Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.07.53

Peter Liddel, Andrew Fear (ed.), Historiae Mundi: Studies in Universal Historiography.   London:  Duckworth, 2010.  Pp. ix, 244.  ISBN 9780715638330.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by Charles E. Muntz, University of Arkansas (

This collection of papers derives from the conference "Universal History in Antiquity and Beyond" which was held in June 2007 at the University of Manchester. The term "universal history" is a problematic one. A true universal history should, in theory, cover all periods and cultures. In spite of the difficulty in accomplishing this, several Greek and Roman historians in the late Republican and early Imperial periods made such claims about their works. But, as Liddel and Fear note in their introduction, ancient authors themselves would claim that their histories were universal on the basis of other factors, such as the exposition of universally applicable historical schemes or a single unifying characteristic. Liddel and Fear suggest "that the new perspectives on the subject of universal historiography may be revealed by a selective approach, and by the application to the subject of a range of methodologies."

They have cast a wide net for their collection of papers, and this is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength in that we can see how the concept of universal history has been adopted across a wide stretch of time and space and how different modern conceptions are from the ancient. But it is a weakness because inevitably we are treated to a broad range of definitions of what a "universal history" is, leaving the individual papers somewhat disconnected from each other and giving the entire collection a rather scattershot effect. Some of the most important ancient universal historians (Ephorus, Posidonius, Pompeius Trogus, Nicolaus of Damascus) are omitted entirely. It is a pity that the editors did not choose to provide a more thorough overview of the ancient works and how the ancient authors themselves understood the idea of universal history to give a fuller framework in which to situate the individual papers. Ultimately, since I suspect this book will be consulted mainly for individual contributions, and not for the entire collection, I will provide an overview of the papers with some general comments.

Liddel opens the collection with "Metabole politeia as Universal History." In it he examines Polybius and what he means by writing a history to katholou. In particular, Liddel focuses on the idea of constitutional change, with which he argues the Greeks were preoccupied. Plato and Aristotle established sophisticated models for understanding types of government and constitutional transformation. Polybius develops these theories and for the first time integrates them into an historical work with his famous anacyclosis in book six. Liddel argues that Polybius makes the anacyclosis into the universal mechanism for understanding history. My concern is that outside of book six, Polybius appears to have a different understanding of history than the anacyclosis. Liddel acknowledges this, and suggests that Polybius actually has two notions of universal change: this cyclical view and a linear progression towards Rome. Given that book six is only a single book out of forty, I think this argument needs further development.

Hartog also tackles the issue of Polybius' universalism in "Polybius and the First Universal History". He acknowledges some of the traditional criteria on which Polybius has been judged "universal", such as the traits of sumploke and synopsis, before focusing on the role of Fortune. Hartog argues that Polybius, by making Fortune a central and unifying force in his histories, is actually rebutting the Poetics of Aristotle. Whereas Aristotle had argued that history was specific, while tragedy was universal, Polybius sees history as universal, and through the agency of Fortune, as the true tragedy.

Sheridan looks at "Diodorus' Reading of Polybius' Universalism". He argues that, contrary to Liddel and Hartog, Polybius actually struggled to define why his history was "universal". While Polybius emphasized geographical breadth, his vision was limited by his perception that history converged on Rome. Diodorus' vision of history, on the other hand, focused on temporal breadth. For Polybius, history became universal as events became increasingly interwoven with the growth of Roman power. Sheridan argues that Diodorus, in going back to the beginning of history itself, is trying to place Rome in context and show that Rome is merely one empire in a long line and not, as in Polybius, the end result of an historical process.

Bissa examines Diodorus as well in "Diodorus' Good Statesman and State Revenue". Moving beyond the traditional concerns of Quellenforschung, Bissa argues convincingly that the emphasis on how statesmen handle financial matters that runs throughout the Bibliotheke is due to Diodorus himself and not one of his sources. Bissa speculates that Diodorus has been influenced by late Republican politics in his viewpoint, which seems very likely.

Engels provides an introduction to the universal history of another late first-century author, Strabo. This paper is somewhat undermined by a lack of organization or a clear thesis, but Engels does make some interesting points. In particular, he sees Strabo as reacting against Polybius' pragmatic vision of history and instead writing a history that fits in with Augustan propaganda.

Strabo and the Augustan Age is the focal point for Morcillo's paper on "Rome's Universal Destiny in Strabo's Geography". Morcillo argues that Strabo portrays Rome at the center of Italy both politically and economically. For the rest of Italy, Strabo depicts a process of decay, marked by a rise of barbarism and a loss of urbanization, followed by a renewal as all of Italy becomes Roman. Even Strabo's interest in surviving examples of Italic culture before the Roman conquest becomes a way to link Rome with Italy's past. For Strabo, Italy provides diversity, Rome the unity. Given the focus on the historians of the late Republic/early Empire in these four papers, it is a pity that none of the authors attempts to make a direct comparison of Strabo and Diodorus (or the other universal historians of the period) and their views of Rome and Rome's place in history.

In "Universal History and the Early Roman Historians" Cornell suggests that the early annalists of Rome were far more interested in other cultures than the example of Livy would suggest. In particular, Cato the Elder's Origines included an enormous amount of ethnographical information, not just about Italic peoples but about other western cultures. Cornell convincingly argues that Cato arranged this material either chronologically, with large digressions as each culture is first encountered, or by culture as Appian would do later. So Cato was aware that Rome had to be understood against the background of the western Mediterranean. Cornell notes that, paradoxically, this makes Cato the author of a universal history, but only of a restricted universe.

