Nicknamed the “father of history,” Herodotus is credited with essentially inventing the genre, the origins of which lie in epics and travelogues. In his masterpiece, “The Histories,” he declared at the outset his intention to “prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time.” He then exhaustively detailed the Persian Empire’s expansion and subsequent clash with the city-states of Greece in the 5th century B.C., while also adding in tabloid-worthy asides, such as an allegation that Egyptian women urinate standing up. Withstanding criticism from Aristotle and Plutarch, among other luminaries, “The Histories” remains the go-to source on the Greco-Persian Wars. Though Greek, Herodotus was born around 485 B.C. in present-day Turkey, which was then under Persian rule. Little is known about his life, other than that he apparently gained widespread popularity in Athens and later joined an Athenian-sponsored colony in southern Italy.
An Athenian aristocrat who derived at least part of his wealth from gold mining interests, Thucydides served briefly as a general during the Peloponnesian War. He was exiled from Athens, however, for failing to prevent archrival Sparta from capturing a key city, and thereafter turned his attention to chronicling the devastating conflict, which raged from 431 to 404 B.C. Having interviewed sources from both sides, Thucydides remained relatively objective in his groundbreaking account, titled “History of the Peloponnesian War.” He moreover eschewed the sensationalism of Herodotus, his elder contemporary, and included many fewer references to the gods. Unfortunately, the text ends abruptly in 411 B.C.—possibly due to his death—leaving it to other Greek historians to record the final stages of Sparta’s victory over Athens.
As part of their embrace of Greek culture, the Romans likewise developed a fascination with history. Yet their earliest historians were all essentially amateurs, either politicians or military officials who wrote in their spare time. No full-time Roman historian would surface until the reign of Emperor Augustus, when Titus Livius, better known as Livy, penned an astonishing 142 books (only 35 of which still survive). Though born in present-day Padua in northern Italy, Livy moved to Rome and got to work as soon as a deadly civil war concluded in 31 B.C. Unlike Herodotus and Thucydides, he didn’t hesitate to cover the distant past, beginning even before the supposed founding of Rome in 753 B.C. and from there slowly making his way through the next eight centuries. Perhaps most renowned for his descriptions of the Carthaginian general Hannibal, legend holds that a man once journeyed all the way from Cádiz, Spain, just to catch sight of him.
Born around 56 A.D., probably in southern Gaul (present-day southeastern France), Tacitus moved to Rome by the mid-70s and began a career in politics and the law. With the help of his politically connected father-in-law, he steadily rose through the official ranks, becoming a senator and consul while also gaining fame as an orator and prosecutor. These pursuits, however, would all end up taking a backseat to writing. In 98, he authored his first known works—a biography of his father-in-law and an ethnographic study of the Germanic tribes—and followed that up with a book on oratory. Tacitus then turned to history, finishing one provocative account of the Flavian dynasty and another of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that picked up right where Livy had left off. A critic of absolute power who took potshots at several Roman emperors, his “compound of history and morality” would prompt Thomas Jefferson to call him the “first writer in the world without a single exception.”
5. Sima Qian
Unbeknownst to the Greeks and Romans, the Chinese simultaneously developed their own literary historical traditions, best exemplified in the work of Sima Qian, who’s often called the Chinese Herodotus. Appointed grand historian and astrologer following the death of his father, who held the same post, Sima Qian undertook the first-ever universal history of China and its neighbors, titled the “Shiji (Historical Records).” Much like Livy, he began with his civilization’s supposed founder, the legendary Yellow Emperor—essentially the Chinese equivalent of Romulus—and continued on to his own time. The monumental project almost came undone in 99 B.C., when he incurred the wrath of the emperor for coming to the defense of a defeated general. Given a choice of punishment, the historian purportedly defied custom by selecting castration over execution, shaming himself and his family so that he could continue his work.
6. Ban Zhao
Though rare, female historians also populated the ancient world. In China, for instance, Ban Zhao stepped in to complete a mammoth history of the Han dynasty, titled “Han shu,” after her father and brother both died mid-project. Born in 45 A.D. to a prominent family, she married at age 14. But when her husband died soon after, she swore off relationships and devoted herself instead to intellectual activities. In addition to the “Han shu,” which was modeled after the “Shiji,” Ban Zhao authored numerous poems and essays, including a guide to women’s conduct that stressed humility, hard work and religious observance.