Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.11

Wolfgang Blösel, Themistokles bei Herodot: Spiegel Athens im fünften Jahrhundert. Studien zur Geschichte und historiographischen Konstruktion des griechischen Freiheitskampfes 480 v. Chr. Historia Einzelschriften 183.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 2004.  Pp. 422.  ISBN 3-515-08533-5.  €76.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Bernd Steinbock, University of Western Ontario (
Word count: 3984 words

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

"That historians -- whether consciously or unconsciously -- reflect the present in their depiction of the past is by now a commonplace."1 This "Gegenwartsbezug" (29) lies at the heart of Wolfgang Blösel's (B.) comprehensive and well-grounded analysis of Herodotus' portrayal of the Athenian statesman Themistocles. In this revision of his 1997 dissertation in Ancient History at Heidelberg, B. argues that Herodotus, in search of a higher truth, radically altered his source material to stylize his Themistocles as an incarnation of fifth-century Athens with all its contradictions, thus implicitly chastising its unbridled imperialism in his own time: after its noble fight for Greek liberty Athens as a whole succumbed to pleonexia and hubris, just as the Athenian strategos had done after his heroic accomplishment at Salamis (362-3).

That historians reflect the present in their depiction of the past does not apply only to Herodotus' depiction of Themistocles, though, but to B.'s depiction of Herodotus as well. Two trends in recent scholarship permeate B.'s work: the first is the application of oral tradition studies to ancient Greek historiography as seen, for instance, in Rosalind Thomas' work or in Luraghi's essay collection The Historian's Craft in the Age of Herodotus, to which B. contributed a paper in English.2 The second trend, influenced by the concept of Ideologiekritik, is a political reading of ancient literature, sensitive to subversive elements that expose and criticize existing power structures such as Athens' imperialistic rule in the Delian League.3 Combining these two concepts B. develops a methodology of his own, suitable for his two main goals: the study of Herodotus' use of his sources and his view of Athens.

Given the enormous density of B.'s meticulous discussions it is impossible to do justice to all aspects of this monograph. It seems best, therefore, to focus on B.'s methodology and to discuss only a few examples which, representative of B.'s approach, provide an opportunity for critiquing his premises, especially those concerning 1) the availability of reliable historical information, 2) the limitation of arguments from probability, 3) the historian's claim to display the results of his inquiry, and 4) intentional versus unconscious reflections of the present in Herodotus' depiction of the past.

The book is organized in eight chapters, which follow the order of episodes featuring Themistocles in the Histories: the oracle of the "wooden walls" and Themistocles' naval program (chapter I); the Greek expedition to Thessaly (chapter II); the battle of Artemisium (chapter III); the battle of Salamis (chapter IV); its aftermath and Themistocles' second secret message to Xerxes (chapter V); his blackmailing of Cycladic islanders (chapter VI); Themistocles as object of envy (chapter VII); and Themistocles' downfall (chapter VIII). Furthermore, the book contains a wide-ranging introduction, a concise conclusion, a very substantial bibliography, and two maps (Mount Olympus area and Salamis). Especially attractive for scholars primarily interested in specific problems are the five indices, referencing in detail historical personnel, places and themes, modern scholarship, and quotations of ancient authors, inscriptions, and papyri. The book is thoroughly edited with very few minor typographical errors.

The scope of B's work is vast and he approaches his topic with extraordinary rigor and enthusiasm. He identifies four interconnected objectives in this study of Herodotus' craft and his view of Athens. First, on an intra-textual level he seeks to illuminate Herodotus' characterization and assessment of Themistocles by analyzing all 20 Themistocles episodes in the Histories. Second, in a thorough historical analysis B. seeks to evaluate the historicity of these episodes and detect historical deformations both in Herodotus' and in his sources' account. Third, with the help of a set of specific criteria derived form oral tradition studies B. sets out to reconstruct the original pre-Herodotean traditions as foil for Herodotus' literary creation. Fourth, on the basis of these conscious manipulations, which often contain allusions to contemporary Athenian actions and practices, B. hopes to demonstrate that Herodotus intended to display the ambivalent behavior of Athens in the fifth century and to implicitly criticize its unbridled imperialism after the Persian Wars (55-63).

