Herodotus the father of history is also called the father of lies. In the ancient world there were many who regarded him as a graceful stylist and a charming companion, but not to be taken seriously as a writer of the truth; others preferred to treat him as positively malevolent, a cynic who set out to discredit the greatest men and the supreme achievements of Greece with low and scurrilous allegations and innuendoes. The sweet-natured essayist Plutarch published a whole book, On the Malignity of Herodotus, an uncharacteristically shrill piece of writing. The historian is attacked as a “pro-barbarian” who is cynical about the Spartans, horrid about Plutarch’s own country of Boeotia—he alleges that the Boeotians were not just on the Persian side but were enthusiastic about it and did all they could to help King Xerxes—and who even minimized the number of Persians killed at the Battle of Marathon. Herodotus gave the figure of 6,400, while, as Plutarch plaintively observes, “according to the usual version the barbarians killed were beyond counting.”
The marvelous achievements of the early fifth century, when the disciplined citizens of Sparta and Athens succeeded beyond hope and likelihood in routing the hordes of Asia and the despotic rule of their king, were followed all too soon by the self-inflicted wounds which bled Greece white in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), and then by conquest and subjection, first to Macedon and then to Rome. Greek culture became more and more backward looking, its people frustrated by their inability to translate cultural superiority into power or even independence. The great deeds of the past became greater and greater in response to that need; the Roman satirist Juvenal tells us of his boredom as contemporary Greeks exaggerated about Xerxes, and in historians of the Imperial Age the number of Persian dead at Marathon is given, with all solemnity, as 200,000. That’s a good round number, as Humpty Dumpty might say, and clearly old Herodotus did not know his business.
All thinking men, it has been remarked, are either Platonists or Aristotelians: the possibilities seem to be exhausted by those two great Greek thinkers, whose lives and work overlapped, and the younger of whom can be seen reacting against the elder. In a similar way Herodotus was immediately criticized and corrected by his younger contemporary Thucydides, while between them they sum up the possibilities for history. Aristotle looked with a cool and logical eye on Plato’s fervent myths and on his theory of Forms; Thucydides observed grimly that his own work, contemporary political and military history based on exact and laborious research, will be more valuable for serious students of events; “even if its lack of the story-telling element will make it less diverting to listen to.” It is certainly at Herodotus that this is aimed. Thucydides prevailed: most Greek and Roman historians wrote of the recent past and limited their subject to military and political history. There was a gain …