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Literary Texts and the Greek Historian

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This original survey explores the ways in which non-historical texts as well as historical ones can be used to construct Greek historical accounts.

Funding bodies used to be more relaxed, and when I became a graduate student I was admitted to research on ‘Greek literature and/or Roman history’. That capacious definition more or less captures how I have spent my academic time ever since. The institutional divisions of my university mean that most of my teaching is in ‘literature’, mainly Greek. My first research work was on Plutarch’s Roman Lives, ‘Greek literature and/or Roman history’ par excellence; the editors of volume 10 of the Cambridge Ancient History allowed me to try my hand at writing history myself (an experience no-one who presumes to write on narrative should lack) —Roman history, once again. Until now, Greek history has been an interest, certainly, but not something on which I have troubled the world. That has had advantages and disadvantages for this book. I have felt few temptations to digress and impart large views on how Greek history worked; and the book’s strategy of starting from literary texts and working out towards what really happened is one which came naturally. On the other hand, I address large areas of which, until recently, I was fairly innocent; nor have I had the benefit of the continual rethinking and stimulus that comes with years of talking with able and interested students. I have done my best, and friends have helped to save me from the worst consequences of my inexperience. But this does remain an outsider’s book, for good, or ill, or both.

Quite evidently, this is a vast subject. Two principles have been cardinal. First, I have narrowed the focus drastically. A fairer title would be ‘Some literary texts and the historian of late fifth-century Athens’. I have chosen that focus because so many of the literary genres then come together and illuminate one another. I allow myself the odd foray backwards, to Eumenides of 458 BC, and forwards, to Against Neaera and Aristotle’s Politics; but only the odd one. Naturally, this has its downside. It means that Athenocentricity, the curse of Greek history, is embedded in the whole project; but then a work starting from literature was always going to suffer from that. It has also meant leaving out whole genres which I should have liked to include: epic; choral lyric; the Hippocratic corpus, not much of which is identifiably Athenian; the novel. It has also meant leaving out Herodotus, or almost. But something had to go, and I hope the sharpening of focus will compensate.

Literary Texts and the Greek Historian provides a comprehensive and well documented survey of the ways in which non-historical texts, as well as historical ones, can be used to construct Greek history.

About the Author
Christopher Pelling teaches at University College, Oxford.
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