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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Are ideas the product of events, or do ideas influence
events? This question has been discussed since the
mid-twentieth century, both in general and with regard
to whether or not ancient Greek historiography has
been influenced by ideas and theories not originating
from the historians themselves (Histoire et historiens
dans l'antiquité,
pp. 129ff.). The question is, however,
rather pointless, since it appears obvious that ideas
frequently come into being in response to events, but
receive their specific form from individual thinkers and
then in turn may exercise a very strong influence on
future events, including literary works. Marxism, for
instance, was a product of modern industrialism. The
social conditions created by early industrialism almost
inevitably gave rise to socialist ideas. But the form in
which they exercised the greatest influence both on
future political events and on a considerable section
of historiographical literature was given to them by
one man: Karl Marx. A study of the influence of ideas
on ancient Greek historiography, therefore, should be
a study of this interplay of events, ideas, and histori-
ographical works. Furthermore, the concept of idea
should be taken in a rather wide sense, to include not
only ideas that have been precisely formulated but also
“ideas” that at certain periods can be said to have
“been in the air,” i.e., ideas that in one way or another
appear to have entered into or to have formed the
background of the thinking of outstanding men in
various fields of intellectual activity without having
been expressly and clearly formulated by anyone.

Critical historiography in the modern sense first
came into being in Greece in the beginning of the fifth
century B.C. It came into being through ideas which
in turn were, in a way, the product of events or of
a situation produced by preceding events. The im-
migration into Asia Minor of Greeks from the mainland
during the preceding centuries had produced a multi-
tude of more or less scattered Greek settlements on
the fringe of more highly developed civilizations with
traditions greatly differing from one another, as well
as from those of the Greeks. The Jews of the Old
Testament who were in a similar situation—which
differed however from that of the Greeks in that they
were not scattered over a long shoreline but concen-
trated in one area, “Palestine”—defended them-
selves against the overwhelming foreign influences by
strengthening their own traditions. The Greeks, on the
contrary, or at least their intellectually most gifted
representatives, tried to find a way in these bewildering
surroundings by taking an entirely new and fresh look
at the world and by trying to create a new picture
of the world by means of observation and speculation.

The first Greek thinker to create an entirely new
cosmology and cosmogony was Anaximander of
Miletus, who lived in the first half of the sixth century
B.C. His theory included not only an explanation of
the way in which our cosmos, with its stars and their
revolutions, came into being, but also a theory of the
gradual evolution of living beings—a theory that, al-
though in a very primitive form, has remarkable simi-
larities to Darwin's theory of evolution. After
Anaximander's attempt to elaborate a history of the
development of life and living things on earth, it was
natural for his successor, Hecataeus, to supplement his
history by a history of man as the latest product of the
evolution of living beings. Hecataeus of Miletus (ca.
550-480 B.C.) may not have been born early enough
to have known Anaximander personally, but he is said
to have considered himself Anaximander's pupil.

But the history of human beings in general, or of
the Greeks in particular, cannot be reconstructed solely
by present-day observation and speculation. By neces-
sity it has to make use of tradition. But tradition is
just what had become doubtful in the face of so many
conflicting traditions. Besides, existing accounts con-
cerning past Greek history consisted, at least for the
more remote past, nearly exclusively of legends elabo-
rated by poets. These legends contained much that
appeared miraculous, i.e., in conflict with what could
be observed in the philosopher's or would-be historian's
own time. Thus Hecataeus conceived the idea of puri-
fying tradition of its miraculous elements and of doing
so, so to speak, on a psychological basis. Men in gen-
eral, he seems to have reasoned, are inclined to exag-
gerate, to take literally what is meant metaphorically,
and to take as absolute what is only relative. Thus
when, according to legend, King Aegyptus had fifty
sons and Danaos had fifty daughters, Hecataeus said
that there were probably about twenty on either side;
when legend told of the hell-hound Cerberus (whom
Hercules was said to have bound and brought to King
Eurystheus), Hecataeus responded that the hell-hound
was probably an extraordinarily big snake that had
bitten many people so that they went straight to Hades.
So people called it “hell-hound,” and later the legend
of a real hell-hound originated from this. For the leg-
end that Hercules had brought the cattle of Geryon
from the end of the world to Sparta, Hecataeus said
that he probably brought them from the bay of
Ambracia. Ancient people would have thought that the
world reached no farther at this point because they
could not see any land westward beyond it.

It is obvious that Hecataeus was mistaken when he
believed that a true reconstruction of history could be
achieved by taking the miraculous element out of


legend. Both the objects had to be changed and subtler
methods had to be found if what Hecataeus had in
mind was to be attained. Nevertheless, Hecataeus' idea
that tradition has to be purified by rational criticism
has remained the foundation of critical historiography
in the twentieth century.

In the following generation political events deci-
sively influenced the development of ideas, which in
turn had a great influence on Greek historiography.
Hecataeus had acted as adviser in the so-called Ionian
rebellion, when in 500 B.C. the Greeks of Asia Minor
rose up against the Persians, who, about half a century
earlier, had subjected them to their rule. In the follow-
ing two decades the Persians had tried to extend their
domination to the Greeks of the Greek motherland,
but were finally defeated in the battles of Salamis and
Plataeae (480-79), after which the Greeks of Asia
Minor were also delivered from the Persian yoke. As
a result of this violent conflict, the attention of the
Greeks naturally focused on the differences between
the two nations, specifically on the differences in polit-
ical organization.

It was then that the race theory first raised its head:
not in the form of Gobineau's Essai sur l'inégalité des
races humaines,
(1853-55), in which the attempt is
made to show that the Nordic race is superior to all
other races and destined to rule over them, but in a
form which can be found in Montesquieu's De l'esprit
des lois:
a form in which racial differences are derived
from climatic differences. In a treatise attributed to
the famous physician Hippocrates, but in fact com-
posed by an unknown author (in modern translations
usually published under the title “Hippocrates on Cli-
mate”), the theory is advanced that not only the gen-
eral character of the inhabitants, but also the political
institutions prevailing in different parts of the world
are ultimately products of the climate. The climate
of Asia Minor is very temperate; the differences of
temperature in the different seasons are not very great.
In consequence, the people who have lived there for
generations usually have well-proportioned bodies, but
are soft and not very energetic. They therefore easily
submit to the rule of one hereditary ruler, which is
why despotic forms of government appear to prevail
in oriental countries. The climate of northern Europe,
in contrast, has extreme variations of temperature. This
makes the people there savage, violent of tempera-
ment, and unruly, lacking self-control. They too need
rulers and have kings, but for the opposite reason.
Monarchy in northern Europe differs from that of the
oriental countries in that members of the former would
not meekly submit to the whims of a hereditary despot.
Rather, they choose their kings according to qualities
of leadership.

The climate of the Greek mainland has temperature
variations which are greater than in the Orient, but
less great than in northern Europe. The climate, there-
fore, is invigorating; it makes the inhabitants energetic,
but not savage and violent. On the contrary, Greeks
are self-reliant and composed; they are the only people
who can govern themselves by submitting to laws that
have been self-imposed. Their native form of govern-
ment is autonomy. Even where, as in Sparta, there are
kings, these are constitutional rulers subject to the laws
of the land. Greeks are the only free men (ἠλεύθεροι).

