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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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1. Pre-classical Times. We may look around for the
past, but it is nowhere to be seen. Only after immensely
long periods, and under the pressure of strange com-
pulsions, did it come to be realized that a past once
forgotten could be recovered to a considerable degree
by research.

Men may remember the things that have happened
within their own experience, and they have tended to
treasure what we call the “tales of a grandfather.”
These latter have often been regional in character, and
in England and elsewhere have been turned into local
ballads even in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Handed down within a tribe from generation to gener-
ation they would be rapidly altered in ancient days
through the very processes of oral transmission—the
accretion of legendary matter, for example. Some of
them—perhaps after being captured into a great theme
by a mastermind—would be organized into the epic,
which might be associated with a combination of tribes.
For the people concerned, the epic, which might
achieve great artistry and would be transmitted
through professional storytellers, represented their
actual history—sometimes the only history they knew
beyond the time of their grandfathers. But, on internal
analysis alone—that is to say, in the absence of inde-
pendent evidence—the modern student cannot disen-
tangle the historical truth from the element of fiction.
In some ways the epic seems to have assisted the
transition to what we regard as “genuine” history,


stimulating an interest in the past and providing a
narrative technique. Occasionally it may have been so
satisfying that it checked the desire for anything better.
There was a period when in Egypt it seems to have
had even a damaging effect on the style of the

The earliest historical writing of a more authentic
kind is nearer to earth, and the impulse both to enquiry
and to the production of a record seems to arise out
of some necessity. It is possible that owing to the
character and the needs of society men had an urgent
concern to secure accurate genealogies before they
became interested in historical enquiry, or aware of
its possibilities. Perhaps the earliest and simplest form
of a more authenticated kind of history consists of
dynastic lists, which come to be strung together—some
of them strung in succession, when in reality the fami-
lies ruled simultaneously. In the tremendous list from
ancient Sumer, one or two of the kings are identified
by a brief note referring to an episode in an epic, and
it does not appear that a name was identified except
where it was one that had occurred in an epic. In
another list from ancient Egypt, “events” are included
in the case of a number of monarchs, but though,
towards the end, their number reaches a dozen or more
in the year, they are copied from the monarch's annual
reports which seem to be announcements of duties
done—many of them ceremonial obligations, but in-
cluding an annual measurement of the flooding of the
Nile. In early times, the years were not numbered, but
in the first Babylonian empire they would be named
after some event, and official lists of them had to be
kept, so that the dates on business documents, etc.,
could be identified. The result was a lengthy list, with
one event for each year; but, here again, the events
were sometimes ceremonial—not the ones that an
historian would have chosen. It has been conjectured
that these “date-lists” are the things that led to the
idea of the “chronicle.”

Some of the earliest pieces of narration that survive
are on ancient Mesopotamian boundary stones, where
the story is told as a way of establishing the rights of
the case and rehearsing the precedents. Some descrip-
tive pieces from the same region—with vivid accounts
of the sacking of cities—turn out to have been prayers
or songs of lamentation. Again, in ancient Mesopo-
tamia, one monarch who had carried out a reform
provided a splendid description of the state of things
which had existed before he had taken action. And
here, after Babylon had first established an empire,
there appeared the first interpretation of history, based
on the very ancient view that disaster fell on any state
which neglected its gods. A Hittite monarch, explaining
a policy-decision, provided a retrospective survey that
ran through a number of reigns; and Hittite treaties
are remarkable for the very considerable account they
give of the origin of wars. From a much older date—
and for a long period—in ancient Egypt a distinguished
man who needed food and libations to secure his hap-
piness after death, would on his monument implore
the passerby to take pity on him; and, in order to
support his case, he would present an account of his
life—not so much a series of events, but a list of honors
enjoyed, a proof that he had been esteemed by the
pharaoh while he actually lived. In all these cases, the
recording of events in connected with something that
one might almost call a “utilitarian” purpose. In
Mesopotamia men asked interesting questions about
the early history of the human race and seem to have
seen that things might be explained by a study of
origins. But in this connection they produced, rather,
myths, which appeared in epic form.

