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A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances, and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century

By John Burrow

(Knopf, 553 pp., $35)

History was born in Greece in the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. It has flourished ever since then, in diverse but recognizably related forms, and it still exists today, as a form of inquiry into the past, a literary genre, and a set of practices plied and taught in universities. That's our story, in the West, and we're sticking to it. Or at least John Burrow is. After a swift glance toward ancient ways of keeping records, Burrow begins his elegant and erudite book with a rich study of Herodotus and Thucydides, the Greek founders of the genre. Then he bounds forward, passing in review Hellenistic and Roman, early Christian and medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment historians, and ends up in the territory that he has cultivated throughout his career: Europe, and especially Britain, in the last two centuries. The trip passes quickly, Burrow makes a highly accomplished guide, and the reader ends up--rather as the tourist does after a well-organized two weeks in Italy--tired, impressed, and gratified. But is it history? That is the sixty-four-talent question, to which we will eventually return.

Burrow's approach has many virtues. It enables him to start, as Greek historiography itself did, with two great writers, Herodotus and Thucydides, and their works, which he contrasts effectively. Herodotus--a Greek from Asia Minor, whose relatives included non-Greek nobility as well as Greeks--set out in the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. to describe the biggest events in the recent Greek past: the failed invasions of Greece by the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes in 490 and 480-479 B.C.E. Thucydides, half a century later, set out to describe a set of events that he considered even bigger: the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 B.C.E., in which Sparta and her allies defeated Athens, not only the greatest city in mainland Greece but also the capital of a great empire.

Both men wrote history as epic--and both, especially Herodotus, learned a great deal from Homer about how to do so with bravura. Homer taught them scale, pace, and the solemnity of simple language, and he offered models for many of the scenes that they needed to depict--especially the ability to see a tragic conflict from the standpoints of both sides. Memories of Homer also hovered around the oracles and prophecies that both men recorded: Herodotus because he believed that a divine economy ruled the world, and Thucydides because belief in oracles played a political role in everything from popular morale to the conduct of leaders.

Yet both men posed newer questions as well, questions that Homer would never have asked. "History," the noun that Herodotus chose as the title for his work, did not refer only, or mostly, to narrative accounts of the past. Rather, it was the term that Ionian Greeks such as Herodotus used for any sort of systematic inquiry, into geography or the rituals of other nations as well as events. In the fifth century, as Arnaldo Momigliano, the greatest modern student of historiography, demonstrated long ago, many Greeks mounted formal inquiries of new kinds. The Sophists--the men who taught the politicians of democratic Athens how to give effective speeches--studied morality and politics as well as oratory, as they set out to construct rules for successful public life. Medical men, especially the followers of Hippocrates, systematically tracked the diseases of individuals and whole populations, as they tried to work out the links between climate and ways of life on the one hand and the prevalence of disease or health on the other. The historians, similarly, hoped to give rational accounts of human action: to explain why the Persians had tried and failed to conquer Greece, and why the Spartans had feared, and defeated, the Athenians. These different forms of inquiry intersected at many points: Thucydides, for example, knew the medical tradition well and used it, and his formal pairs and trios of speeches--which, he claimed, reflected either what his protagonists actually said or what they should have said--amounted to an anthology of good and bad, tough and panicky oratory, which he may even have composed as a kind of textbook.

The two founders worked, to some extent, in similar ways: more like modern journalists than like modern scholars. Herodotus traveled the Mediterranean world in order to learn about all the parties who played a role in his great story--including the Egyptians, to whom he devoted a whole book, as well as the Greeks, the Persians, and the Scythians. Thucydides also traveled widely, especially after he failed to prevent the city of Amphipolis, in Thrace, from surrendering to the Spartans, and the Athenians exiled him. Both men depended heavily on what they could learn from interviews, and saw themselves as prudent, skeptical inquirers, who made clear to their readers when they believed reports and when they did not--though some modern scholars argue that Herodotus deliberately falsified or invented many of his observations. Both men had broad enough sympathies and ideas that they could embrace contradictions--at times Herodotus insists that "custom is king," that different cultures simply do things in different ways, but at other times he expresses horror or amusement about foreign rituals and practices (at times, of course, he also makes fun of his fellow Greeks)--a trait that has left their modern interpreters decades of honest work.

