Welcome to the virtual classroom where this blogger studied historiography at the knee (and other low joints) of Professor Forrest Walker. The blogger's course began with Herodotus and the title of today's post prompted the usual response from this blogger: "If Herodotus was the father of history, who was its mother?" Obviously, Clio wouldn't count because she was creature of myth. However, conventional historiography begins with Herodotus. If this is the (fair & balanced) beginning of one damned thing after another, so be it.
[x The Weekly Standard]
Father Of History
By Joseph Epstein
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
Herodotus, the first Greek and thereby the first Western historian, had bad press long before there was anything resembling a press. Aristotle referred to him as a “story-teller,” which was no honorific. What he meant was that Herodotus made things up, another word for which is “liar.” Thucydides had little good to say about Herodotus and thought his attempt to recapture the long-gone past foolhardy. History, for Thucydides, meant contemporary, or near-contemporary, history, with an emphasis on politics and warfare. In his Histories, Herodotus went well outside these bounds, writing about Egypt, Scythia, Persia, and other countries; he took up the study of customs and moeurs among them, as might a modern anthropologist.
More than 400 years later, the attacks on Herodotus’ reputation continued. In an essay titled “The Malice of Herodotus,” Plutarch criticized him for undue sympathy for the Persians and other barbarians, a want of respect for facts coupled with a lack of balanced judgment, and a partiality for Athens. Worse attacks were to come from other commentators over the succeeding centuries, some of whom held that Herodotus relied too heavily on oral evidence, others that he was plain dishonest.
Herodotus (ca. 484-425 b.c.) was a Carian, born in Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, in what would now be western Turkey. He was, in other words, from the periphery of the Greek world, and his book is the result of a sort of intellectual tourism. He traveled, collected stories, consulted documents where they existed, and wrote down his findings. No one knows for certain whether he visited all the countries he wrote about or how he came into his extensive knowledge. In the opening sentence of the Histories, he states his purpose:
Herodotus, from Halicarnassus, here displays his enquiries, that human achievement may be spared the ravages of time, and that everything great and astounding, and all the glory of those exploits which served to display Greeks and barbarians alike to such effect, be kept alive—and additionally, and most importantly, to give the reason they went to war.
Cicero called Herodotus the “father of history.” Yet Arnaldo Momigliano, the great 20th-century historiographer of the ancient world, ends his brilliant essay on Herodotus by noting, “It is a strange truth that Herodotus has really become the father of history only in modern times.” History, or, more precisely, historical methods, Momigliano explains, finally caught up with Herodotus. Ethnographic research brought a new respect for Herodotus’ own early interest in ethnography. Those who did archaeological exploration in Egypt and Mesopotamia found Herodotus’ writings on these subjects useful. His writings also became valuable to biblical scholars in their study of Oriental history. Oral history, on which he drew heavily, became a standard tool of modern social science and history. Herodotus was also the first serious historian to give due attention to women. In his Histories, he devotes several pages to Artemisia, the queen of Halicarnassus, who commanded the Asian Dorian fleet during Xerxes’ attack on Greece. As for his accuracy, Momigliano writes, “We have now collected enough evidence to be able to say that he can be trusted.”
About Herodotus’ style there has never been any doubt. “The power of his tragic vision of history,” wrote Hugh Lloyd-Jones, then-Regius professor of Greek at Oxford, “is enhanced by his possession of literary gifts of the highest order.” Lloyd-Jones holds that, apart from Plato and, on occasion, Demosthenes, no prose stylist among the Greeks compares to Herodotus: “His prose is clear, rapid, euphonious, marvelously varied according to variations of his subject matter; he can write in a plain and simple manner, with short sentences loosely strung together, but he can also build up elaborate periodic structures making effective use of many poetical words.” Charm and style, the two great preservatives for historical and every other kind of literature, Herodotus had in abundance.
Temperamentally, literarily, and methodoligically, Herodotus and Thucydides could scarcely have been further apart. Thucydides’ strength was in analysis, Herodotus’ in description. Concision, dazzling formulation, and intellectual penetration were where Thucydides’ power lay, while expansion and sympathy for human difference was Herodotus’ forte. Herodotus appears to have been a man of wider tolerance, with a more generous nature and distinterested outlook than Thucydides. Herodotus’ motive was pure knowledge; Thucydides, meanwhile, wrote under the cloud of having been exiled for 20 years from Athens because of his failure to arrive in time to rescue the Athenian forces at the Battle of Amphipolis early in the Peloponnesian War.
Thucydides gained greatly on Herodotus in popularity during the Cold War, as his History of the Peloponnesian War, which chronicles the conflict between Athens and Sparta, found a ready analogy in the clash between the United States and the Soviet Union—at least among people who read history for lessons about the present. Now that that war is over, the analogy is of lessened cogency, and Herodotus’ star is rising. Evidence for this is the appearance of three recent translations of the Histories, with a fourth—by the English classicist Peter Green—in the works.
