Major Work: The Histories
Publication date: 440 BCE
Setting: Europe-Near East (the entire “known world” at the time)
Length (time to read): 28hrs 35mins
Influences: Homer, Aeschylus
Themes: History, Geography, War, Hubris, Myth, Religion, Customs, Otherness
Quotes: “[Croesus says] there is a cycle to human affairs, one that as it turns never permits the same people forever to enjoy good fortune” (1:207), “Each group of people, after carefully sifting through the customs of other peoples, would surely choose its own” (3:38), “A crowd is more easily fooled than a single man” (5:97), “It is creatures of an overbearing size that God strikes down with his thunderbolts” (7:10)
Literary Echoes: Xenophon, Cicero, Seneca, Gore Vidal’s Creation, Ryszard Kapuscinki’s Travels With Herodotus, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (plus academic fields of history, anthropology, linguistics, etc)
Album accompaniment: Fabrizio de André’s Crêuza de Mä (also set in the Mediterranean, Middle East & Africa)
Film accompaniment: 300 (Zack Snyder, 2007)
Dave’s synopsis: On one level, Herodotus’ book is about the growth of Persian power hitting a buffer in Greece, but on another level it’s a tour guide of the ancient known world, from the perspective of an Ionian Greek who lived in Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum in Turkey). Herodotus recounts his journeys to Egypt, Babylon (Assyria / Iraq), Scythia (home to ancient Eurasian nomads), “Libya” (North Africa) and many other places, while also referencing Sparta and the Ionian coast (eastern Turkish seaboard), whose people at that time were considered, along with those from Athens and the Peloponnese, to be “Hellenes” (Greeks). These enquiries into the customs and religious rites of various peoples are combined with a narrative of East (Persian Empire and its succession of four kings Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius and Xerxes) vs West (the Greeks), culminating in a series of famous battles (Thermopylae, Salamis) that determined the course of human history.
Rating (out of 100): 92
For an interactive map, along with English translation, click here
I read the nine books of The Histories (which can also be translated as “investigations”, or “researches”) over two months as part of a Goodreads group, and the consensus was that Tom Holland’s translation is the pick of the bunch, although the Landmark Herodotus edition has the best resources. I also found the New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History a really useful resource along side the Holland edition. The need for maps while reading the book, and the tales of warring factions and strange customs, reminded me a lot of reading epic fantasy fiction like A Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings, which seems ironic given this is the first great work of non-fiction. Just like Homer is the father of poetry, Herodotus is considered to be the father of prose (and also history and lies, the latter a reference to his fondness for myth & folklore as well as historical fact).
Herodotus stood on the cusp of the transition from the ancient Greek world of poets like Homer and Sappho to the classical Greek age of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle (see my timeline for more historical context). His lively style and charm make reading what might seem a dry and academic subject really engaging, as though he were a garrulous old grandpa sitting in his rocking chair spinning yarns. This is partly to do with the fact that much of the material was delivered as lectures, with Herodotus alive at a time when the oral tradition was far more important and widespread than the written tradition.
Also notable is how well Herodotus depicts women & domestic life, compared to the more male-centric picture presented by Greek historical writer Thucydides. Though Thucydides and Herodotus are often viewed as rivals offering two polar opposites of how history should be written, their works actually overlap neatly and complement each other, the first mapping the rise of a superpower in the Near East (Persian Empire) and the second a superpower closer to home (Athenian Empire, and its subsequent war with Sparta).
That said, Thucydides is more dispassionate and analytical, and concerned with the world of high politics, whereas Herodotus is expansive and digressive, exploring customs and seeing it as his duty to report the myths and stories of “barbarians” (non-Greeks), and even at times falling back on supernatural explanations for how battles were won. While more conservative historians favour Thucydides, there has been a post-modern backlash favouring Herodotus, whose history isn’t just about politics and war, but also society, gender, religion, culture, anthropology, etc. For more on this discussion, I’d recommend this BBC In Our Time podcast.
Essentially, the Great Man theory of history does not apply to Herodotus, not just because we also find out about great women (such as Queen of the Massagatae, Tomyris, Babylonian Queen, Nitocris and Carian naval captain, Artemisia), but also because the emphasis is often on social customs, religious rites and the lives of ordinary men and women. Herodotus also highlights the pioneers and innovators, such as Arion being first to compose a poetic dithyramb, Glaucus of Chios inventing iron-welding, Lydians coining gold & silver and thereby inventing shopping, Carian military innovations (handles on shields, crests on helmets), etc. There’s even some debate among historians about whether Herodotus was the last in a long line of Ionian prose storytellers, similar to the guardians of the past (“griots”) in Africa.
Among all the depictions of “barbarians”, I really enjoyed the section on Egyptian customs, such as the detail on the mummification process, and it was notable how much more advanced and specialised Egyptian medical practices were, especially compared to Babylon, where sick people went to the town square and relied on the prescriptions of the general public. Herodotus also discusses how the invention of geometry (and, by extension, mathematics) was derived from Egyptians measuring and dividing up their land to give people their own plots to grow crops, and how this was later applied to building pyramids. Likewise, in Babylon, this emerging field of mathematics was also applied to time, with the invention of sundials and the decision to divide the day into 12 parts.
The passage that struck me most though in Book 2 was the alternative Trojan War history of Paris’ abduction of Helen, which runs counter to the more familiar plot in Homer’s Iliad and Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida. This was the first time I’d ever read of an alternative course of events, so my jaw dropped a bit. Herodotus seems to contest Homer’s view of events on historical and ethical grounds, in the latter sense by saying that it’s highly unlikely Priam would have let his city and people burn just for the sake of Helen, and that it was more likely the war was based on a misunderstanding.
