CJ Review: Rhodes on Shear, Polis and Revolution

posted with permission:

Julia L. Shear, Polis and Revolution: Responding to Oligarchy in Classical Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xv + 368. Hardcover, £60.00/$99.00. ISBN 978-0-521-76044-7.

Reviewed by P. J. Rhodes, University of Durham

Julia Shear was one of a group of scholars assembled by Robin Osborne to work on “The Anatomy of Cultural Revolution, Athens 430–380 b.c.,” in Cambridge between 2001 and 2005, and this book embodies her contribution to the project. Her theme is the responses of the restored democracies to the oligarchic régimes of 411–410 and 404–403, designed to reclaim for democracy sites in the city to which the oligarchs had laid claim, and to establish democracy as the traditional constitution (patrios politeia), and indeed as the only legitimate and possible constitution. She is knowledgeable about the literary and epigraphic texts and the archaeology, and she weaves a rich tapestry.

Shear starts with the oath sworn in 409 according to the decree of Demophantus ap. Andoc. 1.96–8, and the decree of Theozotides for the sons of those killed fighting against the oligarchy, SEG xxviii 46, which she dates c. 402 (on both of these texts see further below). These allow her to introduce the themes of the chapters which follow. Ch. 2 discusses the régimes of 411–410, in particular the ways in which they enlisted the past in support of their innovations and made political use of particular locations in the city. Then chs. 3–5 look at aspects of the democratic response in and after 410: documents emphasized the regular functioning of the democratic machinery, including Cleisthenes’ council, and the revised code of laws published in the Stoa Basileios claimed Draco and Solon for the democracy; the acropolis was reclaimed with the resumption of work on the Erechtheum, and the building of a new bouleuterion after the old had been contaminated by the submissive council of 412/1 and the Four Hundred began, together with the publication of the law code, a development of the agora as a space for citizens; oaths and the Dionysia were used to unite the people as democrats and to display the power of the demos.

The second period of oligarchy and restoration are given comparable treatment. Ch. 6 discusses the Thirty, stressing that they wanted not only power but a reform of the laws in ways congenial to them, and that they too laid claim to the acropolis and agora, and also the Pnyx (Shear accepts Plutarch’s attribution of Pnyx II to them). Ch. 7 focuses on the reconciliation, the oaths and the attempt to reunite the citizen body, and the problems in making the settlement work. Chs. 8–10 look at the aspects of the democratic response which were studied for the first restoration in chs. 3–5: inscriptions (including the resumed revision of the laws), their formulation and their location; further developments in the agora, including the court buildings in the north-east, the mint in the south-east, and the statues of Conon and Evagoras set up after the battle of Cnidus in 394; rituals to reunite the demos, in which the recent struggle was represented as a polemos against foreign enemies (thanks to Spartan support for the Thirty) rather than stasis in which citizens were opposed to citizens, and the reenactment of the rituals as people read the inscribed texts; constitutional changes such as the distinction between laws and decrees, to make another overthrow of the democracy more difficult. Ch. 11 sums up the main points, noting that the second restoration had to respond not only to the second oligarchy but also to what had worked in the first restoration and what had not.

There is a great deal here to enlighten and stimulate, even if one does not accept all of Shear’s claims. In particular, her discussion of the architecture of the two phases of the revision of the laws makes a major advance. However, those who seek are apt to find, and to this reader the book seems to contain a certain amount of wishful finding. No text states when and why, or even that, the new bouleuterion was built: Shear’s view that it was begun as a response to 411–410 and was in use by 404–403 relies on an inference from its dimensions and from Xen. Hell. 2.3.55 that it had no vestibule (but it still has a vestibule in the latest agora Site Guide, and indeed in Shear’s fig. 2). The dating of the court buildings and the mint immediately after, and in association with, the restoration of 403 is speculative. Given that already before 411 the basileus and the council worked in the agora, and some of the courts met in the agora though not in dedicated buildings, I do not see as great a change of emphasis as Shear in the developments there of the late fifth and early fourth centuries. Guesses, indeed attractive guesses, once advanced are used as building-blocks: that the Athenians swore the reconciliation oaths of 403 at Agrae, organized by tribes and demes; that Theozotides’ decree was set up in front of the Stoa Basileios (this is qualified by “probably”). In the statues of Conon and Evagoras I see an Athenian over-reaction, to appropriate what was in fact a Persian victory over Spartans who claimed to be fighting for the Greeks, rather than a continuation of the democratic restoration by representing them as democratic heroes.