For over a thousand years there existed what has
always been recognized as an historical literature of
remarkable extent and importance. It consisted of the
annals produced for the rulers of great empires—the
Egyptian, the Hittite, the Assyrian, in particular
—beginning in almost the form of notes, but devel-
oping into long and pretentious narratives, disappear-
ing whenever the empire declined. These were
engraved on the walls of palaces and temples, each
monarch recording now his building feats, now his
prowess in the hunt, but chiefly his military successes.
The ruler's purpose may have been to overawe his
subjects or impress his neighbors or secure his future
fame, but he may have been reporting to a god on
the carrying out of a commission (since warfare was
conducted on behalf of a god) or he may have been
expressing his thanksgiving on the walls of a commem-
orative temple. The disproportionate space often
occupied by the itemization of the booty (of which
the temple had a great share) suggests a religious origin
on many occasions; and it has even been conjectured
that the Assyrian annals may have developed from
letters in which a monarch reported to the god on his
execution of his commission. But the curses on anybody
who should ever tamper with the monument, show
that, though these writings give no sign of any interest
in the past, the rulers concerned had great solicitude
for their future fame. All this represented history of
the type of the commemorative monument, and though
it was produced over so long a period, it could not
develop beyond a certain point, and came to a dead
end. Its most remarkable feature was the literary
elaboration that it received. The Hittite annals would
seem to have been the most distinguished, whether as
history or as historical explanation; and, though deeply
religious, coming close in this respect to the ancient


Hebrews, they bring us surprisingly near to ancient
Greece as well. The handsome and impressive reliefs
from ancient Assyria provide excellent examples of
illustrated history.

Before the Assyrian annals had reached their peak,
however, the ancient Hebrews had come on to the
stage of history. They had been semi-nomads, yearning
for settlement in cultivated territory, and expecting
from their god that he would provide them with
it—almost testing his authenticity by his ability to keep
his promise. Perhaps because the fulfillment of the
promise was so long-delayed, they made a great deal
of it when it actually came, connecting it with an
exodus from slavery in Egypt which could only have
been experienced by a section of the combined tribes.
Henceforward, the gratitude for release from Egypt
and for the entry into the Promised Land became the
tradition of the whole people and stood as the ground
for religious obedience, the reason for submission to
the divine commandments. The Children of Israel
worshipped the God who had brought them up out
of the land of Egypt more than the God who had
created the world. They were able to make a great
contribution to religion, partly because they had their
eye on the God of History rather than on the gods
of nature, and this had important ethical consequences.
Even when they became cultivators of the soil they
did not transfer their allegiance to the gods of fertility;
and even when they borrowed from their neighbors
ceremonies based on the cycle of the seasons, they
transformed these (as they transformed circumcision
itself) into the celebration of an historical event. Their
religious ideas, covenant, judgment, the Promise, the
Messiah, are connected with history. If they took over
from their neighbors in Western Asia the idea that a
national disaster is a punishment for neglect of the god
or gods, they added the notion of history as charac-
terized by the continuing Promise—a conditional
Promise, subject to terrible acts of judgment, but re-
newed after the judgment had been suffered, and even
developing, so that it became something higher every

No country—not even England with its Magna
Carta—has ever been so obsessed with history, and it
is not strange that the ancient Hebrews showed pow-
erful narrative gifts, and were the first to produce
anything like a national history—the first to sketch out
the history of mankind from the time of the Creation.
They reached high quality in the construction of sheer
narrative, especially in the recording of fairly recent
events, as in the case of the death of David and the
succession to his throne. After the Exile they concen-
trated more on the Law than on history, and they
turned their attention to speculation about the future
and in particular about the end of the mundane order.
In a sense they lost touch with the hard earth. But
they did not quickly lose their gift for historical narrat-
ing, as is seen in I Maccabees before the Christian era
and the writings of Josephus in the first century A.D.

2. Greece. The classical Greeks began with a re-
markable handicap. They had behind them—behind
Homer—a brilliant civilization, the records of which
have recently become comprehensible to scholars. But
they knew scarcely anything about this earlier world
and could not have deciphered its texts; for after a
hiatus more complete than the Dark Ages in Europe,
they had learned a different art of writing which came
to them from a different source. Only a little oral
evidence, some of it difficult to disentangle from the
fictional material in Homer, had filtered down to them,
to give them a hint of that earlier age which we call
Mycenaean. And they, like the modern world, could
not even be sure that its language had been Greek,
though they were leaning to this view in the first
century A.D. For a long time they believed that only
a few centuries of history lay behind them, and in the
fifth century A.D. some of them were surprised when
the Egyptians produced the evidence that the past
went back for thousands of years. Even of their own
history as they emerged from their Dark Ages—indeed,
of the whole of Greek history since the Trojan war—
they knew hardly anything; for they did not have
monarchs who glorified themselves in annals, and they
were astonishingly late in producing documents at all.
It is difficult to see how the states that existed before
the fifth century can have been governed with so few
records. The earliest to appear were lists of officials
and priests. The Jewish writer, Josephus, in the first
century A.D. taunted the Greeks for these defects and
for the period before the fifth century B.C. it would
seem that even modern scholarship will never be able
to make good the loss. Athens appears to have been
particularly defective in this respect.

