[This entry provides a consideration of major historiographers and chronographers, including such factors as how they wrote history and what data was available to them. It is chronologically divided into two articles: Historiography of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods and Historiography of the Byzantine and Islamic Periods.]

Historiography of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods

Starting with Ephorus of Cyme (405–330 BCE), and Theopompus (b. 378 BCE), Greek historians emancipated themselves from the kind of monographic writing done by Thucydides, Androtion, and Philochorus. The greatest historian of the third century BCE in the Greek West was Timaeus of Tauromenium (355–260 BCE), who wrote thirty-eight books on the history of Greece and Italy down to 264 BCE (the beginning of the First Punic War), of which we have only fragments preserved through later historians.

In the second century BCE, Polybius wrote a universal history of the inhabited world. His main theme was the phenomenon of Roman expansion in the Mediterranean. Polybius wrote a pragmatic history—a history from which, he believed, people would learn lessons in the future. His is a rationalistic writing of history that stresses cause and effect in the historical process. Polybius believed that only universal histories should be written, and that there is a certain force (Gk., tyche) directing the destinies of peoples. Polybius had an enormous influence on later historiography (from 2 Macc. through Josephus to Zosimus), and his twelfth book, in which he analyzes the methods of writing history, is required reading for every historian. His history in forty books covers the period 222–146 BCE.

His successor in Greece was Posidonius of Apamea (first century BCE), who wrote a history in Greek that continues from where Polybius ends (146 BCE), through the first century BCE. Unfortunately, only fragments are preserved. However, because many later historians used Posidonius extensively, we know what his work was like.

Alongside these great historians who wrote world histories, there were, in the Greek West (including Magna Graecia), historians who composed local histories, some of which may be considered “tragic” histories. For instance, at the beginning of the third century BCE, Duris of Samos wrote a Samian chronicle (probably two volumes) alongside his Histories (in twenty-three volumes), and a history of Agathocles; in that same century, Phylarcus wrote a history of the world, parts of which dealt with Sparta. We also know of local histories that can be considered more as mythography, such as the Aetoliaca, Thessaliaca, and Messeniaca.

In the final three centuries of the last millennium BCE, we find, in the Hellenistic East, historians of Alexander the Great and his successors. Among those writing were Nearchus of Crete, Aristobulus, Ptolemy I, Hieronymus of Cardia, and, later, those, who created the “vulgate” of Alexander's history—people like Callisthenes. There were also many historians who in Greek wrote local histories of certain peoples (ethnē), such as Dius, Menander of Ephesus, and Laetus (all Phoenician histories); Manetho and Hecataeus of Abdera (Egyptian histories); Megasthenes (history of India); Apollodorus (Parthian history); and Eupolemus the son of John (Israelite history). Most of these histories are concerned with the nations' mythological and remote past. In the second century BCE, a Jew wrote a history (in Hebrew) of the Maccabean revolt and its aftermath (1 Macc.), and somewhat later a Jew in the Diaspora, Jason of Cyrene, wrote a history of the Maccabees in five volumes. This history was epitomized and is the form in which we have it now (2 Macc.). Even a world history was written in the first century BCE by Nicolaus of Damascus, a pagan who was friend and adviser to Herod the Great. This history is only partially preserved through later historians, however. There is no history of the ancient Near East available that includes a general, comprehensive report of the region in the Hellenistic period.

During that period (third-first century BCE) Italy also produced important historians, some of whose writings are only known through citations in the annalistic tradition and through fragments in works composed in the Greek West. These historians include Philinus of Acragas (a pro-Carthaginian who wrote about the First Punic War) and, in the third century BCE, Fabius Pictor, who composed in Greek a history of Rome from its foundation through the Second Punic War. In the Greek language there were also the histories of Cincius Alimentus, Postumius Albinus, and Gaius Acilius. In 123 BCE, the annales maximi were published in Rome, and they marked an important stage in the formation of the annalistic historiogaphic tradition in that city. Gnaeus Gellius, Valerius Antias, and Claudius Quadrigarius followed this line, which Livy and Tacitus pursued later. In about 100 BCE, Rome became an important center for various forms and styles of historiography. Rutilius Rufus and Aemilius Scaurus wrote autobiographies, and Sulla left his hypomnemata (“memoirs”), all of which are now lost. At about the same time, Nepos (100–25 BCE) wrote biographies in Latin, while Caesar wrote the De Bello Gallico and the De Bello Civili. Sallustius (86–35 BCE) composed several works of importance in Latin. His War of Juqurtha is considered a fine specimen of the historiography of this age. It was at that time that Cicero was defining what Roman historiography should be.

