BMCR 2023.06.06

Herodotus and imperial Greek literature: criticism, imitation, reception

, Herodotus and imperial Greek literature: criticism, imitation, reception. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. xii, 377. ISBN 9780197583517



Herodotus and his Histories were widely received in ancient times, with later authors offering a range of opinions, from great admiration to severe criticism, often for the same aspects. In his meritorious book, N. Bryant Kirkland traces the reception of Herodotus by authors of the imperial era. He does not limit himself to historians, but also explores various types of reception and imitation in other genres. Instead of providing a superficial treatment of a large number of texts arranged by themes and motifs, he chooses to offer detailed studies of individual authors and texts (p. 6). This approach yields convincing results, but it can be noted—if this is to be considered a criticism at all—that the chapters are quite self-contained and can be read as separate studies to some extent. It would have been nice to see more synthesis of the individual chapters than what is provided in the rather brief epilogue and the synopsis on the “Herodotean” at the end of the introduction (pp. 30-34).

The individual studies can be divided into two parts: The first three chapters deal with Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Plutarch (De malignitate and Vitae parallelae), respectively, and thus with two authors who pass explicit judgment on Herodotus. Nevertheless, Kirkland also treats the less clearly articulated imitation of Herodotus by both authors. The second, more extensive section is devoted to the more implicit reception of Herodotus in the works of Dio Chrysostom (Borystheniticus), Lucian (Verae Historiae, Scythian, Anacharsis), and Pausanias. Kirkland deliberately selects a few texts from different genres, paying little attention to other works known for their reception of Herodotus (he himself mentions Lucian’s De dea Syria and Aelius Aristides’ Egyptian Oration; p. 6).

In his introduction, the author presents a methodological framework that unites the individual studies. His understanding of reception is ultimately based on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics, as formulated in his book Wahrheit und Methode (pp. 9-12).[1] Additionally, Richard Hunter’s studies in the reception of Hesiod’s Works and Days (pp. 17-18) serve as a model for the present monograph.[2] Kirkland identifies two types of reception: “kinetic reception” and “hypotextual activation” (pp. 17-20). The former refers to the relationship between the judgment of the imitated author (in this case Herodotus) and the later author’s own imitation. As the book demonstrates, a tension can arise between these two poles when, for example, an author explicitly rejects Herodotus’ style, but nevertheless implicitly emulates it in his own writings (e.g., through formulations, adoption of motifs, or narrative structures). The term “hypotextual activation” refers to Gérard Genette, who has explained how a “hypertext” (i.e., the imitating text) can evoke its hypotext (i.e., the imitated text).[3] Kirkland, however, chooses a different focus and defines “hypotextual activation” as “various moods, nuances, and unresolved opacities […] evoked already in the original work or more specifically the part of the text to which the later author makes allusion” (p. 19). The monograph aims not only to answer how Herodotus is received but also why this is the case and what the act of reception accomplishes (p. 30).

The book’s first chapter, “The Ethics of Authorship,” evaluates the reception of Herodotus in the rhetorical writings of Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Dionysius creates a positive image of Herodotus as an author, whom he emulates subtly. The second chapter, “Dionysius’s Global Herodotus,” explores the reception and imitation of Herodotus in Dionysius’ Antiquitates Romanae. Since this work is historiography in the strict sense, it should not really be a subject for the present study. Kirkland argues convincingly, however, that the Antiquitates can be read as part of a larger literary and rhetorical program. Moreover, the study is limited to the prologue and a few selected passages and does not consider the work as a whole (p. 74). Kirkland shows how Dionysius transfers Herodotus’ claim to broaden his view of the entire known world to his own history of Roman antiquities.

Dionysius’ positive image of Herodotus contrasts with Plutarch’s writing De malignitate Herodoti, which is the subject of chapter 3, “Parallel Authors.” The focus is not on correcting historical incidents, but rather on the connection between De malignitate, Plutarch’s practical ethics, and his Parallel lives. According to Kirkland (p. 107), Plutarch outlines a concept of traditionality in De malignitate from which Herodotus departs. Through the negative portrayal of Herodotus’ character and his way of writing, Plutarch makes himself the positive counter-image. De malignitate is thus, in a sense, one half of vitae parallelae.

