Primary Sources of Roman History

Historians Living in Different Periods of Ancient Rome

Roman ruins
Bert Kaufmann / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Below you'll find a list of the periods of ancient Rome (753 BC.-A.D. 476) followed by the main ancient historians of that period.

When writing about history, primary written sources are preferred. Unfortunately, this can be difficult for ancient history. Although technically those ancient writers who lived after the events are secondary sources, they have two possible advantages over modern secondary sources:

  1. They lived roughly two millennia closer to the events in question.
  2. They may have had access to primary source materials.

Here are the names and relevant periods for some of the main ancient Latin and Greek sources for Roman history. Some of these historians lived at the time of the events, and therefore, may actually be primary sources, but others, especially Plutarch (CE 45-125), who covers men from multiple eras, lived later than the events they describe.

From the Founding to the Beginning of the Punic Wars (754-261 BCE)

Most of this period is legendary, especially before the fourth century. This was the time of kings and then the expansion of Rome into Italy.

  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus (fl. c.20 BCE)
  • Livy (c.59 BCE-c. CE 17)
  • Plutarch's lives of
    • Romulus
    • Numa
    • Coriolanus
    • Poplicola
    • Camillus

From the Punic Wars to the Civil Wars Under the Gracchi (264-134 BCE)

By this period, there were historical records. This was a period when Rome expanded beyond the borders of Italy and dealt with​ the conflict between plebeians and patricians.

  • Polybius (c.200-c.120 BCE)
  • Livy
  • Appian (c. CE 95-165)
  • Florus (c.70-c.140CE)
  • Plutarch's lives of:
    • Fabius Maximus
    • P. Aemilius
    • Marcellus
    • M. Cato
    • Flaminius

From the Civil Wars to the Fall of the Republic (30 BCE)

This was an exciting and violent period of Roman history dominated by powerful individuals, like Caesar, who also provides eye witness accounts of his military campaigns.

  • Appian
  • Velleius Paterculus (c.19 BCE-c. CE 30),
  • Sallust (c.86-35/34 BCE)
  • Caesar (July 12/13, 102/100 BCE-March 15, 44 BCE)
  • Cicero (106-43 BCE)
  • Dio Cassius (c. CE 150-235)
  • Plutarch's lives of

The Empire to the Fall in A.D. 476

From Augustus to Commodus

The power of the emperor was still being defined in this period. There had been the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the Flavian dynasty, and the period of the Five Good Emperors, none of whom was the biological son of the previous emperor. Then came Marcus Aurelius, the last of the good emperors who was succeeded by one of Rome's worst, his son, Commodus.

From Commodus to Diocletian

During the period from Commodus to Diocletian soldiers became emperors and Rome's armies in various parts of the known world were declaring their leaders emperor. By the time of Diocletian the Roman Empire had grown too large and complex for one man to handle, so Diocletian divided it in two (two Augustuses) and added assistant emperors (two Caesars).

From Diocletian to the Fall - Christian and Pagan Sources

For an emperor like Julian, a pagan, religious biases in both directions factor into the credibility of his biographies. Christian historians of late antiquity had a religious agenda which relegated to lesser importance the presentation of secular history, but some of the historians were very careful of their facts, anyway.

Sources

A. H. L. Herren, A Manual of Ancient History the Constitutions, the Commerce, and the Colonies of the States of Antiquity (1877) Palala Press republished in 2016.
Byzantine Historians