BMCR 2004.07.17

Lessons from the Past: The Moral Use of History in Fourth-Century Prose

, Lessons from the past : the moral use of history in fourth-century prose. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. 1 online resource (204 pages). ISBN 9780472025671 $60.00.

Pownall examines the “moral use of history” in a selection of fourth-century texts, Xenophon’s Hellenica, Ephorus’ History Theopompus’ Philippica, and Plato’s Menexenus. In each of these works, P. argues, the authors “sacrifice accuracy, relevance, and impartiality to the presentation of moral exempla” (v.). The moral concerns so conveyed are in the case of each author consonant with a political attitude favorable to limited oligarchy. Particularly in the discussion of the first three authors, P. claims to redress an omission in Ober’s influential Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule, which excludes historians after Thucydides from participation in the “literary resistance to popular rule” (p.4). The Menexenus (discussed last in this review), though not a work of history, is included because the epitaphios genre which Plato adapts relies heavily on the celebrated moments of Athens’ past.

P. does not provide an outright definition for the term “moral use.” Yet some attempt at delimitation or categorization is necessary when using such a potentially open-ended phrase, since probably any piece of ancient historical literature may be seen to “use” its content so as to convey a moral point. Over the course of the chapters, however, one observes P.’s consistent attempt to demonstrate a causal link between historical inaccuracy (or departure from accepted historical tradition) and the authorial desire to moralize.

XENOPHON: Hellenica (chapter three)

The Hellenica, as P. says, is “notorious for omissions of fact and inequalities of treatment” (p.65). In this chapter a new explanation is offered: these alleged shortcomings “stem not so much from a pro-Spartan, anti-Theban bias as from Xenophon’s desire to use lessons from the past for the moral instruction of his fellow aristocrats” (p.66). Xenophon is “preoccupied” with or “distracted” by the goal of moral instruction, as P. repeatedly phrases it, when he fails to mention major events such as the formation of the Second Athenian League, the foundation of Megalopolis, and the re-foundation of Messene.

In the case of the Second Athenian Confederacy, P. explains, modern scholars criticize Xenophon for not placing an account of its foundation “either before or after the raid of Sphodrias” (p.67). However, P. finds that, because of the “gradual” quality of the foundation of the confederacy, “it is strictly not fair to criticize Xenophon for his failure to indicate in one specific place the result of an ongoing process” (p.67). In this way, P.’s search for moralizing material occurs, not in close proximity to the raid of Sphodrias, but over a quite substantial portion of the text, loosely defined as “in the years following the conclusion of the Corinthian War” (p.67). (P. discusses the moralizing aspects of the story of the seizure of the Cadmea, the liberation of the city by the seven Theban exiles, the anecdote of Archidamus and Cleonymus, and so on.) The problem with the methodology here is simply that, given a large enough sample of the Hellenica, one is bound to find some evidence of moral concerns. Even if the search were narrowly delimited, the suggestions of modern commentators1 about where in the text they might expect a reference to a specific historical event are already speculative in nature.

Similarly, regarding the foundation of Megalopolis P. notes the moralizing import of the account of the bloody civil strife at Tegea, which occurs “during the establishment of a ‘new order’ in the Peloponnese” (6.5.6-9, see p.71). But does the use of the term ‘new order’, rather than a direct mention of the Arcadian League or the subsequent foundation of Megalopolis, suggest distraction on Xenophon’s part? P. does not address a well-known alternative explanation, that “Xenophon writes for those who know”.2

That Xenophon shapes his narrative to provide moral instruction is widely acknowledged (as for example by Cawkwell, Gray, Grayson, Dillery, and Tuplin3). It is also clear that this shaping of the narrative around moral concerns results in an account that falls short of modern notions of balanced, fair, and unbiased reporting of history. But it makes less sense to claim that urgency to moralize causes Xenophon to omit a single specific event, especially when he has no difficulty mentioning various other historical events in the same context and when the specific event in question would not detract much from the moralizing story he is at pains to tell. One must weigh against P.’s claims the possibility that Xenophon means to keep the focus on Sparta and her own imperialist ambitions rather than those of other states. As P. herself says later in the chapter (in a slight restatement of her position), certain matters “were unpalatable to [Xenophon], such as the success of the Athenian democracy … and actions highlighting Spartan weakness” (p.76). Here the issue returns to the original “pro-Sparta” thesis (albeit in its more subtle form), which P. argues against throughout the chapter.

