BMCR 2019.11.15

Textual Strategies in Ancient War Narrative: Thermopylae, Cannae and Beyond. Amsterdam studies in classical philology 29

Lidewij van Gils, Irene J. F. de Jong, Caroline Kroon, Textual Strategies in Ancient War Narrative: Thermopylae, Cannae and Beyond. Amsterdam studies in classical philology 29. Leiden: Brill, 2018. x, 399. ISBN 9789004383333 €132,00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This volume contains an introduction, 13 papers on Herodotus’ and Livy’s descriptions of the battles of Thermopylae and Cannae, respectively, and two papers on the similes in Book Ten of the Aeneid. Below, I briefly note some main themes of the papers; the authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

In the opening paper, Van Wees offers his usual insightful observations on the relation between the ‘Legend’ of Thermopylae, created after the battle in order to cast Sparta as a fully legitimate and unselfish leader of Greece, and Herodotus’ account, formulated 50 years later, in which both the ‘Legend’ and Herodotean analysis are visible.

De Bakker forges a narratological comparison of Diodorus’ and Herodotus’ accounts of the battle of Thermopylae, taking length, the proportion of the episodes, the prominence of the narrator’s voice, the presence and important of analepsis and prolepsis, and finally, the use of speeches, as the five categories to compare. Consonant with Van Wees, he concludes that Herodotus’ complex narrative is defended by many authentication strategies, whereas Diodorus, writing in the tradition of 4 th century historiography, offers his Roman readers moral exempla.

Tsakmakis explores the prominence of death as a theme in Herodotus’ Thermopylae narrative, bringing out the importance of anticipations of death for structuring the narrative and examining the character of the scene in which Herodotus describes the deaths of the Spartans at Thermopylae; in addition, the theme of death is important for understanding the role of Leonidas. Finally, Tsakmakis examines Herodotus’ heavy use of the pluperfect tense in this narrative, thus building a bridge to the following chapter.

Irene de Jong looks at Herodotus’ many analepses and prolepses in the Thermopylae narrative, a topic already broached in de Bakker’s and Tsakmakis’ papers, analyzing especially the placement of analepses and their relation to one another, as well as to the main story line, and concluding with a summary showing how the analepses and prolepses are effectively formulated and placed to fulfill their particular narrative functions.

Rutger Allan offers a paper on how authors produce in their readers the sense that they are participating in the narrated events. He isolates important features of ‘immersion’, as this sense of participation may be called, and tests Herodotus and Thucydides against these standards: he analyzes Thucydides’ vivid account of the battle of Sphacteria, which he compares to Herodotus’ account of the Thermopylae battle, where frequent narrator intrusions disturb the reader’s sense of ‘immersion’. Especially valuable is his account of perspectivism in Thucydides’ Sphacteria story.

Turning to the battle of Cannae, Stephen Oakley opens with an introduction and overview. He compares Livy’s narrative of the battle to Polybius’ account and shows how the differences between the two authors reveal Livy’s differing ideological stances and rhetorical emphases. The paper is followed by a useful appendix that summarizes both accounts.

Lidewij van Gils and Caroline Kroon then offer an in-depth discussion of the narrative organization of Book 22 of Livy. Beginning from the observation that the narrative can be ‘bewildering’ (194) they examine first the alternation of annalistic (discursive) and narrative (story) presentations, before analyzing the structure of sample sub-stories and reviewing some of the relatively rare ‘immersive’ passages (this section offers an instructive overview of Livy’s use of the historical present tense). The paper then proceeds to the narrative of the Cannae battle itself, discussing the complex structure, changes in perspective, and use of direct and indirect speech that allows Livy to emphasize his moral themes.

Dennis Pausch furnishes a clear exposition of the larger plot structures for which the battle of Cannae creates the climax, reading the culminating story of the defeat at Cannae in the light of Livy’s narratives of the defeats at Trebia and Trasimene, and showing how the theme of fraus Punica peaks at Cannae. At the same time, he shows how Livy uses discrepant awareness (the audience’s understanding of what the historical characters did not understand) in order to engage the reader and create suspense.

Lidewij van Gils shows how characters’ spatial references in Livy’s narrative of the battle of Cannae reflect their differing hopes and strategic conceptions more than the shape of the physical world. In addition, he offers useful explanations, describing how spatial references work together with various kinds of discourse modes and demonstrating the workings of various types of spatial references according to theories of cognitive linguistics.

Michel Buijs shows how Livy’s speeches achieve his didactic aims. He looks especially at the theme of ratio and its opposites, delineating Livy’s description of how the contest of intelligence between Hannibal and the Romans is lost through Roman disunity and temeritas.

