History Writing in Ancient Times

If you have ever listened with fascination as older relatives spoke about their lives, you understand the delight people feel hearing stories about their past. Before writing was invented, people recalled the past through cave paintings, dance, ritual chant, and stories told by the light of campfires. In a number of ways—including myths, legends, fables, fairy tales, and animal stories—each generation tried to pass on its stories to the next.

Many scholars believe that writing developed independently in at least three places—Egypt, Mesopotamia (Iraq), and Harappa (Pakistan)—between 3500 and 3100 B.C. Writing allowed people to record and store information. It immediately became a kind of collective memory, useful for recording trade transactions and agreements between peoples and nations, or for preserving laws and standards of conduct. And because written information could be considered independently from the person providing it, information could be collected, compared, and analyzed.

The rulers of ancient Egypt, Sumerian civilization, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, and the land of the Hittites created inscriptions or monuments (annals) that were meant to celebrate actions in service to their gods. Some rulers kept archives of records (chronicles) reporting day-to-day events in their kingdoms. Where these materials survive, they help historians and archaeologists learn some of the names of rulers and the dates they ruled. They do not, however, contain reliable information about particular events.

Among the cultures of the ancient Near East, only the Jewish people had a special religious responsibility to remember their past, because their history was a record of their agreement (covenant) with their god, Yahweh. Jewish history writing is less concerned with the details of events than with what those events meant. Scholars call this tradition of history writing “sacred history,” because of its single-minded concern for the way that God acts in history.

The Greek historians of the fifth century B.C., Hecateus of Miletus, Herodotus, and Thucydides, believed that the world could be understood by reason and inquiry. By inquiring into what happened in the past, seeking to understand why it happened, and trying to sort out trustworthy from untrustworthy accounts, the Greek history writers laid the groundwork for the modern discipline of history writing.