Though the most strikingly original of P.’s arguments regarding the most notorious of Xenophon’s omissions may not be entirely convincing to some readers, the remainder of the chapter is valuable. P. provides detailed documentation of Xenophon’s moralizing concerns and cogent analysis of the relation between this moral framework and the oligarchic leanings of the text. Also helpful is the survey of the moral virtues with which Xenophon is chiefly concerned and the classification of the means by which he impresses these moral principles upon his readers. In various passages, admirably analyzed by P., Xenophon “concentrates on relative nonentities” (p.99), “depart[s] from the strict chronological order of the narrative” (p.103), indicates “divine vengeance upon the guilty” (p.88), and uses digressions, peripeteiai and speeches in order to convey his moral points. P. stresses Xenophon’s interest in the good moral leadership. of the military commander and ultimately confirms the view that “Xenophon … advocates a return to the system … in which military experience was a prerequisite for a political career” (p.111).4

EPHORUS (chapter four)

In her analysis of Ephorus’ History (a lost work of universal history for which we have some 200 fragments out of an original 30 books), P. argues that his “primary purpose” in writing the text “seems to have been the moral instruction of his readers” (p.141). Whereas prior commentators (as early as Barber) note Ephorus’ concern for “the edification of the reader”5 and the “interest in the general, but primarily ethical, culture of individuals and communities”,6 it is P.’s innovation to claim that such concerns cause Ephorus to violate his own historiographical principles. P. finds that “occasionally … Ephorus’ preoccupation with moral instruction causes him to break his own very sensible rule not to write on the mythological period or subjects for which it was impossible to attain accurate information” (p.141). Thus, P. articulates two main categories for investigation, first, deviations into the mythic period (as well as the distant past) and, second, supposed inaccuracies.

For Ephorus’ transgression into the mythic period, P. discusses material on Apollo and Heracles (preserved mainly by Strabo). Like most other commentators, P. sees evidence of moralization in the gods’ killing of wrong-doers and in Apollo’s role as a bringer of civilization. But unlike most others, P. makes much of the rationalization into human beings of both Apollo’s victims (Tityus, the son of Gaia who assaulted Leto, and the serpent Python) and Heracles’ (the supernatural Giants). For P., the punishment of human wrong-doers “provides a more tangible example of the results that impiety and uncivilized behavior can bring” (p.123). This may be true, but one should note that in rationalizing these figures into human beings Ephorus follows a procedure for the historical treatment of myth known since Hecataeus. Rationalization, since it functions as something of a corrective to myth by eliminating fantastical and quasi-divine elements, itself mitigates the importance of Ephorus’ transgression. In this way, the mere fact of rationalization does not support the notion of “preoccupation” or urgency that overcomes an otherwise faithful commitment to historiographical “principle.” Indeed, Ephorus’ meditation on the historian’s difficulties in dealing with distant sources, and even his choice to begin his history with the return of the Heracleidae, does not necessarily indicate a strict “principle.” Ephorus’ comment, for example, that abundance of detail is not persuasive in accounts of non-contemporary events (F9, see also F31b and T8) shows awareness of the problem of less than ideal source material. But other scholars suggest that Ephorus applies the historian’s art of “critical vision” to the mythic past and seeks the truth, or at least a “verisimilitude” thereof, even about this most remote period.7 It has been suggested that “Ephorus’ practice … must have shown no reluctance to argue from the details when he felt he had reliable ones, and no concern that a real gap. existed between current times and the distant past”.8 To put it succinctly, “no law went forth that mythical stories about the prehistorical Greeks could not be told”.9 Thus, modern scholarship’s appreciation of Ephorus’ use of “critical method” (for which see e.g. FF 31b, 122, 149) in coming to terms with intransigent sources suggests that one need not be as literal as Strabo in pointing out Ephorus’ ostensibly contradictory practices.

P. finds fault with Ephorus’ sources for the tradition of the “most just” Nomad Scythians (who are, thereby, moral exempla, see F42) for similar reasons. According to P., Ephorus “commits a breach of historical good faith by presenting a tale of Homer as established fact” (p.128). In order to appraise the evidence more fairly, however, it should be noted that Ephorus cites quite a few poetic texts (including Homer, Hesiod, Tyrtaeus, Alcman, Archilochus, Choerilus, Eupolis and Aristophanes) as sources.10 In addition, other studies have found that “part of Ephorus’ method was to correct standard historical sources with poetic texts”.11 P. also finds fault with Ephorus’ corroboration of the Homeric tradition about the Nomad Scythians through “common report.” For P., Ephorus “openly disregards his own principle that if autopsy is not possible, information should be sought from as direct a source as possible” (p.128). But, again, the notion of a strict historiographical “principle” perhaps over-interprets the statement attributed to Ephorus that autopsy, “if possible,” is a “preferable form of knowledge” for the historian (F110, from Polybius’ polemic against Timaeus — there is some debate over the authenticity of the attribution to Ephorus). Other commentators see here consciousness of the limitations facing the historian, and the universal historian in particular. Indeed, even historians of more circumscribed periods must rely upon oral report when no written source is available. On the basis of Ephorus’ failure to provide a more reliable source, P. concludes, “it is possible he was somewhat overzealous in his assigning of virtuous traits in order to strengthen his moral case” (p.128). But the issue ultimately comes down to Ephorus’ own opinion of such a source. If Ephorus himself sees the use of common report as a deviation from principle, then indeed it might be indicative of “overzealousness” on his part. But if not, it becomes merely an interesting observation. P. does not explore this question or quote the key fragments for Ephorus’ views on sources and method.

