Friday, November 14, 2008


Catherine Darbo-Peschanski. L'Historia. Commencements grecs. Collection Folio essais. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2007. Pp. 585. €10.30 (pb). ISBN 978-2-07-034869-5.
Reviewed by Peter Van Nuffelen, University of Exeter (

This rich, detailed book studies the development in antiquity of the term and concept ἱστορία from its origins as a judicial term. As the use of the Greek noun in the title makes clear, Darbo-Peschanski argues against the projection of the modern category 'history' onto ancient Greek 'historia'. The Greeks did not invent history, they invented 'historia'. The thesis of the book is that 'historia' has three meanings: (1) an empirical epistemology; (2) 'historicity', i.e. the way in which change over time is conceptualised; (3) the literary genre of history. Darbo-Peschanski proposes to study these three in sequence, although they can never be fully disentangled.1 Arguing, among others, against those who see the creation of history in a methodological shift caused by an emphasis on autopsy as the method to reconstruct the past, Darbo-Peschanski locates its origins in judicial practice. The book thus proposes a new context in which to situate the first practice of history,2 but also an analysis of what 'historia' meant in antiquity. Darbo-Peschanski definitely offers original insights, but the argument could have been, as I will argue, at once more concise and more elaborate.

The first, brief part of the book, 'Histor: judge of first instance' argues that the ἵστωρ found in Homer and in some archaic inscriptions is a sort of judge of first instance whose provisional judgement is to be subjected to another judgement. Chapter 1 tries to define the role of the 'histor' in the Iliad (cf. 18.501 and 23.486) and argues that he is not necessarily an individual who has seen something (i.e. an eyewitness). Rather, he is a sort of judge who seems to offer a first judgement that is later confirmed or rejected by a wider body of judges. Here Darbo-Peschanski argues against a wide-spread tendency to derive ἱστορία from a verb meaning 'to see' and make autopsy the basis of the historical method in antiquity. Epigraphic evidence bearing on this question is examined in a very brief Chapter 2. Chapter 3, equally short, stresses the central aspect of a double judgement for the role of the 'histor': he is responsible for a first but not yet final judgement, the final verdict being left to another group of judges.

After this retrieval of the original meaning of 'historia', the following three parts each address one of Darbo-Peschanski's three meanings of 'historia'.

Part 2 argues that the epistemological unity of 'historia' lies in the fact that it is a 'judged judgement': it is a judgement by a first instance, which will itself be judged by a second instance. This functions very well for Herodotus' Histories, as discussed in Chapter 4. The multiple stories collected by Herodotus offer his first judgement of the sources to the reader, who is explicitly invited to make his own judgement. Herodotus' attitude of reporting what he has heard and leaving it to the judgement of the reader thus reflects the essence of 'historia'. Herodotus' view of nature is also a juridical one: he sees nature as controlled by justice. By telling what has happened, Herodotus reminds us of how things should have been. This explains how we can pass from the juridical notion of 'histor' to 'historia': because reality is 'juridical' for Herodotus, one needs a juridical approach of reality.

Chapter 5 shows that 'historia' is just a first step towards a full knowledge as offered by a science or an art. It starts with a long discussion of Aristotle's Analytica priora (1.30.46a, 1.27.43b) that shows that for him 'historia' is the accumulation of judgements on empirical data, which precedes and conditions the operations of the mind that lead to secure knowledge and truth. The same pattern is confirmed by a discussion of what Plato (Phaedo 96 a 8) and others say on ἱστορία περὶ φύσεως and of the use of the term in medical literature.

Chapter 6 picks up the notion of memory and shows that the so-called 'mnemones' are not simply magistrates that record decisions, but are closely involved with the actual judgement. In the same way, Herodotus does not simply collect evidence to preserve for future remembrance but judges it before he preserves and presents it to the reader's judgement.

Part 3 addresses 'historia' as historicity, with a focus on how time and change are conceptualised.

Chapter 7 identifies an important shift in the way historical change was understood. Up to Herodotus, time is a 'time of justice': time is essentially an alternation between violence and justice which is beyond human and even divine control. Herodotus thus cannot do more than notice how the balance was disturbed and how the world returned to it. Thucydides has a profoundly different view: for him, justice is no longer a part of reality, but is only claimed in speech. Consequently, Thucydides does not designate his own work as 'historia'. He rather emphasises the role played by human nature. The chapter concludes with a brief analysis on the role played by fate from the Hellenistic Period onwards.

Chapter 8 discusses the relation between discourse and facts through the notion of 'aitia'/'aitios'. Darbo-Peschanski argues that its original meaning is one of sharing as part of a gift. The suggestion seems to be that the term is originally linked to the 'time of justice', as explored in the previous chapter, in the sense that an 'aition' is an anomaly that destabilises the order of justice and thus calls for the intervention of Dike.

The fourth and final part focuses on the genre 'historiography' and how it was constituted.

