Time, Tense, and Temporality in Ancient Greek Historiography

The Antikythera mechanism is an ancient Greek hand-powered orrery, described as the first analogue computer,

An approach to Greek historiography that establishes a new angle by tackling the relationship between historiography and time.

By Dr. Jonas Grethlein
Chair in Greek Literature
Universität Heidelberg


One of the most important trends in recent scholarship on ancient historiography is to explore how historical meaning is constructed through the form of narrative. This essay argues that the narratives of ancient historians can and should also be seen as an engagement with temporality. Such a view, combining the lenses of narratology, philosophy, and linguistics, yields a “grammar of historiographic time”: ancient historiography engages with different levels of the past including the “plupast,” depends on the dynamics of “futures past,” and tries hard to restore “presence” to the past. Other than these various temporal levels, ancient historians also deploy the subjunctive when they consider counterfactuals.

The past few decades have seen several new approaches to ancient Greek historiography. The “fab four”—Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Polybius—still loom large, but the works of lesser known historians have increasingly attracted attention (e.g., on the fragments from the fourth and third centuries bce, see Flower, 1994; Pownall, 2004; Clarke, 2008; Baron, 2012). It has proven fruitful to contextualize historians in their own present: we have learned, for example, that Herodotus, besides obliquely commenting on contemporary politics in the Histories, formed part of a wider intellectual milieu of “inquirers,” sharing important methodological creeds with physiologists and scientists (Thomas, 2000; Raaflaub, 2002). There is now broad acknowledgment that there were other media besides historiography in which ancient Greeks related to and reflected on their past (See especially Grethlein, 2010b, and Marincola, 2012. For Homer see Grethlein, 2006a; on elegy, see Bowie, 1986; on oratory see, most recently, Steinbock, 2013; on the archaeology of the past, see Alcock, 2002. On Latin literature, see Flower, 1996, and Walter, 2004). Envisaging the historians as part of a larger field of memory lets us see their works with new eyes. Going beyond antiquity, scholars have developed a keen interest in the reception of ancient historiography, reconsidering Momigliano’s concept of “the classical foundations of modern historiography” (e.g., Harloe & Morley, 2012; Lianeri, 2012; Morley, 2014).

Concurrent with these developments, arguably the most pervasive trend in the past twenty-five years or so, has been the exploration of the narrative art of ancient historiography. Where older scholarship devoted much time to the issue of historical reliability, Classicists now tend to concentrate on how ancient historians present their views of the past. Source criticism has been replaced with the exploration of narrative strategies. It is hard to say to what extent this shift was triggered by Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973), but it ties in well with his thesis that the notion of emplotment aligns historiography with fictional narrative. Within Classics, Wiseman’s (1979) and Woodman’s (1988) argument for the rhetorical nature of ancient historiography, though controversial, helped pave the way for the wave of studies in narrative presentation (for a polemical critique, see Lendon, 2009). Many studies have made good use of the tools of narratology in order to explore such aspects as the historians’ self-fashioning and presentation of characters’ viewpoints (Hornblower, 1994, and Rood, 1998, are two pioneering studies).

In this article, I wish to present an approach to Greek historiography that, while expanding on the study of how narrative creates historical meaning, also establishes a new angle by tackling the relationship between historiography and time (I bring together and further develop ideas as presented in Grethlein, 2010a, 2010b, 2013a, and Grethlein & Krebs, 2012b). The core of my argument is that historiography can and should be read as an engagement with temporality: besides emplotting the past in meaningful ways, historical narratives are an attempt to come to grips with time. While continuing to hone in on narrative, this approach complements the focus on historical meaning with a new perspective that combines the lenses of philosophy, narratology, and linguistics. That history is concerned with time may seem banal: while Herodotus tries to preserve past deeds from “fading away” and “losing their fame,” Thucydides aims at furnishing “a possession forever.” And yet the topic of historiography and time has many more facets that are worth exploring. While history is about the past, the presentation of this past involves various temporal levels. Clio not only likes cosmetics; she is also good at conjugating.

The outline of the grammar of historiographic time used in this article is as follows. There is a past to the past: a “plupast” that can be evoked to illuminate both the past and the historian’s endeavor (first section). The future comes into play in what I call “futures past.” Historians envisage res gestae from vantage points that are still future for the historical agents but past for themselves and their readers. The dynamics of “futures past” illustrate that historiography serves both to make sense of the past and to overcome the vagaries of time (second section). Historiography also involves the present. Ancient historians in particular are heavily invested in making the past present. Their efforts can be seen in terms of the current infatuation with presence that seems to have broken the sway of White’s tropology in the theory of history. Simultaneously, they open up a new perspective for this debate (third section). Besides being entangled in various temporal levels, historiography can also switch modes. The indicative is of course the default mode, and yet the subjunctive serves important functions such as vetting causalities and highlighting contingency (fourth section).