Of the two historians, Herodotus had the happier story to recount. Thucydides’ was the story of the decline of Greece owing to the internal disputes that brought on the Peloponnesian War; Herodotus’ was the rise of Greece through the victory of the greatly outnumbered Greeks over the Persians during the Greco-Persian Wars (ca. 490-479 b.c.). The Histories covers roughly 150 years, ending with the Persian defeat at the Battle of Plataea, in Boetia, when the alliance of Greek city-states dealt the coup de grâce to the more than two-million-man army of Xerxes.
Herodotus takes more than 300 or so pages to get around to the Greco-Persian conflict that is the true subject of his work. “But if I may digress here,” he writes in the middle of commenting on the hornless cattle of Scythia, “as I have sought opportunities to do from the moment I started this account of my enquiries. . .” These digressions might be irksome were they not so interesting: Herodotus provides portraits of Cyrus, Croesus, Darius, and Xerxes, and recounts the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea. “Marvelous deeds,” as he puts it, are his subject matter.
Strange deeds, too—and odd facts. Herodotus tells of flying snakes in Arabia, mummification and necrophilia in Egypt, the Scythians’ use of cannabis, cauterization bringing good health to Libyan nomads, the Persian custom of burying people alive. He reports on gold-hunting ants in India, why the skulls of the Persians are thicker than those of the Egyptians, the black semen of the Indians and Ethiopians, horses eating snakes, a mare giving birth to a hare, a woman’s urine returning to a king his eyesight, the singer Arion being rescued by a dolphin. Was he making these things up, or was he just unable to resist a good story?
Often he will append to a supposed fact or a story that its origin is in hearsay. At times, he expresses incredulity: “I am obliged to tell the things that are said,” he writes, “but I am under no obligation to be persuaded by them.” He also holds that his “own responsibility, however, as it has been throughout my writing this entire narrative, is simply to record whatever may be told by my sources.”
If a story amuses or edifies Herodotus, he stops his narrative to take as many pages as are necessary to tell it. An example is the tale of the Lydian king Candaules’ obsession with the beauty of his wife. So obsessed is he that he regularly tells Gyges, favorite among his bodyguards, how devastatingly beautiful she is, and he insists that Gyges, to see that he is not exaggerating, look upon her naked. Despite the bodyguard’s reluctance to do so, Candaules positions him so that he may watch her disrobe for bed without being seen. She does see Gyges, however, and the next day she offers him two alternatives: be executed for his trespass or gain possession of her and ascendance to the throne by killing Candaules. Gyges chooses the latter. The plot to kill the king is successful, and Gyges rules for 38 years. Fully four generations later, the Lydian empire, then under the reign of Gyges’ descendant Croesus, is destroyed in revenge for the murder of Candaules. The gods in Herodotus tend to have long memories.
Croesus is another figure who captures Herodotus’ imagination. In reward for services rendered, Croesus offers Alcmaeon, the founder of the line of Pericles, all the gold he can carry on his person. Wearing a large tunic and loose boots, Herodotus reports, Alcmaeon
stuffed his legs with as much gold as his boots could hold, and then, after he had filled the fold in his tunic brim-full with gold, he sprinkled gold-dust over the hair on his scalp, shoved some more into his mouth and left the treasury barely able to drag his boots along as he went.
So amused was Croesus at the spectacle that he provided Alcmaeon with double the amount of gold he had taken.
Herodotus, like Jimmy Durante, had a million of ’em. When the Athenian lawmaker Solon visits Lydia, Croesus, after displaying his immense wealth, asks Solon who is the happiest man he knows, fully expecting the answer to be him, Croesus. Instead, Solon cites an Athenian named Tellus: He “lived at a time when his city was particularly well off, he had handsome, upstanding sons, and he ended up a grandfather with all his grandchildren making it to adulthood.” Tellus also died well—in battle—and was honored in death by his fellow citizens. Croesus then asks who is the second happiest man. Solon cites two brothers, young men of Argos, prizewinning athletes who brought honor to their mother and died in full knowledge of their own glory.
Solon’s point is that one can never say that a man is happy, no matter his wealth and other attainments, until one knows that he died content. The fates are full of strange tricks, and “the heavens will often grant men a glimpse of happiness, only to snatch it away so that not a trace of it remains.” Unimpressed, Croesus dismisses Solon; yet the Athenian’s wisdom is confirmed in the sadness of Croesus’ later life, for he would lose a favored son in a hunting accident and his empire would eventually be crushed by the Persians.
