Monday, February 9, 2015


Jonas Grethlein, Experience and Teleology in Ancient Historiography: 'Futures Past' from Herodotus to Augustine. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xi, 422. ISBN 9781107040281. $110.00.

Reviewed by Jonathan Master, Emory University (

Version at BMCR home site


The title of this innovative and learned book is somewhat misleading. While Jonas Grethlein most certainly focuses on experience and teleology in historical narratives, his interest is not historiography per se. He is most interested in the perspective from which prose authors whose focus is the past view the past. For Grethlein, experiential narratives and teleological narratives are two sides of the same coin. Both reflect a human desire to come to terms with time. Using such techniques as vivid narration, focalization, and "side-shadowing," authors employ experiential narrative to place readers back into the past and to enable them to experience the past as if they were there while it was happening. In the introduction and throughout the chapters on experiential narrative, Grethlein emphasizes that the capacity of narrative to create experience has been underappreciated in recent historical theory. Teleological narratives, on the other hand, look back at the past with the benefit of hindsight and see connections between events that were not visible to the participants at the time. In Grethlein's conception teleological historical narrative addresses the deep-seated human desire to remove the uncertainty that characterizes the future. Teleology gives readers the control over time they otherwise lack in their lives.

Grethlein is clear that all the authors discussed employ elements of both experiential and teleological narrative, but that each one falls closer to one end of the scale or the other. Accordingly, he splits the book into two main pieces. Part I, Experience: Making the Past Present, offers case studies of Thucydides, Xenophon, Plutarch, and Tacitus as authors whose works fall on the experiential end of the scale. Part II, Teleology: The Power of Retrospect, examines Herodotus, Polybius, and Sallust. A much briefer Part III, Beyond Experience and Teleology, considers Augustine and modern attempts at experiential historical narrative. For Grethlein what unites the canonical classical historians – Herodotus, Thucydides, Sallust, and Tacitus – with the biographer Plutarch and the later Christian autobiographer Augustine is what they chose as their vantage point on the past. Grethlein sees a significant opportunity for a new understanding of these texts and for the relationships between their authors in the examination of their conception of time. By focusing on the vantage points various historians adopted, Grethlein sees new differences between Thucydides on the one hand, and Polybius and Sallust on the other. While Polybius aims for methodological rigor akin to Thucydides' and Sallust may adopt Thucydidean themes, their consistently teleological view differs significantly from Thucydides' experiential approach. Thus, there is much for students of historiography to think about here, but Grethlein's most enthusiastic audience will ultimately prove, I suspect, to be students of narrative.

Grethlein's strengths as a close reader are most successfully marshaled to support his argument in Part I. Here Grethlein shows how Thucydides, Xenophon, Plutarch, and Tacitus employ various techniques to make the past present for readers. Because it is clear from this section that Thucydides is the master of creating experiential narrative in Grethlein's terms, I will focus on the chapter on Thucydides and end with a few comments on the chapter on Tacitus.

Grethlein shows that Thucydides employs a number of strategies to restore presentness to the past. First, graphic description relies in no small measure on verb tense, especially the imperfect, to make the action unfold before readers' eyes. Grethlein's reading of Phormio's back-to-back naval victories over the Spartans at 2.83-92 reveals the vividness of the imperfect tense. Internal focalization opens the scene to readers through the perspectives of the participants rather than a view from on high. Speeches are also crucial to fusing narrative time with actual time. Readers spend the same amount of time reading the speech as listeners would have hearing it. Speeches also allow Thucydides to keep a low profile as narrator and embed evaluation of the events within the context of the action. Lastly, through the technique of "side-shadowing," a term adopted from literary theorist Gary Saul Morson, Thucydides restores presentness to the past by drawing readers' attention to alternative possible courses of action and outcomes that were envisioned by the participants at the time but which would be forgotten by or unknown to readers. In terms of accomplishing its goals of demonstrating how experiential narrative can be used to place the reader into the past and to force readers to confront the situations the historical actors did, this chapter is the best in the entire book.

The other authors that Grethlein examines in Part I use similar techniques to place before readers the uncertainty and openness of what was the future for the participants but is now the readers' past. I found his discussion of experiential narrative in Tacitus' Annals noteworthy in part because Grethlein points out how Tacitus' narrator frequently intrudes with commentary on the action. As a general rule a visible narrator breaks the mimesis of narrative and does not produce an experiential account. But Grethlein suggests that in Tacitus the past is as opaque and unknowable as the future. Who did what and why was as unclear to contemporary witnesses as it is to readers now. Thus, Tacitean ambiguity enables an experiential reading of the events by reproducing the same feelings in the readers' present as the witnesses had at the time.

Part II takes a less sympathetic approach to its theme than the first part does. Grethlein consistently implies that explicitly embracing hindsight to write about the past is an artistic failure of sorts. I have already made reference to Grethlein's qualifications of the opposition between teleology and experience. These qualifications also have the effect of serving as criticism of the use of teleology. For instance, even the author of the most thoroughly experiential narrative, Thucydides, "cannot evade the spell of hindsight" (50 and repeated at 111). Grethlein identifies hindsight as an "advantage" (2 and 329) that the participants in the events themselves did not have. While this of course is true, it does not diminish the success of historiographical narrative that embraces hindsight. The term "advantage" reveals that Grethlein himself thinks experiential narrative is the most authentic kind of historical narrative. The purpose of ancient historiography, however, is not to recreate the feelings of the participants in the events but rather to teach readers something about those events. Furthermore, as Grethlein himself persuasively shows, each of his three examples of teleological historical narrative, Herodotus, Polybius, and Sallust, complicates the idea that history moves toward a specific end; and each shows that the vantage point one takes greatly influences, if not determines, the interpretation of past events.

