Lessons from the Past

The Moral Use of History in Fourth-Century Prose
Frances Pownall
Deepens our understanding of the Greek tendency to view the past as a source for contemporary moral lessons


Lessons from the Past contributes in a new way to current discussions of the connections between the genres of rhetoric and history in Greek literature, and deepens our understanding of the Greek tendency to look to the past as a source for moral edification of contemporary audiences. This agenda is even apparent, to some extent, in the writings of Herodotus, the first Greek historian. Because of the didactic nature of the historical genre, many scholars---ancient and modern---have seen connections between history and rhetoric. So far, discussion has centered on fifth-century authors---Herodotus and Thucydides, along with the sophists and early philosophers.

Frances Pownall extends the focus of this discussion into an important period. By concentrating on key intellectuals and historians of the fourth century (Plato and the major historians---Xenophon, Ephorus, and Theopompus), the author examines how these prose writers created an aristocratic version of the past as an alternative to the democratic version of the oratorical tradition.

Lessons From the Past is not only a systematic examination of Greek historiography of the fourth century prior to the Alexander historians, but also has a contribution to make to current debates on literacy, orality, and the education of the elite in Athens. It should be of interest not only to students and scholars of Greek history and historiography, but also ancient philosophy and political thought.

Frances Pownall is Associate Professor of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.

Praise / Awards

  • "Frances Pownall's book opens a valuable new window on the ancient Greek historians. Moving away from the limits of 'factual' or 'scientific' criticism, she undertakes to understand and appreciate the main historians of the Classical Period in terms of the objectives they set for themselves, rather than the values of an alien age."
    ---Gordon Shrimpton, University of Victoria
  • "Lessons from the Past depicts the effort of a ripe culture---classical Greece---to educate itself by reflecting upon its own history. Frances Pownall makes a long-needed contribution to the field with her author-by-author, text-by-text examination of the intimate symbiosis between the historians and the philosopher-orators of the fourth century. Her careful analysis of primary texts continuously yields shrewd insights into the rich connections among these documents of intellectual history."
    ---John Wickersham, Ursinus College

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Copyright © 2004, University of Michigan. All rights reserved. Posted May 2004 and February 2006.

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Product Details

  • 216 pages.
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  • Ebook
  • 2010
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  • 978-0-472-02567-1

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