BMCR 2012.11.43

Time and Narrative in Ancient Historiography: the ‘Plupast’ from Herodotus to Appian

, , Time and Narrative in Ancient Historiography: the 'Plupast' from Herodotus to Appian. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. x, 257. ISBN 9781107007406. $99.00.


The editors explore traditions of ancient historiography by assembling eleven learned contributions that study the “metahistorical” concept of the subtitle (coined by Grethlein). The introduction develops a theory and then ten chapters apply it to surviving “historical” texts, either a single section (Tacitus) or an entire work (Xenophon). This “plupast” includes periods prior to the historians’ chosen scope and periods prior to the presents of the historians’ characters, past paradigms of desirable or undesirable plans and acts mentioned in their speech or thought. The editors maintain a tight focus.

Only three chapters address Latin writers (major figures: Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus, but where is Ammianus, even Caesar, or Suetonius?). The remaining authors, besides Appian and Herodotus, are Thucydides, Xenophon, Dionysius, and Plutarch (historian by courtesy of sporadically policed genre parameters). This volume began as a 2006 conference in Freiburg.

When ancient historians choose a period to record, they usually specify the parameters, temporal, geographical, or a dynasty—a war, an empire, or a series of reigns. Grethlein’s useful neologism for the period prior to any chosen epoch and thus bracketed is “plupast.” The ancient author himself or other voices in his narrative—anonymous, communal, individual—express views, recall structures, or narrate events about these earlier spatia historica. They may deploy a coherent sequence seriatim or illustrative anecdotes. They recall written, verbal (and non-verbal) expressions, notable material objects (pyramids, the Pelargic or Pelasgian wall, loot, topographical features), or obsolete or persistent ethnic customs, ideologies, or unexamined world-views. The shift to times “past of the past” can support or destabilize the dynamic and themes of the chosen central historical subject or of readers’ views of characters (Perikles or Kleon; Augustus or Vitellius).

An introductory chapter develops the concept and discusses its historical meaning as both a foil and an analogue. Narratives about the past before the past (narratological analepsis) allow ancient historians and figures within their works to deploy “more past” events and persons for tendentious purposes. Athenian speakers both at the end of Herodotus and the beginning of Thucydides (9.26-7 and 1.73-77) both tout their proud past and in the next breath assert its general irrelevance. The plupast may be evoked by explicit texts (e.g., Homer’s), by material objects (e.g., temples, chains), and even by age-worn topoi (e.g., Persian and Roman wealth). The masters of obliquity, Herodotus and Tacitus, employ implicit analogies. One must specify the epoch of each historian’s plupast, who in his text finds it useful, how it is evoked and to what end (5).

Boedeker offers a stimulating comparison of past and plupast in Herodotus and his lyric predecessors and contemporaries (for example, Tyrtaeus, Sappho, Simonides). Lyric Sappho F94, prays for her Aphroditic history to repeat itself, and proud Solon F32W 2 touts his prior political achievements. The Tegeate and Attic plupasts at Plataea push back on each other in a verbal Hellenic othismos : who has the (moral/historical) right to hold the left (wing)? The heroic plupast seemed less relevant than the recent plupast. Marathon, for instance, trumps the Heraclids of yore. The author’s narrative discredits some self-seeking claims (20). Persians too debate the relevance of Xerxes’ expansionist ancestral tradition (7.8) for the proposed expedition. Xerxes’ Uncle Artabanus recollects the same shahs’ past defeats and previews the near future (esp. 7.10b, prolepsis). They furnish negative paradigms like Korinthian Soklees’ (5.92).

Baragwanath notes that the Herodotean plupast can introduce the historian’s ethnographic continuities (the formulaic eti kai nun) as well as fundamental growth from a primitive, usually powerless, origin. The past and the future (!) weigh heavily on Xerxes already worrying about his dynastic standing. The Tegeates and the Athenians “combine recent with mythic exempla ” [Heraclids, The Seven at Thebes, Troy] when they debate who should hold the left wing at Plataea (26-7). Baragwanath helpfully notes that, already in Herodotus’ day, the Persian Wars had been malleably mythologized in oral tradition, in the theater, and on the Acropolis. Shared cultural memories supply ammunition to any assembly speaker momentarily caught in a hard place or any celebratory orator enjoying a soft place.

