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In the canon of history taught at universities, ancient history is the part that deals with the “classical” Greco-Roman antiquity ( antiquity ) up to around 600 AD. Scientists who study ancient history are called ancient historians . The subject can be studied at most universities; At almost all German universities, the subject is an integral part of the historical courses. Sometimes ancient history is also institutionally located in ancient science institutes. In German university policy, ancient history is classified as a minor subject with a total of around 70 professorships .

Content and demarcation

Basically, it can be said that ancient history today has as its subject all areas and periods of time that belonged to ancient Greek or Roman culture or were in direct contact with it.

In contrast to classical archeology and prehistory and early history , ancient history is primarily concerned with the written legacies of people, even if ancient historians may also evaluate non-written sources. Ancient history therefore “begins” in the broadest sense with the earliest ( written ) evidence of the ancient world in historical times, i.e. with the cuneiform scripts of the Sumerians , the Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Cretan linear script A (approx. 1900–1450 BC) whose language is so far unknown. In practice, however, ancient historians leave these topics to other disciplines such as Egyptology or Assyriology .

In a narrower sense and in practice, ancient history “begins” today at the earliest with the Mycenaean culture (around 1600–1000 BC; at that time the linear B script was used to write an early Greek ) or with the adoption of the alphabet by the Greeks (in the early 8th century BC). It "ends" with the transition from late antiquity to the Middle Ages , which is set differently: Traditionally, the end of antiquity was often dated to the year 476 ( Odoacer deposed the usurper Romulus Augustulus as the last Western Roman emperor ruling in Italy ). Today, however, the death of Emperor Justinian (565) or the beginning of Islamic expansion (632) are generally chosen as the most striking turning point.

The vast majority of ancient historians today research the period between 800 BC. and 600 AD, but not a few also deal with the centuries before 800 BC. BC (Greek Dark Centuries and Cretan-Mycenaean Period). The reporting period of the Année philologique , the most important ancient scholarly bibliography, extends from the second millennium BC to the year 800 AD.

In geographical terms, the “core area” of ancient history includes all regions that were part of the Roman Empire at the time of its greatest expansion under Emperor Trajan . But this is only a rule of thumb: Ancient historians who deal with Hellenism may look to the East as far as the Middle East, as these areas belonged to the Alexander Empire and at times also to the Seleucids . The ancient history is thus essentially the history of Greece and Rome (or the Mediterranean world) as well as the contacts of the Greeks and Romans to their neighboring peoples ( Carthaginians , Teutons , Persians etc.). The delimitation of the subject is less based on content than primarily on convention and tradition.

Origin and development of the discipline

Ancient history emerged as a separate discipline in the years around 1830. In the 19th century, which can be seen as the historicizing century, history (especially in Germany) and archeology enjoyed a tremendous boom. Several highly respected scientists ( Lepsius , Niebuhr , Curtius , Mommsen and others) extended their research to ever more regions and research areas. They were thus in the tradition of early modern universal history, which they combined with approaches from classical philology. Especially in Anglo-Saxon research, ancient history is less sharply separated from classical philology than in Germany; Both disciplines therefore often together form the Classics in the USA and Great Britain .

At first it was observed that ancient history also dealt with regions that are no longer part of the core area of ​​the subject. The history of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia , Iran and Anatolia was partially included in the subject, so that for some scholars the ancient history also included the history of the ancient East in addition to the history of Greco-Roman antiquity: In addition to the Greeks and Romans, they also played Peoples who are mentioned in the Old Testament initially still play an important role. The real mastery of the vast area of ​​history of the Old World (i.e. Europe, North Africa as well as the Near and Middle East) including the necessary auxiliary sciences, namely the various ancient languages ​​and scripts (Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Persian, Coptic, Aramaic, Greek , Latin, various Anatolian languages; cuneiform scripts , hieroglyphics , Minoan , Phoenician and Greek script, Linear B etc.), but exceeded the capabilities of a single scientist. The enormous increase in knowledge since 1800 inevitably led to an increasing specialization of researchers.

In the 19th century there were still individual scholars who still had an overview of the abundance of the subject in its entirety and also had the necessary knowledge in the individual disciplines, at least in the basics and to some extent. In the course of the “professionalization” of science, however, an important course was set: Since the most important ancient oriental languages ​​had not yet been deciphered around 1800, the demand made at the time to put the written sources at the center of research was not yet possible descendants - and by the time hieroglyphs and cuneiform scripts had been deciphered, there was already an increasing limitation of ancient history to Greeks and Romans, whose language most educated people at that time certainly knew. This limitation of the subject has not changed in essence to this day, despite some opposing tendencies (see above).

