BMCR 2000.09.21

Herodot. Studienbücher Antike, Band 3

, , Herodot. Studienbücher Antike ; Bd. 3. Hildesheim: Olms, 2000. 209 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 348710931X DM 29.80.

This is a small book with large claims. In 192 pages (including a 31 page bibliography), followed by a seven page index, Bichler and Rollinger set out to provide everything one needs to know about Herodotus. Remarkably, they succeed. This is an excellent over-view of Herodotus’ work, its contents, its development, its themes; of what is known of the author’s life and travels; of the ‘reception’ of the work, from Aristophanes to Fehling and Armayor, and the controversies which it has aroused; and of the manuscript tradition, the editions, commentaries and translations. Obviously the numerous problems which Herodotus and his work have posed for his readers through the centuries are not all argued out in detail, nor are new conclusions offered, but anyone who reads this book will profit from it. Those who know Herodotus well will still find at least some details which are new to them, or authors whom they have missed; those who do not will find a generally clear and never overwhelming introduction to the problems but also to the pleasures of the historian.

The first part of the book, pages 13-108, by Bichler, is the ‘Darstellungsteil’, devoted to the contents of the Histories. Its first two sections describe the stories Herodotus tells, the structure of his work, and the dimensions of space and time into which the stories are placed. Then, inevitably, in the third section it must deal with ‘the other’ — with the portrayal and explanation of foreigners and their customs, the contrast between civilisation and barbarism, sexual differentiation, settled communities versus nomads, and the contrast between human and divine. The fourth section reviews the non-Greek nations which play a role in the Histories, focussing particularly on the theme of domination and servitude. The fifth section draws the contrast with the world of the Greeks and their numerous separate states, many of which fell under the rule of greater, non-Greek, powers, but which ultimately maintained or regained their freedom by the successful repulse of the Persians, only to have the leading Greek states, and especially Athens, then attempt in their turn to establish their dominance over the neighbours. The final section in Part One deals with the ‘great figures’ in the Histories: first the conquerors — Croesus, Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius and Xerxes — their successes and ultimate failures; then lesser characters, both Persian (Mardonius) and Greek (from Polycrates to Pausanias), who all succumb to the temptations of power and suffer the consequences. Rather oddly, it includes a quite long section on ‘Women and Power’, which rapidly sketches the female characters in the Histories, states that most of them remain shadowy, and concludes that Herodotus does not have unqualified sympathy for women who step outside their traditional roles. It concludes by drawing the moral that, for Herodotus, the temptations of power are always dangerous, and that self-control is safer.

In Part One B. may at times attribute too great a degree of clarity and too systematic a development of themes to Herodotus: some, at least, of the patterns which he describes either have too many exceptions to be persuasive or may well derive not from Herodotus’ conscious intention but simply from the fact that one man, with a fairly consistent outlook, is telling all the stories. However, B.’s suggestions are always interesting and often draw attention to links between different stories which a casual reader, or someone who only refers to the text without reading it through, would almost certainly miss, and which may be important for the interpretation of the whole work and therefore also for separate portions of it.

There are of course omissions, and any lover of Herodotus will compile his own list. I am surprised that there is no mention of Herodotus’ unfulfilled promises, which are obviously relevant to the question whether the Histories are complete (as B. assumes); I would welcome some more discussion of the reasons for the apparently disproportionate space given to Egypt; and there should certainly be both a subject-index, and an index of passages cited — without them, it can be difficult to find all the places where B. has something to say about a particular topic. B.’s claim (p.81) that Herodotus, by giving a description of the customs of Sparta — and of no other Greek state — which is analogous to his descriptions of ‘barbarian’ peoples (VI.51-60), indicates that ‘die Ausformung eines distanziert bewundernden Sparta-Bildes … bereits zu seiner Zeit eingesetzt hatte’ seems implausible to me; it seems more likely that the secretiveness of the Spartan system made the customs of Sparta an object of interest to other Greek states in the same way as the customs of the Scythians, the Libyans or other mysterious peoples were and that Herodotus’ excursus is evidence for the effectiveness of Spartan xenelasia in the fifth century B.C. Finally, B. claims (75) that it is remarkable that Herodotus fails to mention that both Greeks and Phoenicians were settled on Cyprus. This is indeed true for his account of Cyprus in the Ionian Revolt (V.104-5; 108-115), where the information would certainly be relevant, but in his account of Xerxes’ fleet Herodotus does mention the different peoples, including Greeks and Phoenicians, which inhabited the island (VII.90).