Grethlein dissects Thucydides’ later Plataean debate. After each party to this capital trial have expounded their glorious past services and their opponents’ past and present questionable policies (“history lesson[s]”), the Spartan judges ignore those historical arguments. The explicit basis of their judgment is their immediate advantage–military expediency. Grethlein’s contribution emphasizes continuities between the Halimousian and the Halicarnassian, as the Plataeans reattach the Persian Wars to the present conflict—futilely inviting their judges to glance at their ancestral warriors’ graves (3.58). Thucydides’ Perikles’ own criticisms of the uses of the past in patriotic, platitudinous epitaphioi echo Thucydides’ methodological objections passim.

Rood finds that Xenophon’s Hellenica shows more sophistication and innovation than most readers detect. Speakers allude to the moral consequences that flow from historical relationships (colonies, allies, subjects). Xenophon’s temporal parameters seem imposed from outside or despondently adventitious. He begins his Hellenica approximately where Thucydides’ text suddenly stops and ends unhappily after the indecisive battle of Mantineia. Ironies attend on the fall of Athens, after which the city’s survival was allegedly owed to prior sacrifices for Greece (not Parthenon aesthetics, 2.2.19-20). But Sparta’s alleged suasion by long past Athenian benefaction recalls the more recent (427 BCE) Spartans’ execution of Plataean prisoners, Thucydides’ palmary example of ineffective moral authority based on the plupast. Those POWs too had appealed for requital for former services rendered to Greece. The Thebans in 395 “create more problems for themselves” (82), when they prod the Athenians into action against the Spartans. As alliances shift, political rhetoric massages plupast facts, alliances, achievements, and enmities. Both recent history and the legendary past are refashioned, when Agesilaus, the new Agamemnon with his Panhellenic expedition, leaves Aulis for Anatolia (3.4.3-4). Some Trojan War theater of the past is invoked intentionally; some of it appears ironic and unfortunate, for Agesilaus. While the mythological plupast (cf. 6.3.6) never appears in a Thucydidean speech, in Xenophon’s installment, foreign ambassadors in Athens speak the stale topoi of Athenian patriotic oratory (91).

Feldherr discusses Caesar and Cato’s speeches in Sallust’s Catiline. A facet of Roman oratory was to furnish helpful examples of past political behaviors. Caesar argues that history can help his Roman republic, but only if the Roman senate imitates the ancestors and does not execute the arrested conspirators. Past mos maiorum and future reputation of this meeting of the Senate demand clementia. Cato answers the argument, however impressive, and Caesar loses—the conspirators die (102). Caesar himself had dismissed the accuracy of historical memory (51.15), while Feldherr shows us other contradictions in both speeches. In short, Sallust’s pessimism extends beyond the decline of Roman virtues to an historical case-study from which readers perceive that his contemporary Romans cannot even understand their ancestors’ language, values, and actions. Feldherr’s difficult essay reveals that Sallust’s self-exculpatory analysis exhibits a plupast that serves as a playground for whatever values the present wishes to project onto it.

Schultze’s chapter examines Dionysius’ respectful treatment of the malleable legends of Rome’s primeval epoch, when the very recent past was manipulated to establish the mos maiorum (115, cf. AR 10.51 on the (plu-)past). The settlers of Rome were all Greeks, even the Trojans, according to his Aeneas (119, citing AR 1.58.2). Romulus’ discussion with his new community of best possible constitutions mimics Herodotus’ theorizing Persian Gang of Seven (3.80, cf. Aristotle and Polybius), but even Dionysius recognized the patent anachronism. The second Halicarnassian histor praises Romulus, retrojecting on him emoluments of later Roman practice (127). After this, one unsurprisingly hears that Romulus justifies the rape of the Sabine women–to the women themselves—as an ancient Greek custom (2.30.5). Roman games are, naturally, Greek in nature and origin (7.70), since the Romans are Greeks. No, Rome “is more Greek than the Greeks” (138). Schultze does not opine whether this negotiation with contrived history is fawning accommodationism or self-delusion.

