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.

3. Rethinking Isocrates and Historiography [1]

John Marincola


It is a truism often expressed when studying classical historiography that we are hampered by an absence of theoretical writings on the subject. Although we know the names of several works written “On History” in antiquity, [2] only three essays have come down to us with any claim to be theoretical in orientation, and each of the three, in different ways, is something of an embarrassment. Perhaps the least problematic one, Lucian’s How to Write History, has been held to give some useful advice on the writing of history in a Thucydidean mode, but even this work has come under fire: Moses Finley long ago called it “a shallow and essentially worthless pot-boiler,” [3] and more recently {39|40} A. J. Woodman has argued that the work is mainly concerned with praise and blame and the attendant dangers thereon, rather than with any actual theoretical approach to inquiring about the past. [4] And indeed, there is but one chapter in the whole work that deals with inquiry (47), and it is hardly enlightening or encouraging. For the two others, alas, the verdict is even more dire: Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ essay On Thucydides seems perfectly happy not to consider any of the ways in which Thucydides gathered and processed his information, and is mainly concerned with the word choice, arrangement, and stylistic adornment that is proper to writing history; while Plutarch’s On the Malice of Herodotus seems to many simplistic in the extreme, envisioning history as nothing other than a series of noble deeds performed with the highest motives in mind. [5]

To begin with the obvious, Isocrates never wrote history, and in the proem to the Panathenaicus he states clearly that although histories are justly praised he did not use his talents in that direction:

νεώτερος μὲν ὢν προῃρούμην γράφειν τῶν λόγων οὐ τοὺς μυθώδεις οὐδὲ τοὺς τερατείας καὶ ψευδολογίας μεστοὺς, οἷς οἱ πολλοὶ μᾶλλον χαίρουσιν ἢ τοῖς περὶ τῆς αὑτῶν σωτηρίας λεγομένοις, οὐδὲ τοὺς τὰς παλαιὰς πράξεις καὶ τοὺς πολέμους τοὺς Ἑλληνικοὺς ἐξηγουμένους, καίπερ εἰδὼς δικαίως αὐτοὺς ἐπαινουμένους, οὐδ’ αὖ τοὺς ἁπλῶς δοκοῦντας εἰρῆσθαι καὶ μηδεμιᾶς κοσμιότητος μετέχοντας, οὓς οἱ δεινοὶ περὶ τοὺς ἀγῶνας παραινοῦσι τοῖς νεωτέροις μελετᾶν, εἴπερ βούλονται πλέον ἔχειν τῶν ἀντιδίκων, ἀλλὰ πάντας τούτους ἐάσας περὶ ἐκείνους ἐπραγματευόμην τοὺς περὶ τῶν συμφερόντων τῇ τε πόλει καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις Ἕλλησι συμβουλεύοντας, καὶ πολλῶν μὲν ἐνθυμημάτων γέμοντας, οὐκ ὀλίγων δ’ ἀντιθέσεων καὶ παρισώσεων καὶ τῶν ἄλλων ἰδεῶν τῶν ἐν ταῖς ῥητορείαις διαλαμπουσῶν καὶ τοὺς ἀκούοντας ἐπισημαίνεσθαι καὶ θορυβεῖν ἀναγκαζουσῶν.

When I was younger, I chose not to write discourses that were mythic or full of wonders and fictions, the sort that the multitude enjoy more than those that concern their own security; I also avoided those that related the great deeds of the past and the wars fought by Greeks, although I knew that these were justly praised, and also those that when spoken seem simple and unadorned, such as people who are skillful in courts teach the young to practice if they want to have the advantage in litigation. I rejected all these and devoted myself to discourses that gave advice about what would be advantageous to Athens and the rest of the Greeks, and that were full of many ideas, with frequent antithesis and parisosis and other figures that make oratory shine and compel the audience to applaud and cause a stir.

Isocrates Panathenaicus 1–2 {41|42}

Nor can we find anywhere in his works theoretical writings on history, such that it is natural to ask how he became so influential a figure in the history of historiography. Here the link was long ago agreed to be the biographical testimonia from antiquity that claimed Ephorus and Theopompus to be his students. [
10] Eduard Schwartz argued fiercely against the notion, and Jacoby agreed with him, [11] but scholars have continued to accept this datum. They must then, of course, draw conclusions backwards, so to speak, arguing that from Ephorus and Theopompus we can see what the tenets of Isocratean historiography really were. This all gets very tricky given that the histories of Ephorus and Theopompus don’t actually survive, but no matter. J. B. Bury, for one, had no difficulty in asserting that Ephorus owed to Isocrates the moralizing platitudes, the elaborate speeches, and the conventional battle-scenes, all of which “conformed more or less to a model scheme” and “sacrifice[d] truth to effect.” [12] Both Ephorus and Theopompus are also supposed to owe to Isocrates their panhellenic sentiments and the use of history as a source of moral edification. [13]


Although much has been claimed for the importance of Isocrates on the method of writing history, his influence, if we leave the details aside, is generally thought to revolve around three aspects: first, stylistic adornment; second, a particular {42|43} methodological approach to the past; and third, a view of history as a collection of paradigms.

Let us take first stylistic adornment. Isocrates is often held responsible for the ‘rhetoricization’ of history, that is to say, for bequeathing to historiography an abiding, indeed overriding, concern with language and stylistic beauty. Now it can hardly be doubted that Isocrates cared greatly about style, and there are several passages in which he expresses his belief that great events and important matters need to be written in an elevated style; the opening of Panathenaicus, mentioned above, is one of the best known passages, as is the following:

