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Katherine Clarke: Shaping the Geography of Empire. Man and Nature in Herodotus' Histories, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2018, XII + 355 S., ISBN 978-0-19-882043-7, GBP 80,00
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Mathieu P. de Bakker
University of Amsterdam
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Matthias Haake
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Mathieu P. de Bakker: Rezension von: Katherine Clarke: Shaping the Geography of Empire. Man and Nature in Herodotus' Histories, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2018, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 6 [15.06.2024], URL:

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Katherine Clarke: Shaping the Geography of Empire

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Herodotus' Histories (fifth century BCE), while primarily centered on the Greco-Persian Wars, also serves as an invaluable resource for understanding the physical world of its era. An exile from the Greco-Carian city of Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum), Herodotus traversed the Aegean, Pontic and Mediterranean regions, journeyed through Egypt and the Levant, and gathered information about more distant lands such as Arabia, Persia, and India. He conveyed this geographical knowledge to his audience through descriptive sections in his work, commonly referred to as 'digressions'. Consequently, the Histories emerged as a precursor to the discipline of geography, which saw further development during the Hellenistic period and culminated in specialized treatises of Strabo and Ptolemaeus, who wrote under Roman rule.

Herodotus interweaves his geographical digressions within the narrative of Persian expansion. With each new campaign, he details the lands and peoples targeted by the great king's armies. [1] When Cambyses invades Egypt, Herodotus includes a comprehensive essay on the topic, featuring notable discussions on the Nile, the pyramids, and the country's remarkable climate and fauna (Hdt. 2.2-182). Similarly, his digression on the nomadic Scythians in the north (Hdt. 4.5-82) sets the stage for his account of the European campaign of Darius, Cambyses' successor. In the second half of the Histories, such extensive digressions are absent, yet the narrative remains punctuated with references to the physical world. These locations often add meaning to the narrative, as their names evoke, for instance, Greek legends that bear thematic relevance to the events described. [2]

Through this integrated presentation of geographical material, Herodotus innovated beyond his predecessor Hecataeus, who had confined himself to a concise description of locations and their origins in his Tour of the World. Herodotus' approach allowed him to incorporate the physical world into his moral agenda. Indeed, the Persian kings mentioned above do not escape their invasions unscathed. Nature retaliates in unpredictable ways, punishing them for their large-scale disruptions to the landscape and the lives of its inhabitants.

Although Herodotus' integration of geography into the larger framework of the Histories has been widely acknowledged, scholarship tends to distinguish categories like Herodotus 'the ethnographer', 'the narrator' and 'the historian'. [3] This pigeonholing results from the vast and varied content of the Histories, as well as the prevailing scholarly formats of commentaries and edited volumes in Herodotean studies, which typically focus on individual sections and themes rather than the work as a whole. Consequently, the depiction of geographical space in the Histories is frequently studied - albeit not without merit - as a distinct topic. [4]

In this context, Katherine Clarke deserves commendation for her meticulously referenced monograph, as she explores the multifaceted ways in which Herodotus connects geographical space to his overarching aim of illustrating the dynamics of power. In the first part of her book ("Reading Herodotus in Context", 1-43), Clarke examines spatial representation in the works of Herodotus' predecessors, Homer and Hecataeus. Utilizing the narratological concept of focalization, she argues that the complex array of perspectives and spatial viewpoints in the Histories aligns with its generally polyphonic nature, as demonstrated by Herodotus' numerous references to his sources and the speeches of his characters. [5] The second part ("Herodotus' Sense of Place and Space", 45-131) delves into his descriptions of the physical world, highlighting Herodotus' avoidance of an overly schematic approach. Clarke contends that space in the Histories is often experienced and 'lived' by characters on the move. [6] These characters may travel for trade or sightseeing, as Herodotus himself does when visiting the Phoenician city of Tyre for research (Hdt. 2.44). More frequently, however, the spatial perspective belongs to those engaged in military campaigns or forced to migrate due to external threats. Consequently, space in Herodotus becomes inherently linked to power struggles and the quest for better land and wealth, which are central forces in the historical narratives he describes. Clarke identifies islands, mountains, and waterways as significant spatial entities, with waterways most clearly articulating Herodotus' conception of the physical world. She observes, for instance, a stark contrast between the Egyptians and Babylonians, who use their rivers for peaceful, agricultural purposes, and the Persians, who punish waterways when they obstruct their imperial ambitions. Cyrus, for example, divides the river Gyndes into 360 channels after the drowning of his horse (Hdt. 1.189), and Xerxes infamously lashes the Hellespont after a storm destroys his bridge of ships (Hdt. 7.35). Thus, Herodotus uses the treatment of rivers as a characterizing tool.

