Ronald Mellor, The Roman Historians. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. Pp. i-x + 212. ISBN 0- 415-11774-7. US$21.99.
Allegheny College, Meadville
Mellor's book is a general survey of Roman historical writing, and, as he states in the preface, it serves as Routledge's complement to Luce's The Greek Historians.[] Mellor has written a clear and concise introduction to the subject for the interested layman and undergraduate student, and professionals may find the scope of such a perceptive survey, many of whose points are punctuated by unexpected parallels from contemporary society and modern literatures, to be a refreshing reprieve from their myopic labors on particular authors or historical problems. Throughout Mellor demonstrates both the importance of the Roman legacy for the subsequent western historiographical tradition and the ways in which Roman conceptions of the nature and function of history radically differ from our own.
As a society which we may fairly characterize as ultra-conservative, Rome was obsessed with the ways of the ancestors (mos maiorum), and it is no surprise that the Romans could call subversive, revolutionary schemes 'new things' (res novae). Consequently, the past held enormous significance for them; it served as a moral guide for the present, and it was replete with ancestral exempla for instruction and emulation. Mellor emphasizes the point at the opening of his work: 'The Romans' devotion to their ancestral and national past pervades their literature and art, their architecture and city planning, their political and legal institutions, their religion and legends, their festivals and funeral celebrations. They were proud of their traditions' (p. 1). Unlike historical writing in ancient Greece, Roman historiography was largely the province of Roman statesmen; this is another point Mellor stresses early on: 'History at Rome was written mostly by senators for senators: this explains its narrow focus on political conduct' (p. 4). Moral and political concerns, then, pervade Roman historical works.
Chapter One (pp. 6-29) takes up one of the most difficult problems in classical studies: the origins and nature of the first Roman historiography. Mellor canvasses the materials the earliest Roman historians used to create their narratives: aristocratic family archives and funeral eulogies, the famous 'bardic lays', public treaties, the pontifical records and the so-called Annales Maximi.[] Of paramount importance here is the question of Greek influences, and Mellor provides a balanced account of the crucial figure Q. Fabius Pictor, the first of the so-called annalists, who chose to write his history in the Greek language (pp. 14-19).[] Here we are reminded of the wide gap between ancient Roman and modern conceptions of the nature of historical writing: 'The Romans saw far less difference between history and poetry than is the case in modern times. Augustus was actually praised for his 'dedication to history' when he prevented the destruction of Virgil's epic poem, the Aeneid. The Annales [Ennius'] was for generations of Romans the great work of history through which they were uplifted by the heroic achievements of their ancestors' (p. 16).
Chapter Two (pp. 30-47) considers Sallust. As he will do for the individual authors who follow in later chapters, Mellor introduces the work with notes on the author's life and career. In Sallust's case, there is a dissonance between the moralizing passages of his historical monographs and the historian's own checkered career, which exhausted even Caesar's patience. Mellor discusses Sallust's muscular, abrupt, and staccato style in its literary context, as a conscious reaction to the smooth, balanced Ciceronian period. In speaking of Sallust's unique contributions to Roman historiography, however, Mellor observes: '[T]hereafter [after the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC] the absence of a serious rival propelled the Roman elite into arrogance, self- indulgence, and corruption that led to the post- Gracchan civil conflict. In this picture of Roman political history Sallust is genuinely original' (pp. 40f.). This is a surprising, and I believe somewhat misleading, statement. The idea of the benefits deriving from metus hostilis reached back at least to the debates between Cato and Nasica over the destruction of Carthage, and Polybius clearly believed that the events of 146 BC were pivotal for the moral deterioration in both Greece and Rome.[]
In Chapter Three (pp. 49-75) we have an analysis of Livy's monumental ab urbe condita. Livy has always posed special problems for Roman historians, as his interests were primarily literary; in a famous passage (10.1.32), Quintilian underscored Livy's skills as a prose stylist. Unlike many of the Roman historians, he was not a man of affairs, and at times he commits astonishing errors in historical matters, particularly in battle descriptions, a remarkable example of which we find when he is transcribing Polybius' account of the battle at Cynoscephalae.[] But Mellor urges that we attempt to understand Livy on his own terms, and this requires an appreciation of the nature and function of historical writing for the Romans. Livy's overarching concern was with the moral evolution of the Romans as a people, and to convey his message effectively, the historian exercised all of his formidable rhetorical skills in composition. 'Though Livy returned to the annalistic form of his history - - that is, the year-by-year structure even dividing military campaigns if necessary -- he pursued the Ciceronian goal of rhetorical history' (p. 51).
