BMCR 2011.03.67

The Greeks and Their Past: Poetry, Oratory and History in the Fifth Century BCE

, The Greeks and Their Past: Poetry, Oratory and History in the Fifth Century BCE. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xii, 350. ISBN 9780521110778 $95.00.


This ambitious book is the first comprehensive study of literary memory in fifth-century B.C. Greece. Grethlein explores divergences and similarities in the attitude towards the past across different literary genres, in connection with their narrative form and performative context. The main body of the book is divided into two parts: part I (‘ Clio polytropos : Non-historiographical Media of Memory’) discusses selections from epinician poetry, elegy, tragedy and oratory, while part II (‘The rise of Greek Historiography’) treats the works of Herodotus and Thucydides. By attempting to consider Herodotus and Thucydides in the context of poetic and rhetorical commemorative genres, and thereby ‘exploring the tension between tradition and innovation’ (p. 12), Grethlein ‘also tries to shed new light on the rise of historiography’ (p. 149).

A crisp introduction (chapter 1) outlines the topic, aims and methodology. Grethlein adopts Heidegger’s phenomenological model which connects memory and temporality.1 Temporality is a notion itself closely linked to contingency (divided by Grethlein into ‘contingency of action’ and ‘contingency of chance’), which creates tension between expectations and experiences. Adapting and expanding Rüsen’s model,2 Grethlein further distinguishes between four ways of dealing with contingency: continuity (created by traditions), regularity (created by examples), development (which challenges both continuities and regularities) and acceptance of chance. Each of these ways represents a different mode of memory (traditional, exemplary, developmental and accidental respectively), and Grethlein proposes ‘calling the particular arrangement of the four commemorative modes in an act of memory its ‘idea of history’’ (p. 10).

In chapter 2, Pindar’s Olympian 2 is the test case for epinician poetry. The dominating pattern here is the tension between continuity (uninterrupted history of Theron, the victor, and his family) and regularity (Theron’s comparison to mythical heroes) on the one hand and contingency of chance (myths and gnomai, which bring in the fragility of human life) on the other. Both the content of the ode (praise of the athlete’s victory), and its narrative structure (anachronies which blur the temporal boundaries), help Theron temporarily transcend time and the human condition. Although the ode was also performed in the private and aristocratic context of the symposium, the close connection between the praise of the victor and that of the city reintegrates him back into his society. Grethlein further expands Kurke’s model of the three levels of the victor’s reintegration3 (house, class and city) by introducing the level of human fragility.

Chapter 3 deals with elegy. Grethlein mainly focuses on the longest fragment of the ‘New Simonides’, fr. 11W 2 on the Persian Wars. The comparison of the Greeks who fought at Plataea to those who fought at Troy demonstrates the exemplary mode of memory. The Greeks thus become immortal and overcome contingency of chance. Aware of the difficulties that arise from the fragmentary form of the elegy, Grethlein also draws on examples from earlier elegiac poets, especially Tyrtaeus and Mimnermus, that employ both exemplary and traditional modes of memory, which work against contingency of chance. Viewed in its primary communicative context, the symposium, the elegy presentsa common and continuous past of the polis that helps the aristocrats view themselves as a part of their polis. The most engaging observation in this chapter is perhaps Grethlein’s contribution to the on-going debate about two distinct elegy sub-genres, the ‘sympotic’ and the ‘narrative/historical’: the elegy’s idea of history with its emphasis on human fragility could actually connect these sub-genres.

Chapter 4 turns to tragedy and Aeschylus’ Persae. In Persae, contingency of chance – central in tragedy – is accentuated at the level of the plot: the defeat of the Persians both marks the breach of continuity and regularity, and creates tension between the characters’ expectations and experience. At the level of reception, however, the Persian focus of the play, the heroization of the recent past (Trojan War as foil for the battle of Salamis) and the knowledge of the plot (which deters any disappointment of expectations) keep contingency of chance away from the audience. The stable, standard form of the annual performances and the ritual background of the civic festivals (in the case of Persae the Great Dionysia) create continuity and regularity, thus also contrasting contingency of chance. Still, the play, by making the audience feel pity for the Persians, strikes the right balance between proximity and distance which, according to Aristotle’s theory of reception, is vital in realizing a catharsis (pp. 86-92).

