BMCR 2007.09.48

The Beginnings of History: Herodotus and the Persian Wars

, The beginnings of history : Herodotus and the Persian Wars. Campbellville, Ontario: Edgar Kent, 2006. 360 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0888666527. $82.50.

[The articles collected in the book are listed at the end of this review.]

In this book Evans (hereafter E.) brings together 28 articles on Herodotus (hereafter H.), the last being the only new one. E.’s contribution to Herodotean scholarship goes back a long way (the first study was published in 1955) and this collection is a testament to a lifelong commitment to understanding Herodotus. The essays have been only lightly edited, but all of them have been updated with a short reflection about the impact of the original publication, and provided with endnotes adding afterthoughts and selective (often too selective) references to more recent bibliography. Understandably, E. does not argue his positions anew, nor discuss new arguments, although sometimes he takes the opportunity to change his views and to respond to his critics.

In this book E. asks good questions and demonstrates good sense in tackling them, his analyses are thorough and often persuasive, and his grasping of the complexities of H.’s text is beyond any doubt. I find the interpretative perspective somewhat old-fashioned, but all the essays are thoughtful and well informed, and anyone who wishes to begin a serious study of H. will find them invaluable.

The articles in the book can be grouped into at least eight themes of different generality: the publication date of the Histories (11 and 12; also 28 [pp. 315-316]), the sources of the Croesus-logos (1, 2 and 3), H.’s veracity (4 and 5), H.’s interest in nomoi and their role in history (15 and 16), the Ionian revolt (13,14, 17,18), the Persian Wars (19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 27), H.’s political ideas (9), H. and Athens (7), oral tradition in the Histories (25). 26 plots H.’s fluctuating reputation and the last essay (28) outlines the cultural background of J.-F. Lafitau’s ethnographic work (Moeurs des savages américains comparées aux moeurs des premiers temps, Paris 1724).

I shall summarise the essays in the order they are collected, briefly commenting on some of them.

The first two articles convincingly argue that H.’s Croesus-logos is not dependent upon a dramatic original and that the version of Gyges’ story in the Oxyrhynchus fragment (P.Oxy. XXIII 2382 = TrGF II F 664) used and expanded Herodotus’ story. The next article comes to the conclusion that by the time H. wrote “Croesus’ end had receded into myth” (p. 27).

Next come two essays focused on H.’s account of “lake Moeris” (2.149). In the first one (4) E. contends that H. was not being mendacious, and in the second (5) the author refines his view lucidly arguing that H. was misled by an oral tradition which had transformed the hydraulic engineering commissioned by the Pharaoh Moeris to the construction of lake Moeris itself.

The sixth essay sets out to show that both in Mardonios’ (6.43.1) and Themistocles’ dramatic introduction (7.143) into the Histories the adverb ‘recently’ cannot be pressed; it has to be taken as implying that these men achieved prominence “just before they are introduced into the chain of events that make up the theme of the Histories” (p. 59).

The seventh essay concerns H.’s praise of Athens in 7.139.5. E. takes the position that H. cannot be seen as a mouthpiece of Athenian propaganda, although he surely had profound sympathy for Athens (p. 68), but in the endnote ii on p. 69 E. maintains more cautiously that H. “felt that Athens’ contribution to the Greek victory over Persia should be given its just due”. I am not convinced at all that this is to be explained in the light of H.’s commitment to act as an arbiter, as E. thinks (p. 69).

In the ninth essay E. discusses the debate of the Persian grandees in 3.80-82. He arrives at the notable conclusion (82-83) that the Debate was H.’s own composition, and that H. had collected Greek traditions about Otanes, but did not have any Persian or Greek source for the debate itself. Quite convincingly he stresses that “it is fruitless to look for an Ur-debate that Herodotus may have copied” (83).