B.'s goals are ambitious, and he does an admirable job in piecing together all the available evidence. Yet, considering the scarcity of comparable contemporary evidence, many of his arguments are necessarily based on cumulative evidence and probability. The success of B.'s depiction of Herodotus' work is, therefore, based on the consistency of his argument. In his "Einleitung" (13-63), B. lays a solid foundation for his study by explicitly stating his position in regard to many contentious issues relevant to his thesis, such as the nature and use of Herodotus' sources, his historical accuracy, his intended audience, his vision of history, the intentionality behind his work and its publication form and date.

B. dismisses Felix Jacoby's (1913) influential position that Herodotus, following his programmatic statement to report what is being reported (legein ta legomena), functioned as mere "Sprachrohr" of various oral traditions (39). Following Fornara (1971), Evans (1991), Munson (1988), Moles (2002), he views Herodotus' portrayal of Themistocles less as a faithful reflection of various fifth-century oral traditions than as the artistic creation of its author, representing the prototypical Athenian. (17-21). B. is aware that to ascribe such a high degree of artistic license to the "father of history" has far-reaching implications for our assessment of Herodotus' craft. He therefore makes a convincing case for Herodotus' "literarisch-künstlerischen Gestaltungswillen." In so doing, B. covers all the bases. Following the unitarians Regenbogen (1930), Immerwahr (1966), and Cobet (1988), B. stresses the thematic unity of Herodotus' work: his historiography is paradigmatic and, by means of various leitmotifs, illustrates the general pattern of the rise and fall of the mighty. Herodotus thereby adds to the examples of Croesus and the four Persian kings another, hidden, story line, which portrays the rise (and imminent fall) of Athens (38, 366).

B. considers the Histories in their final form as a literary product, published between 424 and 421 (27) and written to encourage discontented Greek aristocrats: they were the only ones with the necessary financial and educational means to read books and suffered most under the imperialistic politics of the Athenian democracy (33, 38). It is crucial for B.'s enterprise to endow Herodotus' audience with the ability to detect even very subtle allusions. Drawing upon Meier's (1980) and Raaflaub's (1987) studies of Athenian political discourse, B. argues that Athenians especially had developed this skill through discussions of abstract concepts such as justice, hubris, and revenge and through their exposure to drama (31).

B. is aware that his view of Herodotus as conscious manipulator of his source material is somewhat at odds with the historian's claim to report what he had heard. He attempts to bridge this gap by breaking down the Aristotelian dichotomy between historiography and poetry: the ancient historian just as the poet is in search of a higher, more general truth; deliberate manipulations of the given source material are therefore justified if they enable the historian to exemplify the patterns of history as he sees them (46-51).

For his third goal, the reconstruction of Herodotus' original sources, B. applies the following set of principles derived from oral tradition studies: First, oral sources evince partisanship, as Gentili's (1988) work on early Greek poetry shows. Herodotus' sources therefore either glorified Themistocles as hero of Salamis or demonized him as arch-traitor of Greece, especially after his flight to the Persian court following his ostracism in 471. Second, owing to their partisanship, oral sources often betray their place of origin. Third, they often have an aetiological function, i.e. they provide an explanation why something happened in a certain, not always predictable way. If his reconstructions fulfill these three criteria, B. considers them as Herodotus' original sources (62). Using this method he reconstructs, for instance, three slanderous post-war attacks against Themistocles, which blamed the corrupt and greedy arch-traitor Themistocles for the otherwise inexplicable retreats of the heroic Greek forces at Tempe, Artemisium and Carystus respectively (337). In each case, Herodotus, so B., completely overturned these traditions for his own literary and ideological purposes.