This race theory is not mentioned or even alluded
to in the work of the first great Greek historian,
Herodotus, but he appears to have derived from it,
or from its antecedents, the guiding idea of his descrip-
tion of the great conflict between the Persians and the
Greeks in the beginning of the fifth century B.C.
namely, the contrast between Greek liberty and
oriental despotism. With Herodotus, however, this idea
has entered into combinations with other ideas, some
of them very old. From Homer to Greek tragedy the
relation of human beings to the gods played a central
role. What this relation should be is expressed with
unsurpassable conciseness in the famous inscription of
the temple of Apollo at Delphi, γνω̃θι σεαυτόν (“know
yourself”). This does not mean that man should try
to inquire into the innermost recesses of his soul, but
that he should know his place, know that he is a human
being and not a god, and should not try to rise above
his station and condition.

This is another aspect of that self-control and self-
restraint that is an indispensable element in Herodotus'
notion of Greek liberty. Herodotus has further enlarged
this idea through the notion of the “envy” of the gods,
who do not permit man to rise above the limits of a
human being, and who strike man down when he least
expects it if he tries to exceed those limits. The combi-
nation of these ideas forms the background of
Herodotus' story of Solon and Croesus; of the great
Athenian statesman who knows the limits of a man's
achievement or aspiration, and the great oriental king
who is in no way a cruel despot, but a most magnani-
mous and fair-minded ruler. Croesus, nevertheless, is
struck down by the gods with one terrible blow after
another for no other reason than that he believed
himself to be the happiest of all men, and had tried
to live in superhuman splendor.

But it is most interesting to observe how Herodotus,
having taken as his guide this idea of the contrast
between Greek liberty and simplicity and Oriental
despotism and luxury, is gradually led on to meditate
further about the implications of the Greek concept
of liberty. He recognizes that there are several possible
variations of this concept of liberty and that all these


variations, when applied in practice, also have their
inherent dangers. There is a story in Herodotus about
Deioces, the founder of the Median dynasty, who rose
from a private station to the position of an absolute
ruler, because the Medes, after freeing themselves from
the foreign domination of the Assyrians, found the state
of anarchy that prevailed in their country so intolerable
that they preferred to submit to the rule of a despot—
Deioces—rather than continue as they were. This is,
of course, a very good illustration and confirmation of
the idea expressed elsewhere in Herodotus that liberty
can subsist only on the basis of strict adherence to
self-imposed law and that “liberty” in the sense of
anarchy and lawlessness inevitably leads to tyranny or
despotism. But in the last books of The Persian Wars
(in all likelihood the latest written and in which he
has to describe the defense of Greek liberty against
the extension of oriental despotism), Herodotus is
forced to take a closer look at the Greek concept of
liberty and to make somewhat more subtle distinctions.
In a grandiose dialogue between the exiled Spartan
king, Demaratus, and the Persian king, Xerxes, the
former says: “The Spartans, being free, are not entirely
free but have a master, the law, whom they obey more
than your subjects obey you, and this master does not
(like a despot) say one day this and another day some-
thing else but it says always the same” (VII, 104).

But as the narrative proceeds other anecdotes show
that this Spartan concept of liberty also has its defi-
ciencies. First, it applies in its full sense only to Spartan
citizens and is not even extended to the rest of the
population of Lacedaemonia. As a consequence the
Spartans felt no obligation to defend liberty every-
where, not even in Greece, except where this was
indispensable for the defense of liberty at home. Sec-
ond, the law is too rigid, so that (1) it impairs the
flexibility of action necessary to defend it, and (2) it
is always in danger of becoming intolerable to the most
outstanding men of the country, so that they are
tempted to break away from it. The most important
example of this in the time of the Persian Wars was
King Pausanias, but a good many examples appear
later. Thus Herodotus finds it necessary to distinguish
the Athenian concept of liberty, which is both more
comprehensive and more flexible, from the Spartan
concept. But the distinction is not further elaborated
in detail within the work of Herodotus.

A very penetrating analysis of the difference be-
tween the Athenian and the Spartan concept of liberty,
however, is given in the famous funeral speech of the
Athenian statesman Pericles in Thucydides' History of
the Peloponnesian Wars.
It can be proved that some
of the ideas expressed in this speech are taken from
a speech actually made by Pericles. But its elaboration
in detail is indubitably the work of this second great
Greek historian. In this speech also the concept of
liberty is positively connected with the concept of law,
not primarily with the special laws of Athens, though
these are also included, but “with those unwritten laws
which exist for the protection of those who are
wronged and whose transgression brings shame (not
legal sanctions) on the transgressor” (II, 37, 3). For the
rest, he says, the life of the Athenians is not rigidly
regulated and subjected to severe discipline (like that
of the Spartans). In ordinary times we let everybody
live according to his whims and pleasure. Yet when
the good of the community requires it, we are no less
ready to do our share and to obey those in command
whom we ourselves have chosen. This is a much ideal-
ized picture of Athenian society; reality corresponded
to it only most imperfectly. But it is interesting to see
how ideas which, if we include the opposition to
Athenian tyranny in the name of equality before the
law (ἰσονομία), came into being a full century earlier,
continued to influence historical writing and, reflecting
the change of time, were further elaborated.

In this case the nature of the influence of earlier
ideas on the work of Thucydides is easy to see. But
most of the ideas that made his work so different from
that of Herodotus were the kind that “are in the air,”
but are not exactly formulated. Thus it is by no means
easy to define with precision their influence on his
work. The period of Thucydides' early youth, as well
as of his adult life, was a period of rationalism, of
“enlightenment,” and of “science awakening.” While
Herodotus often explains the course of events on the
basis of either laws established by the gods or direct
actions of divine powers, Thucydides speaks of the gods
or divine powers only to show how the actions of men
on various occasions were influenced by belief in divine
powers; Herodotus himself never speaks in a way
which indicates clearly that he believes in such powers.

Herodotus had been interested in the causes of
events. The first sentence of his work says that one
of his purposes in writing it is to record the cause or
reason for the Greek-Oriental wars. These causes ap-
peared to be rather on the surface, visible for all who
had knowledge of the external events. In the meantime,
with post-Eleatic philosophers in general and with the
atomists in particular, the notion had become prevalent
that the true causes of things are hidden. Hence the
famous utterance of Democritus that it would be a
greater pleasure for him “to find out one cause or
reason” (μίαν αἰτίαν εὑρει̃ν) than to come into posses-
sion of all the riches of the king of Persia. This notion
of hidden causes is, in a way, also at the bottom of
Thucydides' famous distinction between those “causes”
of a war that are, on the one hand, spoken of openly


and bandied about in the feuding powers' accusations
against one another, and, on the other hand, those
“causes” that are real motives about which nobody
dares to speak openly.

Because of this distinction it has often been said that
Thucydides introduced a “scientific spirit” into histori-
ography by transferring to historiography the cate-
gories and methods of natural science. This is a great
oversimplification. Nor would Thucydides be praise-
worthy if he had done what is imputed to him. In the
atomistic philosophy of Democritus the notion of
“necessity” (ἀνάγκη), i.e., of the unbreakable law of
causality that governs everything, plays a dominating
role. Yet even in Democritus' system, necessity appears
not only in the form of mechanical compulsion, but
also in the form of compulsive motivation, as when
the rise of material civilization is explained by the
“needs” (χρει̃αι) which compelled human beings to
make inventions and to work with newly invented
instruments in order to meet these needs. In this field
of human motivation Democritus appears even to have
left a certain area of free decision. Obviously assuming
a state of civilization where the needs are no longer
absolutely compelling, he says that virtue consists in
doing what is needed (τὰ χρὴ ἐόντα), lack of virtue
in not doing what is needed (“needed” in order to keep
up a life worthy of a human being).