It remains to examine P.’s arguments for the claim that “his desire to make a moral point leads Ephorus to deviate on occasion … from his concern for accuracy” (p.125). P.’s first example (from Seneca) concerns a reference to the comet antedating the destruction of the Peloponnesian cities Helice and Bura. Ephorus is the only known author who claims that the comet “split into two stars as it departed.” P. notes that “a heavenly portent that twinned could provide a much clearer presage of the fate of the two cities” and concludes, “it is reasonable to infer that Ephorus mentions the comet to point out the moral lesson provided by the disaster” (p.126). Probably many readers will find the argument for moral concerns plausible, but the idea of “inaccuracy” begs the question. Since the only other authors who mention the comet postdate Ephorus, it is impossible to know whether he has invented a tradition or is merely following one from a source that is no longer extant.

In another example, P. attempts to show that Ephorus makes changes in an existing version of a story, about the Doliones and their battle with the Argonauts, so as to impart a moral lesson. Apollonius Rhodius, though a much later author, is used as evidence that Ephorus has altered the original story. (According to Apollonius the Argonauts were attacked by the friendly Doliones by mistake, resulting in the total destruction of the latter in the ensuing battle.) The only material given for Ephorus’ version of the story makes no reference to the Argonauts. (According to a scholiast to Apollonius, “Ephorus says that the Doliones attacked the inhabitants of Thessaly and Magnesia because they had been driven out by them” p.124.) This remark from the scholiast to Apollonius does not suffice for the conclusion that “the Doliones become the aggressors” as a result of “the change in Ephorus’ version” (p.124).

A final example concerns the city of Datus. One source (Harpocration) cites Ephorus for the information that the city changed its name after its conquest by Philip. The source, not Ephorus, has mentioned earlier that the city was very prosperous. This evidence does not support the conclusion that “knowing Ephorus’ attitude towards wealth, one can infer his implication that Datus’ riches left it open to conquest by Philip” (p.136).

P.’s survey of the fragments confirms with great acuity and attention to detail Ephorus’ belief in the importance of military valor, education and culture, civic harmony, and a simple lifestyle. Ephorus’ moralizing intentions, however, may not be evident in as many fragments as are discussed in the chapter and may not have guided Ephorus’ methodological choices to the extent that is suggested.

THEOPOMPUS (chapter five)

It has long been recognized that the maledicentissimus Theopompus (another fragmentary historian) is a moralizer of harsh judgment. Probably no one could dispute P.’s point that, “from the vices Theopompus condemns, we can infer that he considered their opposites to be moral virtues” (p.151). But P. surpasses other commentators with the claim that the historian “misrepresents history to provide moral instruction” (p.175). The somewhat complicated argument for this relies on Theopompus’ notorious tendency to cast blame rather than praise on the subjects of his narrative. As P. sees it, Theopompus “subordinates the true political motivations of historical figures to their alleged desire to corrupt others, as is evident from his discussion of the Athenian demagogues, the Syracusan tyrants, and, of course, Philip himself” (p.174). P. explains that this “tendency to choose the more disreputable alternative to point a moral lesson may detract from the accuracy of his interpretation of events of his time” (p.174). (Theopompus’ emphasis on “the more debauched side of life at the Macedonian court” is noted in particular, p.175.) However, even if one grants that the “true political motivations of historical figures” were not actually as corrupt as Theopompus portrays them, would this exaggerated portrayal have any real bearing on historical accuracy? P. does not produce much in the way of evidence to support the charge of distortion of fact for these passages. Finally, it is debatable whether the term “moral lesson” is appropriate when Theopompus merely criticizes a figure in his history for licentiousness, drunkenness, gluttony, etc., without indicating that the figure meets some misfortune or bad end.

