A History of Histories
Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century
by John Burrow
Knopf, 544 pp., $35
The historical study of historical thought and writing-what historians call historiography-has long been the basis of historians' work. To function as professionals, they must know the interpretive history of their subjects, whether they be the fall of Rome, the American Revolution, or the causes of World War II.
Yet historians rarely pursue the larger subject of the history of all history itself, and many never directly acquaint themselves with the works of the great master historians. Their reason? The mistaken assumption that new evidence and deeper understanding have long ago superseded many of the masters' interpretations. Why bother with what's been surpassed-except, perhaps, in literary merit?
What's more, too many practicing historians are introduced to the subject (as I was) in dreary required courses in historiography at the start of their graduate preparation when they're just gaining their professional legs, don't yet know where they're headed, and aren't yet able to comprehend fully why they're being made to study ancient texts. Nor are they likely to have encountered historiography as undergraduate majors of history. As a forthcoming report prepared for the Teagle Foundation by the National History Center indicates, few undergraduate courses in the subject are offered at all by American colleges and universities. No wonder that the history of history enjoys so few students.
Fortunately, however, when it does attract scholars, it attracts good ones indeed, as it has John Burrow, a respected historian of 19th-century thought and a biographer of Edward Gibbon. A History of Histories joins the distinguished, but rare, company of comprehensive, modern histories of historical thought, of which the best recent examples are Ernst Breisach's synthesis, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval & Modern and Donald R. Kelley's three volumes (Faces of History, Fortunes of History, and Frontiers of History), which also cover the history of history since ancient times. Burrow is livelier reading than Breisach, intended for a broader audience than Kelley. All three are worth the effort, but none can take the place of the originals-Herodotus, Tacitus, Macaulay, and the rest-as their three authors would readily agree.
Burrow brings to his project a refreshing zest, seductive enough to make you think that, rather than reading the originals, you might rely on his evaluations of the great masters' works rather than reading them. You would not go far wrong to do so-if only as an introduction. Even without the credulous curiosity of Herodotus, the gravity of Thucydides, the rolling periods of Gibbon, or the propulsive sweep of Carlyle, Burrow effectively gets you inside his subjects' minds without surrendering his own critical sense. This is of double benefit: You get balanced interpretations of the great histories, along with evidence of a thoroughly modern mind at work on them. Even if Burrow's won't be (because it can't be) the last word on any of his subjects, what he writes is unfailingly solid, sometimes delightful, always keenly considered.
Burrow commences his tale, as he must, with Egyptian and Babylonian record keepers. But as he quickly makes clear, history as more than a chronicle of dates and deeds-history as a purposeful inquiry to discover and explain the past as well as to commemorate its leading figures and great events-commences properly with Herodotus and his history of the war between the Greek states and the Persian empire. This great Greek historian set into a kind of intellectual amber many of the enduring themes of Western historiography: the conflict between East and West and between Western freedom and Oriental despotism, the dangers of imperial overreach, and the corruptions of power. It was also Herodotus who ventured down the paths of social and cultural history, and whose ethnographic researches and interviews prefigured the methods of modern historical inquiry.
Yet Herodotus' history quickly was challenged by that of his near contemporary, Thucydides, the result being centuries of tension and disagreement within historical circles as to how best to do history and what to focus on. Cynical, insisting on confirming his sources, and a believer in realpolitik, Thucydides believed that all history is contemporary history. Like the great Greek dramatists, he believed that we might learn from history because human nature doesn't change, and he endowed historical thought with themes of tragedy and inevitability that it has never lost. When we complain that history has wandered from its only justifiable foundations in political and military history, or when we argue that human nature is fixed and not plastic, we're really in the grip of arguments that the ancients themselves waged. We have not escaped them and probably never will.
Nor, as Burrow shows, can any of us in the modern West-historian or otherwise-shake off the ways of viewing the past that the successors of the Greeks left to us. The Romans, and especially Polybius, bequeathed to us the aspiration to write a universal history (what we now call world history) and to make historical knowledge useful. And in throwing off the paganism of the ancients, their Christian legatees such as Eusebius and Bede tossed us the challenge of wrestling with the warring themes of historical progress and teleology on one hand and of recurring cycles of history on the other.
