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6-10-2015, 18:04

The Place of History and the Place of Historiography

Moses Finley (1975: 14) emphatically ruled out the possibility that epic poetry, whatever else it was, could be considered history. Greeks of any epoch would have expressed their perplexity at this statement or at least would have called for a debate. No Greek in fact ever held such an opinion. On the contrary, Thucydides, in the so-called ‘‘Archaeology’’ (1.2-19), sought to demonstrate the superiority of his argument and of his account with respect to the Iliad, and moreover, he compared the degree of reliability of Homer’s testimony with the much more accurate investigations that he himself had conducted on a history even more ancient than Homer’s (1.10, 1.21: see Nicolai 2001b). The fact that Thucydides dedicates one of the more demanding sections of his work to this confrontation with Homer and to the demonstration of the superior paradigmaticism of the Peloponnesian War vis-a-vis the Trojan War demonstrates that for Thucydides the most important touchstone in the Greek intellectual sphere was in fact Homer. And if it is true that in the light of modern historiography (and also several tendencies in ancient historiography) epic cannot be defined as history, it is just as true that for centuries epic represented the only reliable record of the past that the Greeks had at their disposal, and that even after the invention of historiography, when one wanted to take a look at more ancient history, one could not do more than go back to epic poetry (Nicolai 2003a).

I believe that it is not sufficient to search Homeric epic for historical information or for the elements that came to be considered characteristic of historical narration. Rather, it is appropriate to try to take another look at epic poetry, in order to see what a Greek found there in terms of an awareness of his own past and the construction of his own identity. A narration of past events that forms the identity of a people, whether at a collective level or at the level of a single city or single clan (gene), and that constitutes for that people the principle paradigmatic reference, cannot be ignored by those who seek to delineate the proper place of history and of historiography in the Greek and Roman world.

The first and most important indication of the strength of epic in Greek culture is the link that it created between the identity of the Greeks and ‘‘glorious deeds’’ ( klea andron: Il. 9.189, 524; Od. 8.73) worthy of being saved from oblivion with song. In the Iliad Achilles, the hero par excellence, sings to Patroclus the glorious deeds of men (9.189), to show that Homeric heroes also had a past to sing and from which to take models. The paradigmatic value of klea andron is then continued by Phoenix (9.524), where he introduces an exemplary event. In the absence of political unity and also of a strong and unifying religion (such as, e. g., the monotheism of the Jews), the Greeks identified themselves in epic song, or, to be more precise, in their past, from which poetry had selected and transmitted the most memorable events. The Greeks also recognized that the poets had identified and in some ways founded their religion (Hdt. 2.53.2-3). That the Homeric poems are the book of Greek culture entails (and not as a secondary consequence) the utilization of a human past as a model and foundation of the present. The Iliad is not a sacred book like the Bible, and it does not recount the acts of a single hero, such as Gilgamesh, who searches for divine immortality, but recounts instead human events, with the gods as helpers or opponents.

For the public, epic recalled events distant in time: the bards knowingly archaized their works, both in language and in content, creating that inextricable mixture of past and present characteristic of every epic. One must strongly emphasize that this archaization, besides being a necessity of the genre and strengthening the exemplary force of an event, is a sign of the basic understanding of chronological distance from the events narrated. Furthermore, the stratified composition through the centuries introduced anachronisms and other blendings. To give a single example, the place names of the ‘‘Catalogue of Ships’’ (Il. 2.484-779, with Visser 1997, who provides an ample bibliography) are the result of the desire for amplification, accumulating names upon names, and assigning them formulaic epithets that dignify even lesser-known localities; and, in the desire to antiquate, choosing names of cities that contained a veiled memory, or in some cases inventing one for the occasion. The resulting picture is not a description of Greece in the Mycenaean age or the archaic age, but rather an indecipherable mixture upon which whole generations of ancient and modern philology have been based. Nonetheless, for the Greeks the presence or absence of a city in the Catalogue was a cause for pride or shame, and in certain cases the verses of the Catalogue were used to solve political and territorial controversies. Epic, in short, was an irreplaceable document, a type of historical archive, to be consulted and at times to be interpolated or falsified, but always to be interpreted (for the exegesis of epic poetry as a part of genealogy and historiography see Nicolai 2003a). One of the main supports for epic poetry was genealogy, which identified characters connected to each other through means of the simple patronymic and stabilized a series of relations with the heroes of preceding generations. The creation of genealogical epics by Hesiod at both the divine (Theogony) and human (Catalogue of Women) level indicates that the public had a specific interest in this kind of material.

