This paper investigates the role of visual and material phenomena in constituting the value of the historical past in Herodotus' Histories. In more general terms, it explores how ephemeral objects come to signify the historical past as a receding visual field and how this affects our understanding of the epistemological foundations of Greek history writing. The argument is framed by Frank Ankersmit's distinction between "looking at" and "looking through" the historical text and Alois Riegl's distinction between the "age-value" and the "historical value" of artifacts and monuments.
Herodotus famously begins the Histories with his stated purpose: "so that the past deeds of men may not fade with time" (tw'/ crovnw/ ejxivthla, Histories 1.1). In this programmatic statement, the metaphor of "fading with time" implicitly equates ta genomena, i.e., past events, with visible evidence and establishes the corrosive effect of time upon that evidence. The force of this metaphor within the Histories will be examined in two related narrative features: 1) the lists of Croesus' offerings in the Lydian Logos and, 2) the historian's references to objects or architectural features that exist up to his own time (ejp j ejmevo, mevcri ejmeu', etc.). The question raised here is not what Croesus accomplished in making the offerings, but what Herodotus accomplishes in listing and describing them. As I will show, the principal variable in the presentation of the offerings is time, including how the objects themselves are affected by time and their anachronistic placement within the narrative of events. If the implied promise of oracles in the Histories is that the future is knowable, then the implied promise of objects is that the past is knowable. And Croesus' offerings stand as proof that both promises, as the effects of writing and reading history, are elusive.
If a general statement can be made about Croesus' offerings at Delphi, it is that they have undergone some change between the time they were dedicated and the time Herodotus describes them. The large gold and silver bowls have been moved due to the burning of the Temple. The dedication inscribed on the golden sprinkling vessel has been falsified. The maker of the mixing bowl is left to an uncertain oral tradition (fasi;, 1.51.3), as is the identification of the eidolon (levgousi, 1.51.5). The golden lion has been substantially reduced in size, again due to the burning of the Temple (1.50.3). As a unique subset of Croesus' offerings, the golden shield and spear dedicated to Amphiaraus (1.52.1) exist, says Herodotus, "up to my time." Like the offerings at Delphi, Croesus believed that this oracle too had given him the right answer to his "test" question, i.e., "What is Croesus doing?" (1.49.1). But they differ from the Delphic offerings by virtue of the qualifying phrase. As a way of bringing the first account of Croesus' offerings to a close, the phrase es eme functions both as an acknowledgement of and a defense against the mutability of material objects as historical data. The overall effect of quantifying and qualifying Croesus' offerings is therefore not to verify their historicity or, by extension, to verify the authority of the histor. Rather, they verify the contingencies, notably if ironically that of time itself, that beset such notions as historical veracity and authority. The offerings also take on the metonymic function of negating Croesus' hubristic faith in the permanence of his wealth and his empire just as their preemptive potential (provteron katirwvsa", 1.92.3) is denied by their retrospective placement in the Logos. Thus, the temporal and spatial contingencies that affect the disposition of the Delphic dedications are also a key to assessing the value of the past as a source of moral exempla.