Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.11

Rosaria Vignolo Munson, Telling Wonders: Ethnographic and Political Discourse in the Work of Herodotus.   Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press, 2001.  Pp. 325.  ISBN 0-472-11203-1.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Stephanie Larson, Bucknell University (
Word count: 2347 words

Rosaria Vignolo Munson's (henceforth M) recent book on Herodotean ethnography and narrative is a must for every classicist's and ancient historian's bookshelf. M establishes, once and for all, Herodotus as a directed, focused, and purposeful writer. As one of her primary goals M explicates how Herodotus' ethnographies inform and support his treatment of the Persian wars, and she masterfully demonstrates how Herodotus as histor, or arbitrator, also presents judgments, reflections, and recommendations about current events and current perceptions to his audience through ethnographic examples. M's work thus nicely builds on previous Herodotean studies which (to greater and lesser degrees) situate Herodotus in his historical context (e.g., Cobet 1971, Fornara 1971, Raaflaub 1987, Thomas 2000) and which focus on the familiar refrain in Greek literature in general: instruction about the present through examples of the past. M's work is also important for studies of Greek perceptions of difference and Greek identities, since she argues convincingly that in his ethnographies Herodotus implicitly undermines his audience's traditional categories of Greekness and challenges them to see similarities between themselves and other groups. Selections from M's volume will be useful for advanced undergraduates; the entire work will be important for graduate students and scholars of historiography and ancient ethnicities.

One of the most impressive and refreshing aspects of M's work is her explication of these themes and of Herodotean storytelling through narratology. In her first chapter M classifies categories of Herodotean presentation: narrative (description and retelling of past events) and metanarrative (explanations or "readings" of the narrative action, including types of introductions and conclusions). Here Munson does a fine job of clearly distinguishing between types of narrative, but for the remainder of the book her main focus lies in explicating how Herodotus uses these structures rhetorically to guide his listeners to certain conclusions.

Especially intriguing is M's introduction to Herodotean metanarrative glosses. Self-referential glosses comprise references to Herodotus' process of inquiry (historie such as we find at 1.1), to other pieces of Herodotus' text as text, to the inquiries and reports of other sources outside Herodotean narrative, to the reliability of reported facts, to the uncertainty of such accounts, and perhaps most interestingly, to Herodotus' own opinion or reasoning about various reports. This type of metanarrative is furthest from the level of narrative. Referential glosses, on the other hand, lie closest to the level of the story. They include references to proven and known corroboration of the narrative (M calls these "glosses of testimony"), comparisons, evaluations, and celebratory remarks. M focuses the rest of her book on deep analysis of such referential glosses. In this first chapter M's categories of explanatory, identificatory, historical, and ethnographic glosses are occasionally confusing (she may not have needed so many divisions), although M's comments on the interreliance between historical and ethnographic glosses is credible and nicely prefigures the rest of the book. To this reviewer M's initial explanations of self-referential glosses of opinion and referential glosses of interpretation were difficult to distinguish, in part perhaps because, as M points out, these two types of metanarrative are often juxtaposed.

In Chapter 2 M puts to use her reader's familiarity with her method by considering comparison in Herodotean treatment of the problems of monarchy. She first considers Herodotus' narrative of Cleisthenes of Sikyon, which contains the embedded story of the Athenian Cleisthenes and his rise to power. M masterfully demonstrates that the Athenian is Herodotus' main subject; the details about Cleisthenes of Sikyon rather highlight some of the negative characteristics and practices of his grandson, not to mention monarchic tendencies in democratic Athens in general (including actions of Perikles and the demos itself). M continues to discuss monarchy by analyzing a second historical gloss of analogy set in the story of the Elian Teisamenos, a seer who attains Spartan citizenship and power in a way which implicitly establishes him as "kingly war leader" in that community and thus as an implicit model of Spartan kingship. In these two narratives, then, one Athenian and one Spartan, Herodotus cleverly deals with the thorny issues of attainment of kingly power (by anyone) and its uses. M's discussion of these passages is likewise subtle, especially in comparing them to other narratives from the Histories that pertain to the abuse of power by individuals against the state (e.g., the stories of Melampus, Deioces, the medizing Elean seer Hegistratos, and the Spartan king Pausanias).

