BMCR 2020.04.16

Antiques uchronies: quand les Grecs et Romains imaginent des histoires alternatives

, , Antiques uchronies: quand les Grecs et Romains imaginent des histoires alternatives. Histoires . Dijon: Éditions Universitaires de Dijon, 2018. 355 p.. ISBN 9782364412866 €25,00 (pb).

With ‘Alternate History’ having become a major branch of contemporary science fiction, the time has come to explore the Graeco-Roman antecedents of this phenomenon. The volume under review presents the papers of a conference held in October 2017,[1] and the editors are to be congratulated for publishing the proceedings only about a year later.

A succinct introduction provides welcome background on the term “uchronie” (= “utopie dans l’Histoire”, thus defined in a book of 1876 by Charles Renouvier[2]) and outlines the aim of the volume: to provide a “first inventory of respective texts as well as an analysis of the procedures employed to achieve uchronic effects”.[3] It also contains a survey of studies that have up to now dealt with ancient “uchronies” and an overview of the volume’s contents.

The first of the volume’s four major sections (“Écarts et divergences dans les récits mythiques”) presents discussions of ‘uchronic’ phenomena in literary retellings of myth. Christine Hunzinger (“Quand le récit aurait pu bifurquer … bribes d’uchronie dans la Théogonie hésiodique et l’Hymne Homérique à Déméter”, 17–36) deals with one passage from Hesiod’s Theogony (vv. 836–8, in which a victory of the monstrous Typhoeus over Zeus is briefly envisaged, with chaotic consequences for the whole world) and with two from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (vv. 242–5, in which Demeter might almost have made young Demophon immortal, if she had not been interrupted by his mother Metaneira; and vv. 310–13, in which all of humanity might almost have starved to death, if Zeus had not pacified his enraged sister Demeter). Hunzinger well explains the poets’ procedures in these cases, but possibly overstresses the consequences of the first passage from the Hymn: does Metaneira’s intervention really mean that from now on no other human being can become immortal? The apotheosis of Heracles (and other mythical heroes) would seem to contradict this.

In the second contribution (“La multiplicité des étiologies dans les Fastes d’Ovide”: une dimension uchronique?”, 37–46), Élisabeth Buchet asks whether there is a ‘uchronic’ aspect to Ovid’s providing several different stories to explain the names of the months May and June; but ‘uchronie’/alternate history is not concerned with different interpretations of one and the same situation in the present (with these interpretations depending on the story we adopt), but with ‘really’ different situations (resulting from imagined different courses of events), so my answer to Buchet’s question would be No.

The final paper of this section (“L’uchronie comme échappatoire devant le nefas dans la Pharsale de Lucain, en miroir des tragédies de Sénèque”, 47–65) – in its main part—does not even deal with a “récit mythique”, but with Lucan’s historical epics: after discussing one passage, in which the poet states that the history of the Civil War might have turned into another direction (book 6, vv. 301–313[4]), Pierre-Alain Caltot then devotes his attention to ‘uchronic’ wishes or regrets uttered by several figures (Pompey in 2.552–4; Cornelia in 8.88–90; Roman soldiers in 2.45–56; Cato in 2.306–18; Pompey in 7.117–9) and compares them with utterances in Senecan tragedies (Oedipus in Phoen. 31–33; Phaedra in Phaedr. 657–62; Medea in Med. 920–1; Oedipus in Phoen. 226–31; Megara in Herc. f. 419–21), adding the observation that in both authors, ‘uchronic’ wishes or regrets are uttered by ‘good’ people and not by bad ones.

The second section (“Raisonnement par les preuves, méthode philosophique et écriture de l’histoire”) presents texts from rhetoric, philosophy and historiography. In “Raisonnement contrefactuel, usage des preuves et réécriture(s) de l’histoire dans l’éloquence attique, d’Antiphon à Isocrate: sur quelques emplois du tekmèrion” (69–80), Marie-Pierre Noël tries to show that both the theory (as found in the Rhetoric of Aristotle and the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum) and the practical use of tekmèria (“clues”) in judicial rhetoric involves the discussion of alternative (hence ‘uchronic’) scenarios of what could and what actually did happen; of the four texts she discusses (Antiphon, On the murder of Herodes 81–3; Isocrates, Against Callimachus 15; Lysias, Against Eratosthenes [or. 12] 51–2; Isocrates, Euagoras 58–9), not all are equally convincing examples of counterfactual considerations. Elisabetta Bianco (“Craintes, espoirs et conseils: Essais pour une histoire alternative chez Thucydide”, 81–93) presents an informative survey of counterfactual situations evoked in Thucydides, very often in the course of speeches revealing the hopes or fears of their speakers (frequent instances of this are found in the great narrative of the Sicilian Expedition), but also indicated by the author himself (notably around the events that led to the Athenian loss of Amphipolis in 424 and Thucydides’ subsequent exile). She concludes (righly) that Thucydides uses counterfactual arguments quite frequently, showing that individual human action (or inaction) can make a big difference in the course of history.