They had Homer, and the Iliad appears to have
taken shape in the Ionian region about the ninth cen-
tury B.C. There was an epic tradition in Ionia, and in
later centuries there were poets who filled in the nar-
rative of the Trojan war, and also carried the story
back to the supposed origins of the Greeks, and the
legends of warfare between the gods. They attempted
to deal with problems that Homer had failed to answer
and tried, for example, to straighten out the chronol-
ogies and genealogies, and to show what happened to
the heroes in later periods—perhaps to satisfy the needs
of families that wanted to clarify their connection with
such distinguished ancestors.

Ionia produced the earliest Greek prose, developed
what we should call philosophy and science, and saw


the beginnings of Greek historical writing. The stimulus
to this last would seem to have been given by great
events; and Hecataeus, overlapping the sixth century
and the fifth, like Herodotus later in the fifth century,
would seem to have been stirred by Greco-Persian
conflicts. Thucydides, later again in the century, was
moved by the Peloponnesian war. At the same time
the city-states of the Greeks had so developed that the
age was propitious for the awakening of the historical
consciousness in the effective general public. Down to
this time, and even much later still—even in the
twentieth century—war has been the most powerful
stimulus to the awakening of an interest in history;
Hecataeus and Herodotus were impelled to take a great
interest in neighboring peoples; and the situation of
Ionia was important partly because the interesting
Lydians, and later the Persians, were so near, partly
because it was almost the meeting-place of eastern
Mediterranean civilizations.

Greek historical writing developed to a considerable
degree out of the description of neighboring peoples
and the attempt to understand them. It emerged in
association with geography and ethnography; and this
in itself tended to give it a scientific bent, especially
as, before Herodotus, men had been writing about the
influence of climate and landscape on human nature.
In any case history emerged in Ionia at a time when
something of the scientific mentality had already been
developing there; and here (as in China) a civilization
distinguished by science also applied itself to history.
It is difficult to know how much the Greeks owed not
merely to the science but also to the historical writing
that had developed so greatly in Mesopotamia and
Asia; but it would appear that a genuine stimulus came
from Egypt; and to Egypt the Greeks went in the fifth
century B.C. to see if they could find answers to ques-
tions about the Trojan war.

In the absence of written sources, oral tradition
became particularly important in Greek historiography
from the start. Herodotus is dependent on it for the
history of the Persian war, which took place not long
before his time. Thucydides seems to have been skepti-
cal about the reconstruction of earlier Greek history,
though his opening pages contain inferences from what
we should call archaeology. It is easy to understand,
therefore, why the Greeks in general failed to feel
assured about the recovery of a remoter past, once that
past had been forgotten. Their great achievements
were in fields more nearly contemporary.

What they learned from Egypt, and the little they
knew about the Mycenaean age, seems to have given
them a powerful impression of history as involving
great progress up to a certain point and then decline
or collapse. They easily ran to the notion that there
had been a lot of these ups-and-downs, so that civili-
zation repeatedly had to start over again from almost
the beginning, without even the memory of former
achievements. We hear of the Egyptians taking special
pride in the advantages they had over the Greeks
through the continuity of their history and particularly
their immunity from damage by fire and flood, which
were sometimes regarded as the cause of the greatest
catastrophes. All this became part of the Greek way
of experiencing history—part of man's very feeling
for the time-process. And perhaps it was really for
this reason that Greek philosophy so easily ran to
cyclic views of history, contemplating on occasion the
notion of a cosmos and a world which—at colossal
intervals of time—go on forever repeating their history
in the minutest detail. Greek philosophy has been held
to be “antihistorical” therefore, and in a sense respon-
sible for the limitations of Greek historiography. Cer-
tainly the Greeks lacked the Jewish feeling that the
whole of creation is moving to some great end, as well
as the modern feeling that time itself is a generative

