development in the course of time. They dreamed of a golden age, but they generally placed it behind them. They sought it in simpler, not in more complex conditions.

... we have grasped the idea of development and dreamed the dream of progress ... The idea of progress is, in the present age, an actual, living force ... (Bury, viii)

What does Bury mean by "more complex forms of civilization, and entirely different from theirs"? Because surely the Roman state was just that in comparison to the Greek city-states?

If I understand aright, the idea of progress -- that is, the idea of the unlimited improvement, not merely change, of the conditions of civilization -- belongs to the Enlightenment, which sought to improve all aspects of life rationally. But it doesn't seem to have worked out that way. The next to the last chapter of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation is titled "The Fallacies of Hope" and that isn't resolved by the final chapter.

Bury writes "we have grasped the idea of development and dreamed the dream of progress". Contrast that with Wittgenstein's view (towards the end of 1930) --

Our civilization is characterized by the word 'progress'. Progress is its form, rather than making progress one of its features. Typically it constructs. It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure. (CV p. 7)

Bury was writing in 1909, before even the First World War, and other than pestilence -- and this was before the influenza pandemic of 1918 -- humanity in Bury's time had no reason to fear the imminent end of all life on earth, either through the weapons of war or pollution of the natural environment. But also, although technology has changed countless aspects of material wealth and knowledge since the time of the ancients, human beings don't seem to have changed since their time. And so maybe in that sense, the Greeks were right.

Socrates could live, not for "this world and all it loves" (1 John 2.17), but for the good and true that man can know or seek in this world (Apology 30a-b, 36c) -- but I don't know if a civilization can, because it does not at all seem that the aim of civilization (in contrast to the aim of Socrates) is essentially "the ethical perfecting of the individual and of society", as Schweitzer thought (or projected), as did Plato (Gorgias 517b). It seems that the absence of anything higher than wealth and power, the absence of a ideal for the individual to believe in, would mean the decline of a civilization. On the other hand, maybe it isn't that way at all; maybe most men do "live more by instinct than by philosophy"; maybe most men do "live by bread alone" (i.e. basic survival and the simple pleasures of this world), and the only reason that civilizations fall is that their rulers lose control over power and wealth.

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