BMCR 2010.07.12

Writing Ancient History: An Introduction to Classical Historiography

, Writing Ancient History: An Introduction to Classical Historiography. London/New York: I. B. Tauris, 2009. ix, 275. ISBN 9781845119584. £15.99 (pb).

For the historians of antiquity, was the process of writing history about telling what happened or about creating art? These questions of fundamental importance for modern commentators working with ancient narrative histories are at the proclaimed centre of Pitcher’s introduction to ancient historiography. Aimed principally at an undergraduate audience, Pitcher starts from the assumption that these two possible questions for the ancient historiographers are usually viewed by modern scholarship as antithetical, as they indeed sometimes have been. At various times it has become fashionable to argue that one or the other of the ancient historians has fabricated his history. In the late 1980s, for example, Detlev Fehling attacked Herodotus as the father of lies, and Tony Woodman suggested that Thucydides’ plague was rhetorical invention,1 which produced a robust response from Peter Rhodes.2 Pitcher says that his aim is to find the way between these two positions, and to show what sorts of decisions ancient historians made, and how they made them.

Chapter One takes up the idea of decision-making, and begins by making the point that not all the decisions about how to present ancient histories (such as titles) were made by the ancient writers themselves, and then goes on to develop a motif which is at the centre of the book — the ‘action of the swan’. By this Pitcher means the way that the ancient narratives have no footnotes and so rarely leave an evidence trail by which the reader can verify the assumptions and interpretations that the ancient historians make. While there are some texts from the ancient world that talk about the writing of history, Pitcher argues that these are not always very helpful for understanding what the ancient historians were trying to do, since he claims they were often doing different things and that there was not really a defined genre of history writing any more than there was a clear set of to rules to follow when doing it.

In the next chapter, Pitcher looks in more detail at the question of ancient methodologies, and makes the point that some authors simply lie about what they are doing, while others simply don’t do what they say they are going to, change their minds, or don’t complete the task they had set themselves. Sometimes, however, methodological statements made by ancient authors are used for what Pitcher calls ‘Author Theatre’, when claims of methodology are made not so much as a way of showing what they are doing as for creating in the reader’s mind a shape for the text — comments about the difficulty of writing history, for example, are meant to enhance the grandeur of the enterprise.

Picking up on the earlier issue of evidence (or the suppression of it), Pitcher then goes on to look at the sources that the ancient historians used — first-hand accounts, public records, inscriptions, autopsy, the works of other historians — and discusses how we can unpick the texts to discover their sources when the ‘action of the swan’ occludes them. The need for such Quellenforschung is important for Pitcher, as he argues that we can only understand what ancient authors are doing and how they are constructing their accounts when we understand what evidence they are using.

He then moves on to ask what the ancient historians were trying to achieve in writing ancient history, which Pitcher concludes is not so very different from what modern historians are trying to do. Indeed a thread running throughout the book is that the aims and methods of modern historiography are often comparable (or more comparable than is often supposed) to that of ancient historiographers, and that they both aim to show what probably happened. It is here that Pitcher discusses speeches in the ancient historians.

In Chapter Six, Pitcher discusses how ancient historians choose what to include, and how that might be shaped by what they thought was important about historical writing, and what they wanted to achieve by their account. He makes the point that omission is not always suppression, and that we shouldn’t blame ancient historians for having different interests to our own. As well as issues of selection, there are also questions of arrangement, and Pitcher points to the variety of responses to composition, and the impact on the narrative that different responses had.

It is the variety of historical writings that form the heart of the next chapter. One theme to which the book continually returns, and which Pitcher treats more fully here, is that the limits of historical writings cannot easily be pinned down, and can take multiple forms, and that there are many ways to engage with the historical past. Sometimes the lines between history and fiction, for example, were blurred, and that the ‘action of the swan’ means that it is not always possible for us as modern readers to understand the nature of the texts we are dealing with.

The final chapter deals with the question of transmission, and demonstrates the difficulties in interpreting ancient historiography created by the loss of so many texts from the ancient world, or their only partial survival. However, it also discusses how as modern historians we can ‘map the absences’ from the texts that do survive, and can learn something of their shape and character. Yet there are also dangers inherent in the transmission process itself, so that even the texts we have may have become corrupted or adapted in copying and translation.

In the concluding remarks, Pitcher addresses some criticisms that may be aimed at his discussion of ancient historiography — that it does not provide a chronological account of the development of ancient historiography and that it makes abundant use of modern historiography in order to illuminate points about the ancient texts. Pitcher defends these decisions of his by arguing that chronological treatments tend to assume that one can generalise about the processes and intentions of ancient history-writing, whereas he wants to emphasise the plurality of ways of engaging with the past.

However, although Pitcher claims that Thucydides’ practice, for example, should not influence our understanding of ancient historiography as a whole, his decision not to discuss the origins of the historiography of ancient Greece and Rome glosses over the evolution of a process of historical thinking which engaged with broader literary, oral and performance traditions. He brushes over the poetical and mythologically rooted ‘histories’ which continued to exist beside other prose and ‘factual’ ways of thinking historically; but it is significant for our understanding of historical writing (in Greece at least) that it emerged from different kinds of historically minded traditions. Indeed, while arguing for a range of ways of writing historically, Pitcher himself defines a genre of historical writing by what he decides to include and what he leaves out. The very fact that he makes no distinctions between a Greek and a Roman historiographical tradition also creates a strange sense that one can move easily and legitimately between Herodotus and Lucian, and seems to assume (somewhat ironically given his own emphasis on diversity and plurality) that ‘ancient historiography’ is a unified field of study.

Nevertheless, this is an erudite and readable book, even if it does seem to lose sight of its original aim of bridging the gap between understandings of ancient history as reality and as art. In fact, this is not a theme to which it returns, although the book as a whole would have been more coherent if it had. Pitcher works easily and impressively with an enormous range of historians in both the classical and modern periods, and has produced a stimulating introduction for those who are new to the historians of ancient Greece and Rome.


1. D. Fehling, Herodotus and his ‘Sources’: Citation, Invention and Narrative Art (Leeds, 1989); A.J. Woodman, Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies (London, 1989).

2. P.J. Rhodes, ‘In defence of the Greek historians’, Greece and Rome 41 (1994), 156-71.