BMCR 2023.02.44

Reconfiguring the imperial past: narrative patterns and historical interpretation in Herodian’s History of the Empire

, Reconfiguring the imperial past: narrative patterns and historical interpretation in Herodian's History of the Empire. Historiography of Rome and its empire, 15. Boston: Leiden: Brill, 2022. Pp. 408. ISBN 9789004516892



Chrysanthou’s book on the 3rd century AD writer Herodian is a very welcome addition to classical scholarship for two main reasons: it not only constitutes the first comprehensive narratological study of the History of the Empire in English, but also it shows the importance of taking into consideration the literary dimension of ancient historiography.

Given Chrysanthou’s narratological approach and constant interest in how Herodian’s writing might have affected the ancient reader, the book is addressed primarily to philologists. At the same time, his close analysis of how Herodian produces and conveys historical meaning promises also to be of value to audiences mainly concerned with historical facts. In any case, the clear structure and fluid style allow for quick and profitable reading.

The book’s stated goal is to provide a previously missing “comprehensive study of the narrative presence, aims, strategies, and effects of patterning in Herodian’s work” (pp. 20–21). The study’s overall structure is designed to correspond with the first part of Herodian’s announcement in the prologue, i.e., it follows Herodian’s narrative from the death of Marcus Aurelius to the accession of Gordian III, describing each successive reign (1.1.6: κατὰ χρόνους καὶ δυναστείας διηγήσομαι).[1] There are five chapters in total, each limited to a reasonable length and rounded off by summaries in a user-friendly manner.

Chapter 1 examines how Herodian introduces his protagonists, the Roman emperors from Commodus to Maximus and Balbinus (with the addition of the anti-emperor Clodius Albinus, who is not hailed with the title of Augustus) and asks what effects the individual introductions might have on further narrative. Chapter 2 deals with the interconnectedness of the protagonists’ accession stories and their potential to make the reader participate more actively in the process of negotiating the respective transitions of Roman imperial history. Chapter 3 investigates the position and narrative function of Herodian’s descriptions of the protagonists’ military activities. It demonstrates how these passages are aimed at helping the reader understand specific battles and warfare in general. Chapter 4 takes a closer look at a thematic triad: (i) the emperor’s interaction with his surroundings, (ii) his inclination towards εὔνοια, and (iii) imperial (self-)representation, theatricality, and performance. This triad, by recurring across various reigns, provides the reader with a sense of the unity and continuity of imperial behaviours on both an individual and a systemic level. Chapter 5 is dedicated to examining the ways in which the protagonists’ death narratives are intratextually linked to engage the reader with questions concerning the role of an emperor’s character, the notion of ideal (Marcus-Aurelian) emperorship, and the nature of imperial succession after Marcus’s death.

The chosen approach presupposes a linear and unitarian reading of the History of the Empire. In a nutshell, Chrysanthou argues that Herodian, with the aid of ever-recurring narrative patterns, generates a specific horizon of expectations in his reader, which is either confirmed or subverted by the ongoing narrative. The purpose of this literary technique, according to Chrysanthou, is to encourage and empower the reader to reach a deeper understanding of historical events by creating order in the material of a most disordered period. From knowledge acquired in such a way not only Herodian’s contemporaries but also posterity can expect to derive pleasure, as the historiographer states in an introductory passage that echoes the Thucydidean κτῆμα ἐς αἰεί (1.1.3: οὐκ ἀτερπῆ τὴν γνῶσιν καὶ τοῖς ὕστερον ἔσεσθαι). Since patterning in Herodian constitutes such a crucial tool for his ambitious formative and supra-temporal agenda, the prominent formulaic nature of the History of the Empire cannot be explained as the result of a second-rate historiographer’s feeble attempt to apply mere rhetorical embellishment at the expense of historical accuracy.[2] Instead, Herodian deserves credit as an original and thoughtful author.

