BMCR 2013.10.53

Greek Notions of the Past in the Archaic and Classical Eras: History without Historians. Edinburgh Leventis Studies, 6

, , , Greek Notions of the Past in the Archaic and Classical Eras: History without Historians. Edinburgh Leventis Studies, 6. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012. xiv, 378. ISBN 9780748643967 $120.00.


The last three decades have seen a sharp rise in studies which seek to situate the accounts of the Greek historians within their contemporary ideological and communicative framework.1 As a result, classicists today are less interested in “what actually happened and more in what the Greeks believed to have happened” (12) and in how such beliefs shaped their identities and affected their lives. This “hot memory” (Jan Assmann) or “intentional history” (Hans-Joachim Gehrke), which was embedded in various Greek literary genres and cultural practices, stands at the heart of this edited volume, which originated in the 6 th A. G. Leventis conference, convened at the University of Edinburgh by John Marincola in 2009. This distinguished scholar of Greek and Roman historiography invited sixteen leading scholars in Greek epic, lyric poetry, tragedy, old comedy, oratory, philosophy, visual arts, archaeology, epigraphy and religion to explore “what we would know about Greek conceptions of the past if we lacked the historiographical texts of Herodotus, Thucydides and others” (vii).

John Marincola opens this volume with a lucid critique of Jacoby’s influential entwicklungsgeschichtliches model (1-13), according to which the development of Greek historiography (and of the Greeks’ historical consciousness in general) resided in the individual progress of Herodotus from geographer and ethnographer to historian. Reacting against this “splendid isolation of Jacoby’s Herodotus” (11), Marincola provides a succinct contextualization of Herodotus’ historical activities amidst other forms of engagement with the past in the fifth century and thereby introduces many of the themes taken up by the ensuing chapters.

What follows is a tour-de-force from Homer to third-century inscriptions. The sixteen contributors and three commentators (Simon Goldhill, Suzanne Saïd and Christopher Pelling) break down the old dichotomy of critical historiography, on the one hand, and other, “inferior” forms of engagement with the past, on the other. This book provides excellent snapshots of the current state of the study of social memory in ancient Greece, but also shows the way for further research in this exciting field. Given the limited space of this review, it is impossible to discuss each chapter adequately. I focus, therefore, on three aspects of this volume that I consider particularly important.

First, the book as a whole does justice to the multipolarity of Greek historical memory. Collective memories are manifested and transmitted at different levels of society, in various venues, and through different media: i.e. by the entire polis community (Lambert, Shear) and by smaller subgroups (Foxhall); in the assembly and law courts (Hesk, Llewellyn-Jones); on the tragic and comedic stage (Scodel, Romano, Henderson); in religious cults (Kearns); in epic and lyric performances (Grethlein, Currie, Boedeker, Bowie, Pavlou); by the intellectual elite (Morgan); through artefacts (Shapiro, Llewellyn-Jones) and in the Athenian cadre matériel (Lambert, Shear). In this context, Lin Foxhall’s approach is particularly innovative. She uses the stamped loom weights found in the countryside of Metaponto and ethnographic studies of traditional wool-working in Mongolia to tell the story of women in the ancient world, working together in intimate groups, and of the tools that they shared and passed on to younger generations (183-206). Such objects, through their very concreteness, served as solid evocations of emotional attachment and “almost certainly attracted stories connecting [their current owners] with other people and places, past and present” (205). Through the analysis of these simple household items Foxhall recovers elements of these women’s – otherwise undocumented – past experience and gives us a glimpse of the emotional richness of their relationships with one another.

Second, many of these case studies highlight both the societal functions and the dynamism and malleability of social memory and thus confirm, for ancient Greece, Jan Assmann’s dictum that the past is constantly “modeled, invented, reinvented, and reconstructed by the present.”2 When one looks beyond this general tenor, however, slightly different notions of how these processes work in detail can be detected.

While Assmann’s dictum about the continuous “updating” of collective memory is generally accepted, scholars still disagree to which extent a community’s shared image of its past was normative and cohesive at any given point in time. In Democracy and Knowledge, Josiah Ober characterized the orators’ historical paradigms as relatively stable and predictable elements of the “repertoire of Athenian common knowledge,”3 which litigants would use to create the desired alignments of attitude and judgment among the jurors. By reexamining Lycurgus’ Against Leocrates and the political trials of Aeschines and Demosthenes, Jon Hesk challenges Ober’s view and makes a strong case that, while the past itself was known, the lessons to be drawn from it were highly contested (207-26). Thanks to this practice, he also sees a great degree of self-consciousness concerning the “manipulative potential and ‘rhetoricity’ of historical paradeigmata ” (219) on the part of the orators and their audiences. Hesk’s chapter is excellent, but it underestimates, in my opinion, the emotive force of “hot memory,” which did lead to the emergence of dominant historical paradigms ( pace Hesk 226). The meaning of the past was often contested vehemently, but I do not see a level playing field: it was much easier for an orator to draw effectively on the lessons of the Athenian funeral orations than to argue against them, as the lengthy argument in Aeschin. 2.74-79 shows.4

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones also touches upon the issue of prevalent historical paradigms in his intriguing study of the representation of the Persian king in Greek visual art, rhetoric and philosophy in the fourth century BCE (317-46). He argues convincingly that even though the Attic orators and Plato were at times capable of depicting particular moments in Persian history with relative precision (cf. Isoc. 5.99-100 on the reigns of Artaxerxes II and III), more often they evoked the Greeks’ “hot memory” of the Persian past, conflating the events of various reigns and creating a standardized “Great King” (e.g. hubristic and decadent) for their particular rhetorical needs. Another strength of Llewellyn-Jones’ paper is his compelling illustration of the intrinsic polyvalence of visual representations. On the Darius Vase, for instance, “[p]ast and present are merged” (340): the annotations of “Darius” and the personifications “Hellas” and “Deceit” evoke not only Darius I before Marathon, but also Darius II (423-405 BCE) and Darius III (336-330 BCE), who had lost his life resisting Alexander at around the time this vase was crafted.