εἰσὶ γάρ τινες, οἳ τῶν μὲν προειρημένων οὐκ ἀπείρως ἔχουσι, γράφειν δὲ προῄρηνται λόγους, οὐ περὶ τῶν ὑμετέρων συμβολαίων, ἀλλ’ Ἑλληνικοὺς καὶ πολιτικοὺς καὶ πανηγυρικοὺς, οὓς ἅπαντες ἂν φήσειαν ὁμοιοτέρους εἶναι τοῖς μετὰ μουσικῆς καὶ ῥυθμῶν πεποιημένοις ἢ τοῖς ἐν δικαστηρίῳ λεγομένοις. καὶ γὰρ τῇ λέξει ποιητικωτέρᾳ καὶ ποικιλωτέρᾳ τὰς πράξεις δηλοῦσι, καὶ τοῖς ἐνθυμήμασιν ὀγκωδεστέροις καὶ καινοτέροις χρῆσθαι ζητοῦσιν, ἔτι δὲ ταῖς ἄλλαις ἰδέαις ἐπιφανεστέραις καὶ πλείοσιν ὅλον τὸν λόγον διοικοῦσιν. ὧν ἅπαντες μὲν ἀκούοντες χαίρουσιν οὐδὲν ἧττον ἢ τῶν ἐν τοῖς μέτροις πεποιημένων, πολλοὶ δὲ καὶ μαθηταὶ γίγνεσθαι βούλονται, νομίζοντες τοὺς ἐν τούτοις πρωτεύοντας πολὺ σοφωτέρους καὶ βελτίους καὶ μᾶλλον ὠφελεῖν δυναμένους εἶναι τῶν τὰς δίκας εὖ λεγόντων.

Some people experienced in the forms I have mentioned did not choose to write speeches for private contract suits but ones of a political character pertaining to Hellas to be delivered in panegyric assemblies. Everyone would agree that these are more like musical and rhythmical compositions than those uttered in the law courts. They set out events with a more poetic and complex style and seek to employ grander and more original enthymemes [i.e. arguments], and in addition, they dress up the whole speech with many other eye-catching figures of speech. The whole audience enjoys when they hear these as much as poetic compositions, and many wish to study them, for they think that those who are at the forefront of this kind of competition are much wiser and better and can be more useful than those who are eloquent in legal matters.

Isocrates Antidosis 46-47

We need not doubt, therefore, that Isocrates thought elevated prose was an appropriate medium for his writings. Scholars of historiography, however, seem to equate a love of language with a disdain for (or, perhaps simply, a lack of {43|44} concern with) the truth as if the two necessarily went hand in hand. By itself, however, style is not necessarily hostile to the discovery of the truth of what happened in the past: there are many well-regarded historians with a fine style: one thinks of Gibbon, or, more recently, Syme. Some have argued, of course, that it is not a simple matter to divorce words from things, and style is not so easily separated from substance; [
15] but even so, style and truth need not be inimical. For that to happen, there has to be another aspect, namely that stylistic concern comes at the cost of accuracy: in other words a concern with style replaces a concern for accuracy or truth. (That plank of Isocratean historiography is supplied by another passage which we shall look at below, section 3.)

Now of course lurking behind all this is a kind of unspoken assumption that history before Isocrates was somehow not rhetorical, that historians of the fifth century were not concerned, or not much concerned, with language and style. While it might have been easier a generation or so ago to convince ourselves that neither Herodotus nor Thucydides paid much attention to rhetoric, it would be hard to find someone today who really thinks this is the case. Indeed some recent scholarship seems almost to suggest that if anyone should be held responsible for rhetorical historiography it might well be Thucydides himself. [16] And while that is perhaps somewhat too extreme, there are certainly troubling aspects of his work. He has a tendency, as has been frequently pointed out, to use superlatives throughout his work, claiming that his events are the ‘biggest’, ‘most important’, ‘greatest’, and so forth. [17] He may, of course, have genuinely believed this, but the effect upon the reader is nonetheless the same. In addition, one might look to the aggressively argumentative style of the ‘Archaeology’, where language, demonstration, and proof are all placed in the service of a particular argument that Thucydides wishes to advance, namely, that his war was the greatest of all wars (magnification again). [18] There is as well the highly artificial nature of the speeches, which are thoroughly rhetorical, carefully constructed and highly abstract, with echoes both within the pair of speeches and with other speeches scattered throughout the history. [19] If we are looking for a rhetorical historian, we need look no further. Yet to call Thucydides a rhetorical historian is, again, not saying much. So a preferable alternative would be to admit that historiography from its very beginnings was a literary art form, modeling itself on other art forms—epic especially—and, like them, {44|45} seeking to establish itself as an elevated genre with an elevated language (not, for example, like comedy, lyric, or mime), and that Thucydides then took that interest in elevated language in a particular and rather idiosyncratic direction.

Let us suppose, then, that both Xenophon and the Oxyrhynchus historian wrote in a more straightforward style because they felt that such a style was more appropriate to history. In this way they actually employed far less rhetorical adornment than had Thucydides. And if that is the case, where might Isocrates’ beliefs have fit in? We can almost certainly say that Isocrates was of the opinion that an approach such as that of Xenophon or the Oxyrhynchus historian towards history—using for the most part a simple and straightforward style—was unacceptable. Not because Isocrates ever expressed himself on Xenophon’s work specifically, but because he emphasized again and again that for lofty and important subjects one needed a lofty and fine style. Isocrates’ demand, therefore, reasserts the importance of a ‘high’ style for historiography, as in Thucydides, but not necessarily in the manner of Thucydides (whose style may already have seemed harsh in the fourth century). In other words, Isocrates or those influenced by him might have thought that Thucydides was right to compose history in a highly elaborate style, but that the particular style he chose was inappropriate.

I wish to emphasize that the context for such an approach as Isocrates’ was not necessarily an attack on Thucydides, nor indeed on any kind of historiography in particular. We must recall that quite apart from narrative histories the ancients remembered their pasts through many media and in different genres, including law court speeches, the epitaphios, and non-verbal media. All of this would have engendered a larger discussion concerning the appropriate way to remember great deeds, and it is not to be expected that historians would have failed to see the relevance of these discussions to their own tasks.