In Book 5, Aristagoras’ visit to the Spartans is a fascinating scene. The detailed map of the known world on a bronze tablet must have been quite a sight. For Spartan ruler Kleomenes, it serves as the basis for a geography lesson from the visiting Aristagoras, a “mini-history” within The Histories. The laconic refusal to help seems in character for the Spartans. Beyond the stated explanation that Susa is too far from the sea, it’s possible that Sparta was also scarred by its failed excursion against Polycrates (Book 3) and hesitant about military overreach.
By having a one-on-one encounter with Aristagoras, it also seems likely to me that Kleomenes found him untrustworthy, and his suspicions might have been confirmed by Aristagoras’ attempts to bribe him. This shiftiness might have been less apparent to a crowd of 30,000 Athenians, but I’m a bit confused about what Herodotus is saying to us here and the famous line about how “a crowd is more easily fooled than a single man” seems to be telling. Is Herodotus pointing out a flaw in nascent democracies?
Over 400 pages in, and more than halfway through Book 6, it is exhilarating to finally read about Persians crossing the Hellespont and the Battle of Thermopylae commencing. Even though readers are still faced with Herodotus’ characteristic digressions at the end of Book 6, the action does finally feel more linear and I could sense my reading gather speed. This might have been inspired by the fast pace of Phidippides who, according to the note at the back of my edition, somehow ran around 150 miles in under 48 hours to warn the other Greeks of the Persian invasion. Apparently, for the past 30 years or so, there’s been an annual Spartathlon race held in honour of his feat (or feet, ba-dum-tss!).
As to the question of why the Athenians prevail at the Battle of Thermopylae, it seems to have a lot to do with the lack of Persian cavalry at the crucial moment. It’s not clear whether this was a logistical error by Datis or Artaphrenes, some clever strategic timing by Miltiades or something else. In any case, if the casualty numbers that Herodotus reports are correct, it was an impressive victory. There are also Homeric echoes in the Battle of Thermopylae, for example:
- The role of Leonidas seems similar to that of Achilles; on the other hand, the way his body is abused is reminiscent of the way Achilles abuses the body of Hector
- When Xerxes ignores the advice of Demaratus, it is reminiscent of Hector ignoring the advice of Polydamas
- It’s hard to say if Herodotus intends to “quote” Homer precisely (the language is definitely more epic in the battle scenes), or if he is just using cultural motifs that his readers would be familiar with, but it does seem to be part of his narrative strategy.
As for the Battle of Salamis, what causes the Greeks to unite in their hour of need, apart from the obvious explanation of being faced with a common enemy? Demaratus tells Xerxes that “in Hellas, excellence is acquired through intelligence and the force of strong law” (7:102). Herodotus describes in detail the hatred that the Athenians and Aeginetans have for each other, but they agree to put their hostility aside for the higher cause of freedom (7:145). The Spartans are slow to join, but they do. Herodotus seems to suggest that the force of law (which includes religious custom) is stronger than intelligence in Sparta, but the Spartans are finally persuaded by Athenian intelligence.
Overall, I think Herodotus’ “father of lies” tag is unjust and seems to come from viewing his work through the very narrow lens of a work of historical fact. It probably says more about those that cast the aspersion, and speaks to local or family pride that might have been hurt by Herodotus’ depiction of certain battles.
I also get the sense of Herodotus being very interested in the nature of truth / lies and reality / appearance. In Book 3, we have the case of the true and the false Smerdis, and also the example of a place called Agbatana, one of which is in Media and the other in Syria, which is relevant to the demise of Cambyses. There are plenty more examples.
There’s also the ongoing issue, throughout the whole work, of how to interpret the oracle. I’m not sure why each ruler didn’t employ an “official” oracle interpreter, for instance someone who is adept at lateral thinking, given how important the Pythia is to the fate of leaders and armies. I’m surprised how much Herodotus seems to defend the oracle and its uses, almost to the point of being an apologist. He may not invoke the gods like Homer, but he does seem attached to some ancient modes of thinking.
Fate and hubris also plays a big part in the downfall of the Persians. In Book 7, there is a key passage involving the Persian king Xerxes and his advisor Artabanus, both of whom experience dream visions on the eve of war. However, it’s not clear who this tall and handsome ghostly figure, that appears first to Xerxes encouraging him to go war, might be. The assumption is that it’s the same apparition that Artabanus encounters in the second dream, threatening to burn out his eyes. These visions persuade both men to cross the Hellespont and fight the Greeks, despite the initial advice of Artabanus about “how it is creatures of an overbearing size that God strikes down with his thunderbolts”.
These fateful dreams remind me of an earlier passage in the book, when Astyages (grandfather of Cyrus) has a prophetic vision of a vine springing forth from the womb of his daughter and spreading across Asia. Xerxes’ final dream, before committing to war, has echoes of Astyages’ dream, with its vision of wearing a crown with olive tree branches that spread and cover the entire earth. However, in Xerxes’ dream, the branches (and crown) then vanish. Here, I think the role of the magi is key; if they had not sought to flatter Xerxes, they could have advised him better and suggested that this vanishing crown might be a very bad omen for him.
All the talk of rivers being drunk dry adds to the sense of Xerxes’ war machine being out of proportion with the natural order of things, and this is echoed in the strange and unnatural portents like (in 7:57) the mare giving birth to a hare and the hermaphrodite mule. In the book’s closing battle scenes too, the powerful image of the Persian arrows blotting out the sun also adds to this sense of an imbalance in the natural order.
There is such a strong sense of foreshadowing in the later books, almost as if Herodotus is more a tragic dramatist than an historian, and it seems to me that he was just as much inspired by contemporary dramatists such as Aeschylus as he was by Homer.