Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.03.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.06

Jean Alaux (ed.), Hérodote: formes de pensée, figures du récit. Histoire. Série Histoire ancienne.   Rennes:  Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2013.  Pp. 206.  ISBN 9782753521810.  €16.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Emily Baragwanath, UNC-Chapel Hill and Universität Heidelberg (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Cours (‘rheei') describes the flow both of the Nile and of historiographic discourse (logos) (2.33); ‘logos' denotes form of account and mode of thinking. Thus Alaux introduces this volume's aim of addressing both how Herodotus thinks about the world and expresses himself; and how he relates to other thinkers and genres from antiquity to the present. The subsequent elegant overview sets themes of each paper in context, bravely conjuring a unity from the somewhat disparate contents.

Mezzadri's fascinating chapter focuses on Skyles and Anacharsis, each dabbling unhappily in foreign cult, juxtaposing Pentheus's portrayal in Euripides' Bakchai and exposing resonances of both schema and linguistic expression. (Mezzadri envisages direct influence: of Euripides reading Herodotus, and versions of Pentheus's misfortunes close to Euripides' circulating in Herodotus's time.) The grim trajectories of these ethnographer-anthropologist figures bring out the difficulties of crossing cultural barriers and reflect on Herodotus's undertaking: Mezzadri compares contemporary anthropology's reflections on epistemological limits. Here even (Greek) gods champion cultural relativism; the fantasy of total acculturation is a culpable illusion; how could other civilizations be explained in full? The chapter left me wondering about the existence of these tragic ‘récits jumaux'. Is Herodotus working with stories really told by Scythians? How far is he consciously framing these figures in this way?

Demont (lightly modifying a previous article) begins with Montaigne, whose thesis about the difficulty of changing an established law or custom despite the fragility of its original establishment drew on Herodotus, but dealt with a question not asked by the Father of History: how should one respect customs known to be fragile and relative? That absence invites us to qualify the familiar reading of Histories 3.38 as cultural relativism: for Herodotus does not advance a psychological justification for people's valuing highly their own customs. He stages not the customs of the Indians, but the phenomenon of reciprocal incomprehension between foreign peoples. Herodotus's neutral comment about Indian cannibalism makes the two descriptive elements quasi-equivalent (an effect captured by Demont through the use of two relatives: ‘les Indiens qu'on appelle Callaties, qui mangent leurs parents', 41). Rather than simply cultural ‘tradition', nomos for Herodotus is a belief or thought which ‘implies assent, emotion, and fierce determination' (42; translations are mine), which is why Cambyses is mad not to respect the Egyptians' belief. I am unconvinced by Demont's remark that since nomos is nowhere else master so much as it is in Greece, recognition of its sovereignty permits acceptance and understanding of others but ‘also explains the superiority of Greece' (45). But what about Egypt? (which as Demont observes is par excellence the land of nomos).

As Peigney observes, Herodotus was the first to identify the poikilie of the world as resulting from a series of movements of peoples—changes of place and identity— and was the first to rationally substitute them for divine genealogies and foundation myths. Thus by reasoning and epigraphical investigation he exposes the change of the Phoenician ancestors of the Athenian tyrannicides from Asian barbarians to Greeks and Athenian citizens, which in turn effected further changes for Phoenicians and Greeks. Elsewhere too (with Carians, Caunians, Lycians) he takes resemblances and particularities as indicating a movement of displacement and exchange, analogous to the Pelasgians' geographical movement and linguistic change.

In arguing that the Histories preserves the specificity of different people's constructions of time Calame's opaque and (lightly) ‘updated and revisited' version1 of an earlier piece juxtaposes Herodotus's Egypt and Michael Somare's autobiographical writings. In Somare's history of his village, strands of autobiographic memory (in the form of a genealogical account, oriented towards the present) and indigenous semantic memory (oriented towards the past: towards the time and place of foundation) run side by side, the former progressively adopting European chronology. Herodotus's aetiological narration is punctuated by references to his own time; ‘regimes of historicity', marked by tension between an axial point of origin and the present, are more generally characteristic of the Greek conception of time and space. The attempts of Somare and Herodotus to reconcile indigenous temporalities with the temporalities of other cultures offer an incentive for an engaged anthropology ‘to promote a plural memory of cultural resistance' (87).

