Ancient Historians on the Purpose of History

Herodotus (trans de SJlincourt)

Herodotus of Halicarnassus. His researches are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples; and more particularly, to show how they came into conflict.

Thucydides (trans Warner)

Thucydides the Athenian wrote the history of the war fought between Athens and Sparta, beginning the account at the very outbreak of the war, in the belief that it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past. My belief was based on the fact that the two sides were at the very height of their power and preparedness, and I saw, too, that the rest of the Hellenic world was committed to one side or the other; even those who were not immediately engaged were deliberating on the courses which they were to take later. This was the greatest disturbance in the history of the Hellenes, affecting also a large part of the non-Hellenic world, and indeed, I might almost say, the whole of mankind.

And with regard to my factual reporting of the events of the war I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions: either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else I heard of them from eye-witnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible. Not that even so the truth was easy to discover: different, eye-witnesses give different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other or else from imperfect memories. And it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element.

It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last for ever.

Livy (Loeb)

Is it worth my pains to write the history of the Roman people straight through from the inception of the city? I cannot be sure, and would not venture an affirmative answer even if I were. The enterprise, I realize, has had a long vogue, and people of all sorts have essayed it. A constant stream of new writers believes either that they can introduce greater factual accuracy or that their style will surpass the crudities of the past. But however it may turn out, I shall have the satisfaction of having contributed personally, so far as in me lies, to propagating the record of the foremost nation in the world; and if, in such a crowd of writers, my own reputation is eclipsed, I can console myself with the distinction and stature of those who obscure my light.

Another deterrent is the enormous scope: there is a span upwards of seven hundred years to retrace, and growth from frail beginnings to our present state, where sheer mass is an embarrassment. Moreover the early beginnings and the period ensuing are hardly likely to entertain the generality of readers, who are impatient to get to the contemporary situation, where the very energies of a people long dominant are compassing its own ruin. But for me this will afford another compensation for my labor: it will distract me from the melancholy spectacle our age has been witnessing these many years; for as long, at least, as my mind is absorbed in recalling the heroic past I shall be free of the anxieties which can beset a writer even if they do not divert him from the truth.

The traditions of the founding of the city and its preliminaries are more appropriate to poetic saga than to strict historical record: these it is my purpose neither to affirm nor refute. Indulgence may be granted to antiquity to mingle elements of divine and human in order to enhance the prestige of a city's origins. And if license is allowed any nation to exalt its inception and make the gods its sponsors, so towering is the military glory of Rome that when it avows that Mars himself was its father and the father of its founder, the races of mankind can submit to the claim with as little qualm as they submit to Rome's dominion. But on matters of this sort, however they are to be criticized or esteemed, I shall myself make no great issue. The aspects to which I would have every reader apply himself most attentively are the levels of life and morality and the character of men and policies, in peace and in war, by which our realm was acquired and expanded. Then let him observe how when discipline wavered morality first tottered and then began the head long plunge, until it has reached the present level when we can tolerate neither our vices nor their remedies.

It is this in particular that makes the study of history salutary and profitable: patterns of every sort of action are set out on a luminous monument for your inspection, and you may choose models for yourself and your state to imitate, and faults, base in their issue as in their inception, to avoid. If partiality for my own enterprise does not deceive me, there has never been any commonwealth grander or purer or richer in good examples, none into which greed and luxury were naturalized so late, none where lowly means and frugality were so long and so highly esteemed. In the degree that possessions were scant so was avarice also: it is only lately that riches have introduced greed and pleasures overflowing have imported a passion for individual and general ruin.

But plaintiveness is disagreeable even where it may prove necessary; at the outset of our large enterprise, at least, let us have none of it. Let us rather begin with good omens and, if we may adopt the usage of the poets, with prayer and supplication to gods and goddesses to vouchsafe good success to our undertaking.