Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.02.31

Katharina Roettig, Die Träume des Xerxes: zum Handeln der Götter bei Herodot. Studia classica et mediaevalia, Bd 2.   Nordhausen:  Verlag Traugott Bautz, 2010.  Pp. 126.  ISBN 9783883096087.  €20.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen (

The role of the gods in Herodotus’ Histories has been studied in a number of recent monographs and contributions in collections and companion volumes.1 Katharina Roettig’s book – a revised version of a “Lizentiatsarbeit” (the equivalent of a Master’s Thesis) submitted at the University of Bern in 2006 – is another contribution to this debate, and it is (this may be stated already at this point) a rather readable and well-argued one.

The book consists of five chapters. The first (p. 13-26) offers a survey of earlier research on the role of the gods and their relations with human affairs in Herodotus, starting with Jacoby’s magisterial article on the historian in the “Realencyclopädie”. Roettig well brings out that in the almost hundred years since Jacoby no consensus has been achieved in this area. Roettig herself wants to tackle the question from a slightly different perspective: she wants to ask not so much whether the gods intervene and, if so, for what reasons, but how Herodotus writes about such presumed interventions (p. 26). As a starting point, the second chapter (p. 27-45) presents a careful analysis of chapters 4-19 of Book 7, in the course of which the Persian king Xerxes comes to the fateful decision to wage a war of revenge and conquest against the Greeks.2 Roettig well shows that this decision is not arrived at quickly and easily but after tortuous manoeuverings and massive manifestations of divine will, with the result that Xerxes goes into war “nicht freiwillig, sondern wider besseres Wissen und wider bessere Einsicht” (p. 45).

In the third chapter – the longest and possibly the most important one of the book (p. 46-79) –, Roettig enters into an argument with two recent authors whose interpretation of this sequence of chapters is radically different, Christian Pietsch and Jörg Schulte-Altedorneburg.3 Both of them think that not the gods but Xerxes’ own character plays the decisive role in driving him into the war: as Xerxes is blinded by his own ambition and one-sided inclination to go to war from the very start, the gods send him the dreams to test his ability to make a free decision; he fails and goes to war. Step by step, Roettig convincingly shows that this analysis is mistaken. Xerxes’ character is not as Pietsch and Schulte-Altedorneburg perceive it to be (p. 48-52): Xerxes is not inclined to go to war from the start, but rather unwilling to do so; he lets himself be cajoled by Mardonius into wanting the war, but as soon as Artabanus presents compelling arguments against the war, Xerxes reconsiders. Nor do the gods simply put Xerxes to the test (as Pietsch and Schulte-Altedorneburg see it): they vehemently and even threateningly demand that he stick to his earlier decision and start the war; no “test” takes place (p. 52-60).4 Thirdly, it is not fear of the threats conveyed by the second dream that makes Xerxes change his mind and involve Artabanus (as Pietsch and Schulte- Altedorneburg assume), but the fact that the same dream appears twice and thus might be of divine character (p. 61). Pietsch and Schulte-Altedorneburg cite a number of episodes in Herodotus where not obeying a divine order is described as the right course, but Roettig shows that these episodes are not really comparable to Xerxes’ predicament at the beginning of Book 7 (p. 62-4). Just like Xerxes, Artabanus too is not really capable of making an independent decision (as Pietsch and Schulte-Altedorneburg think), but is brought to his decision by massive divine force (p. 65-8). It is also not tenable that the gods only “help” Xerxes (and Artabanus) in a very indirect way to make the wrong decision and thus fail (p. 68-70): their intervention is direct, violent and decisive. Lastly, Pietsch and Schulte-Altedorneburg assert that by making his wrong decision to go to war, Xerxes is punished because he is guilty – but of what? Roettig shows that Herodotus does not regard Xerxes as guilty of anything he is supposed to have done or wanted before the war and thus one cannot see why he should be punished (p. 71-76). All in all, Roettig’s refutation of Pietsch and Schulte-Altedorneburg looks thoroughly convincing.

