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The Father of It All

The History

by Herodotus, translated by David Grene
University of Chicago Press, 699 pp., $50.00

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 in control, but for various reasons much less progress was made either in accuracy or in understanding than might have been hoped for, as rhetoric, jingoism, and—in some cases—sheer deficiency in intelligence hindered historians from achieving, much less improving, the standards that Thucydides had set in the first place.

Thucydides’ history is written with strong emotion, but that emotion is banked down, repressed, seldom explicit. Unperceptive readers, then and now, have succeeded in failing to notice it. What lay on the surface and was more easily imitable was the renunciation of the mythical and the supernatural, the lack of interest in folklore, the preference for controllable evidence over hearsay, the disappearing from the historian’s view of women and children and animals—except as anonymous victims when a city was sacked. What was left was a drier biscuit, as Thucydides was aware: the exposition and analysis of a harsh world in which, in principle, nothing existed except competition for resources and struggle for power. Thucydides, we might say, follows up the hints of the Iliad, but goes beyond that stern poem in removing from the cast list Helen and Hecuba, Andromache and her baby.

Herodotus takes the other course, the inheritance of the Odyssey: interest in foreign peoples for their own sake, and in their customs and way of life; interest in good stories, even if they may be quasi-mythical in form or not absolutely true; interest in plants and animals, servants and women. He is the patron saint of the broad canvas, not the narrow study; he is hospitable to oral history, and to stories whose interest is less their historic truth than their revealing structure, and to the apparent digression which turns out to be no less central and no less instructive than the rest of the narrative.

The style of Thucydides is unmistakably that of an intellectual. His sentences are close packed and unpredictable; his paragraphs call for hard thought, offering as reward the sense of an insight, hard won and available only to the few, into the hidden significance of political language and the unceasing round of self-deception, hypocrisy, and the drive for power. The style and mentality of Herodotus are much harder to characterize. He can look charmingly naive: the amiable author travels the world and is told all sorts of tales, which he writes down for us. After telling us a story to the discredit of the city of Argos, which refused to fight against Xerxes when he invaded Greece, Herodotus observes equably that he vouches neither for its truth nor for its falsehood. “But this much I do know,” he goes on (I quote David Grene’s new translation),

that if all of mankind should assemble, for market, their own vicious deeds, wanting to barter them for those of their neighbors, on close inspection of those neighbors’ ill acts they would be glad enough to take back home again their own, which they had brought with them. So, in this, it is not the Argives who did the most shameful things [better, I think, “the Argives behaved no worse than other people”]. I must tell what is said, but I am not at all bound to believe it, and this comment of mine holds about my whole History. For there is another tale, too….

—and he goes on to quote a story even more damaging to Argos than the former. As for the wretched Argives, they certainly did not come well out of the events of 480. It was hard to find the truth about allegations that they were positively in league with Xerxes, since that would have been a matter of secret diplomacy; but Herodotus, while not condemning them, thinks it fair enough that the charges should not be omitted from his History.

Herodotus’ own statement of method is not completely frank. It is taken, surprisingly often, to mean that he has no view of the truth or falsehood of his stories, or that he means his readers to have none; or even that he thought it his function simply to record everything he heard. In fact he is ruthlessly selective. He knows many things which he chooses not to tell us. Sometimes we find such ingenuous asides as, “The stolen money came into the possession of a man from Samos: I know his name, but I deliberately forget it.” At other times he says, “This story is told in four different ways,” or, “This is what the Persians say on the subject, but I find it incredible,” or, “This is what I discover by comparing accounts.” No less characteristic than his charming claim to deliberate forgetfulness are passages where he gives explicit arguments, of fact and of inference, for preferring one version to another. But he does not always tell us when he is recording something which we may find interesting, but for the truth of which he would not himself go to the stake. That means that we need to exercise some caution in reading him, and it has a bearing on the question of the style into which he should be translated.

In 480 BC the Great King invaded Greece with an enormous army. Rational men had little doubt of the probable outcome, and the oracle at Delphi, which had better information than anybody else in Greece, clearly expected a Persian victory. Yet in fact the Greeks won every battle and sent the invading hordes home with their tails between their legs. How did it happen, and what did it mean? What did it show, both about Greeks and about non-Greeks? These questions, which were to dominate Greek thought in a crucial generation, involved a serious attempt to understand both sides, Greek and Asiatic. Herodotus is not to be thought of as setting out to write the history of Xerxes’ invasion and then being unable to resist the temptation to throw in the contents of his miscellaneous collection of index cards—stories about King Croesus of Lydia, whom the Persians had conquered in 546 BC; a complete cultural history of Egypt; a list of the rivers of Scythia; the topography of the city of Babylon; and much, much more. What Herodotus took as his subject was the entire history of the rise of the eastern monarchies, their consolidation by conquest into one Asiatic superpower, and the nemesis which overtook that power when it overstepped its limits in Asia and tried to expand too far.

First the Persians went into Africa, with the conquest of Egypt: there the Persian king Cambyses went mad and suffered a painful death and the usurpation of his crown by an impostor. Then they attacked Europe, in which King Darius suffered a humiliating defeat on a small scale, and his son Xerxes a catastrophic defeat when he set out explicitly to conquer the whole world. Herodotus shows us Xerxes arguing, first that the “logic of empire” meant that the Persians cannot stand still but must continue their career of conquest, and secondly that Greece was the only obstacle to a universal dominion—“We shall show to all a Persian empire that has the same limit as Zeus’ sky.”

Before we can understand the events of 480 we must have understood how the world came to be in such a position, with Xerxes the despotic ruler of all Asia, facing an Athens and a Sparta both willing and able to oppose and defeat him. That is why it is not until the seventh book of the nine which compose Herodotus’ History that Xerxes plans his great expedition, and also why the last three books, which tell the story of that expedition, contain so much more narrative and so much less ethnographic and geographical material than the earlier ones. By now we are in a position to understand the background and to find the war intelligible, not only at the superficial level as a series of successive events, but also in the light of the character, constitution, and resources of the parties concerned, and of the patterns that run through history.

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