Wednesday, October 22, 2014


David Branscome, Textual Rivals: Self-Presentation in Herodotus' 'Histories'. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013. Pp. 262. ISBN 9780472118946. $70.00.

Reviewed by B. A. Ellis, The Warburg Institute (

Version at BMCR home site


Herodotus' Histories presents its author engaging in 'inquiry' and (implicitly) displaying his results to an audience. One would therefore expect to learn a lot by examining characters in the Histories who engage in a similar task: Hecataeus, Aristagoras, Demaratus, and perhaps Solon, Artabanus, and others. Is it possible, by studying how protagonists succeed or fail to educate an audience with the fruits of their inquiry, to see how we, the audience, are supposed to respond? Does the narrator provide us with the evidence to evaluate his own efficacy as enquirer and presenter of enquiry? And how does he fare in comparison with his characters?

The author of Textual Rivals applies himself to the latter two questions, and presents interesting, if not uniformly persuasive answers. Branscome is not the first to consider them, as he notes in his introduction—which includes a careful doxography—but he asks these questions of a number of interesting episodes rarely considered together.

Chapter One ('Solon "using the truth"') looks at Solon's failure to convince Croesus of his evaluation of Croesus' olbos ('happiness'). Branscome argues that Solon uses the tools of historical enquiry in a manner analogous to the narrator, pointing to an implicit contrast with Herodotus' successful persuasion of his audience.

Chapter Two ('The "struggle" of Demaratus') contends that Demaratus, in his two dialogues with Xerxes, is presented as an 'inferior ethnographer' to the narrator, since he fails to persuade the Persian king of his account of foreign customs (namely those of the Spartans, in which he is an expert).

Chapter Three ('Aristagoras "deceiving well"') contends that Aristagoras rivals the narrator in a new way: whereas Solon and Demaratus told the truth but failed to persuade their interlocutors, Aristagoras is less truthful than Herodotus and meets with only partial success (Athenian support of the revolt). Aristagoras also serves as a negative foil for the narrator by providing basic details about Persian geography which Herodotus can expand on and correct.

Chapter Four ('The Athenians "alone" at Marathon'), the most original and engaging of the book, discusses the competing speeches of the Tegeans and the Athenians before the Battle of Plataea, each attempting to persuade the Spartans to allot them the prestigious right wing. Branscome notes the discrepancy between Herodotus' account of the Battle of Marathon in Book 6 and the Athenian version before Plataea, and argues that the Athenians' successful speech is presented as 'epitaphic' history that rivals his own more accurate account. Primed by the prologue's competing nationalistic aetiologies of the conflict between Europe and Asia, which Herodotus ultimately rejects as unverifiable, the reader has been taught to reject the patriotic Athenian version.

Chapter Five ('Xerxes' "laughable" Spectacle') looks at Xerxes' attempt to control his troops' perceptions of the outcome of Thermopylae, by hiding and moving the corpses and inviting his soldiers to behold the result. Xerxes too emerges as a textual rival to the narrator, but is less successful than any other, being rejected by both the internal and external audience. Herodotus' judgement that the spectacle is 'laughable' refers, Branscome argues, to the fact that the only misinformation Xerxes succeeds in spreading is unintended; the narrator's laughter at Xerxes' fabrications (8.24.2) recalls his polemical laughter at maps made by rival geographers (4.36.2).

A three-page 'Epilogue' contrasts Herodotus' authorial persona with that of Thucydides: where Herodotus uses 'rival inquirers' like the Athenians and Xerxes to present inferior versions of history, Thucydides' characters act as the narrator's 'allies' by explicitly criticizing or omitting epitaphic history of which the author disapproves.

The chapters vary greatly in interest and readability, but the book will nevertheless be an indispensable resource for those interested in Herodotus' metanarrative techniques, a field of growing interest. While the first three chapters lack pace and their analysis not infrequently fails to persuade, the fourth and fifth are fresh and engaging, and demonstrate Branscome's ample capacity for cogent analysis. The book might have made more attempt to demonstrate what Herodotus' creation of textual rivals tells us about the author's intellectual milieu (beyond Thucydides), but this is, perhaps, a task for future work.

The first two chapters fail to make a fully convincing case that Solon and Demaratus are presented as 'rival inquirers' to Herodotus. In contending that the reader of the Histories is invited to compare Solon's and Demaratus' failures with the narrator's successful persuasion of the reader, Branscome ignores a number of fundamental questions: is it not possible that some people are truly incorrigible—that no warning can shatter their illusions, and that suffering alone can educate them (see below on πάθει μάθος)? If Solon's words failed to hit the mark because they were true and devoid of flattery (1.30.3), is Solon therefore inferior to the narrator? Ought he to have used flattery and lies to put across his message? This would seem to be an unavoidable but untenable implication of Branscome's conclusions on p.53, particularly since Branscome points to no passage where the narrator suggests that he has persuaded or could successfully persuade an intransigent audience. Consideration of wider themes in the Histories should also give us pause for thought. The refusal of the wise Persian at 9.16 even to attempt to persuade Mardonius of the doom that will overtake the Persians suggests a narrative logic in which all attempts at persuasion are vain because 'what must happen' cannot be avoided (cf. 1.91.1, 7.17.2).

Also problematic is Branscome's characterization of Herodotus' narratorial persona. The Introduction makes a persuasive case that 'truthfulness ... is a fundamental element in Herodotus' self-presentation' (p.11), a welcome response to the increasingly popular view that Herodotus gives subtle clues to his reader that he is lying, even as he professes to tell the truth. Less convincing is the ubiquitous but undefended assumption that Herodotus, as narrator, 'presents himself as being completely successful at persuading his readers' (p.21) and as 'perfectly in tune with his audience' (p.30). We might imagine that Herodotus, like many writers, hoped that his work would meet with a positive reception. This does not mean that he presents himself as successful. Herodotus, in fact, never comments directly on his own reception, but several passages undermine the claim that he was uniformly persuasive to all audiences. Before relating the constitutional debate Herodotus infamously protests that many Greeks find the debate implausible (ἄπιστος), but that it is nevertheless true (3.80.1, cf. 6.43.3); later he prefaces his claim that the Athenians were the saviours of Greece with the qualification that this opinion will be odious (ἐπίφθονος) to most people (7.139.1). Although Herodotus engages polemically with his predecessors, Textual Rivals points to no occasion on which the narrator suggests that his discourse is capable of persuading those predisposed to disagree with him, or where it would be preferable to depart from the truth in order to do so.

Branscome also makes no mention of an important motif in the Histories and archaic literature: πάθει μάθος ('learning by suffering'). If, as the adage voiced by Croesus at 1.207 may suggest, a lesson is sometimes only fully grasped after one has suffered unfortunate consequences, the inclusion of unsuccessful warnings before great misfortunes may not be an object lesson in poor persuasive speaking. Arguably, speeches warning of future misfortune serve a metanarrative function, and Solon's delivery of unpalatable truths is anything but a 'failure'. In a qualified form the thesis of the first two chapters could no doubt cope with many of these issues; at the moment, however, rather too much is taken for granted.

The book's significant value lies in its insightful and careful analysis of five scenes not typically read against one another. Although less convincing in their wider argument, the early chapters have much to offer. Chapter One, for example, disabuses scholarship of a widespread misreading of Solon's conversation with Croesus logos: that Herodotus represents Solon as speaking tactfully and obliquely. As Branscome forcefully observes (pp.25-30), Solon is explicitly described as 'not flattering [Croesus] at all' and 'telling the truth' (οὐδὲν ὑποθωπεύσας, ἀλλὰ τῷ ἐόντι χρησάμενος, 1.30.3).1 Here and elsewhere Branscome's attention to detail allows him to bypass common misconceptions. But not all his close analysis is so convincing, and he is occasionally seduced into somewhat tendentious arguments by the exigencies of his argument. Take the claim that Solon's account of Tellus' life is 'historical' because it is told by Solon and therefore chronologically situated (as prior to or contemporary with Solon's own lifetime), so that it resembles the narrator's practice of dating other historical characters (e.g. Cylon, whom the narrator describes as 'before the time of Pisistratus', Hdt. 5.71). Or the argument that, despite mentioning no source for the story of Tellus, Solon nevertheless resembles the Herodotean narrator because he is, in effect, his own Athenian epichoric source for an Athenian event. Such parallels between the historical activity of Herodotus and Solon are more ingenious than persuasive: one must do much more than tell a story about someone from one's own city to resemble the remarkably source-aware narrator of the Histories. Branscome would have done better to base his discussion on the stronger similarities he also mentions.

