Early Societies: Britain and the Ancient World

What is history?

How do you get a place in the history books? As we know from recent tragic events most ordinary people are famous by accident. Some become famous because they're heroes or criminals; a handful are famous simply because they were present at a dramatic event and described what they saw (like Samuel Pepys and the Great Fire of London). Some are famous like Lindow Man or the 'Otzi' the Ice-Man because they provide unique evidence of a whole culture or way of life.

History isn't the record of everything in the past, it's the record of everything known about the past and the record of what people think is important about the past. Who decides what is important? Today it seems to be the editors of newspapers and television news programmes but in the longer term it is historians.

In the first societies from which written records survive, like Ancient Egypt, history consists of the names and deeds of rulers, usually carved on temple walls. It was the Greeks with their enquiring minds who invented history as we know it. Herodotus, born about 480 BC, is sometimes known as the 'father of history'. His subject was the Persian attempts to conquer Greece which included the famous battle of Marathon. At the beginning of his narrative he makes it clear why he is writing:

These are the researches of Herodotus of Helicarnassus which he publishes in the hope of preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done and of preventing the great and wonderful deeds of the Greeks and barbarians from losing the glory that is owed to them....

A generation after Herodotus, Thucydides wrote an account of a war between Athens and Sparta, (called the Peloponnesian War) in which he himself took part. Thucydides always claims to be truthful but he was more concerned with style than detail. He left out a lot of things we'd like to know about because no serious person would be interested in them and he put long speeches into the mouths of his main protagonists because he thought that the ability to make a speech was the hallmark of a great man. Many other ancient writers followed his example, making it very difficult to tell where fact ends and fiction begins.

Roman historians

The Romans had an empire to celebrate and the greatest of their historians Titus Livius (59 BC-AD17) set out create the equivalent of a national legend. Like Thucydides he records only the outline of events and some of the stories he includes have a very 'far-fetched' feel to them, for example the tale of Marcus Curtius:

In this same year (362 BC), it is said that the middle of the Forum caved in, revealing a huge chasm. Despite the efforts of the Romans to fill it the yawning fissure grew wider; then the soothsayers announced that the city would only be saved if the Romans sacrificed whatever they held most dear. What did the gods mean? Everyone hesitated until Mettius Curtius, an excellent young warrior, denounced his fellow countrymen for not realising that skill in arms and courage were the things a true Roman valued most. Silence fell; Mettius gazed first at the temples of the gods which surrounded the Forum, raising his hands to heaven; then he looked down into the terrible abyss, as if devoting himself to death. Finally he mounted his horse, all richly equipped, and leapt, fully armed, into the gulf. Offerings and the produce of the fields were thrown in after him by the vast crowd....

A hundred years later, when Rome had ceased to be a republic and had become an empire, Cornelius Tacitus (56 AD-about 118AD) had a different message. He saw the corruption and degradation which had crept into Roman political life when all that mattered was the favour of the emperor. With grim irony he tells how the emperor Nero set fire to the city of Rome and then blamed the disaster on an obscure sect called the Christians:

Neither the relief measures promised by the government nor a plan to re-build the city on a magnificent scale could prevent a rumour spreading that the fire had been started on purpose. To suppress the story Nero found scapegoats, punishing with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius's reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out again, not only in Judaea, but even in Rome - where all degraded and shameful practices flourish.

First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, many more were condemned. Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in animal skins they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. Nero opened the palace gardens for this spectacle, where he mingled with the crowd or stood in a chariot dressed as a charioteer. But despite their guilt as Christians and the punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. It was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man's brutality rather than the national interest...

top of this page

The Middle Ages

This famous passage provides the only non-Christian source for the existence of Christianity in the years following Christ's death. Less than three centuries later Christianity had become the official religion of the empire. Christian historians had a very different purpose to that of their Roman predecessors. Past events as such did not interest them: their attention was fixed on the world to come. Their heroes were the saints and martyrs whose lives showed the way to get to heaven. So Bede (673-735), the first Anglo-Saxon historian, tells this story about the early life of St Cuthbert:

One day a great crowd of lads were at their usual games in a field, Cuthbert amongst them, twisting, turning and throwing themselves around in their excitement. Suddenly a child no more than three years old ran up to Cuthbert and began to tell him off, with all the solemnity of an old man, for his idleness and selfishness, saying that he would do better to exercise a tight control over his mind than his body. When Cuthbert ridiculed the idea, the child threw himself on the ground, the tears pouring down his cheeks. The others rushed to comfort him, but to no avail. When Cuthbert himself tried to cheer him up, the child cried out 'Why, most holy priest, do you persist in doing what is so contrary both to your nature and your rank? How ill it befits you to play games like a child - you whom the Lord has marked out to instil virtue into your elders !

