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Herodotus. Bust in the Agora Museum, Athens (Greece). Photo Marco Prins.

The Greek researcher and storyteller Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.480-c.429) was the world's first historian. In the Histories, he describes the expansion of the Achaemenid empire under its kings Cyrus the Great, Cambyses and Darius the Great, culminating in king Xerxes' expedition in 480 BCE against the Greeks, which met with disaster in the naval engagement at Salamis and the battles at Plataea and Mycale. Herodotus' remarkable book also contains ethnographic descriptions of the peoples that the Persians have conquered, fairy tales, gossip, legends, and a very humanitarian morale.
Agora Museum, Athens



Thucydides. Mosaic from Jerash, now in the Altes Museum Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. Being exiled because he had been unable to defend Amphipolis during the Archidamian War, the former Athenian general Thucydides (c.460-c.395) wrote the history of the wars fought between Athens and Sparta in the years 431-404. And nothing else. Because of the absence of romantic digressions, the History of the Peloponnesian War is less easy to read than the Histories of Herodotus, but Thucydides offers an in-depth analysis of the mechanisms of war. His description of the changing use of language has become a classic. Although he does his best to remain objective, Thucydides can not always hide his personal judgment. For example, his account of the plague at Athens in 429 slowly develops into a shocking story about moral corruption.
Altes Museum, Berlin



Bust of Xenophon from Aphrodisias (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering. The Hellenica (Greek history) by the Athenian historian Xenophon (c.430-c.354) begins at the point where Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War breaks off. This continuity, however, does not apply to the depth of the analysis, because Xenophon lacks the objectivity of his predecessor. When he was still a young man, this student of Socrates took part in the campaign of the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger against his brother, king Artaxerxes II Mnemon. Xenophon's fascinating account of the expedition, the Anabasis, is his masterpiece. Among his other works are a vie romancÚe of king Cyrus the Great, a Symposium, and a book on horses. Museum of Aphrodisias



Polybius. Museo nazionale della civiltÓ romana, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Polybius of Megalopolis (c.200-c.118) was born at the moment when the Romans had defeated Carthage and started to focus on Greece. Polybius' family played a role in the resistance, and after 168, he was brought as a political prisoner to Italy, where he lived for eighteen years. In Rome, he was introduced to the cultural circle of the family of the Cornelii Scipiones, and he accompanied Scipio Aemilianus on his campaigns. Moreover, Polybius made some voyages himself: for example, he crossed the Alps to find out how Hannibal had invaded Italy, and sailed along the coast of western Africa. This gave him a good knowledge of the inside dealings of Roman politics, which make his World history one of the most important sources for the study of the rise of Rome. Because later generations did not appreciate the Greek language of the age of Polybius, he never became a "classic" author, and a great part of the World history is now lost. The full text in English translation of his work can be found here. Polybius; cast from a lost monument in Cleitor (Greece) (Museo nazionale della civiltÓ romana, Rome) 




Lucius Flavius Arrianus -or Arrian, as he is usually called in English- was a man of two cultures: born in c.87 in Greek Bithynia and educated by the philosopher Epictetus, he became an important official in the Roman empire and a personal friend of the emperor Hadrian, who made him consul in 129 or 130. He was still serving the government when he died in 145. In spite of his dazzling career, he found time to write many books. We still possess (a.o.) his description of the Black Sea, the Anabasis (the history of Alexander's march into Asia), the Indikŕ (on the marvels of India and the voyage of Alexander's admiral Nearchus), and an excerpt from his Events after Alexander. Although his work lacks charm, Arrian is certainly one of the better historians of Antiquity. More information about him can be found here.




Appian of Alexandria (c.95-c.165) is the most underestimated of all ancient historians. He occupied a high office in his native city and practiced law at Rome, where he became acquainted with the emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius and wrote his Roman History. The surviving books, which deal with the age of the Roman civil wars (133-35), show that Appian's magnum opus was one of the greatest scholarly achievements of Antiquity. He is the only ancient author who recognized the social causes of the wars and vividly describes the ensuing conflicts, sometimes paraphrasing original documents (e.g., Marc Antony's funeral speech of Julius Caesar; text). Never has the stylistic device of repetition been used more effectively than by Appian in his shocking account of the persecution of the enemies of the Second Triumvirate. More information on Appian: go here.





Like Arrian of Nicomedia and Appian of Alexandria, Cassius Dio (164-c.235) was a Greek by birth and a Roman by conviction, and one of the great historians of Antiquity. He became a senator during the reign of Commodus, was made consul by Septimius Severus (204), served as governor in Africa and Pannonia Superior, and had the rare distinction of being made consul for a second time, together with the emperor Severus Alexander (229). Dio started his literary activity in the 190's and wrote his Roman History in the years 211-233. It is a marvelous book. Where we can compare it to other historical studies (e.g., we can read his account of the reign of the emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero together with Tacitus' Annals), Dio is often better, and for certain periods (e.g., the reign of Augustus and the second century), he is our most important source. Unfortunately, large parts of the Roman History are only known in Byzantine excerpts. The full text of this work, in English translation, can be found here.





As a historian, Herodian is not the equal of Arrian of Nicomedia, Appian of Alexandria, and Cassius Dio, but he certainly is an entertaining author, whose Roman History offers a nice account of the years 180-238, which more or less coincide with Herodian's life time. The author served the Roman government as a public servant in the capital, but his function was not extremely important, because Herodian nowhere shows deep understanding of politics or military strategy. Modern historians have long considered his information unreliable, but today he is regarded as a source of some importance. For example, he is less biased than Dio against the emperor Heliogabalus. On the other hand, the Roman History contains several grave errors.

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