Rezension über:

Jonas Grethlein / Christopher B. Krebs (eds.): Time and Narrative in Ancient Historiography. The 'Plupast' from Herodotus to Appian, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012, X + 300 S., ISBN 978-1-1070-0740-6, EUR 60,00
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Rezension von:
Daniel Tompkins
Department of Greek & Roman Classics, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Daniel Tompkins: Rezension von: Jonas Grethlein / Christopher B. Krebs (eds.): Time and Narrative in Ancient Historiography. The 'Plupast' from Herodotus to Appian, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012, in: sehepunkte 13 (2013), Nr. 6 [15.06.2013], URL:

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Jonas Grethlein / Christopher B. Krebs (eds.): Time and Narrative in Ancient Historiography

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These eleven essays, original and informative, consider how "events that precede the narrated action" (2) shaped ancient historical writing. Though they avoid hermeneutic lockstep, all meet the editors' goal of "elucidating the temporal complexity of ancient historical narratives" (1). "Complexity" takes various forms: thematic overlaps between history and poetry, and "democratic" (22) unlinking of the present from the past (Deborah Boedeker on Herodotus); tensions between characters, or between narrator and characters (Grethlein on Thucydides, Timothy Joseph on Tacitus, Andrew Feldherr on Sallust); self-fashioning (Alexei Zadorojnyi on Plutarch, Luke Pitcher on Appian, Boedeker). Surprising parallels emerge: Zadorojnyi links Plutarch's Pompey with Alexander and Pausanias, while Clemence Schultze, Krebs, and Emily Baragwanath emphasize dissimilarities.

Several contributors use the mise-en-abyme, carefully and effectively. The Caesar - Cato debate is Sallust's "Catiline within the Catiline" (96, Feldherr); Furius Camillus and others speak "in the guise of" Livy (141, Krebs); civic discord in 69 CE is an "emulative sequel" (168) to earlier civil wars in Joseph's Tacitus. In this brief review, only a few essays can be considered at length. I have selected three, virtually at random: any others would serve as well.

Jonas Grethlein weighs "The Use and Abuse of History in the Plataean Debate (Thuc. 3.52-68)". Thebans and Plataeans draw opposed conclusions from the same past events, Plataeans emphasizing their service to Greece against the Persians, Thebans "belittling" this claim on the grounds that Plataea's ally was Athens, not "the Greeks". "The past can be easily bent in the rhetoric of foreign affairs" (63). Grethlein demonstrates that "Thucydides focuses on the deficiencies of a rhetorical past in order to highlight the superiority of his own work" (64). Grethlein's assertion that Thucydides aims to "highlight the superiority of his own work" - as more accurate, more useful, less moralistic, and more deeply "engaged" than oratory - is intriguing and, I believe, novel (69). Similarly, inscriptions such as the Delphic tripod lack the "polyphonic" richness of written history than inscriptions (73). Grethlein concludes that "Thucydides' new approach to the past," including the Persian Wars, is "useful" both because it establishes the contrast between the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, and because it suggests that Athenian hegemony has replaced Persian (74-75).

Andrew Feldherr, in "Magna mihi copia est memoranda. Modes of historiography in the speeches of Caesar and Cato (Sallust, Bellum Catilinae 51-4)" (95-112), focuses like Grethlein on a debate within a narrative, and like Grethlein reveals that the narrative forces readers to "test different models of interpreting" (97). While Thucydides' readers ask, "Has Athens become a new Persia?", Sallust's wonder, "will there be a Roman state for [morality] to matter in?" (97). Past and present for Caesar seem continuous and consistent, though he ultimately undercuts himself. For Cato, on the other hand, discontinuity prevails and the past remains virtually unknowable, since morality, motives, and "meanings of words" have changed (109). Cato praises Aulus Manlius Torquatus for ordering the death of his own son: Feldherr, following D.S. Levene [1], reminds us that Cato succeeds only in isolating himself (110). In both cases, then, the speakers erred, damaging their own cases. Feldherr nicely observes that senators behave like historians: "their continual reflection on the qualities of actions and actors [...] resembles that of an historian. [...] We are left with the paradox that history becomes better [...] as its ability to participate in events diminishes" (112).