There should be a cross-reference from the mention of Hecataeus of Miletus in the text, p.28, which is listed in the index, to his mention, with references, on p.27 n.1, which the index misses. R. Borger and others, Historisch-chronologische Texte I, mentioned p.68 n.5, does not appear in the bibliography. And I do not believe that the German language needs the noun ‘Rollback,’ even though it is now included in Duden.

The second part of the book, by R. Rollinger, is even more useful and admirable. There have been numerous studies of Herodotus’ aims and methods, his outlook and beliefs, his relation to earlier and contemporary writers and their influence on him, but there has not been till now — as far as I know — any complete account of the influence of his work on later generations, from Aristophanes to the present. To compress this into less than ninety pages means of course that every reader will notice and regret omissions, but each will certainly be grateful for the mass of information and stimulation which R. has included, which will make further investigations much easier.

R. has divided his part into ten sections: 1. Introduction; 2. Herodotus’ biography; 3. Herodotus’ work in Antiquity; 4. Byzantium’s place as ‘bridge’ in the tradition between late Antiquity and the Renaissance; 5. the Renaissance; 6. from the Renaissance to the end of the eighteenth century; 7. an excursus on the three main strands of Herodotean scholarship, Herodotus’ veracity, his sources, and the origin and character of his Histories; 8. Herodotean research in the nineteenth century; 9. the twentieth century, beginning with Jacoby and Aly; finally 10.Herodotus’ dialect, and the history of the text.

In section 3 there is no reference to the revival of ‘literary’ Ionic as a dialect for historical writing, from Ctesias to Arrian (Indica) and Cephalion; and in section 4 it would be interesting to have more information about Herodotus’ influence on Byzantine historians and their attempts to interpret their contemporary world and the threats from external powers, whether Persians, Arabs, Bulgars, Russians, Normans or, finally and fatally, Turks. In section 9, R. is very discreet about the influence of current political developments on scholarship: the reader is left to work out for himself the background to A. Heubeck’s disappointment, in 1936, that ‘es Herodot an nationalem Pathos fehle’ (p.153), and that for Pohlenz ‘bestimmte … das Thema des welthistorischen Entscheidungskampfes zwischen Persern und Hellenen den Aufbau des ganzen Werkes, das vom nationalen Gegensatz durchdrungen sei (ibid.).’ Even fifty-five years after the destruction of the Third Reich, it seems hard for German scholars to write openly about the Nazi period. In contrast, in mentioning an article by Breitenbach of 1966 there is a clear allusion to anti-Soviet feelings during the ‘Cold War’ (154 and n. 24).

However, there is much more to praise: in astonishingly small space R. presents Herodotus’ influence on Greek and Roman writers; his re-discovery in the west in the fifteenth century, very largely thanks to Valla’s translation; the impetus which the voyages of exploration and particularly the discovery of America gave to Herodotean studies; the historian’s popularity — as gauged by editions and translations, compared with the numbers for other ancient historians — in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries; and Herodotus’ influence on the development of Egyptology, Assyriology and anthropology. R.’s account of scholarly controversies about Herodotus in the last two centuries is well informed, well balanced, and well documented. Part 2, in fact, not only gives a secure basis for further work on Herodotus but also would be an excellent text for use in a university course on historiography.

The bibliography contains so many unknown or barely known works that omissions are all the more remarkable: Beloch’s Griechische Geschichte, the Cambridge Ancient History, and Fontenrose’s The Delphic Oracle surely deserve a place alongside Busolt, Griechische Geschichte, and S. Gaukroger (ed.) The uses of antiquity. Some of the titles of Latin dissertations have been truncated or otherwise deformed, and many readers would probably have been helped if the publication place ‘Virceb.(p. 177) ‘ had been translated into ‘Würzburg.’

A reviewer must point out mistakes and weaknesses, but it is a pleasure to state that the misprints are neither numerous nor perplexing, and that the paperback binding is still firm and the pages still securely attached even after much thumbing and page turning; it has obviously been designed to withstand the heavy use which Bichler and Rollinger’s work deserves to get. Everybody — not just every library — interested in Herodotus, or in the Classical tradition or the development of historiography should buy this book, and at its published price, they can afford to.