BMCR 1994.04.10

1994.04.10, Pritchett, The Liar School of Herodotos

, The liar school of Herodotos. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben, 1993. v, 359 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 9789050630887 $63.00.

Herodotus’ dual identity, father of history and father of lies, has a long tradition starting with Cicero. 1 Pritchett’s monograph aims to critique the recent work of scholars, the “liar school,” who support the thesis that “Herodotos was consciously fictionalizing” (9) but is primarily a refutational commentary on the work of Detlev Fehling. This study, an outgrowth of P.’s Studies in Ancient Greek Topography, which examines the topographical evidence for the veracity of ancient Greek historians, takes up three chapters discussing the publications of individual scholars, Detlev Fehling, François Hartog, and Stephanie West, although elsewhere he identifies the “liar school” trio as consisting of Fehling, West and O. Kimball Armayor (2, 86, 106) and three more on the subjects: “Opinions of Specialists on Individual Logoi,” “The Genre of Travelers,” and “Topography.” He ends with a brief chapter on Herodotus’ audience.

One wonders why P. includes Hartog among the liar school. While it is true that Hartog speaks of Herodotus’ epithet “father of lies”, his position on Herodotus in The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History (Berkeley 1988, tr. J. Lloyd) is not so simple. P. unfairly rebukes Hartog for passing over archaeological evidence in a work that explores the Greek representation of the Scythians.

In his discussion of S. West’s article “Herodotus’ Epigraphical Interests” ( CQ 79, 1985: 278-305) P. criticizes what he calls her “nit-picking” and omission of bibliography. For example, Herodotus tells about the inscription on a golden tripod at Delphi (8.82.1 and 9.81.1). West charges Herodotus with failing to distinguish between various parts of the monument and with inaccurately describing its column as a triple-headed serpent (τρικαρήνου ὄφιος) rather than as three serpents twisted round a single column. P. refers the reader to facsimile sketches (147) and shows that modern descriptions have been similar. In another case, P. challenges West’s comments on the equestrian statue of Darius that the monarch is said by Herodotus to have set up because his horse, by neighing at sunrise before his competitors’ horses, had secured the throne for him (3.88). West calls this episode a Greek fantasy and suggests that Darius would never have wished to “broadcast [t]his skullduggery” (p. 297). P. refers the reader to scholarship on ancient Persian hippomancy and evidence for the horse and rider theme on Achaemenid seals.

The bulk of the book is devoted to Detlev Fehling’s controversial work, which even unfavorable reviewers have agreed requires more than a brief dismissal. In the first, and longest section (over 100 pages) P. surveys thirty-nine examples, what Fehling calls “crucial cases” in the revised English translation of his book Herodotus and his ‘Sources’: Citation, Invention and Narrative Art (Arca 21, 1989, tr. J. G. Howie). P. sometimes argues for the veracity of Herodotus’ account, the evidence for which Fehling ignores, and renders suspect Fehling’s claims of Herodotean free invention or false citation of sources. A case in point. Herodotus says that according to the Macedonian account the Phrygians once lived among them and were called Bryges (7.73). Fehling, who believes that the Phrygians migrated from Europe c. 1200 B.C.E., asserts that the Macedonians, who were illiterate, could not have preserved this tradition for 700 years. Furthermore, he argues that the association is not historically real but a Greek construct built on the correspondence between initial Greek ph and Macedonian b (Pherenice : Berenice and Philippos : Bilippos). Since there were tribes among the Macedonians and Illyrians called Bryges and Brygoi, Herodotus must have invented this correspondence on linguistic grounds (pp. 39-41). P. (43) cites N. G. L. Hammond on the Macedonian origin of Phrygians. The Bryges of Europe were related to the Phrygians of Asia; there are striking similarities between twelfth-century pottery of the so-called Lausitz of Macedonia and of Troy VIIb. 2 Fehling has ignored evidence which would require him to argue that Herodotus accidentally hit upon the correct origin of the Phrygians. P., however, does not make the further point that Herodotus’ story could indeed represent an authentic Macedonian tradition tailored to a Greek audience or a Macedonian tradition about the origin of the Phrygians received by Herodotus already with an added Greek layer about the change from Bryges to Phryges. Without providing these alternative explanations to Fehling’s observations P. is less persuasive than he might be.