Yet our debt to the Greeks is immense; for they
opened the way to a deeper kind of history and to
a host of modern sciences by their determination to
subject historical data (once these were established) to
quasi-scientific procedures. They were not content, like
the Mesopotamians or the Chinese, to narrate history
as though everything were the result of acts of will
on the part of men or gods who could easily have willed
something else. They attempted to move to analysis,
and get behind the acts of volition, examining causes,
connections, and the operation of conditioning cir-
cumstance. They opened the way to a political science
which could examine the cause of the decline of a state
or the rise of a tyrant. And their cyclic views reinforced
their belief that, by the collation of instances, one could
arrive at maxims of statecraft, likely to be useful be-
cause history sufficiently repeats itself. All this entered
into the very texture of historical writing. The most
masterly example of this was Polybius (see below), a
Greek slave of the Romans, who set out to describe
the expansion of Rome in a book which was largely
a history of his own times. To the Greeks we owe the
view that history can be a political education.

It did not take them long to apply the canons of
rhetoric to the writing of history, and this was not so
indifferent a matter as we today might think. On the
Isocratean system the historian should interpret and
elucidate the story, discussing the plans of a leader,
describing the way in which he put them into effect
and explaining the results. But there is an alternative
method—simply to allow the reader to have the story
taking place before his eyes. It has been described as


“peripatetic” because it seemed to be connected with
Aristotle's theory of tragedy. The scenes are repro-
duced and one watches the action in the way that one
watches a play; and this is sufficient, without a discus-
sion of causes—the action itself producing the required
pity and terror. Attention may come to be concen-
trated too much on these issues of presentation as well
as on the style and the techniques which are appro-
priate to particular occasions. The result is liable to
be a decline in the quality of the history that has to
be presented—a decline evident at times in both
Greece and Rome.

The earliest of the great Greek historians whose
work has come down to us is Herodotus, who was born
in the 480's and seems to have died soon after 430
B.C. He wrote history partly in order that great deeds
(whether of Greeks or non-Greeks) should be placed
on record, and partly because he wished to lay out
the causes of the Greco-Persian War. He was interested
in the way in which things came to happen and would
look for rational explanations, showing the influence
of climate and geographical factors and presenting
excellent portrayals of character, though he was liable
to impute important events to trivial incidental causes,
the influence of women and purely personal factors.
At the same time he had a disturbing sense of super-
natural influences, showed the inadequacy of human
calculations, the retribution that Heaven would inflict
on great misdeeds, and introduced dreams, oracles,
visions, and divine warnings of approaching evil. He
seemed to make a point of repeating whatever versions
of a story had been reported and letting the reader
decide between them. He had a great admiration for
Athens which was connected with his love of demo-
cratic freedom and his feeling for the role of the city
in the Persian War.

Thucydides (who died early in the fourth century
B.C.) intended his history of the Peloponnesian War to
be useful to the future; for, since in his view human
nature and human behavior would be forever the same,
he held that similar situations and problems recurred,
so that the lessons of one period would be serviceable
in another period. He was influenced by the science
of the time and tried to apply the principles and
methods of Hippocratic medicine to politics, so that
everything could be covered by rational explanation.
He could separate the immediate occasion from the
deeper causes of an event, and was able to proceed
to general conclusions, as when he analyzed the rela-
tionship between wealth and power, or the remorseless
logic behind the development of Athenian imperialism.
He envisaged the characters of men as the result of
circumstances. He was compelled to leave a role for
chance, but his attitude to chance may not have been
very different from that of the twentieth century. He
saw that, with the resources and techniques then avail-
able, only something like “contemporary” history was
really feasible; and he made use of speeches to com-
municate what we should regard as the historian's
explanations of facts or situations, or of the motives
and ideas behind human actions.

Polybius (who was born in the decade or so after
198 B.C. and reached the age of 78) achieved a wide
form of general history in a work which examined the
rise of Rome and particularly its development to world-
empire within a period of less than fifty-three years
down to 167 B.C. He ostentatiously stresses the didactic
and pragmatic character of history, the fact that it
would be better if written by statesmen, and the im-
portance of the subject for people in public life; and
both in this and in his remarks about the critical treat-
ment of sources, he is in reaction against the “drama-
tizing” methods that had become popular amongst
historical writers. Though he traces causes and effects,
he fails to see the interconnections in the whole net-
work of events, or to discern general tendencies, and
he shows the operation of chance, the role of the
unexpected, as part of the very constitution of history.
He did not originate the idea of cyclic succession in
history or the predilection for a “mixed” form of gov-
ernment, but in the latter case it was his formulation
of the idea that influenced the modern world. He came
to the conclusion that even Rome would not escape
the tendency to fall into decline, a tendency which
he attributed to moral reasons.

