How Did Historiography Evolve in the Hellenic World

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A Roman Bust of the Greek Historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 BC)

Almost as soon as humans invented writing, they began writing about their own and other people’s histories, which we know today as “historiography.” Although the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia recorded past events in the form of king-lists and annals and therefore can be said to have practiced “historiography,” the ancient Greeks were the first people to write critical, narrative histories. Due to that distinction, the modern historiographical tradition is generally traced directly back to the Greeks.

The Greeks were also the first people to have true historians as they are known today. The fifth-century Greek historian, Herodotus, is generally thought of as “the father of history,” while Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) is often seen as the leader of the second generation of Greek historians. The writing styles and methodologies of these early historians may seem biased and a bit crude by modern historiographical standards, but they were part of a complex and evolving tradition that began in the late sixth century BC and continued into the Roman Imperial Period.

Hellenic historiography, which includes both the Greek and Roman traditions, began as a subdiscipline of Greek rhetorical studies and literature, with some important influences from Near Eastern historiography. As historiography became more refined in Greece and evolved from a pastime to a discipline in its own right that was practiced by professional historians, the Romans, who were successors of Hellenic Civilization, followed the Greek methods of writing and researching history but also added a few of their own ideas. The Romans were particularly fond of biographies and were the first people to write autobiographies. The contributions of the early Greek and Roman historians combined to provide the backbone of modern historical studies.

The Idea of History

The World According to Herodotus and Other Learned Greeks of the Fifth Century BC

The Greeks and later the Romans had complex relationships when it came to people outside of the Hellenic world. They generally saw outsiders as barbarians with little to offer, but they made exceptions for some people, especially those from older civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. This exception can be seen in Greek historiography, where Herodotus and the first century BC Greek historian, Diodorus, referred to Egyptian king-lists in their histories of Egypt. [1] The Persians also had a profound influence on early Greek historiography.

As early Greek historiography was developing in the late sixth century, the Achaemenid Persians ruled over an empire that traversed most of the ancient Near East and included scores of different ethnic groups, including Greeks. The Ionians Greeks, who lived within the Achaemenid Empire, could travel the royal roads from country to country, which a number of them did and then wrote geographies and histories of constituent parts of the empire. Scylax of Caryanda traveled throughout the empire in the late sixth century BC, writing a geographical work about his observations, and then around 500 BC Hecataeus of Miletus wrote geographies and genealogies of former kingdoms within the empire. [2] Although Hecataeus of Miletus may have wrote one of the first true Greek histories, his works only survive in fragments so the designation of the world’s first true historian is often applied to Herodotus.

Herodotus also took advantage of being a subject of the Achaemenid Empire by traveling extensively throughout the empire, compiling his work through oral source because he only knew Greek. Xenophon was a fourth century military general and historian who also traveled throughout the Achaemenid Empire and was no doubt influenced by what he observed in terms of Persian record keeping and their commemoration on monuments of important historical events. [3]

In addition to Near Eastern historiographical influences, Hellenic historiography was deeply affected by and descended from earlier Greek intellectual traditions. The Greeks liked to categorize nearly everything and as such, they considered history as a branch of rhetoric and was therefore subjected to the same literary analysis as poetry or oratory. [4]

The stylistic rules employed in historiography meant that words and figures of speech were properly chosen, emotion was used, and the prose needed follow a specific rhythm by avoiding pauses. [5] Hellenic historical research and writing may have originated as a discipline that borrowed from intellectual streams of Near Eastern and Greek sources, but by the early fifth century BC it had evolved into a unique study in its own right.

Defining Hellenic Historiography

By the time Herodotus and then Thucydides produced their monumentally long and influential histories, historiography had already begun sprouting branches into five distinct subgenres. Modern scholars identify these subgenres as follows: mythography or genealogy, which would usually begin in a mythical past and continue into the present; ethnography or the study and observation of ethnic groups and their origins; chronography, which consisted of time-tables that were often written in tabular form; narrative history; and horography, or local history. [6] Most ancient historians employed two or more of these subgenres within a single work, with genealogies and chronographies being quite popular early.

Greek and later Roman historians were compelled to relate the genealogical lineage of the major catalysts in their histories, often going back to a semi-mythical golden age. Genealogical histories were among the earliest types of histories written by Greek historians, with Hecataeus of Miletus being the first scholar to divide Greece’s semi-mythical golden age from known historical rulers. Modern scholars believe that genealogical history can be traced directly back to epic poetry in the late eighth and early seventh centuries BC: both Homer and Hesiod used heroic, semi-mythical genealogies in their works. [7]

Horography, or the history of a single city, was also one of the earliest forms of historiography employed by the Greeks. The Greeks wrote horographies in digressions about cities in larger works as well as in shorter books dedicated to a single city or polis. Since nearly every horography was written chronologically, this subgenre is sometimes considered a version of chronography.

As a subdiscipline of rhetoric, Hellenic historiography served very specific purposes, so polemics were often employed by the writers. [8] Above all, Hellenic historiography was meant to edify the reader about the admirable or iniquitous traits of a particular people or person and to not just memorialize wars and deeds, but to relate why those events took place. This idea is perhaps best summed up by Herodotus in the introduction to his book.

