Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.04.02

Egbert J. Bakker, Irene J. F. de Jong, Hans van Wees, Brill's Companion to Herodotus.   Leiden:  Brill, 2002.  Pp. xx, 652.  ISBN 90-04-12060-2.  $208.00.  

Reviewed by Stanley M. Burstein, California State University, Los Angeles (
Word count: 2013 words

Mega biblion, mega kakon was not a necessarily sound critical principle in antiquity, and it is not today. Brill's Companion to Herodotus is a very big book and it is also very good book. During the last half century there has been an extraordinary renaissance in Herodotean scholarship. The result of this burst of scholarship has been to strip away the last vestiges of the old image of Herodotus the naïve traveler and story-teller, revealing him instead as both a brilliant and complex writer and a subtle thinker. The editors of Brill's Companion to Herodotus and their colleagues have provided a lucid and comprehensive guide to contemporary scholarship on Herodotus.

The twenty-five papers in the volume are divided into five thematically organized groups of papers: Herodotus and His Work, Herodotus and His World, The Histories as Narrative, The Historical Method, and History and Ethnography. Although Brill's Companion to Herodotus will be more often consulted than read straight through, a clear and coherent picture of the contemporary view of Herodotus and his work does emerge from such a reading. Reflecting the overwhelmingly literary focus of recent Herodotean scholarship, the first sections examine Herodotus as an author, the cultural and intellectual context of the Histories, and the Histories as a work of literature; while the last two examine Herodotus' approach to the past and his performance as a historian.

The four articles in the first group of papers deal with Herodotus' approach to the writing of his work. In "The Making of History: Herodotus' Histories Apodexis," Egbert Bakker offers a new reading of Herodotus' proem, arguing that histories apodexis should not be understood as referring to the publication of Herodotus' research but to the accomplishment of his inquiries and an invitation to his audience to join him in reenacting the investigative process that produced it. John Moles offers in "Herodotus and Athens" a finely nuanced analysis of the treatment of Athens in the Histories, showing that, while Herodotus' admiration of Persian War period Athens is open and generous, he was not a partisan of the Athenian democracy but shared the view expressed by Thucydides' Pericles that Athens' empire was a tyranny and prefigured the emergence of the empire and its threat to political freedom in Greece in his narrative. The recognition that Herodotus occupies the transition between oral composition and written texts is central to contemporary Herodotean scholarship. Simon Slings shows how devices typical of oral composition define Herodotus' style in "Oral Strategies in the Language of Herodotus." In the concluding paper of this section, "The Histories and Writing," Wolfgang Rösler offers a new answer to an old question -- the reason for Herodotus' transformation from a logographer to the first historian -- suggesting that in old age Herodotus decided to preserve for posterity "his stock of knowledge" in the form of a written monument, creating thereby a virtual Thucydidean ktema es aei.

The six papers in the second section of the volume shift focus to the intellectual context in which Herodotus' work was created. In "Epic Heritage and Mythical Patterns in Herodotus," Deborah Boedeker explores the interaction between Herodotus and the epic tradition, highlighting his numerous echoes of Homeric language and structures and his use of mythological patterns to organize many of his stories. Susanne Said argues in "Herodotus and Tragedy" that numerous examples of typical tragic themes in the Histories indicate that tragedy was an important literary influence on Herodotus, while noting at the same time that his emphasis on the pervasiveness of instability in human affairs is more typical of epic than tragedy. Kurt Raaflaub considers Herodotus as a fifth-century thinker in "Philosophy, Science, Politics: Herodotus and the Intellectual Trends of his Time," emphasizing the influence of contemporary ideas in science -- particularly medicine and geography -- and politics on Herodotus' work and suggesting that he and Thucydides differ primarily in the selection and use they made of these ideas. The final three papers in this section treat narrower topics, Jon Mikalson analyzing Herodotus' use of cultic thought in "Religion in Herodotus," Nick Fisher exploring the significance of Greek ideas of morality in Herodotean explanatory schemes in "Popular Morality in Herodotus," and Josine Blok surveying contemporary scholarship on the unusually prominent role Herodotus assigns to women as indices of societal health in "Women in Heodotus' Histories."