The next two contributions deal with works of the Corpus Platonicum. Anne Hourcade Sciou (“Platon, Lettre VII, 332e–333a, un exemple d’uchronie?”, 95–104) discusses two passages of the Seventh Letter attributed to Plato,[5] both of which seem in fact to open up ‘uchronic’ perspectives: 332e–333a evokes the possibility that Dionysius the Younger might have united the Greek cities of Sicily under his leadership and driven out the Carthaginians, if he had followed Plato’s advice, and 335e–336c evokes—with greater probability—the same possibility under the enlightened (but prematurely terminated) rule of Plato’s friend Dion. According to Hurcade Sciou, both these perspectives are evoked to emphasize “que la cité idéale puisse devenir une cité possible” (103). In “L’‘archéologie dorienne’: la reflexion de Platon sur une occasion manquée (Lois III.686e–693e” (105–116), Pierre Pontier demonstrates how Plato uses this passage from the third book of the Laws—in which he outlines the possibility of a mighty alliance of three Dorian states (Sparta, Messene, Argos), which did not come to pass, because ignorance and other human vices (like desire for war and victory) prevailed—to show that such ambitious projects can only be successful if they are founded “sur la raison et la modération” (111).

There follow two papers on ‘uchronic’ passages in Livy. Fanny Cailleux (“Rome aurait-elle pu se passer de rois? Philosophie politique et réécriture du passé chez Tite-Live”, 117–133) discusses the proem of the second book of Ab urbe condita, in which Livy considers the possibility that Rome might have chased out its kings earlier (or even might never have had kings at all) and concludes that this would have been disastrous because the royal period was necessary to let the institutions of the later republic come into being and mature. Cailleux goes too far, however, when she considers that one might regard the whole of Livy’s book I as an “uchronie” (124): Livy presents some hypothetical considerations in its course, but never an alternate line of history. In the second contribution on Livy (“Tite-Live et l’exemplum fictum: Entre procédé rhétorique et réflexion sur l’histoire”, 135–149), Mathilde Simon provides an excellent contextualization of the indeed unique passage in which Livy reflects on what would have happened if the Romans had confronted an invading Alexander the Great on Italian soil (Liv. 9.17.1–19.17), showing not only to what extent this passage takes up themes current in Livy’s own time but also to what vision of history he subscribes.  In the section’s last paper, Régine Utard (“Réécrire l’histoire et modifier les événements: L’écriture de la rupture chez les historiens latins”, 151–164) outlines various stylistic ways (use of si and nisi, donec, cum inversum; use of the subjunctive) in which Latin authors (Livy, Tacitus, Caesar) introduce points of “rupture” in their narratives, at which events might have taken a different turn.[6]

The third section (aptly entitled “Action humaine, nécessité et contingence”) begins with David Konstan (“It might have been: L’uchronie tragique”, 167–178) presenting ‘uchronic’ phenomena in some famous Attic tragedies (Sophocles, Philoctetes; Sophocles, Electra; Euripides, Orestes; Euripides, Hippolytus; Euripides, Iphigeneia in Aulis). Some of his exemples are more convincing than others: while Sophocles’ Philoctetes indeed almost ends very differently from the known myth (with Philoctetes remaining on Lemnos and thus making the Greek conquest of Troy impossible; in Euripides’ Orestes the deus ex machina Apollo serves a similar purpose), the ‘alternate’ facts presented in Sophocles’ Electra (with Orestes slaying—without any qualms—first his mother Clytaemnestra and then her consort Aegisthus) may not be ‘uchronic’ enough to really create an alternate story version. With Pierre Ponchon (“Entre τύχη et ἀνάγκη: Les usages thucydidéens de l’uchronie”, 179–197) we return to Thucydides and get a penetrating demonstration (with good analyses of episodes in books 4 and 7) of how ‘uchronic’ considerations can considerably contribute to a better grasp of the interplay between contingencies and necessity in the chain of historic events.

In the longest contribution of the volume, Anne Queyrel Bottineau (“Dessein et histoire alternative dans le plaidoyer Sur la couronne: Temporalité, fortune et responsabilité du conseiller politique”, 199–261) demonstrates how Demosthenes, in his speech On the crown, outlines alternative scenarios of past events not only to show how more catastrophique developments of Athens’ situation were averted because of his policies, but also how much better the present situation might be if there had been more men like him to bring it about. In the later part of this contribution one might have wished for a more sustained focus on “uchronic” scenarios in this speech and in general for greater succinctness.

