Different ways of expressing the idea of historiā in the prose of Herodotus and Thucydides

Gregory Nagy
[This is an early draft of an article published in Pushing the Boundaries of Historia, ed. Mary C. English and Lee Fratantuono, Routledge 2018. It appears here by permission of the editors.]
The point of departure for this essay is the fact that Herodotus uses the word historiā (historiē in Ionic), which we translate as ‘history’, when he refers to the work that we conventionally call his History, whereas Thucydides does not use this word historiā anywhere in his corresponding History. I will argue that the idea of historiā as understood by Herodotus is expressed and understood by Thucydides as well, but he expresses this idea in a different way. In other words, Herodotus and Thucydides have different ways of expressing the idea of historiā.

The use of the word historiē by Herodotus

As I have argued in another project (Nagy 1990 ch. 8 and ch. 9) Herodotus uses this word historiē in his prooemium (0.0.0) and elsewhere to express a kind of investigation that displays the juridical and moral expertise of the speaker. But such investigation also displays scientific expertise, which was highly valued in the historical context of Herodotus’ own life and times (Nagy 1990:311 = 10§53). So I agree with Rosalind Thomas (2000) when she argues for this scientific aspect of the word, though I disagree with her undervaluing of the juridical and moral aspects (Nagy 2011 §162).
Herodotus uses this word historiē in his prooemium (0.0.0) in such a way as to signal the scientific as well as moral and juridical superiority of his world view over the world view of rivals with whom he contrasts himself in the sentence that follows the prooemium. That following sentence is the first sentence of the text proper of the History of Herodotus (1.1.1.). In this first sentence, Herodotus refers to his rivals as logioi ‘masters of speech’, describing them as siding with the Persians instead of the Hellenes (1.1.1). I should emphasize that these logioi, though they are presented as inferior to Herodotus, are still worthy rivals, since he refers to them in contexts where they too, like Herodotus, could deal with moral and juridical aitiai ‘causes’ or ‘cases’ (Nagy 1990:121–122 = 8§9, with reference to Herodotus 1.1.1 and its organic relation to the highlighting of historiē in Herodotus 0.0.0; see also Asheri et al. 2007:72–73, citing my analysis in Nagy 1990 ch. 8). Still, even if the logioi are qualified rivals, the point is that Herodotus as the master of historiē is even more qualified. Only Herodotus, by claiming mastery of historiē, could claim a superior authority not only in moral and juridical matters but even in science (Nagy 2011 §163).
Combining synchronic and diachronic approaches (in using the terms “synchronic” and “diachronic” I follow the definitions in Saussure 1916:117), I have analyzed the contrast set up by Herodotus between the authority of his historiē and the corresponding authority of the logioi (Nagy 2011; see especially §161 for a debate with the critique of Luraghi 2009). Here is a summary of my analysis (Nagy 2011 §164):
From a synchronic point of view … the meaning of historiē in the usage of Herodotus is broader than the meaning of logios and is therefore more applicable to the medium of this author. From a diachronic point of view, the meaning of historiē can be seen as newer for the medium of Herodotus, while the meaning of logios would be older for the practitioner of such a medium; and, though it is an older word that used to have a broader meaning, logios now develops a relatively narrower meaning in contrast to the broader meaning that has in the meantime been appropriated by the word historiē.
For this analysis, I applied the “fourth law of analogy” as formulated by Jerzy Kuryłowicz (1945–1949 [1966] 169) and as reformulated by myself (Nagy 1990:5–6 = 0§13) with reference to the semantics of secondary meanings taken on by older forms when the primary meanings of these forms have been taken over by newer forms (Nagy 2011 §165). I also applied a relevant formulation by Mikhail Bakhtin ([1984] 410): “The object that has been destroyed remains in the world but in a new form of being in time and space; it becomes the ‘other side’ of the new object that has taken its place” (again, Nagy 2011 §165, with reference to Nagy 1990:6 = 0§13 with n18).
In terms of Bakhtin’s formulation, we can think of logios as a word that specializes in referring to the “other side” of historiē, an exotic side that is seemingly less appropriate to Hellenes and more appropriate to non-Hellenes (Nagy 2011 §166). Herodotus uses the word logioi with specific reference to masters of discourse who are Persians (1.1.1.), Egyptians (2.3.1, 2.77.1), and Scythians (4.46.1). I find it relevant to note here the wry remark made by Plutarch in his essay On the Malice of Herodotus (871d), where he mentions specifically the Scythians, the Persians, and the Egyptians as the talking characters of Herodotus, to be contrasted with animals such as apes and ravens who are featured as the talking characters of Aesop’s fables (again, Nagy 2011 §166). Plutarch is in effect saying that any communication from such Scythians, Persians, and Egyptians, who as we have seen are described as logioi in the History of Herodotus, is a matter of hearing virtual fables. And, from a diachronic point of view, Plutarch is right, if we think of the telling of these virtual fables in the comprehensive sense of telling an ainos (again, Nagy 2011 §166, this time with reference to Nagy 1990:332, 334 = 11§19, 11§35).

