Prior to the first examples of historical writing in Ancient Greece, the past was based on mythology and epic poems such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The first historian generally recognized is Herodotus who wrote his Histories in part to answer the question of how Greece came to victory in the Greek and Persian war, and also to discuss the many different peoples and their customs known to Herodotus in the ancient world. Thucydides wrote later about the Peloponnesian War in a more narrow analytical style that strove for greater realism than Herodotus. Ancient Greek historiography was concerned with the city-state primarily and saw time as cyclical and determinative upon historical events. With Alexander the Great and the Hellenic period, Greek culture and language spread across the ancient world. Histories of Alexander are somewhat incomplete and were written with the intent to entertain readers more than to give an accurate account of his life.

The rise of Rome was the next development that left its mark on historiography carrying over many aspects of the Greeks but instead focused on Rome alone and its rise into hegemony. Polybius argued that the success of Rome was due to its mixed constitution of several governments. Other writers of history did so with the intent of moral education through glorifying the virtuous characteristics of the citizens of early Rome. This was a respond to the wealth and power gained from the republic’s success and later historians perceived a decadent decline into the republic’s eventual fall into empire. Writings of Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, and of the civil wars thereafter resulting in the establishment of Augustus as the emperor, supported the new regime. For a time writings of history critical of the regime of Augustus were censored. The theme of decadence continued with the fall of the western empire blaming Rome for the lack of moral and virtues of the Roman emperors, citizens, armies, and senatorial class.

The fall of Imperial Rome and the rise of the Christian church would strongly effect western historiography for the next thousand years. The most prominent change came from the perception of time as cyclical to a linear view. History was thought to have a beginning, middle, and end. The end being the return of Christ and the coming of a new age. As the empire fell apart so did the importance of the state and human virtue. St. Augustine’s City of God argued that while earthly kingdoms and empires are temporary and will always fall, the heavenly kingdom of God is eternal. The importance of a heavenly kingdom over an earthly one continued through the historiography of the middle ages.

The writing of history in the middle ages was done mostly by Christian clergy and monks. Its purpose was to promote the character and accomplishments of monarchs and to show how the will of God manifested itself in historical events. The rise and fall of kingdoms was due to the judgement of God and thus the most powerful kings were believed to have divine authority to rule. To answer for the discontinuity in this final stage of history after Christ, historians made connections between the political institutions of their own time and that of Imperial Rome. After taking control of what would become modern France and Germany, Charlemagne was crowned by the pope as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to show some continuity. As Europe stabilized historians came to believe in a Christian commonwealth that united all of western Christendom. The sense of this shared identity contributed the justifications for the re-conquest of Jerusalem from Islam during the Crusades. 

The idea of a Christian commonwealth crumbled apart during the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. The texts and values of the ancient world were reinvigorated by Humanist scholars who developed a new perception of historical chronology. Time was divided into three parts; the ancient world, the dark ages, and the modern age of their own time. Humanists’ fascination with the development of the Latin language led to the field of Phonology and the method of historians to critically analyze the text of documents. Renaissance writers looked to the ancient world to solve modern problems such as Machiavelli’s use of ancient history to develop his political philosophy in his Discourses on Livy. The Protestant Reformation used histories written on the Catholic Church to support its criticism of the orthodox religion. Historians began to look inward to the significance of their own countries as nation-states took precedence over the power of the church.

With the Enlightenment came the prominence of science, the concept of history as a path to progress, and a series of revolutions based on new liberal ideas. Intellectuals wrote history as a process that would emancipate mankind. Philosophes such as Voltaire believed that history should be used to teach progressive values. Giambattista Vico wrote of new stages in history resulted in democratic governments and virtuous citizens. The rights of “the people” took precedence over the privileges of nobility, and the sovereignty of the state came from the consent of the people. Historians in the United States wrote histories of the American Revolution in the form of a freedom loving people standing up to tyrannical Britain. Mercy Otis Warren and Mason Locke Weems gave the founding fathers heroic qualities and figures such as King George III and Thomas Hutchinson were treated as villains. In Britain, historians wrote of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Edward Gibbon argued that Christianity led to the fall of Rome, and in Germany Immanuel Kant saw history as leading to freedom.

With the industrial revolution came the birth of the historical profession and the belief that history should be a science unto itself as historians attempted to find universal laws that dictated human events of the past and would continue to do so in the future. In Germany, Leopold von Ranke introduced a new method for historians to write history in accordance with the objective truth. Karl Marx argued that history is an economic process of class struggle that occurs when modes of production change; the slave agrarian economy of the ancient world, the feudalism of the middle ages, the capitalism in developed Western nations, and finally the revolution of the proletariat workers that would result with the end of history and the coming of a new age of peace and security where private property would cease to exist, nation-states would be no more, and every person would give according to their skills and take according to their needs. The impact of the Marxist view of history resulting in increased interest by historians in the working classes, the poor, as well as the role of economics in history.

Following the calamity of the world wars in the twentieth century, the idea of Western “progress” was attacked for resulting in Fascism and Communism. Historians of Germany argued whether Hitler’s fascist state was an aberration of Western progress or if it was the end result. Similar arguments were made over Communism and the Soviet Union. In the USSR the writing of history was used as a tool to uphold an Orthodox Marxist ideology and historians were censored if they strayed too far from the party line. The legitimacy of Marxism faded along with the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. However, several fields of history evolved since the introduction of the Marxist interpretation such as economic history and social history. Cultural history and the French Annals School gave an apolitical view of history. The “Noble Dream” of an objective grand narrative disappeared after confronting relativist views, contradicting ideologies form the Left and Right, and the criticism of the poststructuralist era. Historians began to argue against the application of any fixed laws to history, and philosophers such as Michel Foucault argued that an objective view of history was impossible due to the limitations of human language.


Breisach, Ernest. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.