The Ancient Greek Historians (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

The Ancient Greek Historians (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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by J. B. Bury

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In Ancient Greek Historians, eminent British scholar J. B. Bury sets out to trace the genesis and development of the historical literature of the Greeks. The work is arranged chronologically, with several chapters addressing the legend-based writing of early Greek historiography before discussing the more scientific approach to history writing taken bySee more details below


In Ancient Greek Historians, eminent British scholar J. B. Bury sets out to trace the genesis and development of the historical literature of the Greeks. The work is arranged chronologically, with several chapters addressing the legend-based writing of early Greek historiography before discussing the more scientific approach to history writing taken by major figures like Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius. Originally developed as a series of lectures for Harvard University, the publication of Ancient Greek Historians has remained a standard in the field.

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In the spring of 1908, the eminent British scholar John Bagnell Bury delivered the prestigious Lane Lectures at Harvard University.  Bury’s lectures dealt with the development of Greek historiography and the men who created and refined it as a literary genre, men as diverse in time and interests as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius.  When published the following year, Bury’s lectures were well received by his peers, and since its publication the book has remained a standard in the field, much like other great works penned or initiated by Bury, such as A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great (still used in Greek history classrooms today), The Cambridge Ancient History, and The Cambridge Medieval History.  Bury is widely regarded as one of the fathers of Byzantine history, and his skills in the field of ancient Greek history were no less.


John Bagnell Bury was born in County Monaghan, Ireland, in 1861, to highly educated parents who encouraged his early aptitude for learning.  His father, the Reverend Edward John Bury, taught his young son Greek and Latin from the age of four, and found his student so adept that at the age of ten Bury was able to pass college entrance examinations in Greek and Latin without a single mistake.  Bury entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1878, after he had placed first in the examination for the Classical Scholarship, and eventually became Fellow of Trinity College in 1885.  That same year, he embarked seriously upon the career of scholarly publication that he had begun as an undergraduate with an edition of Euripides’ Hippolytus.  In all, Bury published 369 books, articles, notes, or reviews in a wide variety of journals and other publications before his death in 1927 in Rome.  These publications ranged in topic and interest from classical Greek history to Byzantine history to the first modern English-language biography of St. Patrick.  Bury’s diverse interests won him the honor of being both Regius Professor of Greek at Trinity as well as Professor of Modern History, and he later became Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, where his inaugural lecture was standing-room only.  Bury closed that inaugural lecture with the observation, “History is a science, no less and no more,” and that statement is key to the understanding of much of his historical work and in particular The Ancient Greek Historians.


The aim of The Ancient Greek Historians is, as Bury put it on the very first page, “to trace the genesis and the development of the historical literature of the Greeks.  I will attempt to bring into a connected view the principles, the governing ideas, and the methods of the Greek historians, and to relate them to the general movements of Greek thought and Greek history.”  To that end, the work is arranged chronologically, with several chapters offering the pre-history of Greek historiography before Herodotus, and a bridge between major figures like Thucydides and Polybius.  Bury’s belief in history as a science informs his criticism of all these historians, and those whom he most favors, Thucydides and Polybius, are those whom he regards as the most scientific.  The Ancient Greek Historians also concludes with a chapter on another interest of Bury’s work in his later career, an interest in history as progress as opposed to cyclical, best expressed in his last book, The Idea of Progress.  Bury’s aim in The Ancient Greek Historians, then, was both to explore Greek historiography and its practitioners on their own merits and within their own culture, but also to offer a criticism of that culture and its idea of history.


