BMCR 2019.01.44

On Writing History: From Herodotus to Herodian. Penguin classics

, On Writing History: From Herodotus to Herodian. Penguin classics. London: Penguin Books, 2017. lxxi, 600. ISBN 9780141393575 $18.00 (pb).

This is an impressive book, which for the first time collects passages dealing with historical and historiographical methodology from across the works of Greek and Roman historiography as well as works in other genres, from Hecataeus to Ammianus Marcellinus. It is a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship treating ancient historiography as a genre (rather than individual authors) and continues John Marincola’s excellent habit of considering this genre as a whole in the works of Greek and Roman authors writing from the 5 th century BCE to the 4 th century CE. All extracts have been freshly translated by Marincola and furnished with notes, which explain historical details and offer basic bibliographies. (It is a shame that these notes are found at the end of the book rather than at the bottom of each page, but that is, of course, often the case with published translations.) The extracts are preceded by an Introduction, and the extracts of each author are also furnished with brief, basic introductory information. The end-notes are followed by a short bibliography, a thematic index, an index of passages translated, and a general index.

The Introduction covers all the key issues of ancient historical methodology: ‘Sources and Limitations’; ‘Definition, Subject Matter, Audience’; ‘Eyewitness and Inquiry’; ‘Effort’; ‘Truth’; ‘Bias and Impartiality’; ‘Utility, Pleasure and Purpose’; ‘Moralism’; ‘Myth’; ‘Rhetoric and Embellishment’; ‘Speeches’; and ‘Style’. In a short introduction such as this, the difficulty always consists in striking the right balance between giving useful, nuanced information and keeping it brief and to the point. Marincola masters this art to perfection. The information that he offers is carefully considered and up to date with present scholarship. Thus, for instance, local history is included as a serious branch of historiography (xxxiv), and it is recognised that a work of history can be both ‘rhetorical’ and ‘truthful’ at the same time (lv-lvii) and that ‘some element of creative reconstruction was absolutely essential’ in the historical recording of speeches (lix). It would have been useful to have a separate bibliography after the Introduction for ease of reference. Instead, full details of every cited work are included in the notes (which are at the end of the Introduction), and a very short bibliography of overarching works of scholarship is at the back of the book. This necessarily means that not every relevant work is cited (as Marincola acknowledges, xix). What one misses is, of course, personal. I would have liked to see references to two books from 2016: V. Naas and M. Simon (eds.) De Samos à Rome: personnalité et influence de Douris, Paris: Presses Universitaires de Paris Ouest, and L. I. Hau, Moral History from Herodotus to Diodorus Siculus, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; but perhaps they appeared too late to be taken into consideration.

The introductions to individual authors are probably necessary, but they are very hard to get right. In aiming for the necessary brevity here, the risk is to descend to the level of the kind of potted biographies of authors that have gained credence simply by virtue of frequent repetition. Largely, Marincola avoids this pitfall, but there is the occasional lapse, as when we are told, for example, that Duris of Samos ‘is said to have been a student of Theophrastus’ (39), with no indication of the controversy surrounding this bit of information or of the fact that the statement relies on a modern emendation of the text.1 For a reader who is already familiar with many of the authors, the individual introductions bring nothing new to the table and just break up the flow of the extracts. However, no reader is likely to be familiar with all the authors, and it is certainly useful to have the basic information handy for the less familiar ones rather than having to go and look it up elsewhere.

The range of included authors is admirable: 29 historiographers across the Greek and Roman spectrum, ranging from Hecataeus of Miletus to Ammianus Marcellinus and including such fragmentary and relatively little-known figures as Antiochus of Syracuse, Pompeius Trogus, and Granius Licinianus. In addition, remarks on historiography are included from other authorities such as Aristotle, Cicero, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Seneca, and Quintilian, and the book ends with two papyrus fragments from the 2 nd century CE, namely P. Oxy. 4808 (an unattributed fragment of an evaluation of various Hellenistic historiographers) and P. Oxy. 853, a commentary on book 2 of Thucydides (only the section responding to Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ criticism of Thucydides is included). The length of extracts varies greatly, from one sentence quoted from Antiochus of Syracuse to 71 pages from Polybius. This is unavoidable considering the difference in state of transmission of the various texts and the difference in the amount of space the historiographers devoted to methodological considerations. The translations read well and are very clear, despite Marincola’s warning in the preface about staying close to the original Greek or Latin (xvii-xviii). It is an excellent selection of texts, which is bound to be immensely helpful to anyone, student or experienced scholar, who works on ancient historiography.

It is a particular virtue of the collection that it proceeds by strict chronology and therefore mixes Greek and Roman texts so that, e.g., Duris of Samos is followed by Cato the Elder, who is then followed by Agatharchides of Cnidus and Polybius. This offers a unique chance to study how the methodological considerations of historiographers from the two cultures cross- fertilised each other as they gradually merged into one written culture. The unexplained exception is the two papyrus fragments, which are placed at the end despite fitting in chronologically probably between Appian and Fronto.

The purpose of the book, according to its author, is ‘to look at the literary and methodological conventions surrounding the writing of history in antiquity’. It certainly offers its readers the materials to conduct an investigation into these conventions and the debates surrounding them, and is presented in a very attractive and lucid way. This particular reader would have liked to see a concluding discussion of some of the recurring concepts based on Marincola’s in-depth work with these texts; but such a discussion could, of course, easily balloon out of proportion, and its absence is understandable. One hopes that Marincola will publish it elsewhere.

Overall, the book is an excellent tool for the study of ancient historiography at all levels, and it is bound to become a standard point of reference in the future.


1. Ath. Deipn. 4.1.128a = Duris FGrHist 76 T1. See A. Dalby (1991) ‘The Curriculum Vitae of Duris of Samos’ CQ 41, 539-541, and C. Baron (2011) ‘The Delimitation of Fragments in Jacoby’s FGrHist : Some Examples from Duris of Samos’ GRBS 51, 86-110.