Philip II of Macedon, whose military and political success provides the underlying structure of the work, has long posed something of a challenge to the notion of Theopompus’ moralizing approach to history. Why is it that many of the Syracusan tyrants, for example, seem to bring on their ruin through their vices while Philip prospers in spite of, or perhaps even because of, his own? Flower’s answer to this question is somewhat misrepresented by P. According to P., “Flower has recently suggested that Theopompus looked for an explanation of Philip’s remarkable success in the decadence of contemporary Greece. Certainly Philip’s enervation of his opponents plays a role in his success; yet it is not a sufficient explanation, because he shares in the same vices” (p.174). But Flower, who speaks of Theopompus’ belief in a “widespread and pervasive moral decay throughout the Greek world”,12 does not hold that Philip’s enervation of his opponents, as P. implies, is seen as the sole or primary cause of this global moral decay. As to P.’s point that Philip “shares in” the general decline, this would not in itself imply a contradiction with the idea that Greece through its decadence is vulnerable to exploitation. In the conclusion to this line of argument P. suggests, “it is even possible that Theopompus considered military success to be the evidence of depravity, rather than the outcome of moral superiority” (p.174).

P. rightly emphasizes the fragments with prominent moralizing language in her analysis of Theopompus’ views on the Athenian demagogues. Demosthenes, for example, is “inconstant in character and unable to remain faithful to the same policies or people for very long” (F326), persuades the Thebans to “cast aside fear, reasoning, and gratitude” (F328), and wields power “unjustly and unworthily” (F328). P. concludes that “Theopompus did not in fact approve of Demosthenes’ oratorical skill but instead portrayed him as a demagogue” (p.162). Regarding his portrayal as a demagogue, P. argues, “Demosthenes was motivated only by the desire for political power, which he achieved through his moral corruption of the people” (p.162). Clearly these claims are advanced in support of the main argument of the chapter (discussed above) that Theopompus “subordinates the true political motivations of historical figures to their alleged desire to corrupt others” and, in so doing, “misrepresents” history. It is certainly true that Theopompus’ Demosthenes leads the Thebans down the wrong path in persuading them to make an alliance with Athens and takes too much power for himself in leading the Athenians. Yet it overstates the evidence somewhat, and perhaps serves P.’s thesis too well, to say that he “corrupts the people.” The five fragments preserved by Plutarch, moreover, do not address his motivation.

As to P.’s point that “Theopompus did not in fact approve of” Demosthenes’ oratorical skill, the issue is irrelevant. Theopompus simply admits it, or is even impressed by it. P.’s phrasing creates an artificial antithesis between the supposed “disapproval” of Demosthenes’ oratorical skill and the portrayal of the orator as a demagogue. P. inserts this same antithesis into a summation of Flower’s views,13 yet fails to mention Flower’s work (which takes up an entire chapter of his own book) arguing for Theopompus’ “strong disapproval” of Demosthenes in his role as a leader of Athens.14 The approval or disapproval of Demosthenes as a leader, not of his ability to speak forcefully as an orator, is the material issue in assessing Theopompus’ views. Similarly, in P.’s discussion of Theopompus’ attitude towards Sparta, Flower receives citation for his work only on the panhellenism question (p.172 n.105). It should perhaps also be noted that the footnotes confuse the views of two seminal scholars. It is Momigliano15 who clings to the theory of Theopompan panhellenism and von Fritz16 who instead sees a “desire to return to a strict, hierarchical system” (p.170 nn.101-2).

PLATO: Menexenus (chapter two)

In this chapter P. declares an intent to “focus exclusively on the historical section of the Menexenus to show how Plato deliberately parodies the conventional distortions of the funeral oration in order to subvert the sanitized versions of the past presented by the orators in Athens as a means of promoting democratic ideology” (p.48). Thus far, the focus sounds quite “political.” But P. explains that Plato’s readers would be able to “look beneath the surface and see that the irony of the Menexenus is designed as a bitter diatribe, not only against contemporary rhetoric, but also against the immorality of contemporary politics” (p.63). P. finds, for example, that the reference to Sardis in the context of the Ionian revolt “makes Darius’ reaction seem justified” and “gently remind[s]” the reader “that the Athenians were not entirely innocent victims of Persian aggression, as the other orators imply” (p.51). As P. says, “Plato is indulging in subtle subversion” (p.51).

