Between Thucydides and Polybius: The Golden Age of Greek Historiography

  Parmegianni, Giovanni. 2014. Between Thucydides and Polybius: The Golden Age of Greek Historiography. Hellenic Studies Series 64. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

1. Introduction

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Giovanni Parmeggiani

In the modern reception of ancient Greek history, the fourth century BCE has always been seen as a period of transition from the golden Classical age of the fifth century to the Hellenistic period: an appendix to the former, a prologue to the latter. Given this peculiar and unfavourable intermediary position, the fourth century has often been seen in a negative light, and has never really gained the status of an age with a proper, legitimate identity.

It is a widespread opinion that, as often happens with periods of transition, the fourth century was, above all, a time of decadence (decadence of the Greek polis, and of Greek historiography). Considering that many political and cultural changes did take place in the period 404–323 BCE, however, the concept of decadence is hardly helpful. On the contrary, since it has been brought into play in order to explain the transition from the greatness of the Classical to the Hellenistic age, it appears to reflect the prejudice that the fifth century was the pinnacle of the Greek cultural experience as a whole. It goes without saying that such a perspective is affected by a classicist bias and is, in every respect, questionable. The idea that the time when founders of Western thought such as Plato and Aristotle lived, and also the literature they shared, was decadent does not seem particularly convincing.

The fourth century has always suffered from comparison with the fifth. This is an initial difficulty that every modern scholar has to deal with when studying fourth-century historiography and, more generally, the way that fourth-century literature dealt with the past. Indeed, one could speak of the shadow that the fifth century casts on the fourth. Just as Photius the Patriarch was puzzled by Theopompus of Chios’ self-praise, observing that the superiority Theopompus claimed for himself over fifth-century predecessors was inconceivable because of the undisputed greatness of Herodotus and Thucydides, [1] {1|2} similarly Felix Jacoby stated in 1926 that Greek historiography reached its perfection with Thucydides, thus implying that historians of the fourth century could not match the greatness of their predecessor. [2] “Abstieg nach Thukydides,” dixit Jacoby, and once again the concept of decadence creeps in, as a consequence of the preconceived superiority of the fifth century. Things do not appear to have changed much since the time of Photius (ninth century CE).

Classicist prejudices are prevalent even today. But a closer examination of Theopompus’ own words as they have been transmitted to us by Photius would suffice to make clear that Theopompus was not simply praising himself, but also the literature of his time, seemingly regardless of genre boundaries. If we cannot agree a priori with Theopompus (for in so doing we would simply reverse the classicist bias), we should meditate on this statement and take it as a starting point for a careful reexamination of fourth-century culture.

On top of this, there is a third difficulty we need to consider: the tendency of modern critics to use inadequate concepts for defining and understanding fourth-century literature. This approach has obviously led to serious misunderstandings, as in the case of Isocrates (Marincola, this volume) and Xenophon (Nicolai, this volume). The concept of ‘rhetorical historiography’ is a major case in point. It rests on the false premises that Isocrates, as the teacher of Ephorus and Theopompus, was the proponent of an historiographical program and that devoting attention to style and using historical exempla are practices {2|3} incompatible with the search for the truth. Thus, the concept of ‘rhetorical historiography’ not only hides the real nature of Ephorus’ and Theopompus’ historiography (see below), but prevents us from understanding Isocrates in a more constructive way: as an intellectual who participated in the debates on the meaning and utility of history (an abiding interest for every intellectual in the fourth century, and not for historians alone). Similarly, modern critics tend to apply misleading labels to Xenophon and his works. Accordingly, they fail to understand that he, like Isocrates, was an experimenter in various prose genres, and did not feel compelled to conform to pre-existing models, but rather changed them, freely moving from one genre to another within a single work.

