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Roman Historiography: The History of Roman History

A portrait of the famous Roman historian, Gaius Cornelius Tacitus.

A portrait of the famous Roman historian, Gaius Cornelius Tacitus.

Here's a little vocabulary to start you off:

History: History is the study of the human past within times of written records. Cave men and hunter-gatherers are part of human history, but they are not considered part of the academic discipline of history because they did not have writing or keep written records. The ancient Greeks kept many written records, so they are considered historical.

Historiography: Historiography is the study of the academic discipline of history and its past. In other words, it's the history of history. Ancient historians, written historical accounts, and the development of history as a formal field of study all fall under the discipline of historiography, which is a smaller branch of plain-old regular history (just like American history or Renaissance history).

The History of Roman History

When we think of the ancient Romans, we tend to view them as historical; an ancient people from the past. But we often forget that the Romans had an entire rich history of their own. In fact, many Roman cultural and political traditions were based on people and events that they considered ancient.

The Discipline of History in Roman Scholarship

Wealthy young Roman boys (and a few lucky girls) whose families could afford to educate them were typically taught a rigorous curriculum that included literature, philosophy, reading and writing in both Latin and Greek, and, you guessed it, history.

History was considered an extremely prestigious discipline for several reasons:

  • The Romans cared deeply for their past and considered ancient times to be inherently better and more civilized than their own times.
  • Many aspects of Roman history had religious undertones since many great public figures believed they could trace their lineage back to the gods. Julius Caesar, the most famous Roman of all time, claimed to be descended from Venus, the goddess of love.
  • Writing histories and maintaining historical records was considered a civic duty that enhanced the dignity of the state.
  • History was considered a suitable hobby for wealthy, educated gentlemen (much like politics today), making it a fashionable leisure activity.
In this carved relief, a Roman tutor educates his pupils, possibly on the discipline of history. The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

In this carved relief, a Roman tutor educates his pupils, possibly on the discipline of history. The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Learning about the Romans through Their Historical Accounts

Knowing that history was deeply important to the Romans allows us to learn a lot about them by closely examining what parts of their history they valued most, and which they ignored.They give us a clear view of their thoughts on the past through the stories they perpetuate about it, and the things they record and omit in their histories. Through the tone of their writings and the use of expressive language to portray past events, we can tell a lot about their social values, likes and dislikes, etc.

Portrait of the Roman historian Livy.

Portrait of the Roman historian Livy.

Conquest in Roman History

The writings of the Roman historian Titus Livius Patavinus provide us with a great source of information on how the Romans viewed their history (and themselves).

One aspect of their past that the Romans found very important was their ability to conquer and their status as conquerors. Their enthusiasm for conquest can be seen in the way they glorify their founder Romulus. Romulus won his position, which he originally shared with his brother Remus, by killing his brother in a fit of rage and threatening, "so perish whoever else shall overleap my battlements"1 The first generation of Romans settlers even won their wives through an act of conquest. They planned a peaceful gathering, violated their own truce, and stole the Sabine women from their husbands and fathers: “at a given signal, all the able-bodied men burst through the crowd and seized the young women”1

Relief sculpture of infant brothers Romulus and Remus, adopted and raised by a female wolf.

Relief sculpture of infant brothers Romulus and Remus, adopted and raised by a female wolf.

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Relations to Gods and Goddesses in Roman History

The poet and historian Publius Vergilius Maro is another great source of history as the Romans viewed it, and of state-perpetuated historical mythology.

Another aspect of their past the Romans clearly valued was their connection to the gods. In their histories, Aeneas, Romulus’s ancestor, was the son of the goddess Venus. In the Aeneid, the god Jupiter speaks to Venus about her son Aeneas: “Your son will wage a great war in Italy."2 Romulus also had claim to divine ancestry through his father, Mars, the god of war. Virgil writes: “Ilia, Vesta’s royal princess, pregnant by Mars, shall give birth to twins. Then Romulus, proud in the tawny hide of the wolf who nursed him, will continue the lineage."2 This connection to the gods was clearly something the Romans found very important as a people. It shows in the way they constantly emphasize their association with various divinities.

Assimilation in Roman History

A third aspect of the Roman past that was emphasized strongly was their ability to “rehabilitate” and integrate the people whom they had conquered into Roman society. King Latinus is a perfect example from the Aeneid. After realizing he could not defeat the Trojans, he made them an offer: “Let this entire region, with a belt of mountain pine, be ceded to the Trojans in good will, on just terms.”2 The Latins were easily integrated into Roman society and cooperated quite easily. The same was true of the Sabine women. Although they were reluctant at first, they eventually became fully Romanized and even worked to reconcile the Roman men with their previous families.


  1. The Early History of Rome. Titus Livius Patavinus.
  2. The Aeneid. Publius Vergilius Maro.


Hilary from Scottish Borders on April 21, 2014:

This was an illuminating article, Christy. Thank you. As mentioned by tillsontitan, it was certainly thought provoking, & lends itself to further discussion. I am often struck by how intertwined such history of ancient histories is, when we look at Roman & Greek mythologies & origins. Both Virgil & Homer, I believe, could be said to be akin to modern literary, 'publishing houses'; whereby they took popular stories, historical references & legends and combined them into compelling narratives based on the popular interests of the peoples of their time. Great stuff, Christy. Really well done.

Christy Kirwan (author) from San Francisco on May 20, 2013:

Thanks for reading, vertualit!

Thanks, tillsontitan, that's a really good point. The Romans often did not differentiate their mythology from their history, and the two are deeply intertwined. It's very similar to the way many Christians today consider the bible to be a literal historical account, or the way American children used to learn the story of George Washington and the cherry tree in grade school history lessons. Surprisingly, mythology itself was not an academic subject to the Romans.

Mary Craig from New York on May 20, 2013:

Didn't Romans just study Roman history? What about the "gods" as part of history, they are really more part of mythology aren't they Christy? This was very thought provoking since we are all at least a bit familiar with the Romans.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

Abdus Salam from Bangladesh on May 19, 2013:

Very interesting and informative. thanks for sharing..

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