BMCR 1996.09.19

1996.9.19, Thompson, Herodotus and the Origins of the Political Community

, Herodotus and the origins of the political community : Arion's leap. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. xiv, 193 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780300062601. $25.00.

This is a very odd little volume. Thompson sets out, ostensibly, to fashion a place for Herodotus in the evolution of political thought, and to show how his stories link in with the formation of Greek political identity. Yet by the end of the work, this reader at least is (even after a second reading) left with little better knowledge of what T. actually wants to say than he had when he started.

Partly, this is a problem of expression. T. is not possessed of a particularly exciting prose style, which tends to bog down the reader and obscure her meaning. Sentences like “for Herodotus the accretions of conscious and mythical discourse that build up around the actual moment of action in an event in time past constitute that event insofar as it affects and reveals a community of the present” (p. 19) eventually reveal their meaning to the reader, but frankly, they are overwritten, and trip him up at first sight. This effect is compounded by a vocabulary that casually uses words like “ineluctably”, a vocabulary, therefore, that tends to distance the reader from the author. T. is a professor of political science, and it is the vocabulary of the political scientist that she seems to be employing; this will go down well enough with other political scientists, but how well will it communicate with Classicists or ancient historians? (I am prepared to concede that this may be rather more of a problem for people on my side of the Atlantic than for those on T.’s side.) And when T. throws in a metaphor or two, as when noting the variety of critical literature on Herodotus (p. 54: “There may be many ways of hunting a crocodile [2.70], but the inclination to recite all of them during the moment of truth could well be regarded as unpropitious”) the effect is sometimes amusing, but often slightly irritating.

There is, however, a more fundamental problem, one that lies in the overall structure of the work. After a brief introduction (pp. 1-6), T. delivers the following chapters: “The Decline and Repudiation of the Whole: Notes on Aristotle’s Enclosure of the Pre-Socratic World” (pp. 7-27), “The Development of Social Memory” (pp. 28-51), “The Formation of Persian Political Identity” (pp. 52-78), “Political Identities in Conflict: Herodotus in Contention with His Characters” (pp. 79-111), “The Use of Herodotus in Contemporary Political and Cultural Criticism” (pp. 112-141), which is actually a detailed critique of how just three modern writers, Martin Bernal, François Hartog and Edward Said, have used Herodotus (or in Said’s case how he might have used Herodotus), and “Before Objectivity, and After” (pp. 142-165).

The problem is that these chapters do not read very much like sections of an overall treatment of Herodotus’ work. Instead they make the book resemble a collection of six essays on Herodotus, occasionally covering the same ground more than once, in order to bring the reader of one chapter up to speed on what has been happening in another. So Persian truth-telling is dealt with, with slightly differing emphases, in both Chapter 3 ( passim) and in Chapter 4 (pp 81-88).

To say simply that this is a collection of essays passing itself off as a monograph does not, however, tell the full and fair picture. For there is interconnection between the chapters, and a feeling that an underlying theme is being developed, that an objective is in sight. What seems to go wrong is that, rather than arrive at this ultimate conclusion, the book simply stops. There is no pay-off. It is almost as if what we have here is not the whole book at all, but merely some introductory chapters upon which a larger work will build.

What is missing, it seems to me, is a proper discussion of the second half of the work’s title. There is plenty in this work about Herodotus, but not much that is very clear about the origins of the political community. To be sure, T. does mention at a number of points the way the evolution of stories helps to define a community; but the discussions of this matter are scattered throughout the work, and a first step towards improving the volume would have been to add a concluding chapter that brought these themes together. But there is a further problem; paradoxically, it might seem, T.’s reading is too close to the text of Herodotus.

