skip to Main Content
John Bruce Leonard

The Sense of History – Part 3

Series: The Sense of History

This is Part Three of a four-part series. The final part will be published next Friday.

Update: On account of the scheduling for Kerry Bolton’s essay ‘Social Doctrine and the Right’, the final part of this essay will be published next Monday.

While the Greek ἱστορία forms the first origin of our concept of history, it would be natural to suppose that its nearer source, particularly etymologically, lies in the historia of the Romans. Yet upon reviewing the Roman historians, in particular those who have come down to us tolerably intact and with living and justified fame, namely Caesar, Sallust, Livy and Tacitus, we come upon an interesting discovery; these men were extremely sparing in their use of the word historia. Indeed, so far as the author can make out, the single two appearances of this word in the major works of these men are to be found in the titles of Tacitus’ and Sallust’s Historiae, the latter of which has come to us in fragments alone.

The historiography of Livy is an attempt to regain the faded glory and the moral fibre of a past epoch, confronting the decadent now against the noble then.

It would appear from this merely etymological observation that the Roman historians had little consequence for our contemporary idea of history. Looking nearer to the emergence of the modern idea of history, we find that the word as we presently have it made its entry into modernity via the Renaissance, in which it began to appear with an evidently modern hue in a variety of Italian authors, including Petrarch and Boccaccio. The word’s primary philosophical tributaries however were probably Francis Bacon and Niccolò Machiavelli. The former, following long-standing tradition, spoke primarily of ‘natural history’ or related ideas like the ‘history of winds’ and the ‘history of life and death’ – phrases which will no doubt be obscure to us because we have forgotten the original sense of the word as ‘enquiry’. This Baconian usage probably contributed to our own pervasive idea of ‘history’ solely in the enormous influence that Bacon exerted on subsequent thought; he was important enough a thinker that his use of a term like this in several titles of his works was bound to have some ramifications for our subsequent language. While Bacon follows the Greek etymology in his own use, this is of course done without reference or regard to the specific work of the histors which has been discussed in the previous section of this essay. To this extent, Bacon’s work is unrelated to our present enquiry.

Bacon was also author of a certain History of the Reign of King Henry VII, which, following somewhat in the Roman tradition, did not repeat the word ‘history’ within the body of the work itself save but twice: once in reference to the writers of history and once in reference to the readers of the same. This would seem to suggest that the sense of history which Bacon proposed was rather more the ancient one than the modern, or at best was transitional between them. We cannot seek the proximate source for our sense of history in him. We lay down only this caveat, which we shall have cause to explore in the final part of this essay: the new science which Bacon proposed, which founded so much of modern science, appears to have something deeply in common with the sense of time and development over time which was later expressed in the modern sense of history, or at least in one branch thereof.

Machiavelli, on the other hand, appears to be perhaps the first man to use the word history repeatedly in something like its modern sense; this throughout his Prince, and more particularly yet in his Discourses on Livy, where the word ‘histories’ (istorie) makes several striking appearances already in the ‘Preface’ and ‘Introduction’. The use that he makes of this word no longer intends the ‘enquiries’ of the ancients, but has a clear indication of ‘events in time’ or ‘the series of events in the past’. Machiavelli was also an author of a work which contains the word in its title, the Florentine Histories (Istorie fiorentine), and in which, in contrast to the History of Bacon, the word is freely used, once more in what seems to be a very modern sense, throughout the body of the work itself.1 It would appear that Machiavelli is then the true ‘Father of History’ so far as Modernity is concerned.

While Machiavelli’s most famous work is his Prince, what well might be his most important work is his Discourses. These discourses, as indicated by the very title (Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio), are founded on a special investigation of the first decade of the Roman Livy’s Ad urbe condita. At the same time, the Discourses are rife with references to antiquity, particularly Greek, Roman, and Judaic, as well as to the more recent history of Italy itself. Machiavelli establishes himself in pointed reference to the Roman historian, and thus forces us to return to the Romans and their peculiar sense of history before we can understand Machiavelli’s response to or use of or modification of that sense. We focus primarily on Livy, for the simple reason that Machiavelli did the same.