Lysias’ epitaphios logos 4 is the test case for epideictic oratory in chapter 5. Contingency of chance only plays a minor role here and is balanced by regularity (imitation of past deeds) and continuity of both time (the selective mention, albeit in chronological order, of great mythical and historical deeds presents Athenian history as a continuum of virtue) and space (the stability of space connects the Athens of the past to the Athens of the present). In praising the dead Athenians, Lysias enables them to overcome human fragility and endows them with immortality as they become part of, and simultaneously help to perpetuate, the glory of Athens. By generating examples to be followed in the present and future and thus to preserve Athens’ glory, Lysias’ speech turns into a ‘speech-act’. The same continuity and regularity are mirrored in the performative setting of the funeral speeches (annual public funerals, funeral speeches employing standard topoi) which also contributes to overcoming contingency of chance.

Exemplary and traditional modes of memory are also employed by Andocides in de pace, the case study for deliberative oratory (chapter 6). Nevertheless, as the speech is delivered to support a specific argument in a specific situation, Andocides’ view of the past is different from Lysias’. Andocides employs selectively both positive and negative exempla from the recent past to argue for a particular course of action in the present – which also explains quite a few factual distortions to corroborate the argument. Athens’ history, set in an ‘idealistic frame’ in Lysias, is set in a ‘tragic frame’ in de pace (p. 133). Both the different view of the past dominated by change, and the non-central role of the polis, separate deliberative from epideictic oratory and might be linked to an aristocratic, or perhaps even oligarchic, view of the past.

Chapter 7 on Herodotus marks the turn to historiography. Grethlein starts by asserting that, although both Herodotus and Thucydides criticize non-historiographical commemorative genres in their effort to describe and prize their genre, they share quite similar ideas of history with those genres. But they explore these shared ideas in new ways. The story of Helen demonstrates both similarities and differences between Herodotus and Homer. The exchanges between Gelon and the Greek messengers serve as indirect criticism of the problematic use of the past in oratory, and therefore ‘throw into relief the superiority of the Histories, which uses the past not so much to glorify and to legitimize but to shed critical light on the present’ (p. 173). The recurrence of patterns also points to an exemplary use of the past in Herodotus, while especially the Croesus-logos reveals the same tension between contingency of chanceand continuities and regularities as in non-historiographical genres. The Histories ’ narrative form, where anachronies increase the gap between the characters’ expectations and experiences at the level of the plot, further reflects the centrality of contingency of chance. At the level of reception, however, the prolepseis and patterns prepare readers for what is to follow, thus providing a way of overcoming contingency of chance.

In chapter 8 on Thucydides, Grethlein, re-interpreting the methodological chapters of the History, includes in the targets of Thucydides’ criticism – a criticism starker than Herodotus’ – rhetorical genres as well. Against the poets’ and orators’ embellishments and their aiming to satisfy their audiences, Thucydides sets his accuracy and focus on facts. Thucydides’ treatment of the tyrannicides, Pericles’ funeral oration and the Plataean debate (the last two cases functioning as meta-historical commentaries on the controversial use of the past in oratory) serve as examples which bring to the fore Thucydides’ novel approach. Still, the Sicilian expedition displays the importance of contingency of chance at the level of the action. The main difference rests, however, on the way Thucydides deals with the audience’s expectations and experiences: even though the knowledge of the past and the wealth of perspectives compensate for the relative absence of prolepseis, ‘sideshadowing’ devices (pp. 248-52) ‘reinforce the impression of the openness of the action’ (p. 254) whereby ‘Thucydides’ narrative allows the readers to experience contingency of chance to which the characters are exposed’ (p. 254). Nevertheless, by employing the exemplary mode of memory and using the past to better evaluate the present and future, Thucydides makes the History useful for the readers in trying to deal with contingency of chance.The epilogue (chapter 9) compares the ancient and modern stances towards the past and identifies a move towards a developmental idea of history. The book finishes with an appendix which questions the view that Tyrtaeus’ Eunomia and Mimnermus’ Smyrneis were lengthy historical narratives.