This is not to say that Part II does not still contain much insight. In Grethlein's chapter on Herodotus, he argues that Solon's famous advice to Croesus in book 1 "to look to the end of every matter" establishes Herodotus' historiographical position: History cannot be written as it happens, but only from the vantage point of hindsight. Further reinforcing a teleological perspective, Herodotus' narrator frequently intrudes on the narrative with references to future events, simultaneously breaking the mimesis of the account and destabilizing teleology. With their opaque views on Herodotus' present, Grethlein argues that the Histories themselves take on an oracular quality about the past. Herodotus seems to present lessons about the reader's present in Athens in the later fifth century BC, but as with oracles, the message is not obvious: "Historical analogies are good to think with, but they are in no way insurance against contingency and require similar hermeneutic skills as oracles" (215). The final section of the chapter is a reading of Corinthian Socles' speech in book 5, in which he warns against reinstalling Hippias as tyrant of Athens. In Grethlein's view, the speech reveals that the interpretation of the past changes as new vantage points arise in the future. This chapter is most successful in revealing Herodotus' complex exploration of teleology. While Solon's dictum provides a guideline for interpreting history, the Histories consistently show that finding the right end point is a challenge. Darius and Xerxes clearly choose the wrong one. But Grethlein shows that Herodotus challenges his own end point by emphasizing within the narrative that the interpretation of the past is subject to change depending on the circumstances of the future.

Grethlein's final chapter of Part II, on Sallust's Bellum Catilinae, builds on the same kinds of readings as the chapter on Herodotus but also frustratingly fails to take Sallust's entire narrative on its own terms. The chapter concludes with several stimulating sections on how the later chapters of the BC (esp. Caesar's speech) challenge the theme of decline within Roman history that we hear in the narrator's own voice in the Archaeology (BC 6-13). To me, this interpretation shows that Sallust as the author of the work is putting these differing conceptions of Roman history into opposition and leaving it to the reader to think it all through. But Grethlein has already set up teleology as defining Sallust's thinking in the text. To make the point that Sallust's intent is to make Catiline the culmination of the collapse of morality that began with the defeat of Carthage, Grethlein invests energy in demonstrating that Sallust includes historically inaccurate information about the first Catilinarian conspiracy and that modern historians do not agree with Sallust's schema for the collapse of the Republic. I simply do not accept his framework. The fact that he cites a nineteenth-century unpublished but "prize-winning" dissertation to support his criticism of Sallust's quality as a historian shows that Grethlein is reaching to make his point. Indeed, most modern historians do not accept the decline of morality as an explanatory factor for the collapse of the Republic, but to use Sallust's ancient thinking against him to me seems simply wrong. As Grethlein himself shows, the Bellum Catilinae comes around to challenging the narrator's scheme of Roman history. The text knows what it is doing. It is challenging readers to interpret the history and arguments it presents.

Part III jumps forward in time, first to Augustine and then in the epilogue to modern experiments in making the past present in historical writing. Augustine proves to be the author best-suited for Grethlein's interest in how authors attempt to come "to grips with temporality" (5 and then repeated, e.g., at 6, 18, 20). Grethlein shows that Augustine is explicitly interested in coming to grips with time and that "in striving towards the timeless sphere of God, Augustine aspires to transcend experience and teleology" (315).

Grethlein's focus is entirely on how historical narratives either make the past present for readers or examine the concept of hindsight. With slight exception, the relationship between the events described in narrative and actual Greek and Roman history are not Grethlein's interest. While Grethlein should not be criticized for writing his own book, I nevertheless think that a consideration of the texts' commentary on the events themselves might help us think of teleological and experiential narratives not so much as mutually exclusive visions of how history works, but as choices made by historians based on how they thought certain events should be explained. Even as sophisticated an author of experiential narrative as Thucydides presents a classic teleological digression, the pentecontaetia (1.89-118), explaining how war between Athens and Sparta was inevitable. For some students of ancient historiography, including myself, Grethlein's observation that Thucydides' narrative as a whole is more experiential but his description of the origins of the war is teleological is only a starting point for a discussion about the causes and meanings of the events narrated. It seems to me that Thucydides wrote such an experiential narrative because the two sides in the war were heavyweights in the primes of their careers. The war could have gone either way; and thus its outcome depended on such factors as chance and the decision-making of individual leaders. The choice of narrative mode, then, reflects a view not on all history but on the specific history that is the topic of the particular narrative.

Professional classicists and dissertation topic-hunting graduate students who are looking to take the study of historiography and ancient historical narrative in a new direction will find much useful material in this book. It will not be particularly accessible to the undergraduate or even the graduate student unfamiliar with the study of the authors discussed or historical narrative. Even a reasonably knowledgeable reader will need to pay careful and patient attention as Grethlein lays out the theoretical foundation for his approach, much of it narratological. I found no errors of any significance in the book, although I found it confusing that Grethlein refers to Cato Uticensis as Cato Censorius (289). But this book reflects the energy, knowledge, and insight of it author. It is clearly written and beautifully structured. Grethlein provides sections within each chapter, and then sub-sections within the sections. He helpfully states at the beginning of the chapters and sections what he is going to argue and then recaps that as he moves on to the next topic. The book's length at 368 pages will be intimidating, but if nothing else, students of each individual author will find the individual chapters quite useful and illuminating.

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