Monday, December 10, 2012


Alexander Hollmann, The Master of Signs: Signs and the Interpretation of Signs in Herodotus' Histories. Hellenic studies, 48. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2011. Pp. x, 288. ISBN 9780674055889. $27.50 (pb).

Reviewed by Jan Haywood, University of Liverpool (

Version at BMCR home site


In The Master of Signs: Signs and the Interpretation of Signs in Herodotus' Histories, a book which started its life as a PhD dissertation, Alexander Hollmann investigates the various sign systems operating in the Histories, the vocabulary Herodotus uses in each of these systems, as well as Herodotus' presentation of those who decode and/or manipulate signs. Hollmann argues from the outset that Herodotus is actively engaged with the process of communicating signs, and proceeds to show how Herodotus is a "master of signs, asserting his control over the transmission of them and calling attention to his own skill (σοφίη) at interpreting them" (p. 2). Indeed, Hollmann proposes that alongside the other encoders, transmitters and decoders in the Histories, Herodotus himself "engages in this activity…drawing attention to his own competency" (p. 27). This study will be primarily of interest to those working on Herodotus and/or early Greek historiography, but the clarity of exposition and wealth of comparative evidence make this recommended reading for others interested in semiotics beyond the classical world.

In a somewhat brief introduction, Hollmann reflects on the scanty interest to date in Herodotean studies vis-à-vis the various sign systems operating in Herodotus' complex work, his own study thus representing the first full-scale investigation of semiotic terminology and sign interpretation in Herodotus.1 The work is then split into three broad chapters. In this first section, Hollmann introduces his reader to the different terms used by Herodotus in the sign process. Part II delves into the different sign systems operating in the text, and shines further light on important semiotic aspects in each of these categories. The final part of Hollmann's work turns to investigating the use and abuse of signs in Herodotus, looking at various different ways in which signs are manipulated, both at the level of production and encoding, as well as their subsequent decoding through interpretation. In his concluding chapter, Hollmann also examines other genres which display an interest in signs and their interpretation, in order to show that Herodotus' interest in signs extends back to the archaic period (p. 254). Finally, Hollmann provides a useful appendix on instances of trickery in Herodotus'Histories (pp. 257-265), passages that often involve some kind of manipulation of signs.

In the first chapter (pp. 9-47), Hollmann gives a comprehensive overview of the different terms Herodotus uses to describe: the sign (σημήιον, σύμβολον, τεκμήριον, μαρτύριον); the transmission of signs (σημαίνω, φράζω); and the reception, decoding and transmission of signs (συμβάλλομαι, νόος, εἰκάζω, φράζομαι, τεκμαίρομαι). These terms, certain of which Herodotus uses in the first-person, feature heavily in Hollmann's subsequent investigation of various sign types.

The next chapter (pp. 51-207), which is very much the core of Hollmann's work, proceeds to examine in more detail the Herodotean vocabulary for signs in the various different systems operating in the Histories (namely: portents; dreams; oracles; other types of mantikê; the ainos; names and naming; action, ritual, and gesture; objects). In the first three sub-sections Hollmann demonstrates how portents and oracles, which appear far more frequently in Herodotus' text than dreams, are interpreted successfully much more frequently than is generally assumed. (Hollmann later admits, though, that the false oracular readings in the Croesus logos loom "large in the narrative" (p. 247).) Following this, Hollmann explores other types of mantikê, showing how in contrast to non-professionals, Herodotus provides only an exiguous picture of how sign interpreters worked. Thus Herodotus provides no straightforward picture of how efficacious these individuals' contribution to sign interpretation was in the fifth century.

From here Hollmann considers the significance of names in Herodotus' work. Herodotus clearly appreciates that names work both as markers of identity and also carry meaning in their own right, a dual capacity that can be humorous, ironic or ominous in his presentation of others. Moreover, the naming of an individual, e.g. the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus (5.65.4) or Cleisthenes of Sicyon (5.69.1) is also an important semiotic activity in Herodotus, as several names are redolent of another homonymous figure, creating positive or negative associations that can have a significant bearing on reality. Hollmann finishes this section by focusing on Herodotus' conscious effort both to preserve and to exclude the names of individuals, who are deemed as either deserving or undeserving of kleos, re-emphasising Herodotus' distinctive role in the transmission of signs.

Hollmann also shows how certain actions, rituals and gestures are ready to be interpreted in the Histories. His analysis on the various correspondences between the tears of the Egyptian king Psammenitos (3.14) and those of Croesus on the pyre (1.86)—both kings in defeat, both crying out the name of another after a lengthy silence—is particularly illuminating (pp.173-5). And hence, the manner in which these two episodes concatenate neatly reinforces Hollmann's view that Herodotus (who here encodes a series of signs which his reader is left to interpret), is concerned with every aspect of the sign process.

In the final section of this second chapter, Hollmann surveys a wide array of objects that convey some kind of sign to their audience once they have been decoded. A particularly interesting example that Hollmann includes (p. 201) is that of the Scythian king Ariantas, who decides to conduct a census of his people by demanding an arrowhead from each individual citizen. These arrowheads are then melted down into one kratêr which is exhibited on the river Exampaios (4.81.5-6). As Hollmann demonstrates, this transformation of the numerous individual arrowheads (initially signifiers of each Scythian subject) into a solitary object thus enacts an important change in semiotic function. The newly-cast kratêr now serves as a monument for the one who had it set up: Ariantas. There are many examples just like this in Hollmann's extensive survey in which objects carry significant messages that their audience must decode.

