What is history?

What is History?

An easy answer would be: everything that has gone before each moment in time. But this simply is not true. History is not the past itself, but the study of a past that, especially going back to our earliest histories, remains dynamic and changing. The old adage: ‘History is written by the victors’ has always seemed an exclusive view of our written sources and the further back we go, the less weight this idea holds.

Who wrote History?

The two canonical histories of the Classical Greek World were written in two very different styles. Herodotus (c. 484-425 B.C.), born in Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), was a politically active member of his community and only after being exiled to Thurii in south Italy did he begin travelling, collecting information and writing his great work. He explored the culture and geography of the Middle East, Egypt and the Aegean in an attempt to uncover the cause of the Graeco-Persian Wars (490-479 B.C.). Themes of justice, luxury, pride and the influence of Gods and oracles abound.

Thucydides (c. 460-395 B.C.), an aristocratic Athenian, was likewise prominent in politics; he served as a general in Thrace and was subsequently exiled for his failure there. Thucydides sought the causation of The Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) through human action and politicking exclusively. His staid prose describes events as they happen and is coloured with no Herodotean digressions into subsidiary matters.

The victors?

By no means would we describe either historian as a victor. Herodotus’ Halicarnassus fought on the losing Persian side and Thucydides’ Athens was defeated by the Spartans. All we may infer is that the writing of History was of secondary interest. Contemporary politics was their bread and butter; it is only removal from this environment that allowed them the time and energy to compile their vast works.

History and Pre-History

Unlike many other disciplines we are almost certain of the start date of the concept of history. Herodotus is our first exponent of the style; specifically referring to his monumental study as a historia; this word meaning inquiry. This idea is the basis for all historical investigation and writing.

Pre-history describes human events from the dawn of mankind up to Herodotus. Though this terminology is technically correct the use of Herodotus’ History only functions as an intellectual year one. Through modern investigation we can discover far more about the development of civilisation; rendering a before and after Herodotus dateline inadequate. The written text, which was thought to be the canonical method by which to decipher the past, is now being moved to its correct position as one of many types of evidence, along with artistic, material (buildings, inscriptions etc.) and scientifically analysable data such as carbon dating or surveying. It is from these techniques that we seek to build up a picture of life and events from the remote past.

The Classical World and History

The technique applied by Herodotus in his inquiry was similar; though not as scientifically wide ranged. He travelled the Greek and Barbarian worlds seeking the stories of the locals. He weighed such stories up himself and decided upon their relative factual merits. The analysis and comparison of evidence and arguments forms the backbone of all historical investigations proceeding Herodotus. It is the attempt to answer the ‘why?’ that informs Herodotus’ work.

It is this search for causation that separates classical intellectual history from the archaic. A move away from the older idea of the gods as the ultimate perpetrators was occurring and Herodotus managed to define it in his introduction stating that he is seeking to uncover thereasons. In the same way philosophers used such questioning and weighing of evidence to explain the origin and forms of such ideas as justice and good. Likewise medical writers used close observation to try to better understand and treat disease. Thucydides description of the plague (book 2.7) at Athens during the Peloponnesian War is a masterly example of such clinical thinking. Thucydides, more so than Herodotus, expounds this classical idea in his removal of the gods from human affairs.

What is History II?

If the past and history are two different things then we return to our original question. Though the study of history has moved on, as its originator, Herodotus is very useful in deciphering a definition of the concept. I would suggest the closest we can get to specifying would be to view history as each successive epoch’s attempt to uncover and define the events of the past through interpretation of the surviving evidence, be it oral, literary or material. This evidence alone only informs us at face value. Like Herodotus we must analyse and compare it to come to any conclusion of interpretation.

John B. Knight
See also Biography – a very short history