From Helenistic Age To Roman Historiography

Hellenistic civilization refers to the synthesis of Greaco – Roman civilization. The historiography of the period has also been referred to as Greco – Roman historiography. One of the most outstanding figures that this era produced was Polybius. None of the writers of the period carried  on the scientific tradition started by Herodotus and Thucydides. Indeed, after Polybius there was a gradual decline in the quality of historical writing. They developed a method of scholarship which Collingwood described as "scissors – and – paste method." While only the introductory chapter of Polybius works was constructed on the “scissors and paste method;” it was the whole body in the Livy's work. He just assembled the traditions and records of early Roman Historian and welded them together into a single continuous narrative history of Rome. Although, a philosophical historian, he accepted the Roman tradition of origin at its face value and repeated them in good faith.
Polybius
The Hellenistic age did not pursue the vigorous historical scholarship laid down by Herodotus and Thucydides. In the feverish pursuit of writing a world history, the historians of the age developed a new method of historical research which, the so-called “scissors – and – paste.” This method simply involved the compilation of data from several disparate sources and authorities after which they would then be weaved into a single story. This method was far inferior to the Herodotian and Socratic method of the 5th century. The most distinguished historian of the age was Polybius and with him Western historiography reached its peak. Like any historian Polybius addressed himself to particular subject matters, e.g.. Conquest of the World by Rome. His field of research was probably determined by his vocation – He was a Republican Senator in Rome. Besides his preoccupation  with politics, Polybius broadened the Romans’ conception of history. History, to the Romans, meant continuity and in this regard minutest details about every – day life was meticulously recorded. Although Polybius was ambitious (to have written a comprehensive history of Rome), he realized that he was handicapped by his sources and age. Thus, he began the story of Rome some 150 years before the time of his writing. And despite the fact that he relied on those authorities which he adjudged trustworthy, he still remained critical of them. In other words, he did not allow his sympathetic feelings towards the Romans to becloud his sense of judgment. It was with this object in mind that Polybius refused to concern himself with the problems of origins of the Roman peoples.
Another worthy contribution of Polybius to historiography is that he himself to a more definite and concise conception of history. He used the word historie not in its original and quite general sense as meaning any kind of enquiry but in its modern sense of history. He was a proponent of this science to universal study for its own sake. He was the first person to conceive such an idea. History for Polybius is worth studying not because it is scientifically true but because it is a school and training for political life. He, however, did not think that the study of history would enable men to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors. According to Polybius, the only lesson we learn from the tragedies of historical actors is not to avoid such tragedies in our own lives but to have the fortitude to bear them when fortune bring them. With this position, it stands clear that the idea of fortune or determinism was an important ingredient of Polybius's conception of history. Nonetheless, Polybius was an accomplished historian in the context of the time and with him the Hellenistic tradition of historical thought passed into the hands of Rome.
The Roman Historiography
Although the Romans produced many remarkable writings they fell short of the standard of historical scholarship recommended by Herodotus. Indeed, after Polybius, there was a gradual decline in the quality of historical writing. The only positive challenge was offered by Livy who ambitiously attempted to write A Complete History of Rome from the Earliest Times.  The snag, however, was that while only the introductory chapter of Polybius work was constructed on the "scissors and paste" method, it was the whole body, in the case of Livy's work. Livy just assembled the tradition and records of early Roman history and welded them into a simple continuous narrative history of Rome. It was the first time anything of the sort had been done. Livy's history of Rome appealed to the Romans for two reasons: he had been able to produce a national history, a world history.
Although, a philosophical historian, he was less philosophical than Polybius, (but far more philosophical than any later Roman historian). In the words of R. G. Collingwood, the scientific claim of his work was very low. First, he made no claim to original research or original method. In fact, he simply accepted the Roman tradition of origin as he found it. Second, he overemphasized the moral purpose of history. He only probed into the past with a view to providing an example of early days when the Roman society was simple and uncorrupted and showing how the foundations of Roman greatness were laid in this primitive society. In the, event, he exaggerated the virtues of ancient Rome and romanticized its past. Despite these flaws in his conception of history Livy was able to recognize that history is essentially humanistic.
