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Famous Historians and Their Contributions

Titus Livy

After Herodotus there were other historians, of course, but the next stop on this historiography survey bus is Titus Livy. Livy is an interesting figure in historiography. He researched and wrote an absolutely massive work on the history of the Roman Republic. Livy wrote during the time Augustus was building the Roman Empire, and he believed that history existed to teach moral lessons.

His life's work, Ab Urbe Condita, wound up being 142 books long, though few of them survive. We only know of the non-existent ones because they were mentioned in his works or works of other contemporary historians. Livy saw the early Roman Empire as a time of corruption and decay, and hoped to rejuvinate Roman blood by teaching them about their glorious past.

Livy's history, then, had a decided agenda, but still relied on provable facts, for the most part. Like other ancient historians, he would write fictionalized speeches and place them in the mouths of his subjects, using speeches as a tool to convey these moralistic messages and inspire hope in his fellow Romans.


The father of history is none other than Herodotus, an ancient Greek scribe. Herodotus was not the first person to write about past events, but his writings are the oldest we have on record that can be recognized as scholarly inquiry.

He used the historical method when he conducted his research--albeit an early form. Born in Halicarnassus around 480 B.C., he grew to adulthood when Greek city-states were fighting each other for supremacy and influence. He traveled in other lands, including Egypt, and collected information firsthand. He systematically gathered documentation and interviews to form the basis of his master work, The Histories. In The Histories Herodotus details the causes and events of the Greco-Persian Wars of the fifth century B.C., which were the great transformative events of his time.

While Herodotus introduced the idea of systematically gathering information and fact-checking, aiming for a reliable, neutral kind of narrative history, he was not without faults. Due to limitations on communication, travel and science he does rely on myth or legend on occasion. But by taking a new (we assume) approach to writing history, he introduced the idea that history should be neutral and fact-based and not merely another form of fictional story-telling.


Jumping ahead again in the timeline we're brought to Bede, who wrote a remarkable chronicle on the history of the Christian Church in Great Britain. At the time Bede wrote, lists and annual records were the primary means of conveying historical knowledge. This meant there was little room for narrative or lessons.

Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), marked a return to the ancient narrative style of history. It is a remarkable work of history that has been central to many discussions about British identity and history.

The Ecclesiastical History details the "discovery" of Britain by Julius Caesar until the 8th Century A.D. It is one of the primary sources of information on England during this time. By focusing on religion among kings and leaders, it necessarily makes religion seem most important among ancient and early middle age England.

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Bede's contribution to historiography is the idea that history is a series of events that gradually improve the world. It carries with it an idea that as history advances, so does civilization. In Bede's case, that civilization is led by Christianity and bishops. This is an example of teleology.

Leopold von Ranke

Adolf Jebens copy of Julius Schrader's portrait of Leopold von Ranke

Adolf Jebens copy of Julius Schrader's portrait of Leopold von Ranke

Leopold von Ranke

Leopold von Ranke is considered the father of modern, professional history. He lived from 1795-1886, a time when wealthy gentlemen took to science, history and philosophy as hobbies. Ranke professionalized the field, taking it out of the hands and returning to the idea that history should be neutral and serve an educational purpose. He was a professor who brought history into the mainstream of the university classroom.

Ranke, in his remarkable work Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1514 (History of the Latin and Teutonic Peoples from 1494 to 1514), relied on a wide variety of published sources, more so than most historians. He conducted exhaustive research to bring the most complete version of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. He popularized the idea that history should be based on government documents, records, and treated it more like a science, where evidence needed to be cited and arguments proven through means that could be repeated by others.

Ranke's vision of history as a science died out somewhat in the 20th Century, but today there remains a large contingent of historians who believe their arguments an be definitively proven through documents and other written, anthropological, or artistic evidence.

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Bede Dictating History

The Venerable Bede

The Venerable Bede


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