Yet their attitudes and practices as historians finally diverged. Thucydides--arriving on Herodotus's heels rather like the first critic in Mel Brooks's History of the World, Part I arrives on those of the first artist--rejected his predecessor's work as merely entertaining. He refused to waste space on the ethnographic digressions about excretion in Egypt and funeral customs in India that made Herodotus's work so varied and so diverting. Instead Thucydides insisted that the true historian must concentrate on military and political matters, and that he could do so seriously only for the last two or three decades before his own time, and for events that he could describe in detail on the basis of personal experience or eyewitness testimony. In addition to summarizing what he saw and heard, Thucydides inserted whole treaties into his book word for word, and thus made clear that he wrote for men of substance, like himself--men who knew, as he did, that human nature would not change, and that the crimes and follies of Athenian leaders and generals in the fifth century B.C.E. might not be fun to read about as he described them, but that they would still be illuminating, when studied in proper detail, hundreds of years later.

Herodotus achieved his greatest effects in narrative: for example, in his magnificent set-piece account of the defeat of the Spartans at Thermopylae. He told a great story of heroism, national and individual, spiced with unforgettable vignettes--as when the Persian king mocks the Spartans for preparing for battle by combing their long hair, only to be stunned by their courage and their coordinated tactics--and topped off with suitably heroic deaths. But he also crafted a little marvel of Orientalist ethnography, in which the Persians, subjects of a despot and Easterners to boot, behaved in an irrational and cowardly way, while the free men from Greece showed the impact of their civic upbringing in the way they fought--both a pioneering effort to connect behavior in battle to larger social and cultural forms and a worrying portrait in what would soon become stereotypes.

The austere and self-denying Thucydides also attained extraordinary distinction as a writer, though the effects he brought off were very different. Thucydides, as Burrow shows, surveyed the most dramatic and terrifying events with the level gaze of a divinity--one that pities humanity but feels no need to emote. He used many levels of language--from the dry, precise medical terminology in which he described the plague that struck Athens in the first year of the war (from which he himself suffered) to the cut-and-thrust argument in which he couched a memorable dialogue between unnamed Athenians and citizens of the small island city of Melos. In this terrible exchange, the Athenians make clear that as an empire they recognize only force and wish only to expand their power. They reject the Melians' appeals to justice, morality, and the gods. Thucydides placed this passage--which one ancient reader found so horrifying that he condemned it on the grounds that Greeks could never have spoken in such a way to other Greeks, and which clearly reveals something about the folly that led the Athenians to disaster--at the heart of his book, just before he described how the Athenians destroyed the blameless city, annihilated its male inhabitants, and sold its women and children into slavery. And in other passages as well, above all the one in which he described the disintegration of political language during civil war, Thucydides showed that history could be as powerful a tool of investigation into society, conduct, and values as the philosophy that was taking shape in the same years:

The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases. In peace and prosperity, states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes. Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.

Orwell himself did not offer a sharper diagnosis of the ways in which political passions corrupt language.

Both of them, finally, served as models for styles of history-writing that would remain recognizable over the centuries, even as they evolved. Thucydides stands as the ancestor of what we used to call, in graduate school, "real history": the history of politics and wars, traditionally written by and for men, though a number of female historians now practice this art at the highest level. Herodotus, by contrast, stands as the forefather of the human sciences: the history of rituals and customs, of beliefs and behaviors, that survived as antiquarianism in the pre-modern world and branched out more recently into anthropology and sociology. The great German-language historians of the nineteenth century still emulated these unsurpassable models. Leopold von Ranke and Theodor Mommsen, the great historians of states, modern and ancient, were Thucydideans; whereas Jacob Burckhardt, who reconstructed the cultures of Renaissance Italy and ancient Greece, was an impenitent Herodotean.

