Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.06.24

Ronald Mellor, The Roman Historians.   New York:  Routledge, 1999.  Pp. x, 212.  ISBN 0-415-11774-7.  $21.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jason Davies, University College London (
Word count: 1718 words

The study of ancient historiography has taken a new direction in recent years, away from discussions centred on historical accuracy and sources towards more literary and rhetorical issues: and it is far from diminished for it. The dilemma in scholarship is centred on these two poles, and it would be misleading to say that consensus has been reached (a situation aptly summarised by a somewhat exasperated student as 'when is a fact not a fact? When it's history'.) Not surprisingly, in the wake of these revisions of specific authors, general books on Roman historians seem to be appearing apace: after Marincola's Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography (Cambridge, 1997) and Kraus and Woodman's Latin Historians (G & R New Surveys in the Classics 27: Oxford, 1997), we now have M[ellor]'s complementary summary. Between the three, just about everything that qualifies as Roman history is mentioned somewhere, even if in rather different approaches. Whereas Marincola analysed themes across Greek and Latin authors and Kraus and Woodman presented revisionist discussions of some Latin historians, M.'s book is essentially a synthesis of the various strands of scholarship on various writers over the last three decades and fills a niche left, or rather created, by the two foregoing studies in its affable accessibility and breadth, dealing as it does not just with the obvious (Sallust, Caesar, Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius) but also the relatively neglected (fragmentary works such as Nepos, Historia Augusta, Ammianus) as well as works not always automatically included under the historiographical rubric (Tacitus' Agricola and Germania, various lost or fragmentary autobiographical efforts.)

In brief, Mellor achieves his aim to produce a readable introduction to the nature of the historiographical enterprise of Rome during antiquity, if we allow for the ambiguity of the title, since sources written in Greek are not examined. What makes the book especially suitable for introducing undergraduates to ancient historiography is the inclusion of material such as biographical details, or at least the status of available biographical information, and discussion of the context of writing. Thus The Roman Historians, with its copious general information, book summaries and overview of the material provides a relatively easy way in for students new to the issues inherent in historiography. However, M.'s very success simultaneously provides his greatest limitation: while it is obvious that such a wide focus necessitates summarising and compression, there is a lot to be said for avoiding both over-simplification and (even more so) over-zealous guidance: it is these two issues that present problems.

The position espoused by M. is synthetic: specific studies of many of these historians have transformed our understanding of their projects and these are not neglected, but it cannot be said that M.'s account really embraces these newer approaches: rather they are woven, with disingenuous ease, into what is otherwise a fairly traditional discussion: issues of 'identity' and 'rhetoric' sit alongside 'historical accuracy' and Quellenforschung. While this represents quite fairly the variety of approaches available to students in dedicated studies, M. is also in danger of papering over cracks that are more usefully highlighted. So, for instance, while Livy is accepted here to be more of an artist than was generally accepted, he is never permitted to rise to the heights that he attains in (e.g.) Kraus and Woodman; despite the kind of discussion of 'realism' and 'battle-reports' that Woodman1 explored, Livy's geography and battle descriptions are still dismissed as 'confused'. Similarly, though Woodman's efforts to redefine ueritas in connection with partisan bias rather than 'facticity' are implicitly acknowledged, rather too often 'truth' is seen only in reference to historical accuracy, which M. nonetheless points out would have been seen as pedantry rather than appropriate to historiography by contemporaries. The resulting impression is too often that M. is making excuses for Roman historiography rather than redefining it to distinguish it from the current entity of the same name. The criteria for judging ancient historians thus shift a little too effortlessly between the ancient and the anachronistic, which rather undermines the attempts at rehabilitation and reappraisal, and will arguably leave the reader unsure as to quite how to approach these texts. For instance, repeatedly underlying the concessions to the 'newer approaches' are assumptions about the teleology of historiography. This undoes a lot of the good rehabilitatory work: can we really agree that "since Tacitus could not easily explain ambiguities, they are expressed as contradictions" (104)? Tacitus' treatment of Tiberius has merited a good deal of discussion that amply demonstrates the sophistication of his analysis, yet M. still leaves the reader of the Annals thinking in terms of the author's failure to discover modern criteria and methods.