The Plupast

Title page of Appian’s Punica / Public Domain

In Appian’s Punica, the flames of Carthage prompt Scipio to reflect on the mutability of human fortune (132). Once magnificent and mighty, Carthage is now being utterly destroyed. Scipio breaks into tears and, silently considering that Troy and the Assyrian, Median, and Persian empires suffered the same fate, recites Hector’s words from the Iliad (6.448–449): “There will come a day when sacred Ilion shall perish, and Priam, and the people of Priam of the strong ash spear.” When Polybius inquires about the significance of this quote, Scipio “did not hesitate to name his fatherland frankly for which he feared, looking at the nature of human life.” From the perspective of older scholarship, the foremost question raised by the passage is its value as a source. Appian explicitly invokes Polybius, from whose account we have only a badly mutilated fragment. It is transmitted in the Byzantine Excerpta de Sententiis, which has also preserved a third version of the same anecdote, a fragment from Diodorus’ Bibliotheca historica (32.24). Diodorus’ version seems to deviate slightly from that given by Appian: here Scipio quotes the Homeric lines in order to explain his tears to Polybius. Carefully weighing the credentials of both authors and comparing the two versions, Astin (1967, pp. 282–287) and Walbank (1957–1979, ad 38.21.1–3) conclude that the version of Diodorus is preferable. Given that Polybius was an eyewitness, he may provide us with a reliable account of the scene.

While source criticism is by no means to be discarded, the artful construction of the passage merits our attention too. Here I concentrate on the temporal dynamics centering on the intricate use of what Chris Krebs and I have labeled the “plupast” (Grethlein & Krebs, 2012a). Appian evokes a past prior to the past he is primarily concerned with. To be precise, more than one plupast casts light on Scipio and the fall of Carthage: The tears of Scipio conjure up the tears shed by his father after the capture of Carthago Nova when he realizes the danger to which the wife of Mandonius and other female captives of noble decent are exposed (10.18.13). The parallel aligns Scipio with his father and highlights their empathy with enemies, while also drawing attention to the succession of wars that come to an end with the destruction of Carthage. This is only the most trenchant foil, as the tears are also reminiscent of the response of Antiochus III to the capture of Achaeus (8.23), or the feelings that the head of Pyrrhus elicited from Antigonus, as reported probably by Hieronymus, and of Xerxes’ reflections on human mortality at Abydus as featured in Herodotus’ Histories (Hdt. 7.45–46).

Scipio’s Homeric quote jolts the reader even further back into the misty realm of myth. The fall of Troy parallels the downfall of Carthage but is simultaneously introduced as a foil to Rome. The plupast is thus closely entwined with the future. Just as Hector looks to a time beyond the plot of the Iliad, Scipio meditates on an event that forms part of neither Polybius’ nor Appian’s nor Diodorus’ works. However, while Homer adumbrates the fall of Troy, an event following immediately after the end of his narration, the fall of Rome still lies in the future for our three historians. The parallel between Rome and Troy gains poignancy from the prominent legend that the history of Rome started with Aeneas’ flight from Troy. The Homeric quote is borne from the insight into the mutability of human fortune that provokes Scipio’s tears. In setting up a panopticon in which the fall of Carthage can be seen from many angles, Scipio’s tears and utterance illustrate how pliant a tool the plupast is for the creation of historical meaning.

Appian’s account also shows that the plupast can take various forms. The past of the past can be brought into play through intertextuality but also through such motifs as tears. It can be conveyed by the narrator as well as by characters. A particularly striking case of the former in Polybius is the so-called prokataskeue: Before beginning his narrative with the year 220 bce as announced at the beginning, Polybius devotes two full books to the events from 264 bce onward. Here the plupast has come to endure for so long, that it becomes difficult to distinguish the historian’s primary past from his plupast. Accordingly, Polybius oscillates between calling 264 and 220 the beginning of his Histories (for 264 bce, see, e.g., 1.5.1; 1.12.5–6; 39.8.4; for 220 bce, see, e.g., 1.3.1–4; 2.37.2; 3.5.9).

The plupast as envisaged by characters lends itself to being used as a mise-en-abime. There is of course a crucial difference between historians writing about the past and historical agents recalling the past, and yet both engage in acts of memory. Just as Demodocus and Phemius mirror the Homeric bard, the memory of characters has the capacity to throw into relief the historiographic work in which they figure. Verbal echoes, specifically the echoing of historiographic terminology in the mouths of characters, help reinforce this mirroring function of the plupast, which is particularly tangible when the characters refer to events that are also covered by the historians themselves. Mardonius’ skewed references to the past in the Persian Council at the beginning of Book 7 of Herodotus’ Histories are a case in point. Here Mardonius’ deployment of his own expedition as an illustration of Persian superiority (7.9α) stands in stark contrast to Herodotus’ own account: the character’s manipulation of the past throws into relief the historian’s account. The plupast was an important tool in particular for the first historians who could not rely on an established genre but had to define their work against memory in poetry and oratory (cf. Grethlein, 2011). Not only in Herodotus but also in Thucydides, questionable references to the past in embedded speeches drive home the superiority of the historian’s investigation (see Grethlein, 2010b, pp. 220–240, on Pericles’ funeral oration and the Plataean Debate. See also Greenwood, 2006, pp. 57–82, for resonances between Thucydides’ project of writing the truth and the ways in which characters view reality).

