It is always difficult to review collections of essays, and this is especially the case for the present volume. This reviewer was of course confronted by the usual problems associated with evaluating individual discussions that are meant somehow to link up in more general thematic ways. But the scope of this particular collection is vast and makes impossible a competent evaluation of the book by any one person: texts from China, Hittite Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Persia, Israel, Greece and Rome are all dealt with here. So let it be noted here that I know nothing about Chinese historiography, and little about the historical writing of the Ancient Near East. I found the book to be very stimulating and informative, but also, as a collection, somewhat flawed.
It is probably best to start by looking at the collection as a whole, and that being the case, I have to begin on a negative note. While I learned a great deal from many of the individual papers in the collection, I do not believe that the volume as a whole succeeds as a collection: the sum is most certainly not greater than its parts. Issues of genre and narrative are inevitably bound up with cultural issues, and hence bring into question the value of assembling essays on such a broad range of historical writing. Perhaps this is what the editor, Christina Kraus, wanted to suggest by ‘limit’? As Michalowski asserts in one of the best pieces in the collection, ‘genre and historiography are western concepts that have yet to be satisfactorily defined within the sphere of [Mesopotamian] civilization’ (p.69). While some would want to refine this statement, the general point is a good one: what is the merit in trying to see if cultures outside Greece and Rome had a tradition of historiography that in turn responded to generic demands, when the terms being used have such specific associations with Classical antiquity? Furthermore, ‘historiography’ and ‘genre’ are ‘labels’, and yet, as Michalowski sagely warns us, civilizations cannot be reduced to ‘collections of labels’ (p.70).
Fully half of the papers in the volume deal with historical writing that comes neither from Greece or Rome (excluding Pelling’s concluding essay). At some point most of these essays get around to saying that the particular tradition of writing about the past which is in question operated by a different set of principles from what we see in the Greco-Roman world. This conclusion is not surprising, but it does make one wonder why the volume was put together in the way it was. The problem becomes even more acute when we factor in the essays by Pelling and Marincola and their focus on the problem of genre. I will treat both papers in detail below, but it is enough for me to say here that each claims, in essence, that genre is something of an interpretive dead-end, even when considering Greco-Roman historical writing. But if that is the case, what are those western rules for writing history that the subjects of the non-western papers are not following?
Another difficulty with the volume as a whole, and no doubt one related to that mentioned above, is the generous scope of the non-western papers when compared with those treating Greece and Rome. With the exception of Clarke, Marincola, and Pelling, the remaining four Greco-Roman papers concern single authors (Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, Sallust, in that order). This is by no means meant as a criticism, but in the present volume such an orientation makes these essays look very narrowly focussed. When vast stretches of time and space are being charted for other parts of the world’s recorded past, it seems slightly off-putting to ponder detailed, author-based questions for Greece and Rome. This focus made me feel that the collection had two distinct registers: the broad and historical, and the narrow and literary. To put it another way: we see no authors’ names in any of the papers except for those on Classical Greek and Roman historians.
A final complaint. A couple of areas were felt by their absence, at least by me. Where is Egypt? The Egyptian traditions of king lists and historical narrative (esp. royal autobiography) are clearly worthy of inclusion in such a collection and yet are not discussed,1 ‘Egypt’ does not even appear in the index of the volume. Further, as long as the Greco-Roman part of the project was dominated by essays centered on single authors, why not have a chapter on Herodotus? If there is any historian from Mediterranean antiquity whose work raises issues of genre and limit it is his. Perhaps a piece on Herodotus would have had the effect of moving the presentation of the Greek and Roman material into broader categories of analysis. It is significant that he does appear quite a bit in the volume, but in Pelling’s concluding essay, Marincola’s general discussion, and Rood’s excellent intertextual analysis of Thucydides and Herodotus on imperial invasions.
Now for the individual essays, many of which seem to organize themselves into subgroups. If I do not have a lot to say about the first pair of contributions, it is not a comment on their quality, but rather my own ignorance.