The three papers in the third section of the volume treat various aspects of Herodotus' compositional technique. Building on Henry Immerwahr's fundamental demonstration of the literary unity of the Histories, Irene J. F. de Jong in "Narrative Unity and Units" considers the various devices Herodotus used to articulate his complex narrative, noting in particular the importance of analepsis or flashback as a narrative device. Carolyn Dewald continues and refines her research into the nature of Herodotus' authorial "I" in "'I Didn't Give My Own Genealogy': Herodotus and Authorial Persona," identifying two registers in his authorial persona: one as the collector and re-teller of other peoples' narratives and the other as their investigator and critic. The section concludes with Vivienne Gray's comprehensive survey of Herodotus' use of short narratives in the Histories, "Short Stories in Herodotus' Histories."

After the treatment of the origins, intellectual context, and literary character of the Histories, the final two sections of Brill's Companion to Herodotus consider Herodotus' performance as an historian. The four papers in the fourth section examine questions concerning Herodotus' historical method. In "Herodotus and the Past" Hans van Wees argues that Herodotus conceived of his work as a world history with emphasis on origins and the rise and fall of empires. Paul Cartledge and Emily Greenwood consider Herodotus' self-proclaimed role as a critic of the traditions he reports and the significance of polarities such as Greek vs barbarians, males vs females, and gods vs men in his thought. Simon Hornblower examines Herodotus' use of sources in "Herodotus and his Sources of Information," rejecting both the search for specific identifiable sources used by Herodotus typical of 19th- and early 20th-century scholarship and Detlev Fehling's hypercritical critique of his source citations, and emphasizes instead the nature of Herodotus' interaction with the various sources of information available to him as suggested by his text. In the concluding paper of this section, "The Organization of Time in the Histories," Justus Cobet convincingly demonstrates the fallaciousness of Eduard Meyer's claim that Herodotus was uninterested in chronology, arguing that, although Herodotus accepted the separate internal chronologies of the traditions he collected, he organized those traditions into a single complex but coherent chronological system that linked the spatium mythicum (the time of Greek legend) and the spatium historicum (the time of the oriental kings and the three generations from the reign of Croesus to Herodotus' own lifetime).

The eight papers in the fifth and final section of the volume evaluate Herodotus' performance as an historian. The first four papers treat his ethnographies of non-Greek peoples with particular emphasis on their accuracy. Alan B. Lloyd recapitulates in "Egypt" the principal conclusions of his previous studies of Herodotus' Egyptian logos, namely that his account is founded on a solid foundation of knowledge of Egyptian realities but couched throughout in terms of Greek interests and characterized by a tension between insistence on the opposition of things Greek and Egyptian and the existence of an intimate link between Greek and Egyptian history and culture. In "Scythians" Stephanie West offers a more skeptical evaluation of the Scythian logos, admitting that archaeology has confirmed the general accuracy of much of Herodotus' account but questioning the extent of his first-hand knowledge of Scythia and emphasizing its deficiencies when compared to medieval descriptions of the same area such as that of William of Rubruck. Klaus Kartunen's "The Ethnography of the Fringes" provides a brief overview of Herodotus' descriptions of the ends of the earth with their paradoxical combination of environmental richness and peoples living in primitive simplicity, the polar opposite of the geographical center of the world inhabited by the Greeks with its ordered agriculturally based societies. More far-reaching in its conclusions, however, is Amélie Kuhrt's "Babylon," which argues that Herodotus' account of the topography of Babylon and its history and culture cannot be reconciled with the abundant cuneiform evidence and that the numerous scholarly efforts to do so are methodologically unsound.

The last four papers in the volume, which treat Herodotus' account of Greek history from the late archaic period through the Persian Wars, are somewhat anticlimactic. In part, this is due to the unfortunate deaths of David Asheri and Heleen Sancisi-Weedenberg, two of the principal scholars of Herodotus' account of this period, and the consequent loss of their contributions. Mainly, however, it reflects the fact that Herodotus' account continues to so dominate our understanding of this period that, as one of the authors notes, "the unsuccessful Persian invasions in the early fifth century are his [sc. Herodotus'] own creation" (p. 551). As a result the three papers in this section dealing with Greek history -- Robin Osborne's "Archaic Greek History;" Sara Forsdyke's "Greek History, c. 515-480 BC;" and Thomas Harrison's "The Persian Invasions" -- largely eschew the evaluation of the reliability of Herodotus' account, focusing instead on the analysis of its structure and themes.

