Roman Historians

In the mid-fifth century b.c.e., when the great Greek historian Herodotus settled in the Athenian colony of Thurii in southern Italy, Rome had not yet consolidated its control over the peninsula.

The struggle with the declining but still powerful Etruscans was ongoing. The Gauls, a Celtic people of the north, sacked Rome in 390 b.c.e. The Punic Wars concluded in the second century b.c.e., after which Rome would assert its dominance across the Mediterranean basin.

Early Roman historians did not look to Herodotus as a guide, at least not directly. They were largely uninterested in geography and ethnology, unlike Herodotus, considered the Father of History. Their emphasis was on politics, and the cultural influence of Greece remained profound.

The first great historian of Rome was not Roman, nor did he write in Latin; he was Greek and employed that language. Polybius (202–120 b.c.e.) believed that Rome’s power derived from its institutions, most notably its constitution.

Aristotelian political theories and Thucydides’ histories influenced Polybius greatly. Polybius lacked his forerunner’s political acumen, but his call for archival research shaped future historiography. Polybius would serve as a touchstone of later Roman historians, including Livy.

Prior to Livy, Roman historiography followed a pattern seen in early Greece. The earliest "documentarians" of Rome were epic poets. These poet-historians tapped directly into Greek mythology. Gnaeus Naevius (270–201 b.c.e.) traced Rome’s origins back to Aeneas, the Trojan prince, as did Quintus Ennius (239–169 b.c.e.). Naevius and Ennius wrote in Greek, despite their Roman citizenship.

The oldest extant fragment of Latin poetry is a translation of Homer’s Odyssey. The first Roman prose historian was Q. Fabius Pictor, but his task was accomplished in Greek.

Marcus Porcius Cato (234–149 b.c.e.), known as Cato the Elder, was the first Roman who wrote Roman history in Latin prose. Like Fabius before him, Cato was a politician. He was, however, of plebeian origin, a fact that would produce his excoriations of aristocratic families.

Fabius and Cato were typical of what became the model of Roman historians. They were politicians possessing access to official archives and also gave thematic importance to moralistic patriotism. That tone became typical of Roman history writing.

The annalists merit mention, especially as they later served as resources for Livy. Annalists recorded the events that took place in a given year, as well as the names of the ruling magistrates.

They made no attempt to provide a true narrative of historical events, much less an interpretative one. L. Coelius Antipater, Valerius Antias, and Q. Claudius Quadrigarius were active in the second and first centuries b.c.e. and were the most noteworthy of the era. One exception to the dry chronicle generally offered was M. Terentius Varro (116–27 b.c.e.). Comparisons have been made between his work and that of modern-day cultural historians.

As a contemporary of Varro, Sallust, a retired army general, was more typical. His vision would encourage the notion that moral laxity had led to Roman decline. Sallust’s particular emphasis created a myth of Rome’s fall well before the occurrence of the actual event.

Livy (Titus Livius) was born in Patavium (modern Padua) in Cisalpine Gaul, in either 64 or 59 b.c.e. He would ultimately die there, in either 7 or 12 c.e. He moved to Rome at the age of 30. There, he wrote his voluminous Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome). The original work covered some 744 years of history in 142 books. Only 35 of these actually survive, covering the periods from 753 to 243 and from 210 to 167 b.c.e.

Livy was the first professional historian, devoting himself full time to his endeavors. He diverged from the Roman model in that he was not a politician; however, he firmly believed in the idea and symbol of Rome. Livy admits to basing his account on the myths that circulated.

He wrote of events that took place more than 500 years prior to his writing about them. To accomplish this he synthesized all six versions of the annalists, as well as assorted poems and legends. He was particularly indebted to Asinius Pollio and Valerius of Antium. Some have argued that Livy should be regarded more as a novelist and less as a historian.

There are many references to the supernatural in Livy’s work, though he was dismissive of the phenomena on occasion. He attributed these references to popular superstitions and rumor exaggerated in times of crisis. To omit them from his work, however, would have erased a vital aspect of Roman history.

The flight patterns of birds, the alignment of animal entrails, these required and dictated specific actions on the part of the political, military, and priestly elites. Heated debates have taken place over whether Livy was a full-fledged Stoic. His alleged Stoicism might well explain the systematic inclusion of auguries in his work.

As represented by Cicero, Roman Stoicism accepted the supernatural as a near commonplace, woven into the fabric of everyday life. Not all of antiquity accepted such matters outright; the Epicureans and the Sceptics firmly rejected auguries.

Some have dismissed Livy as a mythographer, a dramatically gifted craftsmen of literary prose. But epigraphy and archaeological discoveries have proven him to be more accurate than was once imagined. His range was certainly wider in scope than Sallust’s, or even that of Tacitus.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55–c. 117 c.e.) originated in either Cisalpine Gaul or Narbonese Gaul (southern France). His father was a procurator of Lower Germany and affiliated with the army along the Rhine river basin. In 77 c.e. he married into the family of a consul.

From there his path to the Senate was paved. As a historian, his best-known work is Germania, or On the Origin and Land of the Germans. It provides a window into the early history of the tribes along the frontier.

As these groups would later play a key role in both the collapse of Rome and the dawn of a European civilization, the contribution of Tacitus is invaluable. Tacitus also studied rhetoric in Rome and enjoyed success as a public speaker. His work Historiae (c. 109 c.e.) examines Rome from 68 to 96 c.e.

Though only portions remain extant, his account of the civil wars of this period is a masterful exploration of both the chaos and irrationality of the era. Composed later, the Annals cover the era beginning in 14 c.e. Tacitus is praised for his qualities as a writer and a historian and set new standards for the extent and scope of archival investigations.

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was born around the year 70 c.e. to a knightly family of North Africa. Moving to Rome, Suetonius was a teacher of literature, as well as a lawyer. Between 110 and 112 c.e. he began to hold a variety of imperial posts. He was responsible for the epistolary of Hadrian but was dismissed for impoliteness directed at the empress Sabina.

His books the Lives of Illustrious Men, which survives only in fragments, and the Lives of the Caesars, from Julius Caesar to Nero, entirely extant, are his most important works. Some of the more salacious scenes have earned Suetonius a reputation as a shallow tabloid reporter of antiquity, but his capacities for research and observation were formidable.

His habit of including, within the body of his text, source materials in their original Greek or Latin has furnished a treasure trove to posterity. It is from Suetonius that Julius Caesar’s famous declaration upon crossing the Rubicon, "The die is cast", derives.

Contemporary scholarship has tended to downplay the role any one person can have as an agent of historical change. Yet the importance of biographers, such as Suetonius, to provide a coherent snapshot of a given historical period by emphasizing the life and importance of the individual, has endured.