Burrow tells stories such as these throughout his book: stories of individuals and the choices that they made about the nature of the past and the most revealing way to study it. In most respects, he tells them very well. A passionate and independent-minded reader, Burrow locates the emotional power and rough-edged political engagement in texts that many other modern readers have dismissed as marmoreal and empty. Livy, who wrote a vast account of the Roman past in the last decades of Augustus's reign, taught generations of schoolboys that history was really philosophy, embodied in examples that made its lessons more palatable and emotionally powerful. He chiseled dozens of the examples in question, such as the stories of Horatius at the bridge and the rape of Lucretia, in what became their decorous, marmoreal form. By the twentieth century, many readers found Livy appalling: an unself-critical celebrator of Rome's rise to imperial status, a propagator of the "old lie" that duty and honor made even death pleasant in a good cause. For Zbigniew Herbert, whose poem on Livy became an anthem for young Polish dissidents in the 1960s, he exemplified the condescension and blindness that typified modern, as well as ancient, empires:

Only my father and myself after him
read Livy against Livy
carefully examining what is underneath
    the fresco
this is why the theatrical gesture of
    Scevola awoke no echo in us. . .

My father knew well and I also know
that one day on a remote boundary
without any signs in heaven
in Pannonia Sarajevo or Trebizond
in a city by a cold sea
or in a valley of Panshir
a local conflagration will explode

and the empire will fall.

Burrow, too, reads Livy against Livy. But he sees the Roman historian as a serious thinker and writer, deeply worried about the contrast between the heroic times he looked back to and the corruption of his own world, and inspired by it to achieve a new sense of historical distance:

the idea of long-term decline, the product of Livy's combination of patriotism and pessimism, is highly interesting as a conception of history, for it itself is an intrinsically historical one; in it the idea of a perennial human nature is superseded. The past was unlike the present not only in superficial, material terms, but morally and intellectually. They did things differently then, and thought and felt differently. Livy had a conception, though a negative one, of a distinctive culture of modernity, compounded of religious indifference, cosmopolitanism and a febrile love of novelty.

To look at Livy through Burrow's eyes is to understand at last why a much later thinker who knew all about the febrile experience of modernity, Niccolò Machiavelli, chose to offer lectures on Livy in the gardens of his friends the Rucellai, and developed in them his most radical thoughts about history, religion, and republicanism. Machiavelli was hooked, in a way that we have not understood well enough, on the challenge of a historian who really grasped the pastness of the past. More generally, Burrow's genial survey points to important methodological morals and destroys many clichés that remain current, if not in scholarship, then at least in surveys: for example, the notions that the ancients all saw history as cyclical, and that the writers of the Enlightenment had no sense of history, both of which he refutes in brief, cogent pages.

Many spoonfuls of honey make Burrow's medicine go down. A fine writer, lucid and humane, he is also a master of precise, informative paraphrase and deft quotation. He chooses examples with great skill. To characterize the "flashes of social history" that interrupt Livy's largely political narrative, he tells two stories in a tight sequence nicely designed to take the reader's breath away. There is, first, the amusing "case of the witty Vestal Virgin in 420 B.C. E. She was exonerated of a charge of unchastity, but was ordered to amend her over-elegant costume and not to make any more jokes"; and then there is the tale of her colleague who, after being convicted of unchastity, "was buried alive." The Roman past--and the world of Livy, gentleman historian--really are both foreign countries. Burrow's text is salted throughout with sly jokes, as when he characterizes the episcopal history of Gregory of Tours as "Trollope with bloodshed." But his eyes are always open, and he is always showing the reader something fresh--such as the striking way in which Gregory, though he offers the reader graphic, intricately told anecdotes about the Franks, ignores their physical appearance. We come to know his heroes well; but apart from their long hair, we have no idea what they looked like.

