How Ancient Historians Worked — Summary

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I’ve decided to wrap up this series with this post. The book I have been discussing is online for anyone interested in following up the issues in more depth. In the future I may have time to discuss how the same points about Thucydides can be found to apply to other ancient historians like Tacitus, Josephus, Polybius, and so forth, too.


Here are the key points:

  1. A historian may inform readers he is relying upon eyewitness testimony and personal investigations in order to encourage readers to have confidence in the superiority of his narrative, but the reality may in fact be quite different. In fact the historian may well be re-creating historical scenes from other literature (epics, plays, works of other historical times and places) that are vividly realistic mental images for the reader.
  2. It was believed important for historians to select noble topics to write about. Their historical narratives were meant to serve the interests of both education and entertainment.
  3. Educational and inspirational messages were in the form of setting before readers actions that demonstrated the noble or right way to act in various circumstances, or conversely illustrating cases where the ignoble or foolish course of action brought disaster and shame. In this sense historiography belonged to what rhetoricians called the epideictic function. The point was to praise (and sometimes to praise the good by demonstrating the converse) what was good and noble in the past as an inspiration for contemporary audiences.
  4. Truth was a matter of what was plausible given all we know of the human nature and the natural world. Hence gaps in historical knowledge could be validly filled in by the historian creating scenes that were “true to life”. Historical facts were those details or events that fulfilled the purpose of the historian’s narrative.
  5. Historians considered even the epic poet Homer as a historian. In this context it is worth noting that Homer himself avoids narrating the fanciful excesses of the Greek myths as if they were objective facts; rather, when he does write about these tales he places them in the speeches of his characters. (Herodotus, likewise, would couch tales of the mythical and fabulous within a framework of some scepticism.) Homer wrote epic verse, and Thucydides justified his own prose style by contrast on the grounds that the topic he was addressing was so much greater than Homer’s that it did not need the extra flourishes that poetry offered. Even so, Thucydides’ own prose style was at times itself poetic in style.
  6. Entertainment was always a core element of historical narratives. Historians would generally write as if they themselves had witnessed the events they were narrating, creating realistic and detailed mental images for readers, and imitating master scenes from earlier literature to do so. The topics they wrote about would be presented as “the greatest” or “most exceptional” in some way.
  7. By relying upon earlier literature (tragedies, epic poetry), and through believing that “the truth” lay in what was plausible given what we know of the world, and with an interest in teaching a “true and noble lesson”, literary precedents and motifs would come to shape the content of the historical narrative. Thus it was a common motif in the literature that war and plague went together like fish and chips. This literary/cultural motif leaves us in a quandary when it comes to certain events that are not corroborated outside the text, such as the plague of Athens. Has the historian pictured the plague to teach lessons (he has certainly placed it most artfully in conjunction with the great speech of Pericles) and has he introduced it because it serves his purposes so well? Did it really happen? We simply have no way of knowing for certain, or at least we have no way of knowing if it was anywhere near as serious as the historian indicates.
  8. Historical works were often constructed in ways similar to other forms of literature such as dramatic tragedies and epic poems. Historical writing was considered a branch of rhetoric. The genre of history was not as clear cut from other literary works as it is today. Compare ancient astronomy being mixed up with what we label astrology. So not only would the choice of topic (it had to be a noble one) be important, but it was also important to work out where it began and where to conclude it. Sometimes those rather “inconclusive” endings (at least for our tastes) only make sense when we understand the wider literary context of the day. It was more important for a literary work — even a historiographical one — to teach readers important and inspiring “truths” about human behaviour, and that usually meant deploying literary techniques such as dramatic reversals, irony, puns, inclusios.
  9. It was important for historians to imitate their predecessors. Imitation’s purpose was to demonstrate either the superiority of the present work or to show that it followed in the credible and worthy manner of the masters.
  10. Speeches did not present a rough outline of what was said. They more often were complete fabrications that contained a theme or point that they imagined would have been made by the historical speaker. The role of speeches was a legacy from the Homeric epics and dramatic dialogues in tragedies. They served a literary dramatic function as well as a means for the author to express his own ideology and lessons he wanted to convey.
  11. A historian was considered to be more “truthful” if he was more critical in outlook. Praise was generally associated with flattery and untruth. It was important for a historian to avoid excess in everything, praise and blame, to maintain credibility. But then as today a critical attitude, rightly or wrongly, conveyed the impression of greater “objectivity”. In fact, a critical historian (e.g. Thucydides) was just as much part of the world of creative writing as those who were better known for their praises of the past (e.g. Herodotus).
  12. Scholars of the classics are known to counsel caution where a narrative of an ancient historian cannot be verified by external evidence. This warning is especially relevant given that in those few cases there is external evidence it belies the written account. Modern scholars of the classics have also written that they know of no or very few criteria by which to distil bedrock historical facts from the literary garnish with which they are presented. I am surprised classicists have not learned how to apply all the criteria that New Testament scholars have at their disposal for discerning through the Gospels and Acts the genuine core events and even the genuine words spoken by key figures.


Should we bring such knowledge about the ways of ancient historians to our studies of the historical works of the Bible? Should we rather follow the advice of New Testament scholars who exhort us to apply a hermeneutic of charity and accept the core historicity of an account unless or until it can be proven false? Should we apply the same critical perspectives to Luke-Acts as we do, say, to the writings of Thucydides?