11 and 12 deal with the publication date of the Histories. E. opines that the work appeared papyrus roll by papyrus roll and that the process was not completed until about 424. He undertakes to show that Jacoby was right in pointing out that 6.91.1 could not have been written after the destruction of the Aeginetan oligarchs in 424, and that H.’s reference to Decelea at 9.73.3 would be untrue after 427 because Thuc. 3.26.3 should be taken as evidence that the Spartans did not leave Decelea untouched. One cannot avoid remarking that in both cases E. uses an argumentum ex silentio, and that he fails to demonstrate that 9.73.3 does not refer, as Fornara persuasively maintained, to the Archidamian war taken as a whole.

The following essay (nr. 13) is much more an enquiry into the real reasons for Anaxagoras and Histiaeus’ course of action than a discussion of Herodotus’ portrait of both men. However, E. recognises that Aristagoras’ unpopularity as an unsuccessful rebel deeply influenced the tradition about him and that “Histiaeus’ reputation for double-dealing comes directly from Ionian tradition” (115 n. 29), but does not assess the overall character of the tradition. Then (14) E. makes a strong point in favour of a later date for Miltiades’ conquest of Lemnos in 496, against Hammond (CQ n.s. 6, 1956, 129) whose case for an earlier date 514-13 rests on the dubious evidence of Nepos, Miltiades, 2.

Next come two essays on the nomoi in the Histories (15, 16) which taken together offer a thorough treatment of the subject: especially the discussion of the definition of nomos, as well as of the role of nomoi in providing motives and reasons for human actions, is still worth reading.

The following article (17) deals with the reasons given by modern scholars for the bias in Herodotus’ account of the Ionian revolt. E. sensibly argues that H. was not anti-Ionian, or, a least, that his estimate of the Ionians is not quite that of the later fifth century, and convincingly maintains, based on 5.97.3 (arkhe kakon), 6.11.2 and 6.42.2, that for H. the revolt was a useless gesture that opened a new chapter in a chain of evils which continued down to his day.

Next comes a discussion of the phoroi of Artaphrenes (6.42.2) which undertakes to show that “hekastoisi” should be taken as the antecedent of the following relative “hoi”. One cannot but find this unconvincing, especially because the following “hos etakhthesan” becomes more difficult to explain.

19 is the longest article in the volume, occupying some 39 pages in total, and offers a very detailed analysis of H.’s account of the battle at Marathon. The main point is that it was the Persians, not the Athenians, who forced the battle. The discussion is still useful, but it takes a rather old-fashioned political and military approach. The most penetrating section is the final one, in which the oral traditions which contributed to the development of the Marathon myth are disclosed and the interesting conclusion is reached that before H. “there lay a generation of mythopoesis”.

The following study (20) deals with the Persian cavalry in the age of the Persian wars: the conclusion is that at Marathon the Persian force of cavalry was very small, but “large enough to have an impact on the traditions about the battle” (p. 213). The other two essays focusing on the Persian wars (23 and 24) try to disentangle the complex account H. gives of Thermopylae and Artemisium. In the first E. ably defends the view that regards the battles as holding actions, intended to checkmate the Persians as the campaigning season ran out, and in the second argues that Leonidas sacrificed himself at Thermopylae in order both to make the safe retreat of the Peloponnesians possible and to maintain Sparta’s prestige. These four essays on the Persian war, taken together, illustrate well E.’ approach to the subject. He is well aware of the risk of “reworking Herodotus’ narrative to take into account the notion that he was much more stupid than modern professors of ancient history” (p. 101), as he puts it, and never tries to reconstruct the Persian wars ope ingenii, as J. A. R. Munro and C. Hignett did, and now G. Cawkwell tends to do. However, E. is convinced that H. was “a serious student of warfare” (302) and this may be the main reason why he is inclined to reconstruct “what actually happened” more often than is really possible. One has to recall what H. R. Immerwahr wrote forty years ago in his review of Hignett’s Xerxes Invasion of Greece, Oxford 1962: “In the present state of the Herodotean studies, it would perhaps be best to leave in abeyance the question of what actually happened in the Persian Wars, and to focus instead on the ancient traditions themselves” (Gnomon 39, 1967, pp. 382-95, 394).

