Tuesday, March 13, 2012


John Marincola (ed.), Greek and Roman Historiography. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. x, 498. ISBN 9780199233502. $65.00 (pb).

Reviewed by David Driscoll (latinteach101@aol.com)

Version at BMCR home site

This recently re-published collection of articles spans an era of about thirty-six years (1960-1996), and includes, as expected, some of the most prominent names in Greek and Roman historiography. During this time, as the editor explains, studies of Greek and Roman historiography began to employ new approaches that have steadily illuminated our understanding of the characteristic features, methods and results of ancient history writing, along with its sub- genres and audience expectations (p. v). Marincola then provides an overview of contents in the introduction (pp. 1-16), dividing the books contents into three parts: I: Constructing the Past: Myth, Memory, and History (pp. 17-204); II: Rhetoric, Truth, and Falsehood (pp. 205-362); and III: History and Poetry (pp. 363-432). These are in the main self-explanatory, focusing upon historiography's intermingling with other literary genres and upon debts to orally transmitted knowledge, rhetoric, and contemporary debate.

The collection offers much, I believe, that is genuinely thought provoking, stimulating, and new. This is despite the fact that none of the fifteen articles appear to have been written in the last ten years, and only three (Gehrke (1992), Wiseman (1993), and Timpe (1996), are from the last twenty.1 Readers expecting to encounter recent scholarship may accordingly experience perplexity or disappointment.

The first article by Nicole Loraux ("Thucydides is not a Colleague") inveighs against traditional academic dichotomies (literature or history; text or document) and the particular distortions that result from pigeon- holing ancient authors in these static categories. Thucydides and Aristophanes particularly suffer from this approach, since comedy writes to exaggerate or distort facts, while Thucydides often selects and shapes them to suit his argumentative purpose. Thus Thucydides is not our true colleague in his approach to history, despite his evident interest in accuracy.

Hans-Joachim Gehrke's illuminating essay "Myth, History, Politics—Ancient and Modern" builds on the idea that authorial aim molds the message, examining how Greek myth—apparently written to entertain—may serve political and social needs. He starts with the beginning of Herodotus' Histories 1.1-5 to show historical myth being used to assign blame (aitiê), then moves into a discussion of the ways that mythical genealogy works to fashion a specifically Hellenic identity, finally assigning these writings to a genre he calls "intentional history," i.e., history with an argumentative purpose. He notes the ubiquitous presence of this genre in modern societies as well. Historical criticism, first practiced by Hecataeus (fr. 1) and reaching a pinnacle in Thucydides (pp. 51-57), can be a weapon employed against rival self-authenticating mythologies and is fundamentally destructive in nature (p. 71).

Rosalind Thomas' "Genealogy and the Genealogists" builds on the previous article's claims in asserting that Greek genealogy is used to establish claims; it is used to enhance prestige and so position oneself advantageously in society. Thomas rightly observes the importance of writing as a new technology for codifying family relationships or resolving contradictions, especially in chronology.

Guido Schepens' "Some Aspects of Source Theory in Greek Historiography" usefully concentrates on the cognitive channels whereby history in the ancient world is gathered, assimilated, and fashioned: opsis (eyesight), akoe (hearsay), gnome (judgment), and historie (inquiry). In the main, this article reaffirms and complements the analysis found in his 1980 monograph L' 'autopsie' dans la méthode des historiens grecs du Ve siècle avant J.-C.

Schepens' main point is that Greek historians almost invariably focus on the reliability of "subjective means" of understanding history—the active human faculties—(p. 103), rather than, as modern historians typically do, on the reliability of the material assembled—the objects and material (p. 106). This observation accords with the tendency of oral societies to privilege ad hominem discourse over objective discourse (cf., in general, W. Ong, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word [1972]). Yet it would appear important to take account of Matthew Christ's observations (CA 13.2 [1994], 166-202) regarding Persian kings: their curious obsession with secrecy, methods of verifying information, and conducting experiments suggests that they, too, perform the roles of historical inquirers, revealing Herodotus' own meta-historical fascination with the politics of inquiry. Herodotus' own look at human knowledge in action thus broadens beyond theoretical classifications into a thought-provoking and ironic look at how fragile knowledge itself is.

