Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.04.47

Carolyn Dewald, John Marincola, The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006.  Pp. 378.  ISBN 0-521-83001-X.  $75.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-521-53683-9.  $29.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jessica Evans, Trinity College, Dublin (
Word count: 3763 words

Table of Contents

For students beginning their journey in Herodotean studies this collection of essays, focusing on Herodotus as an artist as well as an historian, offers a comprehensive survey of past and current research in the field. Comprehension of the essays is facilitated by maps and a timeline of events in both the Greek and non-Greek world. When reading an author such as Herodotus whose narrative is woven through disparate times and places, maps and timelines are invaluable. Many of the articles are followed by short sections on further reading on their respective topics which will serve well those seeking to investigate further the topic at hand.

The introduction provides a brief synopsis of Herodotean scholarship from Felix Jacoby's landmark 'Herodotus' entry in Pauly Wissowa to the application of postmodernism in the 80s. The histories of specific debates are traced, including the separatist/analyst versus the unitarian approach to the Histories; Herodotus' relationship with Athens; as well as his trustworthiness and reliability as an historian. During the 80s several developments in the field of history contributed to the Herodotean debate: postmodernism, the application of anthropological and sociological methods to classics, recognition of the eurocentricity of previous approaches, and the intellectual relationship between Herodotus and his own cultural milieu. As Carolyn Dewald and John Marincola note in their introduction, modern perceptions of Herodotus are based in large part on previous scholarship. For students new to the field, the introduction provides a framework and historical context within which recent work may be analysed, and new ideas formed.

The first four articles of the companion focus on the predecessors and contemporaries whose influence, though often unstated, it is possible to trace. The first two articles of the companion concern Herodotus' predecessors. Marincola considers the influence of poetry on Herodotus, whose work is the first great piece of prose from antiquity. Although the ancients recognized that Herodotus was most influenced by Homer, Marincola seeks to draw from Herodotus' work the ways in which the historian distinguishes himself from his predecessors both in theme and in presentation of material. He begins his analysis by highlighting the differences between the Homeric and the Herodotean narrator. While Homer's subjects are men of long ago, Herodotus dealt with the recent past to show that great deeds were and still could be achieved. Marincola continues his investigation by noting the ways in which the role of the wise advisor differs in Herodotus' work from what is seen in his poetic predecessors. He concludes his analysis with thoughts on the notion of poetic versus historical truth.

Robert Fowler traces the emergence of historia as a word meaning 'inquiry', 'investigate', or 'question' to the fourth century definition of 'history', first used by Aristotle in the Poetics. Although Herodotus was certainly not the first to write or narrate genealogy, ethnography, and geography, the greatness of the author which afforded him the title of 'father of history' lies in his application of the concept of inquiry to human events, a process which allowed him to infer the causes of human affairs. From the often polemical tone of the Histories, Fowler surmises that Herodotus would have been exposed to, and interacted with, philosophers, for whom inquiry was an essential component of their art, as well as ethnographers and geographers. In conclusion Fowler notes that 'no other work had Herodotus' breath-taking sweep, not only of space and time, but of human life from the bathetic to the sublime' (38). Attached to the article is a timeline tracing the dates and works of Herodotus' prose predecessors, including where fragmentary historians may be found. The timeline serves as a useful tool for anyone wishing to further investigate pre-Herodotean Greek prose.

The next article brings the reader from Herodotus' past inspirations to his contemporary peers. Jasper Griffin explores the relationship and possible influence of tragic authors on Herodotus, beginning with the ways in which the tragic authors imitated Homer. Similarities between tragedy and the Histories can be found in the material presented, the treatment of the gods, and the moral lens through which many of the stories are told. Although thematically the Histories has much in common with tragedy, the construction of Herodotus' work, with its many digressions, bears little resemblance to tragic plays; Herodotus' technique is more in line with Homer than the tragedians, whose plays are marked by contrasting speeches, followed by stichomythia. Griffin concludes his article with a comparison between Aeschylus' Persae and the battle of Salamis in Herodotus, marking the differences between the narration of the scene which were required by their respective genres.

Rosalind Thomas' article examines the influence and interaction between Herodotus and his predecessors as well contemporaries, focusing on philosophers, intellectuals, and sophists. Though much attention has been paid to the intellectual debt owed to Athens by the historian, Thomas notes that there were plenty of intellectuals throughout the Aegean who may have come into contact with Herodotus; Athens need not be the place where the historian encountered intellectual stimulation. Although it may be impossible to know by whom Herodotus was most influenced, Thomas shows that Herodotus was as much a product of his pre-Socratic predecessors with respect to inquiry as he was of his contemporaries when it came to the importance of evidence and method for inquiry.

