THE ART OF HISTORY: Literary Perspectives on Greek and Roman Historiography

Ed. by Vasileios Liotsakis and Scott Farrington

De Gruyter (2016) h/b 321pp £82.99 (ISBN 9783110495263)

This book, which originated in a conference in Athens in 2014, contains thirteen articles on (i) Fifth-century Greek Historiography, (ii) Greek Narrators of the Past under Rome, and (iii) Roman Historiography. As the title indicates, this is not history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist: rather, since it is about the methods ancient historians used, its readers are likely to be other historians, or those with a specialist interest in the subject. This is made even more likely by the degree of ‘inter-reference’, i.e. references by a contributor to other contributions to the book. Only one of the authors is based in the UK, and two are still working on their doctorates: each article is accompanied by a substantial bibliography.

The reviewer will not attempt to summarise each article: rather, he will hope to give an impression of the book as a whole by considering just four articles, with each of the three main sections being represented. For the first section, in his ‘Alcibiades, the Ancestors, Liturgies, and the Etiquette of Addressing the Athenian Assembly’, Edward M. Harris makes the interesting point that it was legitimate to boast of one’s own generosity or that of one’s ancestors when involved in a court case at Athens, but emphatically not so, when addressing the Assembly. This general practice is followed by Thucydides and other authors. However, Thucydides reported that Alcibiades, when replying to Nicias over the Sicilian Expedition, notoriously—and exceptionally—boasted about his personal success at Olympia and his generosity in funding liturgies. This contrasts Alcibiades with, even, Cleon, who should have been able to perform liturgies but makes no mention of them in the debate about Mytilene: (nor, later, does Demosthenes, speaking before the Assembly, mention his own ancestors, but only those of all the Athenians). Harris argues that speakers in Thucydides not only present convincing arguments—τὰ δέοντα—but also conform to normal standards of etiquette: except Alcibiades, and Cleon, whose language is that appropriate to the law courts, but otherwise follows the ‘rules’—thus demonstrating the historian’s ‘artistry’.

A more complex case is argued by Giulia Donelli in ‘Herodotus and Greek Lyric Poetry’. She begins by suggesting that Herodotus’ Homeric stance, i.e. his indebtedness to and engagement with Homer, reflects his adoption of a ‘lyric stance’ towards the epic tradition. As example, she takes the case of Helen, and the account given by Herodotus (book 2) of Helen’s stay in Egypt during the Trojan War: obviously, the opposite of Homer’s narrative, and derived from the ‘Palinode’ of Stesichorus—although he also maintains, via three quotations from the two epics, that Homer knew the ‘true’ version, but remained faithful to his own epic purposes. (In long quotations, D. then shows Simonides and Pindar also displaying a critical relationship with the epic tradition.) More relevant, perhaps, D. believes that Herodotus and the lyric poets used ‘comparable argumentative strategies’ via the use of the first person, dialogue with or criticism of opponents (Solon and Mimnermus, Timocreon and Simonides), and use of the language of proof (τεκμαίρομαι, μαρτυρέω in Pindar and Simonides). Again, the drawing from a tradition of folktale narratives (e.g. the ring of Polycrates, Croesus on the pyre), and the ‘competitive’ engagement with lyric poems drawing from the same tradition, together help to suggest that lyric played a ‘fundamental contributory role’ in shaping Herodotus’ cultural background and intellectual milieu.

In section 2, S. Farrington discusses ‘The Tragic Phylarchus’. Polybius attacks Phylarchus (of whose work almost nothing remains) for confusing the ends of history and tragedy. Polybius himself says that the object of the historian is to ‘recall, with absolute truth, the things that were said and done’, and not to astound (ἐκπλήττειν) the reader, which is the role of tragedy: yet at the same time, the historian must include ‘shocking peripeteiai’ (ἐκπληκτικωτάτας περιπετείας) when necessary. By contrast, Phylarchus intends to make his readers feel pity and make them sympathetic to his account. The difficulty now arises: can we confirm the opinion of Polybius? As it happens, many of the fragments of Phylarchus are found in Athenaeus, and, again as it happens, they coincidentally reinforce Polybius’ criticism. This of course raises another question, perhaps answered by Peter Brunt’s assertion that Athenaeus reproduces his sources reliably. F. goes on to exemplify Phylarchus’ sensationalism from the fragments; a fair example, however, is the full account given by Polybius of how Phylarchus shockingly narrates the death of Agathocles, ending—in true Polybian style—περὶ μὲν οὖν τῆς τοιαύτης τερατείας παρείσθω· δεδήλωται γὰρ ἱκανῶς. (Polybius also rejects the inclusion of details of tragic plots in historiography, as used, it seems, by Phylarchus in the case of the sons of Phineus—but we do not know the context). And while Polybius does not assert that any element that is appropriate to tragedy must be absent from history, he does say that historians should avoid indulging in the overall combination of tragic elements which go to make up tragedy—as Phylarchus did.

In the third section, Pauline Duchêne discusses ‘Suetonius’ Construction of His Historiographical auctoritas’. Starting from Marincola’s work on the conditions (especially rhetorical) in which ancient historiography was written, D. uses a study of all the 1st person singular occurrences, dealing with autopsy and the use of available documents (but also taking into account themes addressed by as many as three other contributions to the book under notice here). Narrative interventions (e.g. ‘I do not have to enumerate’ etc.), emphasizing how the narration was conceived, comprise about a third of such interventions made by Suetonius. But the majority aim at depicting him as a historian, evaluating both sources and collected material. An example is his carefully put dismissal of an alternative version of the biography of a distant forebear of Vespasian, adding to the impression on the reader of the historian’s seriousness. The only instance of actual autopsy (as adulescentulus) concerns Domitian and the inspection of a nonagenarian (to determine Jewishness or not); and it can be contrasted with the occasions when Suetonius uses testimony which is not his own. But whereas Thucydides is conscious of the difficulty of interrogating witnesses, Suetonius is prepared to use his father’s alleged presence at the suicide of Otho as proof of his own credibility. D. believes that there is no trace of polemical intent when Suetonius disproves an alternative version of an episode—the documents do the disproving. Suetonius thus builds up his persona as a researcher, so sure of his material that the reader can almost visualise him at the scene which he describes—e.g. the tablets inscribed with Nero’s poems at Nero 52.3, ‘proving their authenticity’ (against Tacitus). D. concludes that Suetonius’ attitude is ‘much closer to that of a historian than to that of an author only interested in the peculiar facts of one man’s life’. This is the rehabilitation, ‘begun with Wolf Steidle’, of Suetonius as a ‘proper’ historian.

The reviewer stresses that the foregoing are only necessarily truncated accounts of four (out of 13) carefully written and argued articles, all fully footnoted. As with other books in De Gruyter’s Trends in Classics series, no concession is made to the amateur, and indeed their costs normally imply that the likely purchasers will be college or university libraries. It is perhaps unnecessary to state that production values are, as ever, very high. When Greek appears in the main body of the text, it is usually translated, but this is not always true of the footnotes, and the same applies to German and French.

Colin Leach


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