BMCR 2007.10.13

Fiktion als Geschichte

Bruno Bleckmann, Fiktion als Geschichte: neue Studien zum Autor der Hellenika Oxyrhynchia und zur Historiographie des vierten vorchristlichen Jahrhunderts. Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, Philologisch-Historische Klasse, 3. Folge, Nr. 277. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006. 154 pages: illustrations, maps. ISBN 9783525825495 €68.90.

Bruno Bleckmann (hereafter B.) is a well-known expert on Greek history and historiography, the author of the impressive Athens Weg in die Niederlage (Stuttgart/Leipzig 1998). The following volume is — according to the Preface — a continuation of that book, since it deals with the events on the eve of the Corinthian war as described by Xenophon and the Oxyrhynchus historian, commonly known as P (p. 7). The book itself begins with a chapter on rivalry between authors and differing variants in works of history in post-Thucydidean historiography (pp. 9-35). This is followed by the centre-piece of the whole book, viz. a comparison between the versions of various events found in the two authors in question (e.g. battle of Cnidus, treatment of Boeotians and Thebans, Agesilaus’ campaign in Asia Minor). The work ends with a conclusion describing the nature of fourth-century historiography.

B.’s main thesis is that the author of the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia deliberately wrote an account differing from Xenophon. As a parallel for this he chooses the relationship between Ctesias of Cnidus and Herodotus. The differences between these two authors consist of the following: ekphrasis (embellishment of events only hinted at by Herodotus), arbitrary change of place names and persons, displacement of scenes and causation, and absolute disagreement with Herodotus. The reason for all this was Ctesias’ intention to create an account independent from, and superior to, Herodotus. According to B., it can be ruled out that Ctesias presents more interesting information regarding Iranian history. Furthermore, we are presented with a model case of how ancient authors deal with their sources. In other words, this is plagiarism, because Ctesias used Herodotus’ account and then only made additions and changes. And ancient authors also detected it, as the example of Porphyry shows (pp. 30-1).

This method is then applied to several episodes of the 390s as depicted by both Xenophon and P. The result is that P is basically following the Hellenica but deviates in order to appear as an author in his own right. According to B., Xenophon is the more reliable source because he was a contemporary and eye-witness of the events he has written about (p. 136). In addition, he identifies the author of the Hell. Ox. as Theopompus. B. is expanding the argument he already made in his earlier work and applies it this time to a later period covered by both authors.

B.’s conclusions are interesting contributions to the discussion of fourth-century historiography. He is convinced that the Hell. Ox. is pure invention and not an authentic account of historical events (p. 136). This claim deserves attention. From this it follows that P created a very different narrative out of what his predecessor Xenophon had said about various events.1 Whether or not B. is right in identifying Theopompus as the author of the Hell. Ox. seems to me secondary.2

The treatment of Thebans and Boeotians respectively might serve as a striking example in that respect. B. highlights the fact that Xenophon does not appear to be very precise in his use of the terms “Thebans” and “Boeotians”. The two seem to be interchangeable whereas P makes a clear distinction between the two terms (cf. pp. 58 ff.). This leads him to the conclusion that P only pretends to have an intimate knowledge of the workings of the Boeotian confederation. Therefore, the differences between him and Xenophon are deliberate variations on Xenophon’s version. According to B. we are presented with the corrections of an author who believed that his predecessor’s account was inadequate.