Iriarte addresses the coded language of immoderate power in Herodotus's depictions of powerful women. Clytemnestra of Agamemnon, ‘personage révélateur' (101), exposes the tyrant's need to hide his designs and indicates the relationship between Greek ideas about women and tyrants (each political yet politically marginal). Powerful Herodotean women are either aligned or contrasted with Darius's mother in Persai: e.g. Atossa in supporting Xerxes: it is ‘the aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional impact' of the tragic Persian queen Herodotus expresses when he describes her as all-powerful (106); Pheretime rejects the spindle, whereas Aeschylus's queen clothed her son. The assertions are intriguing but not always supported convincingly. Seeking a parallel between Tomyris and Pheretime overlooks the contrasting nature of their characters and revenge; comparing Artemisia's advice with Thrasybulus's disregards others who speak advice to the powerful in the Histories and the possibility that Persian monarchic power differs from that of the Greek tyrant. Herodotus's description of the building programs of Nitocris et al., taken by Iriarte to represent ‘a “silent rhetoric” which denotes an abusive exercise of power' (115), could express admiration rather than a judgment of tyrannical oppression.

Pontier sheds further light on the vocabulary of sight in Herodotus and Plato, both of whose accounts of Gyges stage voyeurism and pose the problem of transgression and injustice. Pontier reviews four key Herodotean terms against the backdrop of the wider work: εἶδος (visible form), ὁρᾶν (simple seeing), θεῆσθαι (contemplative seeing, often with a nuance of passive admiration or spectatorship), σκοπέειν (active, intellectual seeing, that beyond visible forms appreciates authentic beauty). I was not persuaded by every parallel, e.g. that drawn between Candaules and Amyntas, said to lose sight of Macedonian custom in failing to oppose the Persian ambassadors' request; rather, like Gyges he is aware of Macedonian nomos but feels compelled by Persian power to transgress it. Gyges' advice in Herodotus—‘look to one's own' – resonates with the definition of justice in Republic 4. Glaucus's speech responds to Solon's advice that one cannot judge a man's happiness before his death. These and other points of convergence reveal Plato as ‘a fine connoisseur of Herodotus' (130). Whereas for the historian the usefulness of opsis depends on the beholder, for the philosopher, only intellectual contemplation can lead to truth.

As a key recourse of Herodotean narrative Haziza points to anecdotes. Distinguished not by their relationship to truth, but by their form and connection to the spoken word, anecdotes give pleasure and introduce alternative perspectives. That of Mycerinus thus echoes a different tradition, of the king's attitude as a consequence of his inability to recognize the divine plan. Portraying his predecessors' despicable actions as not hubristic but according with divine will contests Greek assumptions. Anecdotes are deliberately employed for their exemplary worth, ‘since history is not just a series of facts, but takes root in philosophic reflection on human nature' (143). I'd have liked some comparison with anecdotes elsewhere in the work, as the Egypt book (source of those discussed) is in so many ways distinctive.

Tamiolaki's stimulating chapter reviews Lucian in True Stories targeting Herodotus's Histories and well brings out the rich intertextuality. Thus in the encounter of Lucian and Endymion the ‘mixing and transformation' of significant Herodotean episodes invites contemplation of Herodotus's vision of the human condition and of history. Tamiolaki goes further than I would in suggesting that beyond humorous parody Lucian is attacking Herodotus's very principles of historical interpretation, and that for Lucian the existence of lying historians like Herodotus ‘ridicules the genre of history' (156 n. 5). Lucian attacks anything and everything. Might not his discerning audience be amused at the absence of Herodotean distancing devices, especially given Lucian's conceit, that it will be all lies but distinguished from other lying narratives in that the author admits to it?—a claim not wholly dissimilar to Herodotus's that he is obliged ‘to record what he is told', but by no means required to believe it. Does the appearance of Ctesias and Herodotus suffering punishment for their lies reflect contemporary assimilation of the two, or is it teasing those who cannot distinguish them? The context is ironic and amusing, Lucian at this point observing that he has high hopes for himself, ‘for I have never told a lie that I know of'.

The final chapters tantalize with glimpses of modern-day ‘Herodotuses'. Soulatges reviews Herodotus's inspiration of Kapuściński's grand reportage, which like Herodotus's historiography occupies a liminal position between fiction and non-fiction, literature and journalism, documentary and narrative aims. The Polish journalist sees Herodotus as, like himself, a curious traveler seeking to translate other cultures while gaining better understanding of his own, and appreciates Herodotus's astonishing perseverance. In Le Shah (1982) three processes of narrative reactivate the Herodotean model: the ‘documentary style', a sensualist approach which gives attention to detail and highlights things seen and heard, as where the reporter is pictured surrounded by the vast quantities of materials collected. The aspiration to uncover universal truths: Le Shah aimed not to describe the Iranian revolution, but to reveal a timeless message. As ‘surveyor-writer of the silva rerum', Kapuściński preserves multiple perspectives in a collage-style account. Kapuściński regarded Herodotus as an early enunciator of the inevitable subjectivity and deformation of history: ‘L'histoire est toujours racontée, arrangée, prétendue, crue. Cette vérite est peut-être la plus grande découverte d'Hérodote' (Mes Voyages avec Hérodote 281). Soulatges enables each author to illuminate the nature of the other's oeuvre. Ironically in a further resemblance Kapuściński too stands accused of lies and fabrication.

