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Hecataeus' Heroic Boast: Personal and Impersonal Genealogies in Archaic Greek Literature

Joseph Baker Zehner

University of Virginia

            In his 2006 Kernos article on Genealogy, Robert Fowler credits the impersonal style of Pherecydes with helping to “invent factuality” (p. 46).  Yet Fowler does not address the 'content' of Pherecydes' genealogies, probably since it might reveal a personal motive for its peculiar focus on the Philiad clan (Jacoby 1947, pp.30-33).  Even for all the “matter-of-fact brevity” of Pherecydes' factual style (Fowler 2006, p. 42), the content of his genealogies seems to exhibit the same patterns of distorting the past that works of comparative anthropology attribute to genealogies of oral tradition (e.g. Henige 1974). 

            In an earlier article, Fowler applies these same lessons of comparative anthropology to the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, successfully showing how the Catalogue's genealogy of Hellen reflects the interests of 7th century Thessaly (Fowler 1998, p.11).  Later, Fowler will argue that the style of the Catalogue is comparatively more personal than Pherecydes' style through its use of focalization (Fowler 2006, p.41 n. 14, cf. Catalogue frr. 65.6, 76, 100.7, 193.3 Merkelbach-West).  Therefore, the Catalogue poet uses a personal style to convey personal (or political) content.

            Hecataeus differs both from Pherecydes and from the Catalogue poet in that the content of his Genealogies was unlikely to be personal.  At FGrHist 1 F 300 (= Hdt. 2.143-46), Hecataeus' personal 16-generation genealogy is refuted by the Egyptian priests' own 345-generation genealogy.  I argue that this amounts to a programmatic statement made by the author to abandon the personal approach to genealogy in favor of a more critical approach using visual evidence, the priests' statues being an example of such evidence.  Hecataeus' work is not wholly impersonal, however.  As Fowler maintains, Hecataeus “stamped his personality on his text” (2006, p.23), referring to Hecataeus' proem (FGrHist 1 F 1) which guarantees the author's personal judgment as the primary criterion for the truth of what he writes (ὥς μοι δοκεῖ ἀληθέα εἶναι), as opposed to the “many” and “laughable” traditional accounts of the Greeks.

            Prior scholarship has not sufficiently emphasized how unique a phenomenon it is for an author to genealogize himself.  While Hecataeus is often posited as a pioneer of rational historiography, the closest parallel to Hecataeus 'genealogizing himself' is rather to be found on the Homeric battlefield, where heroes will often boast of their genealogies.  My comparison of Hecataeus fr. 300 to Aeneas' genealogy, the longest heroic genealogy of the Iliad, will show that even the Iliadic poet shows a similar concern about authority over past genealogical tradition.  Aeneas admits to Achilles that both warriors cannot know the other's genealogy by sight (20.205: ὄψει), and so he proceeds with an account of his own genealogy as a means to verify the traditional account that Achilles has heard (20.204: ἀκούοντες).  The warriors rely on hearsay (20.206: φασὶ) for information about their opponent's genealogy.  The tension between sight and hearsay also occurs in the invocation to the Catalogue of Ships, where it is said that the Muses know the past, since they were present (πάρεστέ). Humans, on the other hand, only hear reports, and so lack accurate knowledge of the past (Il. 2.484-86).  The Egyptian priests, however, can point to the visual evidence of their statues going back 345 generations.  Furthermore, Aeneas' genealogy can be called 'impersonal' since it is manifestly non-Greek, and previous efforts to find an 'interested party' reflected in its fabrication have been found lacking (Smith 1981). 

I conclude from the above examples that impersonal uses of genealogy, and more specifically those which raise epistemological questions about the Greeks’ authority over their past, can be found throughout the archaic period, from Homer to Herodotus, alongside the comparatively ‘uncritical’ fabrications and reports of Pherecydes and the Catalogue of Women.

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Principles and Practices of Greek Historiography

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