Whenever one publishes, one risks the misfortune of being too early for important new material. Theozotides’ decree for the sons of dead democrats (but not his proposal attacked in a speech by Lysias) is attributed to the first restoration rather than the second by A. P. Matthaiou:[[1]] in one footnote Shear notes the forthcoming publication and expresses doubt but does not know Matthaiou’s arguments. Shear builds a good deal on the decree of Demophantus and other documents quoted in Andoc. 1, but a strong attack on the authenticity of those documents will be made by E. M. Harris and M. Canevaro,[[2]] and if that attack is judged successful some of her points will be undermined.

There is still room, then, for further discussion, but this is a good book which contains much worthy of discussion, and it deserves a warm welcome.


[[1]] A. P. Matthaiou, τὰ ἐν τῆι στήληι γεγραμμένα (Athens, 2011) 71–81.

[[2]] E. M. Harris & M. Canevaro, “The Documents in Andocides’ On the Mysteries”, CQ n.s. 62 (2012), forthcoming.

CJ Review: Murphy on Adluri, Parmenides, Plato and Mortal Philosophy

posted with permission:

Vishwa Adluri, Parmenides, Plato, and Mortal Philosophy: Return from Transcendence. Continuum Studies in Ancient Philosophy. London and New York: Continuum Books. Pp. xv + 212. Hardback, £65.00/$120.00. ISBN 978-0-8264-5753-0.

Reviewed by David J. Murphy, The Nightingale-Bamford School

In this highly original study of Parmenides’ poem and Plato’s response in the Phaedrus, Vishwa Adluri identifies the leading problem for both thinkers as “how do we speak/write about the finite, fragile, irreplaceable, incarnate fate of specific mortals, when language is, in some sense, outside of time?” (94). The inspiration for this book came in part from Adluri’s desire to pay homage, as Plato did to Socrates, to his mentor, Reiner Schürmann. One of Schürmann’s themes was the radical individuality of the mortal singular, which metaphysics cannot capture. Philosophy trades in language and argument, logos, which are abstracted from the things that form their subject matter. Yet we its practitioners are born, thrive, and die in time, each of us weaving a unique web of experience that defines us as mortal singulars. Mortality, “individual-being-in-time” (55), is the great problematic of the human, the stark divide for the Greeks between human and god. Philosophy misses its mark if it does not help us “belong to [our] own death” and, thus knowing, bear “untransferable responsibility” for self and actions (20). Parmenides and Plato so help us by depicting, not theorizing, the journeys of the kouros, the “youth,” and of Socrates, who return from logos about timeless being to self-knowledge in our home among fellow mortals, the world of nature, life and death.

This book is for readers with a background in ancient philosophy. After a Foreword by Luc Brisson there follow five sections: Introduction and Part I, setting out Adluri’s thesis and key concepts; Part II, an exegesis of Parmenides’ poem; Part III, Plato’s response; Part IV, conclusion; Appendix, translation and brief commentary. A bibliography and index of things and names close the volume.

In Part I, a key concept for Adluri is the polarity logos-muthos. Muthos (“account” or “narrative”) grasps individual mortal existence by foregrounding time and thus, the individual. Adluri finds a tripartite mythical structure in Parmenides’ poem: proem proper to the youth and his mortal journey; speech of the goddess about unchanging being; muthos of the poem as a whole, which articulates both (40). Parmenides’ message is to be sought in the structure of the entire work. The goddess’ second speech picks up important motifs already present in the proem, which is replete with action words that establish temporality, and nouns and prefixes that create multiplicity (mares, cities, maidens, paths, polu- compounds).

