- The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Historians
An impressive list of scholars contributed to this volume. It is refreshing that the chapters are not devoted to individual historians (with the exceptions of a chapter on Josephus and another one on the late antique historian Ammianus Marcellinus—two exceptional figures, the first one for writing a history of the Jews and the second one for being the object of renewed attention in recent scholarship) but arranged to present a survey of the whole field. The chronological list at the end of the volume runs from the mid-fourth century b.c.e. to the late fourth century c.e. and, in the preface, Roman historiography is defined as “continuous prose narratives, intended to be read as ‘fact,’ and organized around the experiences of the Roman community rather than those of an individual” (3).
As Feldherr sketches it in the introduction, the study of Roman historians has changed considerably since the end of the 1970s, when, partly under the influence of Hayden White and more generally of the “linguistic turn,” and partly through internal development with the “Wiseman-Woodman revolution,” Roman historiography ceased to be the reserved province of ancient historians and started to be studied as literature. Although this shift was positive in many respects, some scholars claim that the texts of the Roman historians should still be read as [End Page 438] history.1 Given the interdisciplinary perspective of this journal, it seems appropriate to focus on the chapters that address this shift in scholarship.
William W. Batstone (“Postmodern Historiographical Theory and the Roman Historians”) posits that Roman historians are “no more modernist historians . . . than they are postmodern historians” (30), and that therefore it is legitimate to read them from a postmodern perspective. In one of his examples of such a reading, he suggests that Sallust’s text concerns the subjectivity of his readers, who discover that history cannot “conform to or confirm any moral imperative.” The following chapter, by J. E. Lendon—“Historians without History: Against Roman Historiography”—is polemical in its tone and claims. Contrary to a near consensus in recent scholarship, Lendon contends that concern for truth was foremost for the Roman historians and that to present history as a sub-genre of rhetoric is simply wrong. The upshot is that modern historians can look for facts in the narratives of the ancient historians, not just for fiction about the past. The chapter of Emma Dench (“The Roman Historians and Twentieth-Century Approaches to Roman History”) suggests that both camps caricature the other and that a number of recent studies transcend the divide artificially created between historiography and history.
To the credit of this Companion, it presents numerous case studies that concretely show how the opposition between historical evidence and literary constructs falls short of adequately describing the complexity of the texts written by the Roman historians.
1. In 1979, Timothy P. Wiseman in Clio’s Cosmetics (Lanham, Md., 1979) suggested that Roman historians used their rhetorical training to generate the content of historical narratives. In 1988, Anthony J. Woodman in Rhetoric in Classical Historiography (New York, 1988) examined ancient claims about truth and concluded that they were not central to ancient historiography.