"The Tradition on Early Rome and Oral History" by Jürgen von Ungern-Sternberg is one of the most engrossing contributions to this collection. With over 130 footnotes, von Ungern-Sternberg's astonishing passion for meticulously analyzing and organizing the evidence is always evident. How did Fabius Pictor possess reliable information for the earliest period of Roman history? And why did Roman historiography begin so late? The agreement and uniformity of Roman annalists, he argues, implies uniformity of oral tradition: laudationes funebres, (family funeral elegies) competition between noble clans or priesthoods, and appeal to the mos maiorum, (ancestors' custom). These were crystallized in Fabius Pictor, the end point of oral tradition, like Homer for epic poetry.

Dieter Timpe's "Memoria and Historiography in Rome" expands on this theme of oral tradition, showing how "memory" itself is more than a mere receptacle of learning in oral societies. The movement from published res gestae of the aristocracy (= private memory) to publication of those attributed to the populus Romanus as a whole (= public memory) took long to develop, reflecting the struggles to ascendancy of the early Republic (pp. 158-59). A distinctive contribution of Livy will have been to tone down such competing aristocratic histories in the name of an Augustan program of securing unanimity of purpose.

T. J. Cornell's "Etruscan Historiography" argues, largely on the basis of a fragmentary 1st c. AD Etruscan inscription of some eight lines from nearby Tarquinia recording earlier war exploits (Romanelli, no. 48), the existence of "written documents surviving from a very early period that must have recorded the names of magistrates and at least something about what they did" (p. 190). In short, he believes Tarquinia to be the source of Roman dating by magistrates, and of the practice of using this framework for collecting unusual or inauspicious events, the Annales Maximi. Suggestive as this article is for what may have been, certainty is lacking because of the fragmentary state of our evidence.

Part II, Rhetoric, Truth, and Falsehood, opens with a descriptive tableau of Cicero's attitude to history and history writing (P. A. Brunt, "Cicero and Historiography"). Brunt argues against the view that, by Cicero's time, "truth was almost wholly subordinated to rhetoric" (p. 114), placing a rather high degree of credence in programmatic statements as Orat. 2.36 that history is testis temporum, lux veritatis vita memoriae.

Against this, A.J. Woodman's chapter "Cicero and the Writing of History" comprises an effective if scathingly long (51 pages, 158 footnotes) rebuttal to overly sanguine appraisals of Cicero's commitment to historical truth. Woodman correctly cautions us that using one orator's (Cicero) citation of another's (Antonius') seeming approval of "the first law of historiography . . . not to say anything false" (de Orat. 2.62; p. 253ff.) is not exactly trustworthy, especially since it occurs in a dialogue; Antonius' real goal is instead to show how history—what Greeks called the "subject" ( hypothesis, p. 270)—should be amplified, beautified, made more vivid, or otherwise dramatized. Cicero thus uses the orator Antonius to expound the manifold ways that rhetoric can serve history, or that history can serve as raw material for rhetorical exposition. Besides, Fam. 5.12.3, damningly reinforces the conclusion that truth was not Cicero's "first law," since he there explicitly urges Lucceius to "disregard the laws of historiography."

Following Woodman are perhaps the strongest and most lucid contributions of the volume. T. J. Luce's "Ancient Views on the Causes of Bias in Historical Writing" argues that professions of being free from bias or prejudice (e.g., Tacitus Annals 1.1.3), apply chiefly to expositions of contemporary, history, rarely or only partially to periods or people to whom the history writer is unconnected (p. 293). A good deal of Luce's article examines such professions in the light of practice and the ad hominem critiques ancient writers make of their predecessors' work.

