How has the role of history changed from antiquity to the 20th century?
In order to evaluate how the role of history has changed from antiquity to the 20th century, the role of history at the beginnings of its study in the fifth century BC as an academic field must be analysed. Cicero lauded Herodotus, one of the first notable historians as “the Father of History”. What set Herodotus apart from previous Historians such as Homer, the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, was that Herodotus used systematic methods of collecting sources and arranged them into a historiographic narrative, practicing History as an academic discipline rather than the storytelling of the lives of individuals. In antiquity, many historians including Herodotus, may have embellished their accounts in order to attract attention by adding more ‘exciting events, great dramas, and bizarre exotica.’ Herodotus was accused by Plutarch of being philobarbaros, as Herodotus in his Histories, calls open various sources, both Greek and foreign, in his analysis. For Herodotus, the role of History was to explain the past, and in his explanations, especially in explaining the causes of things, Herodotus turns to fate and divine agents as factors alongside human actors. Because of this Herodotus has been argued to have been part of the generations of story tellers before him; Historian John Gould argues that ‘it is rather the traditional language of a teller of tales whose tale is structured by his awareness of the shape it must have … the impulse towards ‘closure’ … is retrojected to become explanation’.
Although the reasoning for later Hellenistic historian Berossus’s decision to write his Babyloniaca, the history of Babylon in the third century BC, did not survive the ages, it is presumed that it was in order to glorify his patron, Antiochus I Soter. Therefore, it could be argued that the role of History for Berossus was not only to document the past but also as a political tool in order to gain support from powerful individuals. Moreover, in Berossus’ Babyloniaca, he makes his own interpretations of history, almost allegorising the victories and defeats of monarchs based on their morality in ruler ship. This differs from Herodotus how attributed causes of events to fate and the Gods will. Berossus’ approach to history takes a free will approach, blaming individuals for their own actions rather than fate. For Berossus, the role of history was to create a narrative of history; Berossus’ work contains a certain continuity with patterns that repeated in cycles. Babylonian Historians were already well acquainted with this cyclical interpretation of History, therefore Berossus’ work would appeal to them. This is at odds with the work of Herodotus and other mainstream Greek scholars who wrote more about the lives of individuals in a more expressive way, seeking to almost entertain the audience. It is no surprise that Berossus’ work was not well known in his era.
For Titus Livius Patavinus, also known as Livy, a Roman historian in the first century AD, the role of History was, like Herodotus and Berossus, to document the past. However, unlike Berossus, Livy did not write in the cyclical Babylonian historiographical style. Instead, Livy wrote annalistically, naming the events of each year in chronological order. Livy was also partisan, writing favourable accounts of Roman history in a fashion that glorified the republic. Notably, Livy digressed in a section of his Ab Urbe Condita Libri, suggesting that Roman would have defeated Alexander the Great if he had focused his attacks on the Italian peninsula. Through this, Livy had transcribed the first known work of alternate history, in his agenda to glorify Rome. Livy’s work shows that he was influenced by the annalistic approach of studying history; however, this has led to criticism of his work by modern historians. In his use of sources, Livy stated that he used what he found and did not pass judgement. Some modern historians argue that because Livy did not critique the sources he used to form his own works, he may have incorporated the works of ‘entertainers’ not historians, who would unscrupulously ‘invent a series of face-saving victories’ to ensure Rome would not face disgrace. Therefore, much like Herodotus and Berossus, for Livy, the role of History was to create works which worked with the existing status quo, in order to appeal to contemporary audiences (Berossus’ audience being mainly just Babylonian historians which is why his works were not as popular in his time in comparison to Herodotus and Livy).