Cuthbert took this good-naturedly, listened indeed with rapt attention, and soothed the child's feelings with a friendly show of attention. From then on he showed himself more mature and earnest, as the Spirit who had spoken to him through the mouth of an infant, spoke to him now in the recesses of his heart.

There is almost nothing in this account that is specific: neither time, nor place nor the type of game are mentioned: the only objective of the story is to show how Cuthbert was destined from an early age to rise above the ordinary condition of men. In Bede's day the only people who could read and write were churchmen, but by the later Middle Ages laymen were once again becoming interested in the past. The works of Greek and Roman historians were re-discovered hidden in monasteries where they had been copied by the monks as part of their obligation to work as well as pray. We call this revival of learning the Renaissance.

top of this page

History with a moral

In England the Renaissance coincides with the advent of the Tudors (1485-1603). The first of the Tudor kings, Henry VII, commissioned an Italian scholar called Polydore Vergil to write the first 'official' history of England. Here is Polydore Vergil's account of the closing stages of the Battle of Bosworth Field (22nd August 1485) when Henry defeated his rival Richard III to gain the crown. Richard has been unhorsed and is surrounded by his enemies:

The report is that Richard could have saved himself by flight. His companions, seeing that from the outset of the battle some of his soldiers were wielding their arms feebly and sluggishly, and that some were secretly deserting, suspected treason and urged him to fly. When his cause obviously began to falter, they brought him a swift horse. Yet he, who was not unaware that the people hated him, setting aside all hope of future success, allegedly replied - such was the great fierceness and force of his mind - that that very day he would either make an end of war or his life. Knowing that the outcome of the battle would either yield him a pacified realm or else take it away for ever, he went into the fray wearing a royal crown, that he might thereby make an end or a beginning of his reign. Thus the miserable man had such an end as customarily befalls them that for justice, divine law and virtue, substitute wilfulness, impiety and depravity. To be sure, these are far more forcible object-lessons than the voices of men to deter those persons who allow no time to pass free from some wickedness, cruelty or mischief...

Polydore Vergil wrote in Latin, still the universal language of scholarship, but soon afterwards his history formed the basis of Edward Hall's Union of the Two Noble Families of Lancaster and York, the first work of popular history printed in English (1548). This was the source of many of Shakespeare's history plays. For Shakespeare, like Polydore, history was a kind of secular morality tale proving that evil - however successful in the short term - would always be defeated in the end, usually by its own inner conflicts.

top of this page

Modern history

Between Shakespeare's times and our own lie five centuries in which science has replaced religion as the main way of explaining things and history, like any other branch of science, has become ever more precise in its methods. After two hundred years of religious war Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) displays an aristocrat's contempt for superstition and those who exploit it. In this passage from the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he pours scorn on the Roman Catholic church and the way it had attempted to destroy its enemies over the centuries:

During the ages of ignorance which followed the subversion of the Roman Empire in the West, the bishops of the imperial city (Rome) extended their dominion over the laity as well as the clergy of the Latin church. The fabric of superstition which they had erected, and which might long have defied the feeble efforts of reason, was at length assaulted by a crowd of daring fanatics, who, from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, assumed the popular character of reformers. The church of Rome defended with violence the empire which she had acquired by fraud; a system of peace and benevolence was soon disgraced by proscriptions, wars, massacres, and the institution of the holy office (the Inquisition). And as the reformers were animated by the love of civil as well as of religious freedom, the Catholic princes (of France and Spain) connected their own interest with that of the clergy and enforced with fire and sword the terrors of spiritual censures...

This was what the soldiers and sailors who defeated the Spanish Armada were fighting against!

In the 19th century history shared in the thoroughness with which the Victorians tried to modernise the ramshackle institutions they had inherited from the past. Ancient records were catalogued and set in order, original sources printed and the value of other kinds of historical evidence understood for the first time. At the same time the public still liked its history to be colourful and dramatic. Film hadn't been invented so it was the painters and novelists who satisfied the nostalgia of the newly emerging middle class for a past that was rapidly vanishing as the Industrial Revolution created huge cities and problems of dirt, poverty and disease on a scale never seen before.

During the 1840's food shortages created by poor harvests brought the threat of revolution all over Europe. Karl Marx (1818-1883) saw an inherent instability in industrialised societies where wealth (capital) was concentrated in the hands of merchants and bankers. He believed the time was inevitably coming when those who actually produced the wealth would seize it for themselves. Marx's ideas have dominated politics in the 20th Century but most historians have found Marxism to narrow a framework to square with the complexities of real history and in recent years those who want to understand how human societies work have been more attracted by the work of archaeologists and anthropologists.

Almost all the historians referred to in these notes believed that history has lessons to teach us, either by setting us good examples or teaching us the error of our ways. Even Marx seems to be preaching the gospel of a socialist heaven. With events like the Holocaust still in living memory, no-one would argue with the notion that history teaches us something. But what is it and how does it affect the sort of history we ourselves will teach?

top of this page