Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.02.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.02.05

Boris Dunsch, Kai Ruffing (ed.), Herodots Quellen - Die Quellen Herodots. Classica et Orientalia, Bd 6.   Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz Verlag, 2013.  Pp. viii, 352.  ISBN 9783447068840.  €58.00.  

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk, Universiteit van Amsterdam (

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

Even in antiquity Herodotus's Histories were not uncontested. First Plutarch and later Lucian heavily criticised Herodotus as an unreliable author and an inventor. After them, such qualifications regularly emerge throughout history. In 1971, Detlev Fehling published Die Quellenangaben bei Herodot, an attack on Herodotus that has found both support and opposition. Fehling considered Herodotus first and foremost as a man of letters (perhaps even a novelist) , who took (too) great literary liberties in his work.1 Opponents of Fehling regard Herodotus as a historian, struggling to establish the historical truth. The book under scrutiny is the result of a 2011 conference at Philipps-Universität Marburg on the value of Fehling's work. All contributions end with their own bibliography; a general bibliography is lacking.

In the introduction, Ruffing states that the main interest of Fehling’s work was that it questioned the views expressed by Felix Jacoby, whose view on Herodotus had dominated discussions for nearly sixty years (from 1912 onward). Fehling’s work sparked mixed reactions, most of them not very supportive. Ruffing briefly reviews the most important ones. Only after an enlarged second edition, in English, was published in 1989, did Fehling’s view find more adherents. Since then, a synthesis of views seems to be developing, to a large extent led by the so-called Innsbrucker Schule, a group of scholars working on Greek historiography, notably Herodotus, led by Robert Rollinger and Reinhold Bichler, both from the Innsbruck University. The question is (generally) no longer “True” or “False” as regards Herodotus’s work, but about Herodotus’s sources and how he dealt with them.

One of the debates is the date of composition of the Histories. Irwin argues (in by far the longest contribution, which constitutes the first section) that book 9 contains several clues indicating that this date (or at least the date of this book) should be put well after 413 BC and that it is, in fact, a response to Thucydides’ work (9). Irwin notably discusses chapter 9.73 and its context to prove her position, concentrating both on the hybris of Theseus and the importance of Decelea. She adduces a considerable amount of evidence, ingenuity, and scholarship, but at the end she fails to completely convince me, though I admit her theory may be appealing to those who believe in multiple layers hidden in the Histories.

The next four contributions, forming section two, focus on Herodotus’s sources, each starting from a different angle and/or a specific part of the work. Nesselrath argues – in spite of Fehling’s (and before him Diels’s) arguments – that no classical historian provides us with so much evidence regarding his sources as Herodotus, and sides with those acknowledging Herodotus’s merits to preserve anterior knowledge. Rollinger focuses on Herodotus's knowledge of the East. In particular the erection of the stelai at the Bosporus by King Darius and Xerxes’ behaviour at the Hellespont fit in with a well-known Ancient Near Eastern tradition, like Darius’ claims to control the Indian Ocean: it suggests that Herodotus somehow included Oriental source material in his work. West considers Herodotus 4.88, where Darius, pleased with Mandrocles’ bridge over the Bosporus, presents him with gifts that Mandrocles uses to commission a painting. West discusses several conceptions of this picture but especially addresses its inspiration for Herodotus. Prontera discusses the particularities of Herodotus's references to ancient situations like the Egyptian origin of the inhabitants of Colchis, an issue also mentioned by Nesselrath, concluding that Herodotus only includes those references that correspond with his interpretation of the facts.

The next section, consisting of six contributions, deals with Herodotus as “Literat.” Bichler addresses the use and function of Herodotus's references to autopsy, notably in the Egyptian logos. Dunsch, in a long and worthwhile paper, approaches Herodotus through the eyes of Cicero, who was very interested in historiography, especially as magistra vitae. Special attention is given to Cicero’s valuation of Herodotus as pater historiae (De leg. 1.5) and the use of history. The same goes for Ruffing’s treatment of the number 300 in Herodotus for whom the number was particularly appealing, superseded only by the number 100. The number 300 features prominently in other ancient authors as well: Dunsch considers 300 as a symbolic number, not necessarily accurately. Dorati occupies himself with narratological aspects of the Histories, especially with the relation between the so-called cognitive narratology and source references. It is a quite technical treatment, fitting in with modern developments to pay increasing attention to this side of literary works. Rösler focuses on the ‘miracle of Delphi’, the rescue of the sanctuary from a Persian attack in 480 BC (8.35-9). Fehling believed the story to be completely fictitious; Rösler admits the fictitious elements, but argues the fiction was not created by Herodotus but by the Delphians; he stresses that Fehling does not do justice to Herodotus's position as pater historiae but treats him merely as a pseudo-historian, a view Rösler does not share. Blösel, finally, investigates Herodotus's representation of the Athenians. Though Herodotus obviously admires Athenian actions in the period 490-480/79, he nevertheless pays attention to criticism of other poleis towards Athens and Athenian sources critical of Athenians and Athenian activities and is thus more critical than Fehling made him appear.