Let us turn now to methodology. Though not a historian, Isocrates’ works are suffused with history both contemporary and non-contemporary. [24] Although there have been many analyses of Isocrates and his approach to history, [25] we still lack a thorough and comprehensive study of his attitude towards the past. It has been common, however, to select certain passages from his works as representative or indicative of his approach to history. One of the most frequently cited is Panegyricus 7–10. Here Isocrates says that he will give advice about the war against Persia and about Greek unity, a topic that is much worked but which he hopes to treat differently. It is a theme, he says, that is still appropriate for discussion:

πρὸς δὲ τούτοις εἰ μὲν μηδαμῶς ἄλλως οἷόν τ’ ἦν δηλοῦν τὰς αὐτὰς πράξεις, ἀλλ’ ἢ διὰ μιᾶς ἰδέας, εἶχεν ἄν τις ὑπολαβεῖν, ὡς περίεργόν ἐστι τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον ἐκείνοις λέγοντα πάλιν ἐνοχλεῖν τοῖς ἀκούουσιν· ἐπειδὴ δ’ οἱ λόγοι τοιαύτην ἔχουσι τὴν φύσιν ὥσθ’ οἷόν τ’ εἶναι περὶ τῶν αὐτῶν πολλαχῶς ἐξηγήσασθαι καὶ τά τε μεγάλα ταπεινὰ ποιῆσαι καὶ τοῖς μικροῖς μέγεθος περιθεῖναι καὶ τὰ παλαιὰ καινῶς διελθεῖν καὶ περὶ τῶν νεωστὶ γεγενημένων ἀρχαίως εἰπεῖν, οὐκέτι φευκτέον ταῦτ’ ἐστί, περὶ ὧν ἕτεροι πρότερον εἰρήκασιν, ἀλλ’ ἄμεινον ἐκείνων εἰπεῖν πειρατέον . . . ἡγοῦμαι δ’ οὕτως ἂν μεγίστην ἐπίδοσιν λαμβάνειν καὶ τὰς ἄλλας τέχνας καὶ τὴν περὶ τοὺς λόγους φιλοσοφίαν, εἴ τις θαυμάζοι καὶ τιμῴη μὴ τοὺς πρώτους τῶν ἔργων ἀρχομένους, ἀλλὰ τοὺς ἄρισθ’ ἕκαστον αὐτῶν ἐξεργαζομένους, μηδὲ τοὺς περὶ τούτων ζητοῦντας λέγειν, περὶ ὧν μηδεὶς πρότερον εἴρηκεν, ἀλλὰ τοὺς οὕτως ἐπισταμένους εἰπεῖν ὡς οὐδεὶς ἂν ἄλλος δύναιτο.

In addition, if it were not possible to reveal the same actions in only one way, one could suppose that it is superfluous for one speaking the same as those [sc. who have already spoken] to annoy the audience again. But since words have such a nature that it is possible to discourse on the same things in many ways, and make great things lowly or give size to small things, or to go through the things of old in a new way or to speak about things that have recently happened in an old style, so one must not avoid those topics on which others have spoken, but one must try to speak better than they . . . And I think that both the other arts and philosophic rhetoric would make the greatest advance if one marveled at and honored not the ones who first began these works, but {47|48} the ones who made each of them their best, and not the ones who want to speak about those things that no one has ever spoken about before, but those who know how to speak in a way that no one else can.

Isocrates Panegyricus 7–10

This passage has been thought to demonstrate Isocrates’ concern to rhetoricize history. [26] Some years ago I argued that what we have here is a traditional praise of the powers of oratory, which could be seen as a plea for stylistic excellence, although the context suggests that what Isocrates means by speaking “in a way no one has before” concerns the content of the advice which will be based on the proper use of the exempla which history provides. Isocrates does indeed go on to vaunt his own powers, but he is not divorcing style and content, and it is clear that the excellence of his speech is a result of the excellence of his advice, that is, again, its content. [27] Could one take this statement out of context and use it to justify the re-working of non-contemporary history? Certainly; but it is clear that scholars who want to use this passage as a theoretical basis for Isocratean historiography are building on shaky foundations. The other passage, Panathenaicus 149-150, may seem to offer more. This passage is a digression that is itself a comment on the narrative of great deeds in Athenian history just given by the orator. Isocrates has been speaking on early Athenian history, starting from before a time when words such as “oligarchy” and “democracy” even existed, then treating certain aspects of the early king Theseus and his followers, and, after a brief interruption, returning to the democracy and its excellences. Then Isocrates continues:

τάχ’ οὖν ἄν τινες ἄτοπον εἶναί με φήσειαν (οὐδὲν γὰρ κωλύει διαλαβεῖν τὸν λόγον) ὅτι τολμῶ λέγειν ὡς ἀκριβῶς εἰδὼς περὶ πραγμάτων οἷς οὐ παρῆν πραττομένοις. ἐγὼ δ’ οὐδὲν τούτων ἄλογον οἶμαι ποιεῖν. εἰ μὲν γὰρ μόνος ἐπίστευον τοῖς τε λεγομένοις περὶ τῶν παλαιῶν καὶ τοῖς γράμμασι τοῖς ἐξ ἐκείνου τοῦ χρόνου παραδεδομένοις ἡμῖν, εἰκότως ἂν ἐπετιμώμην· νῦν δὲ πολλοὶ καὶ νοῦν ἔχοντες ταὐτὸν ἐμοὶ φανεῖεν ἂν πεπονθότες. χωρὶς δὲ τούτων, εἰ κατασταίην εἰς ἔλεγχον καὶ λόγον, δυνηθείην ἂν ἐπιδεῖξαι πάντας ἀνθρώπους πλείους ἐπιστήμας ἔχοντας διὰ τῆς ἀκοῆς ἢ τῆς ὄψεως, καὶ μείζους πράξεις καὶ καλλίους εἰδότας ἃς παρ’ ἑτέρων ἀκηκόασιν ἢ ’κείνας, αἷς αὐτοὶ παραγεγενημένοι τυγχάνουσιν.