That said, the plupast also has the potential to destabilize. To give an example from a Roman historian: in the archaeology of the Bellum Catilinae, Sallust narrates the history of Rome since the capture of Carthage as one of steady decline. After the disappearance of the outer threat, discipline wanes while the incoming riches corrupt morals. Sulla’s regime causes moral degradation to escalate and paves the way for Catiline’s sinister agitations. Caesar, in his plea for clemency toward the imprisoned Catilinarians, strikingly calls upon the cornerstones of Sallust’s archaeology but assigns them rather different significance (on Caesar as embedded “historian” in the BC, see Feldherr, 2012, and Grethlein, 2013a, pp. 289–298). In his speech, the capture of Carthage does not appear as the beginning of all evil but serves as an exemplum of Roman clemency. While not failing to castigate the wickedness of Sulla, Caesar goes out of his way to emphasize the gap between his time and the present. Of course the tenor of the Bellum Catilinae is that of continuous decline, but Caesar’s speech challenges this storyline subtly through an alternative view on the central events of the master narrative.

Futures Past

A fragment of the fourth book of the History of the Peloponnesian War. / Wikimedia Commons

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War ends with Alcibiades’ departure to Samos and Tissaphernes’ journey to Ephesus in 411 bce. Most scholars agree that this cannot have been the intended endpoint; it is generally believed that, had the History been finished, it would have extended to 404 bce. Several references to Athens’ capitulation in the History make this assumption so pervasive. For example, foreshadowing in the appraisal of Pericles and the second proem reveal that this is the vantage point from which Thucydides envisages the Peloponnesian War. Previous scholarship has used these and other prolepses to make an argument about the composition of the History. Thucydides, it is concluded, could only have written the final draft of Book 2 after the end of the Peloponnesian War. There is, however, more to the references to the end of the Peloponnesian War; they reveal a salient aspect of the temporal dynamics of writing historiography: historians deal with the past, which, I have just argued, can encompass one or more plupasts, but the future— more exactly the future of this past—is also highly relevant to their work. The extent to which historians cash in on hindsight may vary, but retrospect makes it hard not to view the past in light of later developments. The past is seen to be moving toward a telos that is future for the historical agents but already past for the historians and their readers. To drive home this asymmetry, I suggest dubbing the underlying temporal dynamics “futures past.”

The Peloponnesian War nicely illustrates the impact that the choice of a telos, be it conscious or intuitive, has on the selection and arrangement of material. References in fourth-century oratory show that the military encounters between 431 to 404 can also be viewed as a series of distinct wars (de Ste. Croix, 1972, pp. 294–295; Strauss, 1997), and Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ critique of Thucydides drives home the extent to which Thucydides’ presentation of the Peloponnesian War is shaped by his vantage point. Unlike modern scholars, Dionysius obviously believed that Thucydides chose the ending that his History has. In both his Essay on Thucydides and in his Letter to Pompey, he takes Thucydides to task for it: although Thucydides lived through the entire twenty-seven years of the war, he decided to report only the first twenty-one years (Thuc. 16; Pomp. 3.10). In the Letter to Pompey, Dionysius also muses on an alternative ending: “It would have been better, after going through all the events, to end his history with a climax, and one that was most remarkable and especially gratifying to his audience, the return of the exiles from Phyle, which marked the beginning of the city’s recovery of freedom.” Obviously, this ending would have yielded a very different account from the one we find in the History of the Peloponnesian War. It would have been a narrative much more in line with the patriotic sentiment that Dionysius deems so important in historiography. While Thucydides narrates the story of a mighty polis that is ruined by the eagerness of her politicians to please the demos, in the account envisaged by Dionysius Athens prevails in a heroic fight, defying a host of trials and hardships. Tragedy is replaced by drama with a happy ending.

The concept of futures past not only shows to what extent historical meaning depends on the historian’s choice of a telos; it also lets us grasp an important aspect of historiography’s engagement with temporality. Life confronts us with an open future: what will be depends on many factors that are beyond our control. As philosophers have pointed out, the experience of contingency is often painful (e.g., Gadamer, 1990, pp. 361–363). Turning to the past, however, we encounter a realm that is closed (though not without qualification). We see the sway of time over humans past without being exposed to it ourselves. While following the experiences of the historical agents, we already know where history is headed and can see the past in the light of its future. Hindsight replaces the fragility of our lives with sovereignty. Futures past, letting the perspective of the reader grind against that of the characters, makes historiography a mode of coming to grips with time. It permits us to face and simultaneously master the dynamics of time.