One of the things that set history apart is the fact that it puts events in a sequence. Chapter 9 argues that 'historia' marks a break with epic poetry: the epic poet is needed to perpetuate a logos, whereas the historical logos, understood as ordered by a chronology, seems to exist without the narrator. The substratum of 'historia' is the chronological sequence of events ranged around a theme (e.g., wars between Greeks and others). Darbo-Peschanski argues that this 'substratum of a temporal continuum' forms the basis for the retro-active constitution of a corpus of similar texts: although Thucydides distinguishes himself on purpose from Herodotus, the fact that they were seen by later authors to share a similar approach to reality seems to have led to them being classified as belonging to same genre.

In Chapter 10, Darbo-Peschanski argues that another factor contributed to the establishment of 'historia' as genre: reality is seen as existing objectively. A historian thus simply needs to collect the facts; no research method is needed. A truthful history is a history that respects the truth of facts. 'Historia' consequently never was a science, although Polybius tried to establish it as such.

The last chapter (11) explores the various meanings 'historia' has in rhetorical handbooks. Darbo-Peschanski shows that the term can acquire widely diverging meanings, from the past through narrative to everything that is said. 'Historia' thus becomes so general that it refers to many different forms of discourse; at the same time, it is associated with a style that is as smooth as if no style were present. Darbo-Peschanski argues that 'historia' is a weak concept that never received a clear theoretical underpinning. As such, it never acquired the status of art or science and could cover a variety of meanings, especially in rhetorical theory.

Ten detailed appendices conclude the book.

The first two parts of this book generated enthusiasm in this reviewer, as the argument presented there seemed to shed new light on the texts and the way the concept of 'historia' functioned in them. The later chapters present numerous interesting observations and perspectives, especially the attempt by Darbo-Peschanski to shift emphasis away from the idea of a 'historical method' that guides ancient historians.

But the argument in these later chapters was less clear to me than that of the earlier ones. The way the constitution of the literary genre of 'historia' is presented by Darbo-Peschanski seemed to ignore what has been written on genres by literary scholars. This is not wrong in itself, but it does raise the question on how her analysis fits with such an approach. The later chapters also focused heavily on a limited set of texts (basically Herodotus and Thucydides) that could serve to make the point plausible. But the changing understandings of time Darbo-Peschanski argues for are so wide-ranging that one would expect them to surface in other texts, such as tragedy, as well. I would also have liked to see more evidence adduced. There is very little in the book on the concept of 'historia' among later historians (e.g., Cassius Dio, Herodian) and hardly anything about Latin historiography. The suggestion on p. 309 that for Greeks under the Roman Empire history had ended seemed a convenient trick to halt the investigation there, and is not obviously warranted in the light of the proliferation of history writing in this period. Although other historians such as Polybius and Xenophon do figure, it is mainly Herodotus and Thucydides who determine Darbo-Peschanski's argument.

On occasion, the argument seemed a bit slippery: the ease with which the Stoa was brought to bear on an issue raised by Thucydides did not seem warranted (370), nor is it clear how the Neo-Platonic Proclus was combined with Aristotle (347). I cannot grant Darbo-Peschanski's claim that 'historia' remains marginal to politics because historians are always marginal in politics (405). The fact that historians often write after they have ended their career says more about when it was deemed appropriate to engage in literary pursuits than about a marginal position of history itself. The claim that in Xenophon personal grace is substituted for divine justice was ingenious but seemed far-fetched to this reviewer (251-285). Sometimes I got the feeling I was going through a long lexicographical study. Extensive passages detailed what one author meant with a particular term but seemed often to drift away from the overall argument (e.g. pages 132-166, 259-283). The argument would have been clearer with a better focus on what is essential.

One cannot deny, however, that Catherine Darbo-Peschanski has added a new perspective to our understanding of 'historia' that surely will stimulate debate.3 I wondered, for example, to what extent the meaning of 'historia' she identifies is merely a function of Greek epistemology: according to most Greek philosophers, sense-perception is always judged by the soul or the mind on their truth-value. No collection of material is thus a mere gathering of things existing, but is always subjected to the judgement of the collector. When one looks at it in this way, her argument for the origin of 'historia' in judgement may be less different from those who emphasise the central role of autopsy: autopsy always implies a judgement of sense-perception; it can never be a mere registration.

In sum, Darbo-Peschanski has added an original voice to the history of 'historia-graphy'. She deserves to be widely read, but I suspect that most attention will go the stronger first half of the book.


1. For an English summary of her argument, see C. Darbo-Peschanski, "The Origin of Historiography", in J. Marincola (ed.), A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography, Oxford, 2007, 27-38.

2. See, e.g., R. Thomas, Herodotus in Context, Cambridge, 2001, who locates Herodotus in the contemporary 'scientific' context.

3. There is criticism on Darbo-Peschanski in G. Schepens, "History and Historia: Inquiry in the Greek Histories", in Marincola, A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography, 39-55, 42. Schepens argues that Darbo-Peschanski's emphasis on the original meaning of judgement disregards the explicit truth-claims made by historians such as Polybius. This is not fully justified, as judgement and truth are clearly not two opposed notions in Darbo-Peschanski's view.

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