Livy has often been charged with credulity in his attitude towards his authorities but this is rather a harsh assessment, it should be noted that Livy was confronted with a mass of legend and all he could within the context of the scholarship of the period was to decide which ones were trustworthy and which ones were not. Three options were open to him: to repeat them, accepting their substantial accuracy; to reject them; or repeat them with the caution that he was not sure of their truth. Thus, at the beginning of his exercise Livy admitted clearly that the traditions referring to events before the foundations of Rome were fables rather than traditions and could neither be affirmed nor criticized. At the end, however, he accepted most of the Roman traditions and repeated them in good faith. With these obvious shortcomings and with Livy as the outstanding Roman historian, it is therefore not surprising that R. G. Collingwood remarked that:
The Roman age was, not an age of vigorous and progressive thought. It did singularly little to advance knowledge on any of the paths that the Greeks had opened up.
Indeed, after Livy there was no genuine historical scholarship. The succeeding writers became more content with compilation, plagiarizing the works of their predecessors and producing not historical accounts but propaganda. In fact, as far as methodology was concerned Tacitus represented a great decline. Apart from the fact that his works were a patchwork of quotations, his interpretative framework was very low. In his historical literature, he was obsessed with the teachings of morals. In fact, the major purpose of history, according to him was to record virtues and castigates evil deeds. Indeed, he saw nothing wrong in distorting history to achieve this objective. Besides, his works were characterized by a high degree of partisanship and low degree of objectivity. As Collingwood had revealed, Tacitus was flagrantly biased in favour of the senatorial opposition, had great contempt for peaceful administration and admired conquest and military glory.
Plutarch, another Roman historian of the period, did not fare better. Plutarch's main intention in his work Twenty Two Parallel Lines was to show the virtues in the character of these heroes. The consequent effect was that the quality of historical writing became affected as historical reality became secondary to persuasion. Moreover, all Roman writers were carried away by the use of flamboyant language, literary imagery and stylistic, brilliance. At best they were mere rhetoricians rather than serious thinkers.
Characteristics of Roman Historiography
One major feature of Roman historiography was substantialism – the idea that only what is unchanging is knowable. Although this anti – historical view had been deep – seated in Greek thought, Herodotus had, in the 5th century, proved that events are important in themselves. This stream of historical thought which flowed so freely in Herodotus became slightly dimmed under Thucydides when he contended that events are important chiefly for the light they throw on eternal and substantial entities of which they are mere accidents. If the stream was dimmed under Thucydides, it became frozen by Livy's time. The Roman writers drew a distinction between act and agent and fully subscribed to the view that history cannot explain how an agent came into being or underwent any change of nature.  This explains why their writings were parochial in outlook. For instance, Livy's Complete History of Rome from the Beginning could not look at the growth and development of Roman institutions but with a Rome already fully formed and unaffected by the course of history. In the same way Tacitus believed that human nature and institutions could never change. According to him “a good man cannot become bad" and power "does not alter a man's character;” it only shows what kind of man he already was. In effect, Roman writers did not bother themselves with how anything came into existence; all the agencies that appeared on the stage of history were assumed ready made before history began. Briefly, the position of the historian during the Roman age was worse than Herodotus' era as he was regarded incapable of studying those events which constituted knowledge.
Another feature of Roman historiography was its humanism. The era came into agreement that history is a narrative of human history, the history of man's deeds, man's purpose, man's successes and failures. No doubt, it admits a divine agency but the function of this agency is strictly limited. Indeed, most Roman writers secularized history making it entirely the activities of human beings. They contended that whatever happened in history, happened as a direct result of human will. Livy, in particular, dismissed as nonsense the attempt to offer divine explanation for any event. As a balance sheet, while it is true that the Roman era was barren of historical thought, it nonetheless extended the frontiers of historical knowledge into the distant past.
It is to the Romans that we owe the conception of history as both ecumenical and national. For examples Livy's work – History of Rome from the Beginning - was a pioneering attempt. In a similar manner, Plutarch's treatment of some of his heroes also took him back to the origins of the Greeks. And, although the Romans were imperfect in handling their source – materials, they still demonstrated a high sense of duty in their meticulous search for evidence and careful preservation of historical documents. These admissions notwithstanding, the Roman era marked a decline in Western historiography.


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