If the strengths of Feldherr's essay are patience and measured analysis, Alexei V. Zadorojnyi's exploration of Plutarch (175-198) stands out for its boldness and figuration: "The world of Deuterosophists is a gigantic multimedia intertext, not unlike that of post-modernity: myths, narratives, ... memorable events and ancestral customs are mobilized and (re)loaded as reference for use in the pervasive and often competitive negotiation of social-cultural and political agendas, visions and identities." (175) Mimesis, Zadorojnyi declares, "necessitates contextualization on a sliding scale between dutiful fidelity and subversive parody" (176) Plutarch's "approach to the past is willy-nilly metahistorical" (176). Zadorojnyi's study culminates in a portrayal of the camp of Pompey after Pharsalus. Littered with goblets and couches, the camp becomes an "ethopoe(t)ic text bespeaking the 'manic optimism' of Pompey's men" (193). Caesar's own comment on Pharsalus and Herodotus' description of the Persian encampment at Plataea lead us to "a parallel between Caesar and Pausanias [...] an occasion for metahistorical mimesis," (195) with Alexander the Great as the "intertextual bridge" between them (197). This association, or "mimetic correlation," is involuntary: "neither Alexander [...] nor Caesar [...] wants to pose as the gullible Spartan of Herodotus," but "they have no choice." For Plutarch's "paideutically avid readership," the correlation is dictated by narrative structure.

In closing, two remarks seem pertinent. First, both Zadorojnyi's emphasis on mimesis and Krebs' and Grethlein's reference to the "complex temporal dynamic" of the past as "a kaleidoscope [that] can destabilize a historical narrative" (7) suggest a look at Erich Auerbach. Auerbach's approach to classical historiography was deeply influenced by Eduard Norden's Antike Kunstprosa [2, 3, 4]. Mimesis is packed with condemnations of the high or "rhetorical" style, "static apriorism" (39), and "aristocratic reluctance to become involved with growth processes in the depths" (38). Sallust was the first to hint at "realistic" portrayal (57), Ammianus Marcellinus reflects real change - toward the "gruesomely sensory" (60) - and only the "confused" and "monstrous" sentences of Gregory of Tours mark (82) the advent of "realism": "The Church's realism, as it appears, perhaps for the first time, in literary form in Gregory, goes [...] into practical activity in the practical world, is nourished by everyday experience, and has its feet on the ground." (92)

This is not the place to open up reconsideration of Mimesis, though doing so would draw attention to Auerbach's beloved Augustine, whose own angel of history - Modo enim cognovi, quoniam timeas Deum tu [Gen. 22:12] - led to reflections on the "plupast" that continue to resonate in studies of narrative. (Did he discuss these with the future John XXIII, his acquaintance in Istanbul?) [5] Auerbach's condemnation of "static apriorism" and advocacy of "realistic" writing are relevant here. Time and Narrative, repeatedly emphasizing "dissonant interpretations", "kaleidoscopes", "complex temporal dynamics", "destabilizing" and so on (7), highlights "realistic" features of narrative that Auerbach, despite his genius, may have underestimated.

Second, readers have by now noticed that one word in the book's title, "plupast", is scarcely mentioned above. This is not inadvertent. As a tool for excavating the pre-history of narratives, "plupast" has some, but only some, value. We work today in an age of striking and fecund code-words ("estrangement", "difference", "writing in the middle voice", "interpretive communities"); of "analytic categories" ("gender", "race", "human nature", "culture"); and of neologisms that "burst like Roman candles in the sky", to quote one political scientist. [6] In this light show, "plupast" illumines too little. Indeed, the essays by Grethlein, Feldherr, and Zadorojnyi discussed above, along with the other fine entries, reveal that "the past" is a complex, multivalent, rewarding topic, to which the "plupast" provides at best a somewhat distracting epicycle.


[1] D.S. Levene: Sallust's Catiline and Cato the Censor, in: Classical Quarterly 50: 170-191.

[2] Eduard Norden: Die antike Kunstprosa. 2 Bände, Leipzig 1898-1909.

[3] Jan Bremmer: Erich Auerbach and His Mimesis, in: Poetics Today 20 (Spring 1999), 3-10, here 4.

[4] Erich Auerbach: Mimesis. The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Translated by Willard R. Trask, Princeton, 1953.

[5] See: Epilegomena zu Mimesis, in: Romanische Forschungen 65.1/2 (1953), 10 note 12.

[6] Daniel Nexon: The State of Political Science, May 2013:

Daniel Tompkins