Some perhaps might say—since nothing prevents me from interrupting my speech—that I am unusual in daring to say that I know accurately {48|49} about affairs at which I was not present when they occurred. But I think I am doing nothing illogical. For if I alone trusted to the traditions and records about things of long ago which have come down to us from that time, then reasonably I would be censured. But as it is, even many intelligent men would seem to have the same experience as I. And apart from this, if I were put to the test and proof, I could demonstrate that all men have greater knowledge from oral tradition than from autopsy and know greater and finer deeds having heard them from others rather than from events at which they themselves happened to be present.

Isocrates Panathenaicus 149–150

Some scholars have seen here an inversion by Isocrates of the typical relationship between eyes and ears in the historiographical tradition, in which autopsy is always superior to oral report. [
28] And so once autopsy was devalued, it became easier for historians to disavow research. Yet here again this seems to be misreading what Isocrates actually says. Isocrates is saying no more than that men rarely witness great deeds, and that their main source of information about them is not their own experience but tradition, however they receive this; this is especially true, of course, when the deeds are very ancient. [29]

Isocrates first claims as one of the proofs for his accurate knowledge of the past the fact that tradition has recorded the events he narrates. That might seem a slim thread by which to hang such a narrative, but Isocrates elsewhere also expresses his belief that the traditions of events are what give them their believability. In Panegyricus 69, Isocrates is speaking of the attacks made on Athens in early times by the Thracians, Scythians, and Amazons. He notes that although these peoples thought they could easily defeat the Athenians, they were utterly destroyed, and then remarks:

δῆλον δὲ τὸ μέγεθος τῶν κακῶν τῶν γενομένων ἐκείνοις· οὐ γὰρ ἂν ποθ’ οἱ λόγοι περὶ αὐτῶν τοσοῦτον χρόνον διέμειναν, εἰ μὴ καὶ τὰ πραχθέντα πολὺ τῶν ἄλλων διήνεγκεν.

The magnitude of the troubles they encountered is clear, for the reports about them would not have lasted so long if these events were not far more important than others.

Isocrates Panegyricus 69 {49|50}

What is interesting is that in both of these passages Isocrates feels compelled to explain to his audience how he knows about these events. This means that he is aware that he is treading on ground that some would not consider secure and that some in his audience would be hesitant to accord belief to such early events. His approach here seems largely ‘passive’, and his reliance on tradition, on what has been handed down, might strike us as naive. But we would do well to remember that even Thucydides in the ‘Archaeology’, for all the critical spirit with which he invests his work, had at bottom to rely on the traditions about the Trojan War and the early Greek migrations and those about Minos and his empire. The difference is not about tradition; it is one of approach, and one’s approach was dependent on how one wished to use the past. (I shall come back to this.)

Another passage often cited to illuminate Isocrates’ historical method is Panegyricus 28–31, where Isocrates is speaking of Demeter:

πρῶτον μὲν τοίνυν, οὗ πρῶτον ἡ φύσις ἡμῶν ἐδεήθη, διὰ τῆς πόλεως τῆς ἡμετέρας ἐπορίσθη· καὶ γὰρ εἰ μυθώδης ὁ λόγος γέγονεν, ὅμως αὐτῷ καὶ νῦν ῥηθῆναι προσήκει. Δήμητρος γὰρ ἀφικομένης εἰς τὴν χώραν ἡμῶν, ὅτ’ ἐπλανήθη τῆς Κόρης ἁρπασθείσης, καὶ πρὸς τοὺς προγόνους ἡμῶν εὐμενῶς διατεθείσης ἐκ τῶν εὐεργεσιῶν, ἃς οὐχ οἷόν τ’ ἄλλοις ἢ τοῖς μεμυημένοις ἀκούειν, καὶ δούσης δωρεὰς διττὰς, αἵπερ μέγισται τυγχάνουσιν οὖσαι, τούς τε καρπούς, οἳ τοῦ μὴ θηριωδῶς ζῆν ἡμᾶς αἴτιοι γεγόνασι, καὶ τὴν τελετήν, ἧς οἱ μετέχοντες περί τε τῆς τοῦ βίου τελευτῆς καὶ τοῦ σύμπαντος αἰῶνος ἡδίους τὰς ἐλπίδας ἔχουσιν, οὕτως ἡ πόλις ἡμῶν οὐ μόνον θεοφιλῶς, ἀλλὰ καὶ φιλανθρώπως ἔσχεν, ὥστε κυρία γενομένη τοσούτων ἀγαθῶν οὐκ ἐφθόνησε τοῖς ἄλλοις, ἀλλ’ ὧν ἔλαβεν, ἅπασι μετέδωκεν. καὶ τὰ μὲν ἔτι καὶ νῦν καθ’ ἕκαστον τὸν ἐνιαυτὸν δείκνυμεν, τῶν δὲ συλλήβδην τάς τε χρείας καὶ τὰς ἐργασίας καὶ τὰς ὠφελείας τὰς ἀπ’ αὐτῶν γιγνομένας ἐδίδαξεν. καὶ τούτοις ἀπιστεῖν μικρῶν ἔτι προστιθέντων οὐδεὶς ἂν ἀξιώσειεν.

πρῶτον μὲν γὰρ ἐξ ὧν ἄν τις καταφρονήσειε τῶν λεγομένων ὡς ἀρχαίων ὄντων, ἐκ τῶν αὐτῶν τούτων εἰκότως ἂν καὶ τὰς πράξεις γεγενῆσθαι νομίσειεν· διὰ γὰρ τὸ πολλοὺς εἰρηκέναι καὶ πάντας ἀκηκοέναι προσήκει μὴ καινὰ μέν, πιστὰ δὲ δοκεῖν εἶναι τὰ λεγόμενα περὶ αὐτῶν. ἔπειτ’ οὐ μόνον ἐνταῦθα καταφυγεῖν ἔχομεν, ὅτι τὸν λόγον καὶ τὴν φήμην ἐκ πολλοῦ παρειλήφαμεν, ἀλλὰ καὶ σημείοις μείζοσιν ἢ τούτοις ἔστιν ἡμῖν χρήσασθαι περὶ αὐτῶν. αἱ μὲν γὰρ πλεῖσται τῶν πόλεων ὑπόμνημα τῆς παλαιᾶς εὐεργεσίας ἀπαρχὰς τοῦ σίτου καθ’ ἕκαστον ἐνιαυτὸν ὡς ἡμᾶς ἀποπέμπουσι, ταῖς δ’ ἐκλειπούσαις πολλάκις ἡ Πυθία {50|51} προσέταξεν ἀποφέρειν τὰ μέρη τῶν καρπῶν καὶ ποιεῖν πρὸς τὴν πόλιν τὴν ἡμετέραν τὰ πάτρια. καίτοι περὶ τίνων χρὴ μᾶλλον πιστεύειν ἢ περὶ ὧν ὅ τε θεὸς ἀναιρεῖ καὶ πολλοῖς τῶν Ἑλλήνων συνδοκεῖ καὶ τά τε πάλαι ῥηθέντα τοῖς παροῦσιν ἔργοις συμμαρτυρεῖ καὶ τὰ νῦν γιγνόμενα τοῖς ὑπ’ ἐκείνων εἰρημένοις ὁμολογεῖ;