In the work of Thucydides, “necessity” in the form
of psychological compulsion plays a similarly domi-
nating role. The truest motive (which was not men-
tioned publicly) that brought about the Peloponnesian
War was that the fear of the Athenians' increasing
power compelled (ἀναγκάσαι) the Spartans to wage
war upon them in order to stop this increase. But when
Pericles advises the Athenians not to give in to the
demands of the Spartans, he is also motivated by a
compelling fear: that, by giving in to the Spartans'
demands in order to avoid the war, the Athenians
would so weaken their own power, that the Spartans
could destroy the Athenian power altogether whenever
they wished to do so. At the bottom of all this there
appears to be the notion that there are historical forces
which, though psychological in nature, are so compel-
ling that it is useless to struggle against them.

On the other hand, Thucydides in his work stresses
again and again the important role played by the
genius of great statesmen, their insight and foresight
that enable them to influence events favorably (from
the point of view of the country they represent). Thus
he expresses the opinion that Athens would not have
been defeated in the Peloponnesian War but would
have come out of it victorious, if Pericles' successors
had followed the principles of general strategy that
he had laid down at the beginning of the war. There
is perhaps a possibility of reconciling the notion of
absolutely compelling historical forces, against which
it would be in vain to struggle, with the notion of the
capability of great statesmen to exert a decisive influ-
ence on the course of events. But no attempt to arrive
at a clear resolution of the problem posed by these
seemingly conflicting notions can be found in the work
of Thucydides.

The age of Thucydides was not only an age of
“enlightening” and of awakening science, but also of
the rise of moral philosophy with its intiator and
representative, Socrates, who was approximately ten
years older than the historian. It has often been said
that, in contrast to many other ancient historians, the
moral element is completely lacking in the work of
Thucydides and that it is, in fact, from the beginning
excluded by his “realism” that refuses to contemplate
anything but the play and counterplay of power poli-
tics. It is perfectly true that Thucydides throughout
his work carefully avoids all direct moralizing con-
cerning the events and the actions of the actors on
the political scene. But he was by no means blind to
the moral implications of the events. This is shown
clearly by his violent aversion to Cleon (who in many
ways adhered to the strategy of Pericles, as described
by Thucydides, but who initiated terroristic methods
against the “allies” of the Athenians who in the course
of time had become their subjects), the Melian dia-
logue, and above all, the famous chapters in his third
book which describe the depravation and reversal of
all moral concepts as a result of the hatreds aroused
by the war and the accompanying civil wars.

However, Thucydides was not a Socratic. His per-
sonal attitude is perhaps best illustrated by what he
says about Nicias. Nicias seems to have been impressed
by Socrates. But Plato, in his dialogue Laches, accuses
Nicias, though indirectly, of not living up to Socratic
principles. It was Socrates' opinion that one should be
more afraid of doing wrong than of having to face
material loss or even death as a consequence of having
done right. Nicias, as a leader of the Sicilian expedition,
appears to have been more afraid of being condemned
to death by the Athenians for breaking off the Sicilian
enterprise prematurely (as it seemed to them) than of
causing the destruction of the whole Athenian army
by delaying the necessary retreat. Thucydides must
have been aware of this. But he says that Nicias was,
according to all accepted and traditional standards, a
most honorable, decent, and conscientious man, and
that this was no slight thing. He adds that Nicias de-
served in no way the fate that befell him. This seems
to indicate that Thucydides was not quite unaware that
there is something higher than accepted and traditional
morality, but that he thought it was not quite common


among men to try hard and successfully all through
one's life to live up to the standards of accepted moral-
ity. He, therefore, was unwilling to condemn a man
who in his opinion, had fully lived up to the standards
of morality, and this not in a private station, where
observing conventions is perhaps not too difficult, but
under the most trying circumstances.

In a way, one may say that the work of Thucydides
is not only the description of the political and military
battles of a great war, but is also itself the battleground
of partly conflicting ideas. For the most part, these
ideas are not directly expressed, but make their influ-
ence felt in the description of the events. But this
influence is very strong and contributes greatly to the
intensity of the narrative as a whole.

An influence of conflicting ideas can also be found
in the Greek History (Hellenica) of Xenophon (second
quarter of the fourth century). Xenophon was a pious
man who believed in the gods as guardians of justice
and morality. He was an admirer of Socrates, but, like
some other Socratics, mingled Socratic principles with
his own ideas of practical wisdom. His ideas of practi-
cal wisdom in turn were influenced by Spartan notions
concerning the way in which political problems ought
to be handled. In parts of his historical work, especially
the third and fourth books, one finds a considerable
number of anecdotes, many of them in the form of
dialogues modeled on the Socratic dialogues, that could
be grouped under the phrase “how to win friends and
to influence people.” But only the way in which the
leaders of these conversations address their questions
to their interlocutors, not the content of the questions,
is Socratic. However, most of them are at least not
in direct conflict with Socratic principles or ideas,
although there is an interesting example of conflicting
principles in the later books of Hellenica.

The story concerns the occupation of the so-called
Kadmeia, the fortress of Thebes, by the Spartan gen-
eral, Phoibidas, contrary to a solemn promise made
by the Spartans to respect the liberty of the Greek
cities. Xenophon first reports how, upon a complaint
of the Thebans with the Spartan government, it was
discussed whether or not the forces should be with-
drawn and Phoibidas punished for his action. He then
tells, without a word of criticism or disapproval, how
King Agesilaus (for whom Xenophon felt great admira-
tion) rose up and said that it was an old political
principle with the Spartans in such cases to ask whether
or not the illegal action had been to the advantage
of the Spartan state. If it was not advantageous to
Sparta, then, of course, the man in question should be
punished, but if what he had done was clearly to the
advantage of Sparta, a general should be permitted “to
improvise a little,” upon which Phoibidas went un
punished. But when a little later Xenophon has to tell
the story of the battle of Leuctra, in which the Spartans
suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Thebans,
the Socratic and the pious believer in divine justice
speaks up and says that in his (Xenophon's) opinion
this defeat was the just punishment meted out to the
Spartans by the gods for the illegal and unpunished
action of Phoibidas.