The third part of Hollmann's monograph (pp. 211-256), entitled "the use and abuse of signs", seeks to re-configure our understanding of Herodotus' narrative persona and his views on human knowledge. Hollmann rejects the idea that Herodotus is some sort of quasi-postmodern figure who ruminates on the "indeterminacy of meaning" (p. 212), but rather urges his reader to see in the Histories a celebration of human ingenuity in traversing and overcoming the many complexities of sign communication. Hollmann thus proceeds to analyse further Herodotus' presentation of those who manipulate signs—both at the moment of encoding and transmission, as well as decoding and interpretation, noting that of the sixty-nine instances of trickery found in Herodotus, thirty-three include some sort of manipulation of signs. Hollmann then shows how, aside from his acerbic comment on the "wicked" Artayctes (9.116.1)—a criticism, which, as Hollmann rightly notes, is to be explained by Artayctes' desecration of the sanctuary of Protiselaos, not his manipulation of signs—Herodotus does not otherwise allow questions of morality to dictate his presentation of sign manipulators. Indeed certain important terms which form part of his vocabulary for sign manipulation (τέχνη, μηχανή, σοφιή) are reflective of this ambivalence, at once being used in scenarios that have positive associations, but elsewhere negative ones (e.g. the wise sage Solon is credited with σοφιή at 1.30.2, just as Darius' groom Oebares is at 3.85.1, having contrived a clever ruse which results in Darius' accession of the throne). Here Hollmann concludes that while Herodotus himself is not a manipulator of signs or a trickster, he nonetheless receives a share of the audience's admiration and wonder in his depiction of these manipulations.

Hollmann also re-emphasises that the vast majority of cases in which somebody manipulates signs are successful, and that interpreters of signs usually "overcome the problem of the distance between signifier and signified" (p.244). 2 His analysis of both lay and professional interpreters ultimately shows that it is not so much a gulf between signifier and signified which causes success or failure in interpretation, but instead the qualities of the interpreter themselves (ethnicity being a considerable factor).

After examining the many instances of sign manipulation, Hollmann provides a short conclusion, in which he reiterates Herodotus' conscious engagement with every aspect of the transmission and interpretation of signs. Here Hollmann argues in favour of a number of other recent Herodotean studies, insomuch that Herodotus' vocabulary for signs firmly places him in the fifth-century context of medical and scientific writers,3 but also that he engages in the rich tradition of sign interpretation and manipulation which goes back to the archaic period. It is unfortunate that Hollmann here dedicates such a limited amount of space to analysing the extent to which earlier and contemporary intellectual figures/genres shared a similar interest in the encoding, transmission and interpretation of signs (pp. 248-254). Given the brevity of Hollmann's analysis, I could not help but feel that more could have been said about the vocabulary of signs in certain genres, and consequently, it is not entirely clear as to whether Hollmann holds any particular genre/s to have especially informed Herodotus' interest in sign interpretation.

In sum, this is a highly learned, lucid investigation into the language of signs in Herodotus. Hollmann provides a rich and diverse catalogue of different sign systems operating in the Histories, all of which contribute to our historian's distinctive narrative persona. And as such, this book provides a significant contribution to Herodotean historiography. Hollmann's Herodotus is acutely concerned with the hermeneutic challenges presented by the myriad signs that he narrates in his inquiry, but is equally determined to demonstrate that he is a veritable "master of signs". While Hollmann looks to various intellectual precedents for Herodotus' interest in the transmission and interpretation of signs, the myriad Homeric parallels that Hollmann cites throughout his study indubitably point to the epic poet as an especially important precursor to the narrative persona developed by Herodotus.4 Let us hope that Hollmann's valuable study will inspire further research into the language and interpretation of signs in the archaic period, which will in turn develop our understanding of how it is that Herodotus emerges as a "master of signs".5


1.   But note that various sign systems, as Hollmann accedes, have been investigated separately; see esp. D. Lateiner, "Non-Verbal Communication in Herodotus", Arethusa 20 (1987): 83-119, and C. Dewald, "Significant Objects in Herodotus", in R. Rosen and J. Farrell (eds.), Nomodeiktes: Greek Studies in Honor of Martin Ostwald: 55-70.
2.   Here Hollmann is dissenting from the conclusions of Dewald (1993: 63-64) and Lateiner (1987:100), see n.1 for bibliographic details.
3.   So for example Rosalind Thomas, Herodotus in Context: Ethnography, Science, and the Art of Persuasion (Cambridge, 2000). Hollmann might too have included Donald Lateiner, "Early Greek medical writers and Herodotus", Antichthon XX (1986): 1-20.
4.   Alongside the other works that Hollmann cites on the relationship between Homer and Herodotus, note too C. Pelling, "Herodotus and Homer", in M. J. Clarke ed., B. G. F. Currie ed., R. O. A. M. Lyne (eds.) Epic interactions: perspectives on Homer, Virgil, and the epic tradition presented to Jasper Griffin by former pupils. (2006). 75-104.
5.   This work has been very well edited, with no significant mistakes. However, I did note that at p.168, n.270 Hollmann directs the reader back to ch.1.3.2 for a discussion on συνίημι and νόος used as terms related the decoding of signs, although I could find no explicit discussion on συνίημι in that earlier chapter.

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