What Burrow gives us is, exactly as its title indicates, a history of histories--not a history of historiography, much less one of the larger conditions that made different kinds of historical writing possible. And his decision to write a major work in this distinctive manner will come as something of a surprise to those who--like me--first encountered him in the 1960s, when his Evolution and Society introduced many of us to the history of modern social thought. A short, packed book, Evolution and Society did not exhibit the graceful style or the vast range of knowledge that Burrow displays here, but it was a powerful piece of work nonetheless. Burrow studied at Cambridge with Duncan Forbes, the author of the innovative book The Liberal Angelican Idea of History. As a young research fellow at Christ's College--a forcing-house of academic talent, where J.H. Plumb stabled and currycombed a generation of brilliant young scholars--he exchanged ideas with another unusually gifted young man, Quentin Skinner, who was already embarked on what has become a lifetime devoted to rethinking and rewriting the history of political thought.

In order to situate the evolutionary forms of social thought that flourished so widely in nineteenth-century Britain, Burrow plunged into a massive secondary literature, debated eagerly with its authors, and explored realms of thought then little-studied: Scottish speculation about the stages of historical development, German efforts to recreate the lkisch origins of the law, French visions of the way society would develop. The result, though not consistently readable, was endlessly thought-provoking, and immediately became a classic in the historiography of anthropology and related fields.

The daring that led Burrow to explore foreign disciplines and thinkers was richly, and rightly, rewarded. And it continued to inspire his later work--notably his study in nineteenth-century historiography, A Liberal Descent, in which he brilliantly showed how historical scholarship reflected a sensibility also expressed in many other areas of culture. Here is Burrow on the historians' effort to see the British constitution "as made, as men made the landscape, anonymously":

We recognize such a sensibility as one we rightly think of as characteristically mid-Victorian, in its feeling for the obscure and provincial, and its fascination with the structures fabricated, coral-like, by countless almost imperceptible creatures. ... We find it in diverse examples: in the complex ecological chains of The Origin of Species and the awareness of the teeming, hidden yet consequential life of "an entangled bank," in the feeling, in Middlemarch, for the subtle movement of old provincial society. ...

The author of these sentences is a master of the historical cross-cut.

Like Evolution and Society and A Liberal Descent, A History of Histories is a scholar's book, built on very wide reading. Its splendid chapters on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, on Gibbon and Ferguson, Carlyle and Macaulay, reflect Burrow's distinctive mastery of British historiography and its intellectual context. But it is the work of a scholar far more interested in individuals than in the larger intellectual and cultural worlds that shaped them and their work, and far less willing than his early self to explore new territories. The consequences of Burrow's decision to tell tales of great men become more serious as the book proceeds. As he creates his glittering necklace, bead by bead, he often fails to note the original connections.

The historical books of the Old Testament, for example, are not the work of an individual person. So the Bible enters Burrow's account not in the years when it took shape--the same years in which Greek historiography was born--but as part of his account of Christian historiography. And the perspective that Burrow brings to bear seems narrow, especially by contrast with what he writes about the Greeks and Romans. The great student of Carlyle appreciates that history can be prophetic and understands the Old Testament's forms of narrative. But he sees the Jewish tradition as totally isolated. Long ago, Momigliano showed that the prophet Daniel's vision of four great empires dominating history, each worse than its predecessor, drew on Greek ideas about the races of men and their degeneration; and even longer ago, Elias Bickerman traced connections between the ways in which documents are recorded in the late books of the Old Testament and Persian practices. No trace of these arguments appears in Burrow's book. Nor does he take much interest in the ways in which historiography developed outside the West. He barely mentions the rich worlds of Byzantine and Islamic historiography--though both were often brilliant, and both developed ancient ideas and practices in powerful and fascinating ways--or the efforts of Jewish scholars such as Azariah de' Rossi to take account of the accomplishments of western historiography.

