BMCR 2023.09.43

Écrire l’histoire de son temps, de Thucydide à Ammien Marcellin

, , Écrire l'histoire de son temps, de Thucydide à Ammien Marcellin: neuf exposés suivis de discussions. Entretiens sur l'antiquite classique, 67. Geneva: Fondation Hardt, 2022. Pp. x, 423. ISBN 9782600007672

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


“Will [the historian of contemporary history] have the necessary detachment to deal with his subject in an objective way?” This warning, in the preface of the newly founded Journal of Contemporary History in the late 1960s,[1] effectively summarises the challenges that historians are bound to face when engaging with their own times. Debates on the subject—viz. on how contemporary history is to be narrated not solely in traditional academic history books, but also in new media such as journalism—started to flourish after the World Wars; yet, as the volume under review shows, ancient Greek and Roman historians already display a high degree of sophistication as to theorisation on the writing of contemporary history. As scholars have long acknowledged, writing contemporary history poses a plethora of difficulties: the first and most obvious is the balance between research into the past’s hard data on the one hand, and concerns of the present times on the other.

Therefore, the Fondation Hardt could have hardly chosen a more compelling—as well as relevant to the present day—theme than the subject of its 67th Entretiens. The history and structure of the series are well-known (cf. the volume’s preface): as to the latter, nine papers (in English, French, German and Italian) by senior experts in the field, followed by a transcription of the ensuing discussions in Vandœuvres. Let it be said from the beginning that the volume represents a highly valuable contribution to the current debates on historiographical authority and methodologies in antiquity.[2]

The brief introduction by the editor sets the objective to move away from the “positivist, evolutionist and systematic perspective” which, it is held, has dominated modern scholarship on Graeco-Roman historiography. Accordingly, the volume’s contributions approach the theme from different angles. The first chapter opportunely starts off from the history of scholarship, for no discussion on historiographical genres (including contemporary histories) can effectively dispense with the legacy of Felix Jacoby.[3] Guido Schepens offers a thorough analysis of Jacoby’s conception of Zeitgeschichte: the chapter considers the intellectual milieu of FGrHist, in particular the influence of Wilamowitz and Schwartz. Schepens also addresses the ambiguity inherent to the concept of Zeitgeschichte. One of Jacoby’s criteria for labelling a work as Zeitgeschichte was the covering of the historian’s lifetime; yet Schepens points out that such a criterion is ultimately inconclusive, as it does not consider the equally compelling criterion of the narrative’s starting point (whether a theogony or a historical occurrence). Schepens thus sensibly invites us to envisage Zeitgeschichte not as a genre of history-writing of its own, but rather as a feature of different historiographical genres.

Roberto Nicolai’s chapter argues that Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon’s Anabasis build on the model of the Homeric poems and Cycle as to their narrative strategies of wars and battles. Case studies—all related to military sequences—include, e.g., Herodotus’ re-elaboration of the narrative of Iliad 2 (along with Aeschylus’ Persians) in the first one-hundred chapters of Book 7, and Thucydides’ exploitation of the Homeric narrative pattern of the aristeia in the description of the deaths of Brasidas and Lamachus. As suggested in the course of the discussion following the paper, one needs perhaps to keep Herodotean echoes of single Homeric scenes separate from the general epic structure of the Histories; nonetheless, the paper sheds new and interesting light on the earliest developments of Greek historiography.

John Marincola’s chapter goes to the heart of the volume’s theme, by showing how Greek and Roman historians were fully aware of the inherent limitations which they faced in writing contemporary history (despite their bold remarks in proemial sections). The analysis unfolds through three macro-themes: methodology, impartiality and historical revisionism; it shows that historians strove to balance their claim to objectivity with the consciousness of the restraints inherent to contemporary history-writing. The chapter intriguingly considers non-historiographical examples as well—such as the methodological preamble opening Seneca’s Apokolokyntosis.

Valérie Fromentin, the editor of the volume, tackles the role that contemporary history holds in those works that cover a far longer timespan, be they universal histories or histories ab urbe condita—with a focus on Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Cassius Dio, Appian and Josephus. Fromentin discusses the different lines through which they embed contemporary history within the larger framework of their work: e.g. Josephus’ choice not to deal with contemporaneity in the Jewish Antiquities as opposed to Cassius Dio’ work, arranged as it is with a pointed focus on the author’s own time. This chapter offers many interesting general points that will be useful to students of earlier historical chronicles as well.

In the only paper devoted (mostly) to non-literary sources, Nino Luraghi deals with the treatment of recent history in Athenian honorific decrees from the early Hellenistic period. While decrees from all ages invariably had a deep-rooted historiographical function (as both texts and monuments), Luraghi discusses the turning-point represented by the age of Alexander, during which motivation clauses of honorific decrees transition from being ‘laconic’ to ‘talkative’. Accordingly, the narrative sections of honorific decrees from the years 322-261 BCE read as civic historiographical accounts proper (with the biases deriving therefrom). The last section of the paper includes a stimulating discussion of the honorary decree for Aristotle transmitted in the thirteenth-century Arabic work by Ibn Abī Usaybi’ah—which Luraghi considers spurious, but whose authenticity has been defended.[4]

In a chapter dedicated to early Christian historiography, Eve-Marie Becker shows that the Gospels and Acts represent an idiosyncratic example of Zeitgeschichte, inasmuch as these works read as (1) the primary source for the life Jesus, (2) key evidence for first-century BCE Palestine, and (3) a chronicle of Roman history, either local or universal. In particular, the Gospels are envisaged as an example of Flavian contemporary history, since they are influenced by the historical context in which they were written (like Josephus’ Bellum Judaicum). It is worth noting that the first volume of Entretiens of the Fondation Hardt consecrated to historiography back in 1958 does not encompass Christian texts altogether.[5] This chapter is thus a welcome addition, and a further proof that early Christian literature can throw interesting light on contemporary secular texts.