Julia L. Shear’s insightful chapter on Athenian memory politics after the revolution against Demetrius Poliorcetes in 286 BCE (276-300) deserves particular praise for its focus on the complex interplay between public monuments and private memory and on the dynamics of remembering and forgetting. In a careful analysis of the literary and epigraphic evidence and the topographical significance of the honors bestowed upon outstanding democratic leaders, Shear demonstrates conclusively that third-century Athenians masterfully appropriated many of their ancestors’ responses to the oligarchic revolutions of 411 and 404/3 BCE. Through these honors, they reasserted the rule of the demos, provided democratic role models and, most importantly, commemorated the revolution against Demetrius as a struggle against foreign enemies and thus suppressed the painful memory of stasis, just as their ancestors had done after the tyranny of the Thirty. Yet past precedents were not copied blindly; this time the Athenian democrats commemorated the external help they received against their oppressors.

Third, it is laudable that many of the studies in this volume go beyond purely functionalist interpretations and examine the different modes in which the Greeks related to their past, in particular the commonalities and differences between the Greek historians’ approaches and those found in other literary genres.

Jonas Grethlein applies the methodological framework of his important monograph on Greek memory in fifth-century poetry, oratory and historiography to Homer and heroic history (14-36).5 Examining the Homeric heroes’ attitudes towards their own past (the “epic plupast”) as cases of mise en abyme, he identifies three different modes, in which the past was linked to the present – i.e. by causality, through tradition, and in exempla. Dispensing with the old dichotomy of a fatalistic Iliadic and a moralistic Odyssean worldview, Grethlein argues instead for a common gravitational field (also found in other Greek literary genres), in which the “idea of divine justice as well as the construction of regularities and continuities in exempla and tradition (…) can be seen as an attempt to create some stability in a world full of insecurity” (36). Drawing out the differences between these various Greek views of history and our own modern notions of historical progress is a virtue of Grethlein’s approach, since it cautions us against transferring models of contemporary social memory wholesale to the ancient world.

Bruno Currie explores the view of human history found in the Hesiodic “myth of the races” (37-64). The principal strength of this learned and insightful chapter lies in Currie’s willingness to accept the ambiguities and indeterminacies inherent in this poetic account. In his attempt to accommodate Greek with non-Greek traditions, Hesiod very much resembles Herodotus, but it cannot be determined whether the former already shared the latter’s concern for historical truth. This text thus “remains tantalisingly poised between poetic fiction and history” (64).

Three excellent chapters examine the playwrights’ engagement with the past against the background of Greek historiography. Ruth Scodel finds impressive similarities between the Greek historians and the tragedians (113-26). Troades, for instance, is concerned with the difficulty of evaluating partisan statements (e.g. concerning Hecuba’s and Helen’s divergent account of the latter’s arrival in Troy) and thematizes the universal phenomenon of “actor-observer bias” (122). It thus invites reflections on the methodological problem of explaining the actions of historical figures through inference from their perceived characters. Allen Romano, on the other hand, stresses the important differences between the two genres, by demonstrating that Euripidean prophetic aetiologies are not the poet’s quasi-historiographical explanations but uttered by individual characters and thus to be scrutinized for their dramatic function (127-43). Jeffrey Henderson finds in Aristophanes’ topical comedies many examples of “the mode of mythical thinking” (151), but – due to the influence of the sophists – also passages (e.g. Lys. 1137-56), in which characters vigorously challenge their opponents’ historical arguments, with their own, very tendentious recollections of the past (144-59).

The volume is well produced and contains only minor typographical errors. Regrettably, bibliographical information is only provided in the notes and the three-page long general index is too short and patchy to help locate the countless connections between individual chapters. This deficit is somewhat mitigated by the comprehensive index locorum. Yet these minor quibbles do not detract from the overall excellence of this volume. Everybody interested in the manifold uses and meanings of the past in archaic and classical Greece should read it.


1. For the communicative conditions in the semi-literate society of Classical Athens and for Herodotus as a “typical product of his time,” see respectively Rosalind Thomas, Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens (Cambridge 1989) and Nino Luraghi (ed.), The Historian’s Craft in the Age of Herodotus (Oxford 2001).

2. Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge 1997), 9.

3. Josiah Ober, Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (Princeton 2008), 192.

4. For my own take on this passage, see Bernd Steinbock “Contesting the Lessons from the Past. Aeschines’ Use of Social Memory,” TAPA 143 (2013) 65-103.

5. Jonas Grethlein, The Greeks and Their Past: Poetry, Oratory and History in the Fifth Century BCE (Cambridge 2010).