BMCR 1991.01.10

The Historical Method of Herodotus

, The Historical Method of Herodotus. Phoenix. Supplementary Volume; 23 = Phoenix. Tome supplémentaire, 23. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989. x, 319 pages. ISBN 0802057934.

A very thorough and complex work with much new insight into historiographic beginnings, this book provides through quotation and notes a veritable mine of all the best that has been said about Herodotus throughout the ages. It is impossible to do more than summarize the outline and main topics of a work so rich in detailed description and analysis, but at the same time it seems right and proper to note a few questions to which the treatment gives rise.

“This work is an analysis of the prevailing literary habits of the Histories” (p. 5). How Herodotus thought and worked is derived from the Histories to the extent that L. can say “Herodotus wished…” and “Herodotus tried…” (p. 7). In Part One (“Rhetoric: How Herodotus Creates the Past”), L. starts properly with the proem’s statement of what this new literary form embraces and how past is made present through narrative and speech, nonverbal behaviors, and talking to the reader, all in the interest of juxtaposing the familiar and unknown, where one might expect description to be as relevant as narrative.

Considered in parallel with these as important in recreating the past are beginnings and endings of episodes and logoi; for the concerned reader more attention to how transitions between these are handled would be helpful, in view of the disparateness of the material Herodotus includes. Throughout this part, as everywhere else in the volume there are both comparisons with ways in which later historians developed or changed Herodotean rhetorical creations and extensive notes on modern opinions an d discussions of the points at issue.

In Part Two (“The Presentation of His Research: The Historian’s Power”), L. first deals with Herodotus’ selection of subjects by describing kinds of material omitted because of research problems involving lack of useful evidence. Added to lists of passages where such omissions occur because of universal ignorance, possible uncertainty or personal doubt are those occasions where a rhetorical question indicates the nature of the research problem. A further inventory catalogues matters deliberately excluded on religious or other grounds. The more general question of selection is obviously not answered since omission of material unknown to us can not be detected.

Next in Part Two Herodotus’ use and evaluation of alternative versions is examined and followed by a catalogue of examples. L. describes the extent to which versions of varying credibility are handled, probing the purposes for which they are included. Despite Herodotus’ insistence that he is obliged to report what he is told (2.123.1; 4.195.2; 7.153.2) L. argues that this does not mean everything but only those that serve his purpose. But L.’s example of an omitted alternative version may not convince: “He reports only one of the several variants of the story of Gyges known even today” (p. 82).

The last section of Part Two is headed “Disputation: Herodotus’ Use of Written Sources” and takes up Hecataeus, other Greek authors, poets, and foreign sources. As the title suggests it is unclear whether the subject is sources or objections thereto; surely even in the following “Inventory of Herodotean Polemic” there are many instances of sources quoted for information rather than contradiction.

Part III (“Poiesis : How Herodotus Makes Sense of Historical Facts”) deals with four structuring techniques which “unify the data, the raw materials of the Histories into a remarkably comprehensive and comprehensible narrative form” (p. 111). In “The Place of Chronology”, L. shows how in the course of the Histories time plays different roles depending on distance, knowledge and importance, with Herodotus developing various ways of ordering other more timeless material.

“Limit, Propriety and Transgression” bring together geographical and other boundaries, women and the private realm, and morality or nomoi of various sorts. The first and third involve limits and their transgression, and these are omnipresent in the Histories, but whether as organizing principles or as simply Greek and Herodotean ways of seeing things is uncertain. More puzzling as a structuring element is the subject of women, except in so far as folktale’s cherchez la femme motif has infiltrated a variety of sources.

“Ethnography as Access to History” deals with the third structuring technique of Poiesis. “Herodotus’ ethnological research assisted him in defining the virtues and deficiencies of the Greeks themselves” (p. 145). Is this an attempt to divine purpose from result? And it is questionable too whether the considerable amount of ethnographic information that came to Herodotus strained through Greek accounts and interpreters could be relied on to “isolate Greek uniqueness” (p. 157).

The fourth structuring technique is “Historiographical Patterning: “The Constitutional Debate.” L. maintains (p. 165) that “the author’s perception of actual regimes shaped the arguments here” (3.80-82), but the debate as a good example of 5th century Greek political science may as well have shaped both general Greek and Herodotean portraits of despots and democracies at home and abroad. It need not be either/or, since influence in both directions would best explain the remarkable uniformity of concepts as they are illustrated in charts listing Greek and foreign autocrats.

In Part Four (“Meaning and Method: How Herodotus Makes Particulars Resonate”) the first chapter is “Event and Explanation: Herodotean Interpretations.” L. describes Herodotus’ use of causal arguments and shows the way in which analogies substitute for causes, with balance in nature paralleling retribution and equalization in human affairs. Five systems of explanation are outlined and illustrated: Divine Jealousy, Fate and the Cycle, Divinities, Act and Retribution, Historical Analysis.

The final chapter (“The Failure and Success of Herodotus”) takes up Herodotus’ isolation with respect to literary technique, scope and creative vision, setting him apart from his successors. An estimate of his great achievement both in the history of literature and in historiographical paternity follows.

All in all this is an important and useful contribution to Herodotean studies both for its new insights and its exhaustive annotation. L. is, however, insistent in viewing the Histories as history in the late antique and modern sense so that he seeks to find in the thought and composition of Herodotus reason and justification for the inclusion of much extraneous or “unhistorical” material: “Herodotus’ new mode of understanding past and present human reality provided the Greeks with a new and unique advantage, an autonomous and coherent method of investigating their past experience and making sense of it” (p. 162). With histori├¬ as “inquiry” Herodotus’ presentation of his research into the what, when, where, who, why and how of men’s works can be seen as a natural unfolding rather than a cultivated rationalization. There will always be disagreements among Herodotus’ readers about his method and purpose, and my own prejudice makes any criticism of this work suspect.

I note a few oddities which ill become an otherwise estimable book. Artaynte is not among the doomed (p. 28). Is the speech of Periander’s daughter a parody of gender or youth (p. 34)? It is not the rest of Delphi’s answer that is unknown but those of other oracles (p. 69). Is the translation of historeusei as “snooping” fair to Herodotus (p. 80)? “In not naming prose sources Herodotus conformed to Greek practice” (p.93). What Greek practice is meant? Poiesis is not “the word for something created” (p. 111). Amasis is not a Persian (p. 153). Does history really have “no self-evident pleasure or utility” (p. 163)?