Payen's previously-published chapter2 starts from Lévi-Strauss's ironic renouncement of travel in the opening of Tristes Tropiques and critique of ethnography's deceitfulness, useless and derisory content, and elision of cultural difference, but goes on to identify Herodotus—with his curiosity, questioning, and sense of wonder and estrangement—as the only traveller Lévi-Strauss does not hate. ‘Hérodote en mer de Chine' is witness to Lévi-Strauss's intimate knowledge of Herodotus's strategies in approaching the ethnographical endeavour, strategies which Lévi-Strauss ‘appropriates and restores as the only possible model and as unsurpassable ethnographical narrative' (190). Herodotus like Lévi-Strauss presents himself as observer not only of the Other but also of the Self, underscores his reliance on translation, and tries to identify a unity and coherence beyond the mere description of facts.

These modern homages supply fitting closure to this thought-provoking volume, whose chapters answer the promise of the introduction in variously addressing Herodotus's affinities with tragedy (Mezzadri, Iriate), the Hippocratics (Peigney), Presocratic philosophers (Peigney) and reception both ancient (Pontier, Tamiolaki) and modern. A short conclusion by Alaux returns us to where the Introduction began, with the contemporary fascination with Herodotus. Explanation is found in the Histories' combination of organic unity and quest for meaning, with its fascination for the most unusual aspects of the known universe.

An Anglophone reader is refreshed by the distinct Francophone tradition on display (foundational bibliography is Hartog's classic Mirroir d'Hérodote and Payen's Iles Nomades), even if at the expense of some key bibliography in other languages (thus e.g. Demont ‘Figures de l'enquête…' Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa 2002 is several times cited, but not Christ ‘Herodotean Kings and Herodotean Inquiry,' Classical Antiquity 1994). Odd features to my mind were the re-appearance of a considerable amount of previously published work, one chapter's reference to numerous self-authored articles but not to key recent publications, another's direct quotations of its author's previous work. I noticed the occasional typo (some in direct quotations where English words had been transformed, presumably by automatic correction, into French ones). The volume's valuable contributions on the themes of Herodotus as investigator of nomos and the Histories as a work bestriding history and fiction would have been worth greater emphasis in the title.

Table of Contents

Première partie: Identités, Mutations, Altérités
Bernard Mezzadri: Penthée-Skylès ou les périls de l'acculturation
Paul Demont: Le Nomos -Roi: Hérodote, III, 38
Jocelyne Peigney: La formation des peuples dans l'Enquête. Hérodote et les mouvements du monde
Claude Calame: Hérodote sur le Nil et Somare sur le Sépik: historiographies mixtes
et configurations pratiques du temps
Deuxième partie: Formes de Communication et Processus de Connaissance
Ana Iriarte: Despotisme et modes de communication: de l'enquête tragique au drame hérodotéen
Pierre Pontier: Une question de point de vue: quelques remarques sur Gygès, d'Hérodote à Platon
Typhaine Haziza: Hérodote ou l'histoire par les anecdotes
Troisième partie: Récit et Vérité
Mélina Tamiolaki: Lucien précurseur de la Liar School of Herodotus: Aspects de la réception d'Hérodote dans l'Histoire Vraie
Magali Soulatges: Réfractions d'Hérodote dans le grand reportage de Ryszard Kapuściński:
l'exemple du Shah, ou la démesure du pouvoir (1982)
Pascal Payen: Hérodote et Lévi-Strauss. Questions d'ethnographie
Les auteurs


1.   This updating oddly omitted engagement with Moyer 2002 (‘Herodotus and an Egyptian Mirage', revised and expanded in Moyer 2011 ch. 1 (BMCR 2012.04.45)) or, relevant to the chapter's final section, Lianeri 2011 (BMCR 2012.05.11).
2.   It appeared ‘sous une forme différente' in Caravelle 2011, but the only difference I could discern were extra pages (pp. 194-6) present in the original.

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