BMCR 2012.06.14

Roman Historiography: an Introduction to its Basic Aspects and Development (translated by Hans-Friedrich Mueller; first published 2001). Blackwell introductions to the classical world

, Roman Historiography: an Introduction to its Basic Aspects and Development (translated by Hans-Friedrich Mueller; first published 2001). Blackwell introductions to the classical world. Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. x, 290. ISBN 9781405121835 $124.95.


This book originally appeared in 2001 under the title Römische Geschichtsschreibung from the W. Kohlhammer publishing house, Stuttgart. Since the German edition has not been reviewed in BMCR, the publication of the English version presents a good opportunity to make up for this lack. Significantly, this is the only volume published so far in the Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World which was not commissioned for the series and was, moreover, translated from another language. There is a huge supply of textbooks and companions on Roman historiography written by highly qualified Anglo-Saxon scholars, so the publishers’ decision to look, in this particular instance, outside the English-speaking world is remarkable. The intention was (one might guess) to provide access to another tradition of writing on Roman historians, different from the contemporary trend among British or American academics. To quote from the translator’s preface, “Mehl’s approach is not as literary [as that of Anglo-Saxon scholarship]. Politics, law, religion, Roman institutions, are integrated into the very texture of his argument. Mehl rescues more historical truth from ancient historiography than we have grown accustomed to expect from the more recent historiographical emphasis in English-language scholarship on ancient rhetoric” (ix).

Apart from the first and the last chapters, Mehl arranges his material chronologically: the archaic period is dealt with in chs. 2 and 3, the late republic in ch. 4, the Augustan times in ch. 5, the imperial period (up to the fourth century) in ch. 6, the Christian Roman empire in ch. 7 (there is some temporal overlap between chs. 6 and 7; the last author discussed is Procopius). Mehl takes the word “historiography” in its wider meaning and considers also biography and, more cursorily, antiquarian writing, chronography and exempla -literature (e.g. Valerius Maximus is given a short paragraph on p. 198). There are two features which distinguish this book from most other chronologically oriented presentations of Roman historical writing: first, Mehl also covers, from the Augustan period on, Greek authors’ accounts of Roman history (his model here is Albrecht Dihle’s Die griechische und lateinische Literatur der Kaiserzeit); second, he puts a strong emphasis on the rise of Christianity and its impact on the development of Roman historiography. For Mehl, such authors as Eusebius and Orosius should be treated on an equal footing with their non-Christian colleagues. Consequently, he devotes almost the same space, some nine pages, to Orosius1 and to Sallust (229–237 and 84–93, respectively2). He also makes some fine observations on similarities and differences in Christians’ and non-Christians’ treatment of the past (see esp. 199–203, 217f., 247f.).

Mehl’s chronological chapters very usefully (and succinctly) provide the most relevant information on individual authors, giving also a general overview of each period’s most characteristic historiographical patterns and tendencies (e.g. there is a good discussion of the impact of the new form of government on imperial historiography, 121–130). The brief second chapter is of a different nature since it treats “the formation and establishment of [historical] tradition” in Rome before the emergence of historiography proper. Here, Mehl also tackles the Annales Maximi and its publication by Scaevola who, he emphasizes, supplemented meagre inscriptional material with information drawn from other sources, notably family archives. Mehl does not share the scepticism voiced by (among others) Frier and Drews about Scaevola’s publication; sadly, the seminal paper by Elizabeth Rawson ( CQ 21, 1971, 158–169) is absent from his bibliography.

Despite the small amount of space, Mehl gives much more than a standard, commonplace treatment of his authors; rather, he places his own imprint on almost every historian he discusses. Writing on Fabius Pictor, he draws attention to the tripartite structure of his work; he skilfully presents numerous innovations brought about by Cato in his Origines; he follows Canfora in assigning the first part of BG 8 (up to 8.48.9), not to Hirtius, but to Caesar himself; he insists on viewing Livy’s preface as reflecting his thoughts and feelings in the 20s, close to the civil wars (“We may thus use it as a measure only for early, not later, books, and certainly not for the entire history,” 106); he extols emperor Claudius’ positive opinion of historical change, as evidenced in his speech about Gallic aristocrats (“Claudius deserves credit within Roman historiography for especially thoughtful originality,” 135); he insightfully discusses Cassius Dio’s assessment of monarchy; following Meissner, he is not so confident about the SHA being composed by a single author; he neatly describes Orosius’ history as “[t]he most optimistic historical work of the ancient world” (235), stressing the huge difference between his and his mentor Augustine’s historical attitudes.

However, some important points have not been handled, or are handled insufficiently. Discussing Cato’s innovations, Mehl mentions the insertion of speeches as something typical for Greek historians but until then alien to Roman historiography (52). The issue is more complicated. First, we are not certain that Roman historians prior to Cato did not insert speeches. (In fact, considering Pictor’s debt to Greek historiography, it is quite probable that he did.) Second, Cato’s speeches were his own, and they were not fictitious. Thus they cannot be compared to speeches in Greek historians. (Mehl is more precise when he speaks about speeches in Coelius Antipater, 58.) It is strange not to even mention the possibility (or, rather, great likelihood) that the Epistulae ad Caesarem senem are spurious (Mehl assumes, without debate, that they are Sallustian, 85 and 90). There is a good discussion of Sallust’s idea of the turning-point (91–93), but no word on his growing pessimism affecting his treatment of this idea. Readers of the section on Asinius Pollio are likely to conclude that his work is extant (there is no mention of its being lost); the use of the present tense (“[h]e characterizes,” “[h]e attaches,” “[h]e combines,” 94) may only strengthen this erroneous inference. In his sub-chapter on Trogus, Mehl omits this author’s criticism of historians introducing speeches in direct discourse (it is mentioned elsewhere, 29); neither does he say anything about Trogus’ preoccupation with ktiseis. Most disquietingly, the highly controversial issue of Tacitus’ use of archival sources is not tackled at all (once again, there is a short mention in another context, 29); the SCPP is absent from Mehl’s discussion.