One may well regret this, since the subjects of Oriental Studies, Assyriology or Iranian Studies are now much more archaeological and philological, but not primarily historical. Since the 19th century, the subject of Ancient History has concentrated more and more exclusively on Greek and Roman history (along with contacts with neighboring peoples) and, together with Classical Philology and Classical Archeology, formed the overarching subject area Classical Antiquities . The subject of Ancient History has been shaped much more than the other historical disciplines by the methods of ancient philology, which in turn has its roots in humanism and medieval biblical exegesis.

The fact that the ancient civilization of these peoples had been a model and ideal since the late 18th century - for a long time associated with an explicit or implicit devaluation of achievements and influence - also contributed to the extensive restriction to the history of the Greeks and Romans other high cultures of antiquity . Based on the French Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes ("Controversy between the supporters of the ancients and the supporters of the modern"), the subject of Ancient History had finally established itself in an area that the supporters of the enlightened modern age, with all their enthusiasm for the emerging Science, technology, and economics of their time were more or less reluctantly left to the admirers of the ancients (i.e. the ancient Greeks and Romans). In the field of the fine arts and sciences, the exemplary and standard-setting character of “Classical” antiquity was recognized in the 19th century, at least in Europe and North America. A main feature and essential content of the German Classic was precisely to raise one's own culture to the level it was able to achieve through research into and knowing appropriation of classical antiquity - primarily Greek in Germany. Thus wrote Wilhelm von Humboldt (1807):

In the Greeks we have a nation in whose happy hands everything that, according to our intimate feeling, preserved the highest and richest human existence, had already matured to its final perfection ... Your knowledge is not only pleasant, useful and necessary, only in in her we find the ideal of what we ourselves want to be and produce; if every other part of history enriches us with human cleverness and human experience, then from contemplating the Greeks we draw something more than earthly, even almost divine.

Carried by such enthusiasm for antiquity and provided with young academics who had already been equipped with a solid knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin languages ​​and literature at the Humboldt high schools , they experienced classical antiquity and with it ancient history in Germany in the 19th century and early 20th century their perhaps highest peak. Names such as Barthold Georg Niebuhr , Johann Gustav Droysen , Leopold von Ranke , Ernst Curtius , Eduard Meyer , Karl Julius Beloch , Robert von Pöhlmann , Theodor Mommsen , Jacob Burckhardt , Felix Jacoby and Hans Delbrück are still internationally known for historical studies and historiography at the highest level . It is also thanks to the fact that a close connection between Greco-Roman antiquity and the present was initially assumed that historians such as Droysen dealt with both antiquity and modern times in their research, but not with it Middle Ages: Only a while after Middle History had established itself as a separate discipline, the paths of old and new historians also parted.

The subject today

Since 1945 at the latest, the importance of classical education in Germany and elsewhere has declined sharply, which was particularly evident in the decline in knowledge of Latin and Greek: Knowledge of antiquity is no longer a matter of course even in the educated classes. Classical antiquity lost its role model, it was and is no longer a point of reference for the “educated bourgeoisie”. At the same time, this opened up a new, more objective approach to ancient history for historians. As recently as the 1950s, there had been heated discussions in schools and universities about whether Julius Caesar's writings could still be used as school reading, after Hermann Strasburger in particular had sharply attacked the idealized Caesar image of the German educated citizen , since the Roman dictator is now not could serve more as a moral example for young people, such a debate would be unthinkable today. Contemporary research and teaching in the field of ancient history therefore repeatedly brings to light - not only, but also in Germany - remarkable results and re-evaluations. For example, the current Troy research, the results of which are highly controversial ( Troy debate ), new approaches to understanding (Athenian) democracy ( Christian Meier , Paul Veyne ), the Roman Republic ( Martin Jehne , Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp ) and Imperial Era ( Egon Flaig , Aloys Winterling ), new models for the functioning of the Greek ( Pierre Vidal-Naquet ) and ancient ( Moses I. Finley ) economy (following and in discussion with Rostovtzeff ) as well as an increasing reassessment of late antiquity by researchers like Peter Brown or Averil Cameron . In recent times, the so-called migration of peoples has been the focus of interest: The causes of the fall of the Roman Empire are currently being discussed intensively and re-evaluated. A significant increase in the importance of archaeological sources can be observed not only in this context, although texts are still clearly the focus of the subject. Since the late 20th century, these in turn have been analyzed more strongly than before using literary-text-critical methods ( linguistic turn ).