“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other.” [9]

Herodotus and Thucydides

A Roman Bust of Thucydides

Herodotus and Thucydides are generally considered to be the first historians to take most of the methodologies discussed above and use them in their monumental histories. The two historians had many similarities in their styles and the influence they had on later generations, but there were also some considerable differences. The concept of the “war monograph,” or detailed history of a particular war was first developed by Herodotus with his treatment of the Greco-Persian Wars (499-479 BC) and then followed by Thucydides’ study of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). [10] Herodotus did not start his historical studies until the Greco-Persian Wars were over, while Thucydides fought in the Peloponnesian War as an Athenian commander, so he was his own primary source in some parts of his book. This distinction of “non-contemporary” and “contemporary” history would later play an important role in the development of Hellenic historiography.

Thucydides was opposed to non-contemporary histories because he believed the sources used to compile them were largely unreliable. He thought that the most accurate histories were those written by individuals who witnessed the events and although Hellenistic Greek and Roman historians viewed both Herodotus and Thucydides as the founders of historical studies, Thucydides’ style was certainly more popular. With that said, many of the better known later Hellenic historians, such as the Roman historian Livy (c. 64 BC- AD 17) incorporated aspects of both styles into their works. [11]

Later Developments in Hellenic Historiography

Bust of the Roman Historian and Biographer, Suetonius (c. AD 69-122)

When Alexander the Great conquered the ancient Near East and toppled the Achaemenid Empire, a wave of change immediately swept across the civilized world. Greek scientific and cultural ideas, such as historiography, were disseminated throughout the Near East and how history was compiled and recorded also evolved once more. Historiography became widespread, but it also came to be associated with royal courts of the Diadochi, who remunerated court historians nicely. [12] The Hellenistic historians still wrote with the aim to edify their audience, but the writings were more cynical and highly politicized. For instance, Hecataeus of Abdera was hired by Ptolemy I of Egypt (ruled 305-382 BC) to write a history of Egypt. Unfortunately, Hecataeus’ work was lost in antiquity, although fragments of it were recited by Diodorus. The later Greek historians wrote that Hecataeus’ work was essentially a pro-monarchy treatise that also functioned as a guide for the Ptolemies concerning the best qualities of a ruler. [13]

After Greece was conquered by the Romans in the middle of the second century BC, the physical focus of Hellenic Civilization was transferred to Rome. The Romans incorporated and made many Greek ideas their own, which included Greek historiography. In terms of horography and chronography, Roman historians had an advantage over their Greek predecessors because record keeping in Greece was usually done by private individuals, while in Rome it was done by the state. Just as with modern historians, Roman historians had the often open access of government records to use for their research. [14] But one would be mistaken to think that the Romans did not practice historical research and writing until they conquered Greece, for they too had developed their own historiographical traditions by the second century BC.

Fabius Pictor (c. 270-200 BC) is often considered to be the father of the Roman historiographical tradition. He dedicated much of his writings to the ethnography subgenre, examining the origins of the diverse peoples of ancient Italy: the Etruscans, Umbrians, Oscans, Sabines, and Latins. Pictor’s work also crossed into chronography and genealogy and he is considered to be the father of Roman annalistic writing. [15] By the first century AD, though, Rome was known for a style of historical writing that many today still do not consider true history – the biography.

Among the better known Imperial Roman biography writers were Suetonius and Plutarch (c. AD 46-120), but there were many more who wrote about the lives of what were considered the greatest Greek and Roman statesmen, generals, and thinkers. Biography as a style first began in fifth century Greece, but most extant samples are from Rome. As with historical writing in general, biographical writing evolved greatly in the Hellenistic Period with books based on the lives of Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great, and the Diadochi. [16] Although biographies were never considered proper “histories” by the Greeks or Romans, their influence on Hellenic historiography is undeniable, especially when one considers that they gave birth to the first autobiographies. [17]


The evolution of historiography in the Hellenic world took place over a more than 500 year period, beginning with influences from Near Eastern historiographical traditions and Greek rhetoric and ending in Rome with biographies and autobiographies. In actual fact, though, the process never stopped and continued through the Medieval Period until it became what is known as historical studies today.


  1. Krebsbach, Jared. “Herodotus, Diodorus, and Manetho: An Examination of the Influence of Egyptian Historiography on the Classical Historians.” New England Classical Journal. 41 (2014) pgs. 104-7
  2. Momigliano, Arnaldo. The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 9
  3. Momiglano 1990, p. 10
  4. Marincola, John. Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 13
  5. Welles, C. Bradford. “The Hellenistic Orient.” In The Idea of History in the Ancient Near East. Edited by Robert C. Denton. (New Haven, Connecticut: American Oriental Society, 1983), p. 144
  6. Marincola, pgs. 1-2
  7. Fornara, Charles William. The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pgs. 4-5
  8. Marincola, pgs. 221-236
  9. Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. (London: Penguin, 1996), Book I, I
  10. Fornara, pgs. 29-34
  11. Marincola, p. 96
  12. Marincola, p. 25
  13. Welles, p. 154
  14. Fornara, p. 23
  15. Fornara, p. 39
  16. Momigliano, Arnaldo. The Development of Greek Biography. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pgs. 62-63
  17. Momigliano 1993, pgs. 93-96