A second polarity is thumos-psukchê. Defining soul as self-awareness, Adluri distinguishes two souls as far back as Homer: thumos, the old “blood soul,” seat of the mortal person, and psukchê, “breath soul.” The latter gradually appropriates the functions of the former in Greek thought “except mortality” (25, Adluri’s emphasis). Adluri makes thumos the “cornerstone of [his] philosophy of radical individuality” and the key to his interpretation of Parmenides (27). Adluri contends that thumos, time-bound, singular, and desiring to overcome its mortality (cf. Homeric thumos’ woe at the prospect of death), marks the mortal as Parmenides’ subject from the first line of the poem (fr. 1.1, “… carry me as far as thumos might reach,” tr. Adluri). We attempt to “cure” mortal anxiety by immersing ourselves in intellection, or “timeless interpretation of phusis in logos” (28). We transcend time only in language, however, forgetting our still-present mortality. To make the birth-to-death trajectory of life central again, philosophy must recover the structure of journey, which Parmenides and Plato give us.

In Part II, Adluri devotes relatively little space to the goddess’ arguments that Being is unitary. Borrowing from Charles Kahn, he stresses that the durative aspect and locative value of “to be” set up the goddess’ realm as “merely grammatical” (76). Thinking and being can be the same (fr. 3) only in metaphysical logoi. Adluri emphasizes instead how the goddess brings the youth back to nature from metaphysics. He rightly points out that the goddess accords being to nature in fr. 1.31-32 (“…how it was inevitable for things seeming to be, ta dokounta, to be, einai, assuredly, dokimôs”) and fr. 8.25 (“…for being approaches to being”). For Parmenides, “[t]hings that exist spatio-temporally do exist in a certain way, although not as fully as being” (143). Against dismissals of the second speech, as well as attempts to reconcile the speeches by reinterpreting the first’s monism (e.g. Mourelatos, Curd, Thanassas), Adluri argues that in the second speech, the goddess deconstructs her first speech. Parmenides shows up the conflict between metaphysics (first speech) and our world of growth, change and decay (second speech), the proper object of mortal knowledge (84). Adluri in fact could have contended even more forcefully that the text establishes the youth’s return to the cosmos, for komisai (fr. 2.1) can mean “carry… [sc.
my word] away” (Kirk–Raven), not merely “keep well” or “take well to heart.” Only regenerative nature (cf. daimoness who steers all things, fr. 12.3) remains as a hope. Readers will benefit from Adluri’s many insights into connotations and cultural background of the poem. Not all may be persuaded, however, that Parmenides emphasizes the mortal singular to the degree that Adluri maintains, for even the second speech is about natural phenomena, not individual persons.

In Part III, Adluri locates Parmenides’ deepest influence on Plato in the Phaedrus. Both works put soul at the center of a journey from men’s ways through contemplation of eternal being to self-knowledge. Against Derrida’s analysis of the Phaedrus as a critique of writing as pharmakon, drug/poison, Adluri maintains that all language, since it uses abstractions, is shown as a problem. Derrida neglects the individuality of characters (122), but Plato gives us, more importantly than the Forms, the mortal Socrates, who will become sacrificial victim, pharmakos. By accepting the death of Socrates as a philosophically worthy topic, we can hope to “restore Socratic philosophy as anthropology, that is, an account of the anthropos” (98). Philosophy’s task is to know by linguistic categories and to recognize the singular person in love and death (124-25). More clarification of hermeneutical method was needed, however, for, although rejecting a “mouthpiece” interpretation of utterances of Plato’s characters (100), Adluri says much about Plato’s views without establishing how to go from “Socrates says” to “Plato means.”

Schürmann was an expert on Martin Heidegger, who said much about Parmenides. In Part IV Adluri turns to Heidegger’s claim that metaphysics reached its end in Nietzsche. Heidegger wanted to reach back to pre-Socratic thought, before, as he held, Plato separated essence from existing things. Adluri criticizes Heidegger’s description of temporality for neglecting the concretely existent, mortal individual. Adluri traces this tendency to the influence of Luther, whom Heidegger was reading in the 1920s: the Christian attitude of waiting for the parousia prevented Heidegger from fully understanding “the Greek experience of time in its twofold aspect of fluxing becoming and eternal being” (133). Parmenides and Plato, using the language of initiation, better preserve individuality and our ultimate concern, our mortal life.