In the second section of this lengthy chapter (the section itself numbers nearly 60 pages), M considers Herodotean ethnographic comparisons to unstated Greek norms as attempts both to reveal and challenge the prejudices of the Greeks toward barbarians. In one of the strongest discussions of the section, M critiques modern efforts to schematize Herodotus' presentation of non-Greek peoples; to M analyzing various types of comparative glosses reveals how Herodotus often defies rigid categorization of "the other" in his narrative. Through examples of the Agathyrsi, the Massagetae, and other lesser known ethne, M makes the much needed point that Herodotean foreigners are not all "hard," "soft," or diametrically opposed to Greek norms.

In this chapter M only briefly addresses the Herodotean theme of environmental determinism. Since M questions the validity of interpreting Herodotus as an advocate of the effect of geography and environment on ethnicity, this reviewer would have liked more discussion on the topic than the short page allotted.

One of the most appealing sections of chapter 2 concerns Herodotean methods of discussing similarities between nomoi of different peoples and the "moral equivalences" such comparisons engender. M points out that even when Herodotus personally seems to dislike a cultural difference of a certain people, he avoids passing his own judgment directly, preferring instead to omit the detail or topic, as he does in treating gods as animals in the Egyptian logos. In much of the rest of her discussion of book 2, M emphasizes Herodotus' concern to demonstrate the cultural similarities Greeks (and others) share with Egyptians, as seen particularly in Herodotus' cross-cultural observations on the ritual "Linus" song.

In four final brief subsections of chapter 2 M turns from the Egyptians to other ethne in discussing implicit glosses of similarity and analogy. Here M first suggests that, rather than showing how different the Lydians are from the Greeks, Herodotus uses history to exonerate the Lydians of their historically derived negative stereotype common in Athens. Instead Herodotus highlights important cultural markers and characteristics the Lydians share with the Greeks, such as coinage, wisdom, and early colonization. In arguing similarly for the Scythians, particularly in terms of Spartan society, M illustrates Herodotus' interest in analogical demonstration of cross-cultural connections between Greeks and barbaroi. She adduces the story of the Hellenized Skythian king Skyles, whose eventual destruction pushes the Skythian ethnos into a quagmire of communal reflection which, M suggests, would have caused positive consideration of the Skythian civilization on the part of the Greek audience. In discussing the fusion of the Amazons and Skythian peoples, M points to Herodotus' unique portrayal of the Amazons as not so different from any other ethnos, "Greeks included." These sections on Herodotean ethnographies and their messages are the strongest discussions in the chapter.

In Chapter 3 (another 100 page chapter) M addresses both explicit and implicit Herodotean evaluations of approval and disapproval of various ethnic groups. Taking up an earlier theme, M argues that Herodotus primarily expresses negativity towards barbaroi as represented through their monarchs; with just a few exceptions, his ethnographies on the whole still undermine traditional Greek interpretations of foreigners, as shown in Chapter 2. Herodotus often mollifies the occasional negative remark about others' customs with additional notes of praise, although, as M remarks, Herodotus seems to distinguish strange customs which benefit people and those which do not by explicitly praising the helpful nomoi, such as the Babylonian practice of collectively assisting all their sick in the marketplace. Many of Herodotus' negative remarks, in fact, consist in explicitly refuting the Greek version of certain stories or generally prejudiced accounts of entire peoples, e.g., the Egyptians, most notoriously. Alternatively, he focalizes opinions or criticisms about Greek ways or positive and legitimate evaluations of foreign cultures in the mouths of barbaroi. In the absence of explicit personal commentary, Herodotus is thus careful to compose his statements about different ethne neutrally, so as to promote cultural relativity in evaluation. M here adduces the Persian ethnography in which the Persians appear aggressively masculine, imperialistically ethnocentric, acquisitive, yet interestingly lacking the usual signs of barbarian depravity. Their acquisition of certain culturally Greek traits as well as the description of their character reduces the perceived differences between Greek and Persian. In this discussion M also remarks on Herodotus' well-known tendency to observe and encourage both cognitive and cultural relativism in detailing the religious beliefs, funerary customs, and additional nomoi of foreign peoples. M analyzes Herodotus' example of the mad Cambyses, a foil for the narrator himself and a paradigm for the type of cultural chauvinist who denigrates and disrespects foreign cultural norms as inferior to his own.

