Book Review: The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography by Arnaldo Momigliano

Scholars love lavishing titles on their fellows, no doubt in the hope of receiving some in return. So we create nearly meaningless superlatives: “the world’s foremost authority on the practice of engraving currency in northern France, 1121–1126” or “Western Idaho’s most prestigious student of the copula in Homeric poetry.” Arnaldo Momigliano, though, can without hyperbole be identified as the twentieth century’s leading researcher on ancient historiography, and as being on the short list for Renaissance historiography.

This book is the edited, written version of six lectures by Momigliano at UC Berkely in 1961–62. Its chief concern is to show the plurality of ancient historiographies and how each became the basis for modern historiographies. It is organized around six questions:

(1) What have Greek and Jewish historiographies in common and why and to what extent did Greek history ultimately prevail?
(2) Why did Thucydides rather than Herodotus become the most authoritative historian of Antiquity?
(3) What part did the antiquarians play in historical research?
(4) How was Greek historiography imported into Rome and what did the romanisation of Greek historiography entail?
(5) What is the place of Tacitus in historical thought?
(6) Why and in what way has ecclesiastical historiography a tradition of its own?

The lecture is the perfect format for a mind as expansive and perceptive as Momigliano’s. At the command of a vast treasury of facts, with the imaginative capacity to draw connections between them, and unburdened by the monographic shackles of technical precision and pedantic citation, Momigliano grapples with these broad question as perhaps only he could. Each lecture is both flowing and probing. The reader is drawn through the pages by the inquiry. Each time the investigation seems to halt, new ground is gained by a deftly posed question or a newly-remembered thread. The product is delightful, though his nuances are perhaps distinguishable from pedantry only by those who have some experience with the texts in question and some sense of just how problematic some of the inquiries are.

I will not try to summarize the inquiries, but I will highlight a few of the points that struck me. First, it is remarkable that Hebrew historiography vanished after the Maccabees for many centuries; modern critical historiography draws from the Greeks. Second, Momigliano debunks the notion, most often propounded by Christian theologians, that “Greek thought” (whatever that is) was ahistorical or committed to historical cycles. Third, the old conflict over the status of Herodotus vis-à-vis Thucydides could perhaps be explained by shifting preferences for the former’s ethnography or the latter’s political focus. Fourth, the antiquarians were the ones to give systematic treatment to the past, paving the way for modern structuralism and sociology. They were also, at times, more empirically driven. Fifth, ecclesiastical history is distinguished both by its care for documentation and by its recognition of the power of precedent to effect the present.

I highly recommend this book for historians. It is not a work on philosophy of history per se, but by applying our critical tools to our own heritage, Momigliano has provided the philosophy of history some material. Perhaps it can be developed to allow historical writing itself to be more historically, and not just philosophically, informed.