Their conclusions are sound but hardly surprising. Herodotus was interested in the past primarily for the light it shed on contemporary issues, so that the political emphasis of his narrative reflects mid-fifth century concerns. He preferred oral to written sources, using the latter only to confirm oral evidence. Finally, his oral sources reflected multiple traditions -- polis, family, and popular -- so that efforts to explain the supposed tendance of his narrative of Persian War Athens, for example, in terms of his following an Alcmaeonid source are misguided. Heleen Sanicisi-Weedenberg's "The Personality of Xerxes, King of Kings," which concludes the volume, is a reprint of a previously published paper. Its lucid demonstration that the accepted psychological portrait of Xerxes as a weak, bigoted, and sensuous tyrant is a Greek construct without support in Persian sources is a sad reminder of the magnitude of the loss to Herodotean studies her death represented.

Inevitably, not everything is perfect in a collection of papers of this size and diversity. So, some of the papers demand that Herodotus' ethnographies pass a standard for reliability that is so high that, for example, few of the early European descriptions of the New World could meet it.1 Similarly, the welcome emphasis on Herodotus as a fifth-century thinker tends to isolate Herodotus from his predecessors and to obscure the extent of the originality of his vision of the past as compared to that codified in archaic works such as the Ps.-Hesiodic Catalogue of Women2 and rationalized by Hecataeus and other logographers. Finally, the focus on the literary aspects of Herodotus' work has led to a tendency to underestimate the impact of a basic fact on the shaping of the Histories: the criterion for inclusion in narrative history is relevance to the subject so that the Histories does not contain all that Herodotus knew or was told but only what he judged relevant to his topic, the Persian Wars.3

Nevertheless, the state of Herodotean scholarship revealed by Brill's Companion to Herodotus is remarkably healthy. A generation of exceptionally rich and varied research has revealed a new Herodotus, one who was a consummate literary artist, rooted in the intellectual culture of his time, and far closer in his thought and goals to Thucydides than had seemed possible to previous generations of scholars. Laid to a well-deserved rest is the analytical school of Herodotean studies with its view of the Histories as produced by a clumsy scissors-and-paste editing process, whose sutures are so obvious that the work can be dissected into its component logoi.4 Also gone is the tendency to assume that the virtues of the Histories can be explained by its dependence on some unfortunately lost written source such as the works of Hecataeus and Dionysius of Miletus, leaving Herodotus responsible only for its flaws.5 A sound foundation has been laid for further progress. Hopefully, that progress will be documented in a second edition of this fine work.


1.   Cf. The recent assessment of John Smith's account of his dealings with the Powhatan Indians by Frederic W.Gleach (Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures [Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1997] 119): "Smith consistently misunderstood things that happened to him in his interactions with the Powhatans, but it is still possible to reconstruct some of those meanings from the detailed accounts he published."
2.   Cf. M. L. West, The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, Its Nature, Structure, and Origins (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994). For a consideration of some of these issues as they concern Herodotus' account of Egypt see Stanley M. Burstein, "Hecataeus, Herodotus and the Birth of Greek Egyptology," Graeco Africana: Studies in the History of Greek Relations with Egypt and Nubia (New Rochelle: Aristide D. Caratzas, Publisher, 1995) 3-17.
3.   For a lucid discussion of the role of selection in historical narrative by a practicing historian see J. H. Hexter, The History Primer (New York: Basic Books, 1971). Robert Drews' (The Greek Accounts of Eastern History [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973]) analysis of the significance of Herodotus' choice of the Persian Wars as his topic for the shaping of the Histories deserves more attention than it has received.
4.   E.g. J. E. Powell, The History of Herodotus (London: Cambridge University Press, 1939).
5.   For an extreme example see William Arthur Heidel, Hecataeus and the Egyptian Priests in Herodotus, Book II, Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 18, 2 (Boston, 1935-1938) 49-134.

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