Thursday, December 14, 2017


Anthony Ellis (ed.), God in History: Reading and Rewriting Herodotean Theology from Plutarch to the Renaissance. Histos supplements, 4. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Histos, 2015. Pp. viii, 245. ISBN 2046-5963. viii, 245.

Reviewed by David Branscome, Florida State University (

Version at BMCR home site

Open access

Within the flourishing field of reception studies, classical scholars have increasingly turned their attention to Herodotus' Histories.1 Entering this field is Ellis' edited volume (available online on the Histos website). Given that "[t]he rich and complex history of intellectual engagement with Herodotean theology and religion . . . has yet to receive detailed study" (4), Ellis aims for his book to begin to fulfil this lack. The book, therefore, becomes the first devoted to the reception of Herodotus' views on the divine.2 Ellis is to be commended for putting together a very stimulating and cohesive collection of articles.

Of the book's five chapters, Ellis himself contributes the first and the fifth, plus an introductory preface. That the book lacks an overall conclusion is presumably because Ellis sees the project as ongoing: as it stands, the book covers the reception of Herodotean theology from the first/second century (Plutarch) to the sixteenth century (the Reformation), but Ellis says (4 n. 14) that "[i]t is . . . hoped that further contributions will be added, taking advantage of the possibilities of the online publication format." According to Ellis, such future contributions could focus on several different areas, whether in the time period covered by the current volume (such as Josephus: 5 n. 15) or in subsequent time periods (such as Germany's Altertumwissenschaft or twentieth-century anglophone scholarship: 9).3

In the Preface, Ellis points out that since antiquity critical evaluation of Herodotean theology has been filtered through the lens of Plato, who in the Republic (379a-80c) posits that the gods are the source of good, not evil, for human beings. In the past, says Ellis, scholars normally took one of two approaches: either (as eighteenth- and nineteenth- century Christian scholars) Herodotus' views were not so different from Platonic or Christian views of the divine, or (as Plutarch and many Catholics and Protestants) Herodotus' views were theologically offensive and wrong. Similarly, Ellis explains that modern scholars have normally taken one of two readings: either (as Munson) Herodotus sees the world as governed by divine tisis (vengeance/retribution), which is activated in response to human immorality, or (as Asheri) Herodotus' gods are fundamentally hostile and capricious.4

Chapters 1 and 2 complement each other well, as they both focus on Plutarch's reception of Herodotean theology, particularly in the area of divine phthonos (envy/jealousy/ill will). In Chapter 1 ("Introduction: Mortal Misfortunes, θεὸς ἀναίτιος, and τὸ θεῖον φθονερόν: The Socratic Seeds of Later Debate on Herodotus' Theology"), Ellis looks at how the Socratic and Platonic rejection of the notion—so prominent both in Herodotus and in earlier authors, such as Homer, Aeschylus, and Pindar—that the gods feel phthonos toward humans (especially in the latter's good fortune) paved the way for Plutarch's (and other Platonist, as well as Christian, thinkers') criticism of this notion. In Chapter 2 ("Defending the Divine: Plutarch on the Gods of Herodotus"), John Marincola argues that Plutarch faults Herodotus' treatment of the divine in two main ways. First, Herodotus misrepresents the true nature of the gods, especially regarding the existence of divine phthonos. Second, Herodotus does not have the gods take as direct involvement in the Greeks' victory in the Persian Wars as Plutarch (or the heroizing tradition of the conflict that developed after Herodotus' time) believed was appropriate.

