THE ROMAN HISTORIANS
The major Roman historians, Livy, Suetonius and Tacitus are so familiar to readers of Latin literature, that we may fail to notice the odd configuration of the materials which give us our knowledge of history of the Roman period. In Bardou's study of the lost Latin literature, we find dozens of names, some of such stature as the poet Gallus, of whom we have a single line preserved. So loss of written material should be no surprise to us.
But the historians fall into a different category. Not only are some historians entirely lost to us,. but others, who were recognized in their day as important writers, have been preserved only in parts, which can represent less than half of the original text. It is not clear whether we are dealing with political excising of unacceptable material, or a general loss of interest in the vein of historical thought, or failures in the transmission of manuscripts in a time after the Roman schools had disappeared. Since history tries at all costs to be processive and consecutive, the spotty survival of the Roman historical writers is indeed curious. This notice will outline the "broken-mosaic-pattern" which the historians (insofar as we now have their works) show.
Livy is a case in point. Born in 59 B.C. and living until 17 A.D. his life spanned the troubled Roman world to which Octavian brought order and a new kind of law, he knew well the Augustan world, becoming friendly with the emperor and surviving him by three years. His history began coming out in sections after 28 B.C., the very time in which Augustan writing programs were taking hold, and his history Ab Urbe Condita became a readable classic in his day. It contained 142 books, a vast project to which Livy dedicated his working life, but of this less than half remains: We have Book 1-10, 21 -45 (41 and 43 are not complete). Shortly after Livy's death an Epitome or school abridgement was made up, which was also lost, but a secondary abridgement of this was put together at a later time. Of this, the Periochae, we have all sections except 136 and 137, which gives in short form the salient facts of Livy's major document, but nothing more. In short, we have about 25% of Livy's history.
Of Tacitus' Historiae we have one the first four books and a part of the fifth, which cover just the events of 69-70 A.D. Of the Annales, which deal with the period from Tiberius on, we have only Book 1-4, parts of 5 and 6, 11 -15 and an incomplete 16. Tacitus is recognized as a first-rate historian, a man of deep penetration and political acumen, which makes this account all the more inexplicable.
Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars has been preserved intact, along with his minor essays on the lives of the poets, the grammarians, and the rhetoricians. But his "history" is really nothing more than the sort of sensationalized biography, replete with curiosities and interesting anecdotes, which would appeal to a literate reading public. His style is journalistic, his information is certainly useful for periods where our information is thin, but he is no match for a Livy, even less for a Tacitus.
Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic and the Civil Wars, along with Hirtius' continuation, are historical documents, but although written in an interesting and often engaging style, they are clearly propagandistic, and must be used with caution. Their immediacy is in part balanced by their bias, to the extent that they can be used as historical materials, but not as history itself.
Sallust (86-35 B.C.) was a man involved in the politics of his time, he was of Caesar's party and received from him in 49 B.C. the governorship of Numidia, which he apparently used to squeeze from that province funds which were to allow him to live in luxury for the rest of his life. His monographs on the Bellum Catalinae and the Bellum Jugurthinum, for which last he had personal data to record, are his main surviving works, as well as a portion of the Historiae covering the years from 78-67 B.C. His style is neat and tight, apparently Thucydidean in manner, and he speaks of things and times of which he has direct information.
Cornelius Nepos (around 100 -35 B.C.) was primarily a writer, well liked by Catullus if not by Cicero. Of his writing the Chronica on Roman history, the lives of Cicero and Cato, and a treatise on geography are all lost, but we have a slection of twenty four lives in his series De Viris Illustribus, out of a larger work involving some sixteen or more books. These lives are really "character biographies", most of them are of Greeks, with some Sicilians and a Carthaginian, and show little critical ability as a historian. The one biography which stands out as interesting and historically important is that of the Roman Atticus, Cicero's friend and constant correspondent.
