Reading historical chronicles written before the modern era is always a unique experience, especially when reading an author in the Classical tradition of Herodotus and Thucydides. For a millennium after these two authors lived, historians of the ancient and early medieval Mediterranean and Near East consciously modeled works on their seminal texts and methods, so much so that it became almost an art form akin to epic poetry. I recently had the pleasure of reading a translation of one such text, the sixth-century author Prokopios’s Wars of Justinian, which takes as its subject matter the conflicts between Eastern Rome and its neighbors during the first half of the sixth century. By turns amused, frustrated, and inspired by the foibles of Prokopios’s writing, I couldn’t help but compose this guide so that you, too, can write such…ahem…unique works of history.
Don’t Worry About Citing Your Sources!
Why stop at just admiring your forebears when you can imitate them wholesale and steal their material? Need to write a speech for a general? Model it on a pre-existing passage, filling in your own details. Mentioning a story previously told by another author? Just tell it like everyone knows this story. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but you’re not a professor, so who cares about academic integrity?
Make Things as Epic as Possible
You are writing in the tradition of Herodotus, of Thucydides, even of Homer before them. Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story! Sure, your audience might know that the Roman forces were only 6,000 strong, but what about their barbarian enemies? 20,000? 50,000? Nah, go with 100,000, even though such an army is impossible for the time and won’t be fielded until the 1800s. Maybe this implies that all Europe has been depopulated by the end of your history, but who cares? It was a great story!
You Can Never Have Too Much Context…
Context is the historian’s friend. Nothing can make sense without knowing what went before it, so explain literally everything that occurred before the events you’re concerned with. Writing about wars occurring in the early 500s? That means you’re going to need to go back at least a couple centuries, tracing out the genealogy of the last four Persian kings or the entire history of Rome’s North African provinces. If you can make a case for its relevance, throw it in your narrative!
…Unless It’s Geographical Context
Unfortunately, you’re living before the modern era, so that means no maps recognizable as such. This is a problem for your readers, not for you! Describe geography using generalized features that easily confuse translators millennia later, and make sure every city is simply distinguished by its distance and cardinal direction from another, better known, city. Make your readers draw out their own map, like a young student trying to make sense of a tricky geometry problem.
Tangents are Your Friend
Remember, context, context, context! If you mention a ruler who has a semi-interesting story behind his choice of wife, or perhaps an island that might have been part of a previous myth, remark on that, for pages if necessary! Go on just long enough for your reader to forget what your original topic was, then return so abruptly that they get mental whiplash.
So there you have it. The keys to writing a good ancient or early medieval history. Will you frustrate modern historians of the twenty-first century as they try to wade through your dense, detailed, infuriatingly long treatise? Certainly. But will they also depart with knowledge about so much more than what they came seeking? Absolutely, and therein lies the joy of engaging with these kinds of sources…with long intervals in between.