In principle, ancient historians are often accused of a certain “distance from theory” due to their generally close ties to the sources; but this is only partially true, and quite a few researchers have turned increasingly to sociological and other theories and models a long time ago. In principle, "modernists" and "primitivists" face each other - while the former (such as Eduard Meyer or Michael Rostovtzeff ) assume a fundamental similarity and comparability of the epochs and will therefore believe in the applicability of "modern" theories and concepts to antiquity this was denied by the “primitivists” (such as Max Weber or Moses I. Finley ). The problem here is that a relatively large number of scholars are not always clear about the (implicit) theoretical requirements of their research.

Monographs play a greater role in ancient history than in many other subjects; there are also anthologies and various specialist journals. The most important of the specialist organs appearing in Germany are Historia , Chiron and Klio , which also enjoy great international renown.

See also



  • Hermann Bengtson : Introduction to Ancient History. Munich 1979 (out of date).
  • Hartmut Blum / Reinhard Wolters : Study ancient history. Constance 2006.
  • Manfred Clauss : Introduction to Ancient History. Munich 1993.
  • Justus Cobet : Ancient History . In: Michael Maurer (Ed.): Outline of the Historical Sciences Volume 1: Epochs . Reclam-Verlag, Stuttgart 2005, pp. 14-105.
  • Jean-Nicolas Corvisier: Sources et méthodes en histoire ancienne. Paris 1997.
  • Moses I. Finley : Sources and Models in Ancient History. Frankfurt am Main 1987. (Eng .: Ancient history: evidence and models, 1985)
  • Hans-Joachim Gehrke / Helmuth Schneider (ed.): History of antiquity. A study book , 2nd ext. Ed., Stuttgart. Metzler 2006. ISBN 3-476-02074-6
  • Rosmarie Günther : Introduction to the Study of Ancient History (UTB Volume 2168). Schöningh Publishing House. Paderborn u. a. ²2004.
  • Johannes Irmscher : Introduction to Classical Classical Studies. An information book , Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, Berlin 1986.
  • Hartmut Leppin : Introduction to Ancient History , Munich 2005.
  • Christian Mann: Antiquity. Introduction to Classical Studies , Berlin 2008.
  • Eckhard Meyer-Zwiffelhoffer : “Orientalism? The Role of the Ancient Orient in German Classical Studies and Classical History of the 19th Century (approx. 1785–1910) ”. In: Robert Rollinger , Andreas Luther , Josef Wiesehöfer : Separate ways? Communication, space and perceptions in the old world (Historikertag 2004 in Kiel and conference in Innsbruck in 2005 on the topic of “Cultural Encounter Patterns Beyond the Levant”) . Antike, Frankfurt am Main 2007, ISBN 3-938032-14-6 , pp. 501-594 (good introduction to the history of the origins of ancient history).
  • Neville Morley: Theories, Models and Concepts in Ancient History. London 2004.
  • Neville Morley: Writing ancient history. Ithaca 1999.
  • Jörg Rüpke : Why Classical Studies? In: Florian Keisinger u. a. (Ed.): Why humanities? Controversial arguments for an overdue debate , Frankfurt a. M./New York 2003 ISBN 3-593-37336-X
  • Matthias Müller: Ancient history online. Problems and perspectives of ancient historical knowledge transfer on the Internet (Computer and Antiquity Volume 6) . Scripta Mercaturae, St. Katharinen 2003.
  • Wilfried Nippel : About the study of ancient history. Munich: dtv 1993.
  • Wolfgang Schuller : Introduction to the History of Antiquity. Stuttgart 1994.
  • Eckhard Wirbelauer (Hrsg.): Antiquity. Munich 2004. (Oldenbourg history textbook 1)

History of science

  • Karl Christ : From Gibbon to Rostovtzeff. Life and work of leading ancient historians of the modern age , Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 3rd, to add a night. 1989 edition
  • Karl Christ: Klio's changes. The German ancient history from neo-humanism to the present , Munich: CH Beck, 2006
  • Arnaldo Momigliano : Selected writings on history and historiography , 3 vols., Stuttgart: Metzler, 1998–2000

Series of publications


The most important historical journals published in Germany are:

All three are also highly regarded internationally and contain not only German but also English, French and Italian essays. Articles on ancient history also appear in “general” historical journals such as the historical journal and in antiquity journals such as Hermes or Gymnasium .

The most important international journals for ancient history include:

new media

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. see page of the Small Subjects Unit on Ancient History, accessed on April 17, 2019 .