The essays about the story of the oracle of the ‘Wooden Wall’ (vii 140-144) [21-22] offer a thoughtful assessment of H.’s report. E. quite correctly assumes that the two oracles are “quite unlike any historical oracle that we possess” (p. 215) and that riddling verses are a hallmark of myth, while spontaneous utterances can be paralleled only in folk tale and myth. On the other hand, he opines that the Athenians did consult the Pythia either in the spring of 480 or in 481, and received a prose oracle which had a defeatist tone and made reference to the ‘Wooden Wall’. Only later “the oral tradition … assimilated the ‘Wooden Wall’ oracles to a mythic motif” (p. 222) and this would be the reason why the logos taken as a whole “reads like a story that had been reworked by oral tradition before Herodotus encountered it” (p. 221). Alternatively, one could maintain that Athens did not receive any oracle and that the hexameters quoted by H. came from Delphi, as H. Bowden now suggests ( Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle, Cambridge 2005, p. 106), after the end of the wars, and that they were meant to emphasize that the oracular god foresaw the victory at Salamis. Hovewer, we should also take into account the possibility that the verse oracles had been an integral part of a semi-oral tradition circulated after the wars, not necessarily stemming from Delphi. As many oracular stories in H. show, verse oracles cannot be detached from the narrative in which they are embedded: it is not the local tradition that presupposes the oracles, but the oracles that presuppose the tradition.

Next comes one of the most significant essays in the collection (25). It is the written version of a paper delivered in 1978 at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of Canada on the subject of oral tradition in Herodotus, just a year after Oswyn Murray had dealt with a similar topic in a paper given at a seminar in Oxford and published many years later. Notoriously, the subject has moved far on since then, but the workings of oral history still remain crucial to a proper understanding of H. E.’s thesis is that archaic Greece had professional remembrancers (the logioi andres) whose role was to provide quasi-official accounts of the past events. He sees the Cretan poinikastas and mnemon Spensitheos as one of them and is convinced that H. talked with many remembrancers like him, who told H. what he reports under rubrics such as “the men of Thera say” and so on. Unfortunately, E. does not notice at all that the logioi andres in H. are not Greek, and takes for granted that Spensitheos was supposed to remember the past events. One can understand that E. distances himself from Luraghi’s illuminating discussion of local knowledge in H. (see endnote v, pp. 284-285), but he does not give convincing reasons for assuming that memorialists such as we can find in Africa did exist in Greece. As for the role played by H. in collecting traditions, E. is convinced that he was an “oral historian without tape recorder” (p. 303) and that he contented himself with reporting, as in the case of the foundation of Cyrene, the accounts preserved by the remembrancers of the various states. E., in other words, operates with the assumption that H. would have simply ‘lifted’ ready-made local logoi and put them together. This evidently means reverting to an approach that Jacoby in his landmark ‘Herodotus’ entry in Pauly Wissowa had refuted once for all.

26 is a very sensitive presentation of H.’s reception in the modern world. E. asks himself why the father of History enjoyed a reputation for falsehood, and agrees with Momigliano that Thucydides was responsible for the verdict of antiquity on his predecessor, but surmises that also H.’s treatment of the causes of war and his attitude to war itself were bound to have no future and to isolate him from mainstream historical tradition.

The following article (27) subtly discloses the traditions about Pausanias’ medism that developed in the fifth century, arguing that the first one, or the ‘Herodotean’, had early roots and probably developed in 478/77, while the second one, or the ‘Thucydidean’, was meant to support the view of how the Athenians gained their empire enunciated in Sparta in 434 (Thuc. 1.75.2).

The book ends with a piece (28) that offers a splendid enquiry both into the French-Iroquois relationship in New France in the Eighteenth century and the contemporary cultural context in which Lafitau’s description of the Iroquois has to be placed. The Jesuit father emerges as an ethnologist avant la lettre who had learned from H. his research technique.