At the end of the first century BCE, during the principate of Augustus, a number of great historians were active, only a few of whom can be mentioned here: Dionysius of Halicarnassus, whose Roman Antiquities began appearing in 7 BCE, wrote, in Greek, a history of Rome from its beginnings to the First Punic War. Only the first ten books survive; they are very important for those interested in the recycling of history during the early principate. Livy (59 BCE–17 CE) wrote his vast book Ab Urbe Condita Libri in 142 books, of which only parts survive. Livy wrote in Latin, in line with the annalistic tradition (proceeding according to years). He is one of our most important sources for the Hellenistic Near East because he mainly used Polybius's work for Eastern matters. Thus, in books 21–45 we are given considerable information about the third and second centuries in the East, information that would otherwise have been lost with much of Polybius's work. Somewhat earlier (60–30 BCE), under Caesar and Augustus, Diodorus Siculus wrote the Bibliotheke, a universal history from the creation through his own time (54 BCE), in forty books. This history attempted to combine the mythologies and histories of the whole universe in a single book. Diodorus's work (in Greek) is important inasmuch as he used a great many sources, most of which are no longer available to us (such as Ctesias, Hecataeus of Abdera, Dionysius Scytobrachion, Matris of Thebes, Posidonius, and Hieronymus of Cardia). Yet, like most historians of antiquity, he does not always say when he uses which source.

During the Augustan era, Pompeius Trogus wrote the Historiae Philippicae, an important and comprehensive history in forty-four books that is now lost. L. Cornelius, Vibius Maximus, and others followed suit, but their works are no longer available. We know about the nature of Trogus's work from Justinus, who used it extensively in the third century CE while writing his epitome. In the Augustan era, one of the greatest geographers of antiquity composed a Geography; this was Strabo of Amaseia, who wrote in Greek, describing the various regions of the empire and beyond. His geography is an indispensible source for historians because of the rich historical information he included. Strabo had access to many sources, most of which are not available to us today (such as Erathosthenes and Posidonius).

In the first century CE, Curtius Rufus wrote a history of Alexander the Great in Latin, and Valerius Maximus wrote a history (preserved only in two later epitomes). Velleius Paterculus wrote his Historiae Romanae during this time, an important source, particularly for the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius. In the middle of the century, Pliny the Elder wrote some important, now lost, works of history (Bella Germaniae and A fine Aufidi Bassi, for example). The end of the first century CE and the beginning of the second witnessed two great Latin historians, Suetonius and Tacitus. Suetonius wrote biographies of the emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian, and Tacitus wrote some of the most significant works dealing with the history of the first century CE, the Annals and the Histories.

At the same time, there was impressive historiographic activity in the ancient Near East concerning the events in Palestine. We know that Justus of Tiberias probably wrote a history of the Jews from Moses to Agrippa II. Of the extant works, the most important are the histories of Josephus. He wrote his Jewish War (seven books) in the seventies of the first century CE; later, in the nineties, while in Rome, he completed his Antiquities (twenty books), the Contra Apionem (two books), and the Vita (his autobiography). Josephus was a prolific historian whose books, because they are preserved, are a unique phenomenon in ancient historiography. Although he deals mainly with Jewish history, he preserves much information about the surrounding world. At the time, the evangelists were writing the histories of Jesus and his followers in Greek. Their compositions appear in the historiographic part of the New Testament (Matthew through John, and the Book of Acts, written by Luke).

Between 50 and 120 CE, in Greece, there lived one of the greatest intellectuals of the period, Plutarch. In addition to his philosophical works, he wrote biographies of past heroes, Greek and Roman. He is one of our main sources for the zeitgeist in Greece in the first century CE. Plutarch wrote moralizing biographies in Greek, such as those of Solon, Tiberius Gracchus, and T. Q. Flamininus.