As far back as the middle of the fifth century
Athenian statesmen and speakers in the Athenian pop-
ular assembly began to use examples and illustrations
from past history to support their political arguments.
This was done to a much greater extent in the fourth
century by the “rhetor” Isocrates. He did not speak
in assemblies but published—largely in the form of
fictitious speeches—political pamphlets by which he
tried to influence the policy not only of the Athenians
but also of other countries or governments, including
various foreign monarchies. On the basis of this prac-
tice Isocrates' disciple, Ephorus of Cumae, conceived
the idea that it was the main task and purpose of
historiography to provide examples by which statesmen
and politicians could guide their actions. The advice,
he said, of an old man is rightly considered much more
valuable than that of a young man because the former
has a much longer experience of human life. But the
life-span of even a very old man is not very long. Hence
it is necessary to extend our experience beyond the
life of an individual. This is what historiography can
do for us. In practical application of this idea, he wrote
an introduction to every section of his Greek history
in which he pointed out what lessons could be learned
from the history of the period that he was going to

Only summaries of a very small part of these intro-
ductions have come down to us. The wisdom which
Ephorus tries to impart to his readers in this way is
on the whole not very profound, but of a kind which,
if it could be easily applied in practice (which, as
history shows, is not the case), would be very useful.
Thus, for instance, he says historical events are not
good or bad in themselves, but whether they are good
or bad depends on what we make of them. The attack
of the Persians on Greece in the beginning of the fifth
century appeared to be a terrible thing for the Greeks.
But when the Greeks collected all their forces and were
victorious, a period of undreamt-of expansion of power
and prosperity began. A great victory, on the other
hand, seems to be a very good thing, but if it leads
to illusions of grandeur in the victors, as often happens,
it may become the cause of a catastrophe much worse
than simple defeat. On another occasion Ephorus says
that democracies cannot be overthrown except by
persons or groups of persons who have had a long time


in which to gather adherents and to make preparations.
It is therefore easy to stop such a process when it is
still in its early stages. But if a democracy waits too
long to cope energetically with its opponents it may
be too late, and the democracy will be replaced by
an oligarchy or a tyranny.

Another disciple of Isocrates, Theopompus of Chios,
took a quite different direction. Many conservatives
of the fourth century regretted what they considered
the overdemocratization of political and social life in
some Greek cities, especially Athens. It was not good,
they thought, for all political decisions to be made by
a popular assembly in which the majority inevitably
consisted of people with no insight into the intricacies
of diplomacy or into the financial requirements of an
energetic foreign policy. They were also of the convic-
tion that good manners, which can be developed only
over a longer period of time in a selected society, as
well as certain aristocratic principles of honor, were
destroyed by the application of democratic principles
of equality. But the times in which the remnants of
the old aristocracies could have set up oligarchic gov-
ernments by their own strength appeared to have
ended with the downfall of the so-called thirty tyrants
in Athens. Not unlike the many German conservatives
in the period of the Weimar republic, they began to
be on the lookout for a “strong man” who, they
thought, might be able to bring back something of the
good old times and to reestablish some kind of hier-
archic political system and society.

Isocrates, to a certain extent, can be counted among
them. But the idea was, above all, embraced with
violent passion by his most gifted disciple, Theopom-
pus. In one way or another it dominates a very large
part of his historical works. In his Greek History
(Hellenica, ca. 394 B.C.) various candidates for the role
of the strong man and reformer of Greek institutions
appear on the horizon, including the Spartan Lysander
and the Thessalian Iason of Pherai. But after Philip,
the father of Alexander the Great, had ascended the
Macedonian throne and had proved himself a most
energetic ruler whose policy more and more affected
the whole of Greece, Theopompus broke off his earlier
work which had been a continuation of that of
Thucydides, and made a new start with the year of
Philip's accession.

Though this new work, like the old one, dealt with
the whole of Greek history, he gave it the title Philip-
which might be translated Greek History in the
Philippan era.
Yet here, too, there arose a conflict, if
not between different ideas and ideals, then between
ideas and their actualization in reality. In Macedon
the hereditary aristocracy of big landowners, in addi-
tion to the king, still played a large role. This political
and social order theoretically corresponded exactly to
Theopompus' ideals. But while the king personally was
deeply steeped in Hellenic culture and a man of refined
manners, many of the lords and dynasts of half-bar-
barian Macedon were certainly anything but cultured
gentlemen after the heart of an old Greek aristocrat
like Theopompus. Thus, while he sets his greatest hopes
upon King Philip, he sometimes speaks in the most
disparaging terms of the barbarous and “swinish” be-
havior of some of the Macedonian war lords, though
what he is really interested in is not monarchy but the
restoration of an aristocratic political and social order.

A large section of one of the books of the Philippica
was devoted to a description of the wickedness of the
Athenian demagogues, his pet hatred. But he did not
approve of Plato either. Plato, in his opinion, was quite
right insofar as his ideal state was one governed by
an aristocracy. But he disapproved of Plato's Socratic
method of discussing with young people what was right
and what was wrong. This, he thought, could only have
the effect of putting wrong ideas in their heads. To
tell them in no uncertain terms what was good and
what was bad behavior—that, in his opinion, was the
right way to educate young people.

With Alexander's conquest of Greece and of Persia,
monarchic ideas and ideals quite different from those
of Theopompus naturally emerged. An interesting ex-
ample is Aristotle's nephew, Callisthenes. He had writ-
ten historical works of considerable size before Alex-
ander set out to conquer Persia. In these works a kind
of hero worship for great men of the past, like
Pelopidas and Epaminondas, had played a great role.
Thus, when Alexander showed himself superior even
to these men as a military leader, it was quite natural
that Callisthenes, who knew how to write in a most
inspiring fashion, considered it his task to become the
herald of the great deeds of the king. But he was very
far from abject flattery. He renewed the race theory
of the superiority of the Greeks over the Orientals: the
former born to be free, even if led by a great hero
king, the latter destined to be subjects of a despot.
Above all, however, he had a very high opinion of his
station as a great writer. It had often been said that
the glory of the deeds of Achilles would have vanished
but for Homer's poems. Historiography, in the mean-
time, according to Callisthenes' opinion, had taken the
place of epic poetry. The hero and the poet or writer
were dependent upon each other. The poet could not
become a great poet without a worthy object. But the
glory of the hero could not be handed down to poster-
ity in a worthy fashion without the help of the great
poet or historian. Callisthenes therefore claimed a rank
or station almost equal to that of the king. When in
328 Alexander introduced the oriental custom of


προσκύνησις (“prostration before the king”), not only
for Orientals but also for Greeks and Macedonians,
Callisthenes refused to comply. At that time he got
away with it. But when soon after, as an educator of
the Macedonian cadets, he stirred up in his students
a spirit of rebellion against the introduction of oriental
customs which led to a conspiracy (in which Callis-
thenes does not seem to have been involved directly),
he was taken into custody and somewhat later exe-
cuted. This is a rather peculiar example of the influence
of ideas not only on historiography but also on the life
of an interesting historian.

In the historical work of Ptolemy I, the founder of
the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, the monarchic idea
and ideal appears again in an entirely different shape.
Having been one of Alexander's generals, but by far
not the most outstanding among them, he immediately
made, after the death of Alexander, every effort to
secure for himself the governorship of Egypt, obviously
from the beginning with the idea that here, within a
limited area but with easily defendable boundaries, a
kingdom and a dynasty could be created that could
be made to last. And, in fact, though in later periods
the country had for quite a time the most incapable
rulers, it lasted longer than any of the other Hellenistic
kingdoms founded by Alexander's successors. Ptolemy's
history of Alexander bears witness that at an early time
he had not only dreamt of acquiring a kingdom for
himself, but had also done a good deal of serious think-
ing on the tasks, duties, and the correct attitude and
behavior of a good monarch.