Similarly, Chapters 3 and 4 are complementary, as each deals with Herodotus' reception by Byzantine historians. In Chapter 3 ("Fate, Divine Phthonos, and the Wheel of Fortune: The Reception of Herodotean Theology in Early and Middle Byzantine Historiography"), Vasiliki Zali investigates the ways in which three Byzantine historians—Procopius (sixth century), Michael Psellus (eleventh century), and Nicetas Choniates (twelfth-early thirteenth century)—engage with Herodotus and his theological beliefs, including that of divine phthonos. Procopius links a reversal in human good fortune to the phthonos not of the Christian God, but of lesser supernatural entities, such as evil spirits (daimones) or tychē (chance/fortune). According to Psellus, a benevolent God will not strip away prosperity from a person, but, provided the person eschews arrogance, He will even maintain that prosperity. For Choniates phthonos—although still an instrument of God's overarching will—becomes a supernatural power in its own right that causes reversals of fortune for humans. In Chapter 4 ("Explaining the End of an Empire: The Use of Ancient Greek Religious Views in Late Byzantine Historiography"), Mathieu de Bakker argues that the last two Byzantine classicizing historians, Kritoboulos (ca. 1410-1470) and Laonikos Chalkokondyles (ca. 1423-1465?), used Herodotus and Thucydides as explanatory models in writing about the Ottomans and their conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Both Kritoboulos and Laonikos relied on their audiences' familiarity with the Greek historiographical tradition as a means of "anchoring" their authorial innovations in handling Ottoman matters; the historians, for instance, echoed theological themes (such as the importance of tychē for historical causation) found in the works of Herodotus and Thucydides.

In Chapter 5 ("Herodotus Magister Vitae, or: Herodotus and God in the Protestant Reformation"), Ellis steps out of the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine worlds to examine the reception of Herodotus' work by sixteenth-century northern European Protestant humanists, especially the German David Chytraeus (a student of the Lutheran reformer Philipp Melanchthon) and the francophone Henri Estienne. While Chytraeus (like Melanchthon before him) often had to "massage" (188) Herodotus' stories about Croesus, Cyrus, and Xerxes to make them more suitable exempla for moral instruction, Estienne, in his ambitious attempt to show the utter compatibility between Herodotus' theological beliefs and those of Christianity, sometimes had to selectively edit his translations of Herodotean passages, such as removing entirely Artabanus' comment about "the god" feeling phthonos (ὁ θεὸς φθονήσας, 7.10ε). 

Regarding the articles in the collection, one criticism I have concerns de Bakker's claim (136-7) that Kritoboulos' and Laonikos' calling the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II simply "king" (βασιλεύς) is a direct borrowing from Herodotus' practice of referring to the Persian king as βασιλεύς without the definite article. On the one hand, even before Herodotus, the poet Aeschylus refers to Xerxes simply as βασιλεύς (Pers. 5); on the other hand, it became such a standard practice among many post-Herodotean prose writers (e.g., Thucydides [8.48] and Xenophon [(An.  1.1.5]) to refer to the Persian king in this same way that it is impossible to determine exactly from whom Kritoboulos and Laonikos adopted their own practice.

A larger criticism is that the articles do not show enough precision or clarity when dealing with Herodotus' stance on divine phthonos and similar concepts. In English the phrase "divine phthonos" (which I have used repeatedly in this review) is ambiguous: does it mean that a god is feeling or experiencing phthonos or that phthonos is itself a god? The question, then, is whether Herodotus ever conceives of phthonos as a binatural god, being both a god and an abstract concept (Envy/Jealousy/Ill Will) at the same time.5 Binatural gods (gods/concepts) appear occasionally in the Histories; the Pythia, for example, lectures Croesus about the (binatural) Moirai (Fates: 1.91.2). Whenever Herodotean characters (whether Solon [1.32.1], Amasis [3.40.2], or Artabanus [7. 7.10ε, 46.4]) associate phthonos with the divine, however, the implication is always that a god is behind the phthonos, rather than that the phthonos is an independent, divine actor. Zali's treatment of such concepts is particularly misleading. She says of 1.34 that "great divine nemesis fell upon Croesus"; Herodotus' Greek (which Zali also cites) actually reads: ἔλαβε ἐκ θεοῦ νέμεσις μεγάλη Κροῖσον (literally, "a great nemesis from a god took Croesus," as both de Bakker [152] and Ellis [201] rightly understand it). Hence, in this passage Herodotus emphasizes that nemesis (vengeance/retribution) is sent by a god, but is not a god itself. Likewise, Zali's (115) reference to divine phthonos as "the force that disturbs human happiness" seems to obscure the fact that in Herodotus, at any rate, gods are the ones who motivate this force.6 The reason it is so important for us to distinguish between phthonos as an emotion felt by gods (as Herodotus presents it) and  phthonos as a separate supernatural entity is that this is exactly the distinction that Platonists (like Plutarch) and Christians (like Choniates) were at pains to make: phthonos had to be essentially separate from gods/God because they/He, being good, could not feel this emotion. 