In the second and third centuries CE, Appian and Cassius Dio composed their important histories. The beginnings of Christian “historiography” are to be found in the writings of Clement of Alexandria.In the second century CE, while Lucian of Samosata was writing a book called How to Write History (on the historians of the Parthian War), Arrian was a student of the philosopher Epictetus, which influenced his various books. His famous work, the Anabasis, a history of Alexander the Great, was based in particular on the histories of Alexander by Ptolemy I (king of Egypt), Aristobulus, and the Vulgate. He also wrote a Parthica (now lost), as well as a history of Alexander the Great's successors, based on Hieronymus of Cardia. Only fragments are preserved of the latter work. Arrian also wrote an Indica, taken mainly from Megasthenes and Nearchus. Appian of Alexandria wrote his Romaika under Antoninus Pius; it describes Roman conquests arranged according to the regions of the Roman Empire. The work, written in Greek, is dependent on some imperial annalistic tradition but also relies extensively on older historians, such as Polybius, Sallust, Livy, and Nicolaus of Damascus.

Early in the third century CE, Herodian wrote biographies of the emperors Marcus Aurelius through Gordian III (180–238 CE). Dio Cassius, another great historian, wrote some important works in the first quarter of the third century, including his Roman history from the beginning to 229 CE. Only parts of this history (written in Greek) are preserved; other parts were epitomized in the Byzantine era by Xiphilinus and Zonaras. Dio Cassius's history is based on the republican annalistic tradition (Livy or his sources) and the imperial annalistic tradition, as well as on his own experiences as a politician—he was governor of Cilicia and Dalmatia as well as a praetor and consul suffectus). In the third century, Sextus Julius Africanus wrote his Chronographies in five books, attempting a synchronization of Jewish, Christian, and pagan histories from the creation to 221 CE. This work was an important source for Eusebius's Chronicle.

Eusebius wrote his Ecclesiastical History at the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth century. It is the first church history combining biblical and pagan history alongside much else. Eusebius's history (in ten volumes) focuses on the history of the church, its apostolic succession, and its victory over heresies, Judaism, and paganism up to Eusebius's own time. Somewhat later in that century, Ammianus Marcelinus, in Latin, wrote his thirty-one books on the history of the years 96–378 CE (the extant narrative begins with the year 353). In that century we also find the epitomators, who made summaries of history, historians such as Eutropius, Justin, and Aurelius Victor.


  • Aune, David E. The New Testament in Its Literary Environment. Philadelphia, 1987.
  • Fornara, Charles W. The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome. Berkeley, 1983.
  • Meister, Klaus. Die griechische Geschichtsschreibung. Stuttgart, 1990.
  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. Studies in Historiography. London, 1966.
  • Villalba i Varneda, Pere. The Historical Method of Flavius Josephus. Leiden, 1986.

Doron Mendels

Historiography of the Byzantine and Islamic Periods

Byzantine and Islamic historiography describe overlapping but not identical parts of the world, chronological spans, and dating systems. Several forms of Byzantine histories exist, whereas early Islamic historiography tended to be religious and legal in inspiration. The structures and stylistic rules for Byzantine secular history (Lat., historia) imitate pre-Byzantine—that is, classical Greek—historical models for history and rhetoric. This borrowing included style and vocabulary, or those of Greek historical writing within the Roman Empire—not those from Latin classical or medieval historiography or Islamic historiography. Although Byzantine historiography exhibited versatility and adaptability, it had no great innovators. Audiences tended to be well-educated elites, probably from the imperial and ecclesiastical administration, who were able to read and appreciate histories as literature in a venerable tradition. Some historians were mere compilers.

Byzantine secular historians often strove to produce new narratives of approximately contemporary events or reigns. Although their objective was the truth, many failed to give attention to sophisticated or profound historical explanation; to be precise in their use of numbers and geography; to consider chronology, rather than concentrate on individuals, moral issues, and teaching truths; and to identify or engage in source criticism or exercise critical judgment, as had the best earlier Greek historians. The critical acumen of a Procopius or a Niketas Choniates was exceptional. Political and military subjects prevail, together with an emphasis on rulers and elites, not on economic and social subjects. Encomiastic historiography existed because honest criticism and self-criticism were difficult to include in an unveiled fashion if it involved criticism or embarrassment of a reigning dynasty or dominant groups. Gradually, traditional conservative forms of history adjusted, by the end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh centuries, to include Christian subject matter, frameworks of interpretation and explanation, and terminology, even though this process of adjustment took place long after the conversion of the vast majority to Christianity. Waning interest in topographic and geographic details contributed to a shrinking of horizons, which often became Constantinopleocentric. Many tended to relate foreign peoples to the schema and typing of earlier historical models and topoi (literary commonplaces). Among the best historians are Procopius, Michael Psellos, Michael Attaleiates, and Niketas Choniates. One distinguished, although admittedly biased (in favor of her father, Emperor Alexius I), woman historian is Anna Comnena (Komnenos).