The two non-chronological chapters (the first and the last) deal with such questions as the relationship between Greek and Roman literature, the moral interest of ancient historiography, its relation to epic, drama, and rhetoric (discussed briefly, 18–20), the differences between ancient and modern concepts of historical inquiry, and, in the last chapter, the idea of a turning-point and teleological conception of history (popular among the Christians but by no means originating with them, 248f.). These chapters help the reader better understand the chronological development of Roman historiography. Moreover, frequent cross-referring between various parts of the book facilitates the comparison of authors, ideas and tendencies and the forming of a general outlook on Roman historical writing. The endnotes are brief (255–263) and contain mainly quotations from ancient sources. There is an up-to- date bibliography (264–286), usefully divided into a “General Bibliography” (mainly editions, translations and commentaries) and literature to individual chapters.

Some minor matters: Ta Romaïká should not be regarded as the title of Pictor’s history (44; cf. Dion. Hal. Ant. 7.71.1). After Cato, not only Rutilius Rufus, but also Claudius wrote history in Greek (52, cf. 134). Unlike Archias, Theophanes of Mitilene was not a poet, but a historian (77). Not only Sallust, but also Eutropius was translated into Greek (85, cf. 195). Sallust’s view of Metellus is more favourable than suggested by Mehl (89). It is rash to suppose that, in his ode to Pollio, Horace hinted “at what actually happened to Titus Labienus the younger” (96): we do not know the exact date of Labienus’ punishment and suicide, but they almost certainly occurred much later than 23 BC. Discussing Livy, Mehl does not consider the possibility (quite likely, as shown by Oakley) that the first books of the AUC were written before Actium (100). Readers are not informed that Eusebius’ chronicle is not preserved in its original Greek version (224f.).

Finally, some remarks about the translation. Of course, for a reviewer whose native language is neither English nor German this is a rather tricky subject; nevertheless, some tentative observations are, perhaps, acceptable. The author himself emphasizes the difficulties inherent in producing an English version of his book: “the peculiarities of the traditional academic German language would have rendered a translation of my book into Latin much easier than into English” (8). The translator, best known for his monograph on Valerius Maximus, was undoubtedly qualified for the task, and he acquitted himself well. Occasionally, he even improves on the original, adding e.g. a play on words absent from the German edition (“…investigation of sources was…not an expectation, but an exception,” 28; cf. “nicht selbstverständlich, sondern die Ausnahme”). The book’s English is, apart from a few lapses,3 generally lucid and easy to comprehend and intricacies of German syntax are usually no longer detectable (but on p. 177 we have two very long sentences, one of them extending to fourteen lines). I noted only one mistranslated and, as a result, seriously flawed passage: “Curtius, along with Ptolemy Soter, Cleitarchus, Aristobulus, and Timagenes, made use of the works of three Greek authors of the fourth and third centuries BC and one of the first century BC…” (179); since the German reads “…hat Curtius mit Ptolemaios Lagou, Kleitarch, Aristobul und Timagenes die Werke dreier griechischen Autoren des 4./3. Jh.s und eines des 1. Jh.s v. Chr. benutzt…,” it is evident that it is precisely Ptolemy, Cleitarchus, Aristobulus and Timagenes who are the authors of the works referred to in the second part of the quotation. And, obviously, Agricola was not the “stepfather” of Tacitus (136; Mehl rightly has “Schwiegervater”).

Mueller consequently renders “heidnisch” as “classically religious” and “Heidentum” as “classical (or traditional) religion”. This sounds rather artificial. If the words “pagan” and “paganism” are in fact derogatory (cf. 199, a passage added in the English edition) and cannot be taken simply as descriptive terms,4 why not use “non-Christian”? For instance, the phrase “classically religious and Christian authors” (151) connotes that the former were really believers in classical religion (and not religiously indifferent). This may be, in many cases, wrong. And what about, say, Heliogabal: was he a “classically religious emperor” (cf. 174 on Julian)?

To sum up: despite its (minor) deficiencies, this is undoubtedly an important, informative and stimulating short introduction to Roman historical writing. Its inclusion in the Blackwell series is thoroughly deserved.


1. Mehl’s appreciation of Orosius corresponds to a recent growth of interest in this long neglected author; note e.g. an English translation by A.T. Fear (Liverpool 2010) and esp. a monograph by P. Van Nuffelen, to be published this year by Oxford UP.

2. It is of some interest to compare the amounts of space assigned to each historian in this book. Tacitus receives the pride of place (fifteen pages), followed by Livy (ten), Sallust and Orosius, Ammianus (eight and a half) and the SHA (seven). Fabius Pictor, Cato the Elder, Josephus and Cassius Dio are each given some five pages or slightly more. In Dieter Flach’s longer book (337 pp.), Römische Geschichtsschreibung (3 rd edn., Darmstadt 1998), the proportions are as follows: Tacitus (sixty seven pages), Ammianus (twenty nine), Livy (twenty four), Sallust (twenty two), Suetonius (sixteen), Caesar and the SHA (eleven); Orosius is not covered.

3. To give some examples: “we must consider untenable Frier’s considered inference” (68; why “considered”?); on p. 82, the clause beginning with “whose biographical collection” has no predicate; “[h]is description of the achievements of the reigning emperor…by the end of his work sings the praises of Tiberius’ successful care for peace” (131, italics mine; cf. “geht am Werkende in einen Lobpreis des Tiberius über”).

4. But they are used in such a way in present-day scholarship, e.g. by A.R. Birley, Gavin Kelly and J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz.