Related Content

Related Overviews

Tacitus (c. 56—120 ad) Roman historian

Sallust (86—35 bc)

Livy (59—17 bc) Roman historian

Cato the Elder (234—149 bc)

See all related overviews in Oxford Reference »


More Like This

Show all results sharing this subject:

  • Classical studies


Show Summary Details


Roman historiography

Quick Reference

Presentation of the Roman past was firmly rooted in the Roman present. Historians proclaimed a desire to help and inspire contemporary readers in their public life, and the past was often moulded to provide antecedents for contemporary events or rephrased in contemporary terms, sometimes for tendentious reasons, sometimes just to make the story more excitingly familiar. Roman writers were also more often public men than their Greek counterparts (e.g. Porcius Cato, Sallust, Asinius Pollio, Tacitus ), and their contemporary narrative told of events in which they had played a part: the result was an emphasis on this recent history, which usually comprised the bulk even of those works which covered Rome's history from its foundation (ab urbe conditā).

Still, historiography was not simply a masked version of the memoir. It aspired to tell the story of the Roman state, not just of an individual's experiences. At first this usually involved an outline of Rome's history from its beginnings, with special emphasis on the inspiring foundation stories. The result was an hourglass structure, with most space given to the beginnings and the present, and a sketchier account of the period in between: that is already visible in Fabius Pictor, traditionally the earliest Roman historian, and survives in most of his ab urbe condita successors (including Ennius, who did much to shape the Roman view of history). Another aspect, as Cicero ruefully observed, was the evocation of traditional Roman annals. Writers may only rarely have consulted the annales maximi themselves, but the texture of such material—bare lists of omens, magistrates, triumphs, etc.—was still familiar. The annalistic structure, organizing material in a year‐by‐year fashion, also became regular.

Sallust's War with Catiline and War with Jugurtha abandoned annalistic form and developed the monograph, using these two episodes to illustrate themes of wider significance, esp. that of moral decline. The analysis is schematic, but is carried through with concentration and structural deftness; and Sallust moulded an appropriate style, concise, epigrammatic, rugged, and abrupt. Meanwhile Caesar had written a different sort of monograph in his commentaries; their form (see commentarii) leaves them outside the main stream. Asinius Pollio wrote of the Civil War (between Caesar and Pompey) and its antecedents, beginning with 60 bc. His incisive and independent analysis influenced the later Greek versions of Appian and Plutarch.

Pollio was less influential in Rome itself, largely because Livy's 142‐book ab urbe condita came to dominate the field. A great Roman history had been written at last. Livy offered something new, with a more even treatment of past and present: the great bulk of his history was pre‐contemporary, partly, as he explains in the preface, because decline was relatively recent, and the best ethical examples were to be found in the earlier centuries. His moralizing is, however, more than Roman bias; it is also a form of explanation, isolating the strengths which carried Rome to its success, and might yet prove her salvation. The preface suggests that his contemporary books may have projected a less rosy view of Rome's morality, with degeneration explaining the less happy developments of the last century.


Subjects: Classical studies

Reference entries