Ecclesiastical historians restricted their subject matter in a broad sense to the history of the church and its doctrinal controversies, from the perspective of the established (i.e., usually Nicene and Chalcedonian) orthodoxies, churches, and related imperial and local topics of a political and dynastic kind. They normally selected and interpreted events to demonstrate their conjunction with established religious creeds and hierarchies and seldom investigated ethnic, social, or economic dimensions. Their audience was primarily, but not exclusively, ecclesiastical.

Another historical form is the universal or world chronicle (Gk., chronikon, chronographia), an annalistic narration commencing with the creation of the world and terminating with the chronicler's lifetime. Chroniclers were not necessarily monks. Chronicles often are more precise about dates and local events than secular histories and may provide insight into ordinary language and concerns. Some later narrative histories are entitled chronicles. Saints' lives preserved another highly selective part of the past, especially for the edification of monastic audiences.

Controversy surrounds the fate of Byzantine historiography in the course of the seventh century. This break in classicizing historical writing after the 630s may be the result of a contraction in the numbers of the literary elite who could serve as a sophisticated audience: education and funding had collapsed and there was a lack of great victories to celebrate. A difficult subject for the Byzantine historians was the explanation of the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land, Egypt, Syria, and North Africa; hence, they usually tended to avoid it. Local provincial schools of historiography did not survive the end of antiquity. Historical writing reappeared in the late eighth century and persisted, in a more or less continuous sequence of narrative histories, to the fifteenth.

Islamic historiography developed from pre-Islamic oral history traditions, both of akhbār (plural, or khabar, singular), that is, a piece of information or reports or accounts about events) and early Islamic ones (of ḥadīth, “conversation or narrative,” especially of the prophetic tradition, on religious doctrine and juridical subjects). Ta'rīkh originally meant assigning a date; hence, it first designated chronological narratives, but it came to mean any account of the past—that is, a history. Criticism of the isnād, or “tradition of transmission of authorities,” developed into an elaborate form; however, the authenticity of apparently impressive isnād can neither be assumed nor easily ascertained. Materials ascribed to particular collectors of traditions do not display ideological uniformity or any homogeneous historical view. Islamic historians had their own criteria for ascertaining the creditworthiness of traditions, according to the reliability of the transmitter; this was not in itself wholly dissimilar from early criticism within Hellenic historiography, but it was not explicitly used by Byzantine historians.

The form, structure, and norms of Islamic historiography, which also started and reached its culmination later, differed from the Byzantine, as did their genesis. Arabic historical writing sifted and transmitted oral traditions concerning the genealogies and the prophet Muhammad. Early scholarly-religious histories often reflected a schema of the Islamic religious community. They were usually composed by those trained in Islamic jurisprudence who sought to make doctrinally correct statements reflecting the outlook of the mosque and religious school (madrasah).

Another form of later Islamic historiography, the court history, sought to glorify a ruler, or his dynasty, or to make and prove general statements about wisdom in statecraft. To an extent this genre drew on earlier Persian and even occasionally on Byzantine and Christian Oriental (especially Syriac) historical traditions, but in a limited fashion, and especially for models of writing court histories of reigns and dynasties. Collections of biographies (including scholarly, religious, tribal, and local ones), organized by classes (ṭabaqāt), are other important historiographic form.

Yet, for some subjects, such as the Islamic conquests, Byzantine and Islamic traditions are not completely divergent. At some early date, and to an extent that still cannot be fully determined, Oriental Christian chroniclers and historians preserved and transmitted information about the Islamic conquest that reappears in different forms in both Byzantine and Islamic historiography. The Islamic conquest's exposition may be confused by contamination with later issues such as land taxation and legal titles. Probably exaggerated was the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critique of Islamic historians as divided into schools with competing self-serving interpretations and traditions (e.g., Syrian and Iraqi), with its excessive dependence on traditions of biblical scholarship and criticism. Islamic historians' critical sense also differed from that of the Byzantine historians, for unlike that of the Byzantines, it involved, as in the case of tradition about their religion, the criticism of the chain of transmission of traditions.

