Monday, April 9, 2018


Vasileios Liotsakis, Scott Farrington (ed.), The Art of History: Literary Perspectives on Greek and Roman Historiography. Trends in Classics – Supplementary Volumes, 41. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016. Pp. viii, 321. ISBN 9783110495263. $154.00.

Reviewed by Christina S. Kraus, Yale University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

[Disclaimer: I am a member of the Scientific Committee for "Trends in Classics – Supplementary Volumes," the series in which this collection appears; but I had no part in its assessment or acceptance.]

Francis Cornford's Thucydides Mythistoricus, published in 1907, threw down a gauntlet. Cornford concentrated on Mythistoria, an element in the work of any great historian, which he defines as: "history cast in a mould of conception, whether artistic or philosophic, which, long before the work was even contemplated, was already inwrought into the very structure of the author's mind." Thus began for the study of antiquity in the twentieth century the serious, on-going effort to understand ancient historiographical narratives as constructions from which one cannot simply extract "what really happened" by removing the decoration, the rhetoric, the bias (etc.), but as verbal artifacts in which content and form together perform meaning. Liotsakis' and Farrington's edited volume, which began life as a 2014 conference under the aegis of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, continues that work.

Thucydides forms the core of the collection. Four of the 13 papers (Liotsakis, Grossi, Feddern, Harris) take the History as their direct subject, while Fournel, on "plausible invention" in Plutarch, and Adema, on narrative technique in Caesar, use his narrative as a strong basis of comparison. But outside of the six papers in Part I (exclusively Herodotus and Thucydides), the texts treated range widely, making the volume's overall message all the more convincing. "Literary perspectives" can be brought fruitfully to bear on authors as separated as Diodorus Siculus and Tacitus, and to texts as generically distinct as biography and commentarius.

Rather than go through the papers individually, I will attempt a summary of the dominant themes of the volume, followed by an assessment of its success as a whole. One repeated theme is the help that ancient readings can bring to apparently intractable problems: so Feddern's useful evaluation of modern scholars' deployment of Dionysius, Marcellinus, and Palaephatus is complemented by his own analysis, using the same ancient readers, of some knotty issues in Thuc. 1.22.1-2; while Grossi, in an extremely interesting paper, investigates the interactions between Homer and Thucydides in their respective ancient scholia.1 Some of the contributors bring technical narratology to bear on their subjects: Baumann, on the "model reader" implied by Diodorus particularly in his graphic, pity-inducing scenes; and Adema, in an illuminating reading of the hortationes in Caesar, BG 1 and 7. Some explore the interaction of closely related genres (Fournel, who brings recent scholarship on Plutarch to bear on his dream narratives; and Duchêne on how Suetonius creates his auctoritas2), while Donelli on the "lyric stance" of Herodotus—borrowing from lyric poetry an approach to resisting the inescapable inheritance of Homer—and Farrington—a balanced and engaging reading of Polybius on Phylarchus and "tragic history"—consider farther flung affinities. There are close readings of passages that shed light on wider habits and practices: e.g. Liotsakis on the narrative models that Thucydides inherits—and one that he invents—in several key passages of the History3; Waddell's intriguing analysis of what has elsewhere been called "sideshadowing" in the speeches in Appian's Punic war narratives; and—for me one of the highlights of the book—Low's convincing discussion not just of the hows but also the whys of Tacitean self-allusion from the Histories to the Annals. Finally, Konstantakos, on Cambyses in Herodotus, and Harris, on citation of ancestral exploits in Thucydidean speeches, take up topics whose larger implications they have explored elsewhere (the former on the relationship between Iranian and Egyptian mythico-historical elements and Herodotus; the latter on the conventions of speaking in the Athenian assembly).

One of the things that makes this book easy to use is the meticulous editorial attention to coherence. I am on record as saying that I rather enjoy the serendipity of an edited volume that wanders: but publishers prefer coherence, and it seems that readers do, as well. Liotsakis and Farrington are to be commended not only for their careful editing (there are very few mistakes in the volume, and only a few, mostly minor lapses of English idiom) but also for their work at drawing the pieces together. I assume that, unless they had a preternaturally pliable bunch of authors, the links among the various chapters emphasized in the individual abstracts and in the footnotes throughout the volume are the work of the editors. It was a good decision to use those abstracts as a means to make explicit the commonalities among papers: that, more even than the generous Indices (nominum et rerum and locorum) makes the volume a pleasure to read through.

"Trends in Classics" has done valiant work, since its inception, in bringing young, international talent to the attention of the Anglophone world. This volume is no exception: with only a couple of outliers, the authors of these papers received their doctorates in 2010 or later; some are still graduate students. They are currently based in Belgium, the UK, France, the Netherlands, Germany, the US, Italy, and Greece. Most of the contributors are what I would describe as literary historiographers: that is, they approach their topics not as historians but as scholars of literature (at least to judge from their biographies in the "Contributors" section, only one chapter author, Edward Harris, is a practicing ancient historian; the author of the "Introduction," Craige Champion, has a distinguished record of publication on Polybius's narrative, and on Roman history). The topics of their contributions (and of their wider work outside this volume) bear witness to the acceptance and vitality of these "literary perspectives." Cornford would be pleased.

Authors and titles

Craige B. Champion—Introduction
Part I: Fifth-Century Greek Historiography
Giulia Donelli—Herodotus and Greek Lyric Poetry
Ioannis M. Konstantakos—Cambyses and the Sacred Bull (Hdt. 3.27-29 and 3.64): History and Legend
Vasileios Liotsakis—Narrative Defects in Thucydides and the Development of Ancient Greek Historiography
Vera Mariantonia Grossi—Thucydides and Poetry. Ancient Remarks on the Vocabulary and Structure of Thucydides' History
Stefan Feddern—Thucydides' Methodenkapitel in the Light of the Ancient Evidence
Edward M. Harris—Alcibiades, the Ancestors, Liturgies, and the Etiquette of Addressing the Athenian Assembly

Part II: Greek Narrators of the Past Under Rome
Scott Farrington—The Tragic Phylarchus
Mario Baumann—"No One Can Look at Them Without Feeling Pity": συμπάθεια and the Reader in Diodorus' Bibliotheke
Eugenie Fournel—Dream Narratives in Plutarch's Lives: The Place of Fiction in Biography

Part III: Roman Historiography
Suzanne Adema—Encouraging Troops, Persuading Narratees: Pre-Battle Exhortations in Caesar's Bellum Gallicum as a Narrative Device
Philip Waddell—Carthago Deleta Alternate Realities and Meta-History in Appian's Libyca
Katie Low—Histories Repeated? The Mutinies in Annals 1 and Tacitean Self-Allusion
Pauline Duchêne—Suetonius' Construction of His Historiographical auctoritas


1.   Grossi's recent Verona dissertation, on ancient Thucydidean exegesis, has already begun to bear fruit: cf. Lexis 31 (2013) 254-71.
2.   This paper suffers possibly from compression: but Duchêne's doctoral dissertation from the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre, with all the evidence available in tables, is online.
3.   Liotsakis has an extensive analysis of Thucydides Book VIII, recently reviewed in this journal: BMCR 2018.02.12.

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