BMCR 2013.07.18

Thucydides and Herodotus

, , Thucydides and Herodotus. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. xiv, 399. ISBN 9780199593262. $150.00.


Hardly any justification is needed for the topic of this book. The relationship between Thucydides and Herodotus, the founding fathers of Western history, has always fuelled heated debates between scholars. It is still one of the most contested historiographical subjects and has become increasingly fashionable in the past few decades, which have seen the tables turned with the rehabilitation of Herodotus. This volume is the first book that targets specifically the interaction between the two historians.

The ‘Introduction’ furnishes a succinct review of the scholarly discussions on the relation between Thucydides and Herodotus and their reception in ancient and modern times, complemented with useful bibliography. It also sets out the purpose of the book ‘to make us better readers of both historians’, a task which ‘requires re-examination of Homer’s influence on historical narratives’ (p. 6). Finally, it outlines the essence of the various chapters.

The book is divided into three parts: ‘Part I: Methods of Reasoning’; ‘Part II: Common Themes’; ‘Part III: Reception’. Part I starts with Rutherford, who looks at structural techniques (scenic sequences, progressive iteration, ironic reversal) which are used by Herodotus and Thucydides (especially in his Sicilian narrative), and are borrowed from Homer. The paper affords an appealing opening to the volume, in particular as its first section provides a neat discussion of the relation between historiography and epic, and concludes that Herodotus and Thucydides are both historians and artists.

Stadter is concerned with Thucydides as a ‘reader’ of Herodotus and contends that, despite their differences, Thucydides admires Herodotus, knows his work, and perfects or rectifies some of his methods and claims. Thucydides is seen to reply to Herodotus in his handling of chronology and Herodotean events (Thermopylae and Plataea), in the opening of his history and in its first extended narrative on Corcyra. In the subsection about Corcyra, an interesting and delicate comparison of Thucydides’ Kerkyraika and Herodotus’ Croesus logos indicates a shared interest in foresight, historical action and the human situation.

The underexplored topic of the use, form and function of indirect discourse in Herodotus and Thucydides is next discussed by Scardino. This thought-provoking piece reveals a great variety of usages of indirect discourse (e.g. featuring in authorial introductory and closing formulae; introducing exchanges in direct discourse; reporting speeches on less important themes) and reinforces the case for rhetorical elaboration in Herodotus as well as bringing out similarities, and some subtle differences, in the historians’ employment of indirect speech. Scardino observes that the same standards of reliability apply to both direct and indirect speeches. Indirect discourse, very much like direct discourse, is equally subject to rhetorical elaboration and makes use of similar argumentative motifs. In the use of these two kinds of discourse there are both divergences (direct discourse: important material at crucial dramatic moments; indirect discourse: less intense emotional moments, synopsis and repetition of argumentation) and, most importantly, correspondences (dramatization, characterization, commentary on events). Hence, ‘one can consider both types of speech as functionally equal exegetical tools in historical representation’ (p. 94).

Rubincam argues for a link between Herodotus’ and Thucydides’ use of numbers and their respective authorial personae. Herodotus’ propensity to present different versions of stories and often conjecture on their reliability explains his fondness for providing impressive numbers and exhibiting his calculations. Thucydides, on the other hand, as he filters all the material he has collected and provides us with what he thinks is the most reliable information, presents us with ‘a deliberate policy decision to report as much numerical information as he had been able to obtain from his informants, even if its usefulness was limited by incompleteness’, and he does not ‘build beyond this by extrapolation’ (pp. 107-8). Three appendices usefully explicate and corroborate the argument. Numbers interestingly emerge as a narrative device which is part and parcel of an individual historiographical style and dependent on the situations, interests, abilities, temperaments and ideologies of each individual historian.

Stahl’s chapter on blind decisions that precede military deeds in Herodotus and Thucydides opens up Part II. Referring to two examples, Athens’ decision to invade Sicily in Thucydides and Xerxes’ decision to invade Greece in Herodotus, Stahl highlights the narrative emphasis on the blindness of the decision which brings about disaster in both cases, and detects even more specific common motifs: greed as primary motive for blind decision-making; futility of appeals to reason and established facts; neglect of sensible advice; yielding to supernatural guidance; measuring plans and warnings by their factual outcome; juxtaposing initial confidence/strength with eventual distress/weakness. In their treatment of most of these themes and the last one in particular, the historians recall Homer and, chiefly, his depiction of Agamemnon.

Lateiner discusses the use of oaths in Herodotus and Thucydides. Despite differences in their kinds and frequency, oaths are equally ineffective in both works as they all too often become liable to manipulation and are broken. That oath breaking causes retribution in Herodotus but not in Thucydides is a consequence of the different themes they narrate: ‘the former, a conflict sustained for ethnic deliberation against an alien culture; the latter, a bipolar, self-destructive rivalry for rank and hegemony fuelled by imperial greed’ (p. 181). Manipulation of oaths and their unpunished violation in Thucydides convey the disintegration of values in the context of the Peloponnesian War.

Foster argues that Thucydides uses Herodotus’ Thermopylae narrative as a pattern for his Pylos narrative, and she also considers Homer’s influence on both historians. In juxtaposing Herodotus’ narrative with the Iliad, Foster notices both similarities (e.g. Persian/Trojan disorder vs. Greek order in fighting, verbs of action) and innovation (Herodotus’ emphasis on explaining events). The historians’ battle narratives bear resemblances in terms of structure of action and explanation, but Thucydides’ narrative is also significantly different as it features Homeric descriptions of human psychology and the battlefield experience, and focuses on reversals of the roles and fortunes of the Spartans and Athenians. Thucydides deliberately links his narrative with Herodotus’ to underline the difference between the two wars. Particularly intriguing is Foster’s comment on political commentary underlying Herodotus’ Thermopylae narrative: ‘Herodotus’ politically charged descriptions of the final Spartan action aim to create hostility to the Persian leadership, sympathy for their doomed conscripts, and admiration for Spartan heroism’ (p. 200).

