Primary sources for ancient Mediterranean history come in a variety of formats. Inscriptions recording important events, surviving archaeological remains and papyri fragments for instance. But some of our best surviving information comes directly from primary literary sources. Ancient historians that recorded historical events, some more accurately than others.
Though many works do not survive to this day, the few that do have secured their authors’ names in the history books. It is the works attributed to these ancient historians that remain a key source of information for scholars and casual ancient history enthusiasts alike.
Below are 12 of the most important Greek and Roman historians from antiquity.
“The Father of History”. Herodotus is the author The Histories, a giant work that is perhaps most famous for its account of the Greco-Persian Wars that occurred in the early 5th century BC. This being said, much of Herodotus’ work is dedicated to events before these Wars, with a significant portion of The Histories focusing on events that occurred between 550 BC and the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.
Herodotus’ stated purpose of his work was, above all, to explain why the Greeks and ‘barbarians’ (non-Hellenes) went to war in the early 5th century BC.
Herodotus’ Histories seems to have been his life work, composed during the mid/late 5th century BC.
The follow on historian from Herodotus. In the late 5th century BC, at roughly the same time that Herodotus’ histories was published, the next great war in the Central Mediterranean occurred. This time, however, it was not a conflict that could be framed as Greeks vs barbarians (although Greeks did fight on the Persian side during the Persian Wars), but one that was Greeks vs Greeks.
This was the Peloponnesian War, fought primarily between Athens and Sparta but also a whole host of other ancient powers stretching from Sicily to the Black Sea.
One of our main historians for this war is the contemporary Thucydides.
Thucydides was an aristocratic Athenian, who witnessed this war first-hand and indeed played an active role in it as a general. In 424 however, Thucydides was exiled by the Athenians after failing to carry out an assignment as commander in the northeast. It was during his time in exile that it seems Thucydides wrote his history of the Peloponnesian War. Both Thucydides and Herodotus relied heavily on eyewitness accounts and oral tradition when creating their histories.
Thucydides’ history breaks off in 411 BC, 7 years before the Peloponnesian War reached its end.
Xenophon is our other main ancient Greek historian that covered the Peloponnesian War. It is Xenophon’s narrative in his Hellenica that begins at the point where Thucydides’ narrative cuts off in Book VIII and continues the story of the War down to its conclusion in 404 BC.
Xenophon himself was an Athenian, writing in the 4th century BC. Perhaps his most famous work is the Anabasis, in which Xenophon records the March of the Ten Thousand, a large army of Greek mercenaries that accompanied Cyrus the Younger on his failed attempt to oust his elder brother Artaxerxes from the Persian throne.
Stranded deep in Persian heartlands following Cyrus’ defeat at the Battle of Cunaxa, Xenophon’s Anabasis tells the tale of how Xenophon and the mercenaries made their way back to the Mediterranean through a series of hostile lands.
Xenophon is also the author of several other works, including a biography about the Spartan King Agesilaus II, philosophical works, and short treatise of horsemanship and hunting.
Polybius was born into a high-ranking family in the Achaean League. He was alive, and active, when the Romans were cementing their authority over Greece and Western Asia Minor. He was taken to Rome as a hostage, after the Romans defeated King Perseus of Macedon at the Battle of Pydna in 168 BC. It was at Rome that Polybius on good terms with two prominent military figures of the time: Lucius Paullus and Scipio Aemilianus.
Polybius accompanied Scipio to Carthage in 146 BC, and witnessed the city’s destruction. His Histories cover the period between the outbreak of the First Punic War (264 BC) and the Sacks of Carthage and Corinth (146 BC), covering in depth the Punic Wars as well as Rome’s conflicts against the great Hellenistic powers further east.
Polybius states that the purpose of his Histories is to explain just how Rome was able to conquer so many prestigious powers in the Mediterranean in such a short amount of time and achieve dominance throughout the Mediterranean.