First of all then, that which our nature first needed was provided by our city. For even if the account has become mythical, nevertheless it should be told even now. Demeter once came to our land, wandering about after her daughter Kore was kidnapped, and since she looked favorably on our ancestors because of their kindness—which no one other than the initiates is allowed to hear—she gave two gifts to Athens that are, in fact, our two most important possessions: the fruits of the earth that have allowed us to live civilized lives and the celebration of the mystery rites that grant to those who share in them glad hopes about the end of their life and about eternity. As a result, our city was not only loved by the gods but also was considerate of other people so much that when it gained such great goods, it did not begrudge these gifts to others but shared what it had with everyone else. Even now, we still share the mystery rites every year, and we have taught others about the use, the care, and the benefits coming from the fruits of the earth. And if I add a bit more detail, no one would disbelieve this.

First, the reason one might scorn this story—because it is ancient—might also make someone accept that the events probably happened. Since many have told the story, and everyone has heard it, it is right to consider the story not something recent but nonetheless trustworthy. Second, we not only have recourse to the argument that we received the fabled story a long time ago, but can use even greater proofs than this. To commemorate our ancient gift, most cities send the first part of their offerings to us each year; and those who do not are often ordered by the Pythia to bring a portion of their crop and perform the ancestral duties toward our city. Furthermore, what should we trust more than something ordered by the god and approved by most Greeks, where the ancient reports agree with current practice, and current practice agrees with what was spoken by the ancients?

Isocrates Panegyricus 28–31

Of particular interest here is the remark that the λόγος has become μυθώδης. Isocrates elsewhere uses the terms μῦθος, μυθολογέω, and μυθώδης in several {51|52} ways: to mark a contrast between present and early times; [
30] to designate the activity of early writers; [31] and to designate stories that concern the gods. [32] The ‘mythic’ is allied with sensationalism and falsehood, [33] and is contrasted with both ‘the useful’ and ‘the truth’. [34] There is no reason, therefore, to posit Isocrates’ meaning here as in any way different from how he uses these terms elsewhere. [35] Indeed, his usage has much in common with how the historians themselves treat the ‘mythic’: for them, μῦθοι frequently have an exaggerative or not wholly trustworthy aspect, and stories of the gods are particularly prone to becoming μυθώδεις because they occur in a realm in which demonstration is mostly impossible. [36] So too here, it is precisely in telling the story of divine activity that Isocrates realizes that he must be careful and not assume the kind of accuracy one finds in later events. Indeed, Isocrates recognizes that the story is not of the same nature as an account of contemporary history (that is what καινά must refer to: recent events), but he argues, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, that the very fact of the story’s antiquity is a guarantee of its trustworthiness. Towards the end of the speech, he invokes the god Apollo and this has been thought to be irrelevant to historical proof. Yet the appeal to the oracle of Apollo, like the fact of the story’s antiquity, is only part of a larger argument. The main point that strengthens trust in the story, as Isocrates details it here, is that still today other Greek cities send Athens their first-fruits, and thus “present events tally with the statements which have come down from the men of old.” In other words, an enduring custom confirms a literary account.

Although this might certainly seem to lack the kind of historical rigor that we might like, how different is it from what historians in the fifth and fourth centuries were doing? To be sure, the question of historical methodology is not an easy one. That the ancients established a hierarchy of historical investigation {52|53} is hardly to be doubted, but the extent to which it actually contributed to the real knowledge of the past is more uncertain. For contemporary history autopsy was paramount and was followed by personal inquiry of those who were themselves eyewitnesses. [37] For non-contemporary history there was no unanimity, and one was forced to rely on the tradition. If we look at Thucydides in the ‘Archaeology’, we find that he, like Isocrates, uses the evidence of present-day customs to confirm the truth of his reconstructive account: for example, the fact that the people of Ozolian Locris, Aetolia, and Acarnania in Thucydides’ day still carried weapons was a result of the fact that in earlier days they had been raiders of other people’s goods (1.5.3). Or again he sees no reason to discount the fact that Mycenae was a great city “as tradition maintains” simply because in his own day it was a small place (1.10.1). [38] And elsewhere in his history, when he is treating events earlier than the Peloponnesian War—Themistocles and Pausanias, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the Sicilian archaeology—Thucydides resorts to the same mixture of inference, bald assertion, and acquiescence in or contradiction of the tradition; and it is questionable whether he had the intellectual tools to do otherwise. [39]

Indeed, the question of how to deal with what tradition had handed down was a difficult one, and no historian in antiquity at any point really had much idea of how to actually research the past. Tradition could not be ignored; too often it was all that one had. And if one chose not to treat contemporary history—as many did—it was necessary to come up with some way of understanding or explicating the past. The realm of non-contemporary history was never subject to a single methodology: as we have said, certainty about the distant past could never be equal to that of the present or more recent times, but since no one could come up with a formula for extracting a certain percentage of truth from tradition, the main contestation revolved around how much credence ought to be given to accounts of past events. [40] This in turn might depend on what you were using the past for: if you want to devalue the past to the advantage of the present, you attack the tradition if it presents greatness (as does Thucydides); if, on the other hand, you want to use the past to admonish the present to maintain its standards, you emphasize its greatness (as does Isocrates). Naturally, a modern historian might find fault with Isocrates for concentrating on the past {53|54} rather than the present, but at the same time a fifth- or fourth-century historian would have had no difficulty in seeing the methods used by Isocrates as akin to his own. Isocrates’ reliance on tradition is not absurd, nor indeed even intellectually worthless, given that without it, he and others would have had virtually nothing to say about their early history.