The first two essays in the volume concern Chinese historiography; and in fact there is a sizeable overlap in coverage, inasmuch as both deal at considerable length with the Zuo Commentary Tradition.2 David Schaberg writes on ‘Social Pleasures in Early Chinese Historiography and Philosophy’, while Wai-yee Li offers ‘Knowledge and Skepticism in Ancient Chinese Historiography’. Li knows Schaberg’s work, but Schaberg does not cite Li.
Both Schaberg and Li are interested in exploring how historians find meaning from the past by giving it order (see below on Pelling). For Schaberg this entails the development of a type of historical criticism by Chinese scholars that focussed on morality and aesthetic taste. For Li, the same scholars sought their authority to comment on the past by deploying a skeptical stance towards their sources. Save for some helpful opening remarks, Li does not really venture beyond the confines of her topic. A fairly thin comparatist view emerges at points in Schaberg’s discussion through explicit allusions to the Greek historical tradition (‘[Chinese] histories are hardly Thucydidean’ p.2), and he makes a point of using Greek critical terms ( aisthesis p.8, analepsis p.10). Li’s essay was lucid and convincing. In a couple of places I found Schaberg’s presentation somewhat less successful and certainly harder to follow.
Alexander Uchitel and Piotr Michalowski provide papers on historiography from the Ancient Near East: Uchitel discusses Hittite texts (‘Local versus General History in Old Hittite Historiography’), and Michalowski primarily Old Babylonian ones (‘Commemoration, Writing, and Genre in Ancient Mesopotamia’).
Uchitel sketches out the histories of four distinct types of Hittite writing about the past: royal building inscriptions, royal annals, political satire, and local history. He concludes that ‘[o]nly two of these genres belong to historiography proper, being composed for the purpose of commemorating past events with no more practical aim, i.e. royal annals and local history’ (p.65). This seems a naïve observation for a couple of reasons. First, there is the presumption that narratives which do not have an obvious and defined function are more accurate because they do not have specific agendas. But what texts do not have some sort of ‘practical aim’? Second, to think that royal annals and local history are two examples in particular of texts without ‘practical aims’ is surely incorrect. Uchitel has been misled by an often unstated but nonetheless persistent assumption: for a Hittite text to be called historiographic, it must look like an historical work from Greco-Roman antiquity. So much is clear when he writes at the very end of his essay that ‘[t]he quality of [Hittite] writing also reached such heights as the dating by “summers and winters,” preceding Thucydides by little short of a millennium, and even incorporated some elements of archival research’ (p.66). What we do not get from Uchitel’s work is a good sense of how the texts he examines functioned as repositories for the past within the context of Hittite culture.
Michalowski’s discussion is altogether different. This is a truly important and brilliant piece. If read carefully, the opening pages of his essay make clear why the volume as a whole has the problems it does. Each culture has a different way of viewing and recording the past. Michalowski brings up the point made some time ago by Jacob Finkelstein that ‘the Mesopotamian sense of the past was not to be found in the obvious places—annals or king lists—but in omens’ (p.75).3 He disagrees with Finkelstein’s particular finding, but applauds the general thrust of the observation: one has ‘to analyze historiography “from the native point of view,” rather than as a reflex of modern intuitive concepts’ (p.76). Above all, he is interested in how the people of Mesopotamia manipulated their texts which concerned the past through various processes of transmission and allusion. Indeed, for Michalowski, ‘historical meaning’ in Mesopotamia came precisely from the copying, reshaping and even falsifying of pre-existing texts such as Gilgamesh. Especially important are his remarks about the self-reflexivity of this epic in a first-millennium redaction. Michalowski draws notice to passages at the beginning and end of this version that refer to a foundation deposit under the walls of Uruk which turn out to contain Gilgamesh’s own story, as well as the reported narrative of Utanapishtim, the male flood survivor. The entire poem is transformed by this detail, for the poem, which deals with the problem of immortality and remembrance, is made a permanent historical artifact and connected to a physical reminder (the walls of the city). For Michalowski this historiographic ‘sealing’ of Gilgamesh reveals the emphasis that the people of Mesopotamia put on ‘the textual nature of history’ (p.80). Indeed, there is an entire class of texts from Mesopotamia that contain similar assertions (often false) of historicity and monumentality: naru= literature, or ‘stele literature’ (a modern designation, p.87). I could not help but think in this connection of the detail in Berossus’ own flood story where Cronus (=Enki/Ea) orders Xisouthros (Sumerian Ziusudra = Utanapishtim) to bury ‘the beginnings, the middles and the ends of all writings in Sippar’, who then later digs them up and gives them to mankind ( FGrH 680 F 4 = Syncellus pp.30-32 Mosshammer). Clearly Berossus was adapting a traditional device for claiming authority for his account from his Near Eastern setting; furthermore, the popularity of naru= texts may also imply that Berossus was directing his narrative not only at Greeks, but also at his hellenophone compatriots.
Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg has also contributed a splendid piece: ‘The Persian Kings and History’. She too is sensitive to the fact that different cultures approach the past in different ways, and that what we call ‘historiography’ has a distinctively Greek tincture (p.99). Her essay focuses on Darius’ famous Behistun inscription (DB). Sancisi-Weerdenburg turns her attention to the significant fact that while Achaemenid kings could record their deeds in writing in the lands they conquered (e.g. Cyrus in Babylon, Cambyses in Egypt), they had no written tradition in Persia itself (p.101). So, when Darius put up the account of accession and his victories over rebels and Scythians, he was breaking new ground, creating a text that had no precursors in his own culture, and perhaps even deploying Old Persian in writing for the first time. She is quick to point out, however, that there were several models in the Near East from other cultures for Darius to follow. Looking at the first four columns of the Behistun inscription (DB I-IV) in particular, Sancisi-Weerdenburg argues that the text was in all likelihood originally first written up as a letter to be distributed throughout the empire to assure people that peace and order had been restored after the usurpation of Gaumata; hence, this portion of the text is found in Elamite and Akkadian, as well as Old Persian. Column five (DB V) alone is written only in Old Persian because it had a different purpose, namely to announce Darius’ successful conquest of Scythia (109). Its vagueness, which contrasts somewhat with the factual nature of the earlier sections of the inscription, can be explained by a desire to represent the actions as timeless: the eternal Persian monarch (not a particular one) subduing and conquering any foe of Persia (p.110). Darius’ power was more secure, and the ‘prototext’ for this section was not a letter to all the peoples of his realm.
In ‘History, Historiography, and the Use of the Past in the Hebrew Bible’, Thomas Bolin issues something of a challenge. It is his contention that the Hebrew Bible (HB) ought to be understood not as a work of historiography but a work of antiquarianism; Bolin frames his claim against the views others, especially the recent work of John Van Seters.4 This paper has real points of merit; however, while this attempt to relabel the HB from one term with strong Greco-Roman resonance to another has a some interpretive payoff, it also involves Bolin in major difficulty. He argues that important features in the narrative of the HB are better explained when viewed as aspects of an antiquarian rather than a historiographic project: doublets, aetiology, etymology are just some features he draws notice to (pp.133-36). He connects his efforts to ‘other lines of investigation which are beginning to look to the Hellenistic era as the intellectual background to the creation of the
With Tim Rood’s essay, ‘Thucydides’ Persian Wars’, we turn to Greco-Roman topics. It is an outstanding piece. I found some of his arguments for an intertextual relationship between Thucydides and Herodotus convincing, others not; however, the essay is always interesting, and its conclusions are important.6 I found Rood’s treatment of those places in Thucydides’ narrative where the Persian and Peloponnesian wars are explicitly connected excellent: Plataea in 427, and the comparison of Sphacteria to Thermopylae. Less convincing are those cases where he rests his argument on verbal echoes: I do not think we can tell whether the phrases ‘going on board ships’ (p.147) or ‘sparing neither their own or others’ property’ (p.151) constitute real links between different moments in time because they are so common (how else would such ideas be represented in Greek?). Rood’s main contribution, and one that is sure to excite controversy, is his argument that Thucydides’ treatment of the Sicilian expedition is in some sense modeled on Herodotus’ account of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece. While he is quick to note that others have made the same connection (pp.152-53 n.35, esp. F. Cornford Thucydides Mythistoricus ch.12), it is Rood’s contention that Thucydides’ engagement with Herodotus’ narrative is sustained, aimed at a specific purpose, and meant to be recognized by the reader. Further, he adds that the comparison between Athens’ defeat in Sicily and its victory over Persia was not just a literary matter; people at the time must have seen the connection for themselves. Although not all will agree with his analysis, Rood’s essay is powerful and will need to be read by all interested in Thucydides’ debt to his great predecessor, as well as his own procedures for bringing meaning to his account. This contribution puts the question of intertextuality between historians on a new footing.