The argument is utterly convincing. Its narratological methodology, which combines the literary-theoretical perspectives of compositional theory and reception theory, effectively shows the significance of patterning for fulfilling Herodian’s intentions. The argument has two bases: one is the notion of reading as a linear process, and the other is the concept of reader. The emphasis on reading as a linear process not only responds to how the vast majority of readers actually read, unless they are reading newspapers, law collections, or anthologies; it also takes into account that authors structure their narratives teleologically in order to achieve their intentions and are skilled in doing so.[3] As for the concept of reader, a dichotomy between the intended and ideal reader runs through Chrysanthou’s book.[4] Both are usually simply referred to as the “reader” because their overlap is assumed to be so large that they merge into one. Chrysanthou makes this assumption for the sake of demonstrating the potential effect of Herodian’s patterning under ideal conditions.

In accordance with his interest in Herodian’s technique of writing interpretative history with the aid of intratextual patterning, Chrysanthou exclusively analyses the History of the Empire. Following the key categories of classical narratology, he analyses numerous passages from all eight books of the History for how they shape an (ideal) reader’s response to individual passages s as well as to the overall context. The selection of textual passages is sufficiently large to ground the argument. Despite the large number of examples presented in each chapter, one never loses the thread or gets bored. Chrysanthou writes judiciously; he never claims that something really is the reader’s response to the narrative but rather uses terms of probability, showing great awareness of the methodological impossibility of knowing with certainty how an intended audience actually responded.

Chrysanthou’s book contributes a much needed and original perspective to current scholarship on Herodian: a positive image of Herodian as a crafty and artful writer of interpretative history. For literary scholars, Chrysanthou’s application of narratological questions to ancient texts proves that this practice is still fruitful for gaining new insights and thus represents an important impetus to analyse further writings this way in the future.[5] Those scholars mainly concerned with the historical credentials of Herodian’s account, on the other hand, are likely to appreciate Chrysanthou’s reminder of the importance of ancient historiography’s literary dimension. Narratological analysis is of eminent importance for the evaluation of Herodian’s ambitious agenda and full significance as a historiographer; knowing how repetitive patterns influence the formation of History of the Empire therefore also has value for ancient historians who derive historical data from Herodian. Literary theorists, for their part, are provided with another narratological case study from the field of Classics. It serves as a reminder that considering a narrative’s potential effects on its readership is key for answering the question of to what extent the composition of an author’s writing can be considered artful. Such a consideration, far from being mere speculation, best takes place using the concept of the ideal or model reader and, in addition, does justice to what we know from our own life experience: good communicators adapt their messages to the expected receiver.

I did not notice any factual errors in Chrysanthou’s book. In the introduction, he precisely defines terms and concepts, with reference to their intellectual proprietors, and applies them in a consistent manner throughout. Whatever footnotes I have spot-checked comply without exception with the standards of the scientific community. Over 321 pages I encountered very few English-language spelling mistakes.

In sum, Chrysanthou’s narratological study of Herodian’s History of the Empire can be considered an original and essential contribution to research on ancient historiography. As such, it fully deserves its place in the series Historiography of Rome and its Empire and will be indispensable for future work on Herodian. It clearly demonstrates the importance of bringing together the perspectives of Classical Philology and Ancient History for the purpose of gaining knowledge about their common objects of study.



[1] The wording of the primary source is taken here and below from the Teubner Edition by Carlo Lucarini (ed. 2005). Herodianus: Regnum post Marcum, Munich & Leipzig.

[2] For a list with the advocates of this view, see p. 321 n. 33.

[3] An author concept that is personally organised and therefore allows the application of a cognitive-scientific term of intentionality in the form of attributions based on text and context is the so-called “Autorbild”. On this, see Fotis Jannidis (2002), Autor, Autorbild und Autorintention, editio: Internationales Jahrbuch für Editionswissenschaft Vol. 16, Tübingen, pp. 26–35.

[4] Perhaps Chrysanthou’s ideal reader should be understood as a model reader who possesses the necessary prerequisites for successfully performing the operations required by the text and the ability to remember the accumulating text-specific knowledge. The model reader is in addition encouraged to draw independent conclusions from reading. For the concept, see Umberto Eco (1979), Lector in fabula: La cooperazione interpretativa nei testi narrativi, Milan.

[5] Cf. Jonas Grethlein & Antonios Rengakos (eds. 2009), Narratology and Interpretation: The Content of Narrative Form in Ancient Literature, Trends in Classics Suppl. 4, Berlin & New York.