Based on these methodological principles and drawing upon a wide range of evidence, B. then subjects Herodotus' Themistocles episodes to a thorough analysis. In chapter I, B. examines Themistocles' role in the Athenian decision to oppose the Persians at sea (Hdt. 7.139-144). Here as in the following chapters B. demonstrates an extraordinary familiarity with 150 years of Herodotean studies. He cites all the available evidence, weighs a multitude of interpretations and tackles nearly every single problem related to this episode from the first fortification of the Piraeus and Themistocles' alleged archonship in 493/2 (67-70) to the origin, purpose and size of the Athenian naval program and its erroneous connection to Aristides' ostracism (74-90). Though these extensive discussions of particular problems are very insightful, they at times can distract from B.'s main argument, i.e. that Herodotus, for dramaturgical reasons, chose to follow the patriotic Athenian tradition which conflated various stages in the Athenian response to the Persian threat into one critical assembly meeting, thus dating the debate about the wooden wall oracle and the decision to oppose the Persians exclusively at sea to the very beginning of the Greek resistance (100-101). Herodotus, so B., stylized Themistocles as deus ex machina who, with his correct interpretation of the two (interpolated) oracle lines about Salamis (103-104), was most decisive in bringing to fruition the divine plan to save Greece (Hdt. 7.139-144).

In this chapter, B.'s optimistic assessment of Herodotus' ability to distinguish true and false historical information becomes most palpable. B. assumes that Herodotus knew very well that the patriotic Athenian version was inaccurate, but chose to follow it anyway, for his literary purposes (101): "Dass geschichtskundige Athener nicht auf der Einhaltung der korrekten Chronologie für den Evakuierungs- und Seekriegsbeschluss bestanden, wenn -- zumal in der aufgeheizten Atmosphäre der 430er und 420er Jahre -- ein Geschichtsschreiber die patriotische Propagandaversion der Athener wiedergab, verwundert nicht. Wieso aber ist gerade Herodot deren falscher Chronologie gefolgt?" Similarly, he criticizes the orator Andocides for his chronological mistakes in Andoc. 3.3-7, which he could have avoided, so B., by consulting the "offiziellen Traditionen" (which B. does not further specify) instead of using the faulty memories of his grandfather (58). Not everybody would agree with such an optimistic assessment concerning the availability of reliable information, especially in the light of recent oral tradition studies which show the prevalence of oral communications in fifth-century Greece and emphasize the unstable and malleable nature of collective memory. According to these theories, historical deformations as seen, for instance, in this patriotic Athenian tradition do not necessarily stem from intentional manipulations but often happen unconsciously as a result of present societal needs and the oral mode of communications. Since remembering is by and large a social activity, even individual memories of participants in the events are not immune to such deformations within these collective memorial frameworks. Moreover, oral carriers of information such as the patriotic Athenian funeral orations or Andocides' family traditions conveyed much more authority and credibility than the written word.4 B. himself cites these studies approvingly (40-1, 57-59) and, as seen above, applies many of their principles. He convincingly describes, for instance, how in Athenian collective memory several assembly meetings were conflated and Themistocles became the farsighted sole creator of the Athenian naval program for the war against the Persians (90). B. accepts these premises for his reconstruction of Herodotus' original sources, but, when it comes to Herodotus' use of these sources, B. seems to place him somehow above and beyond these contemporary communicative conditions.5

Chapter II deals with the aborted Greek expedition to Thessaly in the spring of 480 (Hdt. 172-173). On the basis of topographical, political and strategic considerations and drawing upon a fourth-century reference derived from the fifth-century historian Damastes of Sigeum (FGrHist 5 F 4), B. considers the Aleuads' and other Thessalians' pro-Persian stance as the true reason for the failed Tempe-expedition (109-111). B. thus dismisses Herodotus' explanation that Alexander of Macedon's warning about the enormity of Xerxes' host and the existence of a turning route had caused the Greeks to retreat. He reconstructs as Herodotus' original source an apologetic Thessalian tradition in which the Macedonian king instigated the Greeks' withdrawal by bribing the arch-traitor Themistocles. Herodotus, so B., radically altered this story, in order to free the Athenian strategos from any suspicion of treason at this early stage of the war (121-131).