It is instructive to compare Pericles Georges’ recent book, Barbarian Asia and the Greek Experience (Baltimore, 1994). 1 Like T., Georges keeps in mind that behind the Persians of whom Herodotus speaks lie real people who lived and died in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. (this is implicit in Georges’ writings; it is explicitly stated by T. at p. 130). But where Georges uses sources external to Herodotus, such as Near Eastern chronicles, to illuminate the Greek historian’s account, such sources play no part in T.’s work. Her reading is based almost entirely upon the text of Herodotus or upon other people’s reactions to that text (into which latter category she manages to fit a large proportion of the work of Aristotle). Her view of the east-Mediterranean world of the late Archaic period therefore almost entirely derives from Herodotus’ account, and she is apparently led, perhaps unavoidably, into the conclusion that whilst Herodotus may have invented some specific details of his account of the Persians, the broad picture was largely true. To be fair, T. may mean by the Greeks’ “shared knowledge” of the Persians (p. 127) a shared opinion of what the Persians were like, not necessarily that the Greeks knew for certain that the Persians were like that, but if so, that is an important qualification that is never drawn out into the open. It seems that T. has failed to learn all the lessons of Hartog’s work.

So then, one feels that the work would be rather more interesting and illuminating were there a serious comparison of Herodotus’ views with those held by his contemporaries, both Greek and non-Greek. The only other Greek writer, however, who makes any significant impact upon this work is Aristotle, and even he is rather characterized as an “anti-Herodotus” rather than someone who has evolved his ideas under a number of influences (of which reaction against Herodotus may well be one). I find myself wondering how familiar with Greek thought in general T. is—certainly, she seems to have slightly missed the point of Nichomachean Ethics 1096a6-8, where Aristotle seems mainly to be slighting not the possession of wealth, but the process of its accumulation.

The trouble is that T. has taken too far her adoption of Momigliano’s observation that Herodotus is the “best and most complete document for pre-Socratic philosophy” (Momigliano, quoted by T. at p. 10). It seems that to T. Herodotus is Greek thought of the fifth century, or at least a representative of its mainstream. So she can speak of Herodotus holding a “quintessentially pre-Socratic notion”, or of Aristotle opposing a “pre-Socratic view” (both on p. 11). This, surely, is a dangerous road to go down. It is a very considerable over-simplification to speak in terms of any sense of a set of shared ideas amongst the pre-Socratics. The pre-Socratics were not a school of thought in their own right—they are defined not by what they were but by what they were not (and chronologically defined at that). Herodotus may well be the most complete example of a political philosophy devised by a “pre-Socratic”, in the strictest sense of being written by an author whose floruit was before that of Socrates (though the latter had begun his inquiries before Herodotus had finished his work). But this does not mean that Herodotus can be taken as a spokesman for the whole of the pre-Socratic “movement”.

This is not necessarily to say that I take issue with what seems to be T.’s central point, that Herodotus was politically aware in his thought and writing. This I am quite happy to accept—it is with some of the emphases and the further development of her thesis that I quarrel.

And there are insights worth having in the book. Some of the connections made between seemingly unrelated passages of Herodotus (such as that between the debate over the Persian constitution and the debate of the Greek council before Salamis; pp. 91-92) are illuminating. The general discussion of Herodotus’ picture of the Persians, if read with care and the works of others in the back of one’s mind, has points of value. And the critique of Bernal (pp. 113-121), that attempts, and pretty successfully at that, to tackle him on his own ground, is well worth reading for anyone who wants to clearly explain why Bernal is wrong. On the other hand, the small page at the end (p. 167) that explains (rather unclearly) the relevance to the book’s topic of the subtitle, could more productively have been placed at the beginning, thus saving the reader a hundred and sixty-odd pages of wondering what Arion has to do with anything herein argued.

In conclusion I have to say that, had this actually been presented as a series of essays, then is would have borne up to criticism rather more robustly (though the argument of some chapters, e.g. Chapter 2, remain obscure to me). As a monograph, however, this reviewer at least cannot but feel that there is something missing.

  • [1] Reviewed in BMCR 95.10.14 = 6 (1995), pp. 610-613.