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Athens and Herodotus’s Plataea: Audience and Performance in Histories 8.133-9.70

Ian Oliver

Regis University

The Battle of Plataea was arguably the most important Spartan victory in the Classical period.  Yet in Herodotus’s telling of Plataea, Sparta remains in the background, retreating, hesitating, and even initially abandoning their fellow Greeks to a Persian invasion.  Instead, the narrative mostly follows the Athenians, whose role in the battle was minor at best.  This difficulty could be explained by Herodotus’s personal bias, but Sparta often receives praise elsewhere in the Histories (per Fornara 1971: 58, shifting authorial dispositions are typical of Herodotus).  Source-criticism too may partially explain the narrative’s lack of pro-Spartan anecdotes: Ray Nyland (1992) and Marco Betalli (2005) both argue that Herodotus drew on smaller Greek states, many of them medizers, as sources.

But neither approach explains Athens’ prominence in Herodotus’s Plataea narrative.  Athens enjoys several congratulatory speeches: one highlights the Athenians’ courage and strength of character, especially observable in their refusal to surrender to the Persians (8.143-144); another praises their past achievements in terms so glowing that Nicole Loraux (2006: 103) identifies the speech with Athenian funeral oration (9.27).  Athens is involved in every major event and is always the most willing—or even the only one willing—to engage the enemy.  The Spartans themselves acknowledge and validate the preeminence of the Athenians, going so far as to argue that the Athenians are better qualified to face the Persians than they (9.46-48).  Even minor episodes, like the taking of the Persian camp (9.70), showcase Athenian valor.  

Herodotus’s unwavering and marked favorability toward Athens suggests a third possible explanation for his unexpected approach to Plataea: an original Athenian audience.  Even the narrative’s performed length—similar to that of speeches, tragedies, and Hippocratic epideixeis (cf. Pernot 2015 esp. 82)—recalls recent work on epideictic orality as a framework for understanding Herodotus’s Histories (e.g. Thomas 2000; Luraghi 2001).  Although the strong argument for the Histories’ literary unity has largely outpaced Jacoby’s compositional mechanism of ‘lectures’ (scil. Jacoby 1913: col. 330-33), Herodotus might still have relied on a pre-existing composition when writing down his Histories, especially if that piece was widely known.  In short, I argue that both theories—unitary composition and the oral background of the Histories—can be advanced by positing the influence of Herodotus’s epideictic performances on the final text of the Histories.

The existence of an original performance piece for an Athenian audience explains several of the difficulties in Herodotus’s Plataea.  Sparta’s diminished role reflects Athenian sentiment; Herodotus avoids the many sources that were inevitably favorable to Sparta (cf. Vannicelli 2007) by relying on minor, predominantly medizing sources (per Nyland and Betalli); the long and stylistically Athenian speeches would have resonated with an Athenian audience familiar with such rhetoric; and of course the consistent portrayal of Athens as more historically glorious than Sparta would also have been well-received.  I propose, then, that the Plataea narrative may derive from an original (presumably Herodotean) composition that was intended primarily for Athenians, i.e. an epideixis which Herodotus included in his generally-unified, apodeictic exposition of historiē.

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Greek Historiography

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