Sunday, April 29, 2012


Jean Lallot, Albert Rijksbaron, Bernard Jacquinod, Michel Buijs (ed.), The Historical Present in Thucydides: Semantics and Narrative Function/ Le présent historique chez Thucydide: Sémantique et fonction narrative. Amsterdam Studies in Classical Philology, 18. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011. Pp. viii, 327. ISBN 9789004201187. $148.00.

Reviewed by Vasileios Liotsakis, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

After publishing the Études sur l' aspect verbal chez Platon in 2000, Bernard Jacquinod and the Groupe de recherche sur l' aspect verbal en grec now focus on the function of the historical present in Thucydides' Historiae and offer us an outstanding volume.

In his introduction (pp. 1-17), Rijksbaron notes that the narratological scholarship on Thucydides has not paid much attention to the role of syntax. Thus, the purpose of the present volume is to elucidate Thucydides' modus narrandi through a purely syntactic approach that focuses specifically on Thucydides' use of the historical present tense. Basing his argument on his earlier studies of other writers, Rijksbaron outlines the eight fundamental characteristics of the historical present (the most important being its capacity for signaling decisive events).1 These eight characteristics of the historical present are the basis for all the following articles, summaries of which Rijksbaron provides in the last part of his introduction (pp. 10-17).

Jean Lallot divides chapter 1 (pp. 19-35) into two parts: In the first part (pp. 20-27) Lallot undertakes a meticulous survey of all occurrences of the historical present in Thucydides and confirms many of the characteristics of the historical present outlined by Rijksbaron (for example, the scarcity of the historical present in the passive voice and its regular occurrence in the third person). Unsurprisingly, he also reveals that the verbs appearing with the greatest frequency in historical present are of military content. Lallot's research is of great importance, since it is based on all of the historical presents in Thucydides and is supported by calculations of exemplary accuracy. In the second part of his article (pp. 27-34) Lallot elaborates on the presence of the historical present in the first book of the Historiae, rightly concluding that the significantly less frequent occurrence of the historical present is due to the fact that the author recounts events of a distant past.

In ch. 2 (pp. 37-63) Rutger J. Allan argues initially (37-45) that the historical present offers the reader 'epistemic immediacy': it helps the author both to narrate the events as if they were taking place in the present and also to make his own presence as imperceptible as possible. I am not sure, however, that the narrator actually intended to do this. For, as Allan himself correctly states, the historical present is also the author's indirect comment, so that he emerges into the foreground rather than remaining 'covert' when he uses the historical present. In the second part of his paper (45-59), Allan deals with two verbs, αἱρεῖν and λαμβάνειν. He examines narratives of the capture of 'unmovable entities' as well as those of land or naval battles. His conclusion is that Thucydides uses the historical present mainly to mark decisive events, at the beginning and at the peak of an episode.

The next two chapters also treat the use of specific verbs in the historical present tense. Odile Mortier-Waldschmidt examines the eleven occurrences of the battle verb τρέπειν in the historical present, comparing them with its aorist forms (pp. 65-87). Her conclusion is that the historical present, in contrast to the aorist, is used both to signal the decisive stages of a battle, as well as to verify the plans of a military leader. The strength of Waldschmidt's methodology is the emphasis she places on interpreting the wider context of the historical present. The same observation is pertinent to the essay of Bernard Jacquinod in ch. 4 (pp. 89-113). His subject is the historical present of the verb πείθειν, which, in his opinion, indicates the contract leading to a new situation.

Ch. 5 (pp. 115-157) is very interesting, since it contains the only essay whose authors try to draw conclusions beyond merely relating the historical present to the organization and the structure of the narrative. Adriaan Rademaker and Michel Buijs propose that the historical present may also be one of Thucydides' basic argumentative tools, and may therefore help him to influence the reader toward his personal historical interpretations. In particular, they focus on two events which Thucydides presents as very important – although superficial—causes of the Peloponnesian War, the sea battle at Sybota (1.45-51) and the revolt of Potidaia (1.56-66). According to the authors, in both cases Thucydides shaped his narrative in such a way as to suggest that the Athenians were not responsible for these conflicts with the Corinthians, but rather that all their movements were defensive, and were undertaken in order to confront the aggressiveness of their opponents. Besides the historical present, Radermaker and Buijs pay attention to several other elements indicative of their conclusion. However, one should also remember that the verbs found in the historical present in these narratives are the verbs most commonly found in the historical present in Thucydides. This fact may show that the general linguistic characteristics of the historical present also played an equally important role in determining the presence of the historical present forms in these two narratives.

