Greek historiography

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Herodotus (c. 485—425 bc) Greek historian

Thucydides (c. 455—400 bc) Greek historian

Xenophon (c. 428—354 bc) Greek historian, writer, and military leader

Homer Greek epic poet

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Homer is slippery ground for the historian. But his characters show awareness of the past, and they long to leave glory behind them; thus Achilles sings of the famous deeds of men and Helen weaves into a web the story of the sufferings she has herself brought about. The poet speaks of ‘men who exist nowadays’ by contrast with inhabitants of the world he describes. Genealogies, of the sort that feature in Homeric battle‐challenges, are essential to a historical perspective on human events, and they form the link between Homer and Hecataeus, the first true Greek historian: he wrote on genealogy and mythology, as well as a description of the world known to him. His younger critic and improver was Herodotus: the urge to correct and improve on a predecessor is one of the main dynamics of Greek historiography. But the prose of Hecataeus was not Herodotus' only stimulus: Herodotus' nine‐book work may owe at least as much to poets who (unlike Homer) did treat historical events in verse: it is now known that Simonides handled the Persian War in detail and compared it explicitly to the Trojan War.

Herodotus' repudiation of myth was less explicit and famous than that of Thucydides 2, but equally or (because earlier) more important: Herodotus restricts himself to historical time and to information he can check. How far he did check that information has been controversial since antiquity, but the sceptical case has not been made out. On the contrary, Herodotus' work shows many authentic traces of the oral tradition (see orality) on which its author drew.

Thucydides knew and reacted against Herodotus' work, and there are obvious differences, above all a more linear narrative which concerns itself more narrowly with war and politics, oligarchic and democratic, and hence with men; and less attention is paid to the influence of religion on Greek affairs. But there are similarities too; thus Homeric influence is detectable in detail not just on Herodotus but on Thucydides also, who has a rhetoric of his own and should not be crudely opposed to Herodotus as literacy is opposed to orality: Thucydides' famous preface declares his work to be not so much a prize composition (a word which hints at the displays of the sophists) as a possession for ever. By including (i.e. inventing) speeches at all, both historians were copying Homer, and Thucydides' very difficult speeches resemble Homer's in that their style is different from the narrative.

Local historians studied the great states of mainland Greece, producing above all the Atthides or histories of Athens (see atthis). The first Atthidographer was, however, not an Athenian, Hellanicus of Mytilene. But the great 4th‐ and 3rd‐cent. Atthidographers, Androtion and Philochorus, were Athenians who used their literary works to express definite political viewpoints; theirs was not directionless antiquarianism.

The exiled Athenian Xenophon is preoccupied in his Hellenica with Peloponnese, but his perspective is too wide for this work to be called local history. He takes his chronological starting‐point and some other obvious external features from Thucydides, but his religious values and his use of the illuminating digression are more reminiscent of Herodotus. His Anabasis is a snapshot of Persian Anatolia which reveals his gifts as a social historian and is a prime source for modern students of religion and warfare.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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