The process of recording, compiling, and editing Muslim historiography; collecting narratives; and selecting the most creditworthy flowered in the eighth and ninth centuries and matured by the late ninth and tenth centuries. Investigation of this process has not yet achieved a modern scholarly consensus. Presumably, independent traditions often possess common elements. Modern scholars disagree whether the entire corpus of early traditions should be rejected as hopelessly corrupt and fabricated, or whether there is an underlying truth behind some of the traditions—and if so, the proper methodology for achieving a sound critical evaluation. A majority probably agree that something of value survives but disagree concerning techniques for determining that genuine core. Islamic historiography's best specimens include al-Balādhurī (d. 892), al-Ṭabarī (from Tabaristan, d. 1058), al-Ya῾qūbī (d. 897), and other historians after the beginning of the tenth century. However, such later historians as the Egyptian al-Maqrīzī (d. 1447) and the Maghrebi Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) are of high quality. Local historians such as the Damascene Ibn ῾Asākir (d. 1176), Ibn al-῾Adīm (b. Aleppo, d. Cairo, 1262), and al-Azdī (fl. early ninth century in Cairo and Jerusalem) composed another important form of Muslim historiography; the form started in the ninth century but developed more intensively after the eleventh century. Islamic historiography's second major burst of productivity and qualitative creativity in the later medieval era (thirteenth–early fifteenth centuries) culminated in the historical analyses and reflections of Ibn Khaldūn in his introduction to his history.

Archaeological objects and sites are seldom subjects of interest for Byzantine and Islamic historians, and archaeological proofs are not normally used to support Byzantine or Islamic historical reasoning. Archaeology can serve as an important (but not exclusive) control on both Islamic and Byzantine historiography, however. Actual measurements can enable modern researchers to check the veracity of historical reports about architecture, distances, and topography (subject to adjustment for alteration by erosion, and sedimentation during the passage of time). Study of toponymics, terminology, and materials consistent with archaeology and epigraphy can add or diminish the credibility of specific historians' accounts, be they Byzantine or Islamic, for some of these may simply be using topoi or literary/rhetorical embellishment. The methodologies and limitations in such investigations are still being developed and require sensitivity.


  • Cameron, Averil, and Lawrence I. Conrad, eds. The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East, vol. 1, Problems in the Literary Source Material. Princeton, 1992.
    Important collection of essays on aspects of Byzantine and Islamic historiography.
  • Corpus fontium historiae byzantinae. Berlin, 1967–.
    New critical editions and translations of Byzantine historical texts by an international group of scholars.
  • Donner, Fred McGraw. The Early Islamic Conquests. Princeton, 1981.
    Fundamental discussion of difficulties in interpreting Early Islamic historiography.
  • Duri, ῾Abd al-῾Aziz. The Rise of Historical Writing among the Arabs. Translated by Lawrence I. Conrad. Princeton, 1983.
    Important essay by a leading Arab historian.
  • Humphreys, R. Stephen. Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry. Princeton, 1991.
    The standard introduction to problems of Islamic history and historiography.
  • Hunger, Herbert. Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner, vol. 1, Philosophie, Rhetorik, Epistolographie, Geschichtsschreibung, Geographie, pp. 243–504. Munich, 1978.
    The basic study of Byzantine high-style literature, including histories.
  • Kaegi, Walter E. Byzantium and the Decline of Rome. Princeton, 1968.
    Study of fifth-century Byzantine historiography.
  • Kaegi, Walter E. Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests. Cambridge, 1992.
    Interpretation of Byzantine and Islamic historiography on the early conquests.
  • Karayannopoulos, Ioannes, and Gunter Weiss. Quellenkunde zur Geschichte von Byzanz, 324–1453. 2 vols. Wiesbaden, 1982.
    Reference work on Byzantine historical texts and authors.
  • Noth, Albrecht, with Lawrence I. Conrad. The Early Arabic Historical Tradition: A Source-Critical Study. Translated by Michael Bonner. Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam, 3. Princeton, 1994.
    A basic reinterpretation and critique of Early Islamic historiography.
  • Rosenthal, Franz. A History of Muslim Historiography. 2d ed. Leiden, 1968.
    Classic study of Islamic history writing.
  • Sezgin, Fuat. Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums, vol. 1, Qur'ānwissen-schaften, pp. 50–389. Leiden, 1967.
    Description of Arabic historical writing to 1000 CE

Walter E. Kaegi