Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.35

Emily Baragwanath, Motivation and Narrative in Herodotus. Oxford Classical Monographs.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2008.  Pp. xi, 374.  ISBN 9780199231294.  $130.00.  

Reviewed by Michael A. Flower, Princeton University (
Word count: 2702 words


[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

Many years ago it had occurred to me that there was a need for a book that dealt with the important topic of personal motivation in the Greek historians, beginning with Herodotus. The project that I envisioned was something far less sophisticated than the treatment given in Emily Baragwanath's provocative, stimulating, dense, and often brilliant monograph. This is not simply a book about attributions of motivation narrowly conceived, but it deals in a highly original and illuminating way with the relationship between ascriptions of motive and the larger narrative strategies of the Histories. The Herodotus that emerges is not one who offers a single authoritative version of the past, but an author who presents various possible motives and interpretations, who wants his readers to realize how difficult it is to know about the past, and who encourages them to weigh the evidence for themselves and to reach their own conclusions. To be sure, Baragwanath builds on the work of other scholars who view Herodotus's historical project in similar terms, but her conclusions are by no means derivative. In many ways she models Herodotus's own method in suggesting different ways of interpreting various passages, while skillfully prodding readers in a particular direction. This is by far one of the most interesting books on Herodotus that I have read, and, quite frankly, when it comes to instilling enthusiasm in the reader to reread and to rethink even the most famous of episodes in the Histories, I cannot think of a better one.

This is not a book that one can just dip into. It should be read in its entirety, and several readings are really necessary to extract all of its riches. It took me a long time to read it through for the simple reason that on almost every page there was some new idea or new reading that made me stop and think, and often to take out my text of Herodotus. And in most cases I came away persuaded. If one purpose, indeed a primary purpose, of a work of literary criticism is to make the reader eager to return to a text and to consider it afresh, then this book is an unqualified success. The argument assumes a very detailed knowledge of the whole of the Histories on the part of the reader (and of Homer as well in chapter 2). Perhaps this is necessary given the type of close reading that Baragwanath offers (and she is at her best when demonstrating how the range of possible meanings of a particular passage is conditioned by other parts of the narrative). Yet it would be difficult to follow the arguments presented here without first having read the whole of Herodotus very carefully. This book deserves a very broad audience, and one hopes that non-specialist readers will have the patience to work through it. So much ground is covered in this book (much more in fact than the title alone indicates) that it would be impossible to give an accurate account of everything that it contains or to do justice to the sophistication of its arguments, so what follows is necessarily selective.

Chapter 1 sets out the method to be pursued and the author's own vision of Herodotus as a writer who empowers his readers, both contemporary and future, to contribute to imputing meaning to his Histories: "His frequent inclusion in his text of a range of versions, including those with which he explicitly disagrees, furnishes others with the material that they need, potentially to challenge his personal verdict" (p. 2). Baragwanath employs Wolfgang Iser's theory of reader response as her main interpretative tool. But she also uses Plutarch as a touchstone both for how an ancient audience would have reacted to the text and as a means of revealing Herodotus's narrative strategies. These prove to be very fruitful methodological choices, and my only criticism concerns what she does not do. It would have been helpful to explain more fully for the uninitiated how the terms "author", "implied author", and "narrator" are used in the field of narratology (especially on pages 32-4). So too, more of Plutarch's cultural and intellectual background might have been filled in.

More serious perhaps is a lack of precision in defining the parameters of Herodotus's contemporary audience (both oral and literate). Although throughout Baragwanath asks how Herodotus's contemporary audience would have read and reacted to the text, she does not indicate just how problematic and controversial it is to fix that audience in time. On page 6, n. 1, she refers to the "original mid to late-fifth century BC audience," but later we seem to be told that this audience was pre-Peloponnesian War or 440s BC (pp. 307-8, 315-16). It makes a huge difference, of course, in terms of audience response (as well as of authorial "intentions") whether the bulk of the Histories was being written and performed in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War or when that war was well underway, in the 420s or even as late as the 410s.

The first chapter ends with a test case for the usefulness of a reader-response approach. She proposes that Herodotus is taking on the authorial persona of an "unreliable narrator" in his rejection (6.121.1) of the rumor that the Alcmaeonidae had used a shield to signal to the Persian forces after Marathon ("it is a wonder to me and I won't accept the assertion..."). Baragwanath gives an insightful demonstration of how the narrative of the Alcmaeonidae's exploits, beginning in Book I, casts doubt on the narrator's own verdict, and she persuasively argues that Herodotus intended that his audience should challenge that verdict.

