Roman Historiography: Politics & Morality


History has the purpose of telling people who they are, where they came from and teaching lessons. It is the purpose of the historian to tell a story, whether it is cultural, political, biographical, etc. The Roman people learned the art of history from the Greeks who first began recording history. Roman historians quickly became interested in one specific area of history: politics. It was important for them to record for posterity why it was their body politic was as successful as it was. Various historians took it upon themselves to tell the story of Roman res publica through a variety of different methods include general history and biography. Roman history is divided between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, but both still maintain similar features. Roman historiography focuses around politics and the role of morality is maintaining the body politic.

One of the earliest Roman historians, Polybius, concerned himself with the foundation of the Roman city. His historical study would lay the foundations for future historians of Rome by describing how it was the city of Rome came into existence and how it had been maintained. There are three periods in Roman history: Kingdom, Republic and Empire. Of the former we know next to nothing aside from what later historians wrote about it. The Republic and the Empire, however, were recorded during the time they existed and we therefore know more about them than we do about the Kingdom of Rome. Polybius helped to identify Rome as a political order in his Histories.  In this work, Polybius describes the foundation of a constitution and the various forms of government identical to the Greek philosophers. He then turns his attention to the Roman Constitution and identifies three reasons as to why Rome has succeeded: the Consuls, Senate and People. The strength of the Roman Constitution is described by Polybius:

For whenever any danger from without compels them to unite and work together, the strength which is developed by the State is so extraordinary, that everything required is unfailingly carried out by the eager rivalry shown by all classes to devote their whole minds to the need of the hour, and to secure that any determination come to should not fail for want of promptitude; while each individual works, privately and publicly alike, for the accomplishment of the business in hand.[1]

The Roman Constitution is the hallmark of Rome and therefore the focal point of Roman history. Only through extreme wealth and power could Rome’s Constitution become a victim of decay.[2] Polybius demonstrated that the Roman should heed their history.  The excesses of Roman life were, according to Polybius, what would bring about the destruction of Rome itself. The balance of power needed to be maintained in order for Rome to continue. Polybius placed an emphasis on examining the qualities of individuals and constitutions in order to understand their history. Polybius established a foundation of using history none historical purposes and was uninterested in telling Roman history unless it was to tell about the greatness of the city.

 Roman history maintained a similar usefulness for future historians in later centuries. However, it transitioned to lamenting the loss of the ethic that Romans once possessed. Where Polybius would describe the greatness of the Roman Constitution because it courted Fortune, as the Romans continued to distance themselves from the moral law Fortune seemed less on the side of Rome. Sallust wrote, as many historians, in the past tense when speaking about the city of Rome. To him Rome was already lost to a bygone era and there was only hope that the Roman people could once again reestablish old Rome. Like Polybius, Sallust saw the greatness of Rome in the people. It was the people who overthrew the kingship and established the republic. Through the republic, “Good morals…were cultivated in the city and in the camp. There was the greatest possible concord, and the least possible avarice. Justice and probity prevailed among the citizens, not more from the influence of the laws than from natural inclination.”[3] The loss of morality was what ultimately brought about the destruction of the republic. Sallust, like others of his time, lamented that the people were becoming complacent in their behavior and no longer honored the past generations. Only through history, which taught the lessons of the past, could Rome begin to regain the greatness it lost.

The source of Rome’s decay was the result of Roman superiority. The defeat of so many princes and most especially Carthage led the Roman’s to deviate from morality. “At first the love of money, and then that of power, began to prevail, and these became, as it were, the sources of every evil.”[4] Money ultimately created a new class of politician, one who only needed to bribe people into supporting their career. Men like Julius Caesar were able to establish their own armies, which gave way to them gaining immense power through intimidation. The people, for their part, fell away and allowed these new oligarchs to take control over the city.[5] During the end of the Roman Republic, Roman history took a distinct tone of lamentation. Roman history was praise for a Rome once existed but because of decay in the morality of the people that Rome was lost and replaced.

Roman history became closest to moral philosophy at the time of the Roman biographer Plutarch. Rather than appeal directly to Roman history, Plutarch took the aim of appealing to individuals in both Greek and Roman history. Through the lives of these great heroes, one could learn how best to live. The imitation of persons long since dead was not a totally new concept even centuries before Plutarch. The Roman people had a history of accepting aspects of the lives of those whom they conquered. Plutarch expanded on what had come before him and brought a new level of achievement to the field of biography. Plutarch’s Lives brought the ancient heroes of Greece and Rome to a new audience living under the Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire was first created under Caesar Augustus, it was important for the new emperor to maintain the façade of the republic. The Caesars who followed were less interested in the façade and more interested in acquiring wealth for themselves. The purpose of history had changed from the study of the constitution to the study of human virtue.[6] Through human virtue one might become familiar with how best to live, which in turn might lead back to the old Rome.

Changes in Roman historiography can be attributed to the decline of the Roman Republic and the emergence of the Roman Empire. Romans began to contemplate the reasons for this change. Polybius understood that if Romans did not maintain their virtuous ways they would inevitably decline. By the time the Republic was on the way out, historians turned to imploring individuals to imitate the lives of their ancestors and to reacquire the morality that they had lost. Livy, speaking directly at this decline said:

I would then have him trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.[7]

Roman historians began to look not at what might happen but why it happened in order to provide an answer for the men who took charge of the city.

Roman history began in an attempt to understand where Romans came from and to explain the Roman constitution. By the time the Republic fell, Rome’s historians were looking at why the constitution had failed. Rome’s historians had always been interested in the moral virtue of the citizens, believing that only through morality and virtue could Rome succeed.




Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Amazon Kindle. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Livy. The Early History of Rome. Edited by Beatrice Radice. England: Penguin Classics, 1971.

Plutarch. Lives. (accessed August 28, 2011).

Polybius. Histories. (accessed August 28, 2011).

Sallust. The Conspiracy of Catiline. (accessed August 28, 2011).



[1] Polybius,  Histories. 30

[2] “And as this state of things goes on more and more, the desire of office and the shame of losing reputation, as well as the ostentation and extravagance of living, will prove the beginning of a deterioration.” Ibid. 32

[3] Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline. 9

[4] Ibid. 10

[5] “These vices at first advanced but slowly, and were sometimes restrained by correction; but afterwards, when their infection had spread like a pestilence, the state was entirely changed, and the government, from being the most equitable and praiseworthy, became rapacious and insupportable.” Ibid.

[6]“We should not waste this good desire on trivial pursuits, but should study human virtue.  In the acts of great men, we find a proper and natural object for our attention.  The reader will inevitably grow in wisdom and eagerness to imitate their good example.” Plutarch, Lives: Pericles, the Olympian.

[7] Livy, The Early History of Rome, ed. Beatrice Radice(England: Penguin Classics, 1971) 34.



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