3. Rome. At a time when events carried or acquired
religious associations, the chief of the priests in Rome
would note them (as well as omens, prodigies, etc.) on
a white board which recorded the names of the officials
of the year and then served as a kind of calendar. The
boards were kept available for future reference (though
they were liable to be destroyed by fire, as when the
Gauls sacked Rome in 390 B.C.), and the people of the
city came to have a sentimental attachment to them.
Such records were curiously typical of the character
of Roman historiography in general, which was gov-
ernmental in a sense (written by and for members of
the senatorial class), annalistic in form (beginning each
year with the names of the officials, and including the
omens, prodigies, etc.) but also flavored by religion,
by a certain piety towards the past, and by a deep
regard for public morality. The sense for history was
also—and perhaps primarily—promoted by the tradi-
tional devotion of the aristocratic families to their
ancestors, the religious observances connected with
these, the care taken over the preservation of domestic
archives, and the regular recital of old funeral orations.
All this intensified, if it did not generate in the first


place, the special feeling of piety towards the past,
and it helped to bring biography into favor in Rome.
It ensured also, however, that historical writers—more
than usually dependent on private archives—would
produce narrative distortions based on family preju-
dices or interests.

In a sense the Romans took to history more fervently
than the Greeks, who had their “antihistorical” side;
and at least their genius was more adapted to history
than to philosophy. They produced historical writing
that had a character of its own. Yet they contributed
nothing essential to the development of scholarship or
technique. They came to appreciate the finished
product but they learned historical writing from the
Greeks, and they met Greek historiography when it
was overripe. The result was that, from a compara-
tively early stage, they saw it as really a species of
rhetoric, and gave their minds to the problem of pres-
entation. They knew that history ought to be true,
of course; but they never realized (as Thucydides
realized) the amount of thought and labor and science
which is needed for the establishment of the truth over
and above the ordinary requirement of honesty. They
never really gave themselves to the task of investi-

It was the Greeks who began the writing of Roman
history; for, just as Herodotus had interested himself
in the peoples further east, his successors came to be
interested in their neighbors to the west of them, espe-
cially when warfare in Sicily brought home to them
the expansion of Roman power. The Greeks in any case
were inclined to enquire and speculate about the origin
of other people's cities and from them came some of
the legends concerning the foundation of Rome. The
first history produced by the Romans themselves was
written in Greek; and this is not so paradoxical as it
might seem, for, after the conquests of Alexander the
Great, a number of peoples—the Babylonians and
Egyptians, for example—showed a desire to present
their history in the language of what had become the
prevailing culture. The earliest Roman example of this,
Fabius Pictor, emerges in connection with the Second
Punic War, towards the end of the third century
B.C.—an important stage in the development of some-
thing like a national consciousness—a moment, too,
when it might have been felt that the Greeks were
seeing things too much from the Carthaginian point
of view.

The first historical work in Latin was in verse, and
the first prose work in this field was written towards
the end of his life by Cato (d. 149 B.C.), who was
influenced by the Greeks and was exceptional in his
desire to escape the annalistic form. In the subsequent
decades Greek culture exercised an increasing influence
on aristocratic circles in Rome that were interested
in public service, in literature, in philosophy, and in
the work of Polybius. They developed Latin prose,
sought to promote history rather than annals, and
picked up Stoic ideas of morality which were to help
still further to give Roman historiography its special
character. They produced historical writing of no spe-
cial distinction, however, and towards the middle of
the first century B.C., Cicero, in whom Latin prose
reached the stage of maturity, was clearly dissatisfied
with the general condition of Roman historiography.
But though he drew from Polybius some notions about
the objectives of historical writing, he called attention
mainly to questions of form—the need to follow the
rhetorical rules which had been developed under Greek