Narrative in general, as its default tense, the preterite, illustrates, tends to be told in retrospect and can thus be seen as an engagement with temporality. Chekhov’s dictum that “if in the first chapter you say that a gun hung on the wall, in the second or in the third chapter it must without fail be discharged” (1974, p. 23) highlights the closedness of most narratives. The retrospect of the narrator lets us overcome contingency to which we are subject in our own lives. And yet a linguistic feature may show that the case of historiographic narrative is special. It has been argued that the function of the preterite in fiction is not so much to refer to the past as to signal the fictional status of the events reported. Hamburger (1953, 1957) makes this argument for third-person narrative. More radically, Weinrich (1964) builds his examination of tempus on the idea that tenses in general have functions that are not adequately described as mere temporal reference (see also Fleischman, 1990). The use of preterite in narrative set in the future, for example in science fiction, makes this thesis quite compelling. In historiography, however, the preterite does refer to the past. The temporal reference underscores the referential claim that distinguishes historiographic from fictional narrative. The concern with actual experiences lends weight to its reconfiguration of time. Historiographic narrative is not only about time told but also about time lived.

Retrospect allows historians and their readers to confront the vagaries of time, but it also raises problems. The more historians capitalize on hindsight, the more their accounts are removed from the perspective of the historical agents. Strong teleological trajectories fail to grasp how history was experienced. In particular, the openness of the future for various developments is in danger of getting lost. As Raymond Aron (1938) observes: “Retrospect creates an illusion of fatality which contradicts the contemporaneous impression of contingency” (p. 181, my translation). Some further intricacies of futures past can be gleaned from the works of Xenophon and Polybius. Neither gets much credit for being a profound historical thinker: while Xenophon is still often treated as an amateurish epigone of Thucydides, Polybius’ work is appreciated more as a source for Hellenistic history than on account of its intellectual qualities (for recent attempts to do more justice to Polybius, see the balanced survey by McGing, 2010; see Miltsios, 2013, on the artfulness of Polybius’ narration; also Smith & Yarrow, 2012). That said, their narrative strategies of dealing with retrospect bear out intriguing reflections on the temporal dynamics of historiography.

The historian’s telos is not necessarily identical with the point where the narrative ends, but often telos and closure coincide, lending weight to each other. In the case of Xenophon, the avoidance of a strong closural moment is a device that tries to do justice to a problematical aspect of any telos. At the end of the Hellenica we read of the battle of Mantineia, which failed to clarify the political situation in Greece. The lack of a marked endpoint is emphasized by Xenophon’s last sentence (7.5.27): “Thus far be it written by me; the events after these will perhaps be the concern of another.” Xenophon, who takes up where Thucydides’ account ends, presents his Histories as part of a historia continua, and this practice implies a deep reflection on time and historiography: the idea of a telos conflicts with the ongoing flux of time. Unlike narrative, history does not stop (cf. Marincola, 2005, p. 286). The Histories have to end somewhere, and the events covered need to be envisaged from a vantage point, but in choosing an open closure that does not provide a telos for the preceding narrative, Xenophon downplays the artificial caesura created by a telos. It is remarkable that the Anabasis has a similar narrative design. The account of an expedition lends itself to a clear-cut ending, and yet while the notion of nostos looms large in the Anabasis, it ultimately wanes (cf. Ma, 2004). Part of the Ten Thousand leave the army and the remaining troops embark on another expedition to the east, looping the narrative. The ending of the Anabasis as well as of the Histories attests a fine sensitivity to the tension between the unceasing flux of historical time and the telos chosen by a historian.

Polybius’ Histories engage with the same problem along different lines. The expansion of Rome’s rule provides his account with a strong telos that seems to produce a clearly defined narrative: at the beginning, Polybius announces that he will report the events up to the battle of Pydna, which established Rome’s hegemony over the oikumene. However, instead of stopping with 168, the Histories go on for ten more books, covering events until the destruction of Carthage in 146. It is generally assumed that Polybius was keen on using the material that he was able to collect as part of Scipio’s entourage, making sure that his own role would not go unnoticed. This may well be the case, but Polybius’ own meditation on the extension of his own work deserves to be taken seriously (3.4.4–5): “But since judgments regarding either the conquerors or the conquered based purely on performance are by no means final—what is thought to be the greatest success having brought the greatest calamities on many, if they do not make proper use of it, and the most dreadful catastrophes often turning out to the advantage of those who support them bravely….” Dismissed as “singularly confused” by the great Polybian scholar Frank Walbank (1977), these reflections entail a profound engagement with futures past: retrospect prevents the past from having definite meaning. Rulers die and empires fall, but time continues to proliferate new vantage points from which the past can be seen anew. Had Rome lost her hegemony in the aftermath of Pydna, her military triumphs would have to be reconsidered.

Where Xenophon opts for an open-ended closure, Polybius extends his Histories in order to do justice to the continuous proliferation of new vantage points. This point makes it necessary to qualify the claim that historiography is a means of mastering time. For sure, as narrators of the past, we are able to control time in a manner not possible in our own lives, and yet this control is not without limits. The openness of the future that makes our lives so hard to control survives in the form of futures past, in the significance of the future of the past for our understanding of history. The flux of time to which historians as well as historical agents are subject precludes historical meaning from being definite. Historiography calms the flow of time but is unable to arrest it fully.