The non-use of the word historiā by Thucydides

Such a broad understanding of historiē as we see it at work in the discourse of Herodotus becomes too broad for his immediate successors. The most prominent example is Thucydides. He never uses the word historiā, which would be the Attic equivalent of Ionic historiē, nor does he ever use the derivative form historeîn (Nagy 1990:220 = 8§7). The priorities of Thucydides are evidently different from those of Herodotus. And the same can be said about Xenophon, who self-consciously continues his Hellenic History where Thucydides left off: like Thucydides, Xenophon never uses the word historiā or its derivative historeîn. To be contrasted is the prominent featuring of historiā at the beginnings of the Histories of later authors such as Polybius (1.1.1), Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities 1.1.2, and Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 1.1.1).
So, how are the priorities of Thucydides different from those of Herodotus? The answer to this question is relevant to the point I was making about the word logios. Just as Herodotus avoids applying this word logios to himself, assuming that the authority of his historiē surpasses the authority of logioi, so also Thucydides avoids applying the word historiā to his discovery procedures, assuming that they surpass the discovery procedures linked with historiā. Such an assumption on the part of Thucydides can be linked with his awareness that his medium, unlike the medium of Herodotus, is a written text that does not need to be performed and therefore does not depend on public approval (Thucydides 1.22.4, with commentary in Nagy 1990:220 = 8§7).
Even so, Thucydides can be seen as a potential practitioner of historiā if we view both synchronically and diachronically the words that he uses in referring to his discovery procedures, just as Herodotus can be seen as a potential logios if we view both synchronically and diachronically his uses of that word. For example, we find in the first twenty-two sections of Book I of Thucydides three attestations where he refers to his discovery procedures by using the verb heuriskein ‘discover, make discoveries’ in collocation with the noun tekmērion ‘piece of evidence’ or with the related verb tekmairesthai ‘estimate [on the basis of evidence]’. Here are the three attestations:
[[1]] Θουκυδίδης Ἀθηναῖος ξυνέγραψε τὸν πόλεμον τῶν Πελοποννησίων καὶ Ἀθηναίων, ὡς ἐπολέμησαν πρὸς ἀλλήλους, ἀρξάμενος εὐθὺς καθισταμένου καὶ ἐλπίσας μέγαν τε ἔσεσθαι καὶ ἀξιολογώτατον τῶν προγεγενημένων, τεκμαιρόμενος ὅτι ἀκμάζοντές τε ᾖσαν ἐς αὐτὸν ἀμφότεροι παρασκευῇ τῇ πάσῃ καὶ τὸ ἄλλο Ἑλληνικὸν ὁρῶν ξυνιστάμενον πρὸς ἑκατέρους, τὸ μὲν εὐθύς, τὸ δὲ καὶ διανοούμενον. {1.1.2} κίνησις γὰρ αὕτη μεγίστη δὴ τοῖς Ἕλλησιν ἐγένετο καὶ μέρει τινὶ τῶν βαρβάρων, ὡς δὲ εἰπεῖν καὶ ἐπὶ πλεῖστον ἀνθρώπων. {1.1.3} τὰ γὰρ πρὸ αὐτῶν καὶ τὰ ἔτι παλαίτερα σαφῶς μὲν εὑρεῖν διὰ χρόνου πλῆθος ἀδύνατα ἦν, ἐκ δὲ τεκμηρίων ὧν ἐπὶ μακρότατον σκοποῦντί μοι πιστεῦσαι ξυμβαίνει οὐ μεγάλα νομίζω γενέσθαι οὔτε κατὰ τοὺς πολέμους οὔτε ἐς τὰ ἄλλα.
Thucydides of Athens wrote a systematic account of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, how they fought the war with each other. He began right at the moment when the war got under way, expecting that it would be a big war and one worth speaking about, more than any other war. And he was making an estimate [tekmairesthai] [on the basis of evidence]. One piece of evidence was the fact that both sides were at the peak of readiness in every aspect of their preparation. Another piece of evidence was the fact that all Hellenes were about to ally themselves with one side or the other. Some would choose sides right away, while others were still thinking about it. {1.1.2} I say all this because, as it turned out, this thing that was set in motion was the biggest thing that had ever happened to the Hellenes and to a large part of the non-Hellenic world - you could say, to all humankind. {1.1.3} And here is why I say this. Although it was impossible, when it comes to the things that happened immediately before the war and the things that happened even earlier, to discover [heuriskein] things in a clear way, on account of the vast stretch of intervening time, I still think, on the basis of pieces of evidence [tekmēria] that I could trust as I looked as far back as I could, that none of those other things, whether it was war or anything else, was nearly as big.
Thucydides 1.1.1–1.1.3
[[2]] Τὰ μὲν οὖν παλαιὰ τοιαῦτα ηὗρον, χαλεπὰ ὄντα παντὶ ἑξῆς τεκμηρίῳ πιστεῦσαι.
So then, such things did I discover [heuriskein] when it comes to the ancient times, and I grant that it is difficult to trust every piece of evidence [tekmērion] that I presented, one by one, in sequence.
Thucydides 1.20.1
[[3]] ἐκ δὲ τῶν εἰρημένων τεκμηρίων ὅμως τοιαῦτα ἄν τις νομίζων μάλιστα ἃ διῆλθον οὐχ ἁμαρτάνοι, καὶ οὔτε ὡς ποιηταὶ ὑμνήκασι περὶ αὐτῶν ἐπὶ τὸ μεῖζον κοσμοῦντες μᾶλλον πιστεύων, οὔτε ὡς λογογράφοι ξυνέθεσαν ἐπὶ τὸ προσαγωγότερον τῇ ἀκροάσει ἢ ἀληθέστερον, ὄντα ἀνεξέλεγκτα καὶ τὰ πολλὰ ὑπὸ χρόνου αὐτῶν ἀπίστως ἐπὶ τὸ μυθῶδες ἐκνενικηκότα, ηὑρῆσθαι δὲ ἡγησάμενος ἐκ τῶν ἐπιφανεστάτων σημείων ὡς παλαιὰ εἶναι
Anyway, on the basis of the pieces of evidence [tekmēria] that I have just put into words, one would not go wrong in thinking of such things mostly the way I have gone through them, and in not putting more trust in the poets [poiētai] and the way they have sung such things by embellishing them to be bigger than they are, or in the writers of prose [logographoi] and the way they put such things together by aiming to get the attention of their listeners instead of aiming for the truth. Such things [as treated by the poets and the writers of prose] could not be thoroughly examined for their validity, since they have succeeded in reaching the status of myth, losing for the most part their credibility over time. But, as I say, one would not go wrong in thinking that such things have been discovered [heuriskein] sufficiently well [by me] on the basis of the clearest available pieces of evidence [sēmeia], considering how old such things are.
Thucydides 1.21.1
If we compare these wordings of Thucydides with the corresponding wordings of Herodotus, we find that Herodotus likewise uses the verb heuriskein ‘discover’ in collocation with the noun tekmērion ‘piece of evidence’ or with the related verb tekmairesthai ‘estimate [on the basis of evidence]’. But the difference is, Herodotus uses these words in overt collocation with the two words avoided by Thucydides, historiā and historeîn:
{2.43.2} … πολλά μοι καὶ ἄλλα τεκμήριά ἐστι τοῦτο οὕτω ἔχειν, ἐν δὲ καὶ τόδε, ὅτι … {2.44.2} … Ἐς λόγους δὲ ἐλθὼν τοῖσι ἱρεῦσι τοῦ θεοῦ εἰρόμην ὁκόσος χρόνος εἴη ἐξ οὗ σφι τὸ ἱρὸν ἵδρυται· {2.44.3} εὗρον δὲ οὐδὲ τούτους τοῖσι Ἕλλησι συμφερομένους· … {2.44.4} Ἀπικόμην δὲ καὶ ἐς Θάσον, ἐν τῇ εὗρον ἱρὸν Ἡρακλέος ὑπὸ Φοινίκων ἱδρυμένον, … {2.44.5} Τὰ μέν νυν ἱστορημένα δηλοῖ σαφέως …
{2.43.2} … I have many pieces of evidence [tekmēria] that this is the way it is, and among these pieces there is one that stands out, that … {2.44.2} … And then, getting into a conversation with the priests of the god, I asked them how much time had elapsed since the sacred space had been founded … {2.44.3} And I found [heuriskein] that even these [priests] did not agree with the Hellenes … {2.44.4} And then I arrived in Thasos, where I found [heuriskein] a sacred space of Herakles that had been founded by the Phoenicians, … {2.44.5} So, the things that I have inquired [historeîn] about show clearly that …
Herodotus 2.43.2 … 2.44.2 … 2.44.3 … 2.44.4 … 2.44.5
Here is another example:
{1.56.1} ἱστορέων τοὺς ἂν Ἑλλήνων δυνατωτάτους ἐόντας προσκτήσαιτο φίλους. Ἱστορέων δὲ εὕρισκε … {1.57.1} … εἰ δὲ χρεόν ἐστι τεκμαιρόμενον λέγειν … {1.57.2} … εἰ τούτοισι τεκμαιρόμενον δεῖ λέγειν
{1.56.1} [Croesus was] inquiring [historeîn] which of the Hellenes were the most powerful, so that he might acquire them as friends. And as he was inquiring [historeîn], he discovered [heuriskein] that … {1.57.1} … and if I need say it by estimating [tekmairesthai] [on the basis of the evidence] … {1.57.2} … and if I need to say it by estimating [tekmairesthai] [on the basis of this evidence] …
Herodotus 1.56.1 … 1.57.1 … 1.57.2
So the infrastructure of the inquiries of Herodotus and Thucydides is expressed by the same wordings, even if Thucydides avoids applying the words historiē and historeîn to his actual mode of inquiry.
Here, then, is my conclusion: just as the word logios can apply to Herodotus diachronically but not synchronically, so also the word historiā can apply to Thucydides diachronically but not synchronically.


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