He always speaks of King Alexander with great
respect. He praises Alexander's chivalry and gentle-
manly behavior towards the captive Persian princesses
who approached him in fear and trembling. He defends
the king against what appears to him the petty criti-
cisms of Nearchus who had already written about
Alexander and who had blamed the king for having
frequently exposed himself to great personal danger.
Yes, Ptolemy says, but nothing great is ever achieved
without taking great risks. But Ptolemy also censures
Alexander severely where it appears to him that he
had not acted as a king should: a king should not
participate in drinking bouts with his friends and drink
so much that he loses control over himself. Above all,
he expresses his strongest disapproval of the destruction
of Persepolis, the residence of the early Persian kings.
He calls it a senseless action; it was insane to try to
take revenge on men long dead. On many occasions
criticism of Alexander's action causes Ptolemy to for-
mulate general maxims for rulers. For example, a king
should most of all be on his guard against flatterers,
since they are apt to induce him to do foolish things;
it is one of the most important tasks of a king to see
to it that the inferiors among his subjects are not mis-
treated by their superiors; a king should never try to
deceive his subjects; he should always be most careful
to keep his promises.

The historical work of Ptolemy I has often been
criticized in recent times. Primarily, it has been said
that he distorts the true perspective of events by put-
ting his own person too much in the foreground. It
is quite true that he tells much more about events in
which he participated or at which he was present, and
that there is a tendency to relate everything in some
way to himself. But in another way this makes his work
all the more interesting, because everything is pervad-
ed by his meditations and his ideas on true monarchy.

It is not possible here to analyze the host of historians
who wrote about Alexander the Great. But it may just
be mentioned that among the historians of Alexander
there was also a Macedonian aristocrat, Marsyas of
Pella, scion of one of the oldest and most noble families,
who wrote about the king from an entirely different
viewpoint. Apart from his history of Alexander, he also
wrote a history of Macedon, beginning with the
mythical period. We do not have much of his work,
but what we do have shows that Marsyas attributed
the astounding accomplishments of the king not so
much to the king's personal genius as to the old virtues
of the Macedonian people. His work seems to have
been the most thoroughly “patriotic” history up to that

The historiography of the following two centuries
was influenced in various ways by ideas and theories
of the philosopher, Aristotle. Foremost among these
ideas was his theory of evolution, which was derived
from his biological studies. This concept of evolution
is quite different from the modern concept of evolution
which, on the basis of Darwin's discoveries, was elabo-
rated most importantly by Herbert Spencer. The mod-
ern concept is of an evolution starting in a very remote
past and continuing more or less in a straight line into
an equally remote future, in the meantime producing
ever more complicated and differentiated but at the
same time ever more perfect forms of life. Further-
more, it is an evolution about whose beginning and
possible end nothing is known, except for a vague idea
that it may finally end either in a universal catastrophe
or in a slower process of dissolution.

Aristotle's concept of evolution, on the contrary,
presupposes the eternity of the world as we know it.
It is the concept of an evolution that, like the evolution
of living beings, begins with a comparatively simple
and primitive state, and then develops gradually to a
state of ever greater differentiation and perfection. But
when the evolving form has reached a certain degree
of comparative perfection which we call maturity, it


continues in that state for a limited period of time,
then begins to decay, and finally dies. In the meantime,
however, other living beings have started the same
process. In other words, according to this concept of
evolution, the world does not develop as a whole, but
remains the same, while within the world living beings
and certain products of human civilization develop,
that is unfold, and after some time decay and die, in
an everlasting circle. It is a biological concept of evo-
lution which, however, by Aristotle and his disciples
was transferred and applied to the field of cultural

A most interesting example of this is Aristotle's own
discussion of the development of Greek tragedy in his
treatise on the art of poetry. Here he tries to show
how the Attic drama, starting from very primitive
beginnings, gradually developed into the two forms of
tragedy and comedy: he follows the development of
the former down to the great tragedies of the first of
the three great Attic tragedians and then remarks:
“after it had gone through a great many changes it
ceased [to change], since it had achieved its nature”
(Poetics 1449a 14-15). The implication is obviously that
tragedy continued to flourish as a type of great art
until, after the death of Euripides, it began to decay;
then by the time of Aristotle, for all practical purposes,
it was already dead. This is at least indirectly indicated
by the fact that Aristotle does not mention any Greek
tragedians living in his own time. The same is true
of the old type of Greek comedy. But in the meantime,
tragedy and comedy together had produced a new
offspring, the so-called new comedy, which, while more
similar to Euripides' tragedy than to Aristophanes'
comedy, may claim both as its parents, and which, soon
after Aristotle, reached its own maturity.

The same idea of evolution was applied by a number
of Aristotle's disciples to various sciences which had
not yet reached their maturity at the time of Aristotle,
but did so in later times and then decayed, withered
away, and nearly died. These sciences did not produce
new offspring until centuries later, first to some extent
with the Arabs, and then in the Western countries at
the time of the so-called Renaissance. It is a rather
remarkable fact that the Greeks, who believed in con-
tinued cycles of birth, evolution to maturity, death,
and rebirth (of something new but similar), in eternal
succession, actually produced or experienced within
their civilization exactly such cycles, some longer, some
shorter, within their arts and sciences. By contrast,
modern man, who believes (or who until recently be-
lieved) in unending or almost unending evolution and
progress has thus far actually produced, at least in his
sciences, the product most characteristic of our age,
an apparently unceasing and in fact ever accelerated
progress. However, with the works of Spengler and
Toynbee, there has also been a return to the idea of
cycles of civilization, and in recent years the symptoms
of possible decay and dissolution of modern civilization
have become ever more visible.

Within Greek civilization at the time of Aristotle,
the idea of evolution in the biological sense seemed
to work well when applied to special arts and sciences.
But it was much more difficult to apply it to civilization
or even to Greek civilization as a whole. Thus the work
of the man who made the attempt, Aristotle's disciple,
Dicaearchus of Messene, became a battlefield of con-
flicting ideas. The idea of a development of human
civilization as a whole is, of course, very old. It is found
as far back as the Theogony and the Works and Days
of Hesiod (eighth century B.C.). Here already we en-
counter conflicting ideas. For example, it was the
Olympic gods who taught mankind the arts of both
material and moral civilization; it was Prometheus who
brought fire and the technical arts dependent on fire
to mankind against the will of the Olympic gods; in
the time of Kronos, before the rule of Zeus and the
Olympic gods, mankind lived in a golden age of bliss,
but afterward—interrupted only by the age of the
Homeric heroes—almost steadily deteriorated.

A similar conflict of ideas can be observed in
Dicaearchus' work entitled Βίος Ἑλλάδος (The Life of
) in which, as the surviving fragments show, he
tried to sketch a history of human civilization from
its beginnings, culminating in Greek civilization. In this
work he used a concept of evolution that has a certain
affinity to the evolutionary theory of Spencer and the
nineteenth century. Dicaearchus taught that human
beings first lived on what they collected without in-
struments, then invented weapons by which they could
kill larger animals and became hunters, then domesti-
cated animals and became cattle raisers, then invented
agriculture and used it to replace or supplement those
earlier methods of procuring a livelihood for them-
selves and for their offspring, and finally developed
ever more complicated methods of distributing differ-
ent tasks and functions among themselves—thus creat-
ing what we call higher civilization. Since Dicaearchus
believed in the eternity of the world, he also introduced
the idea of the biological cycle, though he appears to
have also considered the possibility that civilizations
might not always die a natural death by gradual decay
after a period of maturity, but might be destroyed by
natural catastrophes so that the survivors would have
to start on the same cycle again.