Another point of comparison between the two authors is Agesilaus’ Asiatic campaign of 395. The opinion of most scholars has been that P’s version of events is superior to Xenophon’s since his narrative is precise and of great quality whereas Xenophon’s resembles a novel (cf. pp. 101-2 for references).3 B. challenges this view since there is no proof that P deserves to be seen as a second Thucydides. Xenophon’s biography is taken as a proof that his account deserves more credence since in his case we know that he describes events that happened during his own lifetime. In the case of P we can only guess. B. argues that P’s variants consist of material taken from periegetic and stratagem literature. If we accept B.’s argument here then this has serious consequences for our appreciation of P’s worth as a historical source. If certain elements of his narrative are merely taken from other works dealing with either geography or battle descriptions, then we are faced with a situation similar to epic poetry. There too we find a system of recurring formulaic phrases such as “much-enduring godlike Odysseus”.4 In historiography, narratives tend to entail a plethora of typical elements that are found in virtually every historian: military campaigns and descriptions of places. It is absolutely conceivable that prose writers such as P relied heavily on sources that provided the necessary material in order to make the account plausible and interesting to readers.

This leads B. to the conclusion that the Hell. Ox. — like Hellenistic historiography — falls into the category of “creative writing” (pp. 142-3). It has to have verisimilitude without being true and that is actually the only criterion. It seems that many authors see themselves writing Kunstprosa without caring for or paying attention to the historical truth (p. 145). In my opinion, B. draws attention to an important aspect of ancient historiography that cannot be stressed often enough: “rhetorische Geschichtsschreibung”. In the case of P the author — just like an orator — has to convince the audience that his version is the right one.5 This leads to a certain rivalry with Xenophon and therefore P presents us with a slightly different history of the early fourth century. Appearing as a second Thucydides must be part of his desire to outdo his predecessor. The Hellenica clearly is not a historical work written in the vein of Thucydides. From that perspective it might have been an easy task to come up with a work that looks more sophisticated than Xenophon’s by imitating Thucydides. It also reflects the Thucydides reception of the fourth century. The fact that someone adopts the Thucydidean model for writing a work of history does not necessarily mean that he deserves more credibility. Appearing like a second Thucydides does not mean that the author really is one.6

To conclude, B.’s work is thought-provoking and shows news ways of looking at old problems, although he is expanding on Busolt’s work, which, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was already very sceptical about P (pp. 15 ff.). However, I am not quite sure whether possible identifications of P are really a fruitful exercise since we will never achieve full certainty as regards this problem. In my opinion the more important issue B. has touched upon is the relationship between Xenophon and P. It clearly shows how much intertextuality deepens our understanding of Greek historiography.7 He also sheds light upon the working method of ancient historians. His work will definitely be a starting point for future endeavours.


1. See also Livy’s similar use of source material, T. Wiseman, Clio’s Cosmetics, Leicester 1979, 50-1.

2. On the authorship of the Hell. Ox. see G. Schepens, ‘Who wrote the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia ? The Need for a methodological Code,’ in: S. Bianchetti/M. Cataudella (edd.), Le Elleniche di Ossirinco a cinquanta anni dalla pubblicazione dei Frammenti Fiorentini 1949-1999, Atti del Convegno (Firenze 22-23 Novembre 1999), La Spezia 2002, 201-24. Schepens strongly disagrees with B. and makes a case for Cratippus as author of the Hell. Ox.

3. Cf. also C. Grayson, ‘Did Xenophon intend to write history?’ In: B. Levick (ed.), The Ancient Historian and his materials, Westmead/Farnborough 1975, 31-43, who sees the Hellenica not as a work of history but rather as an historical novel.

4. See e.g. I. de Jong, Narrators and Focalizers. The Presentation of the Story in the Iliad, London 2004 (2nd edition), 94-5 on “typical descriptions”, mainly of geographic or ethnographic facts.

5. See Wiseman, Clio’s Cosmetics, 36.

6. On the continuation of Thucydides in the fourth century see most recently R. Nicolai, ‘Thucydides Continued,’ in: A. Rengakos and A. Tsakmakis (edd.), Brill’s Companion to Thucydides, Leiden/Boston 2006, 693-719 (esp. 708-9 on P).

7. On intertextuality in Greek historiography see e.g. G. Schepens and J. Bollansée (edd.), The Shadow of Polybius: Intertextuality as a Research Tool in Greek Historiography, Leuven 2005.