Rutger Allan & Lidewij van Gils

Describing a Changing World: Classical Historiography and the Discourse of Innovation

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Describing a Changing World: Classical Historiography and the Discourse of Innovation


Greece: Democracy Disputed

The 5th c. BC, sometimes called ‘The Greek Enlightenment’, is a period of great changes, socially, politically and intellectually. A major historical change is the emergence of democratic government in various parts of the Greek world, a change that, however, did not remain undisputed. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that also the two major historiographers of that time, Herodotus and Thucydides, contribute to the contemporary debate and address the issue of the ideal constitution.

Rome: From Republic to Empire

As a result of the changed political circumstances in the early imperial age, the traditional social arena in which the Roman aristocracy used to compete for glory and prestige is rapidly changing. New values (or new definitions of old values) are needed in this social competition, and are tried out in, and distributed by, new channels. One of these channels is provided by the new form of literary historiography that emerged in this period: “Livy, Augustus, and their elite contemporaries were collectively immersed in a world characterized by novel problems, constraints, and possibilities, where all parties were feeling their way forward as if in the dark. For Livy, history provides a laboratory in which the contemporary crisis in aristocratic competition can be thought out and possible solutions can be “tried on.” (Roler 2009: 172)

Central question

How do Classical historiographers such as Herodotus and Thucydides, Livy and Tacitus present, reflect, judge, and presumably also shape this aspect of political change and social innovation in their historiographical works?

Goals and sub-questions

The main goal of the research project is to identify in four major historiographers, Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy and Tacitus, the dominant linguistic devices, rhetorical means and narratological techniques used by the authors in order to take position and guide their readers in the contemporary power struggle, in which new values, morals and institutes are gradually taking over more traditional ones.

Herodotus presents an encyclopedic history from the earliest times to the Persian Wars, revolving around the long-lasting conflict between Europe and Asia and devoting much attention to power struggles between and within states. Thucydides focuses on the period after the Persian Wars and meticulously analyzes the social and political turmoil caused by the Peloponnesian War. Livy writes about seven centuries of Roman warfare and politics up to the relative equilibrium brought about by Augustus. Tacitus treats the turbulent first generations of Roman emperors after Augustus, again after a political change leading to a relatively more stable situation. All these historiographers, and their contemporary audiences, had recently witnessed important changes in the social and political arena. In their presentation of historical events, decisions and conflicts, they had a chance to reaffirm traditional values, or introduce new ones.

Questions to be answered in the project are: How do the historiographers textually and linguistically ‘anchor’ new values in what is assumed to be common ground for their contemporary audiences? Do the historiographers differ as to the devices and discourses they employ, considering, for instance, that Livy writes at the beginning of the imperial age (in which the new political conditions and the ensuing new role of the aristocracy have not yet been fully crystallized), whereas Tacitus is more able to reflect on the results of the search for a new ‘paradigm’ of values? And, finally, are we able, by means of the analyses, to distillate a ‘discourse of innovation’ of these classical historiographers which can be compared with the ways in which modern discourses, in related situations and genres, try to meet the needs of their contemporary audiences?

The project will be divided between a postdoc Latin (0.5 fte) and a postdoc Greek (0.5 fte). These postdocs will work closely together with the postdoc of project 9 and the PhD of project 6.

Approach and Method

Discourse-linguistic, rhetorical and narratological analysis of selected episodes in the four historiographers in which this theme (the search for new values in the social and political arena) is prominent. Special attention will be given to:

  • The use and function of episodes/embedded short stories and exempla for illustrating elements of the innovation debate and for ‘filling in’ the new or re-defined concepts which underlie the debate;
  • The use and function of speeches in the presentation of the innovation debate
  • The structure of the historical account as a whole (narratorial choices as to the sequence in which events are told; choices as to what is recounted and what is left out; rhythm of the narrative; changes in discourse mode (e.g. narrative versus argument); the use of regular story patterns; episodic versus annalistic structure etc.)
  • Linguistic, rhetorical and narratological devices that may be typical for the ‘discourse of (anchoring) innovation’, e.g.: moral and evaluative vocabulary; use of negation and other markers of presupposition and dialogism; use of mood and tenses; use of discourse particles; use of embedded focalization; use of ‘we’, use of repetition, use of spatial references and descriptions, use of metaphors and comparisons, use of plot structures and characters, use of arguments and authorial comments, use of epic reminiscences.

Enrichment of the discourse-linguistic and narratological tool with concepts from Cognitive Linguistics, Critical Discourse Analysis and sociolinguistics.


In order to convey new information or to persuade an addressee succesfully, a narrator or speaker will have to anchor his/her message into the common ground, the body of mutually shared knowledge, beliefs and opinions. The aim of this postdoc project is to develop a theoretical toolbox which enables an analysis of the various linguistic devices (such as negation, discourse particles, word order and anaphoric reference) which serve to anchor a message in the common ground.

Postdoc (1) will focus on Greek historiography (Herodotus and Thucydides) and drama and its use of linguistic anchoring devices.

Postdoc (2) will focus on Latin historiography (Sallustius, Livy and Tacitus) and rhetorical prose (Cicero) and its use of linguistic anchoring devices.