Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.29

T.J. Luce, The Greek Historians. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. Pp. 156. $55.00 (hb); $15.95 (pb). ISBN 0-415-10593-5.

Reviewed by Joseph Roisman, Department of Classics, Colby College, Waterville, ME 04901,

There is a fundamental irony in writing a book on ancient Greek historiography. Greek historians like Polybius saw little use for ancient history. Unlike contemporary history, it retold old and familiar stories and was based on unreliable sources. How could a serious man of action benefit from liars such as Herodotus or Onesicritus? Today, men or women of action tend to ignore Thucydides or Polybius who took great pains to make their works useful and immediate. Normally, it is students of the ancient world who read them, though not necessarily to make themselves better persons or to learn the lessons of the past. What would Polybius have said about modern readers of his history who include despised arm-chair historians? In fact, Polybius was used already in ancient times by sedentary historians like Livy, who, together with Tacitus, was studied by T. J. Luce in works marked by an intelligent analysis.1 The book under review shows a similar quality.

The Greek Historians is a good book. L[uce] shows how the works of the major Greek historians were informed both by their contemporary cultures and by previous literary products. The study aims at introducing A Level and first-year undergraduate students to ancient Greek historiography, but I suspect that not all such students would find it easy reading and would thus recommend the book for higher level students as well. The book's scope runs from Homer to Polybius but its heart lies in the discussions of Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius (especially the first two historians). The book is a fine and useful companion to the reading of their works.

The first chapter discusses the origins of Greek historiography. L. observes three formative influences on the birth of history writing. The first was Homer, who inspired authors to write on subjects such as war or alien peoples and marvels through a narrative that combined a sequence of events and speeches. History was thus "the creation of the historian...; it was a mental construct that the historian put in permanent literary form" (p.5). This view of history problematizes the search for truth that is the avowed goal of the great Greek historians. They were historians of contemporary events who ranked their own sources and methods far above those of the historians of the remote past. Early in the book, L. emphasizes the agonistic spirit that pervaded the historian's craft. In addition to Homer, the first historians were influenced by the early philosophers. The Historians borrowed from them a critical approach, rational or rationalizing explanations, theoretical constructs, and interest in the phenomena of balance and change. From the logographers historians learned to order myths in chronological sequence and sift through the mythopoeic material. All of the above prepared the ground for Herodotus, the subject of the next two chapters in the book.

L. wisely avoids summarizing the content of the works he discusses. Instead, he provides a few details about the author and the topic of his book and moves on to discuss the principles underlining his writing. In recent years Herodotus has become practically everyone's favorite author. Historians, literary critics, anthropologists, and students of culture found in his work very little resistance to experimentation in the application of divergent theories. Herodotus' broad mind, bard-like charm, and absence of Thucydidean purposefulness make him, shall we say, so cute. Men like Cleomenes of Sparta or Charilaus of Samos would have surely disagreed (Hdt. 5.42, 6.61-66, 76-82; 3.145-147). Fortunately, L. does not aim his discussion of Herodotus to the readers or viewers of The English Patient. Herodotus was by self-designation a historian who wished to write down events of the past so that time would not erase them from memory (Hdt. 1.1). L. thinks that Herodotus deserves the title 'father of history' because he separated myth from history. His narrative techniques were inspired by Homer, especially as far as his use of digressions, his interest in the marvelous, and his goal of commemorating greatness were concerned. But he also corrected Homer's version of the story of Helen of Troy because he believed that he had a better evidence, and, unlike the poet, he dedicated a large part of his work to events close to his own times. Herodotus should also be credited with gathering a huge amount of information through personal inquiry and with combining it in one comprehensive work. L. points out that Herodotus made considerable efforts to corroborate his sources but admits that he was quite eclectic in his choice of research and that on occasions he showed a clear bias.