In ch. 6 (159-175) Louis Basset examines the four naval battles at Syracuse in the seventh book (7.22-23, 37.1-41.3, 50.3-54 and 69.1-72.1) of the Historiae. Basset elaborates on three tenses, the imperfect, the aorist and the historical present. The imperfect connects the main events of the plot and shows that these four military events were a continuum in Thucydides' mind. The aorist closes the narrative (with some exceptions), while the historical present is used by the historian for unexpected events, as well as for strong dramatization.

The next two papers display a comparative approach. In the first one (pp. 177-194), Rijksbaron compares Thucydides' account of Alcibiades' involvement in the religious scandal just before the expedition to Sicily (6.27-29, 60.4, 61 and 74) with the closely related account of Andocides in De mysteriis (§§ 11-33 and 34-69). Rijksbaron rightly observes that both writers use the historical present in verbs of denunciation, in order to show that Alcibiades and the revelation of the truth are the two central themes in their narratives.

In ch. 8 (pp. 195-221) Frédéric Lambert examines the interaction of the historical present with participles in Thucydides and Polybius. According to Lambert, the narrator chooses to explain the action described by the historical present through a participle indicative of the state of mind of the characters in his narration, in order to express his empathy. However, when the narrator combines such participles with the aorist, he 'remains outside the events'.

Coulter George's main theory in the last paper (pp. 223-240) is that the historical present has a 'non-durative' function. He very interestingly observes that it is mostly construed with singular subjects and objects and is rarely accompanied by durative temporal adverbs (or adverbial phrases). George differentiates himself from the most of the other contributors of this volume in that he—rightly, in my opinion—believes that linguistic features of the historical present mostly led Thucydides to its use, rather than his own objectives.

The strong belief of the contributors of this volume is that a precise knowledge of verb tenses and generally of linguistics is necessary for the interpretation not only of the Thucydidean text, but also of any work of ancient Greek literature, and the communis opinio agrees that such a philological approach is highly beneficial for every classicist. The ancient Greek language, being so rich in particles, moods, and alternative syntaxes of the same elements, has an enormous semantic potential, which cannot be noticed if we do not take into account Toolan's 'meaningful syntax'2 of the classical texts. A number of Thucydidean studies in the past have failed to do this, with the result that they led to incomplete—if not false—conclusions. Nevertheless, we must not forget that a comprehensive view of the Thucydidean text cannot rely on the examination of a single syntactic phenomenon, such as the historical present and its syntactic interactions; this is the only complaint one could make about this volume. While the book confirms traditional and recent theories on the historical present with great success , I have the sense that the contributors do not always manage to integrate within their theories the broader purposes and the general thematic axes of the Thucydidean text, which of course cannot be sought anywhere else than in a much wider context. For example, Rijksbaron's view that a stage of the plot cannot be considered crucial if it is not marked by an occurrence of the historical present (p. 3) might be quite unnecessarily restrictive, as there are many – more complex— narrative techniques (e.g. retardation, climax, recantation of individuals' expectations) that Thucydides frequently employs and which certainly indicate decisive events of the plot without necessarily requiring the use of the historical present.