Accordingly, Bury began his lectures with one reflecting on the early “historiography” of Greece.  In his review of the book, E. M. Walker criticized Bury for ignoring the odd fact that the Greeks were quite slow to develop historiography, compared to other cultures like the Hebrew culture.  But Bury does in fact consider this question, albeit not in the terms of comparison with other cultures that Walker desired.  Arguing that the early lack of Greek political acumen (i.e., their inability to conceive of themselves as a unified people) makes their lack of an early historical record no surprise, he points to what the early Greeks did consider “history”: the Homeric poems, local epic poetry, geographical studies, and mythological genealogies and chronologies.  These served the early Greek desire to be connected to the heroic past by relating individuals or their communities to a Homeric hero, as opposed to a desire to know the facts of their own history.  In this same vein did the historian Herodotus, the subject of the second lecture, write.  Herodotus was an Ionian Greek from the town of Halicarnassus on the coast of Asia Minor, whose history told of the relationship between Greece and Persia from the sixth century to 479 BC.  Herodotus’ contribution to Greek history, according to Bury, was that he combined so many different histories into a connected narrative with a single point of focus, the Persian Wars.  And as a historian Herodotus created a literary masterpiece, establishing historiography as an independent genre: he was “a collector of historical material, and an accomplished artist in arranging and presenting it” into a unified and symmetrical whole.  Herodotus established by example three maxims of historical criticism: first, suspect anything extraordinary; second, keep an open mind to the facts (although bias is inevitable); and, third, the best evidence is that of first-hand information and autopsy.  Under Herodotus Greek history became a true craft.  In so arguing, Bury reclaimed Herodotus from his prior reputation as the “father of lies” and strengthened his claim to the title “father of history.”


Herodotus’ successor, Thucydides, occupies two lectures, for of all the authors Bury discussed in the book, Thucydides was in his view the greatest practitioner of Greek historiography.  He was born an Athenian, but was descended from a Thracian noble family, and during the second half of the fifth century BC he witnessed the great Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta (461–446, 431–421, 413–403 BC), even at one point serving as a general for the Athenians in Thrace.  Under the influence of the fifth-century Sophistic movement, he showed a far more stringent intellect than Herodotus, and so great was the Sophistic influence on Thucydides that Bury believed that “if he had belonged to an earlier generation, he could not have been Thucydides.”  Like Herodotus, Thucydides brought much that was new to the newborn genre of historiography: specifically, he “sets up a new standard of truth . . . and a new ideal of historical research.”  Thucydides did not much care whether his work was popular or not, so long as it was permanent because it was true, and taught men lessons from history so that they would not repeat the mistakes of the past.  He accurately relates the facts and takes care to ascertain them, entirely eliminates the mythical element of earlier historiography, and he does not offer the reader a detailed account of all his sources if they were contradictory, as Herodotus did.  In chronological matters he was especially strict, and unlike Herodotus and his predecessors he believed that a strict chronology was necessary for history to be accurate.  Where Bury compared Herodotus’ artistic methods to those of Homeric poetry, he links Thucydides’ artistic methods to those of the drama, an argument that had also been made in 1907 by a fellow Cambridge don, Francis Cornford; Bury thus contributed to a scholarly movement away from seeing Thucydides as a purely cold and rational historian.  Like the dramatist, Thucydides seeks to reveal the truth, although his interest is in political history, and so he examines the external and internal politics of a state from an exclusively political, albeit dramatic, point of view.


Thucydides’ historical method unfortunately was not followed by fourth-century Greek historiographers, the subject of Bury’s fifth lecture.  Fourth-century Greece was a land of small city-states engaged in constant petty warfare with one another, occasionally rising to brief prominence on the shoulders of a great leader; accordingly, fourth-century historical writers were more interested in political science, local history, and biography in their histories than in following the methods of Thucydidean historiography.  Xenophon, an Athenian military man who resumed Thucydides’ history at the point where it ended in 411 BC, was not worthy of the responsibility in Bury’s eyes.  The works of others who might have been more talented, like Cratippus, or Philistus of Syracuse, possibly the most Thucydidean of fourth-century historiographers, survive in fragments alone.  One bright light in the fourth century was Ephorus of Cyme, whose work is also preserved in fragments, but who penned a quasi-national history, unlike his contemporaries, who confined themselves telling, poorly, of local affairs and what passed in the fourth century for great men.  The attention that Bury pays to these lost historians in a history of Greek historiography is especially welcome because too often these fragmentary authors are passed over in silence, their contribution to Greek history ignored.