Adam Kemezis engages with the difficulties encountered by Roman historians of the imperial period when covering the age in which—and, most crucially, the emperor under which—they were living. The subject of the ‘living emperor’ is approached by considering at which point those authors ended their narrative. The most instructive case is no doubt that of Tacitus: not only does he state in the Annales that historians treat recent political history with fear of the living emperor, but he also leaves the emperors from Nerva onwards out of the Historiae. Tacitus’ case, along with those of Velleius Paterculus and Cassius Dio, enables Kemezis to draw an illuminating picture of how the limitations of writing contemporary history were not just acknowledged by imperial historians, but also invested the structure of their work.

Bruno Bleckmann singles out Ammianus Marcellinus as an exemplary case-study of writing contemporary history in Late Antiquity. Overall, the chapter reads like an overview of Ammianus’ historiographical method, most notably as to recent history: Bleckmann points out how Ammianus was able to merge the Herodotean and Thucydidean traditions of autopsy with a high degree of independence in his use of contemporary historical sources and official documents. This method is explored by looking at Ammianus’ narrative of the expeditions of the emperor Julian—which is insightfully taken as combining the panegyric tone of late-antique historiography with a concern for accurateness and impartiality.

By instituting an apparent ring-composition, the final paper by Hervé Inglebert goes back to Jacoby in order to trace a story of contemporary history-writing in modern Europe. Inglebert insightfully ponders the phenomenon of writing contemporary history at first within the broader historiographical debates in the mid-eighteenth history, then in some post-French Revolution intellectual environments (e.g. Hegel’s Geschichtlichkeit) and, finally, in the context of the emergence of Universal Histories in the early twentieth century. The chapter goes on with a detailed analysis of Jacoby’s work (most valuable is the table of the different plans which Jacoby envisaged for FGrHist). The chapter closes off with a poignant consideration about what writing contemporary history must entail in the twenty-first century.

Despite the variety of their subjects, the papers engage fruitfully with the main theme of the volume. One of the book’s greatest strengths is its attention (in some papers admittedly more than others) given to the history of scholarship on the one hand, and fresh interpretative frameworks in relation to the writing of contemporary history on the other. For instance, Schepens draws attention to the fact that the writing of modern contemporary history in Germany emerged only after the Second World War—as opposed to, e.g., Croce’s vindication that history-writing is necessarily ethical, political and projected to the contemporaneity. Another example is the use, in Nicolai’s paper, of Walter Arend’s narrative model (in turn deriving from Vladimir Propp) of story pattern, typical scenes and motifs to identify Homeric echoes in fifth- century BCE Athenian historiography.

All in all, the volume represents essential reading for anyone interested in Graeco-Roman historiography. Most notably, the reader is left with an important question. Many contributions inevitably (and opportunely) end up engaging with Jacoby’s concept of Zeitgeschichte, yet most often pointing out the weaknesses of this classification criterion. One wonders, therefore, whether the time has come for a new and up-to-date general theory of the genres and subdivisions of ancient historiography—which may give consideration also to dimensions such as intermediality and collective identity (e.g. in local histories).


Authors and titles:

Pierre Ducrey, Preface

Valérie Fromentin, Introduction

Guido Schepens, The so-called Zeitgeschichte: a reassessment

Roberto Nicolai, La monografia su una guerra: dal ciclo epico al ciclo storico

John Marincola, The anxieties of the contemporary historian

Valérie Fromentin, Le passé récent dans les histoires universelles ou ab Urbe condita: terminus, telos ou appendice?

Nino Luraghi, Politics of the (recent) past: early Hellenistic Athenian decrees between epigraphy and literature

Eve-Marie Becker, Zeitgeschichtsschreibung im entstehenden Christentum (ca. 30-100 n. Chr.)

Adam M. Kemezis, Living rulers and the end dates of Roman imperial historians

Bruno Bleckmann, Ammian und das Problem der spätantiken Zeitgeschichte

Hervé Inglebert, La relation entre le temps présent et “l’histoire universelle” dans l’Antiquité gréco-romaine et en Occident (XIXe-XXIe siècles)



[1] ‘Editorial Note’, Journal of Contemporary History 1 (1966), iii-vi.

[2] See e.g. K. S. Kingsley, G. Monti & T. Rood (eds.), The Authoritative Historian. Tradition and Innovation in Ancient Historiography, Cambridge 2023.

[3] Generally, scholarship on ancient historiographical genres still depends on Felix Jacoby, ‘Ueber die Entwicklung der griechischen Historiographie und den Plan einer neuen Sammlung der griechischen Historikerfragmente’, Klio 9 (1909), 80-123 (although Jacoby changed his mind on several aspects over the years).

[4]  For the text’s spuriousness, see M. Haake, ‘Ein athenisches Ehrendekret für Aristoteles? Die Rhetorik eines pseudo-epigraphischen Dokuments und die Logik seiner Geschichte’, Klio 88 (2006), 328-50; contra, see M. Rached, Ptolémée ‘Al-Gharīb’. Épître à Gallus sur la vie, le testament et les écrits d’Aristote, Paris 2021, cv-cxix.

[5] Histoire et historiens dans l’antiquité (Entretiens de la Fondation Hardt 4), Vandœuvres 1958.