Friday, January 11, 2019


Sean Sheehan, A Guide to Reading Herodotus' 'Histories'. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. xii, 316. ISBN 9781474292665. $29.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Carlos Hernández Garcés, University of Oslo (

Version at BMCR home site


As the title indicates, this book gives students confidence to navigate the rich but disjointed narrative of the Histories under the guidance of the current trends in research. It is divided into two parts. The first section, "Approaches to Herodotus", centres on the formal aspects of the work as a whole and on its overarching conceptual themes. The second, much longer, section offers a full commentary on each book of the Histories and introduces the relevant scholarship as the various topics arise. In due Herodotean manner, both parts are composed of a number of subsections that tap into smaller structural components and thematic ramifications. Unlike the Histories, however, the headings keep the path well signposted for the reader. To the same end, multiple information boxes containing summaries and diagrams of markedly intricate passages ensure that the complex narrative does not throw the reader off. In order to facilitate reading, notes are placed at the end, following separately after each section. The essential scholarly works are filtered into the bulk of the text, however, as the author wraps his exposition around select but abundant references. The book closes with a comprehensive bibliography and an index.

The first section comprises six subsections, starting off with an introduction entitled 'A Literary Historian'. In this entry the author encourages the reader to venture into a text rich in deep meaning for those capable of weathering its jagged structure. This way, the importance that present-day research confers on the literary aspects of the Histories is dealt with first thing. Macan's seminal commentary and Dewald's work are two of the first references to come up. Dozens more will follow, with the most prolific specialists recurring.

'The Form of the Histories' follows. In this chapter, Sheehan tackles formal aspects, such as how logos becomes the formative element of Herodotus' composition. He then supplies the reader with the basic narratological tools needed to grasp how the patchwork of stories is constructed. The role of the stories as conveyors of meaning in their own right is stressed, which constitutes an important clarification for the unseasoned Herodotean reader. Also, the meaning of historiē is explained as the amalgamation of variegated intellectual pursuits (history, ethnography, geography, culture, religion, philosophy). In Sheehan's pertinent formulation, Herodotus' merit consists in making the transition across fields possible "without any crunching of narrative gears" (p. 10).

In 'Herodotus the Historian' Sheehan warns against anachronistic criticism of the Histories in relation to modern expectations. Instead, this section issues an invitation to focus on the parameters for the emergence of historical thinking, which are introduced under new subheadings. Quotations from and references to Momigliano, Jacoby, and Fornara inaugurate the chapter. The workings of collective memory and how that affects Herodotus' account in terms of reliability take the spotlight in 'Herodotus' Sources and Methodology'. Here Sheehan bases the discussion on the works of Fehling, Luraghi, and Kuhrt, among others. 'Mythical Time, Historical Time, Folk Tales' broaches the challenging chronological imbalances characteristic of the Histories and the degree of authorial awareness distinguishing mythical and historical time. With Thomas entering Sheehan's argument at this point, the scholarly picture keeps filling in. Lastly, 'Causation', whether in relation to scientific history or to natural philosophy, is presented as the driving force of the Histories. References to Collingwood, Immerwahr, Ricoeur, Gould, Lateiner, and Pelling combine to point out for the student the relevance of this particular theme. Reciprocity (e.g. guest-friendship or vengeance), contingency (e.g. selfish behaviour or political inertia) and religion (e.g. transferred guilt or fate) are enumerated as part and parcel of Herodotus' multi-layered causation frame.

Herodotus' knack for integrating non-Greek cultural perspectives and the treatment of otherness in the Histories constitute the subject of 'Herodotus the Ethnographer'. This short section emphasises Herodotus' emblematic disinclination for bigotry, with Hornblower and Munson now invited into the discussion. Sheehan also alludes to Plutarch's accusation against Herodotus of philobarbarism, and thus refers the student to the earliest stages in the reception of the Histories. 'The Histories as Literature' tackles the literary aspects of the text from a thematic and narratological angle. Staple narrative devices, as well as Herodotus' use of metanarrative marks to (re)connect the multiple threads, become the focus of the guidance offered the reader. Herodotus' language and stylistic choices are also delineated, as they play a role in conveying his message. The same can be said of storytelling, introduced in the subdivision 'Telling Stories'. Along the same line, the performative aspect of direct speeches is underlined as one of the hallmarks of the oral tradition of which the Histories was an integral part. Building upon narratology, 'Literary Influences' elaborates upon the traits common to the Histories, the Homeric poems and Attic drama. At this stage Genette and de Jong swell the ranks of the scholars presented to the student.

'Approaches' comes to an end with 'Themes and Patterns', which brings Dodds' work into play. From choice and causality as the raw matter of history, the discussion steers towards the quandary of establishing how much factual truth there is behind Herodotus' stories. The subsection 'Fate' showcases that, like 'decision-making', 'necessity' or 'chance', fate possesses explanatory power, which is why it remains within the realm of causation and, therefore, valid in Herodotus' conception of it. The same holds for 'Life, Luck and Everything', which discusses a hodgepodge of themes, such as 'excessive joy', 'fortune' or 'luck', that coalesce to form the multifarious network of patterns of the Histories. 'Nomos' closes this chapter with the indispensable allusion to law or custom, the element that determines behaviour within a community. Compelled to press forward swiftly in the 'Commentary' due to the vast number and the complexity of topics which comprise the Histories, Sheehan does so sure-footedly. All major discussions in Herodotean studies appear in the course of the commentary.

Continuity with and departure from the Homeric models is pivotal to understanding the Histories. The same goes for the role of orality and performance in Herodotus' "showing-forth" (apodexis). Sheehan introduces the uninformed reader to these notions at the outset of the commentary on book 1. The absence of a clear chronology structuring Croesus' logos points to the pitfalls of laying too much emphasis on chronology in the Histories. Likewise, Sheehan remarks on the theatrical ring to this scene. Concerning the figure of Croesus, the specialised works of, Asheri, Boedeker, Chiasson, Flower, Griffiths, Hartog, Murray, Saïd, Shapiro, and Stahl sprout into the argument.

Every new book expands on topics previously sketched out, while simultaneously bringing new ones to the table. In the commentary on book 2 Sheehan points out the plausibility of the existence of fellow inquirers in Herodotus' day. By the same token, Herodotus' disquisitions on natural phenomena, mummification, or animals, as well as his employment of scientific vocabulary, indicate the historian's participation in the intellectual debates of his time. In addition to the scholars previously mentioned, the issues dealt with in book 2 cue in the works of Fowler, Harrison, Lloyd, and Rutherford.

In book 3, centred largely on Samos and Persia, other aspects come to the fore, bringing in their wake the corresponding references to scholarship. Herodotus can (and does) make narrative use of characters. Cambyses' portrayal is unqualifiedly negative in the Histories, but there is evidence as to the historical inaccuracy of dates, events or people in the narration. However, the Histories remains practically our only source of information, a constraint to which Sheehan draws the student's attention.

The opening lines of the commentary on book 4 underscore that it is not particularly reader-friendly, which keeps in sight Sheehan's target audience. In parallel to Herodotus' text the author touches upon otherness in the Histories; Herodotus' prudent take on myth and its social function; the links between the Histories and the Hippocratic corpus; Herodotus' fascination with engineering (and wonders - thaumata); or geography as a vehicle of spatial relationships between peoples constitute some of the strands. The student is introduced to the works of Corcella and West.

Sheehan comes again to the reader's aid at the beginning of his commentary on book 5 with a warning as to the text's many impending detours. He then simplifies the reader's journey by stating what the kernel of book 5 will be: the Ionian revolt and Athens' involvement in it. Moral issues, embodied in the recklessness of self-seeking historical agents whose acts put Greece in jeopardy, constitute one of the lessons to be learned from this book. The names of Barker and Haubold are added to an ever-growing bibliographical treasure.

The commentary on book 6 starts with an observation on the transmission of ancient literature: The division of the Histories into nine books may very well be attributable to someone other than Herodotus. The attention Histiaeus receives in Sheehan's commentary mirrors the importance Herodotus' account of the outbreak of the Ionian Revolt (and, by extension, the war) bestows upon him. Always following the lead of the text, Sheehan also throws into relief themes like Greek politics, embodied in the triangle Sparta, Aegina, Athens, and the relevance of oaths and divine signs. In this chapter it is Baragwanath who notably joins the ranks of the scholars with whom the students get acquainted.

Concerning book 7, Sheehan gives precedence to causality, with Rollinger and Grethlein further supplementing the secondary literature. The dramatization of the critical junctures at which decisions were made is a distinctive feature of book 7 that Sheehan makes sure to highlight. Other prominent themes are the divergent temporal perspectives making up the complex fabric of the Histories and the historian's ventriloquist use of certain characters. The conspicuous role of female characters arises out of Artemisia's participation in the events.

On a different note, Sheehan's guide discusses the disparate interpretations behind dissimilar translations, which reminds the student to use translations with a critical eye. Much of the commentary on book 8 logically revolves around the battles, as well as Themistocles' ambivalent personality and cunning, not least in contraposition to Xerxes. The student is made to reflect also on the question, persistently raised by Herodotus, as to why the inferior numbers of the Greeks could defeat the immensely superior Persian army. Herodotus' purported admonishment against Athenian imperialism and the pedagogical means he employs in delivering the message are likewise brought to notice.

As the Histories hinge more and more around the actual military conflict, the commentary becomes more historical, with the literary aspects receding into the background. As for the quandary of whether Herodotus concluded his work or not in book 9, Sheehan lays out the arguments in favour of both opinions. On the grounds of the template offered by the Homeric poems in this matter, he openly leans towards the first possibility, which illustrates another aspect of this book: although Sheehan wraps the scholarly debate around Herodotus' text, he is not a mere reporter, as he often engages in the debates.

Literary works and cultural references one seldom encounters in Herodotean studies intersect in Sheehan's guide. These include notably Marx (p. 23), A Thousand and One Nights (p. 36), Joyce's Ulysses (p. 39), the Bible (pp. 107, 128, 245), the Vietnam War (p. 144), Dean's Wuthering Heights (p. 187), Milton's Paradise Lost (p. 204), Hegel (p. 207), and Yeats' Easter, 1916 (p. 214). An insignificant number of spelling mistakes found their way into the final product: p. 13 should read "the course of political and collective(?) identities", not "the course of political and identities"; p. 24 "on the face of it", instead of "on the face it"; p. 122 "disdain", not "distain"; p. 198 "Xerxes gives", instead of "Xerxes give"; and p. 211 "Herodotus holds back", not "Herodotus holds backs").

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