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The father of history: 5th century BC

Human societies, in pre-literate times, invariably pass down in an oral tradition the group's memory of what has happened in the past. This involves much legend and a certain amount of fact. When writing becomes available, the scribes record these stories. Two such collections form the western world's greatest shared store of anecdotes, cautionary tales, heroes and villains. They are the Bible and the poems of Homer.

But these are not history in the full sense. The first deliberate attempt to discover, record and analyze the past is made in Greece in the 5th century BC.

Herodotus is the first writer to make a conscious attempt to discover and explain past events. He is rightly known as the 'father of history'.

The saga which inspires him to undertake anything so new and so difficult is the one which has overshadowed his own childhood and youth - the clash between Greeks and Persians. Herodotus grows up in Halicarnassus, in Asia Minor. At the time of his birth the Greeks are winning great battles in mainland Greece. During his adult life they drive the Persians from the Greek colonies of Asia Minor.

Asia Minor lies between these two great civilizations, Greece and Persia. Brought up within the first, Herodotus determines to find out about the second. He spends much of his life travelling within the Persian empire, which extends at this time into Egypt. So this first work of history is also, in a sense, the first travel book. In the way of travel books, it includes exotic details - such as how the Egyptians make mummies.

Copies of Herodotus are available by 425 BC. By then his story has a patriotic urgency, with its account of a time when all the Greeks combined against a common enemy. In strong contrast is the bitter contemporary squabbling of the Peloponnesian War, which has entered a new phase in 431 BC.

Thucydides and contemporary history: 431 - 411 BC

The second Greek historian, Thucydides, adds a new dimension - that of contemporary history. An Athenian, born probably in about 460 BC, he is a young man when war is renewed between Athens and Sparta in 431, after a peace of sixteen years.

Although the complete work of Herodotus is not yet published, Thucydides is certain to know the work of the older historian - who has made his living by reciting the highlights of his narrative. Herodotus has told the story of the last great war, between Greeks and Persians. In 431 Thucydides recognizes the onset of the next major conflict, between Greeks. He resolves to record the Peloponnesian War as it happens.

He is immediately in the thick of events. In the summers of 430 and 429 Athens is stricken by plague. The Athenian leader, Pericles, dies of the disease. Thucydides himself catches it but survives. His Account of the symptoms is a first-hand report of unprecedented vividness.

In 424 he is elected one of the ten strategoi or military commanders for that year. Put in charge of an Athenian fleet in the northern Aegean, he fails to prevent the Spartans capturing an important city in the region. As a result he is exiled from Athens. He says later that the misfortune helps him in his great task, forcing him to travel and enabling him to view the conflict from different perspectives.

An important characteristic of Thucydides' work is his determination to achieve an objective view of what has happened, and of its causes. He states this clearly at the end of his introduction, saying that he will begin by listing the precise complaints of each side which, in their view, led to war.

But he then adds that he believes such arguments obscure the issue. In his own considered opinion, 'what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta'.

A clear statement of the available evidence, leading to an informed conclusion, has remained the basic principle of history. The serious historian is advocate for both sides as well as presiding judge. To this end Thucydides uses a method which seems strange to a modern reader. His protagonists put their points of view in long speeches, perhaps in an assembly or before a battle. In the narrative these fall naturally enough. But since Thucydides himself was usually not there, his method is a fictional one which now seems out of place in history.

His account ends abruptly in 411. Whatever the reason may be, it is not his own death. He returns from exile to Athens at the end of the war, in 404.

Xenophon and eyewitness history: 400 BC

Thucydides' history is continued from 411 BC by the third and last of the great trio of Greek historians - Xenophon. The fact that a contemporary continues the work so precisely from this date proves that Thucydides did indeed finish his work there, rather than the remainder being lost. But Xenophon, though a vivid writer, proves a very inadequate historian at a serious level. A supporter of Sparta, he lacks any sense of objectivity.

Fortunately this does not spoil the work which has made him famous. In 400 BC he finds himself part of a Greek force making a desperate retreat from Persia. Objectivity is irrelevant. He describes only what he sees and hears. The result is vivid eyewitness history, akin almost to journalism.

Xenophon's Anabasis (Greek for 'the journey up') is full of fascinating detail, as the Greek mercenaries struggle homewards from defeat in Persia. Desperate for provisions, they are constantly skirmishing with hostile tribesmen. Xenophon is voted into the leadership group and he gives himself much of the credit (possibly with justification) for their safe return to Greece, five months later.

The most famous moment in his account is when the leaders of the column come over the ridge of a mountain and begin shouting Thalassa, Thalassa (the sea, the sea). They have reached the Black Sea and relative safety.

Sima Qian and Chinese history: from the 2nd c. BC

The most ambitious undertaking of ancient history is achieved by a Chinese historian of the 2nd century BC, Sima Qian.

