Ancient History & Civilisation


The first historian to take serious notice of Rome’s history was curiously not a Roman but a Greek, Timaeus of Tauromenium in Sicily (c. 350–260 BC) who was impressed by Rome’s defeat of Pyrrhus which showed the Greek world that a new power was arising in the west. Timaeus, who was exiled from Sicily, lived mainly in Athens, where he wrote a history of Sicily and also a history of Pyrrhus. In his historical work he discussed Rome’s origins and dated its foundation to the same year as that of Carthage; he also referred to the introduction of coinage, the census classes and Roman customs such as the sacrifice of the October horse, while he personally questioned the inhabitants of Lavinium about the Roman Penates there. He was later fiercely criticized by his fellow Greek historian Polybius, who aimed at becoming Rome’s chief historian, but his work remained popular. However, before the days of Polybius the Romans had decided that it was time for them to begin to write their own history.

The earliest Roman historians were Q. Fabius Pictor, L. Cincius Alimentus, Postumius Albinus and Acilius (p. 346), but they too all wrote in Greek. They were senators whose purpose was in part to expound and justify the Roman way of life in the light of past history to the Greek world with which Rome was then coming into contact. They recounted the legends of the regal period for what they were worth, but they probably did not elaborate their accounts of the first two centuries of the Republic for which reliable evidence was limited. There is little reason to suppose that men who as consuls argued the merits of laws and treaties in the Senate or who as praetors sat in judgment in the courts, lost all their critical faculties when they came to write history. They knew the value of documents and though they presumably had a natural pro-Roman and aristocratic bias, their accounts were essentially trustworthy. The most important of this group of senatorial historians was probably Fabius Pictor, who may be exonerated from the charge recently brought against him that he falsified Rome’s early history by antedating the period of her power vis-à-vis the Latins (p. 422). He struck a moralistic and didactic note, emphasizing Rome’s moral code in domestic and public life, and history was to him a serious business, not unworthy of the leisure time of a Roman senator. His influence was considerable, since his work was used by Polybius, not least for his account of the First Punic War and for the causes of the Second. Fabius and these other historianswrote in Greek partly in order to explain Rome to the Greek world, but partly also because the Latin language had not yet been sufficently moulded as a vehicle for historical prose. This was the achievement of Cato.

The seven books of Cato’s Origines, written from c. 168 to 149, followed Hellenistic historians who dealt with the founding of cities (ktiseis), but they were written in Latin; Cato created Latin history. His treatment of his theme in the Origines varied considerably in different parts: the first three books dealt with the origins of Rome (book i) and of the other cities of Italy; books iv and v covered the events from the First Punic War to 167 BC, but in the last two books Cato extended his scale and even inserted some of his own public speeches, thus approaching autobiography. His treatment was discursive (capitulatim); he used local legends and Hellenistic traditions, as well as Fabius’ work. He did not spare his own political opponents or minimize his own exploits, but (unlike the senatorial historians) he wrote with an anti-aristocratic bias which suppressed the names of famous generals, though he ironically recorded that of Surus, the bravest Carthaginian war elephant. Although this idiosyncrasy was not followed by later writers, theOrigines formed a link between the work of his predecessors and that of the group of ‘older’ annalists who began a fresh reconstruction of Roman history. They are represented by Cassius Hemina and Calpurnius Piso (consul in 133).

The publication of the Annales Maximi by Scaevola then established the ‘definitive’ form of this material which was used by the ‘later’ annalists from Cn. Gellius to the Sullan annalists (Claudius and Valerius) and Livy. These men wrote for a wider public which had become acquainted with the rhetorical histories of Greek writers, and many were influenced by party interests. They wrote too on a larger scale: by making greater use of the material in the Annales Maximi, by utilizing the traditions preserved (partly orally) in the great families, and by rhetorical treatment, Gellius devoted 20 books to the events of 500–300, which Piso more soberly had recorded in two (with an average of perhaps some twelve lines to a year). Q. Claudius Quadrigarius (c. 78) may partly have avoided this danger by starting his history with the year 390, but his contemporary Valerius Antias ran to at least 75 books of rhetorical and unreliable historical romance. In the Ciceronian age the demand for more reliable reference books was met by antiquarians who wrote commentaries and encyclopaedias on legal, constitutional and religious institutions. Their researches led to the discovery of a number of constitutional documents of considerable antiquity and value, but their object was not always purely theoretical and historical; they often sought to find precedents to justify existing procedure. Among the annalists Licinius Macer and Aelius Tubero claimed to have undertaken documentary research. Licinius found in the temple of Juno Moneta some books written on linen, libri lintei, which contained lists of senior magistrates. His political views and family connections will have affected his interpretation of the past: as a popularis and a plebeian tribune in 73 BC, he saw the struggle of the orders in the light of contemporary events, and as a Licinius he will not have minimized the importance of the Licinian rogations.