Once we become aware of the pitfalls outlined above, new and more constructive avenues of interpretation open up. Indeed, the last point indicates a fundamental feature of the fourth century. It seems that intellectuals of this period—historians, orators, and philosophers alike—looked for new modes of writing, deliberately crossing the boundaries between genres. Perhaps because the boundaries of prose genres were yet to be clearly defined (as in the case of historiography, see below), and also because intellectuals did not think that knowledge was the prerogative of a particular discipline, they could afford to move freely across generic boundaries on the basis of particular goals. This was an age for experimenters and innovators, an age for polymaths. Unsurprisingly, the fourth century was the time when philosophers such as Aristotle were able, when necessary, to practice history with a high degree of methodological awareness, clearly inspired by the method of Thucydides (Bertelli, this volume).

Certainly, the fourth century was also the time when historiography, by distinguishing itself from other disciplines, became a literary genre (genos historikon) with precise methods and aims. One may say that defining and crossing boundaries are two closely connected activities, and in this respect, Theopompus of Chios’ contribution was decisive (Vattuone, this volume). One of the most complex and important intellectuals of the fourth century—on a par with Isocrates, Xenophon, and Aristotle—the historian Theopompus is often remembered as philalethes by ancient authors. Indeed, he never disavowed Thucydides’ historical credo, but rather extended the purview of historical inquiry, by insisting that the practice of historiography was not a parergon, something to be carried out on the side, but rather required a specific method of research, i.e. a thoughtful use of the sources.

On this, a comparative look at other fourth-century historians may be instructive. Xenophon, in his Hellenica, appears to have been less interested in documents than Thucydides had been. Nonetheless, his use of documents seems consistent with his predecessor’s, with documents serving historiographical and not merely decorative purposes (Bearzot, this volume). Ephorus of Cyme {3|4} drew upon comedy not as an authority to be blindly followed, as scholars have sometimes thought, but as evidence demonstrating that Pericles’ responsibility for the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War was publicly debated by contemporaries and that his rhetorical strength was a decisive factor in initiating the war (Parmeggiani, this volume). Ephorus thus evinces a sophisticated approach to historical evidence. In this respect, we have every reason to conclude that fourth-century historians succeeded in maintaining the high standards of their fifth-century predecessors, and may even have surpassed them.

Concepts of continuity and development actually describe the relationship between fifth- and fourth-century historiography better than discontinuity and regression. Theopompus expanded the field of aitiai: alongside the causes of events, he studied the reasons for men’s actions, their aims, plans, wishes, and passions. The Thucydidean aetiology of aphanes—i.e. the historical practice of revealing the most hidden causes of events and actions—was, in this way, strengthened. A similar claim can be advanced for Ephorus. His version of the causes of the Peloponnesian War testifies to how his consideration of new data and his disclosure of Pericles’ thoughts and aims extended Thucydides’ point of view on the causes of the war to give a different and, above all, a more complete picture. Ephorus treated Pericles’ personal affairs, the internal politics of Athens, the politics of the Delian League, and the relationship between Athens and Sparta as interwoven problems (Parmeggiani, this volume). The increased attention devoted to historical causation is visible also in the fact that even fourth-century writers of Persica, a genre that bordered on ethnography, paid greater attention to explanation than did their fifth-century predecessors (Lenfant, this volume).

Clearly there is much more at stake than the simple ‘praise and blame’ that modern critics usually ascribe to Ephorus and Theopompus—and to various other historians—as if it were the only cause and purpose of their works. If the paradigmatic vision of history was crucial for some authors who, like Xenophon, did not feel compelled to adhere to the boundaries of genos historikon, the same cannot be said for others, such as Ephorus and Theopompus, who worked on the contrary to define these boundaries. Once again, we see that the concept of ‘rhetorical historiography’ does not adequately define Ephorus’ and Theopompus’ work and historiographical practice. We may also observe this in other respects. According to the traditional view of the fourth century, the collapse of the polis system gave rise to a new historiography, whose interest was mainly in ethics and literature, and not in politics (this being an effect of the ‘corruption’ of historiography by rhetoric). But far from being out of sight, politics were in fact crucial in the works of Ephorus and Theopompus. This is suggested by, for example, the choice by Ephorus of the Return of the Heraclidae {4|5} as the starting point for his Histories. In the age of Philip II of Macedon, the Return appears to have played a prominent role in political debates, to the point that no writer of an history of Greece could ignore it. The very choice of such a beginning, then, confirms that Ephorus’ approach to history was informed by his awareness of contemporary politics (Luraghi, this volume). The attention Ephorus paid to Spartan history as a central theme in his work points to a similar conclusion (Tully, this volume, discussing whether ‘Universal History’ is a legitimate label for Ephorus’ Histories).