Livy, as noted, nowhere uses the word historia in what we have the bad habit of translating as his ‘History’; this includes the title itself, to which in truth Livy referred to only as his immensum opus, (his ‘immense work’), his tantum opus (his ‘great work’) or his annales (his ‘annals’).2 It has come down to us in the tradition as Ab Urbe Condita Libri, ‘Books from the Foundation of the City’, following a usage established by an earlier chronicler of Rome, Quintus Fabius Pictor.3 Throughout the present essay we will prefer the English translation of Livy’s own description of his work.

Most translations of Livy’s Annals are very free in their use of the word ‘history’, which seems to this author an abuse, if perhaps a necessary one,4 of the language which Livy employs. The word which is most commonly translated as ‘history’ is the Latin res. Consider for instance a popular translation of the opening phrase of his Annals: ‘The task of writing a history of our nation from Rome’s earliest days fills me, I confess, with some misgiving’.5 The Latin has Facturusne operae pretium sim si a primordio urbis res populi Romani perscripserim nec satis scio, or ‘I know not what worth the production of this work might have, if I altogether write out the matters of the Roman people from the first commencement of the city’. Later, the same translation has ‘writer on history’ for scriptores … in rebus certius, ‘writers … in sure things/affairs’. Leaving aside the other liberties which were so evidently taken with this popular translation, the use of ‘history’ for res certainly infuses a modern sense into Livy which is nowhere to be found in the original.

To be fair, the Latin res has no right English translation; it literally and most immediately means ‘a thing’, but from here takes on the signification of ‘events’, ‘actions’, ‘deeds’, ‘facts’, ‘affairs’, etc.6 The common English ‘fact’ might be the fairest translation, though it lacks a certain dimensionality and depth, not to say dignity and import, contained in the original. If a more natural or elegant substitute is sought, ‘chronicles’ might be preferable to ‘history’. It is the same word that Livy sometimes uses to refer to his own work.7

As compared to the Greek histors, several differences with Livy can be identified immediately. First, Livy not only does not hesitate to look into the deep past (his work ‘falls upon more than seven hundred years’),8 but even insists upon doing so: Livy’s very task is defined by that deep penetration of the past. Where the past was incidental to Herodotus and shunned by Thucydides, it forms the very subject matter of Livy. Livy in this respect appears to us much more the historian in the modern sense than these others. He is permitted his long view of the past, perhaps, on account of the fact that he, as opposed to Herodotus or Thucydides, is writing in a long-standing tradition of Roman chroniclers, whose works sadly have almost entirely vanished to the monstrous hunger of time. The existence of these previous chroniclers gives Livy the possibility of referring to the past which was recorded by men interested in the truth.

Livy focuses on this deep past, despite the fact that he is aware that his readers prefer the modern (‘they will hasten to the new [time]’);9 he is thus not writing an entertainment piece, and to this extent follows Thucydides. Yet his relation to the question of history versus poetry appears at first glance to differ from that taken by Thucydides, and to mimic if not to reproduce the approach of Herodotus: ‘[I]t is [the intent of this work] neither to affirm nor to refute’ that which came ‘before the founding and the establishment of the city’, which are ‘decorated woth poetic tales’ (6). Livy passes no judgement on these ‘poetic tales’, but rather simply reports them or the various reports of them in a Herodotean fashion. Indeed, Livy notes that these tales ‘consecrate the origins’ (consecrare origines, 7); they ennoble the past.

