Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.11.35
Ronald Mellor (ed.), The historians of ancient Rome. Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2004. Pp. x, 617. ISBN 0-415-97108-X. $29.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Brad Eden, University of Nevada, Las Vegas (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 639 words
This book is probably the most comprehensive single volume of ancient sources available in English for the study of Rome, and provides an interesting cross section of Rome's ancient historians as well. This second edition includes greater coverage of the late Republic and Roman Empire. In the Preface, the author indicates that the book grew out of the lack of translated sources for classes in the areas of Roman history and Western civilization, at least in one readily available and inexpensive source. This edition has been expanded to include some letters of Cicero, more passages from Tacitus, Cicero's First Catilinarian, Pliny's letters on Pompeii and Christianity, some of Eusebius' Life of Constantine, Josephus' account of the Masada incident, the epitome of Dio's treatment of the reign of Trajan, and Suetonius' lives of Augustus and Julius Caesar (replacing his life of Caligula from the first edition).
The author writes a very good introduction, providing an understanding of how the Romans viewed not only their own history, but the history of the world. Roman traditions were of the utmost importance, preserved to provide meaning to what was happening in the present. Roman historians did not conduct research or validate previous historical writing when they wrote histories; for them, history was an act of literary composition. As such, recasting previous historical writing, interspersed with selected comments and opinions, was generally how Roman history was written. Some historians recast previously written material so well, through their style and presentation, that they drastically changed the focus and bias of the history. But research using primary sources, as we know it today, was not how Roman historians wrote. So how accurate were Roman historians? While they usually tried to avoid untruths, the gap between theory and actual practice was such that no serious distinction between primary and secondary sources was ever attempted. Political and moral issues were always of prime importance, as opposed to the accuracy of dates, names, and places.
The editor provides both a biography of each historian, as well as some context related to that historian's style, along with the particular selection(s) chosen for inclusion in the volume. The historians included are: Polybius (c. 202-120 B.C.E.), Appian (c. 95-160s C.E.), C. Sallustius Crispus (c. 86-35 B.C.E.), Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.), Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.E.), Titus Livy (c. 59 B.C.E.-17 C.E.), C. Octavius (63 B.C.E.-14 C.E.), the Jewish historian Josephus (37-ca. 100 C.E.), Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 70-140 C.E.), Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55-c. 117 C.E.), Gaius Plinius Secundus (61-112 C.E.), Eusebius of Caesarea (260-339 C.E.), and Ammianus Marcellinus' (330-395 C.E.). In addition, the anonymous Life of Hadrian (from the compilation known as Writers of Augustan History) is included.
Besides the general discussion on what a Roman historian was, and how the individuals above differed from each other in their literary style, interpretation, use of previous and new materials, and their biases, Mellor includes comments on Roman biography as a literary genre, what was involved in the craft of writing history from the Roman perspective, as well as the Roman historian as artist, entertainer, dramatist, and rhetorician. No matter how authentic or fabricated Roman history was written, however, all Roman historians held to themes of universal importance. These included: nostalgia for a lost "Golden Age," love for the city of Rome and its political life, moral historiography, a literary record of the past, the erosion of political institutions and moral values, and the belief that a function of history was to affect the future. The written history of Rome is one of heroic conduct and valor, and it is this view that is commemorated by later artists. This volume brings together almost 600 years of translated selections from some of Rome's greatest historians and is an essential addition for the study of the Roman empire as seen through the eyes of its own historians.