The Appendix provides an accurate translation of Parmenides’ difficult language, and Adluri’s literal rendering helps one see how he construes the Greek. The notes explain Adluri’s editorial choices and give reasons when his results differ from those of other scholars. Two passages needed comment: (1) the disputed text at fr. 8.19; (2) fr. 8.38, where “all these things that mortals believe true … shall be a [mere] name,” ὄνομ’ ἔσται (DK, Kirk–Raven, Tarán, Coxon), has advantages over “all things … have been named,” ὀνόμασται (also Woodbury, Curd), since the goddess has just said that “there is nothing apart from what is, and Fate has bound it down to be entire …” One quibble: it is circular to use ἄστη, a conjecture adopted at fr. 1.3, as evidence that the Phaedrus borrows city imagery from Parmenides (97), and then to invoke ἄστει at Phdr. 230d5 as evidence for that conjecture (138).

The volume is attractively prepared, with few typos and incorrect page numbers in cross references. I did wish for an index locorum.

This book is not for those looking for focus on Parmenides’ purported monism, or for a comprehensive review of the scholarship. It is for those who want to think in a new way about familiar works. Students of Parmenides, Plato, and indeed, of other philosophers who write narrative, will not look at these thinkers the same again after this provocative reading.

Socrates was a mortal singular. Socrates the character is a pseudo-object, wholly constituted by the text. “The mortal singular” is an abstraction. Philosophical writing, like all language, is logos. I think Adluri would agree that even discourse about the mortal singular is implicated in the stasis that he finds in logos. We look forward to Adluri’s projected rethinking of transcendence beyond metaphysics (8, 135), for it promises important insights about how philosophical writing can be, not “a form of idolatry” (4), but authentically human.

CONF: Ancient Stars in Byzantium

Seen on the Classicists list:

[it's being streamed and skyped too … I hope other conferences are paying attention!!!!!]

The Illuminated Astronomical Manuscripts research group at the Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa (http://www.sns.it/en/ricerca/lettere/manoscrittiastronomici) is delighted to announce its first meeting:

Ancient Stars in Byzantium: The Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1087

Pisa, Scuola Normale Superiore, February 8th, 2012

The Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1087 was written in Constantinople in the 14th century, probably in the monastery of Chora. It preserves, among other Byzantine and Late Antique astronomical works, some mythological excerpts by Eratosthenes (the so-called Fragmenta Vaticana) and a remarkable series of illustrations, belonging to the tradition of Aratus’ Phaenomena and its ancient commentaries.

Conference programme:

(Anna Santoni, Scuola Normale Superiore)

The Cod. Vat. Gr. 1087: Nicephorus Gregoras and Byzantine Astronomy
(Mariella Menchelli, University of Pisa – Filippomaria Pontani, University of Venice)

The text of the Fragmenta Vaticana and the tradition of Eratosthenes’ Catasterisms
(Jordi Pàmias, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

The Cod. Vat. Gr. 1087 between Aratus and Eratosthenes
(Anna Santoni, Scuola Normale Superiore)

The sequences of excerpts and illustrations in the Fragmenta Vaticana
(Leyla Ozbek, Scuola Normale Superiore – Allegra Iafrate, Scuole Normale Superiore)

The iconography of Jupiter on the eagle
(Fabio Guidetti, Scuola Normale Superiore)

The iconography of Cetus the sea-monster
(Stefano Riccioni, University of Venice)

Presentation of the ‘Certissima Signa’ database of illuminated astronomical manuscripts.


The conference can be watched live on streaming: http://tv.sns.it

skype: certissimasigna

CJ Review: Kyle on Meijer, Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire

posted with permission:

Fik Meijer, Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire. Translated by Liz Waters. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. Pp. xiv + 185. Hardcover, $29.95. ISBN 978-0-8018-9697-2.