Wiseman's "Lying Historians" starts from the paradoxical premise, articulated by Seneca (Q.N. 7.16.1-2) and Lucian (de Hist. Conscr.), that historians are usually liars, or, since that term implies some degree of intentionality, mendacious. What follows is an extremely useful exposition of seven different ways in which historical narratives miss or in some cases deliberately eschew truth.

Emilio Gabba's "True History and False History in Classical Antiquity" (pp. 337-61) is near the same standard in lucidity and sheer range of learning However, this article's title does not well represent its main thesis, namely, how the genre of history writing throughout antiquity, because so responsive to the needs of its audience, was rarely scientific in a modern sense. Gabba's humane exposition enlists the assent and sympathy of the reader for history writers, masterfully exploring the genre boundaries (or lack thereof) between history minor genres like natural history, utopian literature, paradoxography, tourist literature, and miracle recording.

The last three essays in section III: History and Poetry further develop this focus on genre boundaries, usefully exploring Greek historiography's debt to both epic poetry and tragedy.

In "The Historical Cycle" Luciano Canfora persuasively argues that the role of historian as "continuator" first seen in Xenophon's Hellenica is an imitation of the "formula[e] of continuation" used by rhapsodes in epic sequels— thus the "The Cycle of History (p. 376). Thucydides is the first to initiate the practice in his Pentekontaetia, composing it a fine Herodoti, and frankly acknowledging its status as a departure from the main narrative of Athens-Sparta conflict (Hist. 1.97.2). The article brilliantly explores the different motivations that may have guided Thucydides in composing his unfinished work at different phases in his life.

Frank Walbank's article "History and Tragedy" (1960) is perhaps too well known to require comment; it ably undermined Von Von Fritz's contention that a "school" of writers (Duris, Phylarchus) emerged under Peripatetic influence to write "tragic history." His article salubriously reminds us that history is rarely written in response to academic prescriptions, but instead responds to popular needs and tastes, and that many of the traits of history writing decried by Polybius were in fact already practiced by Herodotus and even Thucydides before him.

"Poetry and Historiography: A Study in the Uses of Sources," the last article of the book by Hermann Funke, is no less stimulating, though its location is somewhat unsettling. The focus on Origen and Procopius (chronologically late) quickly vanishes as the author considers the practices of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, and Diodorus vis-à-vis Homer. Funke concludes that Herodotus and Thucydides' independence from Homer, though widely appreciated by later practitioners of historiography, was never attained again. This was partly due to Homer's resurgent prestige, and partly to the adulatory posture that historical writers assumed under Alexander and Hellenistic monarchs. An analogy with Christian writer's attitudes to the Old Testament is drawn (p. 431).

One leaves Marincola's book reflecting on the sheer diversity of historiographical products in antiquity, both Greek and Roman. This is a clear strength of the book. There is nonetheless room for expansion, given that history's relation to genres like comedy, satire, lyric poetry, or indeed tragedy is not much explored. Why, for example, are not S. Hornblower's Greek Historiography (Oxford, 1996), his provocative Thucydides and Pindar (Oxford, 2004), to say nothing of his monumental commentary on Thucydides (Oxford, 1997-2010), not referred to?

Despite such limitations, this collection of Oxford Readings will furnish a valuable resource for both students and specialists of classical historiography, especially as it makes available several foreign language articles in English for the first time that have not received the attention they clearly deserve.


1.   The article by Funke, "Poetry and Historiography," has no date, but its latest bibliographic citation is from 1964.

1 comment:

  1. Leofranc Holford-StrevensMarch 14, 2012 at 5:58 AM

    >Thucydides often selects and shapes them to suit his argumentative purpose. Thus Thucydides is not our true colleague in his approach to history, despite his evident interest in accuracy.<

    In what way does selection and shaping for a purpose make him not 'our' colleague?