It was not until Polybius, the subject of Bury’s sixth lecture, that Greek historiography returned to the principles of Thucydides.  Polybius, who lived in the third century BC, wrote Roman history in Greek.  In Bury’s view, he combined the better qualities of Herodotus and Thucydides: like Herodotus, his arrangement of his history was masterful, while, like Thucydides, his philosophy of history was political, pragmatic, and universal.  Like both his predecessors, he traces the causes of the events he described, which led in his case to a conversion from a belief in luck and divine providence as significant factors in history at the beginning of his work to a rejection of those elements by the end of his history in favor of a pragmatic and realistic view.  Because so few historians had espoused the philosophy of Thucydides in the intervening centuries, Polybius, like Thucydides, is a reactionary in his conviction that the first duty of the historian is not to entertain, but to discover and relate the facts.  But also like Thucydides, Polybius believes history to be cyclical, a view Bury would reject in his final lecture.  Polybius, although Greek, is usually considered a Roman historian, and Bury’s inclusion of him here enables him to argue for a hitherto unexplored link between Thucydides and Polybius.


Bury’s seventh lecture is the last to deal with historiography.  Here he traces the adaptation of Greek historiography by the Romans.  Bury believes that Roman historiography “in its methods and principles is Greek.”  Like Greek historiography, Roman historiography began with poetry before developing into prose.  Unlike the Greeks, however, Roman historians like Sallust or Tacitus put an original stamp on their works not by their methodology or literary methods, but by sheer force of their personality, by the very strong opinions they held.  Roman historiography also allowed for the development of sub-genres; for instance, the writings of Julius Caesar were in effect political pamphlets.  Roman historiography might be Greek in spirit, but it took into account much more the personal attributes of the historian, be it the personal goals he wished to further (Caesar) or simply his personal view of historical events (Sallust and Tacitus).


Throughout The Ancient Greek Historians, Bury sought to put each historian in context, and to link him with his contemporaries and his predecessors.  His final lecture draws together the contributions of the Greek historians and also offers a criticism of their work and worldview.  The ancient historians wrote in order to enable men to judge the present and the future by the past; history therefore had a practical use.  Historians of the ilk of Thucydides and Polybius tended to assume that similar situations would recur, hence the writing of history.  By contrast, modern historians—like Bury himself—tend to think that history is worth it for its own sake, and the advance of over two thousand years since the times of Thucydides and Polybius has led to the realization “that the assumptions on which the ancients grounded the claim of history to practical utility are untenable.”  For modern men have realized that history is not cyclical, but rather, it advances, an idea that Bury explores further in his previously mentioned work The Idea of Progress.  The Greeks and Romans knew there would be a future, but they speculated little on it, nor did they conceive of a more advanced civilization than their own developing; both attitudes are very unlike those of twentieth-century men who speculated on what extraordinary advances man might have made by the year 2000.  The conception of the future in contemporary thought has led to “a new ethical principle, namely, duty towards the future heirs of the ages.”  All this is not to say that ancient historiography was wrong, or nothing like history today, for the belief of history as education held by Thucydides is right, in Bury’s view, and so too are the scientific methods he used, which themselves are educational.  Thus Bury can truly conclude that “[t]he Hellenic conception of history as humanistic is truer than ever.”


The Ancient Greek Historians was well received by contemporary critics.  They especially praised Bury’s treatment of Thucydides and his solution to the problem of the speeches in Thucydides.  Thucydides himself says that at times the speeches he records are not what was actually said, and Bury solves this dilemma by arguing that when the speeches, all of which are very difficult to read (and were so even for the ancient Greeks), are written in such an unnatural style, they represent, essentially, Thucydides’ opinion and points he wishes to make.  There were many other interesting suggestions as well, e.g., Bury’s identification of the mysterious Oxyrhynchus Historian, whose fourth-century work is known only in fragments found on papyri scraps in Egypt, as Cratippus, the Athenian who may have continued Thucydides’ work.  Bury’s final lecture on the use of and attitudes toward history, ancient and modern, also drew praise.  Even R. G. Collingwood praised his realization that “there were philosophical problems connected with historical research,” although Collingwood does criticize the organization of The Cambridge Ancient History and The Cambridge Medieval History, both of which Bury was an early editor of, because they were the work of a committee, each chapter by an individual hand, with no overarching intellect to guide the work.  This criticism does not apply to The Ancient Greek Historians, however, and it remains perhaps Bury’s greatest historical monograph.


Sarah Bolmarcich received her doctorate in Classics from the University of Virginia.  She currently teaches at the University of Michigan.

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