Krebs’ deconstruction of Livy’s sour view of the alleged popularis Manlius, savior of the Capitol, underlines the descent from Manlius’ moment of glory to his capital punishment, hurled from the Capitoline heights. Krebs argues that Manlius’ version of his deeds (defender defending Romans against Gauls and later– defensor plebis —against usurers) destabilizes, i.e., subverts, Livy’s (142) hostility to the rabble-rouser, although most readers would see it the other way round. This counter-clockwise interpretation makes Livy seem braver as a writer (allowing “polyphony”) and perhaps less bossy as a moral preceptor (see his preface). Manlius invokes plupast, possibly spurious exempla of noblesse oblige from the Spurii (6.18). To Livy (and Cicero ( Phil. 2.114) before him), these men were aspiring tyrants or kings—convenient paradigms for his rabble- rousing Catiline and Antony. That is, the plupast exempla that Manlius chooses undermine Livy’s Manlius’ own argument—self-destructive invocations of the plupast. But, we know that the authoritative voice of the deliberative historian always trumps the silenced citizen and losers’ corpses. The historian has the last word dialoguing with the dead.

Timothy Joseph explores Tacitus’ report of Roman citizens’ plupast perceptions. Histories 1.50 evokes Roman chatter, repetita bellorum civilium memoria in January, 69 CE. This phrase, inscribed in chiastic hyperbaton, mimics civic disruption and parallels in effect a weird conflation of the battles of Pharsalus (48 BCE) and later Philippi (42)—a dislocation of 150 miles and six years—initiated by Vergil and imitated ever after. The labile memory of that already deteriorated political past, enshrined in books (cf. Ann. 4.33: converso statu), instructed Italian bystanders that no good would come of another armed contest for imperium. And none did, rather a ponderous grief emerged, id facinus…luctuosissimum foedissimumque ( Hist. 3.72.), when the Capitol was burnt by men no different from earlier, implacable principes, e.g., Caesar and Pompey, Augustus and Brutus (2.38).

Zadorojnyi explores philosophical Plutarch’s superficial and inconsistent appeal to historical exemplarity. Various prefaces to the Bioi encourage imitation. Various protagonists themselves imitate earlier figures of myth or history, as the very concept of synkrisis implies: Caesar sighing or weeping in Spain while pondering Alexander’s plupast achievements. Plutarch’s “ethical narrativity” (183) prudently discourages imitation. The (unnecessary) caution arises from his totally circumscribed Roman political world. In Plutarch’s Imperial Age, one could hardly hope to become a law-giving Solon, while backwater Athens dutifully paid taxes imposed by Lord Domitian! The inimitable reprobate Mark Antony enjoyed playing plupast roles: Herakles, Timon, god Dionysos, or one of Xenophon’s lost Ten Thousand. But other men serve as models for their syncritical parallel. Some allegedly consciously imitate others—Brutus mimics Cato ( Brut. 2.1; cf. Cato Maior 19.7), Lysander mimics Polykrates ( Lys. 8.5). Of course, Plutarch offers other “isomorphisms” that his figures never endorsed or imagined (188). That feature of the Bioi emerges in comparisons and casual comments (e.g., Lysander is like Periander in oath abuse, Lys. 8.5). The reader must scan warily Plutarch’s psychological anecdotage and his “martyrology of intradiegetic imitators” (190). Zadorojnyi compares Pausanias’ amused contempt of barbarian luxus and Caesar’s censure of the senatorial equivalent. The plupast provides “metahistorical mimesis” (195) with an analogous, “inexorable syntax of plupast.” Zadorojnyi writes with wit and style, although too abstractly (see, e.g., p.177, first sentence).

Pitcher revalues the second-rate Appian. This Alexandrian’s visually emphatic accounts of the past trump in their truth Roman conquerors’ spoil-laden floats. Caesar’s plupast triumphs or Scipio’s mendacious pageant selectively edited their celebrated services. The subsequent propaganda efforts were forms of self-serving political enargeia (vividness), while Appian’s presentations of these plupasts expose their Tendenz (205-6). Appian foregrounds the failure of historical personages’ blinkered visions, soldiers’ romantic imaginings, and rulers’ cynical expediency. Thus a contrast emerges between them and the historian’s sober depictions. This essay deserves amplification.

Historians’ references to the plupast sometimes counterpoint their analysis of specific events or trans-historical tendencies. They may also resurrect facts erased from collective memory. Characters inside the narratives often fail to see the ironies and disconnects between their oratory (Thuc. 3.53.4) and their actions. Grethlein and Krebs supply bibliographical references, an index locorum, and a general index, but no conclusion. The volume articulates a newly titled but significant ancient phenomenon.