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Croesus in conversation: past tense and dramatic form in Herodotus

Tobias Joho

Universität Bern

This paper will investigate the semantic effects of Herodotus’ tense usage with regard to verbs of speaking in the conversations that Croesus has first with Solon and then with Cyrus. Its aim is to demonstrate that in his selection of tenses Herodotus deliberately draws on the semantic differences that obtain between the aorist and the imperfect in order to give the scene a specific dramatic form and to highlight the character of each speaker.

Given that the aorist is normally used to register every new step in an evolving narrative (Kühner-Gerth I, 157), one would expect this tense to dominate among verbs introducing or summarizing the various portions of direct speech in a dialogue. However, in Herodotus, verbs of speaking in the imperfect tense appear with at least equal frequency (cf. Sedgwick 1940: 119-20 and 1957: 113-14). Albert Rijksbaron has provided an explanation for this fact: whereas the aorist indicative simply acknowledges the fact that an utterance has been made, the imperfect has the function of signaling the speaker’s intention “to obtain a reaction from the interlocutor” (Rijksbaron 2002: 18-19).

The paradigmatic encounter between Croesus and Solon demonstrates Herodotus’ effort to dramatize the conversation through the arrangement of tenses. The exchange proceeds in four stages, each consisting in a question by Croesus and a response by Solon. The first three stages follow the basic pattern of raised expectation and subsequent disappointment. Croesus asks his questions about the happiest human being in the expectation that Solon will praise his happiness. Because Croesus expects a specific reaction, his inquiries are, in accordance with Rijskbaron’s interpretation, invariably introduced, or summarized, by imperfect forms (1.30.2; 1.30.3; 1.30.3; 1.31.1). By contrast, Solon’s answers, which continuously run counter to Croesus’ expectation, are first prefaced by a historic present (λέγει, 1.30.3) and then twice by the aorist εἶπε (1.30.4, 31.1). As Schadewaldt has observed (1982: 196), Solon takes Croesus’ questions not as invitations to praise him, but as genuine queries. In accordance with this stance, the avoidance of the imperfect signals Solon’s refusal to join in the game of expectation and corresponding reaction. Since Solon’s first reply abruptly reveals the fundamental divergence in outlook between both speakers, the historic present introducing this statement is used to mark the decisive moment of the whole encounter (cf. Rijksbaron 2002: 22-23). The subsequent aorist forms highlight the purely factual nature of Solon’s statements, which are, in contrast with the imperfects used of Croesus, free from any concern with the reactions of the interlocutor.

In the fourth stage of the conversation, the dynamic changes. Croesus asks whether Solon considers his happiness inferior to that of mere nobodies. Unlike Croesus’ previous questions, this query is introduced in the aorist (εἶπε; 1.32.1), which indicates that Croesus no longer expects to receive the desired answer. The same aorist form opens Solon’s response (εἶπε; 1.32.1). The sharp juxtaposition brings home the collision between the two speakers. At the same time, however, they now both speak in the same tone free from preconceived expectations. This freedom could be the basis for a genuine discussion, which, however, does not take place at this point.

This changes after Croesus’ miraculous rescue from the funeral pyre on which he has been placed by his conqueror Cyrus. In the ensuing dialogue between the two men, most of Croesus’ utterances are introduced by aorist forms (1.87.3, 88.2, 89.1, 90.2, 90.3 – imperfect only twice in rapid succession at 1.88.3). In particular, the final part of the exchange consists predominantly of utterances that are introduced by verbs in the aorist (Cyrus: 1.90.1. 90.3; Croesus: 1.90.2, 90.3 – imperfect only at 1.90.2 of Cyrus). On this occasion, the preponderance of aorist forms has the opposite effect from the implications that they had in the scene with Solon: they now reveal, not a breakdown of the conversation, but both speakers’ attainment of an unprejudiced standpoint.

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Principles and Practices of Greek Historiography

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