Chapter 2 compares the ascription of motives in Herodotus and Homer with an emphasis on how the former appropriates and develops the latter's techniques. In her epilogue Baragwanath briefly, and tantalizingly, states that the treatment of motive in fifth-century tragedy is comparable to that in Herodotus. One wishes that another chapter could have been added in which the similarities with tragedy were explored. Chapter 3 deals with the tension between the historian's purpose in conferring kleos (fame) and his revealing of motives that were more pragmatic than heroic. The depiction of Leonidas at Thermopylae stands as a case study of how Herodotus sometimes juxtaposes idealizing and pragmatic explanations for historical events. The key difference between Thucydides and Herodotus in attributing motive is well brought out in chapter 4. Whereas in Thucydides there is a high degree of congruence between human intention and resulting action (sometimes too congruent to seem true), in Herodotus there is more often than not a disjunction which highlights the unpredictability of actions and their remoteness from intentions. The two case studies are the thematically interlocking accounts of tyranny on the island of Samos and of the Persian king Cambyses. The analysis of the latter's utter unpredictability is particularly skillful.

Only once in chapter 4 did the argument seem to push this book's line of approach a bit too hard, and I was less persuaded by the suggestion that the presentation of Maiandrios, with its shifting and contrasting perspectives, is intended to prompt the reader to question whether Maiandrios was sincere in his initial offer to give up the tyranny over Samos (p. 101, 105-7). If Baragwanath's interpretation is correct, we would then need to take Herodotus as yet again acting as an unreliable narrator when he said of Maiandrios that "although he desired to be the most just of men, he did not succeed." Isn't this rather a clear case, both for Herodotus and for his readers, of good-intentions being altered under the "stress of circumstances" (a category of motivation that is explored in chapters 6 and 7)? The problem, of course, is how and when to decide when Herodotus is giving a straightforward opinion and when he is provoking his audience with an unreliable or ironic authorial comment. The only guidance that this book gives is in a footnote (p. 34, n. 98): "An unreliable narrator is not evident in cases where Herodotus did have better evidence--such as in the account of Ephialtes' betrayal of the Thermopylae pass: 7.213-14." It might seem like a circular argument to posit that the Herodotean narrator is only an unreliable narrator in those cases where Herodotus the author did not have good evidence for an assertion. How are we to know when the evidence was good, or at least was deemed by Herodotus to be good? Does the text itself provide the necessary cues in terms of congruence, or lack thereof, between authorial intervention and surrounding narrative? Would it be simpler to assume that the Herodotean narrator is always "unreliable"?

Alternative attributions of motive is the subject of chapter 5, leading to the conclusion that high ideals play a more limited role than personal advantage in motivating both individuals and communities, even if rhetorical appeals to such things as freedom or Greek unity are expected to be effective in persuading others to act. After a very interesting discussion of Athenian and Pelasgian motives in 6.137-9, the chapter ends with a subtle and nuanced demonstration that the Athenians, including the Alcmaeonidae, are depicted as willing to be ruled by Peisistratus. The next two chapters (6 and 7) deal with the Ionian revolt and the decision of various Greek states whether or not to medize in 481-79, which pursue further the tension between professed high minded motives (especially the desire for freedom) and the reality of acting from self-interest. Herodotus is intent on revealing the inadequacy of simple slogans to do justice to the complexity of the messy reality of why people did what they did, and by presenting alternative accounts he encourages his readers to sort out some of this mess for themselves. At the same time, he is aware that noble motives may be corrupted over time by the pressure of circumstances and that individuals may act out of a complex combination of motives. So we are not dealing with a simplistic distinction between motives that are noble/selfless/openly professed and base/self-interested/concealed.