P. not only argues for the veracity of Herodotean accounts but shows that Fehling’s claims for the essential Greekness of stories attributed to another people are unfounded. Fehling, for example, denies that either the story of Cyrus being suckled by a bitch (Hdt. 1. 122) or its rationalized version could be Persian (p.110). He claims that the legend originates in a Greek pun, Cyrus (κῦρος) and dog (κύων). P. lists bibliography on the common ancient Near Eastern tale of the upstart king suckled as an infant by a female animal (e.g., Sargon of Akkad, Romulus and Remus) and the Iranian evidence for the tale of Cyrus’ birth. Sometimes P. quotes useful scholarship, but accompanies it with anemic argumentation. Herodotus, having already conjectured that the Colchians must originate in Egypt because of their black skin, woolly hair, and the practice of circumcision, was so informed by both people (2.104). Fehling denies, without providing evidence, that either the Egyptians or Colchians could accurately be described this way (pp. 17-21). P. cites a number of authors who disagree (G. Mokhtar, e.g.) but does not say why they disagree. 3 He says that Fehling sweeps under the rug important Greek and Roman testimonia on the skin color of the Colchians and their Egyptian origin but for the details one must refer to his Studies in Ancient Greek Topography 4 (1982, pp. 258-262). Neither Fehling nor P. grapples with the important question whether all these testimonia are borrowings from Herodotus himself. Fehling questions Herodotus’ sources and claims that the Colchians never would have attributed circumcision to the Egyptians, if they in fact practiced it. P. provides evidence for circumcision in Egypt and the Mediterranean (14-15) but never addresses Fehling’s argument about sources. What P. might have battled with is Fehling’s unexamined assertion that no people believed itself indebted to another for the practice of circumcision but rather attributed this rite to a god or lawgiver as “the Syrians in Palestine” did (p. 19). How and to whom customs were attributed in a region bristling with colonies is an important issue here, passed over by both Fehling and P.

Rather than a critique of the liar school, the book becomes a manifesto for the veracity school with topographical evidence for the veracity of Herodotus (chapter 7), a discussion of what must have been common knowledge in Greece and therefore not subject to Herodotus alleged invention (chapter 8), and a review of authorities on Media, Babylonia, Egypt, Libya, and Persia who have judged Herodotus accounts historically accurate (chapter 5). Archaeological evidence, e.g., confirms Herodotus account of the Egyptian canal dug by Darius (Hdt. 2.158) along with some dozen inscribed stelae, which are thought to have lined it (see J. D. Ray, CAH 4, 1988 p. 263). Sometimes, however, P. cites bibliography tangential to the discussion, as, for example, references to articles about the friendliness of the dolphin and its intelligence ( National Geographic, September 1992) in the section about the Arion episode (17). Fehling never disputes the intelligence of dolphins but whether the Lesbians and Corinthians, as Herodotus claims, could have both been a source for the Arion legend.

In a survey of the genre of travel literature (section 6), P. attempts to put Herodotus in the context of other stories about fabulous beings at the edges of the earth, e.g., Cteisias’cynocephaloi and Megasthenes’ mouthless men. Megasthenes himself, for example, says that he learned some of his marvelous stories from Brahmans. We have good reason to believe in an Indian folklore including such strange groups as people with hands for ears or with ears close to their lips as mentioned in the Indian epics, e.g., the Mahabharata. Here P. begins to engage with Fehling’s assumptions about traditional stories but never spells out the ramifications of his comparative evidence.

The Liar School of Herodotos is a learned assembly of resources, spirited in its argumentation, and at times entertaining. P. rightly points out that Fehling, having identified elements in Herodotean stories inappropriate to his sources, too quickly assumes that Herodotus invented these sources. But he fails to present an alternative theory of transmission in which recent anthropological work on social memory would be relevant. 4 This failure stems, to my mind, from the polarized (and ambiguously defined) terms of the debate: veracity vs. fiction. Fehling refers to free invention but defines this sometimes as Herodotean fabrication and sometimes as genuine, but Hellenized, local tradition. P., on the other hand, considers only the historical reality behind Herodotus account. Neither is sufficient. Instead, we need to examine the nature of social memory and oral tradition, on the one hand, and on the other, how the Greeks perceived variants of the same story. Although P. shows convincingly, to my mind, that Fehling’s argument is tendentious and that he passes over crucial evidence, he does not deal to Fehling’s work the final death blow.

  • [1] See Arnaldo Momigliano, “The Place of Herodotus in the History of Historiography,”History 43 (1958) 1-13 and J. A. S. Evans, “Father of History or Father of Lies: The Reputation of Herodotus,”CJ 64(1968) 11-17. [2] Cambridge Ancient History 2.2 (1975) 709-710. [3] Unesco General History of Africa 2 (Berkeley 1981) ed. G. Mokhtar. [4] See James Fentress and Chris Wickham, Social Memory (Oxford and Cambridge 1992), R. Thomas, Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens (Cambridge, 1989) and on Herodotus in particular, chapter 2 of John Gould’s book Herodotus (New York, 1989).