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    • Document type
      Review (monograph)
      Author (Review)
      Language (Review)
      Language (Monograph)
      Author (Monograph)
      Embedded Inscriptions in Herodotus and Thucydides
      Year of publication
      Place of publication
      Harrassowitz Verlag
      Philippika. Altertumswissenschaftliche Abhandlungen
      Series (vol.)
      Number of pages
      VI, 197
      Subject classification
      Greek Literature, Auxiliary sciences of history, History of literature, Military History, Political History
      Time classification
      999 - 1 BC
      Regional classification
      Greece / ancient
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      Original source URL
      Mar 03, 2023
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Benjamin Allgaier: Embedded Inscriptions in Herodotus and Thucydides (reviewed by Peter Liddel)

sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 2

Benjamin Allgaier: Embedded Inscriptions in Herodotus and Thucydides

Since the time of Cyriacus of Ancona (1391-1452) scholars and antiquarians have examined, recorded and published the texts of Greek inscriptions on stone and metal objects. The scholarship of epigraphy has long been deployed by historians to add detail and nuance to the interpretation of the ancient Greek world. Historians and others in antiquity were interested in inscriptions too, but, as Allgaier's study demonstrates, they are very distinct from modern scholars both in terms of their working practices and in their approach to inscriptions.

Allgaier's book offers a detailed study of the inscriptions quoted verbatim, alluded to (both explicitly and implicitly) and summarised in the work of Thucydides and Herodotus. The author considers how inscriptions are "embedded" in these texts in the sense that they can be fruitfully approached as a significant narrative device in the construction of meaning and authorial voice. Neither work can be said to be "full of inscriptions" in any strict sense, but the periodic reference to inscriptions by Herodotus (Allgaier counts "twenty-four (groups of) inscriptions on nineteen occasions": 17; cf. 159) and Thucydides (Allgaier's Appendix lists nine references to inscriptions: 160) makes their appearance a phenomenon worthy of sustained analysis.

After a general introduction (Chapter 1), Part I of the book offers a sustained study of Herodotus' use of inscriptions, building upon and, in terms of interpretation, diverging from the previous studies of West (1985) and Heywood (2021). Chapter 2 elucidates an "epigraphical dimension" of the Histories , reading Herodotus's proem as a reminder of the dangers of "relying on inscriptions for the preservation of renown" and presenting his historical work as a "superior alternative" (20). This perspective is a programmatic one for Allgaier's interpretation despite the fact that Herodotus sometimes appears to have tacitly been aware of epigraphic material that survives today, possibly including a recently published verse-dedication from the sanctuary of Apollo Ismenios in Thebes (21-24). While Herodotus only rarely claims to have undertaken autopsy of inscriptions, he shows a great deal of interest in the objects on which inscriptions are added. Revisiting the perspective of Steiner's Tyrant's Writ (1994), inscriptions are presented as the products of human activities: as we see in Chapter 3, Darius's epigraphic engagement illustrates his interest in self-commemoration and even foreshadow Herodotus's historiographical project. But Herodotus emphasises the inherent instability of inscribed monuments (through translocation and fragmentation), and in doing so "implicitly highlights the importance of the Histories as an efficient antidote to oblivion" (51). Chapter 4 turns to the funerary monuments, which make up one third of the embedded inscriptions in Herodotus' work. They contribute to Herodotus's characterisation of Eastern monarchs, and his description of the inscription on Nitocris's tomb (Hdt. 1.187) suggests their power to inspire human action and to uncover problematic aspects of human character. However, his portrayal of commemorative stones also draws attention to the importance of his own work in preserving a stable and contextualised record of them. Moreover, Allgaier's analysis of the account of the epigrams for the Greek dead at Thermopylai (Hdt. 7.228) is suggestive of tensions between Greek states and also between the epigraphic record and Herodotus's narrative.

In contrast to the embedded inscriptions in the work of Herodotus, Thucydides's inscriptions (the subject of Part II of this book) are all Greek and mostly from the Greek mainland (with the exception of Archedike's tomb at Lampsakos: Thuc. 6.59.3). Whereas Herodotus's accounts of inscriptions are sometimes rather dubious, the Athenian historian's accounts of inscriptions are consistently epigraphically unproblematic. Thucydides makes no unequivocal claim of autopsy though he did comment on the condition of the lettering of the epigram on the altar of Apollo (Thuc. 6.54.7). Chapter 6 analyses the Thucydidean accounts of the Plataian tripod (Thuc. 1.132, 3.57) and the limits of commemorative inscriptions alluded to in the Periclean epitaphios logos (2.43). Thucydides's object biography of the tripod and the account of Pausanias's epigram underlines the malleability of inscriptional commemoration and also Pausanias's sense of self-importance; but its appearance in the Plataian Debate, as Grethlein argues elsewhere, demonstrates the rhetorical potential of inscriptions. Pericles's observation on the shortcoming of material commemoration also underlines the fixity of epigraphic forms of commemoration. Chapter 7 discusses the use of inscriptions in the account of the Peisistratids (6.54-59): they preserve important information but their impermanence and tendentiousness highlight the importance of Thucydides's historiographical project and its narratorial authority. Chapter 8 shows how the interstate treaty documents of books 4, 5 and 8 convey the nature of human diplomacy and the complexity of its relationship to historical events. An interesting conclusion that Allgaier draws is that whereas Herodotus is interested primarily (but not exclusively) in the production of epigraphic monuments, Thucydides focusses on their reception and rhetorical deployment (146).

The study of ancient authors' use of inscriptions has been a concern of modern scholars for a long time. But Allgaier's book breaks new ground in terms of the sustained analytical attention that it pays to the deployment of inscriptions by Herodotus and Thucydides. Allgaier shows that the embedded inscriptions in these authors are more than a means of transmitting information, but that they contribute to the rhetorical authority of the authors' narratives by emphasising the ephemerality of epigraphy. The Epilogue to this book (Chapter 9) discusses the absence of inscriptions from Xenophon's Hellenika and their appearance in Lucian's True Stories "as an irreverent engagement with the historiographic practice of embedding inscriptions" (157). There is still much work to be done on the reception of inscriptions in the work of ancient authors, but Allgaier's very successful conceptualisation of "embedded" inscriptions in these two authors contributes profoundly to the modern understanding of this theme.