Both these facts are testimony to the persistent centrality of politics within fourth-century historiography, despite the claims of many modern critics, who prefer to depict fourth-century historiography as a mere reaction to the literary tradition. After Aegospotami (405 BCE), the Spartans failed to replace the Athenians in the Aegean, both politically and culturally, and the cities of Asia Minor filled this cultural vacuum by each reasserting their own political and cultural identity, by recording local deeds, traditions—even if mutually conflicting—and monuments (Thomas, this volume). Something similar happened, one may observe, with the outstanding individuals of the age, who crafted their uniqueness before the public through statues, monuments and {5|6} historical works (Ferrario, this volume): memory was the battleground for identity, for individuals and communities alike. The flourishing of local/polis histories in the fourth century, especially in the Ionian poleis, seems better explained as a consequence of the need for political and cultural self-assertion against the hegemonic claims of Athens and Persia, than as a literary reaction—as Jacoby maintained—to the “grand history” of the struggle between Persians and Greeks (Thomas, this volume). Once again, we must conclude, the variety of forms of fourth-century historiography seems to find its roots in politics, and not in the inner dynamics of a literary tradition supposedly disconnected from politics.

A better understanding of fourth-century historiography and of fourth-century literature that dealt more generally with the past becomes possible when we put these writings into context, i.e. when we pay attention to their period and its historical specificity. When we put aside the preconceived notions that have long influenced modern critics, the fourth century appears in its full light as a period of innovations, problematic but stimulating, and in no way inferior to the fifth. The editor and the scholars who have contributed to the present volume will be satisfied if the collected papers provoke the reader to rethink, as now seems necessary, this complex of problems.{6|}


Bloch, H., ed. 1956. Abhandlungen zur griechischen Geschichtschreibung von Felix Jacoby zu seinem achtzigsten Geburtstag am 19 März 1956. Leiden.

Jacoby, F. 1909. “Über die Entwicklung der griechischen Historiographie und den Plan einer neuen Sammlung der griechischen Historikerfragmente.” Klio 9:80–123. (= Bloch 1956:16–64)

———. 1926. “Griechische Geschichtschreibung.” Die Antike 2:1–29. (= Bloch 1956:73–99)

Lenfant, D., ed. 2007. Athénée et les fragments d’historiens, Actes du colloque de Strasbourg, 16–18 juin 2005. Paris.

Parmeggiani, G. 2011. Eforo di Cuma. Studi di storiografia greca. Bologna.

Schepens, G. 1997. “Jacoby’s FGrHist: Problems, Methods, Prospects.” In Collecting Fragments. Fragmente sammeln, ed. G. W. Most, 144–172. Göttingen.

Schepens, G., and Bollansée, J., eds. 2005. The Shadow of Polybius. Intertextuality as a Research Tool in Greek Historiography. Proceedings of the International Colloquium (Leuven, 21–22 September 2001). Leuven.

Strasburger, H. 1977. “Umblick im Trümmerfeld der griechischen Geschichtsschreibung.” In Historiographia antiqua. Commentationes Lovanienses in honorem W. Peremans septuagenarii editae, ed. T. Reekmans et al., 3–52. Leuven.


[ back ] 1. Photius Bibliotheca 176.121a (Theopompus FGH 115 F 25).

[ back ] 2. See Jacoby 1909 and 1926.

[ back ] 3. Strasburger 1977.

[ back ] 4. On Polybius, see Schepens and Bollansée 2005. On Athenaeus, see Lenfant 2007. On Diodorus, specifically in relation to Ephorus, see now Parmeggiani 2011.

[ back ] 5. See Schepens 1997:166n66 for the concept of ‘cover-text’.

[ back ] 6. For a new and comprehensive examination of the existing evidence on Ephorus, presenting a reconstruction of the contents of his Histories and a definition of his historical aims and method of research, see Parmeggiani 2011.