Chapter III focuses on the anecdotes of Themistocles' double bribe (Hdt. 8.4-5) and the slaughter of the Euboean livestock (Hdt. 8.19-20). B. sets out to examine their historicity, to reconstruct the original pre-Herodotean versions, and to find the reasons for Herodotus' radical alterations. Assessing the military, political and logistical situation before and after the battle of Artemisium, B. argues that the anecdote of Themistocles' double bribe -- he receives a bribe of 30 talents from the Euboeans and uses some of it to bribe his fellow commanders to engage the Persian fleet -- lacks historical probability (140), especially the alleged near retreat before the battle (140-2) and the idea of monetary payments from the Euboeans for the defense of their island (142-5). That this anecdote can be cut out without leaving a gap in the causal chain of events is a further sign for its invention (57, 145). B. then reconstructs Herodotus' original source for this bribery by using his three methodological principles -- partisanship, place of origin and aetiological function. B. proposes that a slanderous post-war Athenian tradition blamed the arch-traitor Themistocles for taking a bribe from the Histiaeans (the only medizers on Euboea and mentioned in Hdt. 8.23) for instigating the otherwise inexplicable retreat of the Greek fleet after the victorious battle of Artemisium (160-5). Herodotus, so B., turned this slanderous story completely around and stylized Themistocles as unequivocally loyal defender of the Greek cause.

B.'s analysis of the historical situation and his reconstruction of Herodotus' original source are an impressive and quite plausible example of analytical reasoning. Yet two caveats should be mentioned in this context; one concerns arguments from probability, the other Herodotus' claim to report the results of his inquiry. B. considers, for instance, Herodotus' account of the near retreat from Artemisium as highly improbable, based on the following arguments: the naval defense of Artemisium was part of a sound Greek strategy to protect Leonidas' rear; the Greeks would not have been shocked by the sight of Xerxes' army, since they long knew of its size; Herodotus often uses Greek fear in the face of Xerxes' might as a dramaturgical device (140-2). These arguments do not prove the near retreat to be unhistorical, however. Historical events do not always follow the laws of probability. It is quite possible that the Greeks, despite their best intentions to stop the Persians at Artemisium, indeed panicked seeing the size of Xerxes' army and that Themistocles then somehow galvanized the Greek resistance. Consequently, the anecdote of the double bribe could be based on a multitude of potential historical cores which oral traditions and/or Herodotus then fleshed out and embellished: Themistocles might have persuaded Eurybiades and Adeimantus, the Corinthian commander, to oppose the Persians at Artemisium; a rich Euboean landowner might have approached Themistocles with a considerable sum to ensure the defense of his homeland; etc. Though these explanations cannot be verified, they are possible and have the advantage that they do not require us to question Herodotus' honesty and sincerity as a historian. B.'s reconstruction, on the other hand, suggests that Herodotus, in defiance of his programmatic claim to display the results of his inquiry (ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ), radically altered the essence of his original source and -- without any further historical clues -- invented a fictitious scenario. B. tries to mitigate the tension between these inventions and the historian's claim to report his findings by asserting that Herodotus knew that the traditions and stories surrounding Themistocles were utterly biased, distorted and false anyway, and thus took the license to reshape them to reveal a higher truth, i.e. the ambivalence of fifth-century Athens (164, 364). Yet some uneasiness on my part remains.

