THOMAS R. MARTIN. Herodotus and Sima Qian: The First Great Historians of Greece and China – A Brief History with Documents. (Bedford Series in History and Culture.) Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010. Pp. 153. $19.99. Paperback. ISBN: 9780312416492.

Herodotus and Sima Qian is a brief, comparative, and cross-cultural analysis of the lives and major works of two ancient writers whom author Thomas Martin believes to be “the first great historians” of the Eastern and Western worlds. These two writers are Herodotus of classical Greece (ca. 484 – ca. 414 BCE), known for writing the Histories around 450 BCE, and Sima Qian of early imperial China (ca. 145 – ca. 86), known for writing The Records of the Historian around 109 BCE. Herodotus was a Greek storyteller from the Persian-controlled town of Halicarnassus in southwestern Turkey. He wrote his 30-scroll Histories about the rise of the Persian Empire in the region of modern Iran, and the Greco-Persian Wars that occurred between an alliance of Greek city-states and the Archaemenid dynasty. Herodotus wrote this narrative after his family was exiled to mainland Greece. By contrast, Qian was a privileged son from Xiayang, a village near modern Hancheng in the Shaanxi province of China. He became the Grand Astrologer and then Palace Secretary to Emperor Wu from the Han dynasty of a unified China. He took over writing The Records from his dying father as a private project of filial honor. He suffered castration and disgrace as a result of his dedication to the work.[1]

Herodotus and Sima Qian is part of the Bedford Series in History and Culture. Installments in this series are short, readable, and inexpensive works designed to help readers “study the past as historians do.” To achieve this goal, each work is focused upon a specific theme or period. The books pair background information, like short biographical or contextual essays written by knowledgeable scholars, with annotated excerpts from primary-source documents. In this case, fourteen excerpts have been translated from classical Greek and Chinese by Martin and his wife, Ivy Sui-yuen Sun. All but one of these excerpts—Qian’s letter to a friend Ren “Shaoqing” An—are taken directly from Histories or The Records; and they are presented in the order they appear in those works. The documents are preceded by a 28-page introduction in which Martin contextualizes them. He succinctly discusses antecedents, origin, form, content, and the geographical context of each larger work. He then compares the two historians. The documents are followed by appendixes—timelines, questions, and bibliographies—that provide supplementary material to the study of Herodotus’s and Qian’s works and lives.[2]

Martin is an American historian who specializes in the Greco-Roman world and teaches in the Department of Classics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. As he states, neither Herodotus nor Qian were “the first writers from their [respective] civilizations to record the past.” Nonetheless, they each “composed works so long and wide-ranging, so innovative in their form and content, and so remarkable in their expression of moral judgments and interpretations that they changed the way the past was presented and evaluated in their cultures and beyond.” In other words, Martin positions Herodotus and Qian as watersheds in the history of global historiography. To him, they are “Inventing History Writing in Greece and China.”[3]

As expected, there are many noticeable differences between Histories and The Records. After all, Herodotus and Qian wrote in completely different political, chronological, cultural, and geographical contexts, with no knowledge of one another’s societies. Some of these differences concern form and style: Herodotus wrote a narrative largely organized around one momentous event in the shared history of Greece and Persia. To borrow a phrase form Pocock, his work is more heterocentric because it foregrounds the relations between two separate polities. Qian, by comparison, wrote a longue durée chronology of several thousand years. His work is more quantifiable in its presentation and overlapping in its content, which stems back to the distant age of the legendary Yellow Emperor. For these reasons, The Records is also three times longer than the Histories, and it tends to be more autocentric, that is, written within, for, and about a single polity. Next, Herodotus is more apt to ground his judgments in the either clear or ambiguous actions of his characters, while Qian is much more didactic, directly stating the political significance of a person’s work in closing paragraphs called “The Grand Astrologer comments” or in the dialogues of the philosophers that he quotes.[4]

Other differences between the Histories and The Records result from particularities of culture. The cultures of the authors lead them to emphasize some of the same themes in unique ways. For instance, both writers emphasize the importance of honor to a person’s identity, yet characters react to the loss of their honor differently. In Histories, the Grecian soldier Aristodemus “lacked courage” and received “reproach and disgrace” when he ran from the battle of Thermopylae. Nonetheless, he was later able to wipe “away his shame” at the Battle of Plataea. In The Records, Chinese characters like Liu Hui, Fan Yuqi, and Pang Juan commit suicide when they are either dishonored or have the opportunity to obtain honor through suicide. Likewise, Sima Qian was expected to commit suicide when he was imprisoned for subordination. Another example of a cultural difference in these works pertains to the functions of violence. Both histories have strong motifs of violence, yet the moral lessons attached to mutilations—like the severing of a man’s body by Xerxes or the beheading of troop leaders by Sun Wu—are not necessarily the same. The former event seems to be a critique of arbitrary power, while the latter seems to be a message about the wisdom of firm leadership.[5]

Notwithstanding the above differences, Martin’s primary goal is to investigate these ancient texts for evidence of an innate nature to the craft of history writing. In this respect, he emphasizes the “common themes—perhaps even universals” that qualify these two works to be categorized as History. First, both authors traveled extensively and based their histories on a wide variety of sources. Each of them cites dialogues, quotes historic documents, and references common knowledge. Sometimes, they even acknowledge the superior effect of directly excerpting a source, as in the inscriptions of the Spartans at Thermopylae or the letter of Emperor Wen to the chief of the Xiongnu. Second, both authors meet the historian J.G.A. Pocock’s historical requirement of addressing a contested past. For instance, in Qian’s tale of the assassin Jing Ke and Herodotus’s allusion to the journey of Io, both writers directly confront the notion that members of their audience will likely hold differing views. While there reactions are different—Herodotus avoids the controversy and Qian imposes his own version—their approach is similar in that they both acknowledge the presence of an audience with something at stake in their work.[6]

