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Fire Signals in Greek Historiography

Daniel Moore

University of Tennessee

While technical aspects of ancient fire-signaling have received extensive study (Riepl 1913, Diels 1920, Darmstaedter 1924, Reinecke 1935, and Forbes 1966), this paper examines how historians use this symbolic form of communication to reflect upon both the possibilities and the challenges of the transmission of human knowledge. This approach allows us to view fire signals as meta-historical representatives for the historiographical principles of each author.

Herodotus treats two examples of fire-signaling as types of θώματα, capable of conveying complex and momentous messages with little consideration for possibilities of failure or confusion. A signal sent from the island of Sciathus to Artemesium (7.183.1) has led to speculation about how such a complicated message could possibly have been communicated through fire signals (Riepl 1913, 57-8; and Forbes 1966, 171-2). Herodotus does not, however, show any such concern for ambiguity or confusion in this message. By suggesting that the information contained his own preceding account was seamlessly communicated from the island by fire signals, Herodotus creates a narrative device to effect his transition to Artemesium and simultaneously imbues these fire signals with the power of historical narrative. In a second example (9.3.1), Herodotus describes Mardonius' attack on Athens as inspired by the image of announcing his success to Xerxes by a chain of fire signals across the Aegean. The possible influence here of the Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (Flower and Marincola 2002, 105) highlights the dramatic nature of this hypothetical beacon chain attributed by Herodotus only to the imagination of Mardonius (contra Diels 1920, 77-8; Forbes 1966, 171; and Tracy 1986). Again literary concerns override scientific skepticism. By focusing on the potential grandeur of such a signal, Herodotus represents fire-signaling as a type of θῶμα with unquestioned potential.

Two examples from Thucydides, by contrast, demonstrate that even simple attempts at communication by fire signals are subject to confusion. In the first (2.94.1), a signal is sent from Salamis to Athens to warn the Athenians of an attack but results only in confusion at Athens, as the Athenians remained unsure of the enemy’s location. In the second example (3.22.7-8), the details of which are not well understood (Richmond 1998, 18n.80), the Thebans besieging Platea attempt to alert Thebes of a surprise attack, but the Plateans counter this by lighting additional fires to confuse the message. In both instances, attempts to communicate relatively straightforward messages become for Thucydides opportunities to reflect on the challenges inherent in such communications. While this approach contrasts with the optimistic view of Herodotus, it resonates with Thucydides’ concern throughout his work that words be not just convincing but accurate and unambiguous (cf. his distinction between πρόφασις and αἰτία, 1.23.5-6; and the confusion of language during stasis, 3.82.4).

Polybius recognizes these potential complications and seeks to correct them through a lengthy description of innovations in the art of fire-signaling, to which he himself contributed, enabling the composition of complex messages (10.43-7). This emphasis on his own contribution reflects Polybius' belief that it is necessary for a historian to have personal experience in practical affairs (12.28.2-5). By acknowledging that he is building upon the efforts of previous authors, Polybius demonstrates his faith in the potential for progress based on the corrective ability of πραγματικὴ ἱστορία (1.1.1). But Polybius believes that theoretical knowledge alone is insufficient, arguing here that this advanced fire-signaling technique cannot be achieved simply through theoretical knowledge but requires practice (10.47.3). Similarly for Polybius history alone does not offer a complete education but must be supplemented with practical experience (9.14). Polybius’ representation of fire-signaling in historiographical terms carries particular significance with the conversion of fire signals into an alphabetical text.

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