Roman Historians Verses Early Christian Historians

The histories written by Roman and early Christian historians were composed different intentions but were written to capture and record for posterity events, deeds and truth as it was perceived to each historian. The truth written by Roman historians was political in nature, whereas Christian historians focused on religious truth as evidenced through the world in which they lived. Polybius wrote in The Histories to educate and train people for political careers. He sought to understand how the Romans could have been so successful in such a short span of time when he relates his purpose, “For who is so worthless or indolent as now to wish to know by what means and under what system of polity the Romans in less than fifty-three years have succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole inhabited world to their sole government – a thing unique in history?”[1] Sallust, in War with Cataline, wrote to record the deeds of the good men and wrote of his purpose that he was “determined to write, in detached portions, the transactions of the Roman people, as any occurrence should seem worthy of mention; an undertaking to which I was rather inclined, as my mind was uninfluenced by hope, fear or political partisanship.”[2] Both wrote for political purposes. Livy on the other hand had no political or military experience, however, he believed that his histories would help one select what behaviors or actions worked well in politics and what one should avoid.

Contrarily, Eusebius wrote his The Church History of Eusebius to “account of the successions of the holy apostles” to link the time of the apostles to his own and record events which have occurred in the history of the Church. He sought to “mention those who have governed and presided over the Church in the most prominent parishes” and “give names and number of times of those who through love of innovation have run into the greatest errors.”[3] Early Christian histories shifted from political history to religious history. There is a focus on divine providence as evidenced by Augustine of Hippo’s work, City of God. In this work, he initiated the presence of two spheres under heaven, the sacred and profane. Politics, as evidenced by Roman civilization, corruption and lack of morality inhabited the profane sphere, whereas the Church was sacred, the City of God.[4]

Early Roman historians had difficulties with chronology because of a lack of uniformity in dating techniques. This was improved by the time of the formation of the Republic with the Annales Maximi in which was recorded the names of high officials, religious functions, deaths and successions of priests. Early Christians had no such difficulties because they used the dating system still in use today whereby dates are calculated by Jesus Christs’ birth; and annotated as B.C. (before Christ) or A.D. (Anno Domini).

There were major differences between the morality expressed by Roman verses Christian historians. Romans looked to the glorious past verses the corrupt present and tended to see contemporary society as immoral. They also focused on “big man” histories writing about consuls, generals and public office holders. Christian historians too believed that people were corrupt, not just because of greed, but because of sin. They also patterned their histories in a cyclical nature where sin lead to God’s judgement which lead to redemption. Another common theme is divine revelation; God created the world, God lived in the world as Jesus Christ, and God will return to the world in the second coming of Christ. Further, that events deemed to be good and which resulted in the spread of Christianity were divine providence.

Roman historians used earlier Roman or Greek historians as source material and relied heavily on eyewitness accounts. Christian historians used biblical sources, Church documents or writings from bishops or theologians. As was common to these early historians, there is no mention of ordinary people or women. In Anna Comnena’s Alexiad, the only female author studied, we discover a very learned and accomplished rhetorician who had studied Greek and quoted earlier pagan writers such as Sophocles, Homer and Euripedes.

Both used a narrative style to express themselves and both were concerned with the truth. Christians tended to use a linear direction, whereas Romans, especially Polybius, used a cyclical style as demonstrated by Breisach in his diagram entitled, “Polybius’s Regular Cycle of Constitutional Revolutions.”[5]

Roman and early Christian historians wrote to capture events, deeds and actions of “big men” in their world. Christian historians’ focus shifts from a political or military perspective to a religious viewpoint which is designed to explain world events as divine providence. Both valued truth, and eyewitness accounts. Chronology and dating events was easier for Christian historians because of a standardized dating system which Roman historians lacked. Moral thinking shifted from a focus on greed to a focus on man’s sinful behavior.


Augustine, City of God, Preface and part of Chapter 1 ,

Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval and Modern. Chicago: The University of Chicago University Press, 1983.

Comnena, Anna. Alexiad, Preface, 1.1-1.5

Eusebius, The Church History

Polybius, The Histories Book 1 and 12 (copyright: us/home.html )

Sallust, War with Cataline ( html#20 )

[1] Polybius, The Histories, Book 1.

[2] Sallust, War with Cataline.

[3] Eusebius, The History of Eusebius.

[4] Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval and Modern (Chicago: The University of Chicago University Press, 1983), 84.

[5] Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval and Modern (Chicago: The University of Chicago University Press, 1983), 47.