Yet these ‘poetic tales’ are contrasted with the ‘uncorrupted chronicle of deeds’ (incorruptis rerum gestorum); they are fabrications on the face of truth, not the unadorned truth itself. In the last line of his Preface, Livy states that his ‘great works’ would commence with ‘votaries and prayers to the gods and goddesses, if, as with the poets, this were our custom’ (emphasis mine). The contrast with the poets and ‘us’ is clarion. Yet the ‘we’ is not so clear; to whom is Livy referring? Does he mean ‘we the chroniclers of the past’? In the opening lines of his preface he at once distances himself from the ‘writers’ of the past referred to above; yet he also suggests that he is working ‘in the broil of the writers’. He uses the first person plural several times in the Preface to indicate the Romans of his time;10 does this ‘we’ indicate then his contemporary compatriots, their distance from the piety of the past? The ‘we’ is contrasted with ‘they’ – the Romans of the origins, the Romans to whom ‘is given the grace of intermingling the human with the divine’.11 All of this in turn is contrasted with the use of the first-person singular with which Livy opens his Annals, and which is quickly laid aside in favour of the third-person singular passive, or the use of his work itself as the subject of his periods. This distancing from the first-person singular begins already from the sixth period, and follows from the introduction of the first instance of the first-person plural adjective nostra in the fifth period, returning to it only in the ninth, when he discusses his task and his objectives. Livy’s work is somehow subsumed in the trials and tribulations of his time; he is both responding to the vice of his day and attempting to redirect it toward virtue.

Livy’s work is somehow subsumed in the trials and tribulations of his time; he is both responding to the vice of his day and attempting to redirect it toward virtue.

Indeed, his purpose, as he states it, is threefold: First, he wishes to turn away from the evils of his time to look at the glories of the past (5), second to show his readers the healthy mores of their ancestors (9), and finally to show how these mores deteriorated and came to their current level of vice (9 again). The first part of this purpose is separated from the other two by Livy’s discussion of the virtue of the ancients, and in particular their ‘glory in war’ (belli gloria), which is accepted by all the world to such an extent that the other nations gladly submit to be ruled by Rome. This is also the justification given for Rome’s deriving her origins from the gods themselves, and in particular from Mars. Yet this same people, which has ‘long been paramount’, is now wreaking its deterioration (4), the very fact which leads Livy to look to the past in the first place. It appears from the organization of his text then that the purpose of looking into the past is to attempt to recapture its greatness for the use of the present.

The sense of Livy as a ‘Herodotean’ histor is immediately countered by the words which Livy uses to introduce the second two portions of his task, or what we might call the modified presentation of his task: ‘But to these things and their like, whatever criticism or valuation there be on them, I will not regard them as of great importance’ (8). Unlike Herodotus, Livy passes no judgement on these matters, not because he thinks no judgement can be passed, but because he believes that other matters are of greater importance. His ‘great enterprise’ is not the poet’s enterprise. The poet’s enterprise is to glorify or magnify the origins through beautiful tales, to ‘consecrate the origins’. Livy is looking to the record of those things which can be ascertained, the ‘uncorrupted things’ of the past. The greatness of Rome is not cancelled out by the dubiousness of her divine origins; her greatness is founded instead in the fact that ‘never was there a nation (res publica) so great, righteous, or so rich in good examples’ (11). All of these things are accessible to the chronicler, and have no need of the intervention of the poet, who indeed might render them gaudy and untrue.

Generally speaking, the historiography of Livy12 is an attempt to regain the faded glory and the moral fibre of a past epoch, confronting the decadent now against the noble then. The lessons of the past are moral lessons; history as a study is a study in mores and in the improvement of mores. This contrasts it strongly with the work of the Greek histors, as we have analyzed it in the previous part of this article, not to mention with the aims of the philosophers and the poets.

If Machiavelli is not atheistic in the sense of denying the reality of the divine, his work is certainly atheistic in the sense of almost altogether excluding the effects of the divine realm from its theme.