It has often been pointed out that exempla are as old as Greek literature itself, already present in Homer. [42] Exempla are already visible in Herodotus’ history, used by speakers as a way of forming judgments about the future or persuading their addressees to adopt a particular course of action. [43] The characters in {54|55} Thucydides’ work do not use historical exempla very often, preferring instead to argue from universally held principles, although there are still a few quite important instances. [44] In the fourth century, the use of exempla was continued and extended and really came into its own. By the early fourth century, the Greeks had nearly a hundred years of fairly reliable historical narrative that detailed the doings of their city-states both individually and in conflict with one another. So perhaps it was only to be expected that whereas earlier writers and speakers would have employed events that we might think of as mythological, writers in the fourth century now had a large supply of more securely attested ‘historical’ actions. We can see the speakers in Xenophon’s Hellenica, for example, bringing forward historical paradeigmata. [45] The orators, too, refer to the value of exempla: in the To Demonicus, Isocrates says that Demonicus, when deliberating with himself, should make past events the παραδείγματα of what will occur, for the unseen is most quickly comprehended by the seen, and there are a series of remarks in other orators that parallel this one. [46] We see here, of course, a close relationship to the kinds of claims made about history in general, and this is one of those areas in which history and rhetoric shared some common ground: it is not so much that history was ‘rhetoricized’, as that the speakers in historiographical works operated in the same way that speakers in the real world did. {55|56} And this may be linked to a larger societal context, for the belief that the future will be much like the past is quite common in a traditional society.

First, the profusion of historical exempla in the fourth century is evidence of the importance of the past and of history to the Greeks at that time. I think it no exaggeration to say that fourth-century Greeks were constantly thinking about the past and its relevance to their own situation. Second, since historical exempla in oratory are used in a certain way, as a tool in argumentation designed to guide the audience to a particular conclusion, we should not fail to perceive that how the speaker uses an exemplum will depend on his interpretation of the event and its importance. The use of historical exempla, therefore, is an implicit contestation over the meaning of history. If correct, this would suggest that the use of exempla by writers was always a dynamic, rather than a static, process. Although certain examples might be used again and again to make a particular point, the interpretation of each exemplum was not carved in stone: as a tool of argumentation and proof, the exemplum was subject to examination and challenge, and could be accepted, emended, or discarded. And that is what I think Isocrates is getting at in Panegyricus 9. His remark indicates that the past, far from being dead or univocal, was a protean thing, capable of being examined and used from a variety of viewpoints, and not limited in its meaning or applicability. Third and finally, the recourse by scholars to labelling the use of historical exempla as inaccurate or as a deformation assumes a wholly passive audience. It presumes that the listeners were completely or largely unaware of what orators were doing, or that they failed to recognize conventions that they heard almost every day of their lives. To take but one example, the topics and arrangement of the epitaphios were well known—so well known that they could be easily mocked by Plato in the Menexenus. [48] Yet it would be foolish to follow Plato in assuming a {56|57} wholly gullible audience, listening to the rehearsal of Athenian deeds as if they were gospel. On the contrary, the different ways in which the orators would have approached the timeless themes of Athenian myth and history would have fostered a much more critical spirit than we are sometimes willing to grant the everyday Athenian. Perhaps we find it hard to imagine that the Athenians in attendance at the funeral oration might not have expected to hear historical truth nor have looked for that; rather, they may have wished to hear the orator discharge his task with skill and appropriateness, while being simultaneously (mildly) innovative and investing the occasion with deep emotion. Context, here as elsewhere, determines the conventions.

So in sum I believe that there is no reason to consider the use of historical exempla in and of itself hostile to history. On the contrary, the recourse to the past meant that the orator was in a constant state of examining the lessons of history, and in a constant struggle to understand the meaning of history.


Let me now try to sum up some of what I have been saying. In this paper I am aware that I have not been advancing a particular thesis about Isocrates but rather offering a series of observations about his relationship to the historiography of the fifth and fourth centuries. It is singularly unfortunate that the historians of the fourth century are so often condemned in the standard handbooks and faulted for their inferiority to their great predecessors of the fifth century. By contrast, I would see the fourth century as a time of impressive innovation where generic boundaries were not yet fixed and policed. Rather than pass judgment about the merits of the fourth century, however, it seems to me more worthwhile to try to understand what the role of history was in the fourth century and beyond, and rather than view this later historiography as something ‘corrupted’ by rhetoric, we would do well to attend to how and why the use of history remained so important.

If we do not wish to assign Isocrates a place of cardinal importance in the development of historiographical theory—and I believe that we should not—neither is it fair to write him out of the picture altogether. That he was not a historian and had no methodology for the writing of history he himself makes clear, and we can see that his main interest is in playing an important role as advocate in the present by encouraging his fellow Athenians and fellow Greeks to do great deeds. Yet one cannot help noticing the large and consistent role that history plays across the whole vast oeuvre of Isocrates, where the past is never far from view, and can be employed either as a yardstick by which to measure the inadequacy of the present, or as a spur to contemporaries to achieve deeds {57|58} equal to or greater than their ancestors. Nor can it be coincidence, I think, that Isocrates was engaged with some of the same issues that the fourth-century historians were: the struggle for hegemony; the role that Athens and Sparta should play in contemporary history; the power and influence of Persia; and the rising star to the north in Macedon. Although Isocrates does not develop it specifically, his remark at Panegyricus 9 that the past belongs to us all, but that its elucidation is a matter for the well educated, places history in a central role in his vision of education. [49] Even if Isocrates was not the proponent of any historiographical program, he was, whether deliberately or fortuitously, an important participant in the fourth-century discussions of what history meant, and how it was or was not useful. And given that he lived in an era of generic innovation—for which his own discourses, among other things, serve as evidence [50] —it was inevitable that the debates about history would not and could not be confined to those who actually wrote narrative histories. History, we might say, was too important to be left to the historians. {58|}