M.'s remit also tempts him to combine this sense of failure with making sweeping generalisations of the type that lodge in students' minds, forever to override any rational criticism: thus we read that "Sallust could not approach his master [Thucydides] in intellectual profundity, his critical use of sources, or dispassionate analysis of causation. He had no room for the clinical objectivity of Thucydides since the writing of history at Rome demanded a moral and political commitment; Latin historical writing was deeply and unashamedly subjective" (44). Leaving aside the difficulties of reading Thucydides, this is typical of M.'s approach; despite his protestations, undergraduates would probably be left with a sense that Roman historians were still to work out what historiography should be about; rather an oversight since a Greek had gifted them with all they needed to know several centuries previously. Generalising appears at its least useful in M.'s tendency to try to create a 'league-table' of historians: so (e.g.) "though Ammianus excels his master [Tacitus] on military and diplomatic matters and his character sketches are more balanced, Tacitus' political insight and literary ability continue to make him the greatest of all Roman historians" (115) or "while Livy honorably refused to become a court historian, he perhaps did not have the political acumen and sharp wit [i.e. unlike Tacitus] necessary to write a truly probing history of those complex times. Without his final books, there is no way to be certain" (72). Similarly the assertion that "if Livy's congenial narrative suited the exploits of Rome's past, the grim contemporary history of the late Republic and early Empire required more biting and wittily epigrammatic prose" (189) only makes sense if we accept the historical accounts at face value. As M. says, we simply do not know how Livy dealt with the late Republic -- which makes the comment pejorative rather than useful (or even necessary). These unnecessary judgements rest almost entirely on traditional (and often anachronistic) assessments; even if they were not, they are the kind of comments that will unfortunately stick in the mind of new readers, M.'s target audience.

At times, M.'s adoption of 'rhetorical' concerns sits rather uneasily alongside a concern for accuracy: thus we read that "some criticisms of [Suetonius'] biographies may be justified. When he repeatedly refers to sources vaguely as 'some say', we can expect better from a scrupulous scholar. He is also too quick to accept, or at least include, scandalous stories which even he does not believe ... such innuendoes might be understandable in a rhetorical historian but not in Suetonius" (155). Compare "Tacitus found the incestuous relationship between Nero and his mother Agrippina so horrifying that he carefully reported contradictory sources on whether Nero or Agrippina instigated it, before following Cluvius' account that it was most likely Agrippina (Annals 14.2). He cannot simply report the morally outrageous episode as an epic poet would do" (191); or indeed as Suetonius virtually does at Nero 28? Not only is the distinction between a 'scrupulous scholar' and a 'rhetorical historian' rather forced, but the value judgements are unnecessary and probably misleading. Elsewhere, M. acknowledges that to refer to anonymous sources is entirely normal procedure; what is puzzling is that he continues to criticise historians on grounds that he has already indicated are not particularly valid.2

This arranged marriage between the old and the new schools of thought makes the almost complete lack of footnotes or references awkward. Clearly M. is familiar with a whole range of methodological discussions but the student who wishes to explore the issues raised is faced with a very limited bibliography. The lack of notes certainly adds to the accessibility but a critical bibliography to indicate specific areas of discussion would have been extremely useful. In the bibliography that is given, we might have expected to meet the likes of Feldherr,3 Jaeger,4 Sinclair,5 Plass6 (who is admittedly referred to in passing), Rike 7 and Blockley8 in the specific bibliographies rather than more dated discussions.

A few other (traditional) items give cause for concern; throughout, M. is too dismissive of religious factors despite recent scholarship; more pedantically, Livy's Stoicism (p. 58) is far from being an interpretation that commands a consensus; the same is true of Ammianus' links with Tacitus; and the identification of the author referred to in Libanius' letter as Ammianus has been regarded with increasing suspicion in recent years. Tacitus' sincerity in the Agricola is rather less simple than is assumed here (146) and the inevitable typo is particularly unfortunate in its redating the eruption of Vesuvius to 69 AD; plausible unless you know.

Overall, it would be unfair to say that The Roman Historians is a missed opportunity to provide a revised platform from which to view its subject, but neither does this book properly represent either the more traditional or the newer angles available: to this reviewer at least the apparently seamless continuity of scholarship is more illusory than coherent. It would surely be more useful to indicate where the important questions reside rather than imply that diverse criteria can all be satisfied, with just a little forcing of the jigsaw pieces. Nonetheless it is certainly a useful addition to student bibliographies: these criticisms hover in the zone between exhaustive and representative and most of the discussion is perfectly sound and consistently clear: Mellor provides the kind of background information that makes it clear that a text is the product of its time and society as much as of its author. In particular the frequent sub-headings are useful and informative in themselves; but readers should be urged to move on to Kraus and Woodman and the like if they are to begin exploring the texts any further.


1.   Woodman A. J. (1988) Rhetoric in Ancient Historiography: Four Studies (London et al.) especially 206f.
2.   There are many such contradictions within M.'s text: further examples include his judgement of Ammianus' digressions, favoured on p.128, but 'puzzling' on p.186.
3.   A. M. Feldherr (1998) Spectacle and Society in Livy's History (Berkeley)
4.   M. K. Jaeger (1997) Livy's Written Rome (Ann Arbor)
5.   P. Sinclair (1995) Tacitus the Sententious Historian: A Sociology of Rhetoric in Annals 1-6 (University Park, Penn.)
6.   P. Plass (1988) Wit and the Writing of History: The Rhetoric of Historiography in Imperial Rome (Madison)
7.   R. L. Rike (1987) Apex Omnium: Religion in the Res Gestae of Ammianus (Berkeley)
8.   R. C. Blockley (1975) Ammianus Marcellinus: A Study of his Historiography and Political Thought (Collections Latomus 141: Brussels)

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