History began as a means for documenting the victories of rulers, surges of empires, and catastrophic events such as plagues, earthquakes, and famines. The magna opera of Herodotus and Thucydides, seen as history’s traditional ‘fathers’ despite their being predated by Confucius, focused on the Peloponnesian and Persian wars, respectively. But there was always room for poetic licence on the part of early historians, be it for the battles of Pharaohs of Egypt or sometimes fictionalised speeches in the polis of Greece. This has inevitably led to accusations from some corners that they were more akin to journalists than true historians by today’s standards.
Thucydides was actually a General, for the confederacy of Greek poleis fighting against the Persian Empire- truly almost making the history which he was writing about (and therefore maybe also worthy of critiques of bias in his somewhat polarised depiction of the two sides!). Both were mindful of the machinations of early city states, expectations of aggrandisement from rulers, and perhaps too ready to include hearsay and myth alongside serious evidence.
But their contribution, particularly that of Thucydides, is not to be understated, nor derided for a willingness to ensure wider readership through the incorporation of contemporary supernatural dogma. Herodotus’ Histories was also in part guilty of this, being thoroughly mocked by playwright Aristophanes for his historical mention of the rape a mythical quartet, including Helen of Troy. But Herodotus is certainly redeemed by his extensive and keen detailing of the causes and origins of conflict within the Hellenic world. He went beyond merely the military elements of history- delving into culture, politics, and geography- and thus even more set the foundations for today.
Jumping forward around half a millennia, to the formalisation of universities under the direction of the Byzantine Empire, and then, much later, through the Papacy and Holy Roman Empire, history was not given true equivalency to the predominant and dedicated disciplines of monastic, theological, legal, and medical study. It was, generally, instead part of a holistic education as in earlier centres of learning across the world – such as schools founded by Plato, and then Aristotle; the complex at Alexandria; as well as later institutions in the Islamic world, India, and China.
Another millennia further forward, history appears to repeat itself – but truly it had not moved on. The teaching of history as a subject was still not refined as it is today, remaining part of a wide-ranging degree – particularly in the clergy producing colleges springing up on the east coast of what is now the United States. There, still, history cannot be pursued in the exact same devoted manner at undergraduate level as elsewhere, remaining a Major, or Concentration, within the liberal arts curriculum now exported around the world.
Early historians also made a large contribution to fields other than their own. Polybius’ Histories, as well as the works and ideas of his predecessor, Aristotle, are renowned for inspiring both Machiavelli and Montesquieu, and in turn, the Founding Fathers. This juxtaposes interestingly with Thucydides’ second epithet, the ‘founder of political realism’, gifted by, among others, Kagan and Strauss – linking history’s ‘fathers’ through hawkishness in the country Polybius’ ideas helped to create. Clearly, such a legacy underlines the eternal importance of the study of history.