The Best of Ancient Historians Following Homer and the Epic Poets

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by Neil Godfrey


This continues from my previous post on A.J. Woodman’s argument. 

History ain’t what it used to be. It is all too easy for us moderns to read a work by an ancient historian, say Josephus or Tacitus or Thucydides (some would even add a few biblical authors), and think that by making allowances for pre-modern naïvety and a few mythical tales that we are reading a regular account of the past not so very different from what we would expect from our own modern historical works.

Historical works are nothing like epic poetry. At least to us. Historians are trying to get the facts right and record what they believe really happened. Ancient historians, however, did not quite work like that. We have seen in the previous two posts that even that reputably most “modern” and “scientific” of ancient historians, Thucydides, looked upon Homer as a historian-predecessor of his. If the Iliad is what Thucydides understood as “history” then perhaps we should be a little more cautious in the way we approach his own historical work, and indeed historical works of all the ancients.

How prose trumped poetry

Thucydides rejected poetic presentation. Plain prose was his tool. We saw in the previous post that his rejection of the poetic with all the embellishments that poetry brings with it was not because he believed such a medium was inappropriate for a “historical work”. Rather, it was because he wanted to convince his audience that the subject matter about which he was writing was itself of such grand and superior importance that poetry was superfluous.

The topic or theme was impressive enough on its own merits. In this, the greatness of his subject, his work surpassed that of his predecessors, including Herodotus and Homer.

Thucydides made poetics sound like a cheap way to enhance the greatness of one’s chosen topic.

Below we have a closer look at that prose style and will see that even ancient readers saw something rather poetic about it anyway. Thucydides’  prose was far from pedestrian.

(Pause: Did similar thoughts run through the mind of the author of Luke-Acts? What greater subject to write about than the coming of Christ and the origins of the Church? How to surpass the predecessors?)

Thucydides “the disaster drama” entertainer

In the previous post we saw that Thucydides expressed regret that readers “may seem” to find his work “less entertaining” because it would lack the tales of the fabulous and legendary that were found in The Histories of Herodotus. Woodman’s translation draws attention to what he believes are key details in the Greek that tend to be overlooked by many readers, including scholars. Thucydides, he argues, is not saying that his work will not be found entertaining. He is saying that it will lack the entertainment that comes from the mythical and fabulous narratives since those sorts of stories won’t be a part of his work.

We must infer that he did expect his work to be entertaining in all other respects, which is certainly the impression we derive from 23.1-3, where he returns to the thesis . . . that [his subject matter] the present war is the greatest of all. (p. 28)

Here is 23:1-3

[23.1] The greatest [μέγιστον] achievement of former times was the Persian War; yet even this was speedily decided in two battles by sea and two by land. But the Peloponnesian War was a [greatlyμέγα] protracted struggle, and attended by calamities [disasters – παθήματά] such as Hellas had never known within a like period of time.

[2] Never were so many cities captured and depopulated—some by Barbarians, others by Hellenes themselves fighting against one another; and several of them after their capture were repeopled by strangers.

Never were exile and slaughter more frequent, whether in the war or brought about by civil strife.

[3] And traditions [folk-tales] which had often been current before, but rarely verified by fact, were now no longer doubted.

For there were earthquakes unparalleled in their extent and fury, and eclipses of the sun more numerous than are recorded to have happened in any former age; there were also in some places great droughts causing famines, and lastly the plague which did immense harm and destroyed numbers of the people.

All these calamities fell upon Hellas simultaneously with the war,

I have in the main structured the passage as Woodman does so that we can see the a-b-a effect: the long list calamities are what marked off this war as the most notable one ever. Its notoriety was measured in terms of the greatness of the disasters and sufferings it wreaked.

This above all is the perspective of epic poetry, in which war and its attendant sufferings are the staple ingredients. (p. 29)

Compare how Homer begins the Iliad:

Goddess, sing of the wrath of Achilles . . . , which brought the Achaeans so much suffering

And again see how the Odyssey opens:

Many were the sufferings which [our hero] experienced.

Woodman reminds us that Homer dwells on the sufferings in the opening of his epic poems because that was a subject “that fascinated and appealed to his audience.” Thucydides is following in Homer’s wake as a “true successor” and “rival”.

Notice how Thucydides works his prose to magnify the sufferings he is about to narrate. A long list is always an impressive rhetorical tactic. A grandness of tone is conveyed by the repetitive use of conjunctions or connectives to bind the many links in the chain. And the contents themselves are striking. He structures the list so the different points are positioned where they elicit the maximum emotive response. First mentioned are vast numbers of cities being captured. This motif may well have been common enough even before the Iliad was composed. What is noteworthy is that the image of the fallen city regularly captured the imagination of historians: they regularly took the opportunity to exercise their most dramatic and vivid prose to recreate such a scene for their readers. By opening the list with the fallen cities Thucydides prepares his readers for the related disasters that follow.

In the middle he introduces folk-tales and natural disasters. Folk-tales impress upon readers the surreal nature or “unreality” of war. Ancients tended to believe that natural disasters went hand in glove with human disasters, so the primeval chaos deepens. Then the climax: the plague [ἡ . . . νόσος]! The suspenseful way this is introduced is lost in translation. There are actually nine words intruding between the opening article, “the/ἡ” and its noun, “plague/νόσος”:

ἡ οὐχ ἥκιστα βλάψασα καὶ μέρος τι φθείρασα ἡ λοιμώδης νόσος

It is as if the above translation should be rendered something like “The immensely harmful and destroyer of large numbers of people plague!”

