Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.39

Timothy Howe, Sabine Müller, Richard Stoneman (ed.), Ancient Historiography on War and Empire.   Oxford; Philadelphia:  Oxbow Books, 2017.  Pp. xv, 280.  ISBN 9781785702990.  $75.00.  


Reviewed by Joseph Frechette (jfrechet@umd.edu)

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

Howe, Müller, and Stoneman’s Ancient Historiography on War and Empire is the product of a 2013 conference on Greek history and historiography and includes chapters that form sections devoted to Classical Greece and Achaemenid Persia, Macedon, Alexander and the Diadochoi, and the Second Sophistic. Presumably these divisions indicate the various conference panels from which the papers had their genesis. As with all edited volumes of such breadth, the individual contributions present a wide variety of specific topics and approaches. The golden thread theoretically running through all of them is that they all variously explore the ways in which the ancient authors’ contemporary contexts and the perceived needs and desires of their audiences affected their presentation of history. This was serious business. As Howe notes in his foreword, the ancient historians’ tendencies towards either propaganda or didacticism were impelled by “war and its uncompromising consequences… as they sought to shape current decisions by creating and curating history” (xi). Since, however, the authors and topics under consideration span nearly a millennium the papers all have particular foci and approaches.

The practical focus is ably brought out in Mark Munn’s introduction, which could stand alone as a study on the origins of classical historiography. Munn suggests that not only Thucydides, but Herodotus and the Atthidographers all wrote with an eye towards the political utility of their works in democratic Athens during the Peloponnesian War and the conflicts in its aftermath. For Munn, Xenophon’s work represents a transition to history composed not for a political class engaged in collective deliberative counsel, but for one that operated through charismatic leadership and battlefield reputation. Those with a broad interest in classical historiography will undoubtedly find it the single most useful study in this collection.

The more specialized studies will be of greater or lesser interest depending upon the focus of the reader. Likewise, their adherence to the volume’s theme of pragmatic history is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. Both Eran Almagor’s piece on the Achaemenid royal inscriptions and their presentation of the Persian kings’ mirror-relationship to the divine, and Josef Wiesehöfer’s discussion of the cultic veneration of the royal Persian tombs suggest that the Greek historians were not insensitive to such cultural currents. Frances Pownall’s study on the Sicilian historian, Philistus, and his views on tyranny, rounds out the section on the classical period. It is an intriguing study of both the historiography and the politics of the Syracusan tyrants of the fourth century B.C., and, although conceding that Philistus was an apologist for the Dionysii, Pownall notes that his portraits of earlier Sicilian tyrants are ambiguous at best. In other words, Philistus was not so much an ideological partisan in favor of tyranny as such, but a political opportunist hoping to maintain his place in the court of the Dionysii.

The three pieces devoted to Macedon all investigate specific questions related to the royal house in the early Hellenistic period. William Greewalt’s study takes on the fraught problem of which Macedonian king should be credited with introducing the Foot Companions. He makes a strong case for Alexander II over Philip II, suggesting that both the turbulence and the violent end of Alexander’s reign may well have been inspired by the political and social implications of attempting to create a new military elite capable of not only facing down external foes, but also of providing the king with a counterweight to the traditional mounted Companion aristocracy.

In perhaps the most substantial piece, Waldemar Heckel, Timothy Howe, and Sabine Müller take on the fraught questions of the motives for the murders of Philip II, as well as his widow Cleopatra, and her guardian, Attalos, early in Alexander’s reign. They are inclined to credit irrational, emotional factors motivating events, particularly insult and vengeance, but they also suggest caution regarding the sources, noting particularly that the Roman “moral cultural logic” of Justin/Trogus was not the same as that of fourth century B.C. Macedon.

Rounding out Part III, in a study of the royal Macedonian tombs at Vergina, Franca Landucci Gattinoni revisits the debate over whether Tomb II is indeed the resting place of Philip II and Cleopatra, suggesting instead Philip III and Eurydice. Although Gattinoni’s hypothesis is suggestive, given the archaeological uncertainties, it is not definitive. Nevertheless, her observation that Cassander’s obsequies for Philip III parallel those of Alexander for Philip II are well taken as both new monarchs sought to secure their positions in part by associating themselves with their predecessors.

Turning to the section on Alexander and the Diadochoi, Olga Palagia’s paper is a bit of an outlier for the volume, as it is focused on the visual rather than the literary representations of Alexander’s victories over the Persians as they developed during the period of the Successors. It does, however, pair nicely with Gattinoni’s study, since she identifies such iconography on the remains of a chryselephantine couch from Tomb II at Vergina, arguing that it would tend to favor a post-Alexander date, and thus Philip III as the occupant. The absence, however, of an illustration of the couch in question means that partisans for the earlier date will likely remain unconvinced.

Hugh Bowden argues, in his study of the mantic episodes in the Alexander historians, that accounts of divination represent the historians’ retrospective judgements rather than contemporary propaganda. In his estimation, such stories are a feature of ancient historiography in general, showing that the course of events was a product of destiny rather than blind chance. Even those who prefer to see a bit more chance in the functioning of Tyche in ancient historiography, or those perhaps willing to believe that actual episodes of divination might lie behind some of these stories rather than pure invention, will profit from Bowden’s reminder that mentality of the Alexander historians is premodern and not always analogous to our own.

