INTERPRETING HERODOTUS

Edited by Thomas Harrison and Elizabeth Irwin

OUP (2018) h/b 425pp £90 (ISBN 9780198803614)

The fourteen papers in this collection owe their origin to a conference at Columbia University entitled ‘The Past in the Present: Interpreting Herodotus after Charles W. Fornara’. Fornara’s interpretative essay (famous among scholars working on Herodotus) was published by OUP in 1971. It is a deliberately short study (‘brevity is a virtue’), but one with considerable scope, as H.-I. make clear at the beginning of the introduction: the context of Atheno-Peloponnesian wars, the conflict between Athens and Sparta, unity, the relationship between historical narrative and ethnographies, ‘patterning’ and in Fornara’s words how ‘history became moral and Herodotus didactic’ (p. 23). While these conference papers spring from the work of Fornara, the Acknowledgements end with an affectionate tribute to John Moles, whose work on Herodotus was ‘fundamental to this volume’ and whose loss is deeply felt. 

The papers reflect the nature of the conference (scholars talking to scholars) and a reader needs to be able to cope with copious notes with references to a wide range of scholarship. Some papers offer particular hurdles, since they expect knowledge of Near Eastern history, inscriptions and languages. Robert Rollinger, for example, explores the transformation of Near Eastern material by Herodotus, using the story of Oebares securing Darius’ accession by making his horse neigh. Parallels are found based on elements of the story: time (dawn), place (outside the city), neighing, the association of horse, king and new ruler, but to follow the detailed argument of the essay some familiarity with the Behistun inscription, Babylonian, Assyrian and other sources is required. But the ‘imaginative historian’ not just the ‘reporter of tradition’ is revealed in Herodotus’ treatment of the sources: there are implications for the legitimacy of Darius’ rule, since he was helped to power by a man of low social rank—an ‘ironic take’ by Herodotus? Oebares is also a cunning helper like Zopyros (3.153-160), though without the pedigree of the latter. 

Emily Greenwood observes that scholarship has moved away from some of Fornara’s concerns: unitarian v. separatist and the ‘developmental thesis’ associated with Jacoby’s view that history emerged from ethnographic and geographic enquiry. She does, however accept the idea of Herodotus’ interests and approach developing during his travels. Fornara headlines the issue in his first chapter Unitarians, Separatists, and Book II, and consequently it is prominent in this volume. John Dillery (‘Making Logoi’), Ewen Bowie (‘The Lesson of Book 2’), Reinhold Bichler (‘Herodotus Book 2 and the Unity of the Work’) and Christopher Tuplin on Persian Egypt all focus on this book. 

Bowie picks up one ‘uncharacteristically injudicious’ statement from Fornara’s first chapter (p.18), the ‘utter absence in II of the moral or philosophical element’ (F.’s italics). B. presents a range of evidence to contradict this, for example from the ‘Helen in Egypt logos’, the judgement ‘retribution from the gods for terrible wrongdoing is also terrible’ (2.120.5). The rise and fall of cities has been a theme since the opening chapters of Book I. 

The concluding chapter (Thomas Harrison, ‘The Moral of History’) looks at moral and didactic issues: how is Herodotus didactic? Speeches and the ‘adviser’ motif are picked out as convenient methods of conveying historical interpretation and moral lessons, though such motifs are not exclusively used for the presentation of themes, for example the ‘instability of fortune’ that appears in the opening chapters and soon finds verbal expression through Solon. Many more tales with a moral are used by H. to address big questions, ‘learning from experience’ or ‘what should we do?’ and the essay ends with Solon’s message ‘for all mankind, and especially for those who think themselves fortunate’.

Jonas Grethlein (ch. 10, ‘The Dynamics of Time’) opens his essay with a clear statement of ‘Fornara’s arguably most important contribution to Herodotean scholarship’, that Herodotus must be read in the light of the light of the conflicts in the second half of the 5th C BC. Herodotus’ reticence about contemporary events is no impediment to reading the Histories with an awareness of the parallels in the 5th C and several other contributors engage with this issue (through Sparta, democracy and its vocabulary, Atheno-Peloponnesian wars). 

Joseph Skinner opens his essay (‘Herodotus and his World’) with Fornara’s observation that ‘Thucydides wrote for the future, Herodotus for his contemporaries’. While S. recognises that Herodotus’ opening statement in Book1 contradicts F.’s neat antithesis, it does not invalidate the approach to Herodotus by ‘putting ourselves in the position of his contemporaries’—such an approach S. then cautiously undertakes, raising not only such difficult issues as our understanding of the ancient audience, but also the influence of modern ideas on our understanding. Is there a modern tendency, for example, to see the Greeks and barbarians as polarised? Are we inclined to align ancient and modern ethnography?

One could ‘enumerate more characteristics’ (Plutarch), but these may convey some of the riches of this volume. It is no hagiography, and contributors are not reluctant to disagree with Fornara’s approaches, yet there remains a strong recognition of the quality and importance of Fornara’s essay and as a whole it offers a fitting tribute to that much slimmer volume.

Alan Beale

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