By this time there had begun to appear monographs
on limited themes (such as the Second Punic War) and
works which had the character of memoirs or autobi-
ographies—works which statesmen and soldiers pro-
duced for the purpose of self-justification. The Com-
of Julius Caesar (d. 44 B.C.) are particularly
important representatives of this latter class; partly
because they are so precise and sober, so rich in their
incidental information and so skillful in their conceal-
ment of their propagandist purpose. To the class of
monographs, however, belong The Conspiracy of
and The Jugurthine War by Sallust who, during
the few years after the assassination of his patron,
Caesar, withdrew from public life to produce history
of remarkable quality. Behind everything he was pre-
occupied with the decline and fall of the Roman Re-
public, which he attributed to a moral collapse; and
he emphasized the Stoic teaching which regarded the
evils as the result of luxury and ambition. He supported
with his intellect and fame a notion of ancient Roman
virtue which was already current and which came to
be of crucial importance, though it looks like a legend
produced and regularly transmitted by Roman histori-
ography. Though he had no love for the populace and
hankered after older aristocratic ideals, he wrote his-
tory with an antisenatorial bias, so that some people
have seen in it a propagandist purpose. It was history
in which Fortuna played an important part, and reli-
gion made perhaps only a conventional appearance,
the passions of men occupying the central place, with
the result that situations are dramatically developed,
and characters are presented with power. Sallust owed
much of his fame to his style, which was suited to his
subject; tense, rugged and dynamic, but with studied
archaisms—itself a creative achievement, owing much
to Thucydides and Cato, but a challenge to Ciceronian

Livy (59 B.C.-A.D. 17) produced 142 books of Roman


history which carried the narrative from the foundation
of the city to A.D. 9, though only about thirty-five of
these books survive. He conforms to the Roman ideal
of a historian—the ideal which Cicero did so much
to create—not the discoverer of new facts, not the
scientific analyst, but the narrator who looks for mo-
tives, discusses results, portrays character, supports the
cause of virtue and moves the reader by literary
artistry. The past inspires him with a mood of pietas
and he tells us that, when he is dealing with the early
history, he feels that he has been captured by the spirit
of those times. In this mood he seems unable to allow
even the legendary to be forgotten and in so far as
he did not create it, he expresses Rome's tradition about
herself, including an element of the mythical which
even the modern European has found it difficult to
sweep out of his mind. Livy presents—not without a
vein of poetry and a sense for drama—the whole tre-
mendous procession of the centuries, Rome being
chosen for greatness by the gods, who remain not
inattentive to her story throughout the generations.
Above all, the rise of Rome was a reward for a certain
virtue and greatness of heart which seemed to survive
only here and there in the present, but belonged to
earlier generations, comprising the things which the
Stoics loved—the simple life, gravitas, due deference
to authority, and some regard to religious observances.
But, although the discussion of authorities may add
plausibility to the narrative, it is evident that the au-
thor does not realize the need to come to grips with
the problem of sources. And in spite of his general
honesty, Livy can distort the narrative in favor of

Tacitus (ca. A.D. 55-120) expressed the view that the
deeds of good men ought not to be forgotten and that
evil men ought to be made to fear the judgment of
posterity. It is not clear, however, that he believed in
the possibility of altering things in his degenerate age;
and, as he realized that the moral decay reached back
to republican times, he seems to have felt that there
was no point in attacking the imperial system as such.
In his Histories and Annals he directed his hostility
against the individual emperors who ran the system,
and whom he described from the point of view of that
senatorial aristocracy which was the chief sufferer from
their misdoings. In his bitterness, he painted some of
these emperors as worse than modern scholars would
regard them, worse than would be suggested by the
facts that he himself adduced; and sometimes where
he recognized their good deeds he connected even
these with malignant motives. His narrative communi-
cates, therefore, something of the anguish of his soul,
and he speaks so much in terms of the way in which
he experienced the system that he fails to produce what
we should regard as the larger history of the empire
and of imperial policy. Even where he suggests some-
thing like supernatural action, he is sometimes tempted
to feel this (and the operation of Fortune itself) as
actively malignant. He was careful in his researches,
skillful in the production of dramatic effects, most
distinguished of all perhaps in his pithy style, charac-
terized by epigram and irony. His eulogies of the
Teutonic tribes, whose virtues appeared as an oblique
criticism of Roman decadence, seem to anticipate the
methods of French writers in the eighteenth century.
He emerges as the most remarkable historian that
Rome produced.

4. Early Christianity. The earliest Christians
seemed to have little place for mundane history; in
a sense they were too otherworldly, too intent on the
spiritual life. They thought that the end of the world
was near; and, even when the end did not come, they
felt that Christ had won the decisive battle—nothing
else that might happen in history could really matter.
They held to what we call the Old Testament, however,
and, though the gospel was preached to the Gentiles,
the continuity with the ancient Hebrew religion was
maintained. The Old Testament committed them to
history in a sense; however, they did not attach them-
selves to the mundane side of the narrative—they
abstracted from the Scriptures a skeleton of supra-
natural “salvation-history,” a story that culminated in
the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. This could easily
be an obstruction to any interest in what we ordinarily
mean by history; especially as the mundane events in
the Old Testament narrative could be given a figurative
or symbolic significance.

