Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies

Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies

Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies

Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies


This radical study argues against the view that the historian's craft has remained largely unchanged since classical times. Includes detailed discussion of the work of Thucydides, Cicero, Sallust, Livy and Tacitus.


No discussion of classical historiography can proceed very far before encountering the two contradictory beliefs which R. F. Atkinson mentions in his book Knowledge and Explanation in History (1978):

From outside one tends to think of history as continuing from classical times to the present day; but many professional historians seem rather to think that their subject underwent a major change around the beginning of the nineteenth century. It may even be thought that history ‘proper’ began about that time. (p. 14)

Among classical scholars it is, somewhat paradoxically, professional historians who tend to hold the former view, the latter being held by literary specialists. Yet despite the conceptual chasm which separates them, neither group argues its case. Literary scholars, whose principal concern is not usually with historical texts, feel no need to do so, while most historians seem constitutionally opposed to all questions of historiographical theory and, if pressed, take refuge in allusions to the authority of Thucydides and Cicero.

It is true that Thucydides holds a unique and formidable position in any debate concerning classical historiography. On the evidence of his preface and narrative alike he is commonly believed to have intended and produced the equivalent of a modern work of ‘scientific’ history. ‘In his conception of what is required of a writer of history’, runs a typical comment, ‘he is nearer to the twentieth century AD than he is to the fifth BC. ’ Yet in the first Study I point to some of the obvious practical difficulties involved in writing narrative history, and I question whether Thucydides’ preface and its famous statements of method are in fact to be understood in the ways which are commonly supposed. Similarly the narrative itself, when one of its most admired sections is analysed in detail, is shown to have different qualities from those associated with ‘scientific’ history. I am of course aware that numerous other scholars in recent years have queried the reputation which Thucydides has traditionally enjoyed, but there is clear and ample evidence that his work still . . .

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