After a similar analysis of the second Themistocles anecdote and the reconstruction of its original sources (deceptive fires, the Odyssean slaughter of Helius' cattle, and the Euboean Bacis oracle) (145-158), B. takes on the third and most exciting objective of his thesis, namely to detect allusions to Athens' contemporary imperialistic rule in Herodotus' portrayal of Themistocles. According to B., both anecdotes taken together bring out the ambivalence in Themistocles' character: he is greedy and opportunistic, but also clever and the backbone of the Greek resistance (160). B. argues that Herodotus fashioned these two anecdotes to invoke the perfidious treatment of the Euboeans by the Athenians in 446, when Pericles used allied tribute money to bribe Pleistoanax' advisor to abort the Spartan relief mission in support of the revolting Euboeans (cf. Thuc. 1.114.1-2, Plut. Per. 22.1). According to B., Herodotus' double bribe would have reminded his contemporaries of the double "bribe" of 446 (Euboean tribute money - Pericles - Spartan commander). Through Themistocles' perfidious destruction of the Euboeans' livestock, Herodotus implicitly criticized the Athenians for depriving the tribute paying Euboeans of their freedom (165-173). B. sets forth further evidence for this implicit criticism: Themistocles' bribe of 30 talents would remind Herodotus' contemporaries of the Euboean tribute payments, which after the reassessment decree of 425/4 (IG I3 71, col. 1) amounted to roughly 30 talents. The Bacis-oracle and Themistocles' sacrifice of the livestock invoke two details of the assembly decree concerning the reintegration of Chalcis into the Delian League after the revolt in 446/5 (cf. IG I3 40, line 64-69). Moreover, B. asserts that the Athenians in the 420s hearing of Themistocles' slaughter of the Euboeans' livestock must have turned red from shame, since it was to Euboea where they brought their own livestock in the Peloponnesian war (169).

Even if one does not follow B. in every single point, one has to admit that B. built the strongest possible case for his thesis that Herodotus intended to criticize Athens' imperialistic policies by means of such deliberate allusions. Even skeptics who feel uneasy about ascribing such a high decree of intentional alterations to the "father of history" cannot deny that Herodotus' account of the Greek defense effort contains many anachronisms and often reflects the political situation of Herodotus' own day. Critics might object, however, that such historical deformations are not necessarily the result of intentional manipulations. As Fentress and Wickham have shown, it is the natural tendency of social memory, especially in predominantly oral cultures, "to suppress what is not meaningful ... in the collective memories of the past, and interpolate or substitute what seems more appropriate or more in keeping with [a society's] particular conception of the world."6 And often, the remembering community is unaware of these changes. Themistocles' invocation of the Ionians' descent in his inscribed message at Artemisium (Hdt. 8.22), for instance, is not necessarily an intentional Herodotean criticism of the failed Athenian policy to enforce their subjects' loyalty through oaths invoking their religious obligations towards their metropolis, as B. claims (180-3). It could simply be the argument which Herodotus and his contemporaries -- based on their experience in the Pentecontaetia -- thought most natural for an Athenian commander to use in an appeal to Ionians.

In chapter IV B. argues convincingly that Herodotus used the anonymous deceptive message to Xerxes as the historical core for his account of the events at Salamis (221) and, drawing upon Athenian traditions which glorified Themistocles and defamed the Peloponnesians, created a series of fictitious encounters and debates to fashion Themistocles as the backbone of the Greek resistance, who tricked not only Xerxes but also the unwilling Peloponnesians into fighting at Salamis. Thereby Themistocles shows again his cleverness by posing as Xerxes' friend, thus creating a safety net for himself in case of defeat. Yet in the person of Mnesiphilus (Hdt. 8.56-58) Herodotus provides Themistocles with the authorization by all Athenians to do what it takes to ensure the defense of Salamis (190), and through the exchange with Aristides (Hdt. 8.79-81) Herodotus defends his protagonist against potential accusations of treason by allowing him to justify his secret message to Xerxes (228). In two appendices B. identifies the diapeira scene in Iliad 2 as contrastive foil for Herodotus' account of the Greek activities on Salamis and presents further arguments against the authenticity of the so-called Themistocles decree.

In chapter V B. analyzes Themistocles' role in the war council at Andros and his second secret message to Xerxes (Hdt. 8.108-110). B. sees in Themistocles' readiness to give up his initial plan to destroy the bridges on the Hellespont and in his advice to the Athenians to go home and take care of their own affairs a sharp turning point in Herodotus' characterization of Themistocles. Up to the battle of Salamis Themistocles used his cleverness for the Greek cause but afterwards only for his own advantage, as the second, unhistorical, message to Xerxes shows (260-261).

