U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Fate of the Vase

The Lacedaemonians had sent to Sardis on one occasion to purchase some gold, intending to use it on a statue of Apollo—the statue, namely, which remains to this day at Thornax in Laconia, when Croesus, hearing of the matter, gave them as a gift the gold which they wanted.

This was one reason why the Lacedaemonians were so willing to make the alliance: another was, because Croesus had chosen them for his friends in preference to all the other Greeks.  They therefore held themselves in readiness to come at his summons, and not content with so doing, they further had a huge vase made in bronze, covered with figures of animals all round the outside of the rim, and large enough to contain 2,700 gallons, which they sent to Croesus as a return for his presents to them.  The vase, however, never reached Sardis.  Its miscarriage is accounted for in two quite different ways… 

Book I of Herodotus’s Histories is filled with descriptions of offerings on display at various temples.*  Besides the statue of Apollo at Thornax mentioned in the passage above (I, chs. 69-70) there was Arion’s small offering at the shrine of Taenarum – himself in miniature, riding on the back of a dolphin.  There were the goblets of Gyges and the throne of Midas on display at Delphi, and of course Croesus’s many offerings, including the two great bowls given to Delphi (one of which ended up in Clazomenia), and the silver casks still held at Herodotus’s time in the Corinthian treasury.

Of Midas’s throne at Delphi, Herodotus says it was “an object well worth looking at”  (ch. 14). But he reserves his highest praise for a single item from the offerings of Alyattes.  “His gifts, which he sent on recovering from his sickness, were a great bowl of pure silver, with a salver in iron curiously inlaid, a work among all the offerings at Delphi the best worth looking at. Glaucus, the Chian, made it, the man who first invented the art of welding iron” (ch. 25).  It was not the value of the material of which the object was made, but the craftsmanship of the maker, the skill and inventiveness shown in the execution of an intricate work, that drew Herodotus’s praise.

Herodotus’s own craftsmanship, his skill in handling humble materials and fashioning them into an intricate work, is nicely rendered in the account, quoted above, of the Lacedaemonian vase that never reached Sardis.  “Its miscarriage is accounted for in two quite different ways,” Herodotus begins his explanation.  And then he turns to his sources:

The Lacedaemonian story is, that when it reached Samos, on its way towards Sardis, the Samians having knowledge of it, put to sea in their ships of war and made it their prize.  But the Samians declare that the Lacedaemonians who had the vase in charge, happening to arrive too late, and learning that Sardis had fallen and that Croesus was a prisoner, sold it in their island, and the purchasers (who were, they say, private persons) made an offering of it at the shrine of Hera: the sellers were very likely on their return to Sparta to have said that they had been robbed of it by the Samians. Such, then, was the fate of the vase.

In the middle of this story he is fashioning about the battle between Croesus and Cyrus, itself part of the larger story he is fashioning about the wars between the Greeks and the Persians, Herodotus discusses the fashioning of stories. There is a “Lacedaemonian story” that explains why the magnificently wrought vase – its description calls to mind the shield Hephaistos fashioned for Achilles – never reached its intended destination. That Lacedeaemonian story puts the blame on the Samians.  But the Samians have a story of their own, involving the sale of the vase to private purchasers. Moreover, the Samians don’t just have a story about what happened to the vase; the Samians also have a story about the Lacedaemonians’ story about what happened to the vase: They’re just saying they were robbed because they don’t want to admit that they sold the vase at Samos.

“We were robbed” vs. “they were sell-outs…and liars” — these are indeed quite different stories, two different explanations for how things came to be as they are.  Herodotus sets them side by side, seemingly without adjudicating between them.  But he gives more room to the Samian account – though emphasizing all the while that it is what “they say” — and he gives the Samians the last word not only on why the vase that was intended for Sardis ended up in the temple of Hera at Samos, but on what reasons the Lacedaemonians might have had to tell their story differently. It is fitting that the temple at Samos should encompass and contain the work of the Lacedaemonians, for the story of Samos can encompass and contain the Lacedaemonian story.  As the Samians deftly handle the Lacedaemonian story, so Herodotus’s deftly handles their story, and many others besides.

Herodotus is not shy about calling the reader’s attention to his craftsmanship — he wants the reader to see the seams in his story, to know what materials he is working with, to know how incompatible they are, and so to admire all the more how he is fashioning them into a single narrative. The Histories is Herodotus’s well-wrought urn, curiously inlaid, well worth looking at.