The next three papers concern Roman historians: Livy, Tacitus, and Sallust (in that order). All three attempt to find in their texts deep structures (or their absence) that inform the narratives in question.
Mary Jaeger contributes ‘Guiding Metaphor and Narrative Point of View in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita‘. This paper argues that we should look for Livy’s ‘sense of space’, and to find in particular a spatial metaphor that helps to throw light on the organization that underpins his text (p.170). The metaphor she chooses is ‘the idea of the labyrinth’. There are several thought-provoking readings in this piece, especially in connection with Livy’s use of spatial terms to describe the ‘path’ his narrative is taking, but on the whole I do not think the article justifies its central thesis. On p.172 Jaeger admits that Livy ‘never mentions a labyrinth in the extant books of his history’. Why, then, should we look for it in his work? Jaeger relies heavily on a book by Penelope Reed Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages (Ithaca 1990). But as Doob points out early on in her own discussion, ‘references to the labyrinth and its associated myth abound in Classical literature’ (p.17). If that is the case, this fact would perhaps lend some indirect support to Jaeger’s reading, but also pose a much more serious obstacle toward accepting her views: if we can assume that Livy knew of the concept of labyrinth, and yet did not employ it in the presentation of his ideas, what is the value of using it as a heuristic device in interpreting his text? The attachment to the labyrinth as ‘guiding metaphor’ at times seems to lead Jaeger into narrow interpretations. Her lengthy treatment (pp.183-193) of Publius Decius’ activities in Book 7 of the AUC emphasizes his control over space and hence his expertise as a commander; yet, as Pelling suggests in his concluding essay, Decius also represents something of the ‘Black Hunter’, a tricky opportunist who contrasts sharply with the ideal Roman commander (p.339).
D.S. Levene’s paper, ‘Tacitus’ Histories and the Theory of Deliberative Oratory’, is a valuable discussion of how rhetorical models may have played a crucial role in Tacitus’ presentation of speeches in the Histories. It is Levene’s contention that a ‘non-Aristotelian’ position in which moral arguments are not subordinated to arguments from advantage is typically associated in the Histories with villains, and is often shown to be persuasive in contexts where the outcome is disaster for their audiences too (see esp. pp.212-215). The upshot is the very grim conclusion that ‘[s]uccessful moral persuasion…is thus consistently linked by Tacitus to moral disaster’ (p.213). I found this a powerful essay, as well as well-argued.
In ‘Jugurthine Disorder’ Christina Kraus proposes a daring thesis: that there is a ‘thematics of disorder’ in Sallust’s Jugurtha, centering on the subject of the text. As she puts it, ‘the prince is the embodiment, cause, and effect of disorder at all levels, political, military, and historiographical’ (p.220). She isolates a number of places in the Jugurtha where there seem to be slippages of various sorts: war with Jugurtha does not end, it shifts elsewhere; Jugurtha’s character in his early years is presented first as dangerous, then as noble, and then as dangerous again; the Romans who fight him are confused by his tactics and corrupted by contact with ‘Jugurthine disorder’ (p.235). Kraus makes a compelling case, noting the frequency with which confusion attends the figure of Jugurtha. But I hesitate to agree with her when she alleges that ‘turmoil…ultimately threatens even the historian’s project’ (p.220). I simply cannot accept that Sallust ever ‘lost control’ of his subject matter (p.245), whether due to the character of Jugurtha or anything else. If we treat the slippages and discontinuities of Sallust’s narrative as signs of his inability to write coherently about his topic, then all of the meaning of his text would seem to be thrown into doubt.
