One of the fundamental characteristics of Western culture, among many others, would be the writing of history. History, the recording of past events and an attempt to explain them is indeed a discipline born, as we know, with Herodotus. Of all the ancient civilizations that have developped writing, no other than Gaeco-roman civilization and its successor, the West and Byzantium, have developped history in the way done by the latter. There were of course chronicles, king’s monuments, etc., but these do not consider “history” as the coming together of several past elements that combine to form a particular situation–the present. As a note, no one is “superior” or “inferior” because he hasn’t developed history in the sense we understand it. Rather, the fact that we have developped it so, while others have not, shows the manner in which we consider the relationship between ourselves and time, a universal concept.
History has its roots in myths. The events among the gods that led to the Trojan War, the shock of the Achean armies against the Trojans, the actions of the heroes, the relations of men with Fate and the gods, the events that have taken place in the war may serve as the footstool of history. It is not by accident hat history came into being after the Median wars, when Herodotus decided to record the events that set Greeks against Persians.
Herodotus’ goal was, in his words,
to preserve the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks.
History as defined by Herodotus was not mere recording of events or of a king’s exploits. Rather, his research was to be directed toward all men. By placing his readers into historical context, the historian sets himself on the task to tell what has driven men to act the way they have, how they have been affected by events greater than themselves, in other words, why things are the way they are. The discovery of the present is a crucial aspect for history to emerge–no present exists without past. This is why the historian of the Peloponnesian war, Thucydides, could affirm in his time that all other past periods “were not great periods either in warfare or in anything else.” Some scholars say that this arose in the background of Homer’s poems: men of the present also wanted to see their own actions as worthy of praise, as Homer had praised the Heroes of the past.
But because history prevents the past from “being erased by time,” it acquires another temporal quality oriented toward the future. Therefore, history takes on a judgmental and moral value, a fact fully developed with Polybius: “And yet judgments concerning either the victors or the vanquished which are based on nothing more than just the outcome of battles cannot possibly be final… In this way our contemporaries will be enabled to see clearly whether the rule of Rome is something to be welcomed or to be avoided at all costs, and future generations to judge whether they should praise and admire or condemn it” (III.4).