Despite occasionally buttressing provocative claims with tenuous arguments, Branscome invariably gives fair and open consideration to competing readings, allowing the reader to make an informed opinion (an admirably Herodotean practice). A prime example is the discussion of the status of Plataea at the time of Marathon (pp.160-70): does Herodotus' statement that the smaller city had, long before 480 BCE, 'given itself to Athens' (6.108.6) indicate a relationship of total subservience and even absorption (so that Plataea could be implicitly counted as part of Athens, rendering its omission from Athenian accounts of Marathon insignificant) or was the relationship an alliance between (unequal) partners who retained distinct identities, so that Plataea's omission from the Athenian version constitutes a warped, epitaphic version of the past? The issue is complex, and the ancient sources inadequate. Branscome's exposition informs without imposing, yet wins through to a bold and novel conclusion.

In general, the research is punctilious and impressive. The absence of Grethlein (2009)2 from the Introduction is a rare omission; the article tackles topics central to Branscome's project and is mentioned only in chapter two. Branscome's exposition is slow and clear throughout. Generally this is admirable, but occasionally the pace leaves the reader flagging: points are set up, examined in detail, echoed through other discussions, and summed up in conclusion. The same arguments might have been housed in a slimmer volume.

Several stylistic eccentricities disrupt the reading experience, particularly the occasional use of formal narratological terms to no discernable advantage. It adds little, for example, to observe that both the stories Solon relates to Croesus constitute 'external analepsis', 'actorial analepsis', and 'completing analepsis' (pp. 25-6). It is more helpful to read that the stories took place independently of Solon's conversation with Croesus, are narrated by a character and not the narrator, and are not retold elsewhere in the Histories. Branscome does, at least, translate such words as he deploys them, but one gets the feeling that these relatively simple observations have been included precisely because of the labels they can bear. Here and elsewhere Textual Rivals fails the jargon litmus test by introducing (and swiftly abandoning) obscure specialist vocabulary which contributes nothing to the clarity or substance of the argument. He is, of course, scarcely alone in this indulgence. Particularly gratuitous is a long theoretical discussion of the discrepancy between extradiegetic and intradiegetic resonances (or, as Branscome finally calls it, 'irony'; pp.119-21).

Translations are surprisingly literal throughout, occasionally following Greek rather than English idiom (e.g. p.45: 'When by talking of the many prosperous things in relation to Tellus Solon had incited Croesus, [Croesus] asked whom [Solon] had seen as the second [most olbios] man after that one, thinking that he would surely win second prize, at least'). The advantage to this decision (and a decision it must be) is that readers with little Greek will follow Branscome's close analysis of the text; translations can occasionally be questioned (e.g. ἄλκιμοι: 'warlike', p.115; νέμεσις: 'righteous indignation', p.47). Another practice helpful to the Greek beginner will be Branscome's habit of giving key words first in Greek then in transliteration (e.g. ὅδε ... hode, p.129).

The book is handsomely printed, with only a handful of typographical errors in its 262 pages ('histôres' for histores, p.15; 'triple bids', p.32; ηρὸς for πρὸς, p.61; σημαινω for σημαίνω, n.72 p.135; 'area' for 'distance', p.139; 'The Athenian speakers [...] most take on', presumably for 'must', p.187; 'Any further Athens' ancient exploits', p.189). ​


1.   Branscome happily avoids polemic, but this point provides a welcome correction to, e.g., Nagy (1990) Pindar's Homer (Baltimore, MD), pp.244, 247-8; Cairns (1996) 'Hybris, Dishonour, and Thinking Big', JHS 116, p.22; Munson (2001) Review of T. Harrison, Divinity and History, BMCR 2001.08.17; Pelling (2006) 'Educating Croesus', ClAnt 25, pp.150-1.
2.   Grethlein, J. (2009) 'How not to do History: Xerxes in Herodotus' Histories', AJPh 130: 195-217.

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