The penultimate section consists of only one contribution, by Wiesehöfer, on Herodotus and a Persian Hellas, a Greece that might have been if the Persian invasions had been successful. But in general our knowledge of Persian motives for invading Greece is, as yet, far from complete. Partly this is due to a lack of knowledge of Greek (and notably Athens-oriented) authors, including Herodotus, but also partly to the modern inability to discern between the nuances of Achaemenid Persian state ideology and Achaemenid Persian “Realpolitik” (279-282).

In the last section, Schmitt considers whether Aristotle’s philosophy offers viable criteria for interpreting Herodotus's Histories. He analyses several elements of Aristotle’s famous passage on poetry and history (Arist. Poet. 1451a36-b11) in detail and concludes that Herodotus succeeds to describe particular events and/or people in such a manner that one is able to find “das Allgemeine in der Geschichte” (the general in history), precisely what Aristotle requires. Schmitt’s intricate paper may well be hard to digest, but in the end it is worth the effort, especially because his contribution (directly or indirectly) has some bearing on other contributions in this book as well, notably Dunsch’s as regards Cicero’s views on Herodotus.

Föllinger places all contributions in context, concluding that the connecting element is that “Herodot entweder als Lügner oder als naiven Sammler von Informationen erscheinen würde ad acta gelegt ist” (327). Indexes of gods, people, places, and sources conclude this attractive and well-produced volume. Whether the conference’s aim, to discuss the value of Fehling’s work for both present and future research, was really achieved might, I think, still be a matter of contention (mainly because the extreme positions in the debate on Fehling’s views, once taken, seem to be difficult to abandon, leaving only some room for compromise in the middle), but I at least came across several inspiring contributions. I believe, moreover, that the objectives of the so-called Innsbrucker Schule (represented by, e.g., Rollinger and Bichler) have been well presented and have proven their worth in this volume.

Table of Contents

Vorwort VII
Kai Ruffing (Marburg), Einführung: 1
Die Entstehung der Historien
Elizabeth Irwin (New York), ‘The hybris of Theseus’ and the Date of the Histories: 7
Herodot und seine Quellen
Heinz-Günther Nesselrath (Göttingen), Indigene Quellen bei Herodot und ihre Erfinder – einige Fallbeispiele: 85
Robert Rollinger (Innsbruck/Helsinki), Dareios und Xerxes an den Rändern der Welt: 95
Stephanie West (Oxford), ‘Every picture tells a story’: a note on Herodotus 4.88: 117
Francesco Prontera (Perugia), Dati e fonti nell’ archeologia di Erodoto: 129
Herodot als Literat
Reinhold Bichler (Innsbruck), Zur Funktion der Autopsiebehauptungen bei Herodot: 135
Boris Dunsch (Marburg), Et apud patrem historiae sunt innumerabiles fabulae: Cicero über Herodot: 153
Kai Ruffing (Marburg), 300: 201
Marco Dorati (Urbino), Indicazioni di fonti (‘Quellenangaben’) e narrazione storica: 223
Wolfgang Rösler (Berlin), Ein Wunder im Kampf um Delphi (VIII 35–9): 241
Wolfgang Blösel (Düsseldorf), Quellen – Kritik: Herodots Darstellung der Athener: 255
Herodot und die Nachbarn der Griechen
Josef Wiesehöfer (Kiel), Herodot und ein persisches Hellas: 273
Arbogast Schmitt (Marburg), Gibt es eine aristotelische Herodotlektüre?: 285
Sabine Föllinger (Marburg), Resümee: 323
Register: 329


1.   However, the word “Literat”, usually translated as a “man of letters”, can also be understood in German as a “grub-street hack” (although not in this collection), and the context makes insufficiently clear which meaning has been intended. In fact, Fehling, when using the term “Literat” in the original publication, is precisely as ambivalent as he, occasionally, blames Herodotus for being. In this respect the English edition, Herodotus and His ‘Sources’: Citation, Invention and Narrative Art (ARCA: Classical & Medieval Texts, Papers & Monographs, vol. 21), Leeds: Cairns, 1989, is generally much less ambiguous.

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