Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.11.45 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.11.45

Astrid Möller (ed.), Historiographie und Vergangenheitsvorstellungen in der Antike: Beiträge zur Tagung aus Anlass des 70. Geburtstages von Hans-Joachim Gehrke. Alte Geschichte.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2019.  Pp. xiv, 183.  ISBN 9783515122696.  €44,00.  

Reviewed by Martin Szoke, University of Cambridge (

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

This volume collects ten papers which were originally delivered at a colloquium on ancient historiography held in October 2015 at the University of Freiburg, on the occasion of the 70th birthday of Hans-Joachim Gehrke, Professor Emeritus at the same university. Gehrke, who has made many significant contributions in the fields of Ancient History and Classical Archaeology, is perhaps best known for coining the term “Intentionale Geschichte”, or intentional history, which is “the projection in time of the elements of subjective, self-conscious self-categorization which construct the identity of a group as a group”.1 The concept of intentional history, then, naturally plays a central role in several of the contributions of the volume, which will therefore be of particular interest to scholars working on the topic.

Yet the book should also be of great interest to anyone working on ancient historiography in general, and indeed to anyone studying how (ancient and modern) societies engage with the past. Its greatest strength is perhaps that it covers an impressive scope. Apart from discussions of ‘traditional’ historiographical texts, it also contains examinations of representations of the past in epic and art; and while there is a rather strong focus on the Greek world, the volume also takes us to Rome, Jerusalem, Mesopotamia and the China of the Han dynasty. At the same time, the volume reads well from front to cover. The editor should be congratulated for having done an admirable job of assembling very diverse pieces into a coherent whole.

The individual contributions are no less satisfying, all of them shedding intriguing new light on a number of well-studied and not so well-studied aspects of ancient historiography. Kurt Raaflaub leads the way in what must have been a very entertaining Festvortrag.2 His piece starts with the observation that one of the distinctive features of Greek historiography is the implicit or explicit discernibility of the author’s critical intention in the text; it then sets out to investigate whether parallels to this genre of “critical historiography” can be found in other ancient societies. After making a brief detour to Mesopotamia, where no such critical historiography existed (history there was mostly written by the rulers), Raaflaub finds an example comparable to Herodotus’ Histories or Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War in one of the most significant texts of Chinese literature, the monumental Shiji of Sima Qian. However, Chinese critical historiography, as Raaflaub shows, came into being under very different circumstances: whereas in Greece, a world of city states that knew no fixed hierarchies, the critical examination of the past was fostered by a climate of political competition, Sima Qian was an astronomer who lived and worked at the court of the Chinese emperor. Yet, there was one thing that he had in common with his Greek colleagues: just like the “political refugee” Herodotus and the exiled Thucydides, Sima Qian was a political outsider (due to negative personal experiences with the Chinese rulers), making him critical towards established opinions and ideologies. Raaflaub therefore postulates that it was the intellectual independence of these three “fathers of history” which led to the parallel emergence of critical historiography in Greece and China; Raaflaub’s piercing observations offer much food for thought and might also provide an incentive for further comparative study on Greek and Chinese historiography. The only drawback of his very stimulating piece is perhaps that it lacks footnotes and a bibliography; his Festvortrag was printed in its unaltered, unedited form, which is a bit of a pity for anyone who would like to read up on the wide range of topics discussed.3

There follow two articles that provide some new angles on the concept of “intentional history”. Marek Węcowski argues that, in the false tales of Odysseus, the poet of the Odyssey inserts elements of his own contemporary reality into the epic, contrasting its world view and system of values with that of the mythical past and thus creating an “intentional present”. To the original audience of the epic, Węcowski suggests, this could have provided a way of self-identification similar to – and arguably subtler than – that of intentional history, “going far beyond conceivable self-identifications of particular groups or communities”, and offering them a “sense of fellowship with other humans as living their lives kept at a distance by the capricious and ultimately unfathomable gods”.

Massimo Nafissi takes a closer look at some of the mythological scenes which once adorned the throne of Amyklai and which are described in Pausanias, and proposes that these scenes, depicting some of the earliest events of the Spartan past, present a case of pictorial intentional history. The central argument of his very insightful piece is that one of the scenes on the throne, portraying a group of Phaiakian dancers and a singing Demodokos, provides us with a local perspective on the early development of Spartan austerity, about which we otherwise only know from later, non-Spartan sources.

The next section, entitled “Herodotus and his legacy”, is made up of four articles.4 Maurizio Giangiulio argues against attempts to make out a historical truth behind the oral traditional stories found in the Histories . In oral traditions, Giangiulio argues, facts are not conceived independently from storytelling, so that, in an oral culture, there exists no reality outside story-telling; consequently, “tradition can be true, but not factual”. Trying to strip down the oral stories to a bare historical truth would mean discarding their narrative form in itself, and thus the very nature of the tradition as well. Giangiulio advocates that instead, we “should establish themes in the tradition, and try to put them into a historical perspective”.