It is no coincidence, as has been remarked in this context, that the plague too has Homeric precedent, in the opening scene of the Iliad. (p. 30)

Such an introduction has been most carefully crafted for maximum effect. It is as dramatic and hyperbolic in tone as anything found in the poetry of Homer. Like Homer, Thucydides is writing a “disaster narrative”. He is just as concerned as was Homer with vividness and dramatic effect.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a rhetorician and historian of at the turn of the century, wrote the above sorts of literary evaluations of Thucydides’ writing (Characteristics of Thucydides), comparing his prose with the poetic. He also noted that Thucydides

sometimes makes the sufferings appear so cruel, so terrible, so piteous, as to leave no room for historians or poets to surpass him.

Dionysius compares his prose with the poetic and and in discussing him he spontaneously links “historians and poets” as a single class of writers.

He is saying that Thucydides has realised his ambition of achieving Homeric status and of himself becoming the model to which subsequent authors will aspire. And indeed throughout his narrative, at the appropriate moments, Thucydides reminds his readers of the unprecedented sufferings and disasters which ‘his’ war entailed. (p. 31)

It is worth repeating here Woodman’s citation of the evidence for this judgment:

[The Spartan ambassador] departed with these words: ‘This day will be the beginning of great misfortunes [disasters] to the Hellenes.’ (2.12.3) (Such a statement echoes similar expressions in Homer of the symbolic importance of all that is to follow; ditto in Herodotus and Virgil)

The consequence was a fire greater than any one had ever yet seen produced by human agency (2.77.4)

Death thus raged in every shape; and, as usually happens at such times, there was no length to which violence did not go; sons were killed by their fathers, and suppliants dragged from the altar or slain upon it; while some were even walled up in the temple of Dionysus and died there. (3.81.5)

The second visit lasted no less than a year, the first having lasted two; and nothing distressed the Athenians and reduced their power more than this.

No less than four thousand four hundred heavy infantry in the ranks died of it and three hundred cavalry, besides a number of the multitude that was never ascertained.

At the same time took place the numerous earthquakes in Athens, Euboea, and Boeotia, particularly at Orchomenus in the last-named country. (3.87.2-4)

Indeed, this was by far the greatest disaster that befell any one Hellenic city in an equal number of days during this war; and I have not set down the number of the dead, because the amount stated seems so out of proportion to the size of the city as to be incredible. . . . (3.113.6)

Such was the battle, as nearly as possible as I have described it; the greatest that had occurred for a very long while among the Hellenes, and joined by the most distinguished states.

The Lacedaemonians took up a position in front of the enemy’s dead, and immediately set up a trophy and stripped the slain; they took up their own dead and carried them back to Tegea, where they buried them, and restored those of the enemy under truce.

The Argives, Orneans, and Cleonaeans had seven hundred killed; the Mantineans two hundred, and the Athenians and Aeginetans also two hundred, with both their generals. On the side of the Lacedaemonians, the allies did not suffer any loss worth speaking of: as to the Lacedaemonians themselves it was difficult to learn the truth . . . . (5.74.1-3)

Everywhere confusion reigned and death in all its shapes; and in particular they attacked a boys’ school, the largest that there was in the place, into which the children had just gone, and massacred them all. In short, the disaster falling upon the whole town was unsurpassed in magnitude, and unapproached by any in suddenness and in horror. (7.29.5)

While Mycalessus thus experienced a calamity, for its extent, as lamentable as any that happened in the war (7.30.4/7.31.1)

The total number of prisoners taken it would be difficult to state exactly, but it could not have been less than seven thousand.

This was the greatest Hellenic achievement of any in this war, or, in my opinion, in Hellenic history; at once most glorious to the victors, and most calamitous to the conquered.

They were beaten at all points and altogether; all that they suffered was great; they were destroyed, as the saying is, with a total destruction, their fleet, their army—everything was destroyed, and few out of many returned home. Such were the events in Sicily. (7.87.4-6)

Woodman (surely rightly) concludes:

Such statements hardly seem characteristic of the cold and ‘scientific’ historian whom we meet in the pages of many scholarly writings: on the contrary, they are designed to re-emphasize the point made in the third section of Thucydides’ preface, namely, that the Peloponnesian War is the greatest war of all. (p. 32)

If there is any doubt remaining among those of us who know only the English translation, it is worth perusing Dionysius’s critique of Thucydides’ prose and narrative style in his Characteristics of Thucydides.

Woodman further cites the renowned Greek scholar Kitto wondering at the way scholars have read all of this in Thucydides yet so often refused to believe it. So conditioned are they to expect him to be meaning something quite different that is more fitting the “modern” or “scientific” historian. (p. 30)

Probably most of us have been subjected to the same conditioning. I certainly was. I’m now beginning to wonder if this is the sort of historian we find in Thucydides then how much farther are we likely to find “lesser” ancient historians such as the author of Acts.

Lesson: Be extra cautious when told that someone is an exception to his own culture and time.

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Neil Godfrey

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