Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.11.35

Lin Foxhall, Hans-Joachim Gehrke, Nino Luraghi (ed.), Intentional History: Spinning Time in Ancient Greece.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010.  Pp. 360.  ISBN 9783515096836.  €62.00.  

Reviewed by Brendan Burke, University of Victoria (

[Chapter titles and contributors are listed at the end of the review]

As noted in the introduction, the phenomenon of intentional history (or intentionale Geschichte) follows Gehrke (2001),1 and refers to the 'projection in time of the elements of subjective, self-conscious self categorization which construct the identity of a group as a group' (p. 9). This important concept questions the location in time of certain events in Greek history: Why do some events happen at specific points, while others happen in undefined positions in time, and what affect does this have on shaping the present, future and the past? Intentional history acknowledges that history is given meaning by actors, or agents, and that this agency can be invented or manipulated, and was always intended. The editors and contributors of the volume all work from a relatively similar premise: that history is selective, linking producers and consumers, and that investigations of this kind create histories beyond alterity and identity. The contributors range widely in levels of seniority within the field of Greek history, but this is not reflected in the level of quality of the contributions. The book provides useful analyses of literary and visual texts by well established scholars and, while perhaps a bit uneven in editorial rigor, is recommended thoroughly.

Chapter two by H.-J.Gehrke provides a useful overview, with the broad topic, entitled 'Greek representations of the past.' Gehrke discusses Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Thucydides, Plato, through sources of the Hellenistic period. Efforts at claiming shared notions of a Greek past are exemplified by newly Hellenized cities like Sidon, which claimed to be the mother-town of Thebes. Festivals and occasions for honoring citizens and towns allowed what some might call the falsification of historical fact, such as the festival of Artemis Leukophryene at Magnesia on the Maeander. This city tied its contributions to Greek collective history back to the Trojan War by means of invented 'documents' and carefully stressed origin myths.

In Chapter three, 'Myth as past?', L. Giuliani asks whether early representations of myths are intentionally depicted showing events taking place in the past. For example, do Dipylon shields of the 8th c. refer to memories of Bronze Age figure-of-eight shields or are they a product of the contemporary Geometric world? Giuliani, building on the works of Webster (1955) and Ahlberg (1971) believes that geometric scenes of elites in prosthesis '…do not signal a heroic past. Instead, they must have been perceived as compatible with the customs of the present.' (p. 38). The shield's connection with the similarly formed Boiotian type is also addressed.

E. Bowie's contribution (Chapter four) on the Trojan War's reception in lyric, iambic and elegiac poetry is highly illuminating. This chapter is particularly useful for those interested in transmission and translation between literary styles before late-fifth century tragedy, and reminds us that the Trojan myths were evaluated within a much larger literary context than what remains to us today.

Chapter five, by M. Nafissi, is a dedicated and focused attempt at contextualizing at the Great Rhetra of Sparta in light of Tyrtaios, Aristotle and Plutarch (Plut. Lyc. 6). Plutarch and Aristotle viewed the rhetra as an oracle, rather than a law, which only later takes on legislative characteristics in memory. Its history tells us much about Archaic Spartan history as well as the history of the traditions of Spartan institutions. Similarly, Giangiulio's contribution, chapter six ('Collective identities, imagined past, and Delphi'), is a well-structured treatment of oracular traditions from Delphi and their impact on local histories of the archaic period.

J. Skinner's chapter is devoted to numismatic evidence, which in many ways is the most 'intentional' of all of historical sources from antiquity. As Skinner states, 'In helping to define the collective identity of the political community, both internally and in relation to those outside, coins, alongside other aspects of custom/nomos, arguably contributed to that same sense of connectedness, now thought to be at the root of any wider sense of 'Greek' identity.' (p. 154) Visual culture is also addressed by R. von den Hoff in chapter eight, which examines representations of Theseus and juxtaposes them in various contexts with the panhellenic figure Heracles. Changes in context are of course important to note in visual culture, but von den Hoff goes further in stressing that there are multiple 'intentional histories' with regard to representations of mythic history and that by mapping various remodelings of certain myths we can learn much more about the agents of such processes.

In K. Raaflaub's contribution, 'Ulterior motives in ancient historiography: what exactly, and why?' the wider field of classical history is addressed by contrasting the historiographies of Tacitus, Herodotus, Polybius, Livy, and Thucydides. This wide-ranging overview provides penetrating insight through selected texts and is encouraging for demonstrating that there are still many fruitful avenues of research for future ancient historians.

Chapter ten moves to tragedy. R. Schlesier's contribution should be read as a 'prolegomenon to further research' devoted to the theme of memory (and forgetting) in Dionysian spheres. She outlines several examples of memory connected with Dionysos in drama which are clearly intentional and the question left is, 'what is the intention of remembering?' The basic outline of her analysis is well-structured: place, ritual, and role-models, which helps clarify the over-arching themes.