It was precisely the immense awareness required by catalogue poetry that drove the poet who composed the prologue to the ‘‘Catalogue of Ships’’ (Il. 2.484-493) to confront the limited knowledge founded on kleos (reputation) with that of the omniscient Muses, who are present and aware. The Muse, daughter of Mnemosyne (Memory), is able to compensate for the limitations of the poet, who becomes the latest ring of collective memory. to the Muse ( Od. 8.488-491), Demo-docus can sing the sufferings of the Achaeans and the capture of Troy, events at which he had not been present, with such precision as to provoke the admiration and the tears of Odysseus, who was a protagonist of the story (Od. 8.521-531). Epic, therefore, is a product of the memory of a people, and at the same time an encyclopedia and cultural book of that people (Rossi 1978, esp. 87-92). Historiography, heir of epic poetry, will retain this goal of preserving memory (cf. Herodotus’ preface) and also the goal of suggesting itself as a repertoire of dynamics and behaviors, in other words of paradigms (especially, with Thucydides, politico-military paradigms: see his famous formulation, 1.22.4).

The paradigmatic and educative aim on the one hand removes ancient historiography from its modern counterpart with its claim to be a science, while on the other hand links history to other genres that had among their goals the construction of a collective identity and the telling of paradigmatic events: I am referring particularly to tragedy, but also to oratory, both epideictic, as it can be seen in the funeral oration (see, above all, Loraux 1981), and deliberative. In the funeral oration Athens’ past occupies a central position, but one searches in vain here for a serious reconstruction of the city’s history; on the contrary, the history of this genre seems to reflect the precept of Tisias and Gorgias (ap. Plat. Phaedr. 267b1), picked up by Isocrates: ‘‘to go through ancient events in a new way and to speak in an old-fashioned manner of recent events’’ (Paneg. 8, with Marincola 1997: 276-277; Nicolai 2004: 75-76, 129-131). The clear intent is to render the recent past paradigmatically by placing it on the same level as that mythic past which time, distance, and the works of the poets (including tragedy) had made exemplary.

The importance of paradigms derived from past history continued, in different literary genres and various forms, the goals and in certain ways the criteria that presided over the narrative choices of epic song. But alongside the exemplary history of the tragedians and orators, other genres developed that had as their subject past events: genealogies, which continued and interpreted the epos and had the aim of consolidating and organizing the memories of aristocratic clans {gene); various forms of local historiography, either strictly local or regional; antiquarianism, necessary to create and reinforce identity and the sense of belonging to a community; and works on the customs of foreign peoples, which exhibited and explained the ‘‘other.’’ All of these genres constituted a type of galaxy {rather difficult for us to decipher because of the loss of so many works) that was linked to other galaxies, such as the various genres of geographic literature which also gave space to genealogical, historical, and ethnographic concerns. None of these early genres that handled historical material possessed the paradigmatic force of epic or the capacity to involve a Panhellenic public. Therefore, it was not Hecataeus, indissolubly linked to epic and limited to genealogical material, who created a new literary genre directed towards the conservation of the historical memory of the Greeks {see Nicolai 1997): rather, it was Herodotus and Thucydides who confronted epic poetry and tried to substitute new models for those offered by Homer; both men responded to the needs of an age that sought more extended and reliable knowledge {Herodotus especially), to be utilized in particular for the formation of a governing class {Thucydides especially). Historiography is one of the products of this period that is often known as an age of sophists, and there is no doubt that Herodotus and Thucydides were strongly influenced by sophistic ideas; it is possible that they even considered themselves sophists. Certainly the methods by which Herodotus published his work were not very different from the recitations of Lysias or Protagoras that we know from Plato’s dialogues {Thomas 1993; Thomas 2000, esp. 258, 284). The historians shared with the sophists the goal of transmitting useful knowledge into political life, enough so that historiography was classified by Aristotle as a part of politics {Rhet. 1360a).