In a carefully argued piece, Nino Luraghi examines if and how Herodotus’ Egyptian logos, which, as is well known, ends with the Achaemenid conquest, might have been influenced by the historian’s awareness of the history of Egypt after the conquest. Demonstrating that Herodotus must have known about the revolt of the Libyan king Inaros against Artaxerxes, which had seen the intervention of an Athenian expeditionary force on the side of the rebels, Luraghi conjectures that this revolt might have formed an implicit background and frame of reference for the historian. He ends by making the – very intriguing and very qualified – speculation that the underlying presence of the Athenian expedition in aid of Inaros in Herodotus’ narrative could give us a glimpse at a stand-alone project that originally underlay the extraordinarily self-contained Egyptian logos, and whose latter part was then given up in order to fit it into the much broader project of the Histories.

Johannes C. Bernhardt then turns to Herodotus’ legacy. He proposes that the Histories served as a model for the author of the Second Book of the Maccabees, which not only follows the conventions of contemporary Greek historiography, but also portrays the Maccabean revolt in the tradition of the Persian Wars: in 2 Maccabees, Bernhardt argues, the Judaeans take on the role of Herodotus’ Greeks, whereas the Seleucids, the actual Greeks, become barbarians. Although Bernhardt sets himself emphatically apart from recent scholarly efforts to interpret 2 Maccabees as belonging either to the western, Greek or to the eastern, oriental tradition, he suggests that it is precisely through its engagement with the Greek tradition that the text writes itself into the oriental tradition. In the next article, Alexander Free poses the tantalising question as to why the Romans read history. He argues that, historiography at Rome did not, as is often assumed, exclusively serve as a quarry of information for students of rhetoric, but was also of especial interest to intellectually curious individuals. Using Pseudo-Lucian’s Macrobii, which records the lives of men who reached an advanced old age, as a starting point for his discussion, he suggests that texts with historical contents such as the Macrobii, could on the one hand serve pragmatic purposes, e.g. the providing of exempla for one’s speech; they could also, however, simply be read for personal pleasure or for acquiring knowledge without any immediate practical use.

The volume’s last section focusses on “Forgetting and Remembering”. Katharina Wojciech draws on Paul Ricœur’s theories to identify four manifestations of collective forgetting in the Attic Orators: the explicit renunciation of memories that threaten the internal peace, the cultivation and further development of (mythical) screen-memories (memories that have been substituted for earlier memories of a violent historical past), the conferral of taboo status on problematic memories, and the functionally and context-dependent prioritisation of one memory over another.

Verena Schulz discusses the question of how ‘forgetting’ is created in and through texts by looking at the example of the Roman historiographical and biographical accounts of the so-called ‘bad Roman emperors’. Building on both cultural semiotics and systems theory, she argues that these accounts use three main strategies to create forgetting: the strategy of removal, which deletes an object and so leaves a visible trace of its process of operation, of focussing, which emphasises one element of a group of objects to such an extent that the other objects fade out of vision, and of replacement, which substitutes one object with another. Wojciech’s and Schulze’s theories should not only be interesting to ancient historians, but also to those working in the field of memory studies.

In the volume’s epilogue, Felix K. Maier reflects on the ways in which literature can help us to develop a deeper understanding of history. Taking us on an excursion through some of the great works of world literature, he shows us that they allow us to grasp something that theory alone does not: the essence, the metaphysical aspects of history. He concludes by putting a new spin on Mommsen’s dictum that “[d]er Geschichtsschreiber gehört vielleicht mehr zu den Künstlern als zu den Gelehrten”: Maier suggests that the historian should be an artist not so much because he creates art, but because he must comprehend history through art, in this case literature, thus providing excellent closing thoughts to an extraordinarily stimulating volume.

All in all, this volume and its individual contributions provide many new impulses for the study of ancient historiography and its related fields. Its editing is exemplary, and there are only a few negligible typos. The quality of its print and binding meets the high standards of the publishing house.

Authors and titles

1. Raaflaub, K. A., Patres historiae? Die Anfänge kritischer Geschichtsschreibung in vergleichender Perspektive.
2. Węcowski, M., An Intentionale Gegenwart? Odysseus’ ‘False Tales’ and the Intellectual Context of the Odyssey.
3. Nafissi, M., Spartan Heroic Ancestry and Austere Virtues. Herakles, Theseus, and the Phaeakians on the Throne of Amyklai.
4. Giangiulio, M., Traditional Narratives, Historiography, and Truth. On the Historicity of Herodotus’ Histories.
5. Luraghi, N., Herodotus, Egypt, and the Athenian Expedition.
6. Bernhardt, J. C., Das zweite Makkabäerbuch und die Tradition der Perserkriege.
7. Free, A., Geschichte zum Geschenk und als Zeitvertreib: Lukians Macrobii und die Frage, warum liest man Geschichte?
8. Wojciech, K., Kollektives Vergessen in Athen. Paul Ricoeur und die attische Rhetorik.
9. Schulz, V., Die Erzeugung von ‚Vergessen‘ in der römischen Historiographie.
10. Maier, F. K., Literatur als Erkennens-Erfahrung: Gedanken zur Wesenhaftigkeit von Geschichte.


1.   Foxhall, L., Gehrke, H.-J and N. Luraghi (eds.), Intentional History: Spinning Time in Ancient Greece. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010, p. 9.
2.   The contribution is accompanied by a photomontage of Gehrke as Herodotus, Thucydides and Sima Qian.
3.   I for one was particularly intrigued by Raaflaub’s discussion of Sima Qian and would have wished for at least a bit of further reading on a topic that will probably be unfamiliar to most Western Classicists.
4.   The fourth article in the section, however, only tangentially touches on the father of history and his afterlife.

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