A special kind of “uchronie” is presented by Alexandre Grandazzi (“Vult enim Caesar. La Rome de César: de l’uchronie à l’utopie”, 263–272): Caesar’s gigantic plans for a remodelling of Rome, known to us only from three letters of Cicero to Atticus and cut short by Caesar’s assassination, but still apparently inspiring (as a kind of “utopian” model) Augustus’ measures for the refurbishing of the Urbs.  In the last paper of this section (“Germanicus: Le treizième César …”, 273–280), Yann Rivière collects evidence (from epigraphical and literary sources) that the premature death of Germanicus was already in antiquity regarded as the tragic break-off of what might have been a better Roman Imperial history.

The last section (“Réécriture et création littéraire”) starts with “Et si fata deum … La dimension uchronique dans l’épopée romaine” (283–295), in which Thomas Baier contrasts the famous episode of Aeneid book 2—in which the Trojans might almost have uncovered the ruse of the Wooden Horse and thus averted Troy’s destruction—with Ovid’s treatment of the Trojan War in Metamorphoses 11.749–795, where he tells the story of a brother of Hector who might have become as renowned a warrior as Hector himself if his life had not been cut short by a tragic love story.[7] Also devoted to the Aeneid is Judith Rohman’s “Les Troyens vainqueurs: Ouvertures vers l’uchronie dans l’Énéide” (297–313), which focuses on the remarkable range[8] of ‘uchronic’ perspectives in this epic (evoking Troy’s possible survival and even victory over the Greeks, but also Aeneas’ death on several occasions, or the Trojans’ rebuilding of Troy or living out their exile in an obscure backwater of history) and thus well demonstrates Virgil’s mastery over his material. A ‘uchronic’ retelling of the Trojan War is also the subject of the volume’s last paper: in “L’uchronie dans le Discours Troyen de Dion Chrysostome” (315–323), Alain Billault tries to show that Dio actually produces something like a “double uchronie”—by pretending to reveal the ‘true’ story of the Trojan War (won by the Trojans and not the Greeks), which vis-à-vis Homer’s traditional story comes across like a ‘uchronic’ alternate history, Dio in fact transforms Homer’s story into a ‘uchronic’ one.

All in all, the volume succeeds in documenting the remarkably wide range of ‘uchronic’ phenomena in Greco-Roman literature, even if not every case presented as such quite lives up to Renouvier’s definition of “uchronie”.


[1] Two of the papers given at the conference were not included in the volume: Cécile Dubois, “Achille heureux ou les limites de l’uchronie dans l’Antiquité”, and Marie-Rose Guelfucci, “Science politique et histoire alternative dans les Histoires de Polybe”.

[2] Charles Renouvier, Uchronie, utopie dans l’Histoire. Esquisse historique apocryphe du développement de la civilisation européenne tel qu’il n’a pas été, tel qu’il aurait pu être, Paris 1876. Apparently, Renouvier used the term “uchronie” already in a contribution to the 1857 volume of the Revue philosophique et religieuse.

[3] In the French original (p. 8): “un premier inventaire des oeuvres concernées ainsi que l’analyse des procédés permettant la mise en oeuvre de l’uchronie et celle des effets spécifiques qu’elle produit”. Some lines below the editors declare that they have limited themselves “expressément aux uchronies explicitement présentées comme telle dans les textes”, but this does not seem the case for every contribution of the volume (see my comment on Buchet’s paper).

[4] There are other similar passages in Lucan’s work (see the survey given by H.-G. Nesselrath, Ungeschehenes Geschehen, 1992, 94–106), but Caltot pays no attention to them.

[5] Hourcade Sciou regards the Seventh Letter as authentically Platonic, but recent scholarship has importantly questioned this authenticity: see, e.g., Michael Trapp: Against the Authenticity of the Seventh Letter, Histos 10, 2016, LXXVI–LXXXVII.

[6] In some respects these grammatical and stylistic means come close to what Irene de Jong (Narrators and focalizers. The presentation of the story in the Iliad, 1987) and I myself (Nesselrath 1992; see above n. 4) have described for Greek and Latin epics.

[7] In his conclusion, Baier declares that contrary to Virgil and Ovid, Lucan “ne connaît pas de ‘Beinahe-Episode’ dans son épopée”, and in confirmation of this he cites a short passage from my 1992 book (p. 101), in which I allegedly claim that there is only one tiny ‘Beinahe-Episode’ in all of Lucan. This is absolutely wrong: I try to show (on pp. 94–106) that Lucan’s epics contains nine (!) major episodes in which ‘uchronic’ chains of events are envisioned, before the breaking-off point arrives.

[8] For a differently organized survey of such episodes in the Aeneid, see Nesselrath 1992, 74–84.