And the fate of the vase of Herodotus — that’s an interesting story too. Herodotus has had his enviers and detractors (Thucydides and Plutarch, first of all), but he has had his champions as well (R.G. Collingwood especially comes to mind here).  Either way, his history has had its readers.

Interestingly, Herodotus was not one of the required authors on the core reading list of Stanford University’s “Western Culture” program in the 1980s.  The core reading list — reproduced in John Guillory’s excellent 1991 article, “Canon, Syllabus, List” — divided texts into two categories: “required works” and “strongly recommended works.”**  There were five works listed that all Stanford freshmen were required to read during the fall quarter; neither Herodotus nor Thucydides appears on that list.   However, the Greek historians are represented on the list of “strongly recommended works” for fall quarter — represented by Thucydides alone.  Herodotus, the father of history, does not show up at all.

That doesn’t mean Herodotus was not read or taught in Stanford’s “Western Culture” program.  Coordinators of the various tracks of the program, as well as individual instructors within those tracks, exercised significant freedom in constructing their syllabi for the course. So, even though Herodotus had not received the imprimatur of being “strongly recommended” on the core reading list, he did appear on some “Western Culture” syllabi.

Guillory smartly (and rightly, I think) argues that course syllabi reflect not exclusions but selections.  Such selections are constrained by considerations of time, reading load, calendar, coverage.  Still, that Thucydides alone was “strongly recommended” — rather than, say, “either Thucydides or Herodotus” — that’s kind of interesting.  But I am not altogether sure yet what to make of it, or how much to make of it, or whether I should try to make anything of it at all.

And history is very much a made thing. By made things we judge their makers. I know this. I dread this. I dread this.  But I’m going to keep writing anyhow.


*Quotations of Herodotus are taken from the Modern Library translation by George Rawlinson (New York: Random House, 1942).

**John Guillory, “Canon, Syllabus, List: A Note on the Pedagogic Imaginary,” Transition, No. 52 (1991), pp. 36-54, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2935123.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. At this point in your story I’d be turning to your instructors—their education, personalities, their histories at Stanford, etc. For Guillory’s “selections” depend on persons, institutions, and larger cultural questions.

    But on your last point, yes, you’ll have to face your choices. That’s what I’ve been doing for several months since finalizing my own for the book mss. Those choices are indeed terrifying when one thinks of the intellects of your readers, both at large and in the profession. – TL

  2. LD Burnett @LDBurnett
    At #USIH: writing about Herodotus and the so-called “Stanford canon” http://s-usih.org/2013/12/the-fate-of-the-vase.html

    If I may, as a faithful observer of the USIH: “So-called” is a qualifier if not a pejorative used to distance oneself from the actual term*.

    Using scare quotes on “Stanford canon” is enough distance already. Were I to “scare quote” the esteemed LD Burnett I’d be obliged to attempt the

    “‘so-called’ ‘Stanford canon'”

    FTR, I also liked the post itself, LDB. A big part of familiarizing ourselves with the Greeks/Romans is to learn our roots in them, then how alien they are from us as well.

    [Ran across this today. http://www.readability.com/read?url=http%3A//www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/dec/19/rome-sex-freedom/%5D

  3. Tim, thanks for the comment.

    You are right — the choices are endless. Endless. The archives are full of little mysteries and anomalies and quirks, all interesting in their own way. But not all important. I guess maybe nothing from the archives is inherently important in terms of historical argumentation — it depends on what question one is trying to answer.

    “Where is Herodotus?” may not be a bad question for thinking about the status of the curriculum before the debate of the late 1980s, or just getting at the larger intellectual currents running through the humanities more generally. Herodotus and Thucydides can serve as stand-ins for various epistemological divides — or at least epistemic styles. But (following Guillory) I wouldn’t want to place too much argumentative weight on the presence/absence of a single title on this list as evidence of a particular intellectual culture/current at Stanford. This tiny detail might be significant as one small part of a larger picture, or it could just lead me down a rabbit trail.

  4. 1) Tom’s right: as a stylistic matter, you don’t put quotation marks around something prefaced by “so-called.” Use one or the other, but not both.

    2) The Spartans were notorious for getting up to no good while they weren’t in Sparta, though this proclivity became much more pronounced after the period when Herodotus wrote, which was well after the period he covered. Nonetheless, his narrative strategy here may be playing upon his readers’ knowledge of the Spartans’ reputation for misbehaving when on the road. Selling the vase for a fast buck and then denying it was just the sort of thing the Spartans (notorious money mongers) could be expected to do.

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