Generally speaking, however, the evolution de-
scribed seems to imply the idea of progress. Some
fragments of the work, on the other hand, indicate that
Dicaearchus regarded the youth of mankind, rather


than the period of its maturity, as a kind of natural
paradise from which, with the evolution of material
civilization, man had moved farther and farther away.
Traces of the somewhat sentimental view that child-
hood is the most happy period in the life both of the
human individual and of mankind can also be found
elsewhere in Hellenistic literature and sculpture. While
this view seems rather characteristic of the age in
which Dicaearchus lived, it is far removed from the
views of Dicaearchus' teacher, Aristotle. Since we have
only fragments of Dicaearchus, it is unfortunately not
possible for us to see in detail how Dicaearchus
managed to combine all these conflicting viewpoints in
attempting a historical reconstruction of a remote past.

In a totally different way, a considerable section of
Hellenistic historiography was influenced by a famous
sentence in Aristotle's Poetics which says that poetry
is more philosophical than history. His reasons are: (1)
poetry (he has especially dramatic poetry in mind) is
more καθόλου (more “general”), and (2) history tells
what has actually happened, while poetry represents
what might have happened according to necessity or
probability. To say that (dramatic) poetry is more
general than history may seem strange at first, since
ancient tragedy usually stages in great detail what is
supposed to have happened in one day or less, while
historiography is quite unable to go into so much detail,
and to tell what every actor on the political scene has
said or done within the compass of one day.

What Aristotle means is that in actual life much
happens that is purely accidental, having no deeper
significance, while poetry, especially tragic poetry,
places the extreme possibilities of what can happen
to a human being in a most concentrated form before
the eyes of the spectators. In other words, poetry
provides within the narrow compass of a play a deep
insight into fundamental aspects of what has been
called la condition humaine. Aristotle called this kind
of representation of human life, in the concentrated
form of dramatic action (or epic narrative), mimesis.

It may seem strange, but it is proved by rather
incontestable evidence, that a certain school of
Hellenistic historians was induced to mix the principles
of historiography and dramatic poetry by the very
statement with which Aristotle tried to distinguish the
two. The movement, so far as we can see, was led by
Duris of Samos, a tyrant of his homeland, who had
been a disciple of Theophrastus, and who, in the time
left from his governmental duties, developed a rather
extensive literary activity. Duris wrote not only several
historical works, but also various treatises on poetry,
especially dramatic poetry. In the introduction to one
of his historical works he blamed the historians Ephorus
and Theopompus because there was no mimesis in their
works; that is, he blamed them because their historical
works lacked what Aristotle had considered the essence
of poetry in contrast to historiography. It looks as if
Duris had been irked by Aristotle's statement that
poetry was more philosophical than historiography,
and had tried to raise historiography to the highest
possible level by making it more poetical.

That this was actually his intention is shown by the
surviving fragments of his historical works, many of
which show a strong tendency towards dramatization
of the events. An especially good illustration of his
method is provided by a fragment from his history of
Samos. In this fragment Duris relates a most dramatic
incident that is supposed to have occurred in the war
between Athens and Aegina at the beginning of the
fifth century. A whole detachment of Athenians that
had made an inroad on the island are captured on their
way back, and all of them are killed except one man
who is sent to Athens in order to tell the story of what
has happened to his comrades. When he arrives at
Athens with the terrible news he is surrounded by the
wives, mothers, and sisters of his dead comrades, who
ask him angrily where he has left their husbands, sons,
and brothers and why he is the only one who has
escaped. Then they unfasten the buckles with which
their clothes are held together and use the tongues to
pierce his eyes, and finally kill him. This story might
be considered factual, but Herodotus tells the same
story at a different occasion. Both authors, Herodotus
and Duris, add that henceforth the Athenians forbade
their women to wear buckles or brooches with sharp,
long tongues so that the incident could not be repeated.

It appears, therefore, that Duris—who can hardly
have failed to know the work of Herodotus, but who
had no occasion in his histories to tell the story in the
connection in which it is told in Herodotus' work—
used it in order to make his history more dramatic and
thereby in his opinion also more philosophical, by
giving an example of the extreme situations which can
arise in human life. As this use of the Aristotelian
mimesis shows, Duris derived the idea from Aristotle;
in this form it is not truly Aristotelian, but Duris obvi-
ously found followers. For in the next two generations,
many historians wrote highly dramatized histories.
Phylarchus, who was about two generations younger
than Duris, is the most outstanding example.

There was also, however, a strong reaction against
this idea of dramatizing history. The most well-known
representative of this critical attitude is Polybius of
Megalopolis. He criticized the dramatizing type of
historiography on two grounds: (1) that it induced the
historians to tamper with the facts (for which the
Duris-fragment, though not mentioned by Polybius, is
a good example), and (2) that it was the main task of


historiography to provide material for the enlighten-
ment of statesmen. In this latter respect Polybius
agreed in principle with Ephorus. But he had little
regard for historians who had never played an active
role in politics. History, in his opinion, should be writ-
ten by active or retired statesmen for active statesmen,
because only they could have a real understanding of
political life and history. He coined for this kind of
historiography the new term πραγματικὴ ἱστορία
(“pragmatic history”), by which he meant a history
written by men of practice for men of practice. He
met the requirement inasmuch as his father, Lycortas,
had been one of the leading statesmen of the so-called
Achaean League. Also Polybius himself had grown up
amidst the most intense political activity, in which he
began to participate at a very early age until, in 169
B.C., with a great number of other Achaean politicians,
he was brought to Italy as a hostage. There he had
the good fortune to become attached to the family of
Aemilius Paullus and soon after became the mentor
of Paullus' son, P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, the
later conqueror of Carthage. This, after his active
experience in Greek politics, enabled Polybius to ac-
quire a deeper insight into the machinery of Roman
government than any other non-Roman had ever had.

More specifically then, in his opinion, it was the main
task of the historian to enable future statesmen to
foresee future events and thus to make it possible for
them to influence the events on the basis of this fore-
sight. Theoretically, this concept appears to involve
a certain contradiction. For if foresight enables a
statesman to give the events a turn desired by him,
it is not foreseeable whether and in what way he will
have this foresight, which impairs the foreseeability of
events. This apparent contradiction is obviously also
at the bottom of Polybius' concept of τύκη (“fortune”),
which has created great difficulties for those who tried
to interpret his work. In some passages he inveighs
against those who speak of τύκη in regard to events
which were clearly caused by the folly or the lack of
foresight on the part of the actors on the political stage.
At other times he appears to regard τύκη as an irre-
sistible force that pervades everything and against
which human wisdom is of no avail. But the apparent
contradiction can be resolved. One should not, in
Polybius' opinion, attribute to luck or fortune what
is the foreseeable result of human actions, whether wise
or foolish.

But there remains much that is unforeseeable and
beyond human control. The very same event can then
be contemplated from opposite viewpoints. The ex-
pansion of Macedonian power in the second half of
the fourth century and of Roman power in the third
and second centuries was certainly not due to fortune
or good luck. The former was due to the superior skill
and wisdom of Alexander the Great and his father
Philip; the latter was primarily due to the excellence
of the Roman constitution. But the fact that in the
fourth century the Macedonian kings possessed great
skill and wisdom, and that in the fourth and third
centuries the Romans, of all people, should be wise
enough to create a constitution that would be largely
responsible for their later successes, could not have
been foreseen by anyone and may therefore be attrib-
uted to τύκη.

