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.

In that perspective, for instance, it ceases to be puzzling that Herodotus chooses to start his work with King Croesus of Lydia, who disappeared from the stage of history sixty-six years earlier. On the one hand, the opulence, arrogance, and ruin of Croesus serve as precedent for the career of Xerxes, and that parallel shows, in Aristotle’s terms, that the story of Xerxes is not just a set of events which did happen—so wie es eigentlich gewesen, or history as One Damn Thing After Another—but also an example of a general historical pattern, what would happen. On the other hand, it was the fall of Lydia that brought Persia not only into possession of Lydian gold and land and luxury but also into contact with the Greeks of Asia Minor. And the involvement of the Persians with those Levantine Greeks (for so Herodotus sees the Ionians, by contrast with Athens and Sparta) had momentous consequences. Some were cultural or ethnographic: Herodotus outraged later Greek sensibilities by saying that it was from the Ionians that the Persians learned the custom of pederasty. Others were political: the Athenians helped the Ionians in their abortive revolt in 494, and that led the Persians in retaliation to invade Greece.

Moreover, the Persians did not come alone. They brought in their army contingents of the Lydians and Assyrians, Phoenicians and Egyptians, and all the rest. All those peoples, once independent, had come to form part of the vast Persian Empire under one arbitrary and absolute ruler. That could be understood only in the light of the character and history of all those nations. So the richness of Herodotus’ information about all these various peoples, which is invaluable to us but which is sometimes treated, rather ungratefully, as if he only shares it with us because he is too unsophisticated to know any better, is not irrelevant but vital to his conception of history. Of course, he arranges it in such a way as to make it as interesting as possible. For instance, his account of the peculiarities of each people to whom his discussion brings him—its geography, climate, ethnography, strange customs—regularly includes one or two spicy details. In Lydia all girls earn their dowries by prostitution, but in Babylon they have a much cleverer system; once a year all marriageable girls are auctioned off to husbands, the prettiest first, and the money so raised is then used in a reverse auction, to buy husbands for the plain ones. Indians make love in public; in Egypt the roles of the sexes are reversed in many spheres of life, and so among the Egyptians women urinate standing, men sitting. And so on. We recognize a constant if unavowed factor, now as then, in the popular interest in anthropology.

It is in line with this that Herodotus starts his first book with an extraordinary passage which fits the Persian invasion of Greece into a series of reciprocal raids between Europe and Asia, right back to the earliest mythical period. First some Phoenician traders, putting in to Greece, carried off the princess Io; then Greek pirates hit back by abducting the Phoenician princess Europa. Level competition so far, but then the Greeks started the second round when the Argonauts picked up and brought home the barbarian princess Medea. In revenge, Paris of Troy took Helen from Greece. Then the Greeks lost their heads, and instead of taking no notice, for “clearly, the women would not have been carried off had they no mind to be,” they declared war, invaded Asia, and sacked Troy. That started a permanent feud between Europe and Asia, in which the invasion of Xerxes is one more episode.

Everybody likes this sort of mildly sexy story, and the historian puts an attractive opening to his book; he also shows his own cleverness by creating this fantastic connection between a great event of recent history and four myths that have nothing to do with it or with one another. He even has the effrontery to ascribe this obviously Greek farrago, for which doubtless he is himself responsible, to “the chroniclers among the Persians,” with the straight-faced footnote that “about Io herself the Phoenicians disagree with the Persians”—their version is that Io found herself pregnant by the Phoenician ship’s captain and ran off with him of her own accord, to avoid facing her parents. Having amused himself and us with two pages on these mythical ladies, Herodotus gets down to more serious business, saying,

For my part I am not going to say about these matters that they happened thus or thus, but I will set my mark upon that man that I myself know began unjust acts against the Greeks, and, having so marked him, I will go forward in my account.

That man is Croesus, a figure of real history only a hundred years in the past. The myths, that is to say, are neither here nor there: only in the recent period do we find something to be certain of.

All the Greek writers about their own past were faced with the intractable problem of the myths. Before written records began, there was only oral testimony; and the early period, in oral testimony, lived on as a great mass of mythical narratives. On the one hand, they contained monsters, dragons, centaurs, heroes; on the other, they did keep alive the memory, now confirmed by the evidence of archaeology, of an age when Mycenae, in the classical period a village or a ruin, had been rich in gold, and when there had been a great king on Crete with dominion over much of the Aegean. Could this mixed and treacherous material be made into history?

Thucydides took one of the two possible paths, following the questionable logic of Sherlock Holmes: remove what is impossible, and what is left will be the truth. There was a King Minos in Crete, but of course he had no Minotaur and no labyrinth. He built a fleet and conquered the Aegean, putting down piracy; that was for a good rational fifth-century (or indeed nineteenth-century) economic reason—so that his revenues could come in without risk. In fact, if one knew how to look at him, King Minos in the mythical period could be seen as a perfectly recognizable predecessor of the sea power of classical Athens, with her tribute-paying island dependencies.

On occasion Herodotus takes the other path, that of a skepticism greater than that of Thucydides. Thus he denies that Minos can be turned into history at all. A Greek despot of the sixth century, a hundred years before his own time, was the first, according to Herodotus, to aim at rule of the sea—“except for Minos of Crete and anybody else there may have been who ruled the seas before him; but of what we call the race of men, Polycrates was the first” (my translation). Minos, then, came out of a different box; he was not really of the same sort as the men of history, and there is no point in trying to talk about him in the same way. It is a pity that David Grene gives the slightly emasculated translation, “Polycrates was the first of the human race to do so.” Yet at other times Herodotus talks of mythical persons, even of Minos, as if they were on the same footing as Xerxes and Themistocles. Beneath his most apparently credulous tales we are aware of a mind capable of irony and skepticism at their expense.