In Plutarch’s Antony we find the following account of Cleopatra’s arrival at Tarsus (26.1–3):

She sailed up the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded poop, its sails spread purple, its rowers urging it on with silver oars to the sound of the flute blended with pipes and lutes. She herself reclined beneath a canopy spangled with gold, adorned like Venus in a painting, while boys like Loves in paintings stood on either side and fanned her. Likewise also the fairest of her serving-maidens, attired like Nereids and Graces, were stationed, some at the rudder-sweeps, and others at the reefing-ropes. Wondrous odours from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks. Of the inhabitants, some accompanied her on either bank of the river from its very mouth, while others went down from the city to behold the sight.

The details, especially the variety of colors mentioned, endow the description with great vividness. Its graphic character is made explicit by the comparison of Cleopatra and the male attendants with figures in a painting. References to sound and smell reinforce the mimesis of the account synaesthetically (for more detailed readings of the passage, see Pelling, 1988, pp. 186–189, and Brenk, 1992, pp. 4454–4456). It does not surprise us that the author of such lines was highly sensitive to vividness in other authors. In a much-quoted passage (De glor. Ath. 347a), Plutarch praises Thucydides for his efforts “to make the reader a spectator, as it were, and to instil in readers the emotions of amazement and consternation felt by eyewitnesses.” Commenting on the account of the Cunaxa battle in the Anabasis, Plutarch remarks (Artax. 8.1): “Xenophon all but brings it before our eyes and, through his enargeia, always makes his reader much affected by the events, not as they have happened, but as they are happening, and sharing their dangers.” The capacity of words to make the audience (almost) see something is not the only but the most prominent aspect of enargeia as discussed by ancient rhetoricians (See Manieri, 1998; Otto, 2009, pp. 67–134; Zanker, 1981. On enargeia and phantasia in the progymnasmata of the Imperial Age, see Webb, 2009, pp. 87–130. On enargeia in criticism on ancient historiography, see Manieri, 1998, pp. 155–164. Also see Scheller, 1911, pp. 57–61, 65–71; Strasburger, 1966, pp. 78–86; Walker, 1993. Davidson, 1991, makes incisive observations on Polybius). Applied to historical narrative, embracing biography as well as historiography stricto sensu, enargeia helps to make the past present. The historian’s past then not only contains the plupast and is shaped by its future but also involves the creation of presence.

This focus on enargeia and presence yields a fresh look that can challenge deeply entrenched convictions about the history of historiography. Usually, Hellenistic historiography is viewed as a sharp decline from the methodological rigor of Thucydides, which was adopted, with qualifications, solely by Polybius in the Greek historical tradition. While not wrong in itself, this view fails to give the whole picture. Recent scholarship has emphasized the mimetic quality of Thucydides’ narrative (Connor, 1985; Morrison, 1999; Greenwood, 2006, pp. 19–41; Dunn, 2007, pp. 111–150; Grethlein, 2010b, pp. 248–252; 2013a, pp. 29–52; 2013b; Allan, 2013) and this, I contend, aligns Thucydides with Hellenistic historians for whom mimesis seems to have been a high priority (Strasburger, 1966, pp. 78–96). The richly flavoured narratives featuring in some of our fragments are obviously different from Thucydides’ sparse prose, and yet the common desire to make the reader experience the past as present establishes a surprising line of tradition that deserves to be explored more fully (for first thoughts, see Grethlein, 2013a, pp. 263–267). In the remainder of this section, I first look at how enargeia in ancient historiography can be analyzed and then link it to a current debate in the theory of history.

Narratology and linguistics both provide helpful tools for the investigation of the devices by which ancient historians restore presentness to the past. There are three main categories of Genette’s narratology: time, voice, and focalization. As Lessing (1766) pointed out in his Laocoon fragment, narrative lends itself to the representation of temporal sequences through its own temporal structure. While emphatic foreshadowing makes the historian’s retrospect strongly felt, in chronological accounts narrative time mimics narrated time. The immersive appeal of the narrative can be increased through the monitoring of duration. Just think of Thucydides’ account of the Mytilenean Debate: contrasting with the abbreviated narrative that precedes, the verbal rendering of the speeches in the Athenian assembly slows down narrative time and keeps the reader on her toes. The stretching of narrative time makes the reader feel the urgency necessary to save the Mytileneans and renders the report experiential.

Speeches introduce the category of voice. Discussing Plato’s juxtaposition of mimesis versus diegesis, Genette (1966) claims: “Plato opposed mimesis as perfect imitation to diegesis as imperfect imitation. However, a perfect imitation is not an imitation, it is the thing itself” (p. 156 [my translation]). This may put things too strongly as sound and intonation are lost in written texts, and yet we read the very words that eyewitnesses were supposed to have heard. When words render words, narrated and narrative time converge and we seem to gain unmediated access to the past. Much work has been done on the authenticity of speeches in historiography and their interaction with the embedding narrative (most recently, see Pausch, 2010), but the contribution of speeches to making the past present is a further aspect that deserves our attention. The voice of the narrator also has much impact on the mimetic appeal of a text. While a strongly present narrator such as Polybius highlights the mediating instance of the narrative, narratorial reticence as exercised in many Thucydidean passages can create the impression that the events narrate themselves (see especially Gribble, 1998; on narratorial voice in ancient historiography in general, see Marincola, 1997; in Herodotus, see Dewald 1987; in Sallust, see Grethlein, 2006b).