A central strand in western historiography, as Momigliano demonstrated, is formed by the history of the church. Church historians--as Burrow notes, looking at Eusebius, who helped to create the genre around 300 A.D.--differed sharply from their secular counterparts. Since they were always engaged in polemics, they cited the sources that supported their views in full. And since they were concerned to trace the history of church doctrines and practices, they devoted much of their attention to matters that would now belong to cultural history. Still, Burrow's account, good as far as it goes, falls radically short. Though he devotes perceptive pages to the Jewish historian Josephus, he does not realize that Eusebius drew his practice of citing documents from Josephus and other Hellenistic writers, some of them Jewish. He devotes an admirable chapter to Bede, the historian of the early British church, but then his interest tails off. He mentions John Foxe, the English martyrologist, in the context of a different kind of scholarship--antiquarianism--and fails to connect his work to the massive Protestant and Catholic investment in rival church histories that followed the Reformation. He does not mention Cesare Baronio's great Annals of Christian history, or the penetrating reply by the Calvinist Isaac Casaubon, with its demonstration that Hermes Trismegistus was not an ancient Egyptian sage--even though Simon Ditchfield retold this story more than a decade ago in a splendid and widely read book. And though Burrow finds space for one of Gibbon's mocking comments about a church historian--"The learned M. de Tillemont never dismisses a virtuous emperor without pronouncing his damnation"--he does not mention Gibbon's numerous professions of intellectual debt to "the accurate and indefatigable Tillemont." In this case, and in others, Burrow's selective and essayistic treatment distorts the larger story.

When the book reaches the twentieth century, it largely falls apart. Style-- Burrow's main concern--still mattered in modern times, but, as he explains, it was not enough. From the mid-nineteenth century, historians achieved an impact not only as writers, but also as the heads of research schools, which took different shapes and achieved different things in Germany, France, Britain, and the United States. Burrow's treatment of this new world, in which historians found themselves expelled from their gentlemanly libraries of leather-bound books and imprisoned in the iron cage of the seminar and the archive, lacks the depth and the elegance of his earlier discussions. True, he has something to say about the Annales school that dominated French historiography--and transformed Anglo-Saxon scholarship--after World War II: he describes the careers and the achievements of Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, the founders of the journal, and of their successor Fernand Braudel, who created the strange and wonderful laboratories for history and related fields that still flourish on the Boulevard Raspail. Yet he shows little sense for the peculiar grandeur of Braudel's writing, for the way in which, as his hostile critic Bernard Bailyn wrote, "To him, the area of the Mediterranean is charged with drama and slicked with affection."

Burrow shows no interest at all in Braudel's own experience as a prisoner of war, or in the centralized organization of French intellectual and academic life--though, as J.H. Hexter showed long ago in an essay that brilliantly parodied Braudel's style of inquiry, the atemporal nature of his vision of history cannot be understood except in the light of the former, or the vast range of inquiries that he inspired except in the light of the latter. And Burrow does not make clear--except to readers expert enough to decode allusions- -how obsessed later Annalistes became with statistics, or how strongly Carlo Ginzburg and Robert Darnton, both originally inspired by the French historians, rebelled against aspects of their work. By sticking to individuals and their ways, Burrow leaves the reader who is not a professional historian in the dark.

At one point, Burrow explains why so few women entered the modern academic historical profession until relatively recent years: "the smell of pipe smoke still clung to it in the 1950s." I don't know if Burrow himself smokes a pipe, but the later sections of this book certainly smell of one--a pipe smoked by someone writing in an easy chair, rather than trundling off to archives or ransacking library shelves in search of texts and contexts. This is a lively, wide-ranging book, a fascinating overview of many of the most influential historians in the lost ages before history itself became a discipline and a profession, and a wonderful reader's guide to some of their works. But the way it misses vital connections between traditions and fizzles out when it reaches modern times suggests that the methods and forms of history have changed radically over time--so radically that a single approach cannot do full justice either to the tradition or to its contemporary forms. For all its rewards, this essay in the longue durée lacks the analytical bite and precision that made Burrow's earlier books stand out so vividly in the complex, colorful mosaic of contemporary historiography.

Anthony Grafton is a contributing editor for The New Republic.