Monday, December 22, 2014


Hans-Joachim Gehrke, Geschichte als Element antiker Kultur: die Griechen und ihre Geschichte(n). Münchner Vorlesungen zu Antiken Welten, Bd 2. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2014. Pp. viii, 150. ISBN 9783110350500. €59.95.

Reviewed by Hendrik Müller, University of Göttingen; Corpus Christi College, Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

In this book, whose four chapters are based on public talks which Hans-Joachim Gehrke gave during his sojourn at Munich in the academic year 2012/13, he tackles the hitherto neglected question of how far notions of history had an impact on forms of political organization in ancient Greece.

To this end, Gehrke describes the process by which history and historiography became integral parts of Greek culture, and especially the way in which historiography was employed to shape the identity of the Greeks as a social group. With this approach of Selbstvergewisserung Gehrke follows Maurice Halbwachs' idea of a mémoire collective,1 which he himself has developed further as intentionale Geschichte or intentional history as a 'projection in time of the elements of subjective, self-conscious self categorization which construct the identity of a group as a group'.2

In chapter 1 Gehrke illustrates the mechanisms and instruments of intentional history, which is predominantly shaped by texts written in the first person plural, using the collective 'we' as a way to create a strong identification between the audience and the historical events described. Although this observation is arguably applicable to all forms of intentional history up to and including the present day, Gehrke insists that in the case of Greek culture it was poets and especially the archetypal texts of Homeric and Hesiodic epic that initiated Greek intentional history. These texts had an enormous impact on all subsequent texts describing historical events. Therefore Greek intentional history is on the one hand deeply rooted in the sphere of mythology, which — according to Gehrke — the modern reader would too easily classify as unhistorical; on the other hand its texts were for a long period presented and communicated orally. Through this method of presentation the texts also had a strong social function, by presenting historical characters and their deeds publicly, and ensuring their posthumous fame. And as a third characteristic of Greek intentional history Gehrke identifies the role played by representative citizens of the community — e.g. as a tragic chorus — who themselves contributed to this public Vergangenheitspflege or 'care for the past'.

Gehrke concludes that history and events or people worth memorializing were usually presented in a ritual or in a ritualized way. By means of constant repetition, and by employing the insistent combination of text, music and dance as typical elements of public presentation, past and present were brought closer together.

In chapter 2 Gehrke addresses the question of content, and seeks to demonstrate the forms, structures, motives, and aims of the various notions of history. In this connexion he examines the function of myth and the narrative character of Greek historiography. The mythological narratio, which is now commonly called mythic history or abbreviated mythistory,3 is a key element of Greek historical identity, because it not only commemorates central elements of Greek collective history like the fall of Troy, but it also reflects the historical migrations of earlier generations and tribes. This Wandermotiv was later adopted by Herodotus. Gehrke emphasizes that the difficult task of identity-building could be achieved only through a partly imaginary reconstruction of the past.

In chapter 3 Gehrke focuses on the development of the genre of historiography proper and tries to show how it interacted with the early phases of the genre of rhetoric, which produced a much more popular and self-conscious (i.e., epideictic) form of history.

Chapter 4 deals with the constant conflict between the demands of rhetoric on the one hand and those of authenticity or ἀλήθεια on the other. Gehrke makes it clear that both elements, the rhetorical-epideictic as well as the intellectual- rational, are characteristic elements of Greek historiography and are often found in combination. He demonstrates this common technique by a close examination of Theopompus, and concludes that in his historical writings Theopompus uses elements of rhetoric as a way of allocating praise and dispraise. But Theopompus also distinguishes carefully between moralizing censure on the one hand and on the other hand political material for which he carried out meticulous research, including the not infrequent interviewing of eyewitnesses with a view to confirming the plausibility of his account. Gehrke points out that this ambivalence is typical of Greek historiography. The entire genre was characterized by a combination of myth and history and was designed for a readership that was accustomed to a rhetorical representation of the past.

In his summary (Ausblick) Gehrke says that the modern reader is naturally troubled by the gap between facts and fiction, between myth and (what we call) history.4 But Greek historiography impressively demonstrates that both elements belong together, and that we should not be too quick to condemn their combination: it is the narrative element which brings historical events alive. And as Gehrke has persuasively demonstrated this is essential for a deeper understanding of the past.

The book is a very dense and compact read. It gives new insights and fresh perspectives into Greek historiography and its development and presentation. The volume is beautifully produced and contains two coloured plates, a full bibliography and a helpful index of authors ancient and modern, mythological figures, places and other events and terms. The only criticism relates to the phonetic transliteration of Greek keywords and phrases.

All in all Gehrke's book is inspiring. It gives the reader fresh insights into Greek historiography and its development down to the Hellenistic period especially emphasizing both the importance, and also the intellectual, social, and political influence, of this key phenomenon of ancient culture.


1.   Halbwachs, M.: La mémoire collective. Edition critique par G. Namer, Paris 1997.
2.   Foxhall, L., Gehrke, H.-J., Luraghi, N. (edd.), Intentional History: Spinning Time in Ancient Greece. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010.
3.   The term originated in 1985 as the title of an address given to the American Historical Association by the historian William McNeill, cf. id., 'Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians', in: The American Historical Review, Vol. 91, No. 1 (Feb., 1986), 1-10.
4.   In German the wordplay between Geschichte and Geschichten which Gehrke also uses in the subtitle of his book is of course much more illuminating.

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