Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.03.21

Rosalind Thomas, Herodotus in Context: Ethnography, Science, and the Art of Persuasion.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2000.  Pp. 321.  ISBN 0-521-66259-1.  $64.95.  



Reviewed by F.S. Naiden, Tulane University (naiden@tulane.edu)
Word count: 1972 words

When Sir John Myres, among others, called Herodotus the father of history, he conceived history as a composite: political history, but also military science, economics, geography, and even biology, botany, and meteorology. Recent decades have witnessed not only a rejection of this view of Herodotus, but a loss of interest in some of these aspects of Herodotus' work, if not on the part of specialists for whom he is irreplaceable, then on the part of literary scholars and historians of culture.

One influential historian of culture who has written on Herodotus is the French Classicist Hartog, influenced by both structuralism and G.E.R. Lloyd's Polarity and Analogy in Early Greek Thought. In Le Miroir d'Hérodote, Hartog argued that Herodotus, who draws multiple contrasts between the Greeks and other peoples, achieved not contrasts but inversions. His Persians told the truth because they were inversions of Greek liars like Polycrates; they chose monarchy as their form of government because they were inversions of the Athenians, who chose isonomia at about the same time. Egyptians and Scythians were inversions, too, but they were inversions of each other as well as of the Greeks. On this view, Herodotus was the father not of history but of anthropology, and of anthropology at its ethnocentric worst.

Other scholars, especially Fehling, have even reverted to the late-19th century view of Herodotus as the father of lies. Fehling's broadside against Herodotus met with a counter-barrage from Pritchett, but Armayor's work on Herodotus' autopsy of the Fayoum was both less ambitious and more damning (See Fehling, Herodotus and his 'Sources'; Pritchett, The Liar School of Herodotus; and Armayor, Herodotus' Autopsy of the Fayoum). Other scholars contributed to the mosaic of Herodotean errors, too, including the editors of Asheri's multi-volume commentary. Nor is the task finished: to cite but one example, Herodotus calls the temple at Samos one of the greatest in the Greek world, but his claim would be true only if the temple had been finished, and it never was (3.60).

A third trend was to view Herodotus not as an ideologue or a fabricator, but as a storyteller having much in common with Homer. On this view, found in Erbse, Studien zum Verständnis Herodots, and in Nagy "Herodotos the Logios" [Arethusa 20 (1987) 175-84], Herodotus looked not forward towards Thucydides and other historians, nor forward toward the discourse of ethnocentrism and imperialism, but backward, toward epic poetry and the song culture. These scholars divorced Herodotus from the intellectual and political standards of the 20th century but also divorced him from 5th-century developments.

Some writers on Herodotus, like Gould (Herodotus) and Lateiner (The Historical Method of Herodotus) stood apart from these trends. One of Lateiner's articles even anticipated Thomas ["The Empirical Element in the Methods of Early Greek Medical Writers and Herodotus: A Shared Epistemological Response," Antichthon20 (1986) 1-20], as did G.E.R. Lloyd, and A. Lloyd in his commentary on Book II. In the Orientalizing Revolution, meanwhile, Burkert offered a reply to Hartog's charge of ethnocentrism. But Herodotus had been uprooted from the military history that was his theme, from the comparative history that he used to magnify his theme, and from the milieux in which he researched and wrote--Ionian, Carian, and Athenian. Rosalind Thomas' new book perhaps will mark the beginning of an effort to return Herodotus to what she calls "his context," which for her is mainly the medical and scientific literature of the 5th century. Her findings chiefly serve to correct those of Hartog, whom she cites relatively little. Her intervention in the debate between Fehling and Pritchett comes late in the book, but provides a highly successful chapter that also addresses the views of Erbse and Nagy.

She begins with an "Introduction" that draws attention to Nestle's Herodots Verständnis zur Philosophie und Sophistik, which traced varied literary influences on Herodotus, and to Dihle's article, "Herodot und die Sophistik" [Philologus 106 (1962) 207-20], which analyzed Herodotus' use of sophistic technique in the dialogue between Demaratus and Xerxes (7.101-4), but she proceeds to argue that Herodotus is less a borrower, as Nestle and Dihle would have it, than a participant in intellectual and political debates, one of them being about the variability of nomos, the key term in 7.101-4. An analysis of the sophistic style of the medical work On the Art then establishes a link between Herodotus' intellectual interests and those of the Hippocratic school. Ch. 2, "Medicine and the Ethnography of Health," shows that this intellectual and medical Herodotus is not ethnocentric, as Hartog thought, but instead is one of a group of writers who were attempting to rationalize differences between peoples, notably differences between Greeks on the one side and Libyans and Scythians on the other.

In ch. 3, "Dividing the World," Thomas turns to Airs, Waters, Places, the Hippocratic geographical text, and shows that it is not ethnocentric, either, but geocentric, that is, centered on empirical, if limited distinctions among ecospheres; in terms of Greek literary history, it is more Ionian than Athenian. She then draws parallels between this work and Herodotus, also interested in ecospheres and especially interested in drawing correct boundaries among continents. Herodotus also resembles Airs, Waters, Places in striking a balance between environmental determinism and the influence of nomoi. Crucial to her argument in ch. 4, "Nomos is King," is Herodotus' realization that nomoi are a matter of choice: the Athenians chose isegoria and became powerful, whereas the Persians chose monarchy and failed to become powerful enough to defeat a free state (5.66, 78). Crucial, too, is Herodotus' realization that nomoi are a matter of taste: the Egyptians regard all who do not speak Egyptian as barbaroi, and thus as practitioners of inferior nomoi, the same attitude as found among Greeks (2.158.5). Herodotus is a relativist interested in the impact of the environment on human society.

For reasons to be given immediately below, ch. 5 is omitted from this summary, which continues with Thomas' best chapter, 6, "Argument and the Language of Proof." Here she demonstrates affinities between Herodotus' arguments about such topics as the annual flooding of the Nile and the arguments of philosophical and especially medical writers and concludes that Herodotus uses these arguments when visual evidence is lacking. Here she is touching on Fehling's weakness, which is that ancient standards of accuracy were different from ours, partly because of a lack of information, partly because of a different conception of the relation between accuracy and plausibility. Since information counted for less, reasoning counted for more, and so Thomas justly emphasizes the strengths and weaknesses of Herodotus as a reasoner. In doing so she also counters the view that Herodotus is a latter-day Homer to the exclusion of 5th century developments. It is not accidental that this chapter is the only one in which Thomas explores a set of closely related Herodotean passages at length.

Ch. 5, "'Wonders'and the Natural World," is less successful, and so are most of the remaining chapters. One reason is that they deal with material that has less bearing on science and medicine; another is that they are less original. Ch. 5 explains why Herodotus combines scientific interests with interest in thaumata, but omits man-made wonders. Ch. 7, "Persuasion and Polemic," covers the same ground as Lateiner, who compiled ample evidence of Herodotus' combativeness in matters intellectual; the most important issue, the nature and reliability of Herodotean autopsy, remains unresolved. Ch. 8, "Performance, Competitive Display, and Apodeixis," revisits Demont's "Die Epideixis über die Techne im V. und IV. Jh.," (in W. Kullmann and J. Althoff (edd.), Vermittlung und Tradieren von Wissen in der griechischen Kultur (Tübingen 1993), 181-209), an essay showing how display pieces were both an occasion for displaying knowledge and a form of knowledge in their own right. In contrast, Ch. 8 successfully situates Herodotus' apodeixis or "presentation" in the context of incipient intellectual specialization. However, it does not summarize Thomas' argument. Nor does the brief "Epilogue," another chapter dealing with material that is not scientific or medical.

How useful is the medical and scientific context that Thomas expounds in chs. 1-4, and especially 6? It has one unfashionable use, which is as an intellectual biography. Herodotus, Thomas shows, is biased in favor of scientific nations. He is also biased in favor of certain nomoi, calling them admirable or wise (1.196-7, 4.64-6), and justifies his bias by claiming that foreign rulers share it. Hence the King of Ethiopia criticizes the ways of the Persians, and Cyrus says that the agora is a place where men deceive one another (3.22, 1.153.1). These are examples of Herodotus' relativism, but Thomas shows that relativism itself is relative. Herodotus can be a relativist and also be a 5th-century intellectual with an intellectual's outlook.

She also offers a model for work on aspects of Herodotus ranging from armaments to economics and monuments. Among these aspects, however, the one that is most relevant to her own themes of medicine and science is economics. The Hippocratic writers themselves link medicine and economics, for diet is a preoccupation of theirs, as it is of Herodotus. Another relevant aspect is Herodotus' use of monuments, especially those monuments linked to a story told by an epichoric source. Taken together, these monuments and stories give Herodotus an occasion to evaluate physical evidence, and thus offer a comparandum to his evaluation of other kinds of evidence, including medical evidence. But this topic would require a book in itself, and no small one. Herodotus and the Monuments would be far larger than Lorimer's Homer and the Monuments.

Monuments raise the issue of Herodotus' use of comparative history to magnify his subject. This use takes many forms. As Trudinger observed (Studien zur Geschichte der griechisch-römischen Ethnographie, 136), Cyrus's remark about the agora was originally attributed to Anacharsis. Herodotus put it in the mouth of a Persian King in order to magnify the opponent of the Greeks. The debate on forms of government served the same purpose, and so do the logoi of the nations conquered by the Persians. So does the excursus on the Nile, a great river because of both its size and the history of the country through which it flows. By showing us of the breadth of Herodotus' interests, Thomas has reminded us of this feature of his work.

But how does comparative history interact with the military history that is Herodotus' main theme? In the case of the Nile, the interaction is obvious: the Athenians and their allies tried to conquer Egypt, and in response Herodotus told them what and how much they were attempting to conquer. It is also obvious that the interaction is not be explained by reference to Homer, who focuses on an episode and individuals rather than on a war and an empire. Perhaps national character is the link between Herodotus the military chronicler and Herodotus the student of societies and their surroundings. But this issue, like the intellectual issues that Thomas has chosen to address, will benefit from her success in restoring Herodotus to his "context." From her book, as from The Histories, other books will come.

In the hope that there will be more than one edition of this book, the following typographical and similar errors are corrected:

p. 12, n. 34 Emlyn-Jones (1980), 170. p. 13, n. 35 Kerford (1991a), 53. p. 16, n. 45 Nestle (1908), 6. p. 49, n. 43 Nile flooding p. 108, n. 9 he is focusing p. 164, n. 95 Parmenides' word for enquiry is the unrelated (and older) word dizemai p. 168 n.3 see now Fowler p. 198 n. 65 Athens-oriented Herodotus p. 214 n. 1 For digressions, see Cobet (1971); p. 217 n. 5 Cf. Aristophanes' Horai.

As far as this reviewer can tell, the Greek cited in this book is flawless. Mr. Packard's disk may not have encouraged a spirit of inquiry, but it has improved accuracy.

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