Next, both authors place emphasis on the role of the divine in human affairs—particularly Herodotus, who discusses Fates, Oracles, and omens—yet, neither of them discounts the ultimate agency of humans. Hence, the oracles did not compel Croeses to destroy his own army. Rather, Croeses chose to destroy his army because he misinterpreted the meaning of the oracle’s revelation. Likewise, Empress Lu dies from being bitten by a mysterious creature in the form of a blue dog, but she recognizes that her death is somehow tied to having broken the White Horse agreement of Gaozu about restricting Chinese kingship to members of the Liu family. Even in moments where events seem governed by divine vengeance or Fortune, which Herdrotus calls tsis or nemesis, there is an echo of human agency. For example, Croesis paid for the decisions of his ancestor Gyges; and, though the translated name of his son’s killer was “Can’t Escape,” Croesis still enabled the events of his death through his decisions. For Qian, “the order that Heaven dictates” is only achieved through the work of the Han rulers, who “improve things and make reforms, requiring people to exert themselves tirelessly.”[7]

Moving on, Herodotus and Qian both wrote stories that commented upon gender roles, exceptional women, and the cultures of “barbarians,” or non-citizens of their societies. Unfortunately, Martin does not speculate about the meaning of these inclusions to their audiences; he only suggests their presence. Both authors show women in positions of military or political power (Artemesia, the commanders of Sun Wu) as well as roles of intimate deception and egregious brutality (Amestris, Candaules’s wife, Empress Lu). But what is the significance of this for the writers? Is this contributionism, gender stereotyping, or simply an example of the past’s complex nature? Herodotus’s stories about the Scythians, Egyptians, Persians, and Massagetai are more anthropological in nature, while Qian focuses mostly on civil, political, and military comparisons between the Xiongnu people and unified China. Herodotus seems to genuinely admire the cultural uniqueness of these civilizations, while Qian condescends to their culture yet admires their political and military maneuvers.

Most importantly, Herodotus and Qian believed in a greater, common assumption that fueled their historical endeavors. This assumption was that past events and actions could serve as pieces of evidence in an important guide for evaluating people’s behavior in the present. Their works are replete with moral lessons, from the axioms of Cryus and Xerxes that “soft men grow from soft places” or “Great accomplishments can be seized only with great risks” to the dictum of Master Jia Yi that “A superior man hates to leave the world without being remembered with praise.” The works are also replete with impressive deeds and men, like the building of the bridge at Hellespont and the story of the tactician Sun Bin, who overcame a mutilation to route Pang Juan. Finally, while each author recognized the importance of domesticating the past for the purposes of the present, they also acknowledged the inherent unpredictability of such an effort. For this reason, Solon tells Croesis, “It is necessary for us to look to the end of everything and how it turns out.” Similarly, the Grand Astrologer relates the unlikely lives of Yan Yuen, the Confucian disciple, and Zhi, the bandit.[8]

There is much to criticize about Martin’s execution. Most notably, the reader must confront the question of how much manipulation Martin has done, both subtle and conspicuous, to emphasize the sameness of Histories and The Records. After his translating, selective excerpting from massive tombs, and leading introduction, document headings, and invented chapter titles, this reviewer got the sense that the reader’s interpretations were secondary to Martin’s program. Additionally, Martin is optimistic in assuming that the Histories and The Records sprung independently from the minds of two rational and exceptional thinkers, working in spite of power structures rather than because of them. In Qian he finds the archetype of a loyal yet martyred scholar; in Herodotus he finds the unassuming curiosity of a traveling storyteller. More generally, Martin sees his two subjects as acting upon their cultures by implementing new intellectual ideas that border on the revolutionary. He does not interrogate the political functions of their histories or explore the degrees to which ideas of ancient nationalism shaped their content and acceptance. This shortcoming finds stark expression in key moments of contradiction, such as when Martin calls Qian the “first” historian of the East and then writes that Qi Shi Huang burned “most books with any historical content” shortly before his time.[9]

Nonetheless, Martin’s purpose of investigating the core characteristics of history writing transcends any flaws of execution. Herodotus and Qian wrote works that were unprecedentedly long, deeply passionate, sweeping in scope, and arranged in complex styles and with moral lessons that broke from prior traditions, namely the mythos of Homer in the West and the philosophy of Confucius in the East. Martin and the creators of the Bedford Series found in Herodotus and Qian two figures, isolated from one another in time and space, who articulated a central tension of our discipline: History is the noble purpose of understanding the past in order to inform the present, but the process of making history is inevitably predicated upon an imperfect relationship between an objective approach and a subjective interpretation. As such, the truths of the present can never be guaranteed for the readers of History. It is for this reason Herodotus tell his readers through the character of Artabanus, “Chance rules human beings, human beings do not rule chance,” at the same time he attempts to construct an inquiry of “amazing actions” by humans and why “they went to war against one another.”[10]

[1] Thomas R. Martin, Herodotus and Sima Qian: The First Great Historians of Greece and China — A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010), 1.

[2] Ibid. vii.

[3] Ibid. 1.

[4] Ibid. 104, 111, 119, 128.

[5] Ibid. 71-71.

[6] Ibid. 2.

[7] Ibid. 105.

[8] Ibid. 84, 59, 115, 37.

[9] Ibid. 1, 13.

[10] Ibid. 59, 31.