The role of History changed greatly in the period between late antiquity and the early medieval era. Procopius, a Byzantine historian in the sixth century followed traditions established by previous classical historian Herodotus, however, Procopius did not combine religion and historical writings, focusing rather on secular history. From a first glance, for Procopius, the role of history was quite similar to his predecessors, as he took a partisan approach in his published works in favour of his patron, Justinian I, Eastern Roman Emperor. However, in Procopius’ Secret History, which was unpublished and discovered in the seventeenth century, years after his death, Procopius is revealed to have very different opinion of his patron, painting him and members of his court in a very negative light, claiming that Justinian was a monster and his wife was a lustful and vulgar. Clearly, for Procopius, the role of history was to make an account what he thought was the truth, even if it was unfavourable to his contemporaries. Like Livy, Procopius writes in chronological order and elects to write what happens instead of analysing the reasons behind events, like Berossus and Herodotus had done.
For historians in the high medieval period, the role of History was to record the past, however as historians in the era tended to be clergy men and the writing of history in the era was based on the letters and dialogues with nobility, which the nobility had control over, many histories from this time period are notably partisan towards a particular faction. In the writings of Matthew Paris, a thirteenth century English monk, notably his Historia Anglorum, he writes favourably about his liege, King Henry III. However, in his Chronica majoria, a more scathing report about his king’s policy is revealed, with note offendiculum accompanying such offensive passages to his King. Contemporary historian Henry Luard suggests that Matthew Paris hid his real opinions in his published histories in over to stay in favour with King Henry III. Clearly, similarly to Procopius, the role of history for Matthew Paris was to ensure that his own unaltered interpretation of History was passed on, rather than a History controlled and steered by powerful individuals like Justinian or Henry.
In the renaissance, unlike like the periods before it, monarchs exercised lesser power over what historians published. For renaissance Historian Polydore Vergil, the role of history was very much to document events from a top down approach, recording the histories of kingdoms and their rulers. In Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historia, Vergil writes about the history of England and their monarchs, rather than the regular people of England, much like previous historians before him. Like Herodotus, Vergil used systematic methods of collecting sources and arranged them into a historiographic narrative. Vergil sought to find the true, comparing different sources, including foreign sources, like Herodotus had done, in order to not misrepresent events. Due to this Vergil doubted the historical accuracy of previous medieval historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth in his works on King Arthur and other aspects of British legendary history. This caused other academics to critique Vergils’ work, notably renaissance historian John Leland. For Vergil, the role of history was to present reliable documents on the past, via critiquing wide sources, regardless on pressures exerted on him by contemporaries.
Enlightenment era Historians such as Prince Mikhail Shcherbatov sought to understand and present history through an ideological historiography. Shcherbatov, instead of simply writing an account of the past, used historical sources to construct ideologies which he used in his writing. Shcherbatov developed his ideas on how his contemporary state should be governed through historical analysis. Shcherbatov wrote that autocracy, which was modus operandi of the Russian Tsar, was an ineffective form of government, claiming that ‘laws should be composed by a few impartial people’. Shcherbatov analysed various historical governments’ laws and successes and failures in order to formulate his ideologies, which culminated in his sociological works. For Prince Mikhail Shcherbatov and some other Enlightenment era historians, the role of history was to provide lessons to learn from and articulate beneficial ideologies from. This differs from previous Medieval, Classic, Roman and Renaissance era historians, who instead chronicled what occurred in the past but didn’t particularly develop ideologies through the analysis of the past.
For modern historian William H. Prescott, the role of history was to provide a rather concrete interpretation of major political and military events rather than to delve into social and economic history. Prescott is described to be a Great Man Theory aficionado, similar to Medieval, Roman and Classical historians, who also did not regularly concern themselves with researching social and economic history, however there are always exceptions. Prescott unlike previous historians notably used a huge number of various sources with bibliographies complete with footnotes and citations which was very uncommon at the time.
For contemporary historian Ian Kershaw, the role of history
In conclusion, the role of history from antiquity to now has changed greatly. From writers in antiquity such as Livy and Berossus who focused on individuals and kingdoms as a whole, writing about military and political history rather than dissecting subject matter to also write about social and economic history in depth, to renaissance historians such as Shcherbatov, who instead of simply acting as a chronicler, took a step further to develop sociological ideology from historical sources. Moreover, the study of history has also changed, from Homeric storytelling to the increasing use of more varied sources and the incorporation of bibliographies in order to ensure the validity of works.
How has the role of history changed from antiquity to the 20th century?