The fourth chapter (p. 80-98) looks beyond the Xerxes episode and tries to find a common denominator for this and other episodes in which divine intervention seems to play a role. Roettig rightly states that such notions as the “circular movement of human affairs” (evoked in Hdt. 1.207.2) or the “restoration of a just balance” (e.g. in 7.190) or the “pruning of things grown too great” by the gods (e.g. 7.10.ε) cannot account for each and every case of divine intervention in Herodotus; her own thesis is that Herodotus just wants to show that gods really intervene in human affairs (p. 82). To prove this, she analyzes the episode of Polycrates and his precious ring (p. 83-5) and that of Croesus and Adrastus (p. 85-7). She brings out well that in such stories Herodotus never directly states that a god intervened but that he arranges his narrative in such a way that the reader is more or less compelled to draw this conclusion for himself (88-91). This fits well with a general reluctance on the part of Herodotus to talk too openly about the gods and their role in human affairs (p. 92-5).5 In some cases, however, things seem to be so clear that Herodotus does not avoid committing himself to more unequivocal statements (p. 95 with n. 211: 4.205; 7.133-7; p. 97 with n. 219: 9.100.2).

In the last chapter (p. 99-111), Roettig looks at the intellectual climate in which Herodotus wrote and finds in it a reason for his position of cautious but nevertheless firm affirmation that divine intervention exists: at a time when the manifestation and even the very existence of gods was much debated by sophists like Protagoras and by Euripidean stage characters like Bellerophontes (fr. 286 Kannicht), Herodotus’ presentation of stories where divine intervention seems to be a necessary conclusion may be regarded as the stance of a “conservative intellectual”6 who well knows the position of his opponents and chooses to counter them by what he regards as appropriate evidence.

The book concludes with a short summary (p. 112-5), which has only one questionable aspect: in it the author’s focus on Herodotus’ thinking about the gods is so strongly pronounced that other (and surely no less important) features of his work are neglected and even denied. Regarding causality, Roettig states quite boldly (p. 113): “Die Frage nach den Kausalitäten […] wird als solche in den Historien selbst gar nicht greifbar. Herodot fragt danach nicht.” And what about the end of Herodotus’ very first sentence: δι' ἣν αἰτίην ἐπολέμησαν ἀλλήλοισι? On the same page, there is yet another problematic sentence: “Herodot konstruiert die Geschichten so, daß die Macht des Göttlichen […] sichtbar wird …” Here, “konstruiert” comes dangerously close to “makes up, invents”; an invention of such stories would, of course, seriously undercut Herodotus’ efforts to use those very stories as proof that there really is such a thing as divine intervention. Apart from such momentary exaggerations, however, Roettig’s book is a valuable and well-reasoned contribution to the ongoing debate about the gods in Herodotus’ work.


1.   See, e.g., Th. Harrison, Divinity and History. The Religion of Herodotus, Oxford 2000; J. D. Mikalson, Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars, Chapel Hill 2003; S. Scullion, “Herodotus and Greek Religion,” in: Carolyn Dewald / J. Marincola, The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus, Cambridge 2006, 192-208.
2.   On p. 26, Roettig rightly calls these chapters “eine der Schlüsselszenen in den Historien,” but then she overdoes it by continuing “Der Kriegsentschluß zeigt Persien auf dem Gipfelpunkt seiner Macht und Größe, bevor es an den Griechen zerbricht.” It took, after all, another 150 years for the Persian Empire to be broken by Greek (or more precisely, Macedonian) arms.
3.   Chr. Pietsch, “Ein Spielwerk in den Händen der Götter? Zur geschichtlichen Kausalität des Menschen bei Herodot am Beispiel der Kriegsentscheidung des Xerxes (Hist. VII 5-19),” Gymnasium 108, 2001, 205-222; J. Schulte-Altedorneburg, Geschichtliches Handeln und tragisches Scheitern. Herodots Konzept historiographischer Mimesis, Frankfurt am Main 2001.
4.   On p. 57, Roettig shows that Schulte-Altedorneburg has adopted an interpretation of the Pandarus episode in the Iliad by the late Neo-Platonic Proclus to introduce the notion of a “test” by the gods into the Herodotus episode. It goes without saying that this is a most dubious procedure.
5.   On p. 93, however, she may go too far when she states that this Herodotean reluctance is part of a demonstration which has “das göttliche Wirken zum Beweisziel” (similarly on p. 108: “Um dies [i.e. the reality of divine intervention] zu erweisen, erzählt Herodot die Novellen”). Are we really to think that Herodotus tells his stories only to prove that divine intervention exists? I would rather assume that he tells his stories first of all for their own sake (as he announces himself in the very first sentence of his work) and that he is willing to accept the fact of divine intervention as part of the story if this seems plausible.
6.   Roettig (p. 110 n. 255) has taken over this attractive label from C. W. Fornara, “Human History and the Constraint of Fate,” in J. W. Allison (ed.), Conflict, Antithesis, and the Ancient Historian, Columbus 1990, [25-45] 33-4.

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