“There was never a mortal,” Herodotus writes, “who did not, right from birth, have misfortune woven into the very fabric of his life—nor will there ever be. Indeed the greater the man the greater the misfortune.” Of Cyrus’ son Cambyses, the mad king of Persia who murdered his brother and married his sister, and whose own dagger accidentally pierced his thigh causing his death by gangrene, Herodotus writes, “No man has it within himself to turn destiny aside.” In the Histories, when a ruler laughs at the misfortunes or presumptions of others, it is only a matter of time before fate wipes the smile off his face and his own—usually horrendous—fall arrives. The only hope for men is to see things as they truly are and not to lapse into negligence, overconfidence, or madness through possession of power. Few political leaders in the Histories are able to do so. Herodotus writes:
I shall . . . proceed with the rest of my story recounting cities both lesser and greater, since many of those that were great long ago have become inferior, and some that are great in my own time were inferior before. And so, resting on my knowledge that human prosperity never remains constant, I shall make mention of both without discrimination.
Herodotus believed that divine agency entered into the affairs of men. Oracles play a strong role in the Histories. “I would never presume to challenge the veracity of oracles,” he writes, “nor would I accept anyone else doing it, either.” For Herodotus there was a higher order, a providence whose wisdom often surpassed the understanding of mere mortals and whose power did not always work for the benefit of men.
In Book Three of the Histories, seven Persians meet to decide on the best form for their government to take. Arguments are made for and against democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. Although Herodotus was himself anti-despotic in his politics, Darius, who argues for monarchy and will presently become king, wins out. This, though, is quietly subverted in Book Seven, when the deposed Spartan king Demaratus informs the Persian king Xerxes that, whatever the numbers of his men and ships, the Greeks will not desist from fighting, even if the forces against them are a thousand men to one. The best fighters, Demaratus argues, are free men; when they are imbued with a nomos, or inbred law, they are compelled to fight on, no matter the odds or conditions. They never surrender. Persian soldiers flee when their leaders go down, but Greeks, and especially Spartans, never do. They fight not for their leaders but out of their hatred of slavery and love of their polis. Demaratus proved correct, of course, as the battles of Thermopylae and Plataea demonstrated.
In Herodotus’ view, the Persian plan of continuous expansion doomed their empire from the outset. The Greeks, owing to their belief in honor and civic pride, their love of freedom and independence, and their distrust of too-great opulence, were wary of empire—at any rate, empire on the scale that the Persian kings craved. Later, in a period not covered by the Histories, the plans of expansion on the part of the Athenians, when they acquired their maritime empire, would in turn doom them, the debacle in Syracuse putting fini to all hopes of further expansion. For Herodotus, instability is the rule of life; the fortunes of countries, like those of men, go up and down. “Human happiness,” he writes, “never continues long in one place.”
The subject of the Histories is the richness of human nature in action. Herodotus’ philosophy arises out of the plentitude of his details. This philosophy holds men to be perpetually in peril of overstepping their bounds—bounds set by good sense and reinforced by the gods. Those who do not understand this go under. But even those who understand may not necessarily come to a good end. Herodotus provides story after story proving that human justice is not the first order of the gods. He also demonstrates that superior storytelling is not only the most captivating form of history but the most entrancing mode of philosophizing.
Tom Holland’s translation of the Histories is fluent, readable, nicely paced, and lively. Some would say too lively. Peter Green, in the London Review of Books, calls it “uncomfortably chatty.” By this he is referring to the sometimes-jarring intrusion of contemporary idiom into the text. So, in the King Candaules story, the king’s wife “rumbled” that her husband had planted his bodyguard in her room. When the Lydian king Ardys’ attack on a nearby city fails, we read that he is “given a bloody nose.” Arion, the man carried to safety by the dolphin, is in his music a “trend-setter” who “raked in a fortune” through his singing. King Croesus, never wanting a justification for warring against others, could always “manage to rustle up some flimsy pretext.”
These examples all come from the first 13 pages of the Holland translation. More egregious ones appear throughout the text, as when Xerxes convenes a meeting of Persian noblemen in order “to pick their brains” and then warns his counselors against “bad-mouthing” his guest-friend Demaratus.
This note of contemporaneity, even vulgar contemporaneity, in the Holland translation can be, as I say, jarring; but it is not, finally, marring. Randall Jarrell once said that “a novel is a prose narrative that has something wrong with it.” The same may be said of nearly all translations. None exists, no matter how elevated and meticulous the effort, with which one cannot find fault. A small number of great writers cannot be well translated at all; one thinks here of Henry James, and perhaps also Wallace Stevens. An even smaller number are so great that not even a poor translation can spoil them. Herodotus is of this select company. Ω
[Joseph Epstein, Emeritus Lecturer of English at Northwestern University, also is an essayist, short story writer, and editor, and from 1974 to 1998 the editor of the Phi Beta Kappa Society's The American Scholar magazine. In 2003, Epstein was awarded a National Humanities Medal by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Epstein received a BA (English) from the University of Chicago. His most recent book is A Literary Education and Other Essays (2014).]
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