Except for a number of typographical errors, the volume as a whole is well edited, and all the articles are of a uniformly high quality.7 As an impetus for further research on the reception of Herodotean theology, moreover, Ellis' collection should be judged a resounding success.


1.   Recent works on the reception of Herodotus include: S. G. Longo, ed., Hérodote à la Renaissance (Turnhout 2012); J. Priestley, Herodotus and Hellenistic Culture: Literary Studies in the Reception of the Histories (Oxford 2014); J. Priestley and V. Zali, eds., Brill's Companion to the Reception of Herodotus in Antiquity and Beyond (Leiden 2016). Forthcoming collections are: T. Harrison and J. Skinner, eds., Herodotus in the Nineteenth Century: Ethnography, Nationalism, and Disciplinary Formation; J. North and P. Mack, eds., The Afterlife of Herodotus and Thucydides.
2.   Earlier studies of religion in Herodotus include: J. Gould, "Herodotus and Religion," in S. Hornblower, ed., Greek Historiography (Oxford 1994), 91-106 (reprinted in R. V. Munson, ed., Herodotus: Volume 2: Herodotus and his World (Oxford 2013), 183-97); T. Harrison, Divinity and History: The Religion of Herodotus (Oxford 2000); J. D. Mikalson, Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars (Chapel Hill 2003); S. Scullion, "Herodotus and Greek Religion," in C. Dewald and J. Marincola, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus (Cambridge 2006), 192-208; K. Roettig, Die Träume des Xerxes: zum Handeln der Götter bei Herodot (Nordhausen 2010). Most recently, there are: J. Kindt, Revisiting Delphi: Religion and Storytelling in Ancient Greece (Cambridge 2016), 16-54 (on Herodotus); M. Krewet, Vernunft und Religion bei Herodot (Heidelberg 2017).
3.   In a subsequent study on Herodotean theology, Ellis attempts to bridge the gap between the Renaissance and Altertumwissenschaft: "The Jealous God of Ancient Greece: Interpreting the Classical Greek Notion of Φθόνος Θεῶν Between Renaissance Humanism and Altertumwissenschaft," Eruditon and the Republic of Letters 2 (2017) 1-55.
4.   R. V. Munson, "Ananke in Herodotus," JHS 121 (2001), 30-50; D. Asheri, "General Introduction," in O. Murray and A. Moreno, eds., A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV (Oxford 2007), 1-56 (at 39).  
5.   A second category of binatural gods is physical spaces/gods, such as Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Sky) in Hesiod's Theogony; on this category, see W. Hansen, Classical Mythology: A Guide to the Mythical World of the Greeks and Romans (Oxford 2004), 49-50. I would add a third category of binatural gods: tangible things/gods: such a one is Dionysus, who is both wine and a god (Eur. Bacch. 280-5; Cyc. 519-29).
6.   As Mikalson (op. cit., n. 2) observes (82; cf. 39-40, 81, 151), "phthonos in Herodotus is attributed only to the divine collective, never to an individual god or hero."
7.   Wrong word/reference: 42 n. 3: "next note" for "previous note"; 107 n. 47: "6th century" for "11th century"; 12: Asheri's "Book I" should instead be his "General Introduction" (cited in 9 n. 19: op. cit., n. 4). Missing commas: 128: Thucydides, for instance by; 134 n. 17: In Kritoboulos' case observe (cf.  135 n. 19: In the case of Kritoboulos, scholars); 139:  A priori however; 162 n. 74: convinced however by; 220: Estienne, by contrast interprets. Possible error: 55: should "Persian prince" instead be "Lydian king" (i.e., Croesus)?

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