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Historiography and Historical Methods

Week II discussion questions


Ernst Breisach, Historiography:  Ancient, Medieval and Modern, 2nd edition (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Chapters 1-6

chapter 1

What point is Breisach (B) making in the first sub-section of this chapter about the difference between how we (moderns) see the Mycean period and how the early Greeks understood that era?

What is B's point about the role of gods and heroes in history as told by Homer?  Why did Homeric history focus only on heroic deeds?  What was its function (its public purpose)?

How did the Homeric conception of history differ from our "modern" conceptions?

How did Hesiod's conception of history differ from Homer's?  What was "new" about the idea of dividing history into time periods ("ages")?  ANd what kind of change was Hesiod describing?  (Progress?  or Decline?)

According to B, what big changes in Greek civilization altered the ways the Greeks viewed history?  What, for instance, was the impact of colonization?  New philosophical conceptions of man, nature, and time?  New forms of political life?

How did the historical approach of the Greeks circa 500 BC differ from that of Homer?  Did these "new" historians divorce themselves from the heroic stories of Homer's epics?  Explain.

What is B's point about the function of compiling chronological lists in ancient Greece?  Did these lists equal a "history"?  Explain.


chapter 2

In the first paragraph of this chapter, B suggests a major change in the purpose of history between Herodotus and Thucydides--what was this shift and how does B seem to explain its cause?

How did Homer's account of the Trojan War differ from Herodotus' account of the Persian War and Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War? 

What basic similarities and differences does B see between the historical approaches of Herodotus and Thucydides?

What did Thucydides think caused the Peloponnesian War and why is that important to understanding how the writing of history was changing?

Compare the way Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides treated the roles of the gods and of men in shaping history.

Compare the way Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides explained the causes of "their" wars--what does this tell us about changes in the nature of historical argument?

In what way was Thucydides' understanding of the causes of historical events more complex than that of his predecessors?  Explain.  How, for instance, did Thucydides explain the fate of Athens?  How did he combine long and short term factors in his explanation?  How did he combine narrative with analysis?

Should we "trust" Thucydides' quotations of long speeches, etc.?  Explain.  How did the Greeks understand the relationship between style and the purpose of history?  Was the point of history for the Greeks (including Thucydides) to find the "objective" truth?  Explain.

According to B, when and why did the Greeks begin considering the problem of working out "methods" for doing historical research?  How, for instance, did Herodotus and Thucydides approach the issue of "methods" and documentation?

Once historians started to drop "gods and heroes" from the center of their accounts, how did they decide what was worthy of history?  Did Herodotus and Thucydides consider the same sorts of topics worthy of history?  Explain.

B suggests that in the 300s BC the Greek world view was backward-looking but not historical; what does he mean by this?  What is his main point about Greek historians after Thucydides?  (Think about the section subtitle on p. 21!)

What was the public function of history in the 300s and how was this related to the politics of that era?

How does B explain the popularity of local and regional histories in the early decades of Macedonian rule, and what is the difference between "history" and "antiquarianism"?

According to B, Did local historians really protect tradition from the threat of skepticism?  Explain.

Why does B call the writing of Xenophon (etc) "history writing without a clear public purpose"?  And how does B link the popularity of biographies to the collapse of the Polis?


chapter 3

What "problem" does B seem to be out to "solve" in the first paragraphs of this chapter?  What is he trying to explain?

How did Hellenistic historians (those of the era of Alexander the Great and his successors) link the conquering hero--Alexander--to the past?  Besides Alexander's heroism, on what other issues did historians of his age concentrate?

According to B, what problem did Hellenistic Greek historians face?  And how does that explain why hero stories and gossip were the core of historical writing during Alexander's life?

How does B explain the characteristics of Greek historical scholarship in Ptolemaic Egypt?  Why did these historians specialize in textual criticism, and does B think they advanced historical theory or were concerned with the "truth"?  Explain.

According to B, why weren't historians in the Hellenistic Greek city states concerned with the public purpose of history, and what was the result? 

What does B mean when he says that Greek history was now "about" rhetoric and not finding "truths"?  Why had Greek history become apolitical? 

According to B, why was there so much attention to local and regional history in the Hellenistic Greek city states, and did these historians do much to advance history as a form of scholarship?  Explain.  (What does he mean when he says their goal was mimesis?)

So, what is Bs point about the relationship between history and politics in Hellenistic Greece?

