What Is Historical Allusion?

G. Wiesen

Historical allusion is a reference, usually within a speech or a piece of writing, to people or events that have historical significance and carry certain ideas along with them. Someone in the US, for example, might refer to a person as a “Benedict Arnold,” which is a reference to the American general that joined British forces during the Revolutionary War. Using this allusion to refer to someone can quickly and succinctly, for American audiences at least, indicate that someone is a traitor or “turn coat.” Historical allusion can be used in works of literature to refer to events or people in a way that makes the events or characters of a work more relatable.

"Waterloo" is a historical allusion referring to Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.
"Waterloo" is a historical allusion referring to Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

An allusion in general, not to be confused with an “illusion,” is a reference to something within a particular context, often a speech or written text. The use of an allusion, such as a historical allusion, acts as a literary or rhetorical device that allows the work to more easily connect with a reader or listener. Allusions are often based on the context or audience of a particular work and may be wasted on an audience that does not understand a particular reference. An historical allusion to events that happened in ancient Chinese history, for example, is likely to be missed by most readers in the US.

The use of an allusion is a rhetorical device that allows the work to connect better with the reader.
The use of an allusion is a rhetorical device that allows the work to connect better with the reader.

This means that the effectiveness of an historical allusion often depends on the writer or speaker understanding his or her audience. The use of “Benedict Arnold” is fairly cultural, and while people in the US are likely to understand it, Europeans may miss or not fully understand the reference. There are somewhat more general allusions that can be made, however, often by referring to larger events that have global awareness. The term “Waterloo” is often used as an historical allusion to the Battle of Waterloo that saw the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, and this reference is likely to be understood by a wide range of Western audiences in the US, Canada, and throughout much of Europe.

A writer can often use an historical allusion to make connections between different ideas, or to allow a reader to better understand a potentially complex idea. Someone writing a scene depicting a battle in a science fiction setting, such as a war between alien cultures on a faraway world, might use such an allusion to more fully connect with a reader. Descriptions of deep trenches and poisonous gas clouds filling the air would likely act as an historical allusion to the battlefields of World War I, which would allow the scene to connect with a reader and make it feel more realistic and relatable. Politicians and other public speakers often use historical allusions to evoke feelings or images in the minds of listeners, frequently to appeal to patriotic or nostalgic ideologies.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@irontoenail - I think it would be a shame if no one ever used historical allusions though, because they do encourage people to learn about history. Young people who see Anne Frank mentioned offhand in a novel, for example, might be inspired to read her story for themselves.


@Ana1234 - I'm kind of glad that happens though, because it makes the language richer and it stops people from being too snobbish about it as well. I don't really approve of literature where too much of the understand of it depends on shared knowledge that a lot of people don't have access to. It is elitist, and, in some cases, very lazy to refer to historical events to add color to your own story.

One of the quick ways to allude to tragedy in young people, for example, is to bring up Anne Frank, but I think it is very difficult to do so without diminishing her story. Another woman who is often used in historical allusion is Helen Keller and she is often reduced to her disabilities, which is only a fraction of what she means to the world if you delve into her actual life.

I'm not against people ever making allusions, but they should be sparing and very carefully contemplated when they are historical, because they are talking about real people.


Often allusions become so common place over time that we stop seeing them as being a reference to history (or literature, or whatever else) and start seeing them as just another word.

I was surprised to hear that "draconian" refers to a person, rather than just a word that sounds like evil power. It refers to a guy in Athens who would give out the death penalty for even minor offenses.

Post your comments
Forgot password?