Several elements of this approach stand out in particular measure, by which the Roman chroniclers can be distinguished from the Greek histors. The first: Livy regards the past with the eyes of a man who would derive lessons therefrom. He is a ‘student of history’ in the truest sense of the word. He is intent on understanding the past, but understanding it as a model. This separates him both from the Greek histors and from at least the major contingent of modern historians, who are liable to look upon all ‘moral’ questions as being subsidiary to if not prejudicial to the unbiased and ‘scientific’ study of history; the moral element for Livy is central to his study. The second: Livy is the first man to take the ‘historical record’, or, to use his words, the ‘incorrupted chronicle of deeds’, as something to which one can make confident reference; he is the first man who truly considers the ‘historical record’ as being opposed to the mythical record. To this extent, he is a much more like to the modern historian than to the histors of Ancient Greece; at the same time, he appears to entirely follow the tradition enstated by the latter, of distinguishing historiography from poetry and cleaving unambiguously to the first over the second.

We must briefly mention another of the major founts from which Machiavelli draws his historical work: namely, the Bible, and in particular the Old Testament.

The Old Testament is at once a compilation of the work of various authors as well as a religious book of prime importance for three world faiths. We cannot possibly begin to speak of, much less to comprehend, the layers of all of this complexity here; that is the work of lifetimes entire. It will have to suffice to say a few provisional words about the nature of the ‘history’ presented in that book, from the standpoint, not so much of the work itself, as of that later historiography which was born with Machiavelli.

The Old Testament appears to be a work of ‘monumental history’ in the purest sense. It is a history, that is to say, in which the memory of great men is wedded essentially to reverence for the same. The subject of the work might be said to be the relationship between God and the chosen people; that is the motive for the record of the persons, events and actions that are contained within it. This relationship is expressed or manifested especially through the lives and the deeds of chosen individuals, who bear the favour or mark of God, who are tasked with carrying out God’s purposes on earth, and who, through their commission of that holy duty or their dereliction of the same, produce the arc of the narrative. There is a very real question about the relation between this kind of historiography and poetry, and whether they can be considered the same thing.

The events portrayed through this kind of historiography, if one subtracts the divine from them, appear to become meaningless, or else to transform into the fruit of mere superstition or myth or deception. The atheist or nonbeliever who approaches this work with the intention of extracting knowledge of ‘history’ from it, is forced then to interpret these stories in the light of his ‘realism’ or his non-Jewish/Christian/Muslim view of the world in order to get at ‘what really happened’. Machiavelli’s view of this work, then, depends in particular on his relation to the Christianity of his day. At present we can only state, rather than defend, the proposition that it is unlikely Machiavelli was much induced to take the Christian view of this particular history, and was rather wont to read these events in the light of reason alone, attempting to understand what they might teach about politics, power, and the macchinations of great men, armies and kingdoms. But this will depend on what he means when he speaks of prophets. The very least that can be said is this: insofar as any work displays events whose right interpretation wholly depend on the supposition of divine intervention, one can gain no clear knowledge of human things from them, and to that extent these studies cannot fall within the purview of Machiavelli’s project; if Machiavelli is not atheistic in the sense of denying the reality of the divine, his work is certainly atheistic in the sense of almost altogether excluding the effects of the divine realm from its theme.

Yet to excise the religious component from the account of events in a religious book – to attempt to reduce a work of worship to a ‘factual’ narration of ‘historical happenings’ – is work which is troubled from any number of points of view. The use that Machiavelli makes of these examples, and the question of why and when he chooses to employ them, leads us beyond the problem of the emergence of modern historiography, and forces us to confront the meaning and the purpose of Machiavelli’s works. It can be assumed, however, that whatever the answer to these questions might be, it will be either pragmatically or philosophically subsumed within, and will not exceed or transcend, the general view that Machiavelli took of history; to that extent we are justified in disregarding the Old Testament for the purposes of our present enquiry.


