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Ring Composition and Narrative Consequence in the Story of Rhampsinitus and the Thief (Hdt. 2.121)

Jasmine A. Akiyama-Kim


This paper argues for the integration of the story of Rhampsinitus and the thief (Hist. 2.121) with the rest of the Histories in light of two major Herodotean themes: the changeability of fortune and the unstable boundary between opposites. The story, in which a king and a thief emerge from a contest of wits with near equal status, has traditionally been seen as an amusing set-piece with little relevance to Herodotus’s later, more serious history writing (e.g. Macan 1895, West 2007). Where the story is not rejected outright, it is placed within a taxonomy of folktales and Märchen that appear throughout Histories (Aly 1921, Griffiths 2001, Hansen 2002, Luraghi 2013). Building instead on scholarship that argues for narrative consistency (Purves 2013, 2014; Bowie 2018), I propose that the story, by weaving oppositional trajectories into a well-balanced whole, emphasizes the idea that the Histories is governed by a zero-sum, but ever-changing measure of fortune, where “everything is possible given enough time” (γένοιτο δ᾿ ἂν πᾶν ἐν τῷ μακρῷ χρόνῳ, 5.9).

My argument relies on an explication of the story’s ring composition, which sets up Rhampsinitus and the thief as opposites that are ultimately equated (cf. Munson 1993). Over the course of the story, the distribution of power shifts: as the thief gains the upper hand, the king resorts to increasingly desperate measures. By the end of the story, the two figures, having achieved a similar status via opposite trajectories, settle their differences with a marriage-pact. The interchangeability of the figures is thrown into stark relief by the narrative similarity of the first and last episodes. At the beginning of the story, the thief and his brother come to plunder Rhampsinitus’s treasury, but when his brother is caught in a trap, the thief is forced to cut off his head in order to escape recognition. By the end of the story, it is Rhampsinitus who must make a familial sacrifice. He attempts to lure the thief into revealing his identity by prostituting his daughter—herself a stand-in for the initial treasury. The thief, however, has foreknowledge of the trap and passes her the arm of a cadaver in order to create a diversion and escape.

The story raises the question: “What is the difference between a king and a thief?” (cf. Christ 1994, Harrison 2003), which segues into the broader and less soluble question: “What is the difference between opposites?” In conversation with a body of scholarship that comments on oppositional pairs in the Histories that are ultimately confused (e.g. Hartog 1988, Vasunia 2001), I argue that the ease with which Rhampsinitus and the thief complicate the categories to which they nominally belong reinforces the Herodotean maxim that fortune can never stay in the same place for very long. Thus, in the course of time, even oppositional pairs will come to recognize a mutual similarity.

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Greek Historiography

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