In terms of both prose style and moral outlook, we make a seismic shift as we move from Livy to Tacitus, whose works Mellor takes up in Chapter Four (pp. 76- 109). [] With reference to Pliny's prediction that Tacitus' works will prove to be immortal (Ep. 7.3), Mellor categorically states that 'Cornelius Tacitus was the greatest historian that the Roman world produced' (p. 76). This of course is a subjective pronouncement, but I, for one, would not dispute the claim. In this chapter, Mellor considers Tacitus as moralist, psychologist and literary artist, and his sensitive treatment will impart to the lay reader something of the genius of Tacitus' histories. The analysis of the Germania as a reverse mirror for the enervated Rome of Tacitus' day is particularly good, but in his discussion of the tensions embedded in Tacitus' works between free expression and autocracy in Roman aristocratic, rhetorical society, I find it odd that there is no mention of the Dialogus, the minor work on the decline of oratory which Barnes called 'the most problematical of Tacitus' works and perhaps the most important for understanding the historian.'[]
In Chapter Five (pp. 110-31), Mellor provides a good introduction to a writer of major importance who does not receive the attention he deserves. Ammianus Marcellinus, the accomplished 'Tacitean' historian of the later Roman Empire, should rank high among Roman historians for his merits as both historian and literary artist. He also is invaluable insofar as he provides insights into the predicament of a pagan living in the Christianized later Roman Empire. Only Books 14 through 31 survive intact, covering the years AD 353-78. But the extant text preserves some of the most fascinating passages in Roman historical writing, wherein the historian treats of his hero, Julian the Apostate. Mellor sums up this historian's significance as follows, 'Ammianus was a Greek and was certainly proud of his heritage, but he chose to write in Latin -- the first major Latin history since Tacitus and the last secular history of Rome to be written in the city's own language' (p. 126).
Chapters Six (pp. 132-64) and Seven (pp. 165-84) consider the relationship of Roman biography and autobiography to Roman historiography. Individual sections in these chapters treat of the Lives of Cornelius Nepos and Suetonius, Tacitus' Agricola, the Historia Augusta, Caesar's commentarii, and the autobiographies of Augustus. Mellor begins each chapter with a discussion of the Greek antecedents for these literary forms. Once again, we here are confronted with a qualitative difference between the Greek and Roman genres; as is the case with Roman historiography in general, we may say that Roman writings in these areas, and especially in the autobiographical works of Caesar and Augustus, are more obviously tracts of political apologia than are their Greek counterparts.
A concluding chapter (pp. 185-200) summarizes the forms of historical writing at Rome. Mellor returns to the theme of the Romans' strongly-felt literary dimension of historiography, with sections on 'The Art of Writing History' and 'The Craft of History'. This chapter also has sections entitled 'Senators as Historians', 'Censorship and the Suppression of History', and 'The Function of History', which serve to underscore the political purposes of Roman historiography. For the Romans, the pen, indeed, was a mighty sword.
One criticism of the book lies in its omissions. Mellor jumps from Tacitus to Ammianus Marcellinus. We have no account of the second- and third-century historians who intervene, such as Appian and Dio Cassius. Perhaps the principle for exclusion is the fact that these authors wrote in the Greek language, but then we do have discussion of Polybius. One could argue, I suppose, that, because of his monumental importance for Roman history, Polybius makes a special case. But Luce treats Polybius in his companion volume to Mellor's book, so that there is overlap here, whereas neither book discusses Appian and Dio. Moreover, one might expect a section on Plutarch in the chapter on biography. He, of course, also wrote in Greek, which seems to be the criterion for exclusion. But his omission here means that, aside from Mellor's brief discussion of Greek antecedents to Roman biography (pp. 132-37), the two companion volumes as a set fail to give Plutarch due attention.
Overall, however, these objections perhaps amount to the sort of petty carping that Polybius himself criticized in other historians and sometimes fell prey to himself. Mellor has written a good introduction to the subject of Roman historiography. The general reader will come away from this book with a clear understanding of the nature and functions of writing history in ancient Rome.
[] T.J. Luce, The Greek Historians (London and New York 1997).
[] See B.W. Frier, Libri Annales Pontificum Maximorum: The Origins of the Annalistic Tradition (Ann Arbor, repr. 1999); T.J. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome (London and New York 1995) 1-30.
[] Among scholarship written in languages other than English, M. Gelzer, 'Roemische Politik bei Fabius Pictor,' in Kleine Schriften III (Wiesbaden 1964) 51-92 is of fundamental importance.
[] See Plb. 36.9.1-17 (Greek views on Roman policy ca. 146 BC); cf. 6.57.1-9. On the idea of the benefits deriving from fear of a worthy rival (metus hostilis), see H. Bellen, Metus- Gallicus, Metus-Punicus. Zum Furchtmotiv in der roemischen Republik (Wiesbaden 1985); on the idea of moral decline at Rome, A.W. Lintott, 'Imperial Expansion and Moral Decline in Rome,' Historia 21 (1972) 626-38.
[] Liv. 33.8.13-14; Plb. 18.24.9 (Cynoscephalae), with P.G. Walsh, 'The Negligent Historian: 'Howlers' in Livy,' G&R 5 (1958) 83-88.
[] For a more extended treatment, see Mellor's Tacitus (New York and London 1993).
[] T. D. Barnes, 'The Significance of Tacitus' Dialogus de Oratoribus,' HSCP 90 (1986) 225-44, quotation from p. 225.