For the same reason Lallot, Allan, and Rijksbaron do not give a satisfactory answer to the problem of the historical present in 1.13.4. In the last part of the volume (Annexe I) George, Mortier-Waldschmidt, Allan, and Rijksbaron elaborate on the limited presence of the historical present in the first book of the Historiae. Allan and Rijksbaron re-examine the issue of the two historical presents of γίγνεται in 1.13.4 and 1.13.6, introduced earlier by Lallot. . Particularly on the γίνεται of 1.13.4, they both point out that this occurrence is a special case of historical present, given that it appears in an argumentative, and not a narrative context. Such an approach does not solve the problem, as it does not answer why Thucydides chose the particular tense – whether it is a historical present or not. A much more 'Thucydidean' and less linguistic approach might explain why Thucydides chose historical present in this case: The sea-battle of Corinthians and Corcyraeans is highlighted by Thucydides through the historical present in order to signal that it is a benchmark for the sea-battles of his own war and is part of the proof that the sea-battles of the Peloponnesian War were much greater than any other event of the past, including this sea-battle between the Corinthians and the Corcyraeans, This point can be understood if we take into account Thucydides' permanent concern for characterizing the battles narrated by him as the most significant and special ones (1.50.2; 3.113.6; 4.12.3, 14.3, 40.1; 5.60.3, 74.1; 6.31.1-2; 7.29.5, 30.3, 44.1, 71.7, 75.7).

Beyond these points, I feel that the present volume is an important contribution to Thucydidean scholarship: with its full inventory of all the historical presents of the Historiae in Annexe II – about which I can assure readers that it is absolutely complete – the contributors to this volume have succeeded in their purpose, i.e. to give us the opportunity to examine the historical present and its narrative functions in the Thucydidean text. Personally, I have been using it since its publication and I fearlessly recommend it to everyone.

Table of Contents

Albert Rijksbaron, Introduction. 1
Jean Lallot. Chapter One. Vue cavalière sur les emplois du présent historique dans les Histoires. 19
Rutger J. Allan. Chapter Two. The Historical Present in Thucydides: Capturing the Case of αἱρεῖ and λαμβάνει. 37
Odile Mortier-Waldschmidt. Chapter Three. Τρέπειν au présent historique chez Thucydide. 65
Bernard Jacquinod. Chapter Four. Πείθω et le présent historique chez Thucydide. 89
Adriaan Rademaker and Michel Buijs. Chapter Five. A Tale of Two Involuntary Encounters: Linguistics and the Persuasive Function of the Historical Present in Two Thucydidean Battle Scenes (1.45-51 and 1.56-66). 115
Louis Basset. Chapter Six. Imparfait, aoriste et présent historique dans les récits des quatre batailles navales de Syracuse (Guerre du Peloponnèse, livre 7). 159
Albert Rijksbaron. Chapter Seven. The Profanation of the Mysteries and the Mutilation of the Hermae. Two Variations on Two Themes. 177
Frédéric Lambert. Chapter Eight. Présent historique et subjectivité: sur quelques exemples de Polybe et de Thucydide. 195
Coulter H. George. Chapter Nine. The Temporal Characteristics of the Historical Present in Thucydides. 223
Rutger J. Allan, Coulter H. George, Odile Mortier-Waldschmidt, Albert Rijksbaron. Annexe I: Quatre exercices. 243
Jean Lallot, Odile Moriter-Waldschmidt, Sophie Vassilaki. Annexe II: Trois répertoires (sur les Histoires de Thucydide). 263
Verbes attestés au présent historique (PH). 263
Principaux verbes non attestés au présent historique. 286
Répertoire des présents historiques en contexte. 300
Bibliography 319
Index locorum potiorum 325
Index of Technical Terms 329


1.   Rijksbaron, Albert, 'On False Historic Presents in Sophocles (and Euripides)', in Irene J.F. de Jong and Albert Rijksbaron (edd.), Sophocles and the Greek Language: Aspects of Diction, Syntax and Pragmatics, Leiden 2006, 127-149. I would have expected him to mention Wilhelm Klug's study Erzählstruktur als Kunstform: Studien zum Künstlerischen Funktion der Erzähltempora im Lateinischen und im Griechischen, Heidelberg 1992, especially pp. 46-55, where Klug discusses some of the functions of the historical present in Thucydides that are also discussed in Rijksbaron's introduction to this volume, such as opening a new plot.
2.   Toolan, M.L., The Stylistics of Fiction. A Literary-Linguistic Approach, London and New York 1990.

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