This line of thought is further explored in part III ("Giving Meaning to Space", 133-218), which examines the various ways in which Herodotus imbues space with meaning. An important conclusion here is that human interventions in the landscape, even on a grand scale, are not automatically condemned or attributed to hubristic intentions. Some interventions are even praised by the historian, as exemplified by the man-made Lake Moeris and the Labyrinth in Egypt, which he admires 'beyond words' (Hdt. 2.148-149). However, such admiration is notably absent when the landscape is altered as part of a military campaign, with Xerxes' attempt to dig a canal at Athos serving as a prime example (Hdt. 7.22). Xerxes' invasion of Europe is framed as an assault on the natural world itself, prompting divine retribution through weather events that significantly hinder his military efforts. Part IV ("Grand Designs", 219-317) offers a deeper reflection on imperialism, arguing that the Persians are depicted as the quintessential imperialists among the peoples discussed in the Histories. However, the victims of Persian aggression are not without blame either. The Scythians, for instance, destroy their own landscape to thwart Darius' armies, while the Athenians show themselves no longer 'aligned with the natural world' when they crucify the Persian governor Artaÿctes after expelling Xerxes' forces from Europe (Hdt. 9.120, 268). The two chapters in this part extend beyond the natural world, incorporating observations on motivation, divination, divine intervention, the nature of hubris [7], and the relationship between constants and change in the Histories. Inevitably, conclusions drawn by previous scholars recur, particularly regarding the moral lessons of the Histories. However, Clarke insightfully integrates these conclusions into a framework that involves the physical world as described from multiple perspectives and vantage points, thereby successfully alerting her readers to the richness and complexity of Herodotus' work.

Clarke's erudite style makes reading her book a challenging yet engaging experience. At times, the work could benefit from more concise arguments, as some points are made more than once across the work. [8] Nevertheless, a significant strength of the book is its awareness of the many subtle connections and interactions within the intricate fabric of Herodotus' text. Clarke, for instance, notes that the Egyptian and Babylonian royals named Nitocris are not just coincidental namesakes but thematically liked by their diversion of natural watercourses to achieve their goals (Hdt. 1.185; 2.100; 166). Elsewhere, she observes that the first instance of active Persian interest in the Greek world already comes with a warning when their ships are wrecked off the coast of Iapygia in Italy, a foreshadowing of naval setbacks that would hamper the Persians in later campaigns (Hdt. 3.138.1, 284). Another suggestive connection is drawn between the winged serpents invading Egypt, warded off by Ibis birds in a mountain pass, and the Spartan resistance - ultimately unsuccessful - against the Persians at Thermoplyae (Hdt. 2.75.3-4; 7.176; 288). While some of Clarke's observations may be contentious - such as the interpretation of Gargaphiè as a river rather than a wellhead (Hdt. 9.49.2, 238) or the claim that Herodotus is 'amoral' regarding the pyramid-building Pharaoh Cheops, given that negative judgements are embedded in oratio obliqua (Hdt. 2.124-126; 182-189) - overall, she successfully highlights the associative coherence of the Histories. Clarke demonstrates the suggestive and evocative ways in which Herodotus encourages his audience to compare and weigh his geographical information in relation to his larger narrative enterprise. Her book pays due homage to Herodotus as an observer of the natural world affected by human interference, a topic of prime relevance to any 21st century audience.


[1] For the over-all structure of the Histories see H. Immerwahr: Form and Thought in Herodotus, Cleveland 1966.

[2] See A. Bowie: Mythology and the Expedition of Xerxes, in: E. Baragwanath / M. de Bakker (eds.): Myth, Truth, and Narrative in Herodotus, Oxford 2012, 269-286.

[3] Examples are the volumes of E. Bakker / I. de Jong / H. van Wees (eds.): Brill's Companion to Herodotus, Leiden / Boston / Cologne 2002 and E. Bowie (ed.): Herodotus: Narrator, Scientist, Historian, Berlin / Boston 2018.

[4] See for instance R. Bichler: Herodots Welt. Der Aufbau der Historie am Bild der fremden Länder und Völker, ihrer Zivilisation und ihrer Geschichte, Berlin 2001.

[5] For spatial representation and narratology in ancient Greek literature see I. de Jong (ed.): Space in Ancient Greek Literature, Leiden / Boston 2012.

[6] In this she follows a lead explored by A. Purves: Space and Time in Ancient Greek Narrative, Cambridge 2010.

[7] For the concept of hubris Clarke follows the views of D. Cairns: Hybris, Dishonour, and Thinking Big, in: Journal of Hellenic Studies 116 (1996), 1-32. For a different conception see N. Fisher: Hybris: A Study in the Values of Guilt and Shame in Ancient Greece, Warminster 1992.

[8] For instance the viewpoint that Polycrates of Samos is presented as ambiguous figure in relation to Persian imperialism, which is discussed on 174-177, 190 and 289-290.

Mathieu P. de Bakker