We now come to the historians proper, who based their work on the annalists. Of these the greatest is Livy who, while Augustus was restoring the state, wrote an account of the Roman people from the landing of Aeneas to 9 BC in 142 books; of these books i–x (to 293 BC) and xxi–lxiv (218–167) survive. The success which he achieved is due partly to his greatness as a writer, partly to his co-operation with Augustus’ attempt to restore the ancient Roman virtues, for above all Livy’s history is a pageant of the worthies of the Roman state. His honesty and fairness stand out in contrast with the fabrications of an Antias. His value as a historian depends on the sources which he used in any given part of his narrative; where he follows Polybius or the older annalists he is trustworthy, where he uses Claudius and Valerius (as he does in a large part of the fourth and fifth decades) he is less so. He recounted the legends of early Rome, but he did not mistake them for historical fact. One grave charge against him is his neglect to consult original sources and documents; he was content to use published accounts. This may be explained, if not excused, when the practical difficulty of consulting unclassified and uncatalogued documents is realized, especially since the historian was writing a work about three times the length of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. For the lost books we have ‘tables of contents’ (periochae); fuller epitomes existed, of which a fragment has been found in a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus. Dionysius of Halicarnassus lived in Rome at the same time as Livy and wrote in Greek a Roman Antiquities in 20 books, of which 10 survive intact, the rest in extracts. The work covers the period from the foundation of Rome to 264 BC and was published in 7 BC. In his first book Dionysius used Greek writers, in later books the annalists, especially the more recent ones; his attitude towards his sources was uncritical. Another Greek historian of Rome is Cassius Dio, consul in AD 229. His History of Rome from early times down to his own consulship was completed in 80 books. The first 35 of these are lost, but we have an Abridgement made by Zonaras in the twelfth century AD. For the older period he used annalistic sources, which resemble Dionysius more than Livy; for the second century he made some use of Polybius.

Beside annalistic accounts historians wrote monographs. Philinus of Agrigentum composed in Greek an important account of the First Punic War, which was one of the main sources used by Polybius. An important monograph was the Bellum Punicum of Coelius Antipater (c. 120 BC), who used Fabius, other annalists, Silenus (a Geek historian who campaigned with Hannibal) and Polybius. Coelius’ work was one of Livy’s main sources in his third decade; though praised by Cicero (not least for its literary style), it appears from the existing fragments to be marred by rhetorical exaggeration. Among the writers of monographs may be classed Appian, an Alexandrine Greek (c. AD 160) who composed a Roman history in 24 books, divided on a geographical principle; he dealt with wars in Italy, Spain, Africa, etc., in separate books. For the Hannibalic War he relied mainly on the later annalists, for the second century on Polybius and the annalistic tradition.

Of historians of the world Polybius is the most important. This statesman of the Achaean League was deported to Rome in 167 where he gained the intimate friendship of Scipio Aemilianus with whom he witnessed the fall of Carthage and perhaps Numantia. Of his 40 books the first five survive complete, the rest in excerpts of considerable length. He realized that Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean world had given history an organic unity it had never before possessed. His theme was to show how the Romans had subdued the whole inhabited world in less than fifty-three years. His aim was truth; to attain it he eschewed the attractive rhetoric of many of his contemporaries and wrote a pragmatic account, to which he devoted the critical faculties of a trained historian and the wisdom of an experienced and widely-travelled statesman. After a sketch of the events of 264–220 he treats in detail world history from 220 to 167; he later continued his account down to 145. He has been hailed by Mommsen as the ‘sun in the field of Roman history’, and by T. R. Glover as ‘the first true historian of Rome’. Of the 40 books of the Universal History of the Sicilian Diodorus (c. 30 BC) books i–v, xi–xx (the last from 480 to 302 BC) survive in complete form. He is more concerned with Greek than Roman history. His notices of early Roman history may derive from some chronological table, but it is quite probable that he used as his chief source one of the earlier Roman annalists, e.g. Fabius Pictor, and thus preserves a better tradition than Livy or Dionysius; for the period after 200 BC he used Polybius.

Biography was first popularized at Rome by Varro. The Lives of Nepos (99–24 BC) are not of great historical value, those by Plutarch are more important. Plutarch does not claim the title of historian; his object is rather to point a moral and adorn a tale, but he provides some valuable material. He used various sources; antiquarian studies for the lives of Romulus and Numa; Dionysius for Coriolanus; Fabius Pictor, Ennius and Greek historians contemporary with Pyrrhus for Pyrrhus; Polybius, Coelius, annalists and Livy for Fabius, Marcellus and Aemilius Paullus.

Finally, reference may be made to the valuable information contained in the works of such writers as Cicero and Varro, and to the far less valuable sketches and epitomes by Florus (c. AD 130), Eutropius (fourth century) and Orosius (AD 417), who mainly reproduce the Livian tradition.

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