1This is to be compared to his Vita di Castruccio Castracani, the Life of Castruccio Castracani – a story which, while it was based on a ‘historical personage’, was largely of Machiavelli’s invention. The word istoria or istorie does not once appear in this work. Machiavelli states his intent in this work as follows: La quale [vita] mi è parso ridurre alla memoria delli uomini, ‘The which [life] it has seemed to me well to guide back to the memory of men’. The use of the verb ridurre, literally to reduce or decrease, is of peculiar note here; I have translated it by its etymology, but this should not obscure its commoner use and the potential meanings this might have for Machiavelli’s intentions with this beautiful and enigmatic little work. Compare this to what we have said in the previous essay regarding the distinction between the poets and the historians.

2See the first and last lines of his Preface for the first two references; for the third, Livy, Book XLIII, §13. All translations throughout this part of the essay, save as otherwise noted, are mine.

3The expression ab urbe condita was in fact used by the Romans to indicate the origin of their calendar: just as we measure time from the birth of Christ, they did so from the birth of Rome – petit fait which reveals a great deal about the great differences in outlook between Roman Antiquity and Christendom.

4The question comes down to the scope and object of translation, not to speak of its feasibility. If one holds, as many do nowadays in deference to the goal of selling copies, that a translation should be fluent in the contemporary language and should aim to flatter the ears and eyes of present-day men rather than to edify their faculties, it is evident that in many cases ‘loose’ translations of the sort mentioned are not only possible but even obligatory. If one believes on the other hand that a good translation should strive (within the bounds of possibility, clarity, natural syntax, decent grammar, etc.) to reproduce the view of things promoted by the author, which necessarily relates to or includes the view of his people and his native tongue, then it is evident that good translations will sometimes ‘sound strange’ or be even rife with inconcinnities and alien phrases. Surely every translation must be a compromise between these two approaches, but what matters is which one is preponderant. We do not venture here to pass judgement on the wider question, but for the purposes of the present essay we cleave emphatically to the second approach.

5The Early History of Rome, transator Aubrey de Sélincourt (London: Penguin Books, 2002); emphasis mine.

6Cf. with our consideration of τό έργον in Part Two of this essay; the two words have much in common. At the same time, in the opinion of the author, there is something decidedly more stable and ‘immobile’, something more established, something firmer, more concrete, perhaps clearer, drier, and more prosaic – in short, more Roman – about res.

7See for instance Preface, 4.

8Ibid., Preface, 4.


10First at Preface, 5, nostra … aetas (‘our age’) and then at 9, vitia nostra (‘our vice’); in the latter case he speaks in the first person plural, with possumus (‘we can’).

11Preface, 7.

12This is related to the work of Tacitus, who however focused on the more recent past and who wrote what might be considered the first dedicated piece of ‘critical history’. Recall his justifiably famous sine ira et studio in his own statement of purpose, at the very opening of his Annales; this is to be compared to the Greeks. Yet this ‘critical history’ derives its force from the contrast of a corrupt present to a virtuous past, and to this extent agrees with the Livian tradition. Comparison of these two chroniclers, not to mention of the two chroniclers with the Greek histors, would make for a very interesting study. It seems to this author that, despite their various differences, there is a certain spiritual or aesthetic affinity between Herodotus and Livy on the one hand, and Thucydides and Tacitus on the other.

Leave a Reply

The comment section of Arktos Journal will be regulated by standards consonant to the principles of the project itself. Our general rules are as follows:

  • Comments will not be moderated on the basis of the opinions expressed (controversy is welcome), but rather on their quality.
  • Contributors are requested to obey the rules of civility, without which all discourse is null, and to avoid crude personal attacks. Wit is welcome, but argument, and not insult, will be the expected means of refutation.
  • Obscenities, vulgarity and slurs will not be tolerated.
  • Contributors are invited to check their contributions for general grammatical correctness (allowances will obviously be made for second-language speakers) and logical cohesiveness.

As a general guideline, all contributors should imagine that they are speaking their minds aloud in a public space, unhindered by political correctness but bound to the older standards of honour and decency in speech.

All decisions of the moderators are final.

Back To Top