In the theory that the enormous expansive power
of the Romans was due to the excellence of their
constitution, Polybius has combined the idea of the
foreseeability of future events on the basis of historical
knowledge with two other ideas which he elaborated
on the basis of earlier theories. One of these was in
fact a kind of combination of two correlated ideas, the
idea of the cycle of constitutions and the idea of the
“mixed constitution.” As far back as Herodotus we find
the notion that certain political constitutions, because
of their inherent deficiencies or weaknesses, are un-
stable and therefore, after some time, naturally are
replaced by different constitutions. In Herodotus' story
the process always ends with monarchy (which does
not represent Herodotus' opinion, but is the result of
the function of the story within its context, i.e., the
reestablishment of Persian monarchy after the over-
throw of the “false Smerdis”). By later authors, includ-
ing Plato, Aristotle, and Dicaearchus, the notion was
developed that all “simple” constitutions, i.e., absolute
monarchy, pure oligarchy, and unrestricted democracy,
are unstable, and that in order to have stability a good
constitution must be something between the three or
a mixture of all three.

From these earlier notions Polybius derived the idea
of a rather mechanical cycle: the earliest form of
human government was monarchy instituted by the
rule of the strongest, analogous to the rule of the
strongest among gregarious animals. This form of rule
deteriorated when it became hereditary. This leads to
a revolt which results in the rule of an elite, called
aristocracy. When this, through heredity, has deterio-
rated to oligarchy, there is another revolt which results
in democracy. But democracy in due time deteriorates
to ochlocracy, or the rule of the rabble, and anarchy.
This finally results in tyranny, and the cycle begins
anew. On the basis of the observation of this cycle a
statesman can foresee how a given state will next
develop when it has reached a certain stage within
the cycle. But the vicious cycle can be stopped if a
wise man or wise men succeed in establishing a mixed
constitution (which is of course not quite foreseeable).
This has happened several times in different places.


The two outstanding examples, in Polybius' opinion,
are Sparta and Rome.

But there was, in his view, a very essential difference
between the two. The Spartan constitution was the
construction of one man: Lycurgus. The Roman one
was the result of a gradual development; when the
monarchy was overthrown, it was not replaced by a
pure oligarchy, but by a government which retained
a monarchic element in the consuls with their nearly
monarchic but divided power, which was also restricted
in time. When a revolution was brewing against the
oligarchic government with its monarchic element, a
compromise was reached by which monarchic and
oligarchic elements were retained side by side with
the newly acquired powers of the democratic elements
of the assemblies of the plebs and the plebean tribunes.
But the Spartan constitution, though more stable than
those of most other Greek states, had not lasted forever.
It had broken up, partly from within, partly through
the onslaught of foreign forces—as Polybius believed,
because of certain faults in the constitution's con-
struction. Of the Roman constitution Polybius, at one
time, seems to have believed that it would remain
stable, if not forever, at least for an unforeseeable
future. But in his later years he became doubtful. He
then applied to it the Aristotelian idea of biological
growth, maturity, and decay. For, in contrast to the
Spartan constitution, mechanically constructed by one
man, the Roman constitution appeared to have
“grown” (though one might think that it had not grown
in the strict sense of the word, but had been the result
of the actions of succeeding statesmen, concluding
“constructive compromises”). Thus here again we have
an example of two, to some extent conflicting, ideas
which an historian had taken over from earlier writers
and which in turn had been developed on the basis
of the observation of historical events.

Since the first half of the fourth century, when three
historians (Xenophon, Theopompus, and Cratippus)
had begun historical works with the events with which
the unfinished work of Thucydides closes, the idea had
gradually spread that in each generation a great his-
torian should take up the task of continuing the history
of Greece or of the world as then known at the point
where death had compelled his greatest predecessor
to relinquish it. In this way the work of Polybius was
continued by Posidonius of Apamea, who gave his most
important historical work the title τὰ μετὰ Πολύβιον
(What Happened After Polybius). Yet this work repre-
sents an entirely different type of historiography, influ-
enced by totally different ideas. It is also characterized
by extending historical analysis to a field which had
been almost totally neglected by nearly all earlier
Greek historians. Posidonius was, however, to some
extent preceded in this respect by one man, Agath-
archides of Cnidus, whose many historical works have
been almost completely lost. But Agatharchides' fa-
mous geographical work on “The Red Sea” (the Indian
Ocean and its shores) did survive, and extensive frag-
ments contain most vivid descriptions of social condi-
tions prevailing among various sections of the popula-
tions of those regions. It was this kind of material that
played a very large part in Posidonius' historiography
and of which he made an entirely new use.

Posidonius was a Stoic philosopher who, however,
broke away from some of the most fundamental doc-
trines of early Stoicism, especially its intellectualistic
ethical doctrines, according to which all vices and evil
deeds were ultimately due to intellectual errors: no-
body who had real ethical insight could consciously
act unethically. In opposition to this intellectualistic
concept, Posidonius acknowledged the independent
power of irrational forces in the human soul. Emotions,
in his opinion, were just as fundamental as the intellect
and not, as the earlier Stoics had believed, simply the
result of intellectual error. Consequently, all human
actions arise from conflicts between the rational and
the irrational elements in the human soul. On the basis
of this conviction Posidonius developed a psychology
that tried to penetrate the depth of mechanisms of
human motivation, explaining the behavior and the
actions of human beings on the basis of their insights
and errors, prejudices and emotions, vanities and am-
bitions, hopes and fears, resentments and illusions. He
also applied this psychology to the interpretation of
historical events.

Like many of his great predecessors, Posidonius was
intensely interested in the causes of historical events.
But his idea of the essence of historical causation was
quite different from the ideas of Thucydides or
Polybius. Thucydides had distinguished between, on
the one hand, the public accusations made by govern-
ments and nations in order to win the approval of the
neutrals, and, on the other hand, the true motives
which the parties never admit openly. Polybius had
made a threefold distinction between (1) the real
underlying causes, for, e.g., starting a war, (2) the
pretexts used by the politicians to justify their deci-
sions, and (3) the events immediately leading to the
outbreak of a war (that had long been in the offing).
No such distinctions can be found in the fragments of
the works of Posidonius. He seems not to have attrib-
uted great importance to them. In his opinion all events
were the result of a coming together of many causes,
all of them equally important.

In a way, Posidonius renewed the race theory, but
made an entirely new application of it. In his opinion,
not only the populations of different continents consti-


tuted different races, but every tribe or nation had its
racial characteristics which were the product of he-
reditary factors, climate, diet, training, and traditions.
Because of the interaction of these factors there was
also a correlation between their bodily constitutions,
their temperaments, and their habits. How individuals
acted in a given situation, then, was due to a combina-
tion of their racial and their individual character, the
social conditions in which they lived, the degree of
their insight and foresight, but above all, to the effect
of the situation on their emotions.

It is a recurring motive with Posidonius to show how
a man who tries hard and honestly to work for the
common good and for necessary reforms, but meets
with resistance, is carried by his resentment far beyond
what would serve his aims, through the increasing use
of violence becomes a destructive force, and finally
ends in a catastrophe. Examples of this are the Gracchi
and Marius.