Chapter 7 is a lucid and deft exploration of the necessity that drove many Greek states to medize. Herodotus's intention, according to this reading, is not to invite readers to join in accusing those Greeks who sat out the war or joined the Persians, but to understand their predicament, especially if they felt driven to take the actions that they did. At only one point in this detailed discussion did I feel that the argument left out a vital piece of the puzzle. Baragwanath suggests (pp. 211-17) that in his complex analysis of Argive motives Herodotus was concerned to demonstrate that the Argives were motivated not by a desire for command, but by concern not to fall prey again to Sparta, and that readers are being prompted not to criticize their behavior but rather to understand it. This reader feels no empathy for the Argives, and Baragwanath has left out one telling detail. She summarizes Herodotus's account as follows: the Argives demand a share in the command against Persia, the Spartans reply that in no way could one of the Spartan kings be deprived of command, and in response (quoting Herodotus 7.149.3) "The Argives say that they would not endure the Spartans' pleonexie ('selfishness/greediness'), but chose rather to be ruled by the Persians than to yield in any way to the Spartans." Baragwanath then comments (p. 213), "This response is understandable: the narrative has underlined the fact of Spartan obduracy." My difficulty is that she omits half of the Spartan response; to wit, that they offered one third of the command to the Argives since the Spartans had two kings but the Argives only one. To me at least that detail significantly alters how one is meant to read this passage, and it makes the Argives look much less reasonable (and pardonable).

Likewise, I am not convinced that Herodotus's narrative actively invites competing interpretations of Corcyrean motives for not joining the Greeks at Salamis (pp. 220-222), (one of which, again, encourages an empathetic understanding of their predicament). But other readers may well feel differently, and part of the excitement of this book is that it arouses just these sorts of interpretative debates.

A highly nuanced discussion of Xerxes' motives and character is the subject of chapter 8, and it is nothing short of brilliant. Baragwanath shrewdly leaves aside the vexed question of Herodotus's sources, and explains the double characterization of Xerxes in Herodotus as being a function of dual Persian and Greek perspectives. She gives a good deal of attention to the Council scene at the beginning of Book 7, and sees it as being programmatic for the interpretation of the scenes that follow. She has made a very compelling case for understanding Herodotus's account of Xerxes in terms of Greek versus Persian explanatory paradigms (pp. 268-9, 280), the one helpful in understanding the near success of the expedition and the ideology that motivated it, the other in comprehending its ultimate failure in terms explicable to Greeks, such as the concept of hubris.

The final chapter (9) is a reevaluation of Herodotus's depiction of Themistocles. The main thrust of this chapter is to argue that when Herodotus gives his famous attribution of a self-interested motive to Themistocles at 8.109.5-110.1, he is once again taking on the role of an unreliable narrator. Baragwanath's Herodotus is too sophisticated a writer to be subservient to sources that were hostile to Themistocles. Rather, in his presentation of Themistocles, as elsewhere in his text, he consciously presents the reader with various and shifting perspectives on motivation, in an attempt to get them to evaluate the narrative for themselves: "readers are prompted to engage with the material and actively work to combine the different strands" (p. 318). Historians who look for simplistic or straightforward evaluations in Herodotus's account (e.g. Themistocles was always self-interested or was a true patriot before Salamis and then became hubristic afterwards) miss the subtlety of Herodotus's treatment; for the complexity of Herodotus's narrative mirrors the complexity of the events themselves. The chapter ends with a salutary warning against looking for "exclusive readings--for keys that promise to unlock the 'true' interpretation, or Herodotus's single and central 'message'" (p. 322).

I am well aware that this brief summary does scant justice to the many and complex arguments that comprise this persuasive and many-faceted study. It is a book that constantly prompts one to rethink even long held opinions, and this is far more important, and more interesting, than whether or not one agrees with all of her readings of individual passages. Another admirable feature of this work is the way that it engages with previous scholarship, displaying grace even when in sharp disagreement with other opinions (a stance that younger scholars may profitably take note of when writing a first book). The highest compliment that I can pay this book is a simple one: if told to teach a course, whether undergraduate or graduate, on Herodotus, with the aid of only a single work of secondary literature to accompany the reading of the Greek text, without a moment's hesitation I would choose Motivation and narrative in Herodotus. A very brief Epilogue (only a single page) ends the book, in which we are told that the meaning of the Histories, like the meaning of the past itself, will always remain contested. This profound and engaging book is an important contribution to that ongoing contestation of meaning, as well as a model of how it should be conducted.

The book has nine chapters and a brief Epilogue.

1. The Histories, Plutarch, and reader response
2. The Homeric background
3. Constructions of motives and the historian's persona
4. Problematized motivation in the Samian and Persian logoi (Book III)
5. For better, for worse . . .: motivation in the Athenian logoi (Books I and VI)
6. 'For freedom's sake . . .': motivation in the Ionian Revolt (Books V-VI)
7. To medize or not to medize . . .: compulsion and negative motives (Books VII-IX)
8. Xerxes: motivation and explanation (Books VII-IX)
9. Themistocles: constructions of motivation (Books VII-IX)
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