Monday, May 16, 2011


Beat Näf, Antike Geschichtsschreibung. Form-Leistung-Wirkung. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer Urban Akademie, 2010. Pp. 252. ISBN 9783170213579. €27.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Melina Tamiolaki, University of Crete/Open University of Cyprus (

Version at BMCR home site

Beat Näf's book, which derives from a reworking of his lectures, provides a concise introduction to the main issues of ancient historiography. Although we are already familiar with studies of this type,1 this book's interest lies in three factors: it covers a great span in time, from antiquity up to the 6thth century AD,2 it treats reception of ancient historiography more systematically, and it uses a thematic division, thus allowing the reader to perceive the ruptures and continuities in the writing of history. It is thus a very useful guide for the average and the expert (German or German-speaking) reader, whose task is further facilitated by the abundant citation of passages both from ancient (translated) and from modern sources. The book is divided into eleven chapters with endnotes and contains illustrations throughout, as well as indexes and a well-informed and up-to-date bibliography at the end.

In the first chapter ("Einleitung", p. 9-30), Näf presents a classification of the motives for the writing of history (political motives, curiosity, contemporary concerns) and stresses the importance of ancient historiography for the analysis of human thought. The second chapter ("Der Kanon der Antiken Historiker", p. 31-44) deals with authors who have composed canons of ancient historians and their criteria. To this category belong Cicero, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Quintilian, Dio Chrysostomus, Lucian and Plutarch; for the period of Late Antiquity, Näf mentions Augustine, Cassiodorus, Flavius Josephus, and the ecclesiastical historians (such as Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomenus, Theodoretus and Evagrius). Concerning modern times, emphasis is put on historians such as Vossius, Creuzer, Ulrich, Droysen, Jacoby and Momigliano, who have nuanced the ancient canon. The third chapter ("Formen der Geschichtsschreibung", p. 45-70) describes the forms of historiography in a diachronic perspective: departing from the chronicles and the royal inscriptions of the ancient near East, Näf passes next to ancient Greece: the boundaries between myth and history are here often blurred; some aspects of classical historiography have been criticized by later authors (such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch and Lucian), but the most important contribution of the Greek historians is their self-reflection on the writing of history ("Selbstreflexion über die Geschichtsschreibung"). Other forms of historiography examined in this chapter include universal history, annals, memories, Christian chronicles, ecclesiastical history, biography and compilations.

The fourth chapter (entitled interestingly "Der Verzicht auf vertiefte historische Aufarbeitung und Darlegung", p. 71-91) treats the topic of the difficulty of history writing as it was conceived by various authors: it is not an easy task for a historian to be impartial and objective. This topic is raised already by Thucydides, but the present study provides material for the continuation and elaboration of this idea in Rome and later times too: Sallust was one of the authors who admitted this difficulty, Cicero urged others to write history rather than writing it himself, whereas Procopius mentions the lack of intellectual freedom as a reason for not writing contemporary history. The fifth chapter ("Der Umgang mit den Quellen", p. 92-110) focuses on the sources for the writing of history (their nature, reliability and accessibility). The author sees a paradox in ancient Greek historiography: ancient Greek authors (especially Herodotus and Thucydides) set the rules for the treatment of sources, but their histories also show the limits in the application of these rules. These limits become obvious in later times as well: during the Hellenistic period, when the genre of tragic historiography flourished, the authors' priority in the treatment of sources was not objectivity, but the audience's pleasure. Similarly, Christianity promoted a theological conception of history which is not necessarily compatible with rigid examination of the sources. In the sixth chapter ("Gestaltung von Geschichtswerken", p. 111-130) Näf presents the intellectual preconditions for the writing of history, the most important of which is language skill: ancient historians had usually studied rhetoric, so their language level was elevated. Conversely, history was considered an important part of the education of the orators. Nevertheless, a tension can be observed between rhetoric and history; the excesses of tragic historiography which is most influenced by rhetoric have been criticized by later authors (such as Polybius and Lucian).

The next two chapters deal with theoretical issues of ancient historiography: ancient historians put more emphasis on the political aspect rather on everyday life features; they showed an interest in constitutions, foreign lands and the human condition and tried to present chains of causality, either rational or metaphysical. Romans, more specifically, were interested in mores (chapter seven: "Die Erfassung des Historischen: Konzepte und Theorien", p. 131-150). In ancient Greece, however, a systematic philosophy of history was not developed (eighth chapter: "Geschichtsbild und Geschichtsphilosophie", p. 152-180); yet certain elements of philosophical meaning are attested, such as genealogies, myths, metaphors and parables. Of importance is also the division of history into eras, which can be traced back to Herodotus (with his successions of Persian kings) and is also obvious in later authors, especially of the Christian period.

The tenth chapter ("Das Verhältnis zu den Vorgängern", p. 180-203) is devoted to the topic of self-presentation and competition among ancient historians, whereas the eleventh chapter ("Privilegierte Interessen-Geschichte und antike Eliten", p. 204-218) deals with the identity of ancient historians: most of them belonged to the elite, had an active political role (such as Thucydides, Xenophon and Polybius) or even put their craft in the service of a monarch, such as the historians of the Hellenistic period. The last chapter ("Wirkung und Rezeption der antiken Geschichtsschreibung", p. 219-229) deals with the ways that ancient historiography was received and reshaped in modern times under the influence of Christianity, Renaissance and modern political concerns.

Overall, Näf's book is an erudite study, well structured (despite some repeated material) and well written (the typos are few), which covers all the significant aspects of ancient historiography and its reception.3 The most important asset of it is that it helps the reader gain acquaintance with a variety of eras and authors. The author often adopts the perspective of the present (e.g. he comments on the difficulty of the edition process in antiquity or the absence of pictures in ancient books of history). Some simplistic statements notwithstanding,4 this perspective is useful, since it enhances our understanding of ancient historiography through a comparison with modern models. In sum, this book will be of use for every student of historiography and can constitute a basis for future research, especially in the field of historiography in a comparative level.


1.   Besides the studies cited at the end of this volume, see also now, A. Rengakos, "Geschichtsschreibung", in B. Zimmermann, Handbuch der griechischen Literatur der Antike Bd. 1: Die Literatur der archaischen und klassischen Zeit, Verlag C. H. Beck Literatur - Sachbuch – Wissenschaft 2011, p. 326-417.
2.   The term "ancient" is thus conceived lato sensu; but the author does not engage in a discussion of chronological boundaries.
3.   Some authors, such as Xenophon, are under-represented, whereas others figure in many chapters of the book. The presentation of modern schools of thought is mostly German-centered. One would perhaps also expect a more systematic discussion of the topic of genre in ancient historiography.
4.   E.g. p. 92: "Unbelastet also von theoretischen Überlegungen zur Methode gibt man sich ganz die Hoffnung hin, man könne die Quellen richtig zusammenstellen und vorführen. Direkt lasse sich dann zeigen, 'wie es eigentlich gewesen'. Mel Gibson hat einen solchen Optimismus 2003/04 während der Medienkampagne [sic] für seinen Film The Passion of Christ verbreitet". This statement may be rather misleading, since Mel Gibson is treated like a (sort of) historian. See also, p. 93: "Die Bücher über Harry Potter … haben von einer sehr viel grösseren Zahl von Menschen –begeisterten- Zuspruch erhalten als Publikationen von Historikerinnen und Historikern".

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