BMCR 2023.02.40

The essential Greek historians

, The essential Greek historians. Cambridge: Hackett, 2022. Pp. 296. ISBN 9781647920500



The aim of the latest book by Stanley Burstein, The Essential Greek Historians, is—as he explains in the Preface (ix)—to furnish students with an introduction to Ancient Greek historiography. This means primarily to choose which ancient historiographical works are the most valuable and then to select for each of them the most relevant parts. Burstein starts from the beginning of Greek historiography in the fifth century BC and reaches the second century AD, in which we can witness ‘a change of primary focus—from the history of Greece to that of Rome’ (xvi). After some useful geographical maps of Herodotus’s view of the world, of the Ancient Greek world and of the Persian Empire (xi-xiv), the author provides a good introduction explaining first of all why Greek historiography is so innovative and so relevant to the history of Western thought. Then he briefly explains the specific features of every historian he selected, focusing in particular on the methodology and the goals of their works, while also giving some helpful information about their life.

Burstein’s selection of the ancient authors is quite wide. In addition to the three fundamental historians of the Classical Age, Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, to each of which he dedicates one of the first three chapters of the volume, we find in the fourth and fifth chapters some works that are not strictly historiographical: the Constitution of Athens of Aristotle and the Parian Marble. The first one is actually the description of a constitution, compiled by Aristotle or by one of his students, and the second one is a marble stele of the third century BC which contains a chronicle of Greek History from the beginnings. This is a way to obviate the loss of most of the historiographical works of the fourth century BC, created by authors such as Ephorus and Theopompus. The sixth chapter of the book is about Polybius, focusing on his ‘universal history’, which is strictly connected to the expansion of the Roman power that influenced the whole Hellenistic world. The seventh chapter is about Memnon and his History of Herakleia on the Black Sea, a way for the author to give an example of a local historiographer who celebrated both the great past and affirmed the positive role of the Greek cities in the Roman Empire. Finally, the topic of the last chapter is Plutarch’s Lives, which is actually a series of biographies but that, as Burstein explains, ‘provides one of the most comprehensive overviews of the History of Greece and Rome’ (xxxi).

The texts chosen from the author are introduced by a preface in which he carefully explains the reasons why they are relevant to the goal of the book; they are edited with some notes which cover very different subjects and are not meant for specialists. The translations used in the book are accurate and easily readable for contemporary students. At the end of the book there is a brief and functional section about ‘Recommended readings’ in English language and an index of the most important words and names. Burstein’s book is well structured and provides a complete introduction to the students that for the first time deals with Greek historiography trying to give, as the author writes, ‘a true picture of the range and variety of Greek historiography’ with a selection of very different works (ix). To be more specific, Burstein is very skilled at sketching and listing some important elements of his analysis and, this way, he helps the reader focus on the most important information of his book.

However, some of Burstein’s choices need further discussion. First of all, it is very difficult to summarize some of the most important texts of Greek historiography in fewer than 300 pages as Burstein does. He criticizes (ix) M. I. Finley’s book The portable Greek Historians (New York, 1959), one of the most famous introductions to the subject, because the scholar limited his selection to the works of just four authors (Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and Polybius), but Finley wrote 501 pages to deal with the fundamental works of these great historians. This is why, I fear, Burstein’s selection is to some degree reductive and not always well grounded. For example, he chooses passages only from four of the nine books of Herodotus’ Histories, without even dealing with some major events as the Ionian Revolt, Xerxes’ decision to invade Greece or the Battle of Salamis and selects only one book of the Hellenica of Xenophon. For the same reason it is quite questionable to put in ‘the essential Greek historians’ a minor author like Memnon of Herakleia, who is not one of the most important Greek historians. Burstein was probably influenced by his research interests, which concern primarily the Hellenistic period and which brought him to write, for example, his important book Outpost of Hellenism: The Emergence of Heraclea on the Black Sea (Berkeley, Los Angeles 1976).

To conclude, Burstein’s book is a useful anthology that can be of help for a first approach to Greek historiography. A more complete work is probably necessary for a student who wants to examine more in depth such an interesting and challenging topic.