Herodotus refers always to what his sources “say,” never to what they “write.” His own work seems, both from external and from internal evidence, to have served as lectures and public recitations before it was published in its final form. His style is in many ways an oral style, running on with seductive smoothness from clause to clause and from story to story. After the Battle of Marathon, says Herodotus, there was an attempt to betray Athens to the Persians, and a signal was undeniably given from the city to call in the Persian fleet. Now some people say that the great aristocratic family of the Alcmaeonidae were guilty; this cannot be true. That family rose to high eminence through overseas contacts. First Alcmaeon managed to endear himself to the great king Croesus of Lydia, and the king allowed him to take as much gold out of the royal treasury as he could carry on his person; so Alcmaeon put on a large tunic with a specially deep fold in it, and the loosest high boots he could find, and he plunged into the heap of gold dust and filled his boots and his tunic and his hair and his mouth, and out he came, barely able to move and looking anything but human. Croesus was overcome with laughter at the sight, and that is how the Alcmaeonidae became rich.

Then in the next generation a young man of the family married the daughter of the tyrant of another city, Cleisthenes. Cleisthenes invited all the most eligible young men in Greece to stay with him and be entertained for a year, and at the end of that time he had chosen the dashing Hippoclides for his daughter; but at dinner on the last day, when this was to be announced, Hippoclides made a piper play a slow dance and performed a solo dance for the company:

Indeed, he pleased himself very much with his dancing, but Cleisthenes, as he looked on, became very sour about the whole business. In a while, Hippoclides bade them bring in a table, and, when the table came, he danced on it, first of all Laconian dance figures, but later Attic as well; and finally he stood on his head on the table and rendered the dance figures with his feet in the air. Cleisthenes, during the first and second phase of this dancing, restrained himself—though he loathed that Hippoclides should become his son-in-law, thanks to his dancing and lewdness—because he did not wish to make a public outburst against Hippoclides. But when he saw the feet in the air, rendering the dance figures, he could stand it no more and said “Son of Tisander, you have danced—danced away your marriage!” Then Hippoclides retorted, “Not a jot cares Hippoclides.” From this happening the byword has arisen. [Grene’s translation]

So the girl married an Alcmaeonid instead, and that family got another step up in the world; and from them, Herodotus goes on, came the wife of Xanthippus, who dreamt that she gave birth to a lion, and her son was Pericles.

That passage seems to show Herodotus at his most freewheeling, going from one good story to another. An austere historian would have suppressed all that, and we should have been the poorer for some splendid glimpses, both of sixth-century life and of what a fifth-century audience enjoyed hearing about it. We also should lose a marvelously two-edged account of an Athenian family that went on in high position right down to the flourishing of the radical democracy and the building of the Parthenon: for these stories cannot be said to be unambiguously flattering or dignifying of that noble house. We observe, too, that in this apparently artless passage Herodotus has contrived to introduce, with an emphasis that purports to derive from the sixth-century background rather than from the historian’s own knowledge of events which took place after the period that he describes, the name of the greatest Athenian statesman of his own time. This is the only appearance in Herodotus’ History of the name of Pericles. The name of his father Xanthippus, too, turns out to be an unobtrusive link to the next episode in the narrative—Xanthippus impeaches and ruins Miltiades, the victor of Marathon.

Enough has been quoted, too, to give an idea of the prose of David Grene’s translation. His view is that “the English in which Herodotus comes before us should be direct, powerful, and clear but also, I think, a little odd,” with a flavor of the literary and archaic which shall convey to the English reader the presence behind Herodotus’ Greek of the formulaic language of Homeric verse. The translation does indeed read well but rather oddly. In the passage quoted, the point that Hippoclides began with a rather stately dance—the emmeleia, the typical dance of the chorus in Attic tragedy—is not taken, and we read only that he “ordered the flute-player to strike up a tune for him.” This blurs a nice point at the beginning of the development to a climax, while at the end it would be closer to the Greek, as well as closer to the logic of intoxication, to show us Hippoclides not “rendering the dance figures” with his “feet in the air” but “waving his legs in the air.” So the sense of progression in Hippoclides’ drunken performance is lost. “Lewdness” is a very archaic way of describing such a breach of decorum, and Cleisthenes did not repeat the word for dancing in his rebuke. “You have danced away your marriage!” is all he says. As for the young man, “Hippoclides doesn’t care” would be a less strange translation of his insouciant reply, which became a catch phrase for expressing unconcern.

The points are all small, but cumulatively I think they give an impression slightly different from the original, and rather more eccentric. The old translation by George Rawlinson (1858)1 is dignified and worthy but a little wooden; the Penguin version by Aubrey de Sélincourt2 is racy and readable but perhaps a little too unambiguously modern. Herodotus has such a wide stylistic range that no translator does justice to all of it. The manner of David Grene’s translation has great charm, and it deserves to be a success, but it does tend, unobtrusively, to present Herodotus as more consistently quaint and simple-minded than he is. Quaintness is indeed one of Herodotus’ great devices, and he can be read for pages together as garrulous and rather gullible; but he can equally be skeptical and even cynical, and he also possesses the architectonic power to organize a vast subject into a coherent design with an overall shape and all sorts of internal links and echoes, while the variety of his style includes tragic utterances, tense and exciting narratives, powerful generalizations. No one who is interested in history, however sophisticated, should be disappointed in reading Herodotus, not only for entertainment but also for understanding.

  1. 1

    E.P. Dutton/Everyman’s Library, 1964.

  2. 2

    Penguin, 1954.