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[ back ] 1. This paper was originally delivered at Harvard University in February 2007; I thank Nino Luraghi and Riccardo Vattuone for the kind invitation to participate in the conference they had organized. I received helpful comments there from Michael Flower, Nino Luraghi, Roberto Nicolai, Guido Schepens, and Pietro Vannicelli. None of them necessarily agrees with what is stated here. A fuller version was delivered as the Second Annual T. B. L. Webster Classics Graduate Student Lecture at Stanford University in February 2011, and I am grateful to the graduate students there for the kind invitation to speak, and for the very helpful discussion that followed my presentation. It must be emphasized that this paper represents only a first attempt at sorting out the place of Isocrates in historiographical thought, and tries to suggest some broader outlines in considering his work and its influence. It does not pretend to any kind of comprehensiveness (for one important omission, see below, n49) but I hope in due course to provide a full study of Isocrates within the context of fourth-century historiography. The text of Isocrates used here is that of B. G. Mandilaras (Teubner, 3 vols. 2003); translations are those of D. C. Mirhady and Y. L. Too, Isocrates I and T. L. Papillon, Isocrates II (Austin 2000 and 2004, respectively), sometimes slightly modified.

[ back ] 2. Works on history are attested for Theophrastus (Diogenes Laertius 5.47), Praxiphanes (Marcellinus Vita Thucydidis 29), Metrodorus of Scepsis (FGH 184 F 2), Caecilius of Caleacte (FGH 183 F 2), Theodorus of Gadara (FGH 850 T 1), and the third-century CE sophist, Tiberius (Suda s.v. Τιβέριος [Τ 550 Adler]); on the Latin side, there is Varro’s Sisenna uel de historia (Gellius 16.9.5). The Lamprias catalogue of Plutarch’s works mentions “How We Discern the True History” (No. 124), and a four-volume “On Neglected History” (No. 54), but nothing is known of either.

[ back ] 3. Finley 1971:12.

[ back ] 4. Woodman 1988:42, 68nn257–258.

[ back ] 5. The latter work is nonetheless valuable for what it tells us about some important approaches to the writing of history in antiquity: see Marincola 1994:191-203; Pelling 2007:145–164.

[ back ] 6. Cicero came close, with a ὑπόμνημα of his consulship (ad Atticum 2.1.2), a poem De Consulatu Suo (FF 6–11 Traglia) and one De Temporibus Suis (FF 12–17); cf. Büchner 1939:1245–1253. None of Cicero’s ‘historical’ works was, strictly speaking, a narrative history.

[ back ] 7. On Isocrates and history see: Blass 1892:48–50; Peter 1897:ii190–191; Bury 1909:160–170; Peter 1911:180–183; Scheller 1911; Kalischek 1913; Schmitz-Kahlmann 1939; Ullman 1942; Avenarius 1956:81–85 and passim; Welles 1966; Hamilton 1979; Nouhaud 1980; Nickel 1991; Flower 1994:42–62; Nicolai 2004:74–87; Fox and Livingstone 2007: 542–561, esp. 551–553; Parmeggiani 2011:34–38.

[ back ] 8. Marincola 2001:111–112.

[ back ] 9. Parmeggiani 2011:37 observes that the term comprises at least six different concepts.

[ back ] 10. FGH 70 TT 1–3; 115 TT 1, 2, 5a; older discussion in Kalischek 1913.

[ back ] 11. Schwartz 1907:1–2; Jacoby 1926:22–23.

[ back ] 12. Bury 1909:164; cf. Pownall 2004:133.

[ back ] 13. Usher 1969:101–102.

[ back ] 14. Flower 1994:42–62; Parmeggiani 2011:34–36.

[ back ] 15. Moles 1993:114–115.

[ back ] 16. Woodman 1988:1–69; further references in Marincola 2001:98–103.

[ back ] 17. Grant 1974.

[ back ] 18. On the method of the ‘Archaeology’, see Connor 1984:20–32; Hornblower 1987:100–107.

[ back ] 19. No purpose would be served here by entering into the enormous bibliography on the speeches; some work before 2000 is surveyed in Marincola 2001:77–85; see also Scardino 2007; Rusten 2009:492–493.

[ back ] 20. Strebel 1935:7–19; Hornblower 1995:47–68.

[ back ] 21. See Bruce 1967:18–20.

[ back ] 22. Dewald 2005:144–154.

[ back ] 23. On the greatness of the subject as a justification for writing history, see Marincola 1997:34–43.

[ back ] 24. See especially Schmitz-Kahlmann 1939.

[ back ] 25. See above, n7.

[ back ] 26. See Scheller 1911:65f.; Peter 1897:ii190; idem 1911:180–183; Avenarius 1956:81–83.

[ back ] 27. Marincola 1997:276–277, which ought to have cited Usher 1990:150–151.

[ back ] 28. Avenarius 1956:82; Nickel 1991:235; Roth 2003 ad loc.

[ back ] 29. I reprise here the remarks made in Marincola 1997:277–278.

[ back ] 30. Evagoras 36: τῶν παλαιῶν; Panegyricus 158: Τὰ Τρωϊκά and Τὰ Περσικά.

[ back ] 31. To Nicocles 49: ὁ μὲν [sc. Ὅμηρος] γὰρ τοὺς ἀγῶνας καὶ τοὺς πολέμους τοὺς τῶν ἡμιθέων ἐμυθολόγησεν, οἱ δὲ [sc. οἱ πρῶτοι εὑρόντες τραγῳδίαν] τοὺς μύθους εἰς ἀγῶνας καὶ πράξεις κατέστησαν.