In chapter VI we see the worst in Themistocles' character. Solely driven by pleonexia, he secretively extorts money from several Cycladic poleis (Hdt. 8.111-112). B. considers the unsuccessful sieges of Andros and Carystus (both medizing cities and of great strategic importance) as the historical core of this episode (293). When Themistocles threatens the Andrians by pointing to Persuasion (Πειθώ) and Compulsion (ἀναγκαία) as the two powerful goddesses on Athens' side, we are reminded not only of Themistocles' chief traits but also of the principle instruments of Athens' imperialism in Herodotus' own day. According to B., Herodotus, just as in the case of Miltiades (Hdt. 6.132-136), radically changed a slanderous tradition according to which Themistocles was bribed to lift the siege and invented this exchange with the Andrians to invoke a specific historical situation in 450 B.C. when the Andrians successfully complained about Athenian settlements and their horrendous tribute payments (304).

In chapter VII B. argues convincingly that Herodotus crafted the final three anecdotes (Hdt. 8.123-125) to underscore Themistocles' and (thus the Athenians') merits for Greece. But all three episodes also expose Themistocles' desire for recognition and show him as object of envy, and thus indicate the reasons for his imminent downfall.

In chapter VIII B. goes beyond Herodotus' text and examines Themistocles' reputation in the decades following the Persian Wars. B. is able to distinguish various phases in the Athenian's post-war carrier which gave rise to both anti-Themistoclean slanders and eulogies praising him as savor of Greece. Herodotus, so B., tried to acquit Themistocles of the slanderous charges of treason, while he used the negative depictions of Themistocles' character traits to chastise present-day Athens' for its pleonexia and the hubristic treatment of its allies (357).

In sum, B.'s study of Herodotus' portrayal of Themistocles is an impressive achievement. B. is incredibly well-read and firmly grounds his thesis in 150 years of Herodotean scholarship. After B's study there can be little doubt that Herodotus shaped his Themistocles as mirror of fifth-century Athens and was critical of the Athenian empire in his own time. There is less certainty, however, concerning B.'s reconstruction of Herodotus' sources and the degree of intentionality behind certain reflections of the present in his depiction of the past. Given the communicative conditions of fifth-century Greece and the scarcity of information about the course of events, Herodotus' sources, and his intended audience, many of B.'s reconstructions and conclusions are (necessarily) conjectural. And, naturally, not everybody will agree with all of them. Nevertheless, B.'s view of Herodotus as a highly literate and sophisticated author who, for the sake of a higher historical truth, radically changed his source material in order to implicitly criticize Athens' unbridled imperialism by means of subtle allusions is in itself consistent and conforms to B.'s premises. This monograph is an exemplary study and an important contribution to the field, and anybody interested in Herodotus' view of Athens and his literary and historical craftsmanship should read it.


1.   Blösel, W., "The Herodotean Picture of Themistocles: A Mirror of Fifth-century Athens," in N. Luraghi (ed.), The Historian's Craft in the Age of Herodotus (Oxford 2001), 180.
2.   B.'s paper (cited above in note 1) focuses on Themistocles' role at Artemisium and Andros and provides a lucid illustration of his approach, especially for non-German speakers.
3.   One reason for the prevalence of Ideologiekritik in contemporary German scholarship can be attributed to changes in cultural and literary studies in the 1970s, which were influenced by the Frankfurt School's Critical Theory and its intention to unveil the ideological function or quality of literature.
4.   Cf. Thomas, R., Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens (Cambridge, New York, 1989); Thomas, R., Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, New York 1992); Yunis, H. (ed), Written Texts and the Rise of Literate Culture in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, New York 2003). For social/collective memory in general, cf. Fentress, J. & Wickham, C., Social Memory (Oxford, Cambridge, 1992); Schudson, M., "Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory" in: D. L. Schacter (ed.), Memory Distortion. How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past (Cambridge, 1995), 346-64.
5.   To locate Herodotus within such a predominantly oral context is the main objective of Luraghi's collection of essays (see note 1).
6.   Fentress & Wickham (cited above in note 4), pp. 58-9.

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