The next three articles examine Herodotus' method as an historian. Nino Luraghi's article examines the relationship between meta-historie--the statements made by Herodotus concerning the nature and origin of his information--and genre. These statements usually come either in the form of first-person comments by Herodotus who has seen, opsis, the marvel he is describing, or in that of judgement statements, gnome, made by the historian in order to assess a situation. Luraghi concludes that meta-historie was a method for dealing with the problem of relaying information, the truthfulness of which Herodotus could not validate. By attributing a story to a particular group, Herodotus is able to distance himself from his material. These akoe statements should rather be viewed as 'disclaimers' (83), rather than proof of provenance or credibility. The akoe statements cannot be evidence of forgery, nor can they be used as evidence for Herodotus' own life, nor his historical method. Meta-historie was a method by which Herodotus was able to guide his reader in what to expect from this new genre, a method which not only shaped Herodotus' history, but defined the genre of history writing itself.

Egbert Bakker's article is an intricate and careful analysis of Herodotus' style. Although Herodotus was categorized as stylistically belonging to the previous generation by Aristotle, Bakker argues that his style is paratactic neither in syntax nor in style. Herodotus' stories should be read as one logos rather than a serious of digressions; each story is ultimately linked thematically with regard to either place or time, and syntactically by signposts within the text, thereby creating a syntaxis. Through a careful analysis of the opening of the Histories, Bakker explores how Herodotus uses indirect speech, demonstrative pronouns, and particles as cues to the reader. The examination reveals that Herodotus' style was a 'unique phenomenon in the history of Greek narrative' (101).

Christopher Pelling addresses the complexity created by speech, logos, which is often far from logical, and complicated by the narrative. Wise advisors deliver veiled speeches which 'dwell on the man's bigness rather than his real or potential badness' (106). In the case of Persian debate, the Persian process of deliberation is displayed just before the battle of Salamis. Although the recommendations made in the debate may be contrary to what the king desires to hear, they nonetheless embody certain truths about the outcome of events which cannot be ignored. The debate on the Greek side before the battle of Salamis stands in sharp contrast to the Persian meeting of advisors. The Greek debate is chaotic, and an inferior argument is presented to persuade the audience. Such an argument is offered because the speaker, in this case Themistocles, believes that it will be the one that will win, even though the narrative reveals that the one not chosen would have been best. Rarely is there ever any straight talking in Herodotus. The logos is not rational, nor can it be since the speakers are compelled by circumstance to say what is required by the situation.

The following four articles concern the function of story-telling in the Histories. In each of the articles the stories are examined for their intrinsic value rather than impediments to the narrative flow.

Carolyn Dewald and Rachel Kitzinger explore the parallels between the story of Itaphernes' wife and Antigone. Both characters choose to save a brother instead of a child or husband. Although Itaphernes' wife is ultimately successful, she uses language to manipulate the king to give her not only her brother but also her son in an argument that bears remarkable resemblance to that of Antigone: both a son and a husband can be replaced, but when ones parents have passed, a brother is irreplaceable. Such rhetoric is even more alarming from the mouth of Antigone, whose words, up till this point in the play, have always been in accordance with her own reality. But Antigone does not have a husband, nor does she have a child; her argument does not reflect her own experience. By placing such words in the mouth of Antigone Sophocles shows us the power of words to set forth arguments of which we know nothing in order to persuade others.

Alan Griffiths examines the function of stories in Herodotus. Herodotus' work is a stream with pools, stories which are detailed accounts that contribute to the main current, and creeks, stories that are either analeptic, i.e. look backwards, or proleptic, i.e. look forwards; a work which examines the histories of different peoples living at the same time must necessarily be 'multi-threaded' (134). Herodotus has selected stories, in some cases adapted them to make them suitable for history writing, and placed them in his narrative where appropriate in order to achieve a particular effect. The resonances among stories allow the reader to draw conclusions from intratextual comparisons.

Carolyn Dewald considers the varieties of humour in Herodotus' stories by incorporating the notion of focalization. The humour of a particular ethnos or city can be detected in many of the stories. While Spartan humour tends to be dry, the Egyptian humour is simply ribald and contains exaggerated elements. Athenian humour, on the other hand, is political and partisan, showing eminent men misbehaving. As funny as these stories may be in the beginning, humorous circumstances are the means for creating a dangerous situation which is, in the end, not so funny. Herodotus employs the audience's expectations and then disrupts them as part of his working method: 'trapped by the rigidity of their own beliefs and expectations, they [the audience] cannot adjust to the actual circumstances that confront them' (159).