One of the main theses of The Greek Historians is that the different historians used the principle of balance between thesis and antithesis to organize and make sense of the information they gathered. L. believes that this principle had a considerable effect on Herodotus' narrative. More in the vein of Hartog than Pritchett he argues that Egypt and Scythia represent in Herodotus polar cultures with Greece occupying a middle ground.2 Polarity is likely to produce a confrontation, and the war between Persia and Greece was not just a military conflict but a thesis and antithesis clashing with each other. Herodotus believed, though not dogmatically, that both human and divine affairs were governed by a wish to restore balance when the status quo or human and divine orders were disturbed. Thus, a wish to avenge induced individuals and groups into action in an attempt to achieve justice or balance. The logos of Croesus reflects this theme, although it is hard to be persuaded by L.'s claim that Herodotus provides 'long-range' and 'immediate' causes for the fall of the Lydian king (43-46). A better example for such a causal analysis is Herodotus' discussion of Xerxes' invasion which L. subsequently analyzes. L. rightly shows how divine intervention in Xerxes' decision to go to war restored the balance that was threatened by the hubristic king and his excessively big possessions. Yet, if Xerxes' decision to invade Greece was a divine balancing act, how are we to account for the king's oscillation between commencing or avoiding the conflict? L. does not provide an adequate explanation for Xerxes' changes of mind, which may have been found with a more thorough analysis of the impact of performance on the writing of history. In addition to the rule of balance, L. finds two related paradigms that are relevant to Herodotean explanations of states' and individuals' ascent and fall. One is inspired by the tragic formula of prosperity leading to transgression and disaster, and the other centers on a conflict between opposite cultures that are either hard, decentralized and situated on the ends of the oikoumene (Scythia or Greece) or soft, centralized, and prosperous civilizations (Lydia or Persia).

Chapter Four and Five deal with Thucydides, whom L. clearly esteems. He briefly introduces the reader to Thucydides' biography and Athenian and Spartan governments and societies, and goes on to discuss the historian's methodology and goals. Thucydides rivaled both Homer and Herodotus in many respects, but especially in his aim and focus. He narrowly concentrated on what he believed to have been one conflict and on the cultural and moral crises that it produced. His well defined range of interest led him to ignore information now considered significant to the reconstruction of events or institutions relevant to his subject. L. is familiar with Hunter's works on Thucydides but hesitates to characterize him as a journalist (93: "the artful historian").3 Yet, there is much in Thucydides that is reminiscent of a modern-day reporter. The historian prefers to discuss crises rather than the functioning of social and political institutions, is confident of the great value of his product, and shows a predilection to produce conclusions rather than the information on which they are based (cf. 71). L. reaches a rather unhappy compromise regarding the notorious crux of the speeches in Thucydides: the historian kept as close as he could to what was actually said but much in the speeches is necessarily Thucydidean (72). Thucydides highlights certain episodes in the war at the expense of others, and L. shows how he used incidents like the Mytilenian affair to foreground major issues such as the national character of the chief protagonists, the power relations between a hegemon and its allies, and the lack of consistency that characterized popular decisions in Athenian democracy. L. rightly notes Thucydides' ironic description of the demos who votes in favor of a relatively lenient treatment of the rebellious Mytilenians out of compassion, a motive decried by both Cleon and Diodotus. Yet, what does this presentation of the demos, or of the admiral Alcidas as a stereotype of Spartan indecisiveness and procrastination, tell us about the historian's search for, and use of, reliable information? In the conflict between those who treat the History primarily as a literary work and those who see it chiefly as a historical account there is no easy compromise. L., like many of us, aims at taking the best of both schools.

Like K. Weidauer, L. makes much (and perhaps too much) of the impact of Hippocratic science on Thucydides' methodology.4 He provides a good summary of the Hippocratic principles and shows how Thucydides applies them to his description of the plague, his causal analysis, his treatment of sources, and the prognostic quality he gives his work (81-6). The claim to be able to foresee events raises the question of Thucydides' target audience. To whom is the work intended to serve as ktema es aiei ("an everlasting possession") (Thuc. 1.22.4)? L. remarks that in Thucydides it is the prudent men who are able to predict crises and how humans will act under such circumstances (87). Since it takes no special intelligence to foresee that people will behave badly in distress, it is the ability to predict a crisis and think of ways of dealing with it that counts, and in Thucydides it is reserved to the like of Themistocles or Pericles. Thucydides, in spite of his exile, was a member of the Athenian elite and wrote for his peers. At the basis of the ability to predict future conduct was the historian's view of human nature as a constant. He took from the sophists the notion that human behavior is shaped by norms and physis and that laws, customs and morality show their fragility when faced with nature. The historian reveals his interest in change both in his portraits of individuals and in his description of how words and values changed their meanings as the war progressed. Generally, L.'s discussion of Thucydides is illuminating. Clearly he has much to say about the author, but the constraints of the book's format have forced him to neglect some issues -- the most conspicuous of them is the relation between logos and ergon -- or to condense much information and many ideas in a few statements that tend to become abstract. It is, however, the best discussion in the book.