This is a very lucidly written book. In each chapter Grethlein summarizes his findings and juxtaposes them with those of previous chapters to guide the reader through the great amount of material covered. Tedious as this might seem to those reading the whole book, it is justified by Grethlein’s intention ‘to make the individual chapters also accessible to readers who are only interested in a single genre’ (p. 12). There are only very few typos5 and the ample bibliographical coverage is noteworthy.

In accordance with the selectivity required by such a large-scale book, Grethlein carefully chooses his case studies to buttress his arguments; he also fleshes out his discussions by applying his conclusions to other examples from the same genre at the end of each chapter. That being said, the identification of a highly uniform attitude towards the past within a given genre runs the risk of being reductive. And although Grethlein anticipates potential criticism of his choice of texts (e.g. p. 12 and in individual chapters), it still remains an open question to what extent the complex Olympian 2 or the only fully preserved historical tragedy are representative of their genre. In addition, in his effort to generate his argument, Grethlein somewhat overemphasizes the importance of chance, particularly in tragedy and Herodotus; his recognition that factors such as the cycle of human affairs and divine interference (which seem to be connected to chance) as well as human responsibility, provide a plurality of interpretations rather underlines the centrality of contingency of chance (pp. 103-4, 195-6). Also, Grethlein’s desire to trace development understandably leads him (in the view of the present writer) to note as Thucydidean innovations features which can arguably be traced in Herodotus (e.g. ‘sideshadowing’).

One last small quibble: perhaps not everyone would agree with Grethlein’s choice of two speeches dated to the early fourth century as representative examples of the fifth-century oratory, or find his arguments (pp. 107, 128) entirely convincing. Even if changes since 400 are probably smaller than those over the length of the fifth century, however, lack of sufficient evidence from the fifth century risks undermining the validity of the conclusions. In view of this lack of knowledge, we need to be cautious when talking about criticism of the use of the past in oratory and about innovation with respect to oratory in Herodotus and Thucydides.

Despite this scepticism and though this book contains little that is fundamentally new in terms of the individual genres studied, this is nevertheless a very valuable contribution to the study of the use of the past in literature. Its strength lies in two things. First, Grethlein’s comparative approach allows for constructive intertextual connections between different genres, also extended to Homer. Second, the intertwining of the attitude towards memory, narrative form and performative context, not only persuasively reinforces the argument, but also stresses the elaborate composition of the texts as well as the unity of purpose and expression.


1. Heidegger, M. (1986 16) Sein und Zeit. Tübingen: 372-404.

2. Rüsen, J. (1982) ‘Die vier Typen des historischen Erzählens’, in Formen der Geschichtsschreibung, ed. R. Koselleck. Munich: 514-605; (1989) Lebendige Geschichte. Grundzüge einer Historik III: Formen und Funktionen des historischen Wissens. Göttingen: 39-61.

3. Kurke, L. (1991) The Traffic in Praise. Pindar and the Poetics of Social Economy. Ithaca, NY: 6.

4. Grethlein explains that the problem of authenticity of the epitaphios logos and de pace does not affect his purposes (p. 107 n. 11, pp. 128-9). To be consistent with his terminology, I shall also be referring here to Lysias’ epitaphios logos and Andocides’ de pace.

5. I only noticed two other slips: read ‘Theron’ for ‘Hieron’ on p. 196 and ‘Darius’ for ‘Xerxes’ on p. 84 n. 44.