A History of Histories

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-04-07
  • Publisher: Vintage

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Treating the practice of history not as an isolated pursuit but as an aspect of human society and an essential part of the culture of the West, John Burrow magnificently brings to life and explains the distinctive qualities found in the work of historians from the ancient Egyptians and Greeks to the present. With a light step and graceful narrative, he gathers together over 2,500 years of the moments and decisions that have helped create Western identity. This unique approach is an incredible lens with which to view the past. Standing alone in its ambition, scale and fascination, Burrow's history of history is certain to stand the test of time.

Author Biography

John Burrow was for many years Professor of Intellectual History at the University of Sussex. From 1994 to 2000 he was the first Professor of Intellectual History at Oxford. He is author of A Liberal Descent, Gibbon, Whigs and Liberals: Continuity and Change in English Political Thought, The Crisis of Reason: European Thought 1848-1914, and That Noble Sphere of Politics. He will be Distinguished Visiting Professor at Williams College, Massachusetts, January to May 2008.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgementsp. xi
Introduction: A History of Histories?p. xiii
Prologue Keeping Records and Making Accounts: Egypt and Babylonp. 3
Herodotus: The Great Invasion and the Historian's Taskp. 13
Thucydides: The Polis-the Use and Abuse of Powerp. 30
The Greeks in Asiap. 51
Xenophon: The Persian Expeditionp. 51
The Alexander Historians: Arrian and Curtius Rufusp. 57
Polybius: Universal History, Pragmatic History and the Rise of Romep. 65
Sallust: A City for Salep. 80
Livy: From the Foundation of the Cityp. 90
Civil War and the Road to Autocracy: Plutarch, Appian and Cassius Diop. 111
Tacitus: "Men fit to be slaves"p. 122
A Provincial Perspective: Josephus on the Jewish Revoltp. 141
Ammianus Marcellinus: The Last Pagan Historianp. 149
General Characteristics of Ancient Historiographyp. 158
The Bible and History: The People of Godp. 169
Eusebius: The Making of Orthodoxy and the Church Triumphantp. 178
Gregory of Tours: Kings, Bishops and Othersp. 187
Bede: The English Church and the English Peoplep. 202
The Revival of Secular History
Annals, Chronicles and Historyp. 217
Annals and Chroniclesp. 217
Pseudo-History: Geoffrey of Monmouthp. 220
Secular History and Chronicle: William of Malmesbury's Modern History and the Scurrilities of Matthew Parisp. 226
Two Abbey Chronicles: St. Albans and Bury St. Edmundsp. 235
Crusader History and Chivalric History: Villehardouin and Froissartp. 244
Villehardouin's The Conquest of Constantinoplep. 244
Froissart: "Matters of great renown"p. 249
From Civic Chronicle to Humanist History: Villani, Machiavelli and Guicciardinip. 259
Studying the Past
Antiquarianism, Legal History and the Discovery of Feudalismp. 283
Clarendon's History of the Rebellion: The Wilfulness of Particular Menp. 302
Philosophic Historyp. 313
Hume: Enthusiasm and Regicidep. 313
Robertson: "The State of Society" and the Idea of Europep. 320
Gibbon: Rome, Barbarism and Civilizationp. 332
Revolutions: England and Francep. 345
Macaulay: The Glorious Revolutionp. 345
Carlyle's French Revolution: History with a Hundred Tonguesp. 354
Michelet and Taine: The People and the Mobp. 365
History as the Story of Freedom: Constitutional Liberty and Individual Autonomyp. 380
Stubbs's Constitutional History: From Township to Parliamentp. 380
Modernity's First-born Son: Burckhardt's Renaissance Manp. 388
A New World: American Experiencesp. 397
The Halls of Montezuma: Díaz, Prescott and the Conquest of New Spainp. 397
Outposts in the Wilderness: Parkman's History of the Great Westp. 406
Henry Adams: From Republic to Nationp. 414
A Professional Consensus: The German Influencep. 425
Professionalizationp. 425
German Historicism: Ranke, God and Machiavellip. 428
Not Quite a Copernican Revolutionp. 433
The Twentieth Centuryp. 438
Professionalism and the Critique of "Whig History": History as a Science and History as an Artp. 438
"Structures": Cultural History and the Annales Schoolp. 448
Marxism: The Last Grand Narrative?p. 455
Anthropology and History: Languages and Paradigmsp. 462
Suppressed Identities and Global Perspectives: World History and Micro-Historyp. 468
Select Bibliographyp. 487
Indexp. 501
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


Herodotus: The Great Invasion and the Historian's Task

As was to become customary, at the beginning of his work Herodotus tells us why he wrote it. It was, he says, "so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds--some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians--may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other." In other words his history was a monument, a marker set down against the oblivion with which time threatens all human deeds. He was successful beyond all reasonable expectation. We are still reading his account of his great theme, the invasion of Greece two and a half thousand years ago, and a mere half century before he wrote it, by the Persian Great King and the immense polyglot army drawn from all parts of his empire. Herodotus also promises a little later (Histories, I.95) to tell us how the Persians under their ruler Cyrus (the Great) won their predominant position in Asia, and this promise too he fulfils before going on to his account of the invasion of Greece.

One point in his initial statement which is worth pausing on is the reference to recording the great deeds of barbarians (i.e. non-Greeks) as well as Greeks. We should look in vain in the Egyptian and Babylonian records for such even-handedness. What we are reminded of is Homer, who, as Herodotus soon reminds us, had written of an earlier conflict between Greeks and an Asiatic people. Homer allows his readers/hearers to sympathize with Trojans as well as Greeks, and as much or more with Priam and Hector as with Achilles and Agamemnon. Herodotus does not comment on this feature in Homer, but seems to take it for granted. He accepts, of course, the historicity of the Trojan War, though he thinks that Homer, as a poet, shaped his narrative to his epic purpose, and he is willing to correct him from his own inquiries among the Persians and Egyptians and by his own common sense: Helen could not have been in Troy during the siege, because the Trojans would have handed her back if they could (II.120). Herodotus has a pretty good idea when Homer lived, placing it some four hundred years before his own time, which is the mid fifth century bc.

But far more important than Herodotus' acceptance of the basic historicity of the Homeric poems is their existence, for all Greeks, as a narrative model. When Herodotus in his preamble speaks of writing to preserve great and marvellous deeds from oblivion and giving them their deserved glory, he can hardly be unaware of stretching out a hand to the Homeric epic, which purports to do precisely that. Herodotus' narrative of the great conflict sometimes carries Homeric echoes which we shall have to consider, but more generally the pacing of the narrative, the immediacy of its re-enactments of events and presentation of character, its humanity and its inclusion of the earthy and mundane--more than in Thucydides and historiography subsequent to him--all invite the adjective "Homeric." It is, however, Homeric on a vast scale, and therefore looser and deliberately digressive, as well as based on painstaking inquiries, sometimes requiring suspension of judgement, all of which is alien to the epic tradition. Herodotus is a garrulous, highly personal and conversational writer, with no aversion to the first person; one meets him face to face, as it were, so that it is not difficult to imagine the readings he gave in Athens by which his work was apparently first made public. We know his opinions, and hear of his travels, the wonders he has seen, the stories told to him, and his not infrequent scepticism about them. We can even reconstruct a good deal of his religious views, though here he is sometimes reticent. He is almost as personal a writer as Montaigne.

He was born, apparently around the mid-480s bc, in the Greek colony of Halicarnassus on the eastern side of the Aegean, so he belonged to th

Excerpted from A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century by John Burrow
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