Greek Historians

"Greek Historians," review of Greek Historical Writing: A Historiographical Essay Based on Xenophon's "Hellenica," by W. P. Henry, Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 21, No. 4 (June 1968).


The author starts from the premiss that “the most important aspect of the study of history is . . . historiography.” He means by this that the most important aspect of the study of the political history of classical Greece is the critical study of Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon. He selected Xenophon because “the problems of the composition” of the Hellenica–in contradistinction apparently to the corresponding problems of Herodotus’ and Thucydides’ histories would seem to have been settled: a critical study of the characteristic theories proposed as solutions to those problems would reveal the greatness of “our modern approach to the historical writing of ancient Greece,” but perhaps also its limitations.

The bulk of Henry’s book is devoted to such a critical study. It has led him to a “singular disappointment” (p. 191) and to the conclusion that “we are not yet ready to interpret ancient histories,¬†like the Hellenica (p. 210). There is a general and a particular cause of the failure of nineteenth and twentieth century study of Greek historical writing. The general cause is insufficient attention to the peculiarity of Greek historiography as distinguished from its modern counterpart: the ancients did not study history “for its own sake,” since their approach was “esthetic” (p. 193). A moment’s reflection on the historical origin of this meaning of “esthetic” would show the inadequacy of Henry’s characterization of classical historiography. For the classical Greek, “history was a form of literature. . . .History is literature when an artist perceives the genius of an age and reveals it through the facts of history” (p. 193). This seems to be Henry’s interpretation of a saying of Quintilian which he renders “History has a certain affinity¬†to poetry” (p. 191). Granting for a moment that the three classical historians perceived the spirit of the ages which they described, was their primary intention to reveal those spirits? A glance at the openings of Herodotus’ and Thucydides’ works would show the impropriety of this suggestion. This is to say nothing of the fact that the suggestion could not be expressed in their language. However justified Henry’s criticism of nineteenth and twentieth century students of classical Greek historiography may be, he shares with them (or most of them) the prejudice that “we know today” the meaning of historiography in general and of classical historiography in particular.

Barnes and Noble