[ back ] 32. To Demonicus 50: Zeus sired Heracles and Tantalus ὡς οἱ μῦθοι λέγουσι.

[ back ] 33. Panegyricus 1: νεώτερος μὲν ὢν προῃρούμην γράφειν τῶν λόγων οὐ τοὺς μυθώδεις οὐδὲ τοὺς τερατείας καὶ ψευδολογίας μεστοὺς, οἷς οἱ πολλοὶ μᾶλλον χαίρουσιν.

[ back ] 34. To Nicocles 48: δεῖ τοὺς βουλομένους ἢ ποιεῖν ἢ γράφειν τι κεχαρισμένον τοῖς πολλοῖς μὴ τοὺς ὠφελιμωτάτους τῶν λόγων ζητεῖν, ἀλλὰ τοὺς μυθωδεστάτους (commentators have noted there seems to be an echo of Thucydides 1.22.4 at the beginning of this passage, with the distinction between what is μυθῶδες and what is useful). Evagoras 66: εἰ τοὺς μύθους ἀφέντες τὴν ἀλήθειαν σκοποῦμεν.

[ back ] 35. Hamilton 1979:293–294 says that the term here does not have to do with the story’s veracity but denotes rather “a story which has come to have a special fame and function in Greek tradition,” but this is special pleading and unconvincing, given that, as Hamilton himself notes, Isocrates elsewhere distinguishes μῦθοι from truth.

[ back ] 36. See Marincola 1997:117–126; Meijering 1987:78–82.

[ back ] 37. Marincola 1997:63–86.

[ back ] 38. On the methodological importance of the ‘Archaeology’, see de Romilly 1956:240–298; Connor 1984:20–32; Allison 1989:11–27; Ellis 1991; Pothou 2009:126–133.

[ back ] 39. On Themistocles and Pausanias, see Hornblower 1991:211–225, esp. 211: “the general handling recalls . . . Herodotus”; on the Sicilian archaeology, idem 2008:259–299; on Harmodius and Aristogeiton, ibid. 434–440.

[ back ] 40. On the different methodologies for non-contemporary history see Schepens 1975 (now in slightly revised form in Marincola 2011:100–118); Marincola 1997:63–86, 95–117; Bosworth 2003.

[ back ] 41. See e.g. Schmitz-Kahlmann 1939:v–xi. I treat the fourth-century interest in exempla more fully in a forthcoming study.

[ back ] 42. Exempla in the Iliad: Nestor: 1.260–273; Phoenix tells the story of Meleager: 9.529–605; Achilles uses the example of Niobe: 24.602–620. On Homeric heroes and the past, Grethlein 2006.

[ back ] 43. Solon invokes Tellus and Cleobis and Biton as exempla: Herodotus 1.30–31; Croesus uses himself as an exemplum: 1.207; So(si)clees on Corinthian tyranny: 5.92–93; Xerxes and his predecessors: 7.8. Inferences from exempla are not, however, straightforward and unproblematic: see Pelling 2006.

[ back ] 44. Typical is Pericles’ tactic in the Funeral Oration not to rehearse the deeds of the Athenians’ ancestors, but instead to concentrate on the here and now (Thucydides 2.36). There are, however, a few noteworthy instances of the employment of historical exempla. Hermocrates successfully uses the example of Athenian action in the Persian War, when the Athenians were compelled to become accomplished sailors by the Persian threat, to motivate his own Syracusans to practice their skill and not lose heart in the face of earlier Athenian victories (7.21). Alcibiades, at the beginning of Book 6, very similarly to Xerxes in Herodotus, uses the example of past Athenian actions and character to urge the Athenian assembly to vote for the Sicilian expedition (6.17–18, with Raaflaub 2002 for the similarity to Herodotus’ Xerxes). Perhaps the most significant use of history in Thucydides is the Plataean defense before the Spartans where the Plataeans remind the Spartans of Plataea’s efforts in the Persian Wars and the role they played in defending Greece (3.54, 58). Again, this use of historical exempla is not necessarily straightforward: the Spartan decision not to be swayed by the Plataeans’ invocation of history is put down by the historian to the fact that in the moment the Thebans were more useful to the Spartans than were the Plataeans (3.68.4).

[ back ] 45. Although, as with Herodotus (above, n42), the exempla are not straightforward and easily interpreted: see Marincola 2010:269–279, where I argue that the historical exempla attributed by Xenophon to a series of speakers in Books 6 and 7 contain a metahistorical critique, possibly a quite pessimistic one, of the value of history itself.

[ back ] 46. Isocrates To Demonicus 34: βουλευόμενος παραδείγματα ποιοῦ τὰ παρεληλυθότα τῶν μελλόντων· τὸ γὰρ ἀφανὲς ἐκ τοῦ φανεροῦ ταχίστην ἔχει τὴν διάγνωσιν. Cf. Lysias 25.23: χρὴ τοίνυν, ὦ ἄνδρες δικασταί, τοῖς πρότερον γεγενημένοις παραδείγμασι χρωμένους βουλεύεσθαι περὶ τῶν μελλόντων ἔσεσθαι; Andocides De Pace 32: τὰ γὰρ παραδείγματα τὰ γεγενημένα τῶν ἁμαρτημάτων ἱκανὰ τοῖς σώφροσι τῶν ἀνθρώπων ὥστε μηκέτι ἁμαρτάνειν.

[ back ] 47. Exempla in oratory: Jost 1936; Pearson 1941; Perlman 1961; Loraux 1981; Nouhaud 1980; Worthington 1991; id. 1994; Pownall 2004.

[ back ] 48. The classic study of the epitaphios is that of Loraux 1981; on Plato’s Menexenus, see Henderson 1975; Pownall 2004:38–64.

[ back ] 49. I have not here dealt with Isocrates’ role as teacher, though it is important if we are to come to a more complete understanding of his interest in history. For Isocrates as teacher, see Finley 1971; Too 1995:151–232; Poulakis 1997; Ober 2001; Poulakis and Depew 2004.

[ back ] 50. On Isocrates’ discourses as generically innovative see Papillon 2001:73–76.