Among the other papers in this section, in a revisionist study of Arrian’s notes on Alexander’s fiscal administration of Asia Minor, Maxim Kholod discusses the nature of the collection of tribute and contributions from the indigenous and Greek communities to the Macedonian war chest. He argues that Philoxenus, mentioned in Anab. 3.6.4, was emblematic of intermediate officials responsible for collecting both tribute and war contributions from the local satrapies and cities to forward on to the king. Jacek Rzepka suggests, in a study of casualty figures for Alexander’s army, that the most contemporary of the Alexander historians had access to official statistics of one sort or another, at least some of which were probably circulated for propaganda purposes. In an intriguing literary study of the fragments of Megasthenes, Richard Stoneman compares him to Kipling for his wide-ranging interest in Indian myths and folk tales which could only be satisfied by oral inquiry. Finally, Aleksandra Klęczar’s examination of the presentation of Alexander the Great in 1 Maccabees suggests, reasonably, that the image of the king was reworked to suit contemporary Maccabean propaganda as the forerunner of Antiochus IV.

Turning to the final section of the book, students of late antiquity will rightly disagree with Howe’s characterization of the Second Sophistic as the “final great movement of ancient Greek historiography.” (xiv) Certainly, the historical writing of the fourth through the early seventh centuries might have made for an honorable inclusion. This quibble of periodization aside, the first two papers in the section fit nicely with the volume’s overall theme, suggesting practical messages in Plutarch’s Lives for contemporary readers in the reign of Trajan. In a study of the parallel lives of Alexander and Caesar, Rebecca Frank argues that the former demonstrates the legitimate exercise of royal power while the latter shows the illegitimate actions of a tyrant as models for appropriate and inappropriate monarchical behavior. Elias Koulakiotis focuses on the function of Dionysus in the Life of Alexander. He suggests that royal charisma, while given by Zeus, was diminished by Dionysus in Plutarch’s account as offenses against the god were repaid with inebriation and death, and that readers aware of Trajan’s imitatio Alexandri would be warned against the hubris of competing or trying to identify oneself with a god.

The final two papers focus on recurrent topoi in Second Sophistic historical writing. Müller examines ways in which writers such as Arrian, Plutarch, Lucian, and Athenaeus described the participation of Hellenistic monarchs in the musical and plastic arts as inappropriate and as a way of impugning their moral standing regardless of the actual context of such behavior. Sulochana Asirvatham’s piece takes its point of departure from Lucian’s injunctions against flattery in How to Write History, in which the writer positions himself as a “truth teller” rather than flatterer of his audience, and deploys historical anecdotes of frankness and flattery of those in power. Asirvatham traces this discourse at least as far back as Hellenistic historiography, in which both Diodorus and Polybius criticized other historians’ excessive flattery. She also notes that in the Second Sophistic, when the only meaningful challenges to Roman authority could be in the realm of intellectual discourse, inclusion of historical anecdotes concerning both flattery and over-frank speech, provided a method not only for historians, but also for writers in other genres of moralizing sophistic literature such as Dio Chrysostum, Plutarch, and Athenaeus to indicate their moral authority

Overall, made up as it is of fairly specific and focused pieces, this volume will likely only be sought out by specialists interested in particular constituent studies, rather than by a those interested in ancient historiography more generally. It would be a pity should this be the case. All of the papers are thought-provoking and Munn’s essay, at least, deserves wider circulation.

Authors and titles

Forward: Ancient Historiography and Ancient History, Timothy Howe
Part I: Introduction
1 Why History? On the Emergence of Historical Writing, Mark Munn

Part II: Persia and Greece
2 The Political and the Divine in Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions, Eran Almagor
3 Cyrus the Great and the Sacrifices for a Dead King, Josef Wiesehöfer
4 The Horse and the Stag: Philistus’ View of Tyrants, Frances Pownall

Part III: Macedon
5 Alexander II of Macedon, William Greenwalt
6 ‘The Giver of the Bride, the Bridegroom, and the Bride’: A Study of the Death of Philip II and its Aftermath, Waldemar Heckel, Timothy Howe and Sabine Müller
7 Royal Tombs and Cult of the Dead Kings in Early Hellenistic Macedonia, Franca Landucci Gattinoni

Part IV: The Empires of Alexander the Great and the Diadochoi
8 The Financial Administration of Asia Minor under Alexander the Great: An Interpretation of Two Passages from Arrian’s Anabasis, Maxim M. Kholod
9 The Eagle has Landed: Divination in the Alexander Historians, Hugh Bowden
10 The Casualty Figures of Alexander’s Army, Jacek Rzepka
11 Alexander’s battles against Persians in the art of the Successors, Olga Palagia
12 How the Hoopoe Got His Crest: Reflections on Megasthenes’ Stories of India, Richard Stoneman
13 Creating the King: The Image of Alexander the Great in 1 Maccabees, 1-10, Aleksandra Klęczar

Part V: Second Sophistic Rome
14 The Hero vs. the Tyrant: Legitimate And Illegitimate Rule in Plutarch’s Alexander-Caesar, Rebecca Frank
15 Plutarch’s Alexander, Dionysos and the Metaphysics of Power, Elias Koulakiotis
16 The Artistic King: Reflections on a Topos in Second Sophistic Historiography, Sabine Müller
17 Flattery, History, and the Pepaideumenos, Sulochana Asirvatham
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