The Greeks contributed significantly to the writing of history. One historian said that history is the combination of the Jewish linear perspective and the Greek analytical spirit. This can be seen through the writings of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Plutarch, Josephus, Luke, and Eusebius.
The Greeks are famous for the analytical approach to history. They believed everything had to be examined and analyzed before being recorded. In fact, the word “history” originates from the Greek word for “inquiry.” The Greeks also held a cyclical view of history. They viewed history as a series of cycles with the rise and fall of civilizations much like the changing seasons.
The first great Greek historian was Herodotus. He is called the Father of History, because his writings were not mere chronicles. He recorded stories which he believed to be true or he would put a statement of disbelief before telling the story. He was universal in the sense that he wrote about many different peoples although his main focus was the Persian Wars in his book Histories.
Thucydides, the next great historian, is the Father of Scientific History. He analyzed everything he wrote and only recorded what he believed was true. His main focus was the Peloponnesian Wars, yet he does not write about how they end. His scope is much narrower, but he is a more reliable source for modern research about ancient Greece.
Xenophon copied Thucydides’ work and tried to continue it. However, he was not a great writer and lapsed into chronicles. His one contribution is his emphasis on the Greek love of biography in his book Anabasis which tells how 10,000 Greek mercenaries marched out of Persia.
Polybius wrote during the Roman era, and he is given credit for the first “universal history.” He actually shows how each civilization works in relation to other civilizations throughout the course of history. He rejected the idea of fate and cycle. He believed Rome dominated Greece because Rome had the means and the power, not because fate decreed it.
Plutarch also wrote for the Romans, but his focus was primary didactic biographies. His Parallel Lives shows how the character of men affects their eventual outcome in life. He believed that history teaches morality by example.
Josephus was a Jewish historian who wrote in the Greek style. His vast writings give modern scholars a good view of life during the Roman conquest. He wrote Antiquities which records a secular history of the Jews. His chronicle Jewish War tells of the Jews’ revolt against Rome which ended tragically with the massacre at Masada. Although his works are poignant and sad, they offer an extremely accurate account of that era in Jewish history.
The final two Hellenistic historians were Luke and Eusebius. Luke is the historian of the New Testament who kept clear, concise records of the church’s early days. Eusebius is credited as the Father of Church History. He stressed accurately cited documents over invented speeches like those found in Thucydides’ accounts. Eusebius’ writings were influential in the lives of future theologians like Augustine who wrote City of God.
Upon reflection, it is easy to see the lengthy extent of influence which the Greek historians had upon the writing of history. Without them, the early annals of history would be blank, save for what is in the Bible. The Greeks recorded the histories of all civilizations in the ancient world. We have much to give them credit for and should be thankful for the records they left behind.
– Hannah S. Bowers