Richard Cohen’s “Making History” is a substantial, ambitious and consistently readable inquiry into the history of history. His search for how the historical sausage gets made leads him to examine the biographies of the butchers, from Herodotus (the “father of history,” Cicero said, the “father of lies,” Plutarch said) to Nikole Hannah-Jones (the mother of more recent inventions in “The 1619 Project”). Academics may object that biography is vulgar, like writing for money, but the approach of Mr. Cohen, a longtime London book editor, has the weight of history behind it. Character always was destiny. “It is not histories we are writing, but Lives,” Plutarch wrote in the early 2nd century. The characters of the past, and the stories we tell ourselves about them, shape our present and future.
We are, Mr. Cohen writes, in a “golden age” of history writing. For most of human existence, the recording of the past has been “sacred history,” propaganda put forth by a priestly caste or authorities who claimed to rule by divine right—or, sometimes, simply to be divine. History as we know it—honest and free inquiry across the disciplines—has, he argues, only been possible in two epochs. The first was the founding era of the Greeks and the Romans. The second is ours, the era initiated in 1520, when Pope Leo X commissioned Niccolò Machiavelli to write a “History of Florence.” Homer uses histor to mean a “good judge.” A historian’s judgment is impaired when a theological thumb is on the scales—but is the judgment of secular historians any better?
Historians can be divided into followers of Herodotus (c. 485-425 B.C.) and Thucydides (c. 460-395 B.C.). The Herodotus of “Histories” is a storyteller—“the world’s first travel writer, investigative reporter, and foreign correspondent”—and his eye for local color can lead him astray. Team Herodotus is made up of bold synthesizers, and can sometimes play fast and loose with the sources. Cicero acclaimed Herodotus but lumped him with Theopompus, a later Greek historian who was, Mr. Cohen notes, “a notorious liar.”
Team Thucydides starts from scratch, trying not to let a good story get in the way of the facts. Thucydides was a nobleman and a general, and a generation younger than Herodotus. He fought against the Spartans, was blamed for a defeat and found himself exiled with time on his hands. In “The Peloponnesian War,” Mr. Cohen writes, he “developed the art of war reporting almost overnight.” If the hero of “Histories” is Herodotus himself, the hero of “The Peloponnesian War” is Pericles, the Athenian leader who recites Thucydides’ pile-driving rhetoric. Thucydides speaks over our heads, to posterity. He is an analyst, not an entertainer, and the founder of international relations theory. “His dry parts,” Lord Macaulay rued, “are dreadfully dry.”
The Roman empire mass-produced history like its Greek precedecessors, but Roman historians were more than imitators. For Team Thucydides, Polybius dismissed “sensational descriptions,” advised historians to “record with fidelity what actually happened,” preferably from eyewitness accounts, and developed the highly influential cyclical theory of history. For Team Herodotus, Livy added moral example to entertainment. A witness to Rome’s transition from republic to empire, Livy condemns the present by implied comparison to the past. The greatness of the past is ethical—legends of “patriotic heroism and self-sacrifice”—but also a matter of scale. Livy, Mr. Cohen writes, has the heart of a “tabloid journalist” reporting tall tales about “weeping statues; downpours of blood, stones, or meat; monstrous births; and a talking cow.”
The author endorses Petrarch’s opinion that the thousand years after the Roman historians were saeculum obscurum, a “dark age.” Both Christians and Muslims subordinated inquiry to dogma; the revival of Greek-style history in Florence rather than Constantinople, and the repression of free inquiry under Islam, were not foregone conclusions. In the 14th century, while Boccaccio was reduced to tears at the neglect of manuscripts in monastery storerooms, Ibn Khaldun wrote the “Muqaddimah,” the first “systematic social analysis” whose search for the “inner meaning of history” anticipated Hegel. Team Herodotus, meanwhile, struggled on with the Christian chroniclers of the new European nations: Froissart on the chivalric slaughters of the Crusades, Geoffrey of Monmouth on the mythical origins of the English.
Machiavelli’s revival of the Greek method was a heresy. The “History of Florence,” Mr. Cohen writes, is “the first modern analytical study.” The first to judge without religious bias, it marks “a turning away from a God-centered universe toward a man-centered one, in which the heavenly returns of virtuous behavior were no longer seen as a safe bet.” The pursuit of earthly rewards did not uniformly ennoble the modern historians: Many of them pursued the situational morality that Machiavelli advised in “The Prince.”
The pairing of Herodotus and Thucydides recurs in the Enlightenment double act of Voltaire and Gibbon. Voltaire entertains with his contempt for the past and the priests, but he flattered Frederick the Great; Voltaire, Thomas Carlyle wrote, “is found always at the top, less by power in swimming, than by lightness in floating.” Gibbon, a generation younger, shares Voltaire’s hatred of sacred flannel, but he is candidly enthralled by the spectacle of Rome unraveling. Both are often wrong as historians, yet both are enchanting stylists. So is Shakespeare, a mercilessly unreliable re-worker of Roman sources, rightly included by Mr. Cohen as the writer who has shaped our perception of the British past as surely as any historian.