Focalization is a powerful device that jolts the reader right into the midst of the action. Despite the visual metaphor, focalization signifies perceptions of all senses. For some theoreticians, it also embraces intellectual activities (cf. Nelles, 1997, ch. 3 on focalization and senses; on further aspects, see Rimmon-Kenan, 1983). The perceptions and thoughts of characters may have no bearing on the course of history: what they see may be meaningless and their plans may not come to fruition; nonetheless, in putting the reader into the shoes of characters, focalization lets the reader encounter the past as present.

The most salient linguistic category for the creation of presence in narrative is tense. The author of the treatise On the Sublime remarks on what linguists label the historical present (25): “if you introduce events in past time as happening at the present moment, you will make the passage not so much a narrative as a vivid actuality.” Recent scholarship, however, has come to privilege another aspect of the historical present. Notably, Rijksbaron (2011) advocates that the central function of the historical present in ancient Greek narrative is to signal “events that the narrator considers crucial or decisive for the development of the (fictional or non-fictional) plot” (p. 5). This significance, Rijksbaron argues, is confirmed by several features of the historical present, which, for example, is rare in the passive voice, in subordinate clauses, and in combination with negations. It is “almost confined to telic and momentaneous verbs” but does “not occur with durative-stative verbs” (p. 7).

As influential as Rijksbaron’s view is, it has not remained uncriticized. Boter (2012), for one, shows that in Greek tragedy there are also static verbs like κεῖμαι and εὕδω that are used in the historical present. Decisiveness, he concludes, can thus not be its basic significance. Instead Boter proposes returning to the position advanced in On the Sublime: “The only thing we can say about the function of the HP in general, to my mind, is that it bridges the gap between past and present” (p. 231). While the core significance of the historical present is thus controversial, the notions of presence and decisiveness need not be mutually exclusive. In some ways, Allan (2011) can be seen to bridge the gap between the two views when he argues, writing on Thucydides, that the historical present creates “epistemic immediacy” and is therefore used to “highlight those events which are somehow remarkable, unexpected or crucial to the course of events” (p. 41).

Plaster cast bust of Thucydides (in the Pushkin Museum) from a Roman copy (located at Holkham Hall) of an early fourth-century BC Greek original. / Photo by shakko, Wikimedia Commons

Another tense that seems crucial to the historians’ attempts to make the past present is the imperfect. In a seminal paper, Bakker (1997) pointed out the salience of imperfect forms in mimetic passages in Thucydides. This, he argues, cannot be explained by the traditional view of the imperfect as durative. He thus proposes a special significance of the imperfect in the mimetic mode, namely the creation of “displaced immediacy.” The imperfect marks that events are reported from close by: “This use of the imperfect is not so much a reference to an event as the displacement of its observation into the past” (p. 37). The reader is thus catapulted right to the spot of the action. It is doubtful whether Bakker’s new categories are actually necessary to understand this use of the imperfect in Thucydides: “ It seems to me that the interplay of past tenses in his writing can be accounted for within existing categories” (Colvin, 1998). I would argue that the denotation of duration suffices to explain the mimetic appeal of the imperfect: presenting an activity as ongoing, the imperfect can put the reader into the shoes of an eyewitness who follows the scene as it is progressing. Such conceptual quibbles notwithstanding, it is the great merit of Bakker to have drawn attention to the capacity of the imperfect to instil in the reader the impression of directly witnessing the action of the narrative.

Coming from a very different angle, notably the use of imperfect tenses in modern languages and their analysis by Bernhard Fehr, Rijksbaron (2012) arrives at conclusions that, while by no means identical, point in a similar direction. Rijksbaron observes that, in a wide range of ancient Greek texts, the imperfect is often used in combination with “substitutionary perception”—the substitution of a character’s perception for that of the author: “Since these tenses (i.e. the imperfect in Greek, the French imparfait and the past progressive in English) denote durative, ongoing states of affairs they can be ‘hit’ by the gaze of some character, if he happens to be present in the narrative at that particular point” (p. 373). Besides concentrating on what narratologists call focalization, Rijksbaron operates with established concepts of tense, but still his conclusions tie in with Bakker’s thesis that the imperfect is an important means of making the reader perceive past action as if it was present.

The arguments made by Bakker and Rijksbaron are not without problems (Luuk Huitink is preparing a critical response to both Bakker and Rijksbaron). Much linguistic groundwork about the use of tense in ancient Greek literature remains to be done. Broader investigations are needed in order to corroborate general claims and to elucidate differences between genres and authors. It is also important to study tense not as an isolated phenomenon, but in connection with other linguistic features such as particles, which can also contribute to making the past present (see, e.g., Bakker, 1993 on δέ). A final and daunting task is to integrate linguistic and narratological analysis. A combined exploration of grammatical features at the level of sentence and an analysis of the story and its larger structures would, while also shedding new light on other questions, significantly enhance our understanding of how enargeia works in ancient literature.

