A Brief History of
Western Historiography

written by Jacob Davis '22
edited by Alex Jacobs '22 & Alyssa Pascoe '21

When discussing, writing, explicating, adumbrating, and cogitating on history, how often do we understand why we are so interested in the field? While this question is more attuned to psychological or philosophical interpretations, I think the notion is best illustrated in Ernst Breisach’s interpretation of a ‘historical nexus.’ Breisach brilliantly posits that “every new discovery changes how we think about the present and what we expect of the future” and “every change in the conditions of the present and in the expectations for the future revises our perception of the past.”[1] On this note, I will end the discussion of ‘why we study history’ and instead turn our attention towards the evolutions of thought, positions, and motives within the study of history itself. This is known as historiography.

While every graduate student and even a majority of undergraduates are familiar with historiography, it is most often discussed vis-à-vis a particular period and region. For example, in the field of colonial history, there is a contentious debate over whether the metropole or the periphery held more agency. However, it is also salient to understand the broader extent of historiographical discourse. For the sake of brevity and practicality, I will limit the scope of this article to a brief history of Western historiography.

Some may be tempted to start our journey through Western historiography with the Homeric epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Although one cannot deny the immense influence of these poems on Western culture, they are as much history as myth. The Homeric epics aside, let us begin with Herodotus and Thucydides. While much of Herodotus’s The Historiesis a rambling description of unbelievable tales of many groups that make up the region known today as the ancient world, his telling of the Greco-Persian war is reasonably based in fact.[2] In acknowledgment, Cicero, the famous Roman orator and statesman, bestowed Herodotus with the title of the “Father of History.” Thucydides wrote his masterpiece on the Peloponnesian War only a few decades after the work of Herodotus. His piece is known for its analytical style and is widely regarded as quite credible. Both authors wrote and recorded their histories in an attempt to explain important aspects of Greek identity and destiny.

Next, we turn towards Roman historians. Among the most notable are Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus. In general, these writers tended toward more of a moralizing tone. History was nearly purely political or conflict-based rather than social history and many of these works were inextricable from their ties with the Roman state. Sallust was concerned about the internal corruption of the Rome, with a rigorous style akin to Thucydides.[3] In the case of Livy, he was known to be amiable with Augustus and his historical pieces acted as state-sponsored founding tales with patriotism at the fore.[4] Tacitus is probably the most important and prominent Roman historian whose work, the Annals, plots the Roman empire from the reign of Tiberius to Nero. He documents the degradation of the emperorship, relating the lasciviousness and immorality of the throne in such a light that earlier writers assumed he was being satirical.[5] Throughout the most known Roman histories, the state, imperial court, and military conflicts were the most important areas of documentation. The level in which the histories were based in truth is largely similar to that of the Ancient Greeks, but the field was gaining in popularity.

Since we are sticking with Western historiography for this article, we will make a slight chronological jump to the Medieval era. For much of the period, Christianity dominated all literary and scholarly endeavors, including history. Perhaps this is especially unsurprising because the vast majority of chroniclers were clerics.[6] Probably the most significant historian was the Venerable Bede. A Benedictine monk in modern-day England, he penned the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This great work touched upon more than just the history of the church in England by referencing Anglo-Saxon history as well. Histories throughout this period tended to focus on Christianity and hagiography (writings about the lives of saints) which dovetails with the religious fervor pervading the Western world.

With the emergence of the Renaissance and the age of discovery, came a marked shift in historiography. Humanism was in vogue with scholars and intellectuals from Thomas More to Niccolò Machiavelli. Both figures wrote historical perspectives notable in their emulation of Roman literature and histories instantiated in the rallying cry of the Renaissance: ad fontes (Latin for ‘to the sources’). However, nation-states were beginning their centralizing transformation from scattered communities loosely bound under a ruler to more significant and powerful state bureaucracies. The concept of a shared history became useful as a tool to bind together these vast and diverse communities. Further wars and increasing secularization in Europe contributed to historians questioning the fundamental belief in a natural order that characterized much of the early Christian texts from the Medieval period.

The Renaissance bleeds into the era known as the Enlightenment where historiography was critically developing its empirical basis parallel to the scientific flourishing throughout the eighteenth century. Among the most notable historians of the period are Edward Gibbon, William Robertson, and Voltaire who all began to look at social history in conjunction with traditional political history.[7] Although we commonly read writers and historians who placed religion to the side when constructing their works, it is crucial to remember the omnipresent influence of religion in the lives of most scholars and laymen across Europe in the eighteenth century.

As the Enlightenment gave way to the Modern period, nationalism once again became a primary feature of historiography. In many ways, this could be considered a reaction against the Enlightenment philosophies which had fomented revolution and social upheaval from Haiti to America to France.[8] At this stage, history was inseparable from the state and vice versa. The state was the dominant historical force, replacing the former centrality of Christianity that had been inexorably disintegrating since the Renaissance. However, Leopold von Ranke, a German historian, set the standard for future historical study by focusing on archival research of primary sources during this period.[9]

Following the devastating effects of nationalism embodied in the World Wars and inflamed by decolonization, a wave of postmodernism gained traction in the scholarly and, ineluctably, historical realm. Postmodernism disregards the underlying assumption that scholars ought to vie for universal truth and was spearheaded by French philosopher Michel Foucault.[10] The recent Western historical tendency of rejecting the notion of objective truth has ebbed and flowed in the last three decades but the current trends of historiography, which are increasingly revolving around race, gender, and the agency of individuals versus groups, appear ossified.

To sufficiently describe the evolution of Western historiography one would need an indeterminable number of words. Despite this, I hope that this concise article provides an adequate summary of the field. How we perceive and analyze history is intrinsically connected to the work of past historians and placing ideas and arguments into historiographical context is key in gaining a better understanding of the field. As historians, we must not forget the importance of the history of history in shaping our perceptions.

[1] Ernst Breisach, Historiography (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 2.

[2] Paul Cartledge, introduction to The Histories by Herodotus (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), xx.

[3] Historiography, 54-55.

[4] Ronald Syme, “Livy and Augustus,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 64, (1959): 28.

[5] Inez Scott Ryberg, “Tacitus’ Art of Innuendo,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 73, (1942): 383.

[6] Historiography, 129.

[7] Georg G. Iggers and Q. Edward Wang, A Global History of Modern Historiography (New York: Routledge, 2013), 24.

[8] Ibid., 70.

[9] George G. Iggers, “The Image of Ranke in American and German Historical Throght,” History and Theory2, (1962): 18.

[10] Patrick Joyce, “The Return of History: Postmodernism and the Politics of Academic History in Britain,” Past and Present 158, (1998): 209.