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

7 thoughts on “How Ancient Historians Worked — Summary”

  1. This is a great short summary of a central point regarded a central flaw in attempts to prove there was an historical Jesus.

    However, don’t forget just one key sentence or two to state the obvious point (for those many Christians who miss the obvious). That is: if ancient historians were highly unreliable,and given to invention of “facts” and so forth, then likely early Christian reporters, the historians of early Christianity who were writing the Gospel of Luke and so forth, were also unreliable.

    As we know from modern historiography, Historical methodology classes, all around the early reporters on the history of early Christianity, were models of for very flawed “historical” methods. It therefore seems inevitable that when writers like Luke wrote their own histories, their accounts were almost certainly not reliable. Even their very best idea of “History” would have been inadequate.

    History was just not a sufficiently advanced or accurate discipline at the time when Jesus was said to appear, or shortly thereafter. Particularly not in the Roman provinces, like Jerusalem. So when Luke arrives to “provide” an orderly account of earlier events, we should not expect too much in the way of accuracy. Even citations of “eyewitnesses” were often false, in this ancient era. When all forms of information were extremely hard to verify.

  2. I’m still trying to understand Luke, and all the evangelists for that matter.

    The first point they all have in common with the ideals of historiography (though not necessarily arguing that the Gospels and Acts are historiography) is their choice of a most important subject with a clear-cut start and finish point. So important is it, in fact, that it must be divinely revealed. It is all about the fulfillment of the Scriptures. Compare Homer’s introductions: Homer calls on the divine Muse to sing through him of the deeds of Achilles; he then asks the Muse to inform him of the adventures of Odysseus. Mark begins with the divine prophecy that sets the backdrop for all that is to follow. Luke, similarly, begins with a series of prophetic pronouncements that include the coming death of the hero.

    Robert Hall, Revealed Histories, addresses a wide range of examples of how Jewish historiography made room for history by divine revelation. Very often this revelation was an explanation of how to interpret the past events. But there is also a fair amount of revelation of past events, too — especially those that happened behind the scene, in the spirit realm. These revelations often consisted of paradigms or events that were patterned like the events being experienced by the readers. (e.g. Daniel and Jubilees and the experiences of the Maccabees).

    It is not very difficult to imagine an evangelist who has chosen to write about what God in the flesh did when he came to earth being inspired by the patterns of what had happened before. Thus Matthew saw in the life of Moses the prophetic revelation of the history of Jesus; Luke saw the revelation in the life of Elijah, etc.

    I don’t know if there is a perfect parallel with what other Greek, Roman or even Jewish historians did, if this is what the evangelists were doing. But I can imagine that if they wanted to outdo what had been done before, they found a more august and “real” authority for their revealed histories than Muses and spirits — viz, the ancient Scriptures.

    I’m still trying to work out all my thoughts on this. I might find there’s a far less serious explanation. Still waiting for Roger Parvus’s thesis on how the Gospel of Mark was composed.

    Either way, whatever was on the minds of these authors, you are quite correct, of course, that any reading of Luke-Acts does need to take account of the possibility it is anywhere from twenty to 100 percent imaginative writing.

  3. Ernst Breisach’s book, Historiography, raises interesting issues. Homer is included in his pantheon of Greek “historians,” but the idea appears to be that Greek tales of gods and heroes are emblematic of the cycles of human nature. By contrast, Christian historiography revolutionizes ancient historiography by subjecting it to theologically imposed beginning, middle, and end points, consisting of creation, appearance of Christ on Earth, and the Second Coming. The emphasis is no longer on a more or less permanent human nature. You can see the embryonic beginnings here of what would later become the humanist movement in the time of Erasmus, i.e., a movement that was associated with humanism and at the same time with a revival of Greek and Roman (pagan) classics. In our own time, we have the fundamentalist Christian demonization of what they call “secular humanists,” thus associating all things humanist with all things secular, an intellectual error.

    What is interesting about the Christian “revolution” in historiography is that it appears that Christian history is largely seen as the history of the church, which is to say, the history of an intellectual or “spiritual” movement, rather than the “history” of the content of the myth, the divine acts of God or Jesus as described in Scripture. The myth is to be accepted on faith. Faith is a fact of human nature in the ancient world, and it is expressed in sacred words written down by divinely inspired writers, or “prophets.”

    There are different theories about how the ancient Greeks viewed their myths, and there are books on the subject, but from that which I’ve read, it appears the Greeks did not have the same hyper-authoritarian, damnation/salvation approach to their beliefs that Christianity has. Thus, there would be a big difference between muse-inspired “sacred words” of poets like “Homer,” and the Sacred Word of a Christian gospel or other Scripture.

    These two approaches to logocentrism are distinct, and both are different from the approach toward facts resulting from the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on science and natural laws. I am only beginning to understand all this, but I think understanding these distinctions is essential to anyone who wants to understand his or her own assumptions with respect to these intersections between “belief” and “history.”

    1. Thanks for this. It makes me realize I have much more to learn on the whole question of ancient historiography. One question, though: did the “historian” we know as Luke write any differently from a “muse-inspired” Homer with the “hyper-authoritarian” view being a later interpretation and manipulation of his work?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading