Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.10.23

Reinhold Bichler, Herodots Welt. Der Aufbau der Historie am Bild der fremden Länder und Völker, ihrer Zivilisation und ihrer Geschichte, Mit Beilagen von Dieter Feil und Wido Sieberer.   Berlin:  Akademie Verlag, 2000.  Pp. 425.  ISBN 3-05-003429-7.  DM 175,63.  

Reviewed by Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, Seminar für Klassische Philologie, Georg-August-Universität (
Word count: 1738 words

Since 1984, Reinhold Bichler (henceforth B.) has been active in Herodotean studies, and this book may be regarded as a kind of sum of what he thinks about Herodotus.1 His main intention--as he claims in the preface--is "das Bild der fremden Welt als Massstab der herodoteischen Historie zu würdigen" (p. 12), i.e. to show (if I understand B. correctly) that the non-Greek world and its structures as Herodotus perceives them are essential for his understanding of his own world and the development of his views about history. This reminds us, of course, of the book written by F. Hartog ("Le miroir d'Hérodote) twenty years ago. While B. on one hand stresses the great internal consistency of Herodotus' work and the literary ambitions of its author, on the other hand he also claims that the Histories exhibit such a variety of aspects, of playfulness and seriousness, of theoretical remarks and multifarious narratives, as to render a definite (and therefore "one-sided") interpretation of the whole and a clear positioning of its author within the Greek political situation of his times impossible (p. 12f.).

This is about all the general outline of the book that we get from B.; thence, he proceeds to the first of the seven large chapters into which the book is divided. In the first four of them, B. surveys the geography of Herodotus' world and moves progressively "inward" towards center of it and towards the basic Herodotean story line, which he reaches in ch. 5 and which (as we all know) follows the great conflict between Greeks and barbarians that started--in Herodotus' perception--with King Croesus of Lydia. Before we get to that point, we first get a chapter devoted to "The lands and peoples at the rim of the world" (p. 15-60: here we encounter such fabulous items as the long-lived Ethiopians and the bald and pacific Argippaei), then one dealing with "The peoples between savagery and civilisation" (p. 61-109, comprising India and Arabia, Libya and Thrace, but most of all the Scythians); after that "The cultural world of the Near East" (p. 111-143) with Carians and Lycians in Asia Minor, Phoenicians and Carthaginians, Assyrians and Babylonians. The fourth chapter covers--expectably and inevitably--the wondrous world of "Ancient Egypt" (p. 145-212), while the fifth--with the title "The rulers of the centres of Asia: Lydians, Medes, Persians" (p. 213-261)--depicts the first part of Herodotus' main story line from Croesus to Cyrus' founding of the Persian Empire, i.e. the greater part of Histories book 1. Chapter VI ("The expansion of the Persian Empire up to the frontiers of Greece", p. 263-301) follows the Histories from the latter part of book 1 (Cyrus' later conquests and death) until the beginning of book 5 (the Persian penetration of Macedonia), while the last and longest chapter ("The failure of the empire in its fight against the free Hellenic world", p. 303-383) takes us from the Ionian Revolt to the liberation of the Greek cities of the coast of Asia Minor and concludes with a survey of the glimpses Herodotus offers of the subsequent history of the Pentekontaetia and the Peloponnesian War. The book concludes with an ample bibliography (p. 385-402), with very instructive tables depicting the genealogies of the rulers of Cyrene, of Egypt and of Mesopotamia, of the Lydian, Median, Persian and Macedonian dynasties (and their connexions with the family-tree of Heracles), of the Spartan royal houses and of the Scythian and Thracian kings (p. 403-406, all done by Dietrich Feil); additionally there are useful maps of Asia, Egypt, Asia Minor, Libya, Scythia, Thrace and the West of Europe as Herodotus seems to have imagined them (p. 407-413, by Wido Sieberer); on the Indices (p. 415-425) see below.

The preceding overview of the book's contents shows that B. aims at providing his readers with a kind of companion to all of Herodotus' work. The text very often paraphrases what Herodotus himself says, though B. also comments on themes and literary motifs of the work and tries to reveal Herodotus' thoughts and ways of presentation as well as something of the structures of the Histories, while the footnotes--which B. himself regards as a kind of running commentary (p. 13)--mostly deal with questions of detail, providing factual information and bibliography. It is not easy to adequately convey the richness of insights and good remarks one finds on many pages of this book; I would like, however,--though this may seem churlish--to draw attention as well to three more general aspects of the book which one may consider problematical.

1. In his preface B. states his belief that Herodotus' world as depicted in the Histories is very much pre-formed by traditions handed down in earlier Greek literature ("aus einer literarisch tradierten Erwartung heraus gesehen", p. 11) and often perceived more through a set of notions acquired by theoretical thinking than through actual observation ("oft mehr von theoretisch geleiteten Vorstellungen geschaut als mit den Sinnen erfahren", ibid.). What this means becomes progressively clearer as one reads through the book: In his assumptions about Herodotus' working methods, B. is very close to the position of Detlef Fehling and others who believe that Herodotus himself invented a large part of the material which he presents, most of all his source citations; Fehling in fact is the one modern author most often cited, and this almost always approvingly.2 Either by implicit hints or by explicit statements B. makes it clear that he, too, is prepared to see many parts of Herodotus' work--even some of the 'facts' it claims to relate--as inventions by its author.3 It must be said, though, that such assumptions seem very often open to debate; such a debate, however, would require at least a long article and cannot be provided by a review like this. Suffice it to say here that B.s claims very often do not seem to be to be backed up by real arguments. Furthermore, it is often not very helpful that B. refers to studies and dissertations written at his own department but never published so that no reader of his book can form an adequate judgment of the quality of the arguments presented therein.

2. The fact that B. deals with the whole of Herodotus' work, the ample footnotes and the numerous maps and genealogical tables evoke the impression that this book really is comprehensive, leaving out no question and providing all the relevant references. Yet a closer look shows that there are some gaps: e.g. in his discussion of the difficulties surrounding the two legends concerning the origins of the oracle of Dodona as related by Herodotus in 2.54-57 (p. 175f.) he might at least have cited my article on this question which came out in 1999.4 When discussing the probability (or improbability) of Egyptian priests relating Greek myths (p. 188 n. 166; the same applies to p. 377f. n. 206), he might have looked into another article of mine, which came out in 1997.5 As for Herodotus' remarks on the different thickness of Egyptian and Persian skulls in 3.12, B. (p. 211) should have taken note of Bäebler's proposed solution of the problems here involved.6 Not to take account of R. L. Fowler's important article "Herodotos and his contemporaries" (JHS 116, 1996, 62-87) when discussing the relationship between Herodotus and Charon of Lampsacus (p. 259 n. 161), is a major oversight (see Fowler 67f.).

3. In many questions of detail, B. simply reports the status quaestionis without clearly indicating which side he prefers. On p. 128f. n. 73 he simply relates Fehling's and Pritchett's contradictory positions on Herodotus' autopsy of Tyre. On p. 239 n. 93 he reports several opinions about the authenticity of the statue dedicated by Arion after having been saved by a dolphin (1.24.8) but gives no opinion of his own. When discussing the various scholarly opinions about the souces and influences of Cambyses' picture in Herodotus (p. 277 n. 44), B. mostly restricts himself to enumerating these opinions without evaluating them. Again, no adjudication on the question whether the first Persian subjugation of Macedonia is historical or not (p. 299 n. 116). Similar instances are p. 344 n. 99 (the Hermotimus story in 8.105f.); p. 353 n. 126 (Pausanias' behavior in 9.46f.); p. 361 n. 147 (on the still on-going discussion whether 9.122 was intended by Herodotus as his final chapter or not; here some clearer statement of B.'s own position would have been very welcome); p. 367 n.164 and p. 376 n. 202 (on the similarly tenacious discussion, when Herodotus' work was published)

Finally, there is a feature of this book which an attentive reader notices most keenly once he has come to the last page: the lack of an overall synthesis. After B. has discussed in which ways the post-Persian-Wars situation of Greece makes itself felt in Herodotus' work (p. 366-377), and after a short look back towards the Histories' opening chapters and how they might be connected with their end and outlook into Herodotus' own time (p. 377-382), plus a few more very readable sentences (which might well have been expanded) about Herodotus' ultimately disillusioned conviction about the never-ceasing changeability of human fortunes and about the very limited ability of human beings to profit from past experience, the book stops. There is no concluding chapter summarizing the characteristics traits of Herodotus' work as B. sees them, no effort to tell (or remind) the reader what he may have learnt by reading this book. Nor are the indexes very helpful in directing a user to the riches this book (despite my criticisms) contains. Two thirds of the 10 index pages are devoted to the modern authors discussed in it--a well-nigh useless compilation; if one is looking for substance and content--then follow two pages listing ancient authors (without, however, any specific references to their works) and one lonely page enumerating "biblical sources", again without detailed references. As a working tool, these indexes are really worse than useless. All in all one might get the impression that this book has arisen out of a series of lectures on the world of Herodotus and that the lecturer somehow at the end did not find the time (or summon up enough interest) to top off his many observations with a conclusion that might have drawn together all the loose ends. It is a pity that, not least because of the lack of such a conclusion, the title of the book promises more than the book itself delivers.7


1.   At about the same time as this book, he has also published--together with Robert Rollinger--a "Studienbuch" (introduction for students) on Herodotus (Hildesheim et al. 2000).
2.   The "index of modern authors" reveals (and this is the one thing that this kind of index is useful for) that Fehling's work on "Herodotus and his 'Sources'" (Leeds 1989) is cited 46 times (the rare instances where this is done slightly disapprovingly: p. 39 n. 89; p. 180 n. 141; p. 305 n. 6); additionally, Fehling's introduction to a German translation of Herodotus (Munich 1991) is cited seven times. B. even assigns research results to Fehling which were made long before, e.g. p. 146 n. 6 the fact that very probably Hecataeus lurks behind the "Ionians" Herodotus criticizes in 2.15-17.
3.   It must suffice here to give a few examples: In a number of places B. judges W. K. Pritchett's (The Liar School of Herodotos, Amsterdam 1993) efforts to refute Fehling to be methodically deficient (p. 78 n. 69; p. 103 n. 160; p. 188 n. 166; p. 191 n. 181). There may be some substance to this claim, but it is surely wrong to dismiss Pritchett's many (and often very pertinent) observations out of hand. For cases where B. himself at least hints that he is very much in sympathy with the view that Herodotus invented reports and their sources instead of acquiring them from other informants, see e.g. p. 21 n. 18 on the reports of great travel expeditions (on p. 22 n. 28 B. himself takes great pains to refute the argument that the Phoenicians' observation of the midday sun standing northward of them proves the authenticity of their circumnavigation of Africa). On p. 37 he doubts the authenticity of reports Herodotus claims to have gotten from the inhabitants of southern Egypt regarding the origins of the Nile, and on p. 38 he insinuates that Herodotus drew up reports of travel expeditions in such a way that they easily fitted together. In n. 158 on p. 60 he criticizes others who are more prepared to believe Herodotus' claims of autopsy; on p. 108 he doubts that Herodotus (in 4.76.6) had authentic information from a servant of a Scythian king. On p. 120 he cites all the difficulties that arise from Herodotus' description of Babylon; ten pages later (p. 130 n. 78), however, he adduces evidence which might be taken as support for Herodotus' description (for a view trying to reconcile Herodotus' description of Babylon with the state of archaeological research, see now my article "Herodot und Babylon: Der Hauptort Mesopotamiens in den Augen eines Griechen des 5. Jh.s v. Chr.", in: J. Renger (Ed.), Babylon, Saarbrücken 1999 [publ. 2000], 189-206). On p. 133 B. regards the citation of a Macedonian source of information as invented; on p. 147 he doubts Herodotus' assertion that he reached Elephantine in Egypt, and on p. 148 n.12 he questions the authenticity of Herodotus' Egyptian source on the origins of the Nile. On p. 175 n. 116 he quite brazenly cites Herodotus' "method of fictional source references" as established fact; on p. 255 he asserts without any proof that Cyrus's descent from Astyages is Herodotus' own invention). And so on, and so on ...
4.   H.-G. Nesselrath, Dodona, Siwa und Herodot--ein Testfall für den Vater der Geschichte, in: Museum Helveticum 56, 1999, 1-14.
5.   H.-G. Nesselrath, Herodot und der griechische Mythos, in: Poetica 28, 1996 [publ. 1997], 275-296.
6.   B. Bäbler, Eine archäologische Anmerkung zu Herodot 3, 12, in: Museum Helveticum 54, 1997, 204-210.
7.   The execution of this volume must be called rather sloppy. I counted well over 90 misprints in all. A real inconvenience is the fact that cross-references between footnotes are given by chapter number (instead of page number) and number of footnote within that chapter; hunting for such a cross-referenced footnote can be time-consuming, especially as chapter numbers never appear in column titles. Moreover the system has produced a number of mistakes: p. 106 n. 169: for "unten Anm. 69" read "V 69"; p. 107 n. 175: in "Anm. 83" delete "Anm." (the page number is meant); p. 126 n. 61: insert "II" before "69"; p. 133 n. 88: insert "I" before "89"; p. 150 n. 22 at the end: insert "I" before "107"; p. 178 n. 131, last line: read "IV" instead of "VI"; p. 210 n. 248: read "I" instad of "III"; p. 211 n. 250: insert "VII" before "75"; p. 216 n. 14: insert "IV" before "181"; p. 282 n. 60, line 7: read "VII 20" instead of "VII 120". There are quite a number of factual mistakes as well. P. 34: The Asmach (Hdt. 2.30.1) did not reach the long-lived Ethiopians. P. 49 n.119: it is not Cheops but Rhampsinitos who makes his daughter a prostitute to find out the master thief. P. 108: Tymnes (Hdt. 4.76.6) is surely the steward or administrator of the Scythian king, not his guardian ("Vormund"); see Powell, Lexicon to Herodotus, s.v. ἐπίτροπος. P. 137: pace B., Hdt. 2.150.3 does not unequivocally state that Sardanapallos is son of the king Ninos; B. rejects the possibility that Νίνου here may signify the city of the same name (which makes much more sense as the city has just been cited, while king Ninos plays absolutely no role in this context), but he overlooks the fact that the article τοῦ in Σαρδαναπάλλου τοῦ Νίνου βασιλέος belongs to βασιλέος and not to Νίνου (thus the meaning of these words is "of Sardanapallos, the king of Ninos"). On p. 162 n. 67 he criticizes the number of 1000 years in Hdt. 2.145.4 as merely conjectured, but nevertheless uses this conjectured number in his text. P. 201: It is not a helmet of iron but of bronze which the oracle in 2.147.4 predicts as the sign of the future Egyptian king who will overthrow the rule of the dodecarchs. P. 231 n. 69: Deioces ruled 53, not 36 years. In 1.86.2 it is not Croesus (thus B. on p. 252), but Cyrus who wants to test the divine powers by putting Croesus on the pyre. Cyrus is not the son of a "Mede of middle station" (p. 258 n. 157), but of the Persian Cambyses. It was not the Samians in general who treacherously massacred the Persian nobles coming to their island (thus B. p. 290, incorrectly summarizing Hdt. 3.144-6), rather the mad brother of the regent Maeandrius instigated this. The famous chapter where Darius contrasts the conflicting funerary rites of Greeks and Indians is 3.38, not 3.39 (thus B. on p. 297). P. 306 (bibliography): the Festschrift for C. W. Müller is entitled "Lenaika", not "Athenaika".

Read Latest
Index for 2001
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:27:35, Friday, 03 April 2009