Things Keep Happening

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the 20th Century by John Burrow
    Allen Lane, 553 pp, £25.00, December 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9337 0
  • What Was History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe by Anthony Grafton
    Cambridge, 319 pp, £13.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 69714 9
  • The Theft of History by Jack Goody
    Cambridge, 342 pp, £14.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 69105 5
  • Thucydides and the Philosophical Origins of History by Darien Shanske
    Cambridge, 268 pp, £54.00, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 86411 4

A story, as John Burrow says of his own History of Histories, is selective. It looks forward ‘to its later episodes or its eventual outcome for its criteria of relevance’. Hence a difficulty:

The impulse to write history has nourished much effective narrative, and narrative – above all in Homer – was one of the sources of history as a genre. It would be a strange paradox if narrative and history turned out to be incompatible. But the example of Homer may teach us not to take the paradox too tragically. The Iliad has a climax, the fall of Troy, but it has many perspectives, and it would be a drastically impoverished reading of Homer’s epic that saw as its ‘point’ an explanation of Troy’s fall. The concept of a story is in essence a simple one, but that does not make all narrators either simple-minded or single-minded. Narrative can be capacious as well as directional.

Burrow and Anthony Grafton are as capacious as can be. Their question is not so much ‘how did it come to this?’ – in Grafton’s case, to a more critical historicism in the 17th and 18th centuries; in Burrow’s, to professional history-writing in the 20th – as ‘what pasts have this or that set of people found interesting and why, and how did they think and write about these?’ Since each is writing about historians who will not all be familiar even to specialists, each also takes care to convey the experience of reading them; and since each is himself an acute reader and an exceptionally good writer, the experience, even when filtered through translation, is vivid. Burrow writes for a general audience; Grafton, writing up his Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge in 2005, more for scholars. But each has a grasp of the whole, an eye for detail, and a sense of irony and wit that make them a pleasure to read.

For histories of histories, time itself is capacious. Grafton’s practitioners were writing in the decades around 1600; he can treat them as mutually curious contemporaries. Burrow’s stretch across two and a half thousand years, but until 1700 or so, his historians too had been engaged with one another: the ancients with themselves, and those who came after with the ancients. Histories of the Greek and more especially the Roman world had for a thousand years set the frame and rhetorical style in which histories of other times were written; the ancient historians were regarded also as sources of moral and political wisdom. And because so many of them referred to others, we can be reasonably sure that even where their work has not survived, we know who the more significant were. Burrow makes no apology for devoting the first third of his book to them.

Herodotus, with whom, after a dutiful prologue on the keeping of records and accounts in Egypt and Babylon, Burrow begins, was conversing with Homer; Thucydides was responding rather less generously to Herodotus; Xenophon was continuing Thucydides; and so it went on. After the Roman historians of Alexander, Burrow proceeds to Rome itself, to Polybius, Sallust, Livy and Plutarch; to Appian and Cassius Dio on the civil war; to Tacitus and the self-serving Josephus, sensibly changing sides in the course of the Jewish revolt in Palestine in 67-69 and surviving to write its history; and to Ammianus Marcellinus, an amiable pagan from Antioch, who was writing at the end of what Gibbon called the ‘long desert’ of three hundred years of no histories, and at the end, effectively, of the Western empire itself. Ammianus is a little ‘wobbly’, as Burrow puts it, on high politics, but good on Rome’s low life, gaming and gossiping in theatre doorways, and on its rich, who were anxious to be recorded as serving the biggest fish and roast dormice in town. He was sympathetic to the Emperor Julian’s attempt in the 360s to revive every rite he could find against the gathering force of Christianity, and lived to record what he would not have seen as the fateful decision in 376 to allow Goths to cross into Roman territory, and the death of the Emperor Valens, who vainly decided to fight them rather than talk at Adrianople in 378. Burrow ends his account with some brisk corrections of present misconceptions: ancient histories were not exclusively contemporary, were not all political or military, did not always see time as cyclical, and did not disregard longer-term changes.

Not the least appealing feature of many of the ancients – to us – is their comparative lack of partisan passion. The early historians of Christianity knew no such restraint; none, certainly, showed the toleration that Ammianus extended to Christians themselves. Their object was to explain the continuity of the faith since before the Incarnation; their natural inclination was to present the continuity as a victory over Jews, heretics and secular persecution; a victory, moreover, at the centre of the universal empire that the Church would take over as its own. But they did not all attempt to be universal. Gregory of Tours in the late sixth century, the opening of whose candid and ramshackle History of the Franks might be the most engaging of any work of history – ‘A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad’ – came to concentrate on events in and around his well-placed diocese. A century or so later, in a more controlled fashion, the magisterial Bede recorded the successes of what he called the English Church over irritating Britons and the obstinate Christian Irish.

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[*] LRB, 2 September 2004.