Reviewed by Donald G. Kyle, University of Texas at Arlington

Professor of ancient history at the University of Amsterdam, Meijer has authored various works that have been translated into English, including A History of Seafaring in the Ancient World (1986), Emperors Don’t Die in Bed (2004), and The Gladiators: History’s Most Deadly Sport (2007). His latest volume, a brief and accessible overview of Roman chariot racing, is an English translation and republication of a work he first published in Dutch in 2004. A four-page Introduction expands upon Juvenal’s famous panem et circenses remark, notes the popularity of chariot races (“the greatest of Roman passions”) (1) with all classes (if not with a few intellectual critics), and suggests that the topic has been understudied. Meijer asserts the need for a book on “both the sport and its social and political background” (4), but his debt to the detailed and authoritative works of A. Cameron (1973, 1976) and J. Humphrey (1986), and also studies by M. Junkelmann (1990), and G. Horsmann (1998), is clear throughout.

Eleven chapters discuss the history, operation, and people of chariot racing from the Bronze Age to the Byzantine Empire. Chapter 1 opens with a dramatic narration of the Nika riot of 532 CE, including the escalating violence of the Green and Blue factions and ultimately the massacre of rioters in the Hippodrome: “It was the biggest supporter bloodbath in history.” (12) Chapter 2 surveys chariots and chariot racing from the early Greece to first-century BCE Rome. Chapter 3, the second longest at 20 pages, discusses the Circus Maximus (and other circuses at Rome and in the Empire) but it gets a bit technical as Meijer draws heavily on Humphrey. Chapter 4, “Preparation and Organization,” clearly summarizes of the racing factions (or stables), horses, and charioteers. Chapter 5, “A Day at the Circus Maximus,” imaginatively reconstructs rituals and races from Ovid, Martial, and other writers. Chapter 6, “The Heroes of the Arena,” places charioteers in society as mostly slaves and freedmen, but it notes famous stars such as Scopus and Diocles. Chapter 7, “The Spectators,” the longest at 32 pages, discusses the politicized interaction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emperors and circus crowds, and the devotion and even fanaticism of supporters for their factions or ‘colors’: “Their faction gave them a chance to scream away all their frustrations and to achieve some kind of status.” (105) After noting betting and curse tablets at circuses, Meijer here offers his most original argument (112-19), claiming that there must have been violence and rioting at the Circus Maximus in the first and second centuries CE, but that the ancient sources did not report it. He finds it “… barely conceivable that in the seething Circus Maximus feelings never flared up.” (115, similarly 133). The inevitable comparison to modern ‘football’ (i.e. soccer, 115, also 104) follows.

Chapter 8, “Changes around the Racetrack,” notes the ‘radicalization’ of racing at Rome, especially when influenced by paid ‘clappers,’ the spread of the Roman faction system to the Greek East in the Late Empire, the appearance of imperial palaces adjacent to racetracks, the stables’ loss of independence to imperial officials, the entrance of some charioteers into management positions, and the increase of political strife and violence between emperors and spectators at Constantinople. Chapter 9, “The Heroes of the Hippodrome,” drawing on Cameron (1973), notes the height of racing at Constantinople around 500-540 and concentrates on the famous charioteer Porphyrius. Chapter 10, “The Disappearance of Chariot Racing,” briefly covers the decline and end of chariot racing at Rome (by 549) and at Constantinople (after the tenth century). Chapter 11, “Ben-Hur: Chariot Racing in the Movies,” is a rather superfluous assessment of the historical accuracy of the 1959 film. It concludes unsurprisingly that the film compromised accuracy for an imaginative story and spectacular effects.

Despite some overly long direct ancient quotations (e.g., Sophocles on 23-26, Ovid on 40-41, 69-72), Meijer’s lively and informal style suggests a broad popular audience; and the work includes 25 pages of supporting materials: a chronology, glossary, list of racetracks, two maps, seven pages of notes (mostly ancient citations), a two-page selected bibliography (current only to 2003), and an index. The 21 black and white images of settings and charioteers assist the work but are not numbered or identified fully.