Posidonius' description of the causes, the outbreak,
the course, and the outcome of the great slave war
in Sicily goes into much more detail. He first describes
the intolerable conditions on the big estates in Sicily
caused by the absentee ownership of rich men in Rome
and Italy, who took no interest in their property other
than to draw from it as much money as possible. This
attitude was also adopted by some estate owners living
in Sicily. One owner whose slaves complained that they
had to dress in rags and needed clothes told them to
get them from the travelers on the roads. Thus, on the
instigation of their master, they became highway
robbers. Being sturdy men and having in this way
become accustomed to lawless violence, they naturally
began to think of turning against their masters. But
in order to start a rebellion with any chance of success
they needed a leader. On one of the estates owned
by a Sicilian there was a slave who was an expert in
various branches of what is now called show busi-
ness, especially in the tricks of “magicians.” He was
favored by his master, who enjoyed his performances.
But he also made a great impression on his superstitious
fellow slaves. A woman had prophesied that one day
he would be king, and this turned his head. He won
adherents among the slaves and became their leader
in an uprising against the estate owners and the Roman
government. He received succor from all sides and,
in the beginning, had some spectacular successes even
against regular troops. But in the end his loosely orga-
nized army was no match for the power of the Roman
state. His troops were scattered. With his bodyguard
of 1000 men he fled into a cave. When they were
surrounded, nearly all of them committed suicide. But
he, not having the courage to follow their example,
was captured and met a miserable death in a prison.

There is a similar description of an uprising against
Roman rule in Athens, led by a demagogue named
Athenion, who had been at the court of King Mithri-
dates of Pontus and who appeared dressed in gold and
silver before the Athenian populace to stir them up
against the Romans. The emphasis with Posidonius
everywhere is not, as with Thucydides, on high policy
and the decisions of statesmen and leading politicians,
but on social forces and the psychology of individuals
and of the masses.

It is also interesting to compare Posidonius with
Thucydides in regard to their attitudes towards the
moral aspects of historical actions. Thucydides, with
very rare and slight exceptions (as in the case of Nicias),
carefully refrains from passing moral judgments on
historical figures or on their individual actions. Never-
theless one feels Thucydides' passionate engagement
in what has happened and his approval or disapproval,
even though it is not directly expressed. Posidonius
never hesitates to say what he considers morally good
or morally bad. But he is a true Stoic in that he remains
personally aloof and unengaged. He is convinced that
a divine spirit pervades and rules everything. Unhap-
piness is the inevitable consequence of wickedness and
unjust actions, regardless of external success or failure.
Likewise, material losses and misfortune or even ill
health and bodily pains cannot make a good and wise
man essentially unhappy. The wickedness and folly of
men cannot affect the divine order of the world. Thus
history is a spectacle that the philosopher follows with
interest, but it cannot affect him personally.

Most interesting also is Posidonius' attempt to re-
construct the origin and early rise of human civili-
zation, and his application of the ideas used in this
reconstruction to the history of his own time. We find
in his reconstruction the same contrast, as in Dicaear-
chus, between an optimistic and a pessimistic view of
the development of the human race: optimistic in
regard to the development of material civilization,
where a certain progress is undeniable; pessimistic in
regard to the development as a whole. Posidonius
appears also to have adopted to some extent the
Democritean notion of χπεία (“need”) as a stimulus
in the progress of material civilization. But he has
added a new idea, which makes everything appear in
a different light. This is the Stoic notion, stated above,
that a divine spirit pervades and guides everything.
All human inventions have been anticipated by nature.
The wise men and inventors of old may have received
the stimulus for their inventions from need, but they
made them by learning from nature. The net, by which
fish or birds are caught, was invented by imitating the
spider. The rudder, by which a ship is steered, was
invented by observing how a fish propels himself in


the direction it wishes by using its tail as a rudder.

It is also a law of nature that what is of lower rank
(in regard to insight and wisdom) should be ruled by
and freely submit to what is of higher rank. In earlier
periods, men voluntarily submitted to wise kings who
governed everything according to their insight, so that
there was no need of laws, which are always general
and therefore can never completely fit the varying
circumstances of human life. But because of the im-
perfection of man, who is the only living being capable
of deviating to some extent from the divine law (though
when he does so, he always does it to his own detriment
and cannot disturb the divine order as a whole), some
kings became tyrants and governed according to their
whims instead of according to true insight and for the
benefit of their subjects. Thus to prevent this, laws had
to be invented, by which everyone, including the
rulers, was bound and restrained. These laws again
were invented and imposed by wise men like Solon
and Lycurgus. But there remained a rift. The original
harmony was not restored. From this point of view
the whole of history becomes a process in which alter-
nately the baser natures revolt against the divine law
and the rule of the better and wiser, but then again
are more or less forcefully brought back into submission
by the consequences of the harm which they do to
themselves by their lack of insight.

Naturally the so-called Roman Revolution, starting
with the Gracchi, appeared to Posidonius as a revolt
of this kind against the divine order. But he was far
from putting the main blame on what we call the
socially lower classes or on the slaves. Just as in his
reconstruction of the early history of civilization, when
he had the first deviation from the original harmony
begin with the folly and wickedness of kings, his history
of the slave wars shows very clearly that he found the
first cause of the revolt of the lower classes in the
depravity of and the faults committed by the majority
of the members of the ruling class.

Posidonius is the last of the great Greek historians
before the Byzantine age. Perhaps the necessarily
sketchy survey attempted in this article may give the
reader at least an inkling of the great variety of ideas
that have influenced historiography in this period and
of the very different types of historiography that have
resulted from these influences.


Translations, if not otherwise identified, are by the author
of this article.

Entretiens sur l'Antiquité Classique, Foundation Hardt
pour l'Étude de l'Antiquité Classique, Vol. IV: Histoire et
historiens dans l'antiquité
(Vandoeuvres, 1956). L'Histoire
et ses interprétations,
Entretiens autour de Arnold Toynbee
sous la direction de Raymond Aron, École Pratique des
Hautes Études, Sorbonne, sixième section: Sciences écono-
miques et sociales. Congrès et Colloques III (Paris, 1961).
Karl Reinhardt, Poseidonios (Munich, 1921). Kurt Riezler,
“The Historian and Truth,” The Journal of Philosophy, 45
(1948), 345-88. James T. Shotwell, Introduction to the His-
tory of History
(New York, 1939; rev. ed. 1950). Hermann
Strasburger, DieWesensbestimmung der Geschichte durch
die antike Geschichtsschreibung
(Wiesbaden, 1966). Kurt
von Fritz, Diegriechische Geschichtsschreibung, Vol. I: Von
den Anfängen bis Thukydides
(Berlin, 1967); idem, “Con-
servative Reaction and One Man Rule in Ancient Greece,”
Political Science Quarterly, 56 (1941), 51-83; idem, “The
Historian Theopompus. His Political Convictions and his
Conception of Historiography,” American Historical Review,
46 (1941), 765-85; idem, “Aristotle's Contribution to the
Practice and Theory of Historiography,” University of
California Publications in Philosophy,
28 (1958), 113-38.


[See also Causation in History; Cycles; Environment; His-
toriography; Poetry and Poetics; Progress in Antiquity.