Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Jessica Priestley, Herodotus and Hellenistic Culture: Literary Studies in the Reception of the 'Histories'. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. viii, 288. ISBN 9780199653096. $99.00.

Reviewed by Bryant Kirkland, Yale University (

Version at BMCR home site


Since Arnaldo Momigliano's 1958 essay "The Place of Herodotus in the History of Historiography," the occasional work, including Oswyn Murray's landmark 1972 article, has addressed various aspects of Herodotean reception.1 In an area still open to a number of avenues of inquiry, Jessica Priestley's Herodotus and Hellenistic Culture significantly expands Herodotean reception studies beyond the "history of historiography."

Starting with Murray's claim that "the Hellenistic world view [cannot] be understood without appreciating the importance of Herodotus,"2 the work addresses five thematic spheres of Herodotus' reception, between the late fourth century and the middle of the second century BCE. Encompassing an array of "receivers," whose active role in the reading process Priestley is keen to emphasize,3 the monograph engages with works of poetry, history, geography, ancient scholarship, and literary criticism from the Hellenistic period. Priestley shows how the Histories rapidly became contested, revered, corrected, and otherwise appropriated. At its strongest points, the volume explores reception across genres, a challenge both to Herodotean reception studies centered on later historiographers and to studies that would constrict focus to Herodotus' ancient reputation (as a stylist, as a liar, etc.).4 Indeed, the book shows how Herodotus' Histories became a package of themes and ideas that later writers continually opened, in turn refracting for modern readers some of the ways in which the Histories' many dimensions were repurposed in antiquity.

Chapter One, "Biographical Traditions," examines the extant biographical data on Herodotus with the goal of establishing his importance for various Hellenistic audiences. Analyzing evidence drawn primarily from the Suda, Priestley reconstructs traditions about Herodotus' birth, the possible place of the Histories' composition, his possible role in colonization at Thurii, and the place of his death and burial (ancient sources cite Thurii, Athens, and Pella). Local pride ties Herodotus at different points in his life to different places. Priestley suggests that certain claims may reflect different communities' views of their ancestors' representation in the Histories. Outlining how some of these traditions rival each other, Priestley takes the contested biographies as one piece of evidence that the Histories mattered to Hellenistic communities, and having established their importance she is on surer ground in arguing for the literary resonances that occupy the rest of the book.

The second chapter, "The Great and the Marvelous," offers an original analysis of Herodotus' rhetoric of wonder before arguing for its crucial role in informing the paradoxography that flourished during the Hellenistic period. The chapter, which also argues for the Histories' influence on Hellenistic lists of the Seven Wonders of the World as well as on select works of Callimachus and Posidippus, is among the book's most rewarding and ambitious. Priestley shows how, in the Histories, wonder stems from and stands in positive relation to knowledge. Herodotus' notion of the wondrous is thus distinguished from later treatments of the theme in Thucydides and Aristotle. Though Priestley concedes that Herodotus was not always a direct source for paradoxographers, her tropological model of Herodotean wonder makes it possible to see Herodotus even when he is not named or specifically cited. She applies Herodotus' model of wonder to Callimachus Iambus 6 and, in an excellent close reading, shows how the poem's references to size and measurement mix Herodotean interest in the great and marvelous with Callimachus' own aesthetics of smallness. Her discussion of Posidippus reveals similar tactics of rhetorical appropriation in relation to the very small. Priestley closes the chapter by suggesting a relationship between wonder and Hellenistic scholarly inquiry. Herodotus' interest in aetiology and his practice of source-citation may have influenced Callimachus' Aetia, which Priestley shows to be "much more closely aligned generically" (106) with historiography than with philosophy. Chapter Three, "Herodotus and Hellenistic Geographies," explores how Herodotus became a source of geographical knowledge for Hellenistic writers, particularly as geographical notions from previous eras came under scrutiny or were challenged by new discoveries. First, Priestley connects Herodotean comments on Hyperboreans and Hypernotians to fragments of Eratosthenes (quoted in Strabo), arguing that Herodotus' hypothesis on the existence of Hypernotians shaped Hellenistic geographers' thoughts on the issue. The chapter then offers an extended treatment of how Herodotus' discussion of the Nile influenced later treatments of its source and nature. Priestley focuses on the enduring belief in a west African source, indicating the continued importance of Herodotus' report. She also interprets Diodorus Siculus' disquisition on the source and inundation of the river, including his murky account of what is probably Agatharchides' description of its source. Priestley argues that Diodorus supplements Agatharchides' critique of Herodotus with his own somewhat incoherent refutation of the historian.5 Finally, this chapter explores Herodotean geographic influence in a further passage of Diodorus (this time dependent on Hecataeus) and in a passage of Apollonius' Argonautica in which, through a series of subtle allusions to Xerxes' march, Apollonius is shown to have set the Argonauts' journey in the wider context of East-West conflict, underscoring the ambivalence of their "heroic" undertaking.

The fourth chapter, "The Persian Wars: New Versions and New Contexts," grapples with the theme of the war in Hellenistic literature. This includes a useful discussion (157-62) of the difficulty of tracing the specifically Herodotean aspects of the Persian War's reception, given its extensive and diffuse afterlife. Priestley takes as a case study Timaeus of Tauromenium's fragments (again from Diodorus), whose account of the Persian War she shows to be a polemical re-write of the Athenocentric Herodotean version. If Diodorus is paraphrasing Timaeus, we get an idea of how at least one Western Greek writer recast Herodotus' account by boosting Gelon's contribution to the war effort. The chapter concludes with two close readings, one of a passage from the Argonautica and the other from Lycophron's Alexandra. Both poems, Priestley contends, evoke Herodotus' Persian Wars in order to fit their narratives within the larger framework of international feuds.

