(ID#2437666) Page 1 ID#2437666 Professor Almeida Honors 101A 14 November 2008 Greatness is to Region as Color is to Individual What is the
essential task of an historian? In what way ought he to accomplish this task? These are difficult questions, and the answers to these questions, of course, are variable; no two historians are likely to answer them in the same way. Despite their variability, the answers to these questions are extremely influential; they not only determine how a historian records his history, but the self-comprehension of all who read it. To demonstrate this idea, a comparison of two classical Greek historians is in order. For the purposes of this essay, the comparison will be concentrated in Herodotus’ History Book 6, paragraphs 110 through 117 and in Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War Book 7, paragraphs 43 through 47. As a result of this comparison, the reader should come to understand the former as a history concerned with “the preservation of color” and the latter as a history concerned with “the preservation of greatness,” and be able to grapple with the implications of this difference of concern. The first element to be evaluated in each history is the issue of detail. In the selection from Thucydides, there is a super-abundance of it. This is most evidenced by use of the subjunctive clause. In most cases, these clauses serve as modifiers which give further insight into a given word. In paragraph 44, the clause “which was their only means of recognition” modifies “watchword;” and the clause “by night the only possible means of communication” modifies “loud cries.” In both cases, the clauses give their modifiers greater clarity. Thucydides is also explicit in his reasoning for a proposal or action. This is best exemplified in paragraph 47
(ID#2437666) Page 2 where Thucydides details at least four reasons for Demosthenes’ urging to withdraw from Sicily. In Herodotus’ selection, there is significantly less detail to be found. Its few subjunctive clauses are usually necessary for a proper understanding of the sentence and in most cases involve gerunds. For example, in paragraph 112, the clause “seeing them coming at a run” is necessary to understand why the Persians “made ready to receive them,” and in paragraph 116, the clause “rushing with all speed to defend their city” is necessary to understand how the Athenians reached Athens first. As an entire selection, the account of the actual Battle of Marathon is surprisingly short, most of it discussed in paragraph 113, a mere five sentences long. Although some detail is certainly put forth, it lacks the breadth of Thucydides’ selection. In all probability, however, this is due more to a lack of sources than to an omission by Herodotus. The second element worth evaluating is closely related to detail, but fundamentally different: it is the element of explanation. In Thucydides’ selection, actions and ideas are explained just as often as they are detailed. It doesn’t take much effort to find a clause beginning with “as” or “owing to” scattered throughout the selection. Examples of this are everywhere: in paragraph 43: “As by day it seemed impossible…;” in paragraph 44: “owing to the rout that had taken place…;” and in paragraph 47: “owing to its being the sickly season…” to name a few. Also used as a device for explanation are the couple instances of parentheses in paragraph 43. Herodotus’ method of explanation is very different from Thucydides. It is more chronological and less extensive. In most cases, it is identified with the demonstrative, either as an adjective or as the subject of a linking verb. A couple of examples of this are found in paragraph 111: “This was the order of battle…,” (an example of a preceding demonstrative); and in paragraph 115: “In this fashion the Athenians captured…,” (an example of a following demonstrative). Perhaps the most notable difference in Herodotus’ explanation of things is
(ID#2437666) Page 3 found in the use of parentheses in paragraph 111. Unlike Thucydides, who uses parentheses to explain the event, Herodotus uses parentheses to explain modern practice in light of the recorded event. This difference leads to a third element of evaluation: resort to human experience. Perhaps the only passage of Thucydides’ selection which requires human experience from the reader is found in the beginning of paragraph four where he asks the reader the question: “how could anyone know anything for certain?” This question requires the reader to assimilate his personal experience with the still relatively colorless scene of a moonless night. It engages him on a level which is unusual for Thucydides, who throughout the rest of the selection merely recounts the events as they unfold. Herodotus’ selection involves human experience in a greater capacity and in a different way. In his selection, Herodotus concerns himself with two different stories about individual persons: the first concerns Cynegirus in paragraph 114 and the second concerns Epizelus in paragraph 117. Because neither of these stories is truly necessary to the history’s plot as a whole, they engage the reader in a way which Thucydides’ selection never does. By meeting the reader on a more personal level with an element of human experience, they add what Herodotus calls “color” (1.1) to the work. Another dimension of this “color” is found in the fourth and final element of evaluation: namely, commentary. In Thucydides’ selection, the most commentary one can find is in thematic phrases such as “ardor to cool” and “flushed with their victory” in paragraph 43, and in superlatives such as “as much, or more than anything else” in paragraph 44. In both circumstances, commentary is kept to a minimum and no tangible judgment is cast. Herodotus’ selection contains much stronger value statements than Thucydides’. The best example of this is in paragraph 112, where Herodotus says the Athenians “fought right
(ID#2437666) Page 4 worthily.” Despite its judgmental nature being somewhat ambiguous in context, it is certainly a statement one would not expect to find in Thucydides. There is additional commentary provided by Herodotus in paragraph 115 about a prevalent slander among the Athenians. While lacking the ambiguous judgment present in the aforementioned phrase, it is certainly not a paragraph one would expect to find in Thucydides; it lends a color to the work which is foreign to Thucydides. From this evaluation, it is clear that both historians are attempting to record real events in an accurate way from legitimate sources. That much makes them historians, but it is also fairly clear from the selections that their tasks are different. Thucydides’ unique task (as he early on explicitly states) is to preserve the greatness of the events he records. He does this by recording the objective information with the utmost precision, believing that greatness is found not in popular belief but “in the reach of evidence” (1.21). Herodotus’ task is to preserve the “color” which these events have brought about, and he accomplishes this by giving primacy to individual stories and a nonjudgmental commentary alongside the events he records. These are clearly two very different approaches to history, and they have drastically different implications. Those who read Thucydides will be inclined to historically understand themselves as part of a region and to have zeal for the collective deeds of that region. Those who read Herodotus will be inclined to historically understand themselves not as parts of a region, but as individuals whose influence in history is attributed to their individual actions, not the collective action of a functioning region. This difference in self-perception is a prime example of just how powerful the questions of an historian’s task and his methodology truly are. The answers reach far beyond the historian or his work; they influence the reader in a way which will help determine how he will function as a human being. Shall he act as an individual, or shall he act in allegiance? These, I daresay, are the very questions whose answers will affect the historical record of tomorrow.
(ID#2437666) Page 5 Work Cited Herodotus. The History. Trans. David Grene. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987. Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: a Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Richard Crawley. Ed. Robert B. Strassler. New York: Touchstone, 1996.