In one of the most informative sections of Chapter 3, M turns to Herodotean interpretation of the meaning behind select historical examples, specifically Herodotus' well known judgments about Athenian naval resistance to Xerxes and about Leonidas' persistence at Thermopylae; both rhetorically complex passages confirm the merits of Athens and Sparta according to the traditional heroic code. M then follows by discussing examples of Herodotean interpretations of the present through generalized prescriptions applicable to all. These gnomic statements both establish Herodotus as an observant historian and highlight many of the major ethical themes of the Histories, such as divine intervention in human lives, the concomitant instability of human fortune, and the related issue of divine phthonos. M here nicely explicates the passage concerning hostilities between Athens and Aegina (and the fall of Aegina), the embedded parable of the ruined Glaucos, and the account of Athenian killing of Darius' envoys. To M these and other related passages mark Athens' downfall through divine tisis as a strong possibility. In this chapter M also covers Herodotean themes of divine communication as an aid for interpreting history and culture, parallels and continuity between the Persian wars, and the relationships between fifth-century Athenian expansionism, utilitarianism, and democracy.

In a timely commentary, M concludes Chapter 3 by considering Herodotean views on the evils of war and the difference between wars of aggression and the protection of national security. She adduces the Skythians and Spartans as examples of communities whose imperialist aggression lies in the past and whose contemporary actions limit war when possible, except when forced to defend their freedom. Athens appears as a nuanced opposite, a state that participated in the Persian wars as a defensive ally but evolved into something different, a contributor to intra-Greek stasis through the pursuit of arche. At the end of this section M discusses Herodotus as narrator and arbitrator of past disputes and commentator on the "subjectivity of opinion" through reports of variant versions of events. In a variety of commentaries on specific passages M astutely emphasizes the metanarrative function of these past quarrels as allusions to contemporary fifth-century debates and issues, such as the Athenian story of Corinthian cowardice at Salamis (a reference to contemporary trouble between Athens and Corinth).

M's final chapter brings her reader back to the title of the work by discussing thomata and Herodotus' explicit presentation of certain ethnographic and historical phenomena as wonders. M argues that, rather than simply marking himself as an ethnographer by narrating wonders, Herodotus uses metanarrative markers of wonder to stimulate his audience to further reflection on a variety of topics, especially phenomena similar to or different from their Greek counterparts. Through his narrative technique thomata also establish Herodotus as an independent observer, narrator, and authority over his stories. Here M contributes a most interesting discussion of animals, whose behavior is often marked as wondrous, and their symbolic and historic significance in Herodotus; in one instance she deftly juxtaposes the lions who attack Xerxes' camels to Leonidas and the Spartans who attack the Persians at Thermopylae. M also turns briefly to the story of Arion and the dolphin, which is buried in a narrative of Eastern aggression against a smaller Greek community whose story, among other functions, foreshadows the escape of the Greeks from the Persians. M's last case study concerns the possibilities of meaning for the term thoma, as seen in Herodotus' account of Alkmaeonid treachery at Marathon and his "lighthearted" narrative of their family history. To M Herodotus adduces the slander against the Alkmaeonids as a wonder to spur on reflection about the present -- his account of their history calls into question dichotomies prevalent at the time of composition, such as tyranny and democracy, or citizen and foreigner. M clearly chose her very best exegesis to conclude this book.

In her conclusion M considers Herodotus in context, particularly the possible effects that working in Thurii might have had on the historian. Of course this question and many others about cultural influences on Herodotus can never be sufficiently answered, but M's provisional images of the Thurian Herodotus paint a portrait of the author consistent with the concerns of his work as a whole: he is a free thinker, an expatriate of sorts, and thus one qualified to observe culture from the outside and to draw conclusions and implicit judgments about present and recent history from his cultural observations.

Ironically in terms of weaknesses the most pressing seems to be the structure of M's narrative. At times the text seems a bit like a list of examples of certain types of glosses, and the two intermediate chapters are quite long, but M offsets this format by including subheadings and detailed explication of various passages in each subsection. The text also occasionally appears a bit repetitious in theme (albeit not in textual example). Not all of M's details about types of narrative seemed necessary since some are already well-known Herodotean features.

The printed text is almost perfect. I noticed only one error: a missing parenthesis in the first sentence of the final paragraph of p. 189 which made the paragraph difficult to follow.

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