The Birth of Clio

Classical Greco-Roman historiography, considered as a whole, presents a number of relatively clear, unitary and well-defined features in certain respects. As regards its contents (what deserves to be historized): the origins and evolution (above all, the recent evolution) of political communities (centring upon their own), especially at decisive moments in their existence (military conflicts and/or expansion), and through the most remarkable events. In addition, as concerns its aims and objectives: enquiry (into political matters, to a certain extent) is intermingled with reflections and ethical lessons about the ambiguous and elusive nature of human beings, in order to instil moderation, patriotism, a love of peace and fortitude in the face of changes in personal and collective fortune, since human wellbeing is not permanent.

All of this is carried out by means of a unitary narrative (structured around a central subject), which is well-structured, reliable (due to the verification and checking of the evidence, by and large oral in nature), captivating (above all in Herodotus and Livy) and convincing (especially in the case of Thucydides and Polybius). The experience of mutation over the course of time and comparative analysis between somewhat different peoples or individuals (the Greeks and the Persians, Alexander and Caesar) enriches classical historical research. Natural curiosity frequently leads attention to be drawn to the extraordinary (the feats of the community itself or other peoples’ habits that appear bizarre, such as the funerals of the Scythian kings).

Be that as it may, classical historiography had a very limited geographical, chronological and teleological scope. It is the history of the old Greco-Roman world and its immediate neighbours, of a few centuries (in general), a history whose culmination or final horizon is foreign to the concerns, at least the explicit and openly stated ones, of these historians. The notion of freedom and human perfectibility, to a certain degree perceptible in Thucydides, is balanced by the impact of practically immutable natural laws and the inexorable and almost unforeseeable consequences of fate or fortune. In order to answer the great question of whether history has any underlying unifying meaning, classical historiography has only vague and imprecise answers. It almost exclusively focuses its attention on the qualities and problems of the mid-term (the hegemonic expansionism of the Athenians to explain Peloponnesian War, for instance).

Greco-Roman historiography, the history of political communities at decisive moments, the history of the short-term timescale and a history that forms citizens and rulers, is carried out by men close to power, generals, politicians, or men of letters close to the latter, who write without any specific professional preparation, basing themselves on their own experiences (memoirs) or what happened to their acquaintances. For Greco-Roman writers history is a rather derivative activity of secondary importance that appears at a belated date in their lives.

F. Sánchez Marcos