In sum, although scholars will want more depth and originality, students and general readers will enjoy and benefit from this energetic, sound, and clear synthesis of scholarship on a major phenomenon in Roman society.

CJ Review: Dewald on Grethlein, Greeks and their Past

Posted with permission:

Jonas Grethlein, The Greeks and Their Past: Poetry, Oratory and History in the Fifth Century BCE. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xii + 350. Hardcover, £58.00/$99.00. ISBN 978-0-521-11077-8.

Reviewed by Carolyn Dewald, Bard College

This is an ambitious, lucid, well-researched and well-organized book. Jonas Grethlein explores a variety of ways in which the Greeks of the fifth century BCE understood the human past, using the concepts and some of the terms of hermeneutics and phenomenology to analyze the treatment of the past in epinician poetry, elegy, Attic tragedy, epideictic oratory, and deliberative oratory in the first half of the book, and in the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides in the second half. He begins with a dense but clear, if dry, introduction that establishes the grid on which the rest of the book will be organized, setting out four basic modes of linking past to present through memory: regularity (through examples); continuity (through maintaining and articulating traditions); development (through understanding dynamic processes); and the contingency of chance (through recognizing disruptions created by the eruption of the unexpected).

In the mode of exemplarity, positive and negative events or moments of the past (whether mythic or historical) become paradigms for understanding and also motivating present acts or behaviors. To take examples from within works of two different genres: Phoenix in Iliad 9 recalls the Meleager episode to exhort Achilles to bury his wrath; Pericles in the Funeral Oration of Thucydides uses the courageous efforts of Athenians in founding their empire in the past to inspire the youth of the present to similar effort. Fifth- and fourth-century authors of epinician, elegy, and the funeral oration in particular think in the same way, using past examples to articulate and evaluate present circumstances and actions, thereby giving their present audiences a sense of continuity between even the distant or mythic past and their own present.

The traditional mode often reinforces exemplarity. It can be found within the content of an epinician poem, as genealogies and the memory of ancestral exploits establish an ongoing thread binding the past achievement of his ancestors to Theron’s present victory in Olympian 2, or within a deliberative speech, as Andocides’ more recent ancestors’ efforts as ambassadors inspire his own efforts in de pace. It is also found embedded in the performative context of four of the five genres considered in the book’s first half. The aristocratic symposium is the locus of epinician and elegy, and the traditional singing of victory odes like Olympian 2 or Simonides’ and Mimnermus’ more historical poems (with their strongly Homeric overtones) both celebrates an ongoing elite sense of privilege for the governing classes that hear the poems, and reinforces their sense of responsibility for the polis and concern for the collective. Each occasion of the poem’s performance, that is, reestablishes the sense of traditional continuity (‘we have always done it that way’) that is a major gift of all ritual. In Attic tragedy, the annual context of the spring Dionysia in general, and the presence of children of fallen warriors sitting in the audience of the Persae in particular, are testimonies to continuity, as well as a stark reminders of the cost of defending the fatherland in 472 BCE. The performative context itself establishes continuity: tragedy’s ability annually to articulate Athens’ ongoing sense of itself. The epitaphios logos or funeral oration, finally, resembles tragedy in this respect, celebrating the achievements of the fallen by binding them into the ongoing memory of the city’s sense of itself and thus assuring them a share in the immortality of the city’s achievement. Lysias’ funeral oration contains the ‘floating gap’ that is found in traditional, often oral, ways of thinking of the past. The mythic past and the chronologically ordered, detailed account of the recent historical present give a sense of seamless Athenian historical continuity, despite the omission of the Archaic Age in his narrative.

The third commemorative strategy that bridges the gap between past and present is the mode of development. Grethlein argues (288-9) that it did not really emerge in force before about 1800 CE, when change itself became linked more to an optimistic idea of progress. In the mode of development, it is a given that the past is different from the present, while the two modes used in the ancient world most frequently, the exemplary and the traditional, rather stress similarity, permanence, and regularity. That is because for the ancient world in general and the fifth century in particular, the fourth basic mode of understanding the past, which Grethlein terms “contingency of chance,” tends to overwhelm, and both exempla (regularity) and traditions (continuity) have been designed to offset and make bearable our recognition of how great a role contingency of chance plays in the way events in human life turn out.