"The Prose Homer of History" marks the fifth and last chapter, an engaging discussion of the ancient epithet's implications. 6 Priestley explores possible reasons for and meanings behind the title under the categories of "Herodotus and Poetry" and "Herodotus the Liar." The chapter ranges into the work of Hermogenes, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Plutarch as it gets to grips with ancient criticism on Herodotus, using these later critics to sort out what might have been at work in the Hellenistic view that a kinship existed between Homer and Herodotus. Finally, the book closes with an Appendix on the fragments of Aristarchus' Commentary on Herodotus.

An ambitious study of Herodotus' ancient reception has been a desideratum for some time,7 and there is much to commend in Priestley's volume. The range of texts canvassed is wide, and this is one of the book's strengths. The caution of earlier Herodotean reception studies has left the field open for the venturesome approach Priestley takes. Admittedly, this makes for a work based not so much on direct intertextuality or allusion as on "soundings" (Richard Hunter's term, 109). Thus, the words "apparently" (109) and "seem" (111) appear in the midst of arguments more often than some might find comfortable. And as is almost inevitable in a work treating a wide span of texts, some of Priestley's connections between Herodotus and later writers appear more fully developed and persuasive than others. Her interpretation of Callimachus Iambus 6, for example (94-99), made for a more pointed, precise, and ultimately satisfying literary interaction than the link proposed between Herodotus and Antipater (89-94). In the book's most convincing pairings, Priestley steps back from the details of her arguments to discuss their consequences. Two good examples are her discussion of Apollonius' engagement with the Persian War theme (178-79), and her exploration of the meanings of Plutarch's comparison of Herodotus to the aoidos (219).

Occasionally one wishes Priestley had pushed even further in her interpretations of the dialogue between Herodotus' text and the works that later engaged it. Priestley contends that unlike other ancient biographical scraps, those concerning Herodotus "have little to support them in the Histories" (21), and she observes that the tradition makes no reference, for example, to Herodotus' travel to many of the places he claims to have visited. Downplaying a connection, however, between the biographical data that survive and the Histories may not do justice to the ingenuity of certain ancient readings. In the Suda passage cited (20), for instance, Herodotus is said to have expelled the tyrant of Halicarnassus. One wonders if this detail points to an ancient tradition in which Herodotus' "views" on tyranny were inferred from his text and incorporated into a biographic entry. A pattern from the Histories—the downfall of tyrants—was thus possibly mapped onto Herodotus' own actions, consonant with the ancient tendency to construct biography from an author's work. Indeed, in light of his own highly advertised presence in his text, one wishes to learn more about the reception of the Herodotean narrator-persona during the Hellenistic age, especially given the equivocal implications that adopting this persona would later generate in the works of Lucian and Pausanias.

These objections should not obscure the book's important accomplishments. Herodotus and Hellenistic Culture steers readers toward a more radical model of Herodotean reception than prior scholarship has put forth. It will teach contemporary readers not only about Herodotus' ancient readers but also about Herodotus. Students of Herodotus8 should find the book a refreshing turn in Herodoteana, in which scholarly perspectives and tendencies long since honed and, in some cases, at risk of becoming "unduly entrenched" (222) find new life as they are directed toward less familiar texts.


1.   These include K.-A. Riemann, Das herodoteische Geschichtswerk in der Antike (Munich, 1967); O. Murray, "Herodotus and Hellenistic Culture," Classical Quarterly 22 (1972): 200-213; and S. Hornblower, "Herodotus' Influence in Antiquity," in The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus, 306-18 (Cambridge, 2006). See also G. Bowersock's 1989 essay ("Herodotus, Alexander, and Rome," American Scholar58.3: 407-14), critiquing Momigliano's view that Herodotus was among the most lambasted writers in antiquity. Bowersock finds remarkable, and deserving of further study, instances of ancient reception in which Herodotus did well — and particularly where he was appreciated for the "substance and structure of his work, not merely his style" (409).
2.   Murray (1972), (see footnote 1 above) 213.
3.   See 13, n. 49, citing S. Goldhill, Who Needs Greek? (Cambridge, 2002), 297 on the sometimes misleading passivity of the term "reception."
4.   R. Drews, The Greek Accounts of Eastern History, ch. 4 (Cambridge, MA, 1973) remains a valuable example of an historiographically focused reception of Herodotus.
5.   Priestley, "A Question of Sources: Diodorus and Herodotus on the River Nile," in Diodorus Siculus (L. Hau, A. Meeus, and B. Sheridan, eds., Leuven, forthcoming) promises a discussion of the source criticism related to her arguments about Diodorus — which she concedes are controversial.
6.   The phrase Ἡρόδοτον τὸν πεζὸν ἐν ἱστορίαισιν Ὅμηρον appears in the Salmakis Inscription recovered off Bodrum in 1995 (SGO 01/12/02).
7.   Priestley's work joins a wave of creative reception scholarship: L. Kim's Homer between History and Fiction in Imperial Greek Literature (Cambridge, 2010); R. Hunter's Hesiodic Voices (Cambridge, 2014); the Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides (C. Lee and N. Morley, eds., Malden, MA, forthcoming), and the Brill Companion to Herodotus in Antiquity and Beyond (V. Zali and J. Priestley, eds., Leiden, forthcoming).
8.   Readers less familiar with Herodotus may on occasion cast their eyes down the page, hoping for examples of the Herodotean phenomena Priestley mentions (for example, in the first full paragraph on p. 90, some readers might welcome examples of man-made thōmata).

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