Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1.2.4


Averil Cameron (ed.), History as Text: The Writing of Ancient History. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press 1990 (published in 1989 in Great Britain by Duckworth). Pp. viii, 208. $39.95 (hb). ISBN 0-8078-1889-5.


Alain M. Gowing, University of Washington

This eclectic collection of eight "chapters" written by various scholars takes as its unifying theme "the problem of textuality as it affects our shared discipline of ancient history". The articles do not deal exclusively with ancient historiography, but rather cover a broad range of texts that an ancient historian might consult. In varying degrees and with varying success, they each challenge traditional interpretations of these texts, suggest new ones, and generally urge those who study and write ancient history to reconsider the manner in which they treat their literary evidence. As Cameron notes in her Introduction, ancient historians have lagged behind their colleagues in recognizing the applicability of various literary/cultural theories to the texts with which they deal. History as Text means to "set the discussion going", and that is without doubt a useful and timely goal. Whether or not it will succeed in doing so remains to be seen.

Three contributions deal squarely with classical historiography. In "'True Stories': the reception of historiography in antiquity", M.J. Wheeldon, using reception theory, addresses two specific issues: 1) why readers often believed historians' accounts which we know to be fictitious, and 2) how that belief affected "their evaluation of these texts as worthwhile objects". Objecting to the "less helpful comparisons" of ancient historiography with oratory and poetry, Wheeldon prefers instead the notion that the ancient reader viewed this genre as "non-fictional narrative" (Capote's In Cold Blood is cited as a modern example). He examines three "contexts of reception" available to the ancient reader of a historical text: "knowledge of the genre", "the auctoritas of the writer" and "the historiographical "manner of speaking'". The second of these "contexts" is explored through a brief analysis of the prefaces of Tacitus, Sallust and Livy to show how they are constructed to win their readers' confidence and establish the authors as objective reporters. For the most part much of the discussion is largely theoretical and speculative, but in his conclusion, Wheeldon finally considers a few concrete examples of the reception of historiography in antiquity, admitting that on the face of it they seem to undermine the argument he has been developing. He has a counterargument, of course, but it is not altogether convincing. One is left wondering instead how this thesis would fare if still more attention had been paid to other examples, in particular to those of readers disbelieving a historical account (e.g., Sen. Suas. 6.14ff.; Juv. 7.104: quis dabit historico quantum daret acta legenti?).

J.W. Rich's discussion of "Dio on Augustus", the most traditional piece in the collection in terms of methodology, makes a useful contribution to the re-examination of this historian that has been taking place in recent years. He improves on Manuwald's Cassius Dio und Augustus in that, for all the virtues of his thorough study, Manuwald fails to give adequate weight to Dio's own contributions to his History. Rich gives Dio his due, in a responsible and compelling fashion, and this is all the more reason to look forward to his forthcoming commentary on Dio's Augustan Books (from Aris & Phillips).

Cameron cautions in her prefatory remarks to John Henderson's "Livy and the Invention of History" that his deconstructionist approach risks engendering "hostility among traditional scholars". It is admittedly the most radical piece in the entire collection, and even readers well disposed to deconstruction may have difficulty getting past the first few pages. Writing in a style that the less patient will find irritating rather than clever, Henderson deconstructs the traditional philological approach to Livy and classical scholarship in general. He does not necessarily invalidate that approach, but rather recommends a "stereographic reading" incorporating other points of view that will revitalize studies of the historian.

Feminist criticism is also represented in History as Text. In "The Daughter of Leonides: reading the Hippocratic corpus" (the only contribution to deal with any text earlier than the first century BC), Helen King takes issue with the traditional "research programme" that has evolved around the Hippocratic corpus. Her objections to this programme are sound; her solution to the particular problem she raises is sensible, though I will leave it to others to judge just how far-reaching are the implications of her conclusion for interpreting other texts in the corpus.

In "Reading Female Flesh: Amores 3.1" Maria Wyke attempts to shed new light on an old crux, namely, in what sense or to what degree "'The Elegiac Woman'" represents historical reality or poetic fiction. After a sensitive and illuminating reading of Amores 3.1 that sets out to prove that "the written women of this elegy are ... to be read as signifiers of moral and political ideologies", Wyke examines the implications of her reading for other poems in the elegiac corpus, specifically those of Propertius. The argument with respect to the historicity of the elegiac female is persuasive enough; those who persist in regarding the women in these poems as thinly disguised historical figures will find themselves challenged by Wyke's article. Equally important, however, is her attempt to show how these poetic fictions may yield historical evidence for the "politics" and "ideological concerns" of their creators. This suggestive notion clearly merits further investigation.

Cameron's own contribution, "Virginity as Metaphor: women and the rhetoric of early Christianity", is a highly provocative study of a fascinating, complex subject. The remaining two pieces also deal with Christian texts. Like Wheeldon, Dimitris Kyrtatas appeals to reception theory in "The Transformations of the Text: the reception of John's Revelation" in order to trace the ways in which this enigmatic text has been read down through the ages. In "History and Faith" Sister Charles Murray similarly explicates the various methodologies used to analyze the Gospels, emphasizing in her conclusion the need for an approach that synthesizes those methodologies.

One complaint that might be made of the book as a whole is the scant attention paid to other major historical texts. Nothing, for instance, on Thucydides or Herodotus (apart from Cameron's nod in her Postlude) --indeed, except for Rich's contribution, nothing on Greek historiography at all. To be sure, the range of texts discussed is purposefully broad and representative; and again, this book is not strictly about ancient historiography. Historians aside, however, room might have been found for something, say, on the Attic orators or a poet like Lucan. Given the professed aim of History as Text, a wider readership might have been attracted, and more skeptics converted, had the selection included other texts and authors.

That objection notwithstanding, Cameron has performed a valuable service in producing this volume. Her own critical acumen and command of the material, both ancient and modern, are very much in evidence. Her Introduction and Postlude, as well as brief chapter introductions, lend needed coherence and direction; without them, History as Text would not be as useful an introduction to the subject as it is. Students of ancient history who wish to investigate the applicability of various literary/cultural theories to their work will find a good deal to ponder in History as Text, as well as extensive bibliographical guidance. This book should also awaken those of us who teach classical historiography and history, at both the graduate and undergraduate level, to the fact that we have an obligation to make our students (and ourselves) aware of various approaches to the texts. Whether we choose to embrace or reject those approaches is of course our choice, but History as Text, despite its unevenness, demonstrates that they should not be ignored or, worse, summarily dismissed.