Herodotus and Thucydides: Did they invent history?

Historians in the News

History was born in Greece in the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. It has flourished ever since then, in diverse but recognizably related forms, and it still exists today, as a form of inquiry into the past, a literary genre, and a set of practices plied and taught in universities. That's our story, in the West, and we're sticking to it. Or at least John Burrow is. After a swift glance toward ancient ways of keeping records, Burrow begins his elegant and erudite book with a rich study of Herodotus and Thucydides, the Greek founders of the genre. Then he bounds forward, passing in review Hellenistic and Roman, early Christian and medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment historians, and ends up in the territory that he has cultivated throughout his career: Europe, and especially Britain, in the last two centuries. The trip passes quickly, Burrow makes a highly accomplished guide, and the reader ends up--rather as the tourist does after a well-organized two weeks in Italy--tired, impressed, and gratified. But is it history? That is the sixty-four-talent question, to which we will eventually return.

Burrow's approach has many virtues. It enables him to start, as Greek historiography itself did, with two great writers, Herodotus and Thucydides, and their works, which he contrasts effectively. Herodotus--a Greek from Asia Minor, whose relatives included non-Greek nobility as well as Greeks--set out in the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. to describe the biggest events in the recent Greek past: the failed invasions of Greece by the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes in 490 and 480-479 B.C.E. Thucydides, half a century later, set out to describe a set of events that he considered even bigger: the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 B.C.E., in which Sparta and her allies defeated Athens, not only the greatest city in mainland Greece but also the capital of a great empire.

Both men wrote history as epic--and both, especially Herodotus, learned a great deal from Homer about how to do so with bravura. Homer taught them scale, pace, and the solemnity of simple language, and he offered models for many of the scenes that they needed to depict--especially the ability to see a tragic conflict from the standpoints of both sides. Memories of Homer also hovered around the oracles and prophecies that both men recorded: Herodotus because he believed that a divine economy ruled the world, and Thucydides because belief in oracles played a political role in everything from popular morale to the conduct of leaders....

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