The final three essays in the volume are all very ambitious, and all are excellent. Katherine Clarke’s paper treats ‘Universal Perspectives in Historiography’. She makes it her task to ‘explore the nature of universal writing in order to discover what makes it distinctive as a genre’ (p.249); her focus is on Diodorus Siculus, Pompeius Trogus, and Strabo—all late first century BC figures, chosen on the grounds that they represent ‘universal historiography in its extreme…form’ (p.252). Clarke’s main contribution is the simple but nonetheless brilliant observation that the historians in question represented ‘universality’ in two fundamentally different ways: through temporal or through spatial continuities. It is her claim that although they all must deal with these two types of universality, they work out the ‘interweaving’ of them in different ways, privileging one of the two axes over the other: Diodorus favors temporal linkages, Strabo spatial, and Trogus temporal but set against histories of separate nations (p.275). Clarke makes some wonderful points in the service of this larger argument: her discussion of Diodorus’ citation of earlier historians is especially good, leaving us with the impression of an author who saw the past not in terms of actual events, but as constituted by the great narratives of previous historians at his disposal (p.259), a view that connects up nicely with the fundamental work of Volquardsen, Schwartz, and most recently Stylianou. Clarke does deal briefly with the question why universal history flourished at the time it did; the suggestion that it reflects an oikoumene unified by Roman rule (p.277) is essentially Nicolet’s view,7 and is surely correct. One wishes she had said a bit more about this, as well as earlier practitioners of the genre (esp. Ephorus, mentioned in passing on p.255). But on the whole this is a superb piece of work.
John Marincola’s massive contribution, ‘Genre, Convention, and Innovation in Greco-Roman Historiography’, is an extremely important essay that should be consulted by all who study Classical historiography. Marincola’s study is first a probing criticism of Jacoby’s organizing principles for his FGrHist. Similar in spirit are the critiques of Jacoby by Schepens and Humphreys in Glenn Most’s collection of essays, Collecting Fragments (Göttingen 1997), as well as by Potter in his book Literary Texts and the Roman Historian (London 1999); in fact Marincola cites both Schepens and Humphreys (he could not have known Potter’s work at the time of writing). Marincola asks us to rethink whether genre fundamentally shaped ancient historical writing; or, in his words, ‘whether a particular focalization determined a consequent methodology and purpose’ (p.296, his stress). Basically his answer is ‘no’, and his case is compelling. Even in groupings of apparently strongly allied texts such as the Atthidographers, Marincola sees more individuality and difference than generic sameness (p.299, pp.312-13; cf. Harding’s views, Androtion and the Atthis [Oxford 1994], cited by Marincola). He has much the same to say about universal history (pp.311-12; note Clarke’s conclusions, just above). Above all, where earlier critics have seen generic boundaries in historiography as closely policed, Marincola prefers to see individuality and dynamism. He does not want to eliminate the idea of ‘genre’, but rather, following Conte, to redefine it; it is not a fixed recipe, but rather a ‘dynamic’ concept that should be seen as a flexible “strategy of literary composition”‘ (p.282). Even if some readers will not agree with every one of his arguments, all will recognize their salutary effect: to show ‘that the historiographical genres of the Greeks and Romans were not static categories in which one writer merely followed all or most of the aspects of his predecessors, but rather they were constantly dependent upon change and innovation…’ (p.320). In other words, we have to read ancient Greek and Roman historians without rigid preconceptions, and credit them for choosing to write about what they did for very good and specific reasons, not merely the presumed dictates of their craft. I agree.
