The Inheritance of Historiography, 350-900

The Inheritance of Historiography, 350-900

The Inheritance of Historiography, 350-900

The Inheritance of Historiography, 350-900


To what extent did the historians of the early Middle Ages inherit the aims and methods of Greek and Roman historiography? How far were they influenced by classical coventions about literary genre, rhetorical technique and political subject-matter? A conference held in Exeter in 1985 brought together a number of distinguished scholars to discuss these questions.

This book presents nine of the contributions, on representative authors from the fourth century to the ninth. Together they provide an authorative guide tothe contrasts and continuities in history-writing from Byzantium to Alfred's Wessex.

Contributions by
T. S. Brown, Donald Bullough, Averil Cameron, James Campbell, Jill Harries, Robert Markus, Joihn Matthews, Roger Ray, B. H. Warmington and T.P. Wiseman


Historia vero testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae,
nuntia vetustatis…

How did the ancient world believe history should be written? The most succinct answer to that question comes in Cicero’s treatise On the orator. One could hardly ask for a better authority—the first great master of Latin prose style, the interpreter of Greek literary culture to his fellow-Romans, a man of experience with a sense of the breadth of humane studies that took him beyond the schematic rules and categories of mere pedagogic instruction.

Cicero refers to history in book II of the de oratore, where ‘Antonius’ is maintaining the universal scope of the orator’s competence—political and forensic oratory, of course, but also ethical persuasion, praise, blame, consolation and so on:

As for history, which is time’s witness, the light of truth, the survival of
memory, the instructor of human life and the reporter of the past, whose
voice but the orator’s can entrust it to immortality?

‘The instructor of human life’—in the context of the orator’s ethical function, history takes its place as a means of moral education. Through ‘Antonius’, Cicero was attacking the rhetorical theorists’ crude division of oratory into political, forensic and epideictic (‘display’), the last of which consisted mainly of panegyric and its converse (psogos, censure). History was regarded as closely related to, and in some people’s view even a subdivision of, epideictic oratory; for Cicero, and for the greatest of the Roman historians themselves, what that meant was the historian’s duty to praise and blame as he saw fit, to produce examples of moral behaviour for his readers to imitate or avoid.

As ‘Antonius’ develops his theme, that the rhetoricians’ third category should be understood as the whole range of moral exhortation, he comes back naturally to history. After a digression on the state of the art, and the inadequacy of Roman historians vis-à-vis Greek, he sums up the aims and methods of historiography as follows:

Everyone knows history’s first law, not to dare to say anything false, and
its second, not to be afraid to say anything true. There must be no suspicion
of partiality or malice in what the historian writes. These foundations are
of course familiar to everyone; as for the building itself, that rests on the
subject matter and the language.

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