In "Universal and Particular in Velleius Paterculus" Schultze argues that Velleius qualifies as a universal historian because of his usage of key events to connect the larger historical continuum. He focuses on the connections between Rome and Carthage, noting that Carthage's foundation becomes a key marker, linked to the later foundation of Rome, but also looking back to Hercules and ahead to the conquests of Alexander the Great. Book one of Velleius ends with the destruction of Carthage, recalling its foundation. But Carthage continues to be a focal point in book two, appearing in connection with Ti. Gracchus, and then with Marius' flight to the ruins of the city.

Yarrow's fascinating paper, "Focalised Generality: Contextualising the Genre," is a departure from the others in the collection. Instead of primarily analyzing literary texts, she argues that the focal points of universal history can be seen in other intellectual and artistic products of the late Republic. As a test case she examines the motif of the globe of the earth on Roman coinage and finds that beginning in 76 BC the globe is increasingly associated with symbols of Rome's power. But in the 50s the focal point shifts and the globe is instead associated with Pompey the Great. This can be paralleled in the speeches of Cicero from the same period, which also associate domination of the globe with Pompey. Eventually, this motif will be taken over by other leaders, culminating of course with Augustus.

In "Ennius as Universal Historian: the Case of the Annales" Elliott argues that the Latin poet Ennius in fact qualifies as a universal historian. He explains that, by adopting the model of Homer, making frequent Homeric illusions, and creating a heroic past for the Romans, Ennius is making Rome part of the Homeric tradition. Indeed, Rome becomes the center of the world in this analysis. I was not entirely convinced by this argument: positioning Rome in a heroic Greek past does not seem to be "universal" in either the sense of coverage or in providing universally applicable models, as in most of the other papers in this collection.

In "Theology versus Genre?" Van Nuffelen makes a strong argument that the traditional view that Christian historiography is universal is incorrect. He shows that Christian authors understood that history was separate from theology -- so Sulpicius, for example, is careful to distinguish the facts of the Bible from its theology. Those works that do have a good claim to universality, such as Eusebius, are universal by genre, not by theology, and the Christians understood that history was a separate genre from theology.

In "Orosius and Escaping the Dance of Doom" Fear agrees that the Christians separated sacred and secular history, but argues that an important contribution of Christians, and particularly the fifth-century historian Paulus Orosius, to historiography was the belief in progress. The ancient authors and philosophers, Fear argues, were obsessed with finding cycles in nature and history, which tended to be pessimistic. I did not find this argument entirely convincing: Fear classifies Hesiod's ages of man as one such cycle, but that is a linear decline with no possibility of renewal. However, Fear does make a good argument that the historical theme of mankind's advancement comes out of the Christian belief in advancement’s being applied by Orosius to secular history.

Di Branco deals with the problem of Byzantine influence on Islamic historiography. I found this to be the most problematic paper in the collection. Di Branco fails to explain adequately the nature of Islamic history or even to define some of the Arabic terms he uses. His argument appears to be that Syriac translations of the Byzantine historian John Malalas influenced certain Arabic universal historians, but he describes the texts involved in only the most general terms and as a non-specialist I was unable to evaluate its validity.

The final two papers deal with two modern scholars of Universal History. De Laurentiis provides a good overview of Hegel's understanding of history and why mankind has developed it. For Hegel, history became universal in the modern period only when multiple states were competing across the world. Farrenkopf analyzes Spengler's understanding of antiquity and how it may predict what fate lies in store for modern western civilizations. Spengler saw two phases in a civilization: the cultural stage and then the civilized phase, when a single world power would emerge. In antiquity Athens represented the cultural stage and the Roman Empire the civilized stage. Spengler was especially interested in why Rome fell and placed more emphasis on internal factors, such as declining birthrates, social degradation, and the growing importance of money than on barbarian invasions. Applying this analysis to modern western civilizations, Spengler felt Germany was the most likely candidate for a New Rome, but also suggested the United States as a possibility.

Introduction - Tim Cornell, Andrew Fear, Peter Liddel
1. Metabole politeia as Universal History - Peter Liddel
2. Polybius and the First Universal History - François Hartog
3. Diodorus' Reading of Polybius' Universalism - Brian Sheridan
4. Diodorus' Good Statesman and State Revenue - Errietta Bissa
5. Strabo and the Development of Ancient Greek Universal Historiography - Johannes Engles
6. The Glory of Italy and Rome's Destiny in Strabo's Geographika - Marta García Morcillo
7. Universal History and the Early Roman Historians - Tim Cornell
8. Universal and Particular in Velleius Paterculus: Carthage versus Rome - Clemence Schultze
9. Focalised Universality: Contextualising the Genre - Liv Mariah Yarrow
10. Ennius as Universal Historian: the Case of the Annales - Jackie Elliot
11. Theology versus Genre? The Universalism of Christian Historiography in Late Antiquity - Peter Van Nuffelen
12. Orosius and Escaping from the Dance of Doom - Andrew Fear
13. A Rose in the Desert? Late Antique and Early Byzantine Chronicles and the Formation of Islamic Universal Historiography - Marco di Branco
14. Universal Historiography and World History according to Hegel - Allegra de Laurentiis
15. Spengler, the Modern West, and Roman Decline - John Farrenkopf
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