A first step in this direction has already been taken by Rutger Allan (2013) in a paper on narrative modes in Thucydides. Analyzing such linguistic phenomena as tense, particles, and mood together with focalization and other narratological categories, Allan distinguishes four modes of narrative in Thucydides: a displaced diegetic mode, an immediate diegetic mode, a descriptive mode, and a discursive mode. Allan’s investigation is thus not only broader than Bakker’s; it also identifies two modes that enhance the immersive appeal of narrative, besides the descriptive mode also the immediate diegetic mode. However, this juxtaposition raises tricky questions: Allan (2013) duly notes that his modes are merely “ideal types which act as cognitive reference points used to assess and interpret actual instances as they appear in texts” (p. 388), but the definitions of the descriptive mode and the immediate diegetic mode make me wonder if the distinction makes sense. Allan does not confine description to purely static entities but also integrates “scenes (such as battle scenes) which show a degree of internal dynamism”: “…what crucially distinguishes the descriptive mode from the diegetic mode is that the events are presented as not reaching a completion …, with the effect that the action is not propelled forward” (p. 379). Even if we were to accept this definition, which conflicts with the widely accepted narratological notion of description, the distinction drawn turns out to be not so much between two different modes as between different stages of an event, such as the main tide of a battle and the final rout. The difference, it seems, resides more at the level of res gestae than in their narrative presentation. Does it here make sense to speak of two narrative modes that are as different from each other as from the discursive mode? These qualms notwithstanding, Allan’s paper is exemplary in complementing linguistic analysis with narratological categories.

A final point: the efforts of ancient historians to bring the past to life in their narratives can be fruitfully seen in light of a current debate in the theory of history. Hayden White’s Metahistory has lost ground in the past decade. The concern with emplotment, it seems, is more and more replaced by an interest in the presence of the past. Most prominently, Runia (2006) argues that such phenomena as memory, lieux de mémoire, and trauma reveal the shortcomings of White’s representationalism. The focus on meaning fails to account for the “presence” of the past, which can be grasped with the concept of metonymy: “…. in those faintly glowing metonymies … historical reality itself is ‘absently present’ … One might say that historical reality travels with historiography not as a paying passenger but as a stowaway. As a stowaway the past ‘survives’ the text” (Runia, 2006, pp. 26–27). The approach advanced by Runia and other “New Romanticists” is not unproblematic: to mention just one point, Runia claims that the past is metonymically present in historiography, but the evidence he gives for the presence of the past are material relics, customs, and similar things. He has thus been criticized for eliding the ontological distinction between res gestae and historia rerum gestarum (Jenkins, 2010, p. 245). That said, the “presentist” intervention, forming part of a larger disenchantment with the linguistic turn in the humanities, provides an important complement to the previous fixation on meaning.

Studies of presence in ancient historiography not only chime well with this debate in the theory of history; they can also, I suggest, contribute something to it, maybe even steer it in a new direction (see also Grethlein, 2010a). The New Romanticists tend to be dismissive of narrative. While Runia expounds that “the past ‘survives’ the text,” Gumbrecht (1997) experiments with emphatically nonnarrative modes of writing history, and Ankersmit (2005) meditates on historical experience that precedes representation in language. The volte against the linguistic turn fully explains this attitude; nonetheless, it ignores important aspects of narrative. In this context, ancient historiography and ancient criticism can remind us of the capacity of narrative to make the past present and make reading experiential. As Plutarch notes, ancient historians “instil in readers the emotions of amazement and consternation felt by eyewitnesses.” Reading ancient historiography, we are “much affected by the events, not as they have happened, but as they are happening, and sharing their dangers.” Narrative is an important mode of restoring presentness to the past.

The Subjunctive

A Roman copy (2nd century AD) of a Greek bust of Herodotus from the first half of the 4th century BC. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons

My grammar of historiographic time is not complete yet; tense needs to be complemented by mood. Herodotus provides a notable example of history in the subjunctive (7.139):

If the Athenians had taken fright at the danger that was bearing down on them and had abandoned their country, or if they had stayed put where they were but had surrendered to Xerxes, no one would have tried to resist Xerxes at sea. What would have happened on land, then? Even if the Peloponnesians had built wall after defensive wall across the Isthmus, the Lacedaemonians would still have been let down by their allies, not out of deliberate treachery, but because they would have had no choice, in the sense that they would have fallen one by one to the Persian fleet. So the Lacedaemonians would have been left all alone, and in that situation they would have shown their mettle and fought bravely and well—and died nobly. Or an alternative scenario, instead of this one, is that before matters went this far they would have seen that the rest of Greece was collaborating with the Persians and so they would have come to terms with Xerxes. But in either case Greece would have come under Persian rule, because I cannot see what good the defensive wall built across the Isthmus would have done with Xerxes controlling the sea. As things are, however, anyone who claims that the Athenians proved themselves to be the saviours of Greece would be perfectly correct, because the scales were bound to tilt in favour of whichever side Athens joined.