Particularly worth reading is the analysis of Dio Chrysostom’s Borystheniticus in chapter 4 (“Hellenism in the Distance”). Kirkland shows how Dio’s assessment of the Histories as a work of stories rather than of history (μυθῶδες μᾶλλον ἢ ἱστορικὸν τὸ σύγγραμμα; Or. 18.10), whose narrative is therefore marked by uncertainty and ambiguity (p. 153), is mimicked in his own speech. It not only exhibits a complex narrative structure through speeches within a speech, but also contains, among other things, a description of the author’s journey and mythical-theological motifs supposedly stemming from Scythians and Magi.

Two chapters are devoted to the reception of Herodotus in Lucian’s works. Chapter six (“Removable Eyes”) first takes a look at the explicit reception of Herodotus in the short piece Herodotus and Aetion (pp. 189-194) and then at the implicit but well-known reception in the Verae historiae (pp. 194-234). The study focuses primarily on Book 2 of the Histories, in which Herodotus not only reproduces what has been reported by others, but also refers to his own eyewitness accounts. Thus, the book becomes a template for Lucian’s writing. In Chapter 7 (“Anacharsis at Border Control”), Kirkland discusses the figure of the Scythian Anacharsis, who is already mentioned in Herodotus (4.46 and 76-77) and appears prominently in two of Lucian’s texts, Scythian and Anacharsis. As Herodotus reported, the Scythian Anacharsis is said to have traveled to Greece, adopted customs there, and was killed as a consequence. In Lucian’s Scythian, Anacharsis arrives in Athens, where he meets his already assimilated compatriot Toxaris, who introduces him to Solon. Not only does this undermine Herodotus’ central claim that Anacharsis was the first and only Scythian to go to Greece and adopt its culture, but there is also an interesting reversal of Solon’s role: while in Herodotus’ Histories, he travels around to get to know the world better and thus arrives at Croesus’ palace, Solon takes more the role of Croesus in Lucian’s text. Anacharsis and Solon also meet in Lucian’s second work. Anacharsis’ desire to learn more about Greek culture offers an opportunity to present an outside perspective on Greek customs, gymnastics in particular.

Pausanias’ Periegesis is the subject of the last two chapters. That Pausanias draws heavily on Herodotus is well known, but Kirkland presents some novel aspects. Chapter 7 (“Acts of God”) analyzes Pausanias’ frequently archaizing interpretation of the world, which refers to Herodotean ideas (p. 263). More specifically, the chapter studies the influence of the divine in history as presented by Herodotus and Pausanias. The last chapter 8 (“Pausanias in Wonderland”) deals with another constitutive element of the Herodotean work, the θώματα. Pausanias, like Herodotus, uses movement in space as a narrative device. However, Pausanias constructs the Greek world as a place of wonders that invite closer scrutiny to a greater extent than his model.

The brief epilogue, an extensive bibliography, and two indexes (locorum and rerum) conclude this monograph that is as substantial as it is stimulating. The book is carefully edited. Kirkland’s translations are reliable and easily readable, but it remains an open question why the Greek text is sometimes missing from quotations in chapter 3 (e.g., pp. 114-116, 133). The author effectively demonstrates how and why Herodotus was received and imitated in imperial literature outside of historiography. The book is therefore recommended reading for anyone interested in imperial Greek literature and the reception of classical works.



[1] Gadamer, H.-G. 1960. Wahrheit und Methode. Tübingen.

[2] Hunter, R. L. 2014. Hesiodic Voices: Studies in the Ancient Reception of Hesiod’s Works and Days. Cambridge.

[3] Genette, G. 1982. Palimpsestes. La Littérature au second degré. Paris.