Suzanne Adema likewise analyzes the speeches, but approaches several kinds of speech acts not analyzed by Buijs (e.g. messenger speeches, scenes of planning, and commands) and brings in a welcome comparison between the defeat at Cannae and the victory at Zama.

Matthieu de Bakker and Michiel van der Kur then bring the two battle narratives into relation with each other. They first trace the allusions to Thermopylae in Livy’s Cannae narrative, focusing on Aemilius Paullus’ final speech and symbolic death, Manlius Torquatus’ famous reference to the deaths of 300 Romans (22.60.11-12), Herodotus’ and Livy’s descriptions of the fate of the survivors of these defeats, and the fact that both battle narratives show men fighting, at the very end, with their teeth. They proceed to show the larger connections, as well: both narratives depict defeat as an anticipation of future victory and likewise of future internal strife.

Adriaan Rademacher compares Herodotus on Thermopylae with Thucydides on the Battle of Sphacteria, concluding that Thucydides’ narrative of Sphacteria consistently downplays the role of the demagogue Cleon and suggesting that Thucydides’ description of the Spartan hoplites as not living up to the standards set at Thermopylae contributes to this treatment of Cleon. His bibliography does not make use of the two monographs of Philip Lafargue, both dedicated to his theme.1

The volume concludes with two very sensitive readings of the similes in Book Ten of the Aeneid, by Stephen Harrison and Michiel van der Kur.

As will be evident, this volume contains many substantial papers and reflects high standards of scholarship: in addition to examining their chosen themes, many of the papers offer wider reflection on methodological questions. The introduction likewise introduces methodological considerations, providing a short introduction to narratology and discourse linguistics. What it does not do is ask how war narrative differs from other kinds of narrative.

It may be that this question is impossible to answer: war narrative is perhaps the basic mode of ancient historiography, from which other kinds of narrative differed (thus, if Herodotus or Thucydides describe something other than political and military events, scholars often speak of a digression). However, since the volume is specifically dedicated to exploring the textual strategies of war narrative, it would have been relevant to address this question.

Other than this, and if I may quibble with a volume that presents such a plethora of useful papers, this volume would have benefitted from more consistent editing. It not only displays some linguistic awkwardness and typos, but in some cases seems like it was not checked over at all: for instance, easily deleted statements that passages will appear in ‘green’ or ‘blue’ (141, 142, 287) are left over from the projections offered at the original conference. Moreover, the passages that were green or blue in the projections appear in the published volume in a barely legible grey, another easy fix. These problems do not mar the coherence or originality of the papers in this volume, which will prove useful to scholars examining the Thermopylae and Cannae narratives from a large variety of perspectives.

Table of Contents

Hans van Wees ‘Thermopylae: Herodotus versus the Legend’ (19–53)
Mathieu de Bakker ‘A Narratological Comparison of Herodotus and Diodorus on Thermopylae’ (54–90)
Antonis Tsakmakis ‘Narrative and Identity in Thermopylae (Herodotus 7.201–7.239)’ (91–112)
Irene de Jong ‘Herodotus’ Handling of (Narratological) Time in the Thermopylae Passage’ (113–130)
Rutger Allan ‘Herodotus and Thucydides: Distance and Immersion’ (131–154)
Stephen Oakley ‘Livy on Cannae: a Literary Overview’ (157–190)
Lidewij van Gils and Caroline Kroon ‘Discourse-Linguistic Strategies in Livy’s Account of the Battle at Cannae’ (191–233)
Dennis Pausch ‘Who Knows What Will Happen Next? Livy’s fraus Punica from a Literary Point of View’ (234–252)
Lidewij van Gils ‘Livy’s Use of Spatial References in the Cannae Episode: from Structure to Strategy’ (253–272)
Michel Buijs ‘ET RATIO ET RES: Characterization of Roman Conduct through Speech Representation in the Battle of Cannae’ (273–292)
Suzanne Adema ‘Words When It’s Time for Action: Representations of Speech and Thought in the Battles of Cannae and Zama’ (293–315)
Mathieu de Bakker and Michiel van der Keur ‘Thermopylae and Cannae: How One Battle Narrative Enriches Another’ (319–341)
Adriaan Rademaker ‘The Great and the Small: Thermopylae and Sphacteria’ (342–358)
Stephen Harrison ‘Force, Frequency and Focalisation: the Function of Similes in the Battle-Narrative of Vergil, Aeneid 10’ (359–375)
Michiel van der Keur ‘Parallel Plotlines: the Function of Similes in the Battle Narrative of Vergil, Aeneid 10 (2)’ (376–393)


1. Lafargue, Philippe, 2013, Cléon: le guerrier d’Athéna (Bordeaux) and 2015, La bataille de Pylos: 89: av. J.-C. Athènes contre Sparte (Paris).