Rachel Friedman examines the concept of nostalgia and its implications for a metanarrative by examining the stories of Solon and Croesus, Arion, and Democedes. Although the circumstances which forced each one of the these characters to leave home are different, for each the relationship between their role as demiourgos, and in Solon's case, law-giver, is intertwined with the pathos created by longing for a nostos. After the battle of Salamis the Athenians, having been tempted by a peace deal with the Persians, make their ironic declaration of what it means to be Greek, though no mention is made of Greekness being associated with a particular land. This glaring omission in the Athenians' proclamation, combined with the story of the landless Arion, or land longing Solon and Democedes, hints at Herodotus' own nostalgia for a Greek homeland, which, in his own time was becoming increasingly fragmented.

The following two chapters concern Herodotus' treatment of nature and religion. James Romm's chapter examines Herodotus' views concerning nature and the divine, which are complicated and seem inconsistent. Often when tradition attributes divine control over nature, Herodotus offers two stories, one which attributes to the gods the forces of nature, and another that attributes to nature the flux of the weather. Although Herodotus calls Xerxes' lashing of the Hellespont 'reckless and barbaric' (186), he cannot help but marvel at Xerxes' achievement in bridging the unbridgeable. And, whereas Aeschylus, in typical tragedian manner, has Darius imply that Xerxes' loss in Greece was due to divine retribution for acts of hubris, Herodotus cannot conclusively condemn Xerxes' behavior, which produces a marvelous manifestation of sophie.

Scott Scullion begins his paper by noting that reference to divinity is lacking in Herodotus' programmatic statement, a conundrum if one takes the view that the historian was the 'heir of Homer' (192). An intratextual examination reveals that Herodotus himself only rarely speaks of the individual gods of the Greek pantheon, except when acts of sacrilege are committed by a particular deity. Scullion argues that Herodotus' concept of the divine should be regarded as 'as a set of principles governing the universe' (203). Thus Solon and Artabanus can both advise that god makes the strong weak and weak strong despite being of different religions. The Histories begins with a story of aggression and ends with a story pointing to Protesilaus, the man who made the first attack in the Trojan War, forcing the reader to question the purposes of the divine.

Following on the subjects of religion and nature are those of war and politics. Lawrence Trittle examines the experience of war as it is narrated by Herodotus. Focusing primarily on battlefield passages Trittle considers how the 'fog of war' may have affected Herodotus' informants. Many of the battle narrations consist of stories of individuals, average soldiers who knew little more about what happened in the battle than that which was in their immediate vicinity. The marvelous tales of these soldiers which appear in Herodotus' work may not be fabrications or lies on the part of the historian, but rather observations in battle which have been distorted by the 'hysterical blindness' (215) of the soldiers who witnessed the event and lived to tell the tale. Trittle warns the reader to be cautious in attributing similarities between battle scenes in Herodotus to Homer; it is just as likely that the soldiers in the battle had been instructed in what to expect from reading Homer themselves.

Sara Forsdyke examines Herodotus in light of new approaches for understanding history. Although Herodotus has often been criticized for his lack of attention and detail concerning the constitutions of governments, Forsdyke argues that ancient historians must be understood according to their own terms. History for the ancients was not primarily comprised of 'military history and constitutional development' (225), but included social practices and norms. Studies in social memory have contributed to our understanding of how versions of the past in the Histories reflect what a particular group chose to remember. Forsdyke encourages readers of Herodotus to consider the ethnographic significance of seemingly historical passages which had previously been interpreted as marvelous embellishments, as well as consider how past events would have been remembered by a particular group in light of the contemporary political environment and needs of the group.

From the political world of Herodotus, the companion moves on to the geographical and ethnographic realm of the Histories. Philip Stadter focuses on Herodotus' treatment of the cities of Greece, noting that they do not become dominant characters until the second half of the Histories, before which their appearance is confined to instances in which foreign leaders such as Croesus or Aristagoras need the help of the Greek nations. Stadter uses the 'market of evils' paradigm to stress that each city had its own faults, but that Greece would only be strong if the city-states were united. Stadter notes that Herodotus' focus on Sparta and Athens allowed his fifth-century audience to engage in the ironies of Spartan and Athenian behavior; having once been imperialists in the Peloponnese, the Spartans had become the propagators of freedom, despite sharing several nomoi with the Persians. The Athenians, on the other hand, had become imperialists, a sharp contrast to their actions at Marathon and Salamis.

Rosaria Vignolo Munson's article traces passages concerning Italy in relation to colonization and imperialism. Rarely is there ever a colony founded that is not linked to tyranny, and even when the Ionian Greeks flee Asia Minor in search of freedom their colonies become experiments in empire, and are founded in the hope of ruling over others. Although Italy represents freedom for the Greeks, Sicily is implicitly bound to the tyrannical model.

