Scholia Reviews ns 13 (2004) 34.

Jon D. Mikalson, Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Pp. 267. ISBN 0-8078-2798-3. US$45.00.

Vivienne Gray
Classics, University of Auckland

Jon Mikalson has written on Greek religion in other contexts.[[1]] The present book addresses Herodotus' account of the Persian Wars, from the Ionian Revolt to the battle of Plataea. The aim is to present Greek religious practices in a historical context for better understanding of the importance of the interplay of religion and history, and to argue against those who play down the role of religious explanation in history. Unfortunately, as Mikalson explains in his first note (p. 197), Thomas Harrison's book on Herodotus' religion[[2]] came out just as Mikalson was on the point of submitting his, and Harrison also argues against the skeptics -- from those who see religious reference as mere entertainment for the audience, to those who see it as characteristic of Herodotus as the traditional story- teller rather than the historian. This overlap meant that Mikalson had to jettison large questions, including, as he explains, 'the relationship of religion to the study of ancient history, the nature of the "miraculous" and the "divine" and whether Herodotus "believed" in what he described' (p. 197).

Mikalson's first chapter of almost one hundred pages presents religious incidents from the Persian Wars in chronological order. Extensive translations from Herodotus are complemented with evidence from later authors and inscriptions and a short commentary on each incident. The chronological presentation means that incidents are treated more or less in isolation from others even when they exhibit similar religious phenomena. In some places the natural pressure to make comparisons leads to explicit digressions ('we close this digression on Herodotus' oracles . . . ' p. 57), but this is not the general rule. The incident in which the Persians were divinely repelled from Delphi (p. 69f.) is a good example of the limitations of this presentation, and of the style of the commentary. The point is made first that Herodotus prefers not to present gods on his battlefields, only heroes. This is followed by a translation of the inscription commemorating the incident in Diodorus Siculus (11.14.4), which gave the credit to the Delphians themselves as human agents. Mikalson notes that modern scholars emend this inscription, and thus transfer the credit back to the gods, but that many inscriptions do regularly give the credit to people rather than gods or heroes. He then raises the interesting question, How did the Greeks think that gods contributed to their victories if they took the credit themselves in their inscriptions? But he does not explore this question of the relative responsibility of human and divine forces further, nor does he explain why Herodotus' narrative gives the credit to the divine. Other examples of the interplay of divine and human agency could have been brought to bear to produce a much richer and more stimulating discussion, such as the role that the priestess Timo played in the fated downfall of Miltiades (chrein, 6.135, cf. p. 36f.).

In another example (pp. 72-74, the capture of the Athenian Acropolis), Mikalson highlights the concept of 'what was bound to occur' by including in his translation a transliteration of the Greek phrase that describes the capture of Attica as 'necessary' according to the oracle (edee, 8.53). This leads us to expect a discussion of the religious implications of the phrase, not only because of the transliteration, but because John Gould understands such indications of necessity as mere narrative motifs that points the reader toward story closure.[[3]] Yet there is none forthcoming, and even in the later discussion of such phrases under the heading of the influence of the poetic tradition, this particular incident is not discussed (p. 148f.). Harrison (2000: 231-34) makes more penetrating remarks about such phrases. Mikalson also passes over Xerxes' motives for offering sacrifice after the capture (both of them with religious implications: a motivating dream, or a religious concern about the burning of the shrine on the Acropolis -- Herodotus 8.54 leaves the alternatives unresolved); in fact we hear much more about another motive that Herodotus does not mention -- that Xerxes should have been more worried about the murder of suppliants in the temple. But double unresolved motivation has become an issue in studies of Herodotean narrative, so that Xerxes' stated motives are interesting enough in their own right. Why was Herodotus unable to decide in this case and not in others? How do the motives relate to each other in the divine scheme of things? The book gives no clear picture of Herodotus' methods and narrative habits. Even in the introduction, the statement that 'Herodotus thought them (religious phenomena) important, included them and integrated them into his account' (p. 7) seems to contradict the subsequent comment that he was describing what was remembered, which puts the responsibility for what he says onto his sources.

Chapter 2, 'Greek Gods, Heroes, and the Divine in the Persian Invasions' (pp. 111-35), surveys the contributions of the individual gods in their various cultic guises. Two pages on Zeus Eleutherios are followed by one on the cults of Poseidon; there are eight on the contributions of Apollo. The point is also made that Herodotus attributes events to the vague force of 'the divine' rather than to a specific god not because he is sceptical, but because he is unsure and taking the normal Greek precaution against naming the wrong deity (pp. 131-35). The reason why the gods support the Greeks in the war is not their general concern for justice, but protection of their own shrines and constituencies (p. 142f.).

A final chapter, 'Some Religious Beliefs and Attitudes of Herodotus' (pp. 136-66), treats questions such as: What kinds of gods exist? What affairs of men do they attend to? What sort of reciprocity exists with men? The reader is directed to the appendix on the origins of Greek religion for the first, and to earlier discussions for some of the rest. Herodotus' explicit statements about the activities of gods are then described; instances too where he thought it 'reasonable' to believe that something was caused by a god (because he believed that gods do cause things to happen when they are protecting their own shrines); oracles, omens, dreams and prophecies come next, then reciprocal relations between gods and men. It would have been good to integrate Herodotus' religious beliefs into his general belief system. A treatment of his reserve about some divine matters does produce the comment that he avoided narrating the deeds of the gods because 'they were unverifiable by the historical methods he used', but these methods are not explained (p. 145). There is no systematic explanation either of why he rejects some reports of divine causation outright. In spite of the assertion that he is not expressing skepticism when he attributes a divine story to a source or puts it into reported speech, there is also no reason given for why some miracles are reported and some are not, nor for why Herodotus does not express a preference for one of the three divine reasons for the storm abating off Artemisium, but does choose one among the three religious causes for the death of Cleomenes.

The book ends with the presentation of the Hellenised religious beliefs of non-Greeks in Herodotus (as opposed largely to their practices, which are often alien).

This survey has some interesting insights, but its attempt to defend the importance of religion in history and in history-writing could have profited from more engagement with the scholarship on Herodotus' general belief system (for belief in religious phenomena should bear some relation to belief in others) and on his methods, particularly the modes in which the storyteller presents divine phenomena (for to see these as part of his storytelling is not to say that he or his sources disbelieved them, but could better explain the patterns of their appearance and their functions).


[[1]] Religion in Hellenistic Athens (Berkeley 1998). Honor thy Gods : Popular Religion in Greek Tragedy (Chapel Hill 1991). Athenian Popular Religion (Chapel Hill 1983).

[[2]] Thomas Harrison, Divinity and History: The Religion of Herodotus (Oxford 2000).

[[3]] John Gould, Herodotus (London 1989) 42-62, 67-76, esp. 76.