(Pompeius Trogus lived under Augustus and wrote a history of the world focussed on Macedonia, presumably drawing on Greek sources. This work of 44 books is lost, but a full summary of it by Justinus written several centuries later. has survived. Since this is an abridgement of a Roman writing in Latin an account of Greek history, it falls outside the area we are considering. How strange that this tedious and second-rate work should survive, while major parts of the incomparable Tacitus fell into oblivion.)
(In similar vein is the surviving work of Quintus Curtius who probably lived under Claudius and wrote a history of Alexander the Great in ten books, of which the first two are missing. His work is useful for its foreshadowing of the romantic Alexander-myth, but has nothing to do with Roman history. It is interesting that authors like Trogus and Curtius lived in times which were vital in the history of civilization, yet turned their eyes to the faraway fields of ancient and "fascinating" Greek history.)
One thinks of the modern historians who ignore the Civil War, WWI and WWII as areas of historical research, while delving deep into the fragmented and muddled annals of the ancient world. Jung pointed out long ago this psychological fascination with the past as part of the search for the self in the annals of one's own personal history.
Velleius Paterculus lived under August and then Tiberius, served in the army under Tiberius (whom he admired greatly), and wrote a history of Rome from the origins to his own time, apparently believing that he was rivalling Livy. Valerius Maximus also lived under Tiberius, and put together a vast collection of Facta et Dicta Memorabilia, in nine books. which we have entire.
Each book covering topics of interest, drawn from Roman as well as Greek history, and often touching on matters relevant to contemporary Roman social behavior. Considering the early date and the wide scope of this often unfocussed miscellany, it should attract more attention for details of Roman society than it does at the present time.
Under the heading of "Roman Antiquities", which can offer useful information for the development of Roman social history, some several authors. 1) Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 B.C.), the great philologist and professional antiquarian, stored up vast libraries of cultural and historical data, from which selections are known to us in the works of Martianus Capella and various Christian church fathers. The shadow of his learning is long but vague through the passage of centuries. 2) The freedman Verrius Flaccus, a grammarian and writer from the time of Augustus, compiled a work on Latin words and Roman social institutions, which was abridged by one Festus in the 2 nd c. A.C. before being lost. Festus' abridgment has only survived in part, but we have an epitome of it by Paul the Deacon in the 8th c. A.D. Again, historical and social detail can be drawn from this odd farrago of curiosities and oddities. 3) More literary and hence less immediately interesting to historians, is the Attic Nights of one Aulus Gellius (2 c. A.D.), a learned gentleman who travelled throughout the Mediterranean world reading everything he could lay his hands on, and jotting down his thoughts in essayistic notes. We have his work in twenty books (Book 8 is missing except for the chapter titles), a collection of trivia and curiosities with a great many details which bear on Roman social history.
Julius Florus (the name and even the identity of this minor Roman historian are not perfectly ascertained) lived under Trajan, and wrote a consecutive history or Epitome of Rome from beginning to Augustus, admittedly drawn from Livy but perhaps using some other source materials. It is panegyrical in tone, avoiding military defeats but loudly praising all successes, but has value in showing what Romans of his time wanted to think about their historical tradition. Rhetorical rather than historical, it is not badly written, and has been used in Europe for generations for students beginning to read Latin, in place of the stylistically-peculiar American Caesar.
Eutropius lived toward the end of the 4th c., and wrote an Epitome of Roman history from the beginnings through the Emperor Jovian, apparently as a schoolbook. The writing is short and easy for beginners in Latin, but in no way sweet or at all interesting. It is curious that he writes about Constantine but never discusses the role of Christianity in that period! Is this sheer stupidity, or rather an official point of view, like that of the Japanese post WW II textbooks which ignore the invasions of Taiwan, Korea and China, in which case Eutropius would document an historical "fact"?
Lumped together under the ancient title of Historia Augusta is a collection of historical writings by six contemporary historians, bearing on the history of the ROman Empire from Hadrian to the time of Numerianus. This covers the years from 117 to 284 A.D. The authors follow Suetonius generally in their interest in personal biography and historical anecdote, but they are important for historians because of the relative paucity of information from this period, and their value as historical sources has never been questioned..