Christopher Pelling’s concluding ‘Epilogue’ is marvelous. It is in essence both a built-in review of the preceding essays, as well as a wide-ranging discussion of genre and explanation in ancient historiography. Most of what he takes up by way of recapitulation and comment has to do with Greco-Roman antiquity, though not exclusively so. His argument, which amounts to nothing less than a statement of a philosophy of history, deserves a close look. Like Marincola, Pelling has a much more generous concept of genre, and therefore comes up with important results. What Pelling does is put the matter of genre more in the hands of the reader than the historian. Put simply, ancient readers read narratives that conditioned their expectations for later works (p.326). Or, as he says a bit later in the essay, citing the work of H. Dubrow on genre, ‘it is better to think of a cluster of “on-the-whole” expectations, what Dubrow calls a “What if/then probably’ rather than an “if/then” approach’ (p.329). Pelling broadens this view yet further as he proceeds: ‘…whatever else we say about Tacitus borrowing patterns from Livy, Herodotus from Homer, or Thucydides from Herodotus, we should not lose sight of that simple point: the story is simply more believable if it corresponds to the audience’s expectations, more or less conscious, of how stories work’ (p.344). Notice that here he relies not only on the notion of the reader’s response, but particularly as it relates to believability in the context of ‘stories’ in general. Pelling asks the fair question in all of this: if ‘intelligibility’ is generated by repetitions of narrative patterns, what about the fact that human events themselves seem to show familiar and repeating chains of causation (pp.347-48). Since this complicates the whole notion of repeated story-patterns, Pelling offers a different place to look for the common denominator in all historical writing and hence perhaps a key to its understanding: the need to order the past (pp.349-50). When he cites Xenophon’s ending of the Hellenica as his first example of the historian’s overarching concern to bring order to the description of the past (p.350), I can only applaud, for I am on record as being in complete sympathy with this view. While it may seem at first a trivial point, none is more important when looking at historical writing of any kind: historiography is the process whereby the past is made meaningful, and that is done through imposing order upon it. Such a view subsumes much if not all of the vexing discussions relating to genre.
Pelling leaves us with an excellent starting point for further study. It is crucial that, in addition to our own readings of ancient historical texts, we look at how they were read in antiquity itself. It is not as if the information is lacking. Of course historians were voracious readers of each other’s work. And there were commentators as well: Dionysius of Halicarnassus is an obvious example, but so also numerous other texts, including the subliterary (see most recently P.Oxy 4455, a commentary on Herodotus published by M. Haslam). But in this context I am thinking also of, e.g., the material collected by Angelos Chaniotis in his book Historie und Historiker in den griechischen Inschriften (Stuttgart 1988), and before him, by Louis Robert in several articles:8 historical writing was read aloud, or, if you like ‘performed’, throughout the Greek-speaking world for centuries, in many cases by the authors themselves. Perhaps we should look here as well.
1. Sancisi-Weerdenburg does allude briefly to the king list tradition in Egypt in her essay (pp.99, 101).
2. The authors date the Zuo Tradition in slightly different ways: Schaberg ‘near the end of the fourth century [BCE]’ (p.1); Li ‘ca. Fifth-fourth century’ (p.27).
3. J.J. Finkelstein, ‘Mesopotamian Historiography’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 107 (1963) 461-72. Finkelstein was in turn borrowing a definition of historiography articulated by Johan Huizinga: ‘history is the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of the past’ (Finkelstein p.462); cf. Bolin’s contribution, p.124, who also looks to this description from Huizinga.
4. Esp. John Van Seters, In Search of History. Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven 1983).
5. ‘Origines Gentium’, CP 47 (1952) 65-81 = E. Bickerman, Religions and Politics in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods (Como 1985) 401-17.
6. Some of Rood’s ideas are found also in his book, Thucydides. Narrative and Explanation (Oxford 1998).
7. Space, Geography, and Politics in the Early Roman Empire (Ann Arbor 1991).
8. E.g. Études Épigraphiques et Philologiques (Paris 1938) 14-15, Hellenica 2 (1946) 35-36, Gnomon 35 (1963) 58-59, and (with J. Robert) BE/ 1958 no.336, and Fouilles d’Amyzon en Carie vol.1 (Paris 1983) 162. Consult also L. Boffo, ‘Epigrafi di Città Greche: un’ Espressione di Storiografia Locale’, in Studi di Storia e Storiografia per Emilio Gabba (Pavia 1988) 9-48.