Let me conclude by drawing attention to how E. uses H. He has a firm grasp of the complexities of the text, never takes H. at face value, and often accurately sifts the traditions H. collected, although he never looks at the relationship between H.’s narrative and the pre-existing traditional material. E. often reiterates his conviction that Herodotus is an historian by vocation, who feels himself “compelled by necessity to make his opinion known” (p. 68), and “did write history, no matter what he called it” (p. 293). No surprise then, that E., more often than not, is committed to prise loose historical facts from the narrative. Understandably, he dismisses Thomas De Quincey’s obiter dictum about “the fancy that his [i.e. H.’s] great work was exclusively (or even chiefly) a history”.

On balance, and all reservations notwithstanding, The Beginnings of History is a fine collection of essays, to which any serious student of H. should be directed, with appropriate guidance about more recent bibliography. The book would have been even more useful to readers if an index had been included.

List of articles collected in the book

(1) Herodotus and the Gyges Drama, 15-19 (Athenaeum, n.s. 33, 1955, 333-336)

(2) ‘Candaules whom the Greeks Name Myrsilos’, 21-26 (Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 26, 1985, 229-233)

(3) What Happened to Croesus?, 27-37 (Classical Journal 74/1, 1978, 33-40)

(4) Herodotus and the Problem of the ‘Lake of Moeris’, 39-44 (Classical World, June 1963, 275-277)

(5) The Faiyum and the ‘Lake of Moeris’, 45-55 (Ancient History Bulletin 92, 1987, 66-74)

(6) The ‘Recent’ Prominence of Themistocles, 57-59 (American Journal of Philology 108, 1987, 382-384)

(7) Herodotus and Athens: The Evidence of the Encomium, 61-69 (L’Antiquité Classique 48, 1979, 112-118)

(8) The Quadriga at the Entrance of the Acropolis, 71-75 (Rivista di Studi Classici 27, 1979, 13-15)

(9) Notes on the Debate of the Persian Grandees, 77-83 (Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, n.s. 7, 1981, 79-84)

(10) The Story of Pythius, 85-87 (Liverpool Classical Monthly 13.9/10, nov.-dec. 1988, 139)

(11) Herodotus’ Publication Date, 89-96 (Athenaeum, n.s. 57, 1979, 145-149)

(12) Herodotus 9.73.3 and the Publication Date of the Histories, 97-100 (Classical Philology 83, 1987, 226-228)

(13) Histieus and Aristagoras: Notes on the Ionian Revolt, 101-116 (American Journal of Philology 84, 1962, 113-128)

(14) Note on Miltiades’ Capture of Lemnos, 117-121 (Classical Philology 58, 1963, 168-170)

(15) The Dream of Xerxes and the NOMOI of the Persians, 123-128 (Classical Journal 57, 1961, 109-111)

(16) Despotes Nomos, 129-142 (Athenaeum, n.s. 43, 1965, 142-153)

(17) Herodotus and the Ionian Revolt, 143-152 (Historia 25, 1976, 31-37)

(18) The Settlement of Artaphrenes, 153-159 (Classical Philology 71, 1976, 344-348)

(19) Herodotus and the Battle of Marathon, 161-200 (Historia, 43, 1993, 279-307)

(20) Cavalry about the Time of the Persian Wars: A Speculative Essay, 201-214 (Classical Journal 82, 1987, 97-106)

(21) The Oracle of the ‘Wooden Wall’, 215-224 (Classical Journal 78, 1982, 24-29)

(22) The ‘Wooden Wall’Again, 225-233 (Ancient History Bulletin 2.2, 1988, 25-30)

(23) Notes on Thermopylae and Artemisium, 235-260 (Historia 18, 1969, 389-406)

(24) The ‘Final Problem’ at Thermopylae, 261-269 (Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 5, 1964, 231-237)

(25) Oral Tradition in Herodotus, 271-289 (Canadian Oral History Association Journal 4, 1980, 8-16)

(26) Father of History or father of Lies: The Reputation of Herodotus, 291-303 (Classical Journal 64, 1968, 11-17)

(27) The Medism of Pausanias: Two Versions, 305-320 (Antichthon 22, 1988, 1-11)

(28) Joseph-François Lafitau: A Disciple of Herodotus among the Iroquois.