Michael Flower investigates manifold aspects of Herodotus' representation of Persia. Persian history and culture comprise a great part of the Histories and in fact dominate both the beginning and the end of the work. Despite being the 'other' to Greek civilization and despite their goal of enslaving Greece, Persians are often depicted as brave fighters rather than as an effeminate and servile people, a frequent characterization of Greek authors such as Aeschylus. Through the course of Histories the 'moral distance' between the Persians and the Greeks becomes increasingly slimmer. Flower concludes by noting that the ending of the Histories, with its focus on Persia during the empire's pinnacle, was apt for an audience who still felt that the threat of a foreign invasion was very real.

Tim Rood examines the function of ethnography and geography in the Histories. Beginning with Lydian ethnography Rood makes two points: first that the way in which ethnography is worked into the Histories emphasizes the 'political aspects of scientific inquiry' (294); second that Herodotus' perspective is often Greek-centered. This is apparent when Herodotus comments on the boundaries of the world, of which Greece is the centre. Herodotus' treatment of geography takes into account cultural relativism as well. Not only does he relay the story of how the Indians and the Greeks treat the dead, but he also understands that for the Persians, Persia is the centre of the world. Often customs of people are given not to assert Greek cultural superiority, or to set boundaries on what is Greek, but to characterize a particular aspect of that culture. And even within Greek culture often Greeks have nomoi which resemble Near Eastern practices more than Greek ones.

Simon Hornblower's article on the influence of Herodotus on later authors provides fitting closure to this collection. Beginning with Herodotus' own contemporaries, such as Sophocles and Euripides, Hornblower traces the historian's influence up to the time of the Roman empire, ending with Plutarch's de malignitate Herodoti. Although Thucydides distances himself from Herodotus, the historian demonstrates at various points in his text that he is well able to imitate Herodotus when needed. One of the more lasting contributions of Herodotus was his role in the emergence of local histories, though, as Hornblower points out, some have argued that many of these local historians were not successors of Herodotus, but contemporaries. After Herodotus' death Hornblower notes that it becomes easier to trace his influence, since reactions to and rejections of the historian are marked by explicit references. After the conquests of Alexander, the Herodotean style of writing was used to describe new lands. Although many have argued that the use of the Ionic dialect to write history points to influence from Herodotus, Hornblower warns that this is not always the case. By the time of Augustus Herodotus had become a classic; it was no longer necessary for historians to distance themselves from the 'father of lies'.

The diversity of the articles provide a well-rounded survey on current debate. Many of these articles incorporate research from fields outside of Classics, such as Jan Vansina's work on oral history, current theories on social memory, Freudian theories of humour, and the 'Clausewitzian fog of battle' (210). Having read these articles in succession, what is most striking and refreshing is the very human approach taken by the contributors. As Luraghi notes, it is important to keep in mind that Herodotus, being the 'father of history,' did not have an abundance of written sources to consult as did later historians. Oral stories were the backbone of his narration. While Griffiths argues that Herodotus did not need to invent stories because of the mass of traditions about the past, Luraghi warns us not to assume that statements regarding the oral provenance of the stories he relates are proof of the historian's working method. Meta-historie served to activate the audience's expectations of how stories were told while creating the boundaries of a new genre, history writing. Lawrence Trittle reminds us that Herodotus' informants were human and as such were subject to the distorting lens caused by the stresses of war. Among all the contributors is a recognition that for his own time Herodotus was both a master of inquiry as well as a keen observer of his own environment, whether that environment be oral, geographical, or political. By focusing attention on Herodotus as artist rather than historian, the work is freed from the expectations of what history should be by our standards. For this, the present collection is invaluable.

Although Greek appears throughout the companion, there is a glossary in the back which allows those who do not know Greek to read with ease. My only concern is with the language of narratology that appears in various articles but is not defined. If the companion is meant to be suitable for those who do not know Greek, it seems just as likely that students may not be aware of terms such as focalization (analepsis and prolepsis are explained by Marincola, 14; Griffiths, 133-4). But this is a minor reservation and should in no way detract from the success and accomplishments of the companion.

In the preface to the Companion Dewald and Marincola state that the 'volume's more detailed treatment of his [Herodotus] work as an artist is amply justified as part of our understanding of him as a historian' (xiii). Above all else this companion demonstrates that the historian cannot be separated from the history that he writes. In the case of Herodotus the historian's past is illuminated by contemporary events. Only when we recognize the importance of the historian's present circumstances can we appreciate the structure and content of what is preserved for us. In our own quest for the truth, we often forget that sometimes the truth is and was less important than what was believed to be true. By understanding Herodotus as an artist we are better able to appreciate the cultural practices, rituals, and stories which shaped and continued to shape--whether through rejection, reaction or imitation--the city-states of Greece and their biases towards the nations with whom they interacted.

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