It would have been difficult to maintain this situation
for a long period, especially as people were bound to
enquire about the life of Jesus in the world. As time
went on, it became important to assert his humanity
as well as his divinity, and the fact that Christianity
did not involve mythical figures or demiurges, but one
who had been a real historical personage, became no
doubt part of its strength. With the passage of time,
there were decisions of the Church in Jerusalem to be
remembered, martyrs to be commemorated, stories to
be told about the missionary work in the Roman
Empire. In the controversies with the pagans it became
necessary to answer the charge that Christianity was
only a recent innovation—it had to be explained why
it maintained the continuity with historical Judaism
and, this being the case, why it broke with contem-
porary Judaism. It came to be held that Christianity
was a return to the religion of primitive humanity and
that this latter had everywhere fallen into corruption,
Moses himself securing later only a partial restoration.
Moses had preserved the worship of Yahweh, but the


Jews were still recalcitrant and needed the straitjacket
of the Law. When the Church had to answer the noble
pagans, and some of its own converts were unable to
forsake their devotion to Plato, it came to be held that
the Greeks—though more corrupted by polytheism
than the Jews—had themselves possessed gleams of
light. The total result was that Christianity was hence-
forth regarded as the heir of both Greek philosophy
and the Old Testament. The wisdom of the ancient
Hebrews was older, Homer not so early as Moses, while
Plato and Pythagoras were younger than some of the
prophets, and Plato himself even being indebted in
certain ways to the earlier prophets. Furthermore, the
language of the ancient Hebrews was taken to be the
oldest of all, anterior to the confusion of tongues,
indeed the language of God himself.

In this way a Christian interpretation of large-scale
mundane history was gradually developed; but, before
these ideas had been reached, churchmen had had to
tackle the elaborate enterprise of comparing the widely
differing chronological systems of the ancient world,
synchronizing events in one region with events in
another. Some time not far from A.D. 221 Julius
Africanus produced an important pioneering work in
this field, which had the further effect of involving the
scholar in universal history. The book of Genesis, with
its account of the primitive state of the human race,
the division into nations and languages, and the origin
of the arts and crafts, encouraged the whole notion
of a history of mankind. Till the early eighteenth cen-
tury, it still provided the material for the opening
chapter of such a work. Political history is generally
the narrative of one's own state and people; but reli-
gious and quasi-religious ideas encourage meditation
upon the destiny of mankind as a whole, and Christi-
anity was to give a great impetus to universal history,
though this had already emerged, particularly in a Stoic
context, amongst the Greeks and Romans. Jewish
apocalyptic literature had begun to periodize history,
and had seen the rise of colossal empires as in a way
a judgment of God—in a way the beginning of the
end. It had caught from abroad the theory of the Four
Monarchies or World Empires; and this, as formulated
in the book of Daniel, governed the periodizing of
universal history until the seventeenth and even the
eighteenth century. But for a time, while the Church
was settling down for a more protracted life in the
world, millenarian speculation was more interesting to
believers than the story of what had happened in the
past. In the Epistle of Barnabas, which may have
appeared between 70 and 130 A.D., it was suggested
that since the Creation took six days, a day was as a
thousand years to God, and the world was likely to
have a life of 6000 years, Christ was regarded as having
been born between 5000 and 5500 years after the
Creation so that the end of the world still seemed
reasonably near.

The world was then envisaged as remarkably small,
and the stars as forming part of the scenic background.
Amongst the Jews there existed the belief that
Jerusalem stood at the very center of the map. In
Aristotelian physics, the noblest things of all—fire and
air—tended to rise above everything else, and the
heavenly bodies were made of an especially ethereal
kind of matter. For both Christians and non-Christians,
the air was full of active spirits, some of them wicked
demons. There were converts who held their Christi-
anity rather as they had previously held their pagan
beliefs, regarding God as the successful worker of