In Olympian 2, gnomai and the Oedipus lineage become the dark foil, inserting the presence of contingency of chance into Theron’s glorious family story and showing the fragility of the human experience. Its disruptive tendencies are embedded, however, in the larger structures of continuity and regularity provided by examples of past glory and the epinician ode’s ability to recognize and sustain aristocratic tradition for the polis. Even in early elegy, the sea in Archilochus is a metaphor for contingency of chance, while Mimnermus uses the image of leaves. Again the construction of regularity, recounting glory achieved at the level of the polis, “the timeless collective of the fathers of our fathers,” is designed to counteract the experience of contingency of chance that dominates the individual life, however heroic in achievement.

Fifth-century tragedy deals with contingency of chance by displacing events into the mythic past and a non-Athenian locus. Athens itself, in the plays, is not tragic; Aristotle’s catharsis works for the audience of the play but often not for the audience in the play, the chorus, overwhelmed as they are by contingencies of chance that are too close to them for comfort. One reason the epitaphios logos becomes such a standard feature of Athenian epideictic oratory is that, as in elegy, in the funeral speech the deaths the city has experienced (the ultimate experience of the disruption of the unexpected) become part of a larger permanence: the story of Athens’ glory.

In the fifth genre explored in the first half of this book, deliberative oratory, there is a slightly different approach taken to exempla, traditions, and contingency of chance, one that serves effectively as a transition to the exploration of history in the book’s second half. Arguing for a particular course of action to be taken in the present, Andocides in de pace relies heavily on both negative and positive past exempla, and articulates a particular vision of Athenian tradition that would link present power and prosperity to the need for peace with Sparta. On the other hand, “defeat and rupture are admitted and given a poetic emplotment” (141), so contingency of chance is more vividly present as something that might erupt again if the course taken is not the one the speaker argues for. The exempla used are almost always drawn from recent history. Grethlein ends the first half of this book arguing that “[t]he idea of history that underlies all genres pits contingency of chance against continuity and regularity” (145).

The second half of the book evaluates the idea of the past found in Herodotus and Thucydides, using many of the same terms and concepts established previously. Both authors, Grethlein finds, critique contemporary uses of exemplarity, by presenting speeches given by characters in their texts who misconceive and misuse past events quite badly. Herodotus presents the use of the Iliad by speakers in the Syracusan embassy scene (7.153-63) as one that meta-historically reminds us of the unsuccessful embassy in Iliad 9. The more or less tacit references by the Spartan and Athenian speakers to Agamemnon, Nestor’s speech in Iliad 7 (124-8), and Menestheus in Iliad 2 (553-4) jar in their inappropriateness, highlighting for the alert reader of Herodotus how unheroic, indeed completely inadequate in their vision, all the actors are. Moreover, the proleptic allusion to Pericles’ “spring of Greece” found in Gelon’s acrid final retort (7.162) reminds the reader not only of the intra-Hellenic disputes of the Persian Wars, but also of the much more devastating ones to come, in Herodotus’ own time. Here exemplarity has been used savagely by Herodotus to reveal the inadequacies of speechmaking and statesmanship at a particular time, but also in the heroic past and the frightening future to come. In the paired Tegean–Athenian speeches before Plataea (9.26-7), Grethlein argues (174-7) that the Athenians even directly critique the whole idea of the relevance of ancient exempla for speechmaking, when they state that they prefer deeds to words and more recent events to distant ones. Herodotus, speaking now directly as the narrator, critiques the use of the past in epic, as well: Homer knew what really happened but chose in the Odyssey to privilege the version that would better fit his generic requirements (156).

