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Divinity and HistoryThe Religion of Herodotus$

Thomas Harrison

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780199253555

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199253555.001.0001

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(p.248) APPENDIX 1 Cooper on the ‘intrusive oblique infinitive’

(p.248) APPENDIX 1 Cooper on the ‘intrusive oblique infinitive’

Divinity and History
Oxford University Press

Cooper has argued that ‘the intrusion of oblique infinitives into certain O. O. constructions where they do not regularly occur indicates an attempt to indicate reserve vis-a-vis the reported speaker, to put distance between himself and the report, to avoid responsibility for the matter or opinion therein represented’,1 As this is a view that has achieved a surprising currency,2 and which no one to my knowledge has troubled to refute, it might be worthwhile briefly to highlight some of the problems and contradictions in Cooper’s thesis.

The impression given by Cooper, for example in the passage cited above, is that wherever there is an ‘intrusive oblique infinitive’, Herodotus intends to distance himself from his report. Cooper is setting out to disprove the position ‘that Classical Greek possesses no means to suggest reserve or comment on the part of the reporter’. On the evidence of Cooper’s attempts to pin down this phenomenon, it might at least be wise to conclude that Classical Greek possesses no char means. Many of Cooper’s interpretations are open to serious question. He presumes, for example, that Herodotus’ reaction to certain material is critical merely on the basis of the nature of the material in question: ‘In the first division … fall relations of dreams, myths and unlikely reports. This first category is thus made up of reports for which the reporter feels no hostility but only a certain bemused and incredulous detachment’ (my italics).3 In those cases where Cooper imagines that the O. O. infinitive has been ‘postponed on religious grounds’, his reconstruction of Herodotus’ thought processes is frighteningly speculative.

Certainly unwilling to deny the subjective reality, or even the possible genuine religious significance of such an experience, Herodotus appropriately begins the account with finite verb forms. Still, being too prudent not to realize that what he is dealing with may after all have been illusions, he indicates this (p.249) reserve by finally switching over To the infinitive. The motivation here is the determination of the author to maintain a pious but enlightened attitude towards all religious mailers.4

It is not only the ‘fantastic or incredible turn of a report’, moreover, that may be responsible for the phenomenon, as Cooper himself admits. It may be ‘merely a sense of offended delicacy—whether this be real or merely affected’; it might be employed merely on ‘euphemistic grounds’.5 One example given is the Samian explanation of how it was that the mixing-bowl sent by the Spartans to Croesus came into their possession (1. 70. 3):

But the Samians themselves say that when those Lacedaimonians who were bringing the bowl came too late and discovered that Sardis and Croesus had been taken, they sold the bowl in Samos, and that the private citizens who bought it dedicated it in the Heraion (αὐτοὶ δὲ Σάμιοι ὠs ἐπειτε ὑστέρησαν οἱ ἄγοντεs τῶν Λαγκεδαιμονίων τὸκ κρητ ρα, ἐπυνθάνοντο δὲ Σάρδιs τε καί Kροîσν ἡλωκέναι, ἀπέναι, ἀπέδοντο τὸν κρητ ρα ἐν Σάρδιs, ἰδιώταs δὲ ἄνδραs πριαμένουs ἀναθεîναί μιν ἐs τὸ ῞Hραιον)

Cooper accepts that Herodotus ‘found the story credible’, and so he concludes that the infinitive ‘ἀναθεîναι signals a sense of shame, real or affected, for the all too typical Spartan venality’.6 Given the impossibility of his primary explanation of the intrusive infinitive, in terms of reserve or distance, Cooper seems to have jumped to the most compatible alternative,

More important perhaps for our purposes is that Cooper does (despite his general assertions on the reserve or distance implied by the intrusive infinitive) envisage alternative interpretations as possible: as well as a sense of offended delicacy, for example, there is the possibility of the ‘formulaic intrusion of the O. O. infinitive accompanied by γάρ’—or by expressions similar in meaning to γάρ,7 It must be conceded then as a possibility that in cases such as 1. 70. 3 (cited above) the intrusive oblique infinitive might be similarly free of any implications of distance, that it might serve the same explanatory (p.250) function in the absence of γάρ or similar expressions as when accompanied by them.

Another obstacle to Cooper’s argument is that, in the case of one of his examples of infinitival subordinate clauses in O. O., Herodotus explicitly approves of the version reported in O. O. (τῷ μάλιστα λεγομέν αὐτὸs πρόσκειμαι, 4. 11. 1).8 Cooper’s justification of this seems over-sophisticated. It must be remembered, he says, that this is an ‘alternate version’ (the ‘dubiety’ implied by which ‘often brings the use of the intrusive infinitive with it’): 'in this case the intrusive infinitive δόξαι is used of that part of the account which might arouse objections in the hearers—to wit the passage and initial implementation of the mutual suicide motion in the Cimmerian nobles’ council. The impression is rather that Herodotus feels he is strengthening his case for his favored version by understating it … [The] intrusive infinitive is only a kind of litotes which does not necessitate a reevaluation of the proper significance of the idiom.’

On other occasions Herodotus expresses his disapproval of a version which contains an ‘intrusive infinitive’ within O. O. (e.g. 7. 220. 1–2). Cooper cites Herodotus’ disapproval as if it constituted evidence that the intrusive infinitive indicates reserve or distance.9 One can as easily, however, use the passage to prove the opposite: if the technique of intrusive oblique infinitives were a sufficiently clear indication of distance, there would be no need for Herodotus to make this reserve explicit.


(1) Cooper (1974: 24).

(2) See Gould (1994: 96), Darbo-Peschanski (1985: 108), and Lateiner (1989; 23).

(3) Cooper (1974: 29).

(4) Cooper (1974: 51–2), the italics are Cooper’s own; see also his two examples of ‘intrusion postponed on religious grounds’ (p. 61), and his fanciful discussion of 1. 59. 1–2 (p. 72): ‘the religious phenomenon itself is reported with strict objectivity. The human interpretations and political applications of the religious phenomenon then come in for more cavalier treatment—being related in terms of infinitives.’

(5) Id, (1974: 28 n. 8).

(6) Id. (1974: 55); for other examples, see pp. 55–6.

(7) Id. (1974: 56–9, 61–5); see also his idea of Herodotus’ use of extended ‘free narratival infinitive’ as an ‘extra-grammatical idea of citation’ (pp. 65 ff.), the reserve implicit in which cannot, at least, be so pronounced.

(8) Id. (1974: 42); Cooper’s justification, p. 42 n. 20. Cf. also 6. 84. 1, merely quoted by Cooper, p. 43.

(9) Id. (1974: 64).