Blösel explores Thucydides’ narrative on Themistocles, whose portrayal should be juxtaposed with Themistocles’ complex depiction in Herodotus. The Thucydidean Themistocles is as patriotic as the Herodotean one. What differs though is the side Themistocles works for. In Herodotus he serves the interests of Athens and of all Greece. In Thucydides he cares for Athens only and helps develop its future empire. This attitude results in him being at odds with Sparta and the rest of the Peloponnese and therefore looks forward to Pericles’ similar attitude.

Munson sees Thucydides’ stance towards the Persians as a reaction to Herodotus’ depiction of his Persians. Thucydides is only concerned with Persians and non-Greeks to the extent that they have dealings with the Greeks. He focuses instead on the ethnic character of the Athenians and Spartans that caused the war. The Persian Wars feature in the political discourse of the Peloponnesian War but commonly are an ineffectual argument. The narrative of the Sicilian Expedition has parallels with Xerxes’ expedition against Greece and they both share an emphasis on the moral element with the punishment of hubris in each case. After Athens’ defeat in Sicily, Persia takes centre stage and decisively affects the outcome of the Peloponnesian War. But this Persia is not Herodotus’ great empire, under the complete control of the Great King. ‘It is rather the peripheral space of its most western provinces, where the king is present only as a removed authority (or potential constraint) in documents and diplomatic discourse…For the narrator Thucydides, the Persian satraps are simply pragmatic executives, careful with their investments…and eager to recuperate the revenues…from the cities in their provinces’ (p. 261).

A trio of chapters on the ancient Greek and Roman reception of the two historians rounds off the volume. Pelling examines the relationship between fourth-century rhetorical handbooks, the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum and Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and Herodotus and Thucydides. After carefully setting out his caveats and pointing out methodological problems (i.e. sparsity of rhetorical material pre-dating Herodotus and Thucydides, source of influence), Pelling detects similarities in pleas for alliances in the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum, Herodotus and Thucydides – with variations depending on the circumstances – and suggests that the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum reflects fifth- century expectations. A combination of the expedient with the just in symbouleutic oratory, recommended by Aristotle for the success of speeches of this kind, can be traced in both historians (notably in Thucydides the references to moral considerations are reduced as the war progresses). ‘The difference may be that the unpersuasiveness of such [i.e. moral] arguments is often felt in Thucydides, while in Herodotus the speakers may seem to be getting it right. It is less clear that they are always getting it right because those arguments are moral’ (p. 302).

Baragwanath tackles the influence of Herodotus and Thucydides on Xenophon’s Hellenica. Her discussion contributes to raising Xenophon’s stock as a historian and his Hellenica as a work of history. Xenophon’s combination of Herodotean and Thucydidean elements helps him increase his authority and define the nature of his work. Alongside continuity there is difference and originality, seen, for example, in a new definition of greatness. For Xenophon what is worthy of narration ( axion) is not necessarily linked to power as in Herodotus and Thucydides, but is primarily an ethical accomplishment, and it further includes an individual’s character and leadership qualities. Two specific examples, the speeches of Procles of Phlius ( Hell. 6.5.38-48; 7.1.2-11), showcase a comparable merging of Herodotean and Thucydidean features. In both speeches the expedient is combined with the ethical, and the latter is represented by the friendship, and consequently the joined leadership, of Athens and Sparta. ‘With its ethical focus, Procles’ idealizing Herodotean/Solonian/Socratic vision, which stands in tension with the profound sense of the absence of progress that is generated by the way Hellenica both starts and ends with Thucydides, proposes a way through the impasse’ (p. 340).

Samotta’s chapter provides an overview of the impact of Herodotus and Thucydides on Roman republican historiography (third to first centuries). The histories of Herodotus and Thucydides – either through the works of the Western Greek historians or through copies in Rome acquired as spoils of war –considerably influenced the Roman historians. The Roman historians used both these classical models, adapted them and departed from them to enhance their authority and indicate the superior nature of their work. The process of reception was greatly affected by the political and historical context in the different phases of Roman historiography. In the first century B.C., a time of major literary production, as a consequence of the rise of Atticism and in a context where ‘the Romans could identify themselves deeply with the Thucydidean issues of exercising power while trying to uphold civic morality’ (p. 372), the Roman historians showed particular fondness for Thucydides.

This volume comprises a selection of significant contributions not only to the growing scholarship on the subject but also to the survey of the narrative techniques of each historian and to the reappreciation of Herodotus’ literary artistry. A wealth of topics is covered and the book offers important underpinnings for further, in-depth research. Every chapter has its own, unique merits, but some especially stimulating and acute observations are in the section on reception. Among these chapters, Scardino’s work provides valuable insights for further research into the reasons that determine the historians’ choice for indirect discourse, while Pelling’s study gives a significant boost to Herodotean rhetoric and encourages new research pathways with the attention it pays to Herodotus’ impact on early rhetorical developments. There are only a few negligible typos and the editors have done a commendable job.

The only cavil is that not all chapters fit as comfortably with the rubrics of the different parts of the book – and this is a common problem with collective volumes. Some explanation, in the introduction to the volume, to account for the division of the book into these three parts and embed each chapter within the context of its respective section, would have been helpful and desirable. Alternatively, a conclusion by the editors could have nicely pulled together the impressively varied material dealt with in the disparate chapters, and hence increased the coherence of the volume.