Herodotus himself uses exemplarity, the regularity of patterns of human behavior, to highlight the brutal realities of contingency of chance; in the Croesus episodes that begin the Histories (1.26-94), patterns of misunderstanding and misguided action occur that will recur throughout the work. Divine retribution, divine envy, and ineluctable fate are all adduced as possible explanations, but the very pluralism of these concepts testifies to the difficulty of mastering contingency of chance (195). The prolepseis and analepseis that stud the Histories, as well as the multiple explanatory patterns that emerge, protect the reader somewhat from experiencing contingency of chance, but they do so by a focus on exemplarity as a part of historiê, investigation. Attentive investigation will replace glorification and legitimization with critical analysis: reality counts.

This same recasting of the use of past example is found, even more strongly, in Thucydides. Grethlein argues (208-9) that Thucydides’ critique of “competition pieces” (1.22.4) and logographoi refers not just to poets and other historians but to orators, and probably specifically the orators who deliver epitaphioi logoi. Thucydides’ notion of human nature is an essentialist one, and the intertextual relationships found in the History establish a meta-historical dimension that enables him to explore how this understanding of “human nature” can be made useful in the political present (210-11, 268-79). The Athenians’ disastrous response to their own tyranny in 415 BCE (6.53.2) shows how important a correct understanding of history can be for dealing with contemporary events. Thucydides refuses most Herodotean prolepseis, making the reader experience unrolling events from the perspective of the characters, reinforced with his own insights. There is no hint, however, that correct understanding either of past history or of present events ever guards, in Thucydides’ eyes, against contingency of chance.

This book provides a stimulating argument and one based on much careful analysis of ancient texts and knowledge of the extensive relevant modern scholarship. The few caveats I have mostly come from the fact that I wanted more. Regarding deliberative and epideictic oratory, a more extended discussion would have been helpful, especially about the fact that both of the speeches Grethlein examines in detail come from the Corinthian War of the 390s and thus certainly postdate Herodotus and are at least contemporaneous with Thucydides. What does Grethlein think about the possible influence of the historians on the logographoi? Regarding Herodotus and Thucydides, Grethlein has chosen largely to focus on their criticism of genres of literature; he has convincingly demonstrated that both authors at least tacitly critique the tradition- and example-based modes of dealing with the recent past found in other genres. What I miss, however, is a discussion devoted more generally to the historians’ own sense of the pasts they have chosen to narrate, and why they have chosen to structure their histories as detailed, extended, and causally-connected accounts of recent past events.

Grethlein is certainly not unaware either of this issue or of the considerable scholarship devoted to it for both authors, but his organization of his chapters into individual, discrete discussions of particular passages tends, in the analysis of these two authors especially, to make it more difficult to perceive an interpretation that underlies and supports his acute individual observations. To the less severely focused reader, much of the presentation of speechmaking in the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides looks less like a tacit authorial critique of genres or even modes of thinking about the past than like a picture of ordinary human beings exercising their political intelligence, as they are wont to do. One wonders whether the largely bypassed mode of development, as Grethlein defines it in the introduction and the conclusion, might have played a part in the analysis, since both historians articulate as a major part of their task to record the remarkable political and military changes in the recent past that have affected their own time: for Herodotus, not just the defeat of Persia in 479 BCE, but the disappearance of powerful Greek tyrannies, the radical diminishment of Ionian power after Lade, and the astonishing growth of democratic Athens after 508; for Thucydides, the even more astonishing defeat of the Athenian empire in 404 BCE. One looks forward for more from Jonas Grethlein in the future on these and similar challenging topics.

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem viii kalendas februarias

ante diem viii kalendas februarias

  • Sementivae or Paganalia (day 2) — Sementivae was a festival of sowing which was actually a moveable feast (although I’m not sure of the moveability criteria; I’m guessing that the first day falls between January 24 and 26). By Ovid’s time it appears to have been coincident with Paganalia, which also obviously has some rural aspect to it. It appears to have been a two-day festival with an interval of seven days between (corrections on this welcome … my sources seem muddled on this one)
  • 41 A.D. — recognition of Claudius as emperor by the senate
  • 98 A.D. — death of Nerva (?)