China at this time already has a long tradition of carefully kept archives, dating back to the Shang oracle bones of about 1500 BC. The Confucian classics from a millennium later contain works of history. But these are dry documents, mere annals of reigns and dates and public events. By contrast Sima Qian, who has a hereditary post as Grand Historian at the Han court, sets himself the task of describing in narrative terms everything of significance that has happened in the known world - China and its surrounding territories.

His adopted method is an original blend of chronicle and encyclopedia. The great work, amounting to more than half a million Chinese characters, is divided into five sections. In the first he gathers together the annals of the rulers of China. It is a measure of the thoroughness of his predecessors that he can give accurately the names of Shang kings more than 1000 years before his time (modern scholars assume these details to be legendary, until they are confirmed by inscriptions on the Shang oracle bones).

Sima Qian's second section is effectively a time chart, of a kind now once again fashionable. He puts in graph form the chronological sequence of important events.

Section three is the encyclopedia, with entries on such subjects as music, ritual, astronomy, the calendar and economics. The fourth section gives the histories of the rival kingdoms during the long Zhou dynasty.

The final part is the one which gives rein to Sima Qian's narrative and descriptive skills. It consists of biographies of influential people, covering a very wide range. Here can be found good and bad officials, generals, self-made men in the merchant class and even the homosexual favourites of the emperors. Sima Qian extends this section with accounts of people in China's neighbouring territories, in southeast Asia, central Asia or Korea.

Sima Qian holds a special place in the affections of those who toil in the vineyards of history, offering as he does a shining example of courage and good sense. One day he displeases the emperor Wudi by speaking in defence of a general who is out of favour. The unfortunate historian, in this brually autocratic world, is sentenced to castration. This is intended to be a sentence of death, since no gentleman can live with such dishonour.

But Sima Qian decides (as he explains in a Letter to a friend) that his unfinished history is more important than his honour as a gentleman. He accepts castration and lives on, in a shameful existence, as 'a remnant of the knife and saw'. But he finishes the work.

The achievement of Sima Qian launches a historical tradition in China unmatched anywhere else in the world. His work stands at the beginning of an unbroken series of what become known as the Standard Histories. They continue until the final year of the Chinese empire, in 1911. By the 7th century, under the T'ang dynasty, there is a department of the civil service called the College of Historians. These people keep a day-by-day record of the present administration, while writing from the archives the official history of the previous dynasty.

Civil-service style means that the vitality of Sima Qian is not often matched. But his example inspires an unparalleled historical endeavour.

Cato and Caesar: 2nd - 1st century BC

The first man to attempt a Latin history of Rome is Cato, a statesman and orator famous for his implacable opposition to Carthage. He writes his Origines ('Origins', from the founding of Rome to his own time) in about 160 BC. But only a few fragments remain.

The earliest surviving work of Roman history is therefore from the next century. A short volume, and one of the most famous in its field, it can lay no claim to historical objectivity. It is written for a specific and polemical purpose. It is Julius Caesar's own account of his greatest military campaign.

The Gallic War: 52 BC

It is probably in the autumn of 52 BC, after his defeat of Vercingetorix, that Caesar settles down in his winter quarters at Bibracte (to the northwest of modern Lyons) to record for posterity his successes in Gaul over the past six years.

The title he writes at the head of his papyrus is 'Gaius Julius Caesar's Notes on his Achievements' - though historians will come to know his book simply as The Gallic War. When the work is finished a copy goes off to Rome, where it is probably published during 51. Caesar has been assiduously cultivating support back in the capital, for political struggles to come. The book of his achievements is an important shot in this other campaign (see Caesar and his book).

Livy and the Augustan Age: 27 BC - AD 17

When Rome settles down at the end of the 1st century BC, after the civil wars provoked by Julius Caesar, the mood of consolidation brings with it a wish to celebrate Rome's past.

This need is met in legendary form and epic verse in Virgil's Aeneid. Meanwhile a related appetite, for slightly more sober facts, is satisfied in ample measure by Livy. His History of Rome, from the supposed arrival of Aeneas down to the Augustan Age, runs to 142 books of which 32 survive (each filling at least 50 pages in a modern paperback). In the next century the poet Martial complains that in his entire library there is not room for the works of Livy.

Livy is on the whole uncritical of his sources (and anyway there are no sources to be critical of for the early centuries). His main interest, apart from the underlying one of glorifying Rome, lies in telling a dramatic story. The great work is published as he writes it, over a period of more than forty years from 27 BC to his death in AD 17.

Fortunately the surviving sections include the Second Punic War. The popular memory today of Hannibal's difficulties in getting his elephants across the Rhône, and then over the Alps, derives largely from Livy's brilliance in narrating a good story.

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