Where do we get most our Roman history from?

In elementary school through high school Roman history is covered quit a bit(at least it was for me). What are the typical sources of the information. Is there a pile of ancient records somewhere. Did we piece all the event together? If I asked for a cite on Ceasar be murdered what is the most likely source?

I’ve been thinking of asking this! Good question. My mental image is of ancient manuscripts that got transcribed by fourth-century historians, which got re-transcribed by tenth-century historians, and so on… which in and of itself makes me worry about how reliable the copies are! And would raise a subquestion: how old are the oldest copies we have?

There will be far more detailed responses, but mostly through official histories (Tacitus, Xenophon, Dio Cassius, etc.) whose works survived through a number of means (monasteries, Muslim universities, etc.), and an incredible amount of physical remnants. Remember how many major structures (aqueducts, coliseums, temples, insulae, etc.) are still standing from south Scotland to the Middle East as well as Jove knows how many thousands of trainloads of movable items from bones to coins to statues to glass.

The reliability probably suffered far more from factuality of the original writing than through translation errors. It wasn’t a great idea to be terribly objective in your writing when the emperor could take off your head if you displeased him. That’s why often the oldest accounts of an emperor’s reign were sometimes decades after his death. Suetonius was born under Nero, for example, but wrote The Twelve Cæsars, for example- which is highly critical of the Julio-Claudian emperors, under Hadrian’s reign around 120, when Nero had been dead for 50 years and Julius Caesar for 160+ years.

There are tons and tons and tons of histories missing. For Alexander the Great, for example (who while not Roman was still a very revered figure in Roman imperial times), there are no primary histories still available. The oldest complete biographies are centuries later, though they drew from older, possibly primary, sources that went up in flames in Alexandria and Pergamum and no known copies survive elsewhere. Maybe one day we’ll find some Dead Sea scroll like jars in Egypt where duplicates of some of these great works were hidden, but it’s doubtful.

Just to add to this, a Roman’s idea of a history book would be completely different than ours. A lot of their books, like Livy’s history of Rome, were written to provide the reader with moral examples to be followed. It was typical practice to write a general’s speech as the author imagined it would have been, not to actually interview soldiers who might have been present to get the exact words. Speaking of interviews, many Roman historians preferred getting information from people to consulting already written books, because they could interrogate the people to determine the validity of what they were saying.

Moreover, even those that exist are not as long as they once were.

A list of examples, from a textbook of mine:

Appian: 24 books in Greek, most of which is either fragmentary or non-existent.

Caesar: 10 books in Latin on his military campaigns, all extant.

Cato the Censor: 7 books in Latin, of which only fragments exist.

Dio Cassius: 80 books in Greek, of which only 19 or 24 (on this I’m slightly confused) exist in full, though fragments and abridgments exist of much of the rest of the work.

Ennius: 18 books in Latin verse, survival in fragments.

Fabius Pictor: In Greek (not sure about length), fragments.

Livy: 142 books in Latin, of which 35 are extant.

Cornelius Nepos: Various works, of which a few biographies exist.

Plutarch: In Greek, 50 biographies (25 Roman and 35 Greek figures) are extant of the Parallel Lives

Polybius: 40 books in Greek, of which 5 survive in full.

Posidonius: 52 books in Greek, fragments.

Sallust: Works of his on Catiline and the Jugurthine War are complete, but his general history only exists in fragments.

Scriptores Historae Augustae: (authorship uncertain) In Latin, the sections dealing with the years 117-243 AD and 260-284 AD exist.

Strabo: 47 books in Latin, fragments.

Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars is extant except for the first parts of the Julius Caesar biography.

Tacitus: Several works in Latin, of which the first four and a half books of his Histories, a large section of his Annals, and a biography of Agricola exist.

Velleius Paterculus: 2 books in Latin, of which portions are lost.

To add slightly to Governor Quinn’s post, the reason we know in many cases how many books there were by a particular author is due to cross-references by other authors. In fact, some material attributed to so-and-so only exists because a later author quoted a section verbatim. It’s kind of amazing how much scholars of all ages refer to each other.

See, the footnotes and works cited in your school papers weren’t pointless. They might even help scholars far in the future figure out what books a particular author wrote when all other references have been lost.