Epigraphy, one could argue, is similar to numismatics, as a truly intentional source of history and this is the focus of S. Lambert's contribution (Chapter eleven). Fourth century Lykourgan Athens has a rich epigraphic history, with a particular talent for deploying the Athenian past for present purposes.

Chapter twelve moves the volume further in time by examining 'Intentional History: Alexander, Demosthenes, and Thebes' (I. Worthington), and looks at the particular case of the razing of Thebes. This destructive act is most often connected with Demosthenes by contemporary orators (Aeschines and Deinarchos) rather than with the one who actually issued the order: Alexander. Worthington addresses the intention behind such a manipulation of the past and shows how inconvenient to some sources it would have been to highlight the young king's role immediately after the event. By the time of Polybius, however, it becomes the single most frequent Alexander-theme in his work, since it fits Polybius' narrative intentions.

N. Luraghi examines 'The Demos as Narrator' in chapter thirteen. This contribution looks at the cultural context of certain decrees which were monumentalized by the Athenian demos, and which in a sense created historical source material that goes beyond the limits of the text itself. K. Buraselis, Chapter fourteen, looks at narrative motives in city-foundation legends from the reign of Alexander and the Hellenistic period which attained a divine aureole. Tanja (not Tania in the Table of Contents) Scheer continues the theme of foundation legends by looking at Arkadia during Roman imperial times in Chapter fifteen. Addressed is a range of interesting questions, including 'Why Phrygians, Mysians and Bithynians did not seek to connect themselves to Athens straight away, but held onto tales of Arkadian descent?' The answer is not completely straightforward, but issues like perceived age, levels of education and cultivation, and veneration come into play.

The volume moves toward a conclusion with the last three chapters: Nicola Di Cosmo changes the discussion from Greece to Han period China by looking at the ethnography of nomads and 'barbarians'. The interesting case study seems a bit out of place but presents good comparisons for similar methodologies in the classical world. Chapter seventeen by J. Grethlein is entitled 'Beyond intentional history' and takes an explicitly philosophical view to the experience of memory and the phenomenological concept of contingency. He then examines the genealogy of Glaukos (Iliad 6.145-211) as an example, and concludes with a juxtaposition of heroic with historicist ideas of history. The volume ends with K. Vlassopoulos' chapter (eighteen) which attempts to show that modern conceptions of antiquity and modernity were formulated during the eighteenth century. Distanciation, alterity, proximity, and immanency are historical modes defined and examined.

The book is wide ranging, and it is unfortunate that a coherent concluding chapter was not included to tie the many strings of thought together. There are also some editorial problems that might have been better addressed before going to press. Two glaring typographical errors in the table of contents (Chapter 11: 'Pat' rather than 'Past'; Chapter 15: Tania Scheer rather than Tanja Scheer) are but two examples. A list of contributors and an index would also have been appreciated. But these quibbles aside, the contributions are a useful overview of a lively subfield in historical research today as it concerns the Greek past.

Chapter titles and contributors

1. Introduction (Foxhall and Luraghi)
2. Representations of the past in Greek culture (Gehrke)
3. Myth as past? On the temporal aspect of Greek depictions of legend (Giuliani)
4. The Trojan War’s reception in early Greek lyric, iambic and elegiac poetry (Bowie)
5. The Great rhetra (Plut. Lyc. 6): a retrospective and intentional construct? (Nafissi)
6. Collective identities, imagined past, and Delphi (Giangiulio)
7. Fish heads and mussel-shells: visualizing Greek identity (Skinner)
8. Media for Theseus, or the different images of the Athenian polis-hero (von den Hoff)
9. Ulterior motives in ancient historiography: what exactly, and why? (Raaflaub)
10. Tragic memories of Dionysos (Schlesier)
11. Connecting with the pa[s]t in Lykourgan Athens: an epigraphic perspective (Lambert)
12. Intentional history: Alexander, Demosthenes and Thebes (Worthington)
13. The demos as narrator: public honors and the construction of future and past (Luraghi)
14. God and king as synoikists: divine disposition and monarchic wishes combined in the traditions of city foundations for Alexander's and Hellenistic times (Buraselis)
15. “They that held Arkadia”: Arcadian foundation myths as intentional history in Roman Imperial times (Tania [sic] Scheer)
16. Ethnography of the Nomads and “Barbarian” History in Han China (Di Cosmo)
17. Beyond intentional history: a phenomenological model of the idea of history (Grethlein)
18. Constructing antiquity and modernity in the eighteenth century: distantiation, alterity, proximity, immanency (Vlassopoulos)


1.   Gehrke, H.-J. 2001, "Myth, history, and collective identity: uses of the past in ancient Greece and beyond," in N. Luraghi (ed.) The Historian's Craft in the Age of Herodotus, Oxford, 286-313.

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