The historical consciousness as it emerges in
Eusebius, who wrote before and after 300 A.D., was
adapted to this toy-universe that still expected only
a short life-span. This consciousness was stimulated by
the stirring events of the time, and the feeling that
things were now coming to a climax. For Eusebius,
Christ appears in “the fulness of time” (itself an inter-
esting historical concept); also he arrives appropriately
when the Jews happen to have no king of their own
line. In addition to this, both the Mosaic dispensation
and the philosophy of Greece had been provisional in
character, only a “preparation” for the gospel; and
since the days of Irenaeus, ca. A.D. 180, it had been
realized that time had a part to play in God's plan,
an “educational” function perhaps. The junction of
these two strands of Hebrew and Greek history, and,
in addition to these, the Incarnation itself, coincided
with the establishment of the Roman Empire, divinely
ordained to bring the peace, and the easy communi-
cations which were required for the spread of the
Gospel. Christ by his victory thwarted the evil demons
who were henceforward doomed to fight a hopeless
rearguard action. Indeed, from this time, the very
pagans were regarded as having softened their man-
ners. From this point in his historical work, Eusebius
stands as virtually the founder of what we call ecclesi-
astical history—trying to trace the successors of bishops
in their sees, to commemorate the martyrs and describe
the various heresies, though even he can use strong
language about the evils in the Church. The culmina-
tion of everything is the conversion of Constantine,
who achieves supreme worldly success through mira-
cles, and appears as something like a wonder-child

A century later, Saint Augustine has seen the evils
that can flourish even after the empire has become
Christian. He has to meet the charge that the desertion
of the ancient gods has been punished by barbarian


invasions and disaster in Rome. He surveys the whole
human drama and asks fundamental questions: How
did the world begin? What is the nature of time? He
also asks questions which are closer to earth, closer
to history: Where did civilization begin and why were
the early Romans so successful? He says that God
bestows empire and military success—like the sunshine
and the rain—on the good and the wicked indifferently.
Otherwise men might be induced to become Christian
for the purpose of achieving worldly success. Further-
more, it was the Christian God—not at all the pagan
deities—who had brought Rome to greatness, giving
mundane virtues their appropriate mundane reward,
though in the eyes of eternity these virtues could be
analyzed into something else and would appear also
as terrible sins. Augustine not only recognizes the
existence of profane history but comes near to treating
it as an autonomous realm. The despoiling of Rome
was the result of the customs of war. The destruction
of Carthage robbed Rome of its great fear, and this
led to a moral relaxation. The Roman conquests had
become too vast—her empire was beginning to break
under its own weight. Even the peace which the
empire established did not cancel the wickedness of
the wars that had made it possible; and Rome, in spite
of all that is owed to it, is only a second Babylon.
Augustine seems to prefer small states, if only they
could be turned into a family of states; but in his heart
he knows how difficult this is—he realizes that it was
the turbulence of the neighboring peoples which had
provoked the Roman attacks upon them. In regard to
sacred history, salvation-history—in regard to the
Incarnation, for example—he sees events as conforming
to a divine plan; but, in respect of mundane history,
he has more flexible ideas than Eusebius—a greater
readiness to study ordinary causation—and he does not
envisage Providence as working mechanically to a

In the City of God we see him arguing his way out
of a cyclic view of history, for he cannot allow that
everything that happens will go on repeating itself
throughout endless time—this would turn the Incarna-
tion into a puppet-show. Yet he had previously been
tempted by a cyclic view of history, and perhaps it
was really the pull of the Old Testament that saved
him from it.

He confided to his disciple Orosius the task of dem-
onstrating in detail that Rome and the world had
suffered great evils before the appearance of the
Christian religion. And Orosius achieved a certain
degree of relativity, showing that the rise of Rome had
involved disasters for many peoples, and wondering
why the greatest miseries of past ages do not seem to
produce in us anything like the pain that we suffer
from being stung by a fly at the present day. Coming
from Spain, he asked the Romans to imagine what they
would have felt like if they had been the defeated
Carthaginians. He was prepared to think that the bar-
barians of his time might someday establish an order
and a culture that would become as acceptable to the
people involved as the Roman empire had been. He
differed from Augustine in his excessive providentialism
and he was too content to think that God rewarded
piety with worldly success. He imagined that not only
the barbarities of the pagans, but the cataclysms in
nature—the ferocity of Mount Etna—had been miti-
gated by the very fact that the Incarnation had oc-
curred. His treatise became one of the most influential
books in world-history; and the Middle Ages, when
they thought they were following Saint Augustine,
were really following Orosius' view of Providence,
which was more easy for them to understand. It was
Orosius who provided the model for an interpretation
of world-history that lasted well into early modern