Although I am a philosopher (Ph.D.), I love history, and although my emphasis in recent years has been largely medieval history and folklore, my academic beginnings were born in classical civilizations (B.A.). For the last few days I have gone back to some of the great historians of Greece and Rome and revisited them, exploring their views of what history meant to them, and the different methods they employed to present it to their audience.
Herodotus (c.484 to c.425 BCE).
The earliest historians of the Greeks and Romans viewed the subject of history more broadly than today (the word history comes from the Greek word historia meaning ‘inquiry’ or ‘investigation,’ it would not be until later when subjects were more rigidly separated). What I love about reading someone like Herodotus is his strong sense and love of the marvelous. He happily includes references to mythological beings in his work. There are also dramatic themes of justice and retribution in the stories he tells. Yet, because he also traveled widely, there is a sense of familiarity with the places he describes. His Histories cover the Greco-Roman Wars of 499-449 BCE, an era that I find remarkably interesting.
Thucydides (c.460 to c.400 BCE).
Whereas Herodotus recreated scenes from the past, with Thucydides we have a historian who lived through what he wrote about (the Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BCE). His writing deemphasizes the mythological (there is less reference to gods and oracles). Yet, like so many Greeks of his time, he explored the moral issues and conflicts that were integral to politics (I enjoy this as a Philosopher). Thucydides’ points of reference are individual events and persons, and from there he moves to a total of their interrelationships. For him knowledge for its own sake was meaningless – knowledge must lead to understanding. Finally, another view he had was that human nature was predictable. This is why you see authors of this period repeat certain morality tales as they move through centuries of time, for if human nature is predictable, then repeating a moral lesson would seem reasonable (think of the view that “history repeats itself”). The Peloponnesian War sees the loss of Greece as a regional power. It is another period of history I enjoy because there is – as Thucydides wanted his readers to contemplate – a moral consideration of the actions and results of the different actors in this struggle.
Polybius (c.200 BCE – c.118 BCE).
Polybius shifts how we should view history. He viewed history on a larger canvas. Polybius was one of the first to make use of a ‘universal history’ approach. He stepped away from writing about a series of unrelated episodes and instead thought that all these different events have a relationship and contribute towards a single endpoint (effectively what Plato and Aristotle came up with in their philosophy, Polybius was making use of for his universal history). In Polybius we also have a historian who drew upon his personal experiences to write his history and was not just comparing other people’s writings. His Rise of the Roman Empire covers the Punic Wars (264-146 BCE, another period I enjoy reading about.
Livy (59 BCE – 17 CE).
His historical events were explained by looking at the character of the people involved, with short speeches representing the climax of each moral episode. There is a unique conflict in his writing, in that he says the current state of Rome is a direct consequence of the failure of moral character, yet at the same time he thought Rome was at the peak of its power and achievements. Livy thought the way to overcome this tension was to study ‘character’ throughout history and look for the warnings and examples in your own time and place. The Early History of Rome covers the founding of Rome (754 BCE) to the expulsion of the Kings (509 BCE). There is some great history/mythology to enjoy here, allowing us a window into how the Romans viewed their origins. Even though some of this “history” is a historical and mythological borrowing from other cultures and renaming them, it is still instructive in how a culture can invent (reinvent?) itself.
Tacitus (c.56 CE – 117 CE)
Tacitus provides a look at historical characters for their own sake. The reader is to understand them, not to simply condemn or praise them like you find with some of his predecessors. The Annals cover Tiberius to Nero (14 CE to 68 CE), and The Histories cover the death of Nero to Domitian (69 CE to 116 CE). I must admit this era is much less interesting to me. In part it might be because when I was pursuing my B.A. in classical civilizations, I had to learn Latin, and I genuinely struggled with it. Also, although the Romans were quite inventive from an engineering perspective with the incredible structures they built, so much of their history, religion, and philosophy is simply taken from the Greeks (and others) and altered, so beyond engineering and military conquests, I don’t find as much of interest with the Romans from this point forward.
Beyond the enjoyment of reading and learning about how history was viewed and presented, as well as the entertainment value of getting pulled into these stories of the Persians, Greeks, Spartans, Carthaginians, and Romans, there is also the many ways I can make use of them for gaming.
First, there is the rich variety of names, personalities, and unique plots and subplots that can be made use of for an adventure or even entire campaigns. The fact that so many of the Greek historians were presenting and examining the moral character of these historical figures and the results of their actions opens endless opportunities for challenging players.
Second, and more specifically to my campaigns, there are the ways some of the cultures in my world can tie in with what I am reading in these books. For example, hobgoblins in my world are a corruption of humans, and I am interested in tying them in with a strict, Roman, militaristic emphasis. The Romans went where they wanted and took what they needed. They were also masterful engineers, building epic buildings proclaiming their greatness, and had what seemed at times a never-ending confidence in themselves. I would like to examine the darker side of that through the lens of hobgoblin culture and hobgoblin empires. That is also why you see a book in the picture above on The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, it was a book I read for a Roman history class that covers quite extensively Roman military history (with lots of diagrams of formations). Think again of Livy’s tension between the failure of moral character he saw in his time, yet also claiming that they were at the peak of their power and achievement. I would love to examine this tension more closely in an open and creative gaming environment.