Did the Hellenistic Greeks find it easy to fit the stories of other peoples into their histories?  Explain.

According to B, what basic historical-methodological problem was raise by Greek cultural dominance of the Hellenistic "world"?  How was the problem of establishing a common chronology solved?

What is B's point about the difference between Greek historians in the "east" and those in the "west" (in Sicily)?

What does B mean (on p. 37) when he says that "Greek historiography had exhausted its possibilities"?

On pp. 38-39, B sums up his argument in chapters 1-3:  what is his thesis in the first three chapters of this book?  How was Greek historiography shaped by and limited by the Greeks' conception of the future, and why couldn't they write world history?  Did the Greeks consider history to be about "truth"?  What did they think history was "for"?  And how did that shape their approach to the proper subjects and methods of history?


chapter 4

According to B, how did early Romans understand the history of Rome's foundation?

What social institutions shaped Romans' sense of the past, and how did they record and understand the passage of time?  How did all of this effect their approach to history?

When and why did Greek historians first become interested in Rome?

Around 300 BC, what problems arose in the Greek mythological version of Rome's foundation, and what events led the Romans to produce their own histories?

For B, what is most important about the first (Greek-language) Roman histories (by Fabius Pictor and Cincius Alimentus)?

According to B, how did the path of Polysius' own life shape his approach to the history of Rome?

Was Polybius history simply narrative?  What kinds of questions was he trying to answer, and what was his answer? (B discusses three points.)

What was the "cycle" of the history of governments as understood by Polybius?  Why had he at first thought that Rome was exempt from this cycle, and why did he later lose his faith that Rome could avoid decay?

What did Polybius think of earlier historians, what was his approach to the use of sources, and what did he consider to be the purpose of history?

How doe B explain the rise of Latin-language histories of Rome in the second century BC?


chapter 5

According to B, what new social and political realities forced Romans to re-think their history in the late Republican period and why?

In what sense did late Republican Romans "nostalgia-ize" or "romanticize" their early history, and what was the impact on the writing of history?

What made the history written by Sallust different from that of his Roman contemporaries?  What was Sallus's main argument, and how did he try to link Rome's history to arguments about "larger" patterns of historical development?

According to B, why couldn't Sallust follow the logic of his argument/analysis through to its conclusion?

How does B explain the popularity of biography in the late Republic?  In particular, what was the function of autobiography in this era?

Were Romans much concerned with history as scholarship?  According to B, who was the first Roman who showed real interest in the issue of historical methodology?  Explain.

For Cicero, was history primarily about truth?  And what did he mean by truth?  Did he mean objectivity?  Explain.

What is B's main point about the contributions of Greek historians to historical scholarship in the late Roman Republic?


chapter 6

Why did the Pax Romana under Augustine result in a new wave of Greek influence on Roman historiography?

What does B. consider important about the work of Diodorus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus?  Did they have much of a popular readership in Rome?  Who did read them and why is that important?

What problem confronted Roman historians under Augustus?  How can we see this, for instance, in the works of Livy?

For Livy, what was the key to the rise of "Old" Rome, and how was that connected to his analysis of "New" (Augustine) Rome?

According to B, what was the purpose of Livy's history, and why couldn't Livy follow through his analysis to its logical conclusion?

According to B, what was the main problem that the end of the Republic and the establishment of the Empire created for historians?  Why did history become politically dangerous?

How did the creation of the Empire affect historians' access to sources?  How did it affect the attitude of readers towards history?

Why didn't Roman historians fit Roman "decadence" into "universal" patterns of historical development?

How, for instance, did Tacitus explain Roman decadence (i.e., under Nero and Domitian)?

How did Tacitus understand cause and effect in history?  Did Tacitus lay out a clear conception of the purpose of history?  Explain.

According to B, how were Roman Imperial conceptions of the past linked to their conceptions of the future?

What is B's main point about the writings of Flavius Josephus?  About the popularity of biographies in Imperial Rome?

According to B, what was the key to historical explanation for Plutarch, and how did the ancients understand "character"?

Was there much writing in Imperial Rome about historical methodology?  What is B's main point about Lucian's How to Write History?

Why were so few histories written during the late Imperial period?

On pp. 75-76, B sums up his main point (thesis) in chapters 4-6:  what is the thesis of this section of the book (he presents 5 related points)?