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The Great Marathon Man

A Commentary on Herodotus Books I–IV

by David Asheri, Alan Lloyd, and Aldo Corcella, edited by Oswyn Murray and Alfonso Moreno, with a contribution by Maria Brosius
Oxford University Press, 721 pp., $320.00


When Herodotus was giving a public reading to an Athenian audience from his work-in-progress, one late source relates, among those present, brought along by his father Olorus, was the adolescent Thucydides. Herodotus’ performance allegedly reduced the boy to tears, and the speaker, duly flattered, declared: “Olorus, your son has a natural love of learning.” This improving, but almost certainly fictional, anecdote invites a cynical interpretation. Its author, I suspect—knowing what lay ahead for Thucydides, and his influence on posterity—saw those tears as precipitated by furious competitiveness rather than admiration. The young paragon was all set, first to learn everything he could, without acknowledgment, from his famous predecessor, and then to work out a methodology that would bury him without trace as a gullible and frivolous popularizer.

Confronted by a broadminded, witty, and tolerant cosmopolitan, for whom the infinite varieties of human custom offered a source of inexhaustible fascination, Thucydides presented himself as a humorless nationalist, an intellectual given to political aphorisms and abstract generalizations. Herodotus in his Histories treated the international conflict of the Persian Wars between 490 and 479 BCE as a turning point in Greek history, in fact devoting most of his vast text to reconstructing the war itself and the events leading up to it, all prefaced by lengthy ethnographic descriptions of the numerous, and far-flung, provinces of the Persian empire that it involved. About the Scythians, for example, he said that they

take the seeds of…cannabis, creep [into a tent-like structure], and throw the seeds onto the blazing-hot stones within. When the seeds hit the stones, they produce smoke and give off a vapor such as no steam bath in Hellas could surpass. The Scythians howl, awed and elated by the vapor. This takes the place of a bath for them, since they do not use any water at all to wash their bodies.

Archaeology confirms this account in detail.

Thus for Thucydides, Herodotus’ reconstruction of the Persian Wars posed a serious challenge: it meant demonstrating that the falling out between two local city-states, Athens and Sparta, must be shown to eclipse both the great Greco-Persian conflict and, for good measure, the Trojan War that had preceded it.

The cleverest intellectual move Thucydides made was the severe limiting of what he deemed permissible as elements of historiography, on the grounds that everything else outside this canon was not only irrelevant but unserious. Out went personal anecdotes, most foreign ethnography, and domestic or private motivation: out, above all, went anything to do with women. Religion was women’s business, and mostly nonsense anyway, so that could be discarded too. The essence of history was war and politics, as conducted by men in authority. His exclusive privileging of the male political association, in its most public form, became accepted, and historians (being political males themselves) were not inclined to argue. His revisionism not only won out at the time, but established the basic principles of historiography for over