The earliest-known Roman historian with surviving works. Sallust wrote a history of the Jugurthine War, a war fought between Rome and the Numidian king Jugurtha from 111 to 105 BC. It was in this war that both Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla achieved notable successes.
Sallust is also the author of The Conspiracy of Catiline, a failed plot by a group of Roman citizens lead by Lucius Catilina to gain power in Rome.
He became a close supporter of Julius Caesar.
Livy was a Roman historian writing under the Principate of the Emperor Augustus. Ab Urbe Conditia, Livy’s Magnum Opus and sole surviving work, tracked the history of Rome from its early history, shrouded in legend, down to the death of Augustus.
Livy hailed from Patavium, in what was Cisalpine Gaul. Although he was close to the Emperor Augustus, Livy probably returned to Patavium after Augustus’ death and remained there until his own death a few years later.
7. Diodorus Siculus
The author of one of the largest works of antiquity. Diodorus Siculus was active in the 1st century BC. A Greek from the Siciliote-Greek city of Agyrium, Diodorus was writing under the Roman Republic and spent a lot of his life in Rome. The Library, his historical work, is a history of the ancient Mediterranean stretching from mythological times to the mid 1st century BC.
Originally, Diodorus’ work consisted of 40 books, but only 15 of these survive in full. Some of the most notable chapters include Books 16, 17 and 18, where Diodorus tracks the rise of Macedon under Philip II, the conquests of Alexander the Great, the campaigns of his Successors and also the rise of Agathocles in Syracuse.
Considered one of the greatest Roman historians, Tacitus was active during the late 1st and early 2nd centuries AD. As a young Roman aristocrat, he experienced the standard political career and held a series of administrative and military postings. Although neither of them survive in full, Tacitus’ central works were his Histories and his Annals.
The Annals (that survive) cover the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius and Nero, meanwhile the Histories cover the years from 69 AD to 96 AD.
Alongside his Annals and Histories, Tacitus is also the author of two smaller works. One is the Agricola, a biography of Tacitus’ father-in-law Agricola who defeated the Caledonians at the Battle of Mons Graupius. The other is the Germania.
Suetonius was a Roman equestrian, born in c.70 AD. He enjoyed the patronage of Pliny the Younger, who had witnessed the Vesuvius eruption, and went on to serve as imperial secretary ‘for studies’ in the early 2nd century AD. Many of his works are now lost, although two notable ones that survive are his On Illustrious Men (which survives partly) and Lives of the Twelve Caesars, his greatest work.
Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars include biographies about the first 12 Emperors of Rome, included within which is a biography of Julius Caesar. It has survived largely intact.
Arrian of Nicomedia was a Greek writer active during the 2nd century AD. He was a prominent figure in the Roman Empire, who achieved the highest positions both in Rome (as consul) and in the provinces (for instance as provincial governor of Cappadocia).
Arrian’s most famous work is his Anabasis, a detailed account of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the East. He used a series of contemporary Alexander historians, most notably the Successor Ptolemy.
Alongside the Anabasis, Arrian is also the author of several other works including the Indica, which follows the voyage of Alexander’s admiral Nearchus back from India to the Persian Gulf. Another work to mention is Arrian’s Periplus of the Euxine Sea, a guidebook about the lands that border the Black Sea.
Plutarch was a Greek historian writing during the Roman Imperial Period. He hailed from Chaeronea, a city in Boeotia that had witnessed several grand-scale battles in its long history.
Plutarch’s greatest work was his Parallel Lives, a series of 48 biographies about some of the most important Greeks and Romans of antiquity. These biographies are coupled, with Plutarch making comparisons between several figures including Cicero and Demosthenes, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great and Quintus Sertorius and Eumenes.
Alongside his Parallel Lives, Plutarch also wrote a series of other works including the Moralia.
12. Cassius Dio
Cassius Dio was a Roman statesman / historian who thrived under the Severan dynasty. He is remembered for his Roman History, a giant work that covered more than a millennia of history and myth stretching from Aeneas to the beginning of the Third Century Crisis.