By examining (if in necessarily less detail) the many modern historical battles over the past and the methods used to interpret it-including philosophical attacks upon Whig history, the ideological warfare kicked up by Marxism, and the ruckus over the intrusion of theory into history-Burrow implies that contemporary historians, if not always giants of style and view, need yield little to the great figures of yore. After all, he writes in closing, however much we may argue about the past and ways to pursue knowledge of it, history will continue to be written in a never-ending conversation about where we have come from and where we might be going.
In writing this sweeping work, Burrow comes up against two limitations that cannot fairly be debited to his account. The first, which he acknowledges (and which is embodied in the indefinite article of the book's title), is that this is a history of Western historiography, not of all histories, even all great ones, ever written. Burrow is silent about the great Chinese historians, both ancient and modern, and about the master 14th-century Spanish-Arab Ibn Khaldun, sometimes considered the father of historiography. More regrettable is that he doesn't reflect extensively about some of the great Western students of historiography, such as Arnaldo Momigliano. To be sure, he relies on them; but so key are they to his story that their absence is lamentable.
The second limitation of the book, an artifact of Western history itself, is that any historian who undertakes the task that Burrow essays gets caught in a kind of double bind. At the start of the story are large gaps in time and in the record; centuries go by without a historian of note, sometimes even of a historian whose work has survived. Then, starting in the 18th century, the pace of historical research and interpretation picks up-as does, increasingly, the number of practicing historians-so that by our own time Burrow is forced to mention many names without lingering over any. The result is, toward the end of his work, some loss of the considered tone and leisurely pace of the rest.
In addition to knowledge and sheer pleasure, what can a reader take away from A History of Histories? This book, like other works of historiography, should lay to rest many misapprehensions about what has come in recent years to be known pejoratively as "revisionism" and "revisionist history." Revisions of previous histories have been with us from the start. Thucydides took issue with Herodotus, who himself here and there corrected Homer and expressed skepticism about the Homeric epics. Thus, at the very inauguration of history's history 2,500 years ago, the debates and tensions between myth and fact, and between what we now call social and cultural history (Herodotus) and political, military, and institutional history (Thucydides), were with us. They have never been stilled. Historians, like other thinkers, are always looking over their shoulders at their predecessors, entering into discussion and debate with them, suffering the anxieties of their influence.
Second, historians have always taken issue with each other and adopted rival explanations of events. Dispute is built into the fabric of history. And why shouldn't it be? After all, history is a branch of human thought, and historians are humans. Expecting historians to agree and make nice with each other more than other humans do is like expecting the lion to suckle the lamb.
Third, since history is evidence-based, and since new evidence is always being unearthed, we are all revisionists now, as the noted historian of Ireland Roy Foster once said. We are all forced somehow to integrate into our knowledge and understanding facts that surprise us, that don't fit easily with what we thought we knew. Whether we like revisionism or not, the growing stock of historical evidence, and the advance of ways to think about it, won't let us be anything but revisionists.
It would be a mistake to conclude from all this that Burrow's work is only for the philosophically inclined, or only for those who want their reading on the heavy side. Burrow is light when appropriate, broad-ranging always. Of Gregory of Tours's History of the Franks he writes that it is "Trollope with bloodshed." Carlyle's French Revolution reminds him of Sergei Eisenstein's handling of crowd scenes, "with the camera panning in and out from the most highly individualized close-up moments to the widest perspectives." Nor is Burrow beyond entering his own convictions on the record. But overall, he lets other historians speak in their own voices through apt quotation.
It would be hard to conceive of a work that better reveals its author's modesty, his command of the literature, his stylistic flair, and his penetrating reflections than this readable, fascinating, learned history of some of the greatest histories the world has known.
James M. Banner Jr. is a historian in Washington and cofounder of the National History Center.