Chapter Six, which discusses Xenophon and Hellenistic historians, is quite disappointing by comparison. The analysis of the Anabasis and the Hellenica is too brief and scanty. L. rightly credits Xenophon with pioneering the writing of comprehensive history of contemporary Greece in the Hellenica, but to say that "all in all, Xenophon was a singularly self-effacing historian" (104) must come as a surprise to readers of the Anabasis. Xenophon can, when he wishes so, be quite ironic and elusive or downright lazy, and statements to this effect would have been helpful.5 The rest of the discussion focuses on what L. calls "fragmentary historians," i.e., Philistus, Anaximenes, Ephorus, Theopompus, Callisthenes and Timaeus, as well as on various schools of history writing including local, rhetorical, ethical, biographical, patriotic, and "tragic" histories. The survey resembles a collection of lexical entries and is incorporated in the book probably for the sake of completeness. I am not sure that this is a good enough reason and it might have been better to limit the discussion to the extant major historians.

The chapter on Polybius is probably the most entertaining in the book. L., who looks in each work for its author's distinctive personality, nicely captures the authorial voice of Polybius, who was arguably the most self-assured of those historians discussed in the book. Writing for men who pursued a public career, Polybius was more than eager to teach them the arts of politics and military leadership. L.'s characterization of his method is worth quoting in full. He compares Polybius to a drill sergeant who informs his recruits: "'First I tell them what I'm going to tell them, then I tell them, then I tell them what I've told them"' (128). I am not sure that Polybius was devoid of subtlety (see his causation scheme that rivals Thucydides' without mentioning his name [Plb. 3.6.1-7.3] or his misgivings about contemporary Rome [140-1]), but, by and large, he was clear, blunt and quite agonistic. His insistence on his own qualifications as a warranty for a truthful history looks like an attempt to create an elite of historians with him as a top contender. L., however, points to his weaknesses. His causation model was simplistic and his use of it inconsistent. The historian contradicts himself in his analysis of imperialism and in his measurement of the effect of tukhe on history. L. follows with a good, but unrelated, discussion of Polybius' famous description of the Roman constitution that unduly privileges this topic. One wishes that the issue of Polybius' choice of Rome as a subject for his opus magnum rather than a topic focusing on the Greeks would have been more thoroughly discussed. The book concludes with a short epilogue that traces common denominators among the major Greek historians. L. observes that many of them were exiles, politically active and in contact with non Greeks. They preferred contemporary history to ancient history which may explain why they chose to continue the works of their predecessors rather than return to the latter's subject matter. According to the author, after Polybius, contemporary history lost its appeal mainly because of the limitation on the freedom of expression under authoritarian regimes. There is a short list of further reading that perhaps should have included Hornblower's book on Thucydides and Higgins on Xenophon, and an index.6

The book is not problem-free. At times the discussion tends to move back and forth between the same points or to encompass unrelated themes with an uneasy transition between them. Describing the conflict between Greeks and Persians as a clash between West and East (35) is unfortunate, and Sparta was not "in almost every respect ... the antithesis of Athens" (65). This view is inspired by the Spartan and the Athenian mirages. The general Demosthenes died, of course, after, and not before, the Athenian defeat in the Syracusan harbor (93). But these are minor flaws in a book that deserves to be read by anyone who has an interest in the Greek historians.


1. Livy: The Composition of his History. (Princeton 1977) or Luce's contribution to T. J. Luce and A. J. Woodman, eds. Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition (Princeton 1993).

2. F. Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, trans. J. Lloyd (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London 1988); W. K. Pritchett, The Liar School of Herodotus (Amsterdam 1993).  

3. V.J. Hunter, Thucydides, the Artful Reporter (Toronto 1973); E. Badian, From Plataea to Potidaea (Baltimore 1993) 125-62.  

4. K. Weidauer, Thukydides und die hippokratischen Schriften (Heidelberg 1953), but see, e.g., S. Hornblower, A Commentary on Thucydides (Oxford 1991) vol. I 174-5.  

5. See W.G. Higgins, Xenophon the Athenian (Albany 1977) and G. Cawkwell, Introduction, in Xenophon, A History of My Time, trans. R. Werner (Harmondsworth 1979) 7-46.  

6. S. Hornblower, Thucydides (Baltimore 1987); Higgins: n. 5 above.