Ammianus Marcellinus, a native of Antioch but writing history at Rome at the end of the 4th c. A.D., engaged to write a continuation of Tacitus. Of the 31 books he wrote, we have only Books 14-31, covering Constantius through Valens A military man, he has wide experience and wrote a history in which he aspired to the Tacitean ideal of truth, touching on many topics important in his time including the Christians. He was a Greek and not a native Latin speaker, which shows up in his Latin style, which is forced and at times overdone. But as a historical writer, he is superior to anyone in the later Empire, and well worth examining with care.
Of authors writing in Greek on Roman history, one must mention the Bibliotheke Historice of Diodorus Siculus, who flourished at Rome about the middle of the 1 c. B.C. Originally a history of the world, using Rome as an intellectual and historical focus, in 40 books, only fifteen have survived, dealing with the period from 480 to 323 B.C. Despite losses, the work is lengthy, digressive, often tedious, but a source (however uncritical) for an important portion of the Republic.
In an entirely different league is the Greek historian Polybius (circa 202-120 B.C.), a man intimately associated with the politics of Greece of his time, and equally connected with the prominent Romans who were clearly becoming master-administrators of the Mediterranean world. Of his grand History, originally written in 40 books, only the first five survive, with some excerpts from the later parts. Clear in his pellucid understanding of the Roman role in history, penetrating in his historical perspective, he is acceptable if at times tedious in his style, but a far cry above any ancient historian of Rome other than Tacitus. It is interesting that here too, as with Tacitus, only portions of a much longer work survive, a testament to the ignorance of copyists who could not tell the difference between masters and triflers.
Inscriptions in the millions, which are dated consecutively from the 5th c. B.C. through the 5th c. A.D. in the great Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum collection, are of inestimable service for historical research. For many the four volumes edited by Warmington in the Loeb Library (Harvard) will serve as a useful introduction, while Dessau's Delectus is a well balanced survey of the field. But nothing replaces the CIL.
Clearly many important periods in Roman history are poorly covered by the sources, while others are cloaked largely in darkness. After Diodorus' material on the early Republic, we come with a leap to the period of the Punic Wars, with accounts from Polybius and Livy. In the 1 st c. B.C. we have an assortment of historical materials from Sallust, Caesar's Gallic expeditions and the account of the Civil War. Nepos' life of Atticus fits well in this period, while Cicero's voluminous materials flesh out specific episodes of the confusing politics of this time with actual documents.
The life of Caesar and the eleven emperors who followed him are laid out consecutively as personal biography by Suetonius, while Tacitus goes into specific episodes with far greater insight and sense of history, despite the fragmentary state of his writings.. Living under Tiberius, Velleius Paterculus and Valerius Maximus display, among lesser matters, some knowledge of Roman history up to their time, and thus have a place as minor secondary sources. For the Later Empire the Historia Augusta is a main source (117 to 284 A.D), while Ammianus Marcellinus covers a later period (353-378 A.D.).
At all period in Roman history supplementary material is available from a variety of other sources, from Greek writers, from Latin and also Greek inscriptions, from early material embedded in the writings of several of the church fathers (Jerome and Augustine), from inscriptions, from coins, brickstamps with the Imperial names, and archaeological digs as at Pompeii. Sifting through mountains of such information, one finds the account of what went on in the Roman world becoming understandable, but one should remember that in terms of what is required for the study of modern historical epoches (e.g. Czarist Russia, the French Revolution, the American Civil War), the historical accounts of Rome are totally deficient. In this sense, we have in Roman History a kind of history in which every sliver of pertinent information is studied and restudied with the greatest attention, a discipline in which we cannot afford to miss anything. On the other hand, in the study of the history of recent times, the confronting problem is one of selection, which is necessary in order to make sense out of files far greater than any historian can read in a lifetime.
If the sketchy representation of historical source materials from Rome at times gives one the feeling of a bare-bones historical outline, remember the problems associated with the other horn of the historical dilemma, an overpowering superabundance of materials of historical nature written on inscriptional materials (the CIL), which seem at times beyond the abilities of teams of analysts to absorb.
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