The virtual history unfolded in this passage is elaborate (for more detailed readings of the passage, see Demand, 1987; Pelling, 2013). Herodotus concatenates two counterfactuals—the speculation about the development on land hinges on the condition that there would have been no defence by sea—and considers various alternative courses within this frame. The past two decades have seen a rehabilitation of virtual history (the literature is vast; see, e.g., Demandt, 1993; Ferguson, 1997; Collins, Hall, & Paul, 2004. For an instructive survey, see Weinryb, 2009). Previously belittled as “a parlour game with might-have-beens” (Carr, 1961, p. 97) and denounced as “Geschichtsscheissenschlopff” (Thompson, 1978, pp. 299–300), scholars of history—especially political and military history—have made a case for the value of inquiries into what could have happened. As the Herodotus passage quoted illustrates, counterfactuals are a means of vetting causal relations: the reflection on the fate of Greece had the Athenians not marshalled their fleet drives home that their resistance was the cause of Greek liberty. Moreover, counterfactuals are an important reminder of the openness of the past to various developments. In retrospect we tend to take the actual course for granted. To counteract this, the thought experiment of an alternative scenario alerts us to the contingency faced by the historical actors. Taking into account their perspective as well as proving causalities is further crucial to evaluating the decisions and actions of historical actors.

That said, counterfactuals should be handled with great care: as the discussion of the covering-law model demonstrated, history cannot be reconstructed as a chain of mechanical causalities. The complexity of historical developments suggests limiting the speculation about alternative courses to short periods. It has also been argued that “we should consider as plausible or probable only those alternatives which we can show on the basis of contemporary evidence that contemporaries actually considered” (Ferguson, 1997, p. 86). The focus on how events hinge together lends itself to overemphasizing the decisions of individuals, most often, it must be said, of “Great White Men.” At the same time, the deployment of counterfactuals by ancient historians shows its heuristic value as a means of proving causalities, highlighting contingency, and evaluating decisions and actions. Counterfactuals would be a great topic for a comparative study of more than one historian. Being a clearly defined device, they allow one to pinpoint crucial aspects of historiography (on counterfactuals in ancient historians, see Pelling, 2013; also Flory, 1988; Grethlein, 2010b, pp. 250–251 [both on Thucydides]; Morello, 2002 [Livy]; Irwin & Greenwood, 2007, pp. 36–39 [Herodotus]).

History in the subjunctive becomes tangible in unreal condition clauses, but it is by no means confined to the form of counterfactual sentences. The concept of “sideshadowing” as coined by Morson for fictional literature can also be applied to historiography, offering a broader framework for virtual history: whereas foreshadowing is predicated on “backwards causation,” sideshadowing cultivates “a sense that something else might have happened” (Morson, 1994, p. 7). While including counterfactuals, sideshadowing also grasps less explicit forms of virtual history. In the Anabasis, for example, the idea of a colony sideshadows the major plot line (cf. Grethlein, 2013a, pp. 69–75; on the theme of colonization in the Anabasis, see also Dillery, 1995, pp. 87–90). As already mentioned, Xenophon subverts the idea of nostos, but nonetheless the core of the Ten Thousand returns to the Greek settlements at the coast of the Mediterranean. At the same time, the possibility that the Greeks settle down in Asia forms an alternative scenario that comes to the fore at different junctures. It gains particular force through Xenophon’s ambitions as oikistes and, more obliquely, through the narratorial description of Harbour Calpes in terms of a spot for colonization. We are easily trapped by the retrospective fallacy and unconsciously assume that the expedition had to take the course it took. Against this, the sideshadow reminds us that other outcomes were possible too.

First investigations have shown the fruitfulness of the concept of sideshadowing for the study of ancient historiography (for applications to ancient historiography, see Pagán, 2006; Grethlein, 2010b, pp. 248–252; 2013a; for investigations of alternative histories, see also O’Gorman, 2006). The various forms of sideshadowing await further exploration that would pave the way for comparing its usage not only by different historians but also across genres. Again, the analysis of a narrative device can shed light on crucial aspects of historiography. Perhaps even more than the historians’ explicit reflections, I daresay, the “content of form” is a key to comprehending their understanding of history.

Sideshadowing brings me to my final point that marks the limitation of the approach outlined here. I hope to have shown that a focus on time permits us to tackle central issues of historiography. Something striking, though, has gone unnoticed so far: speaking of time in narrative, I have made heavy use of spatial metaphors. “Sideshadowing,” “point of view,” “level,” and “horizon” all verify Koselleck’s (2003) claim: “The historian who deals with stories cannot but deploy such metaphors that draw on spatial imagination if he wants to do justice to his questions concerning different levels of time” (p. 9). The German word for history, Geschichte, seems to pun on this as it evokes the term Schicht (level). Historiographic time, it seems, is inextricably linked to space, literal and metaphorical. A grammar of historiographic time needs to be complemented by a cartography of space in historiography (for thought-provoking approaches to space in ancient historiography, see Greenwood, in press; Payen, 1995; Purves, 2010).


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Originally published by Oxford Handbooks Online: Scholarly Research Reviews (October 2014), DOI:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935390.013.43, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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