The point is sound, yet Plato’s subtle expression of moral concerns shows a different “use” of history from that found in the discussion of the other three texts in the book. Though the orators against whom Plato responds glorify Athens through explicit moral claims, only one of the many passages discussed by P. employs overtly moralizing language. (The Athenians accept the King’s Peace of 387/6 B.C., whose terms surrender the Greeks of Asia Minor to Persia, an act described earlier in the speech as “shameful and unholy.”) The difference in approach may pose some problems for P.’s subsequent arguments for Platonic influence on the development of fourth-century moralizing history. If Plato’s work requires the reader to look carefully beneath the surface, wouldn’t it resemble more closely that of a writer such as Thucydides than Xenophon? The chapter elides the distinction between “moralizing history” (the edifying, instructive sort that relies extensively on moral paradigms and is exemplified by Xenophon and the other two authors discussed in the book) and history that imparts moral points (which would describe nearly any historical narrative). In this way, P.’s notion of “moral use” here appears somewhat loosely conceived. In addition, whereas P. attempts to show “moral use” in the other texts through their departures from accuracy and accepted historical tradition, here Plato’s account deviates from the accounts of the past found in the popular orators, which are often rife with errors themselves and devoid of any pretension to historical accuracy. Nevertheless, Plato’s “distortions” of historical narrative level a strong moral critique against self-serving imperialism, and P. cogently sets forth how he does so.

Though the bibliography and general index are thorough, the book lacks an index locorum, especially surprising given the fragmentary state of some of the texts. The book avoids jargon and contains few typographical errors, though the development of the argument is at times difficult to follow. In a few instances the views of other scholars are inadequately represented. Paraphrase often substitutes for a direct translation into English and the Greek text is often omitted.

P.’s intriguing and ambitious contribution to the study of fourth-century historiography offers important challenges and guidance in a complex field. Though the evidence does not fully support the most strikingly original point of P.’s “moral use” thesis, that the desire to moralize itself is responsible for authorial inaccuracy, omission of fact, and deviation from historiographical principle, the detailed surveys of moralization in each text are altogether valuable. P.’s work should provide fertile grounds for debate for years to come.


1. Such commentators include Cawkwell (1979) in his notes to the Penguin translation and in their commentaries: Underhill, G. E. A Commentary on the Hellenica of Xenophon. Oxford, 1900, and Hatzfeld, J. Xénophon: Hélleniques. 5th ed. 2 vols. Paris, 1965-66.

2. As found in, e.g., Cawkwell’s note to 6.5.6 in Xenophon: A History of My Times (Hellenica). Translated by Rex Warner. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1979.

3. Cawkwell (1979); Gray, Vivienne J. The Character of Xenophon’s Hellenica. London: Gerald Duckworth, 1989; Grayson, C. H. “Did Xenophon Intend to Write History?” In The Ancient Historian and His Materials: Essays in Honour of C. E. Stevens on His Seventieth Birthday, edited by Barbara Levick, 31-43. Westmead, Farnborough, Hants: Gregg International, 1975; Dillery, John. Xenophon and the History of His Times. London: Routledge, 1995; Tuplin, Christopher. The Failings of Empire: A Reading of Xenophon Hellenica 2.3.11-7.5.27. Historia Einzelschriften 76. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1993.

4. Hunt, Peter. Slaves, Warfare, and Ideology in the Greek Historians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. p. 153-58.

5. Barber, G. L. The Historian Ephorus Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935. p.103

6. Schepens, Guido. “Historiographical Problems in Ephorus.” in Historiographia Antiqua. Louvain: Leuven University Press, 1977. p.100.

7. Parmeggiani, Giovanni. “Mito e spatium historicum nelle Storie di Ephoro di Cuma.” RSA 29 (1999): 107-125.

8. Marincola, John. Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. p.98.

9. Fornara, Charles William. The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983. p.9.

10. Schepens, Guido. “Historiographical Problems in Ephorus.” in Historiographia Antiqua. Louvain: Leuven University Press, 1977. p.103.

11. Flower, Michael. “Simonides, Ephorus, and Herodotus on the Battle of Thermopylae.” CQ 48 (1998): 365-79.

12. Flower, Michael. Theopompus of Chios: History and Rhetoric in the Fourth Century B.C. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994. p.132.

13. P. writes, “Flower … concludes that Theopompus thought highly of Demosthenes’ oratorical talent but had a low opinion of his political ability” (p.159 n.67).

14. Flower (1994), p.146.

15. Momigliano, A. “Studi sulla stroriografica graeca del IV Secolo a.c.l: Teopompo.” RivFC n.s. 9 (1931): 230-242, 335-53. p.230-42, 335-53.

16. Fritz, K. von. “The Historian Theopompus” American Historical Review 46 (1941): 765-87.