The Histories by Herodotus

The HistoriesThe Histories by Herodotus
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This chatty account of the first great clash of East and West demands an interest in, and preferably a knowledge of, the people and places of that time.

I acquired my Penguin Classics paperback of the Histories in April 1987 as part of the research for my novel-in-progress, Truth of the Python. At that time I got about 300 pages in, then stopped, having arrived at the end of the material that I felt was useful to me, but also at the end of my patience with a story that seemed to be meandering far and wide without showing a clear purpose.

But Herodotus’ work forms part of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World (it’s in volume 6, along with Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War), and I have formed the goal of reading that set, so this time I was not going to be put off. Starting again at the beginning, I settled in to a pace of 12 pages a day and read the whole thing.

It was easier this time. For one thing, I have learned more about the ancient world since my first try, so the names and places were more familiar to me. For another I appreciated the plan of the work better; it didn’t seem so loose or rambling as I found it before. But there were a couple of further reasons that it sustained my interest better, and these had to do with the book’s inclusion in the Great Books: for there are important ideas in it.

One has to do with History itself as an idea. Herodotus is known today as the Father of History, and his book is the oldest surviving work in that genre. The Greek word historia, which was the label written on the outside of the original papyrus scrolls, actually translates as “researches”; Herodotus saw himself as a researcher whose findings he set down, as he puts it in his opening sentence, “to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples; and more particularly, to show how they came into conflict.”

As Mortimer J. Adler says in his introduction to History in the Syntopicon to the Great Books, what made Herodotus’ work the first work of history in our modern sense was that he made a conscious effort to find and compare sources of information, and to subject his findings, at least sometimes, to certain critical tests. He’s seeking the truth of the matter.

And what a matter it is. In 1889 Kipling wrote “Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”; and more recently there has been talk—and more than talk—of the “clash of civilizations”; but Herodotus was the first to weigh in on this freighted topic. For his subject is the attempted conquest of Greece—and Europe beyond—by the Persian Empire in the early 5th century BC, first in an expedition by Darius, and finally in a huge invasion by his son Xerxes, culminating in the famous battles of Marathon and Salamis. That the vastly outnumbered and fractious Greeks were able to defeat such a mighty foe continues to intrigue historians; the topic has lost none of its interest or importance down to this day. Neoconservatives are still obsessed with trying to relive the same conflict 2,500 years later.

Herodotus sees the reason in the difference between freedom and slavery. The Greeks were free men fighting for their homes; the Persian force was an army of slaves, driven from behind by whips. He spends time showing the early antecedents of the main conflict in Asia Minor, where cities of Greek colonists found themselves either hard against the border of the Persian Empire, or actually engulfed within it, as was Herodotus’ own city of Halicarnassus in his lifetime. The hotheaded machinations of Greek municipal politics and the vast, centralized imperial might of Persia proved to be an explosive combination, especially when a few other minor kingdoms and the cities of the Greek mainland are also thrown into the mix. Interestingly, though, as Herodotus portrays it, Xerxes was not interested in invading Europe, and had to be inveigled into it by an ambitious courtier.

But analysis is not really Herodotus’ long suit. He seems to be a raconteur by nature, and enjoys spinning a yarn, and sometimes the more far-fetched, the better. A number of times he reminds the reader that he himself does not testify to the truth of these stories; rather, he presents accounts, including conflicting ones, as he has received them, so that the reader may make up his own mind. Here and there Herodotus does offer his own conclusions, and he does so with disarming modesty. Overall he gives the impression of being a traveler who has been everywhere and spent many an hour jawboning with locals, collecting stories and traditions, and now passing these on to the reader for his entertainment and edification.

It didn’t take long after the Histories appeared for Herodotus-bashing to become popular. Apparently it began with Thucydides (although I haven’t encountered that yet, having started his own masterpiece) and continues down to the present day. Indeed, instead of the Father of History Herodotus has been called the Father of Lies, so rubbishy do critics regard his effort. Certainly in the few pages of Thucydides that I’ve read so far it’s clear that an altogether different and more analytical mind is at work, admittedly on a different subject. And apparently Plutarch really gives Herodotus a thumping.

But I think such critics are too harsh. Herodotus perhaps comes across as more of an “amateur” than later historians, but he is their forerunner, and they are benefiting from his pioneering work. I suspect that the criticisms of Herodotus are somewhat anachronistic, applying the standards of a later time on an earlier one when they did not yet exist.

The prose style, as presented by the translators Aubrey de Sélincourt and A. R. Burns, is readable but nothing special in itself. The book is structured, but that structure gets lost sometimes in the meandering accounts of various races and tribes, and action tangential to the main story. For these reasons I marked the book down to 3 stars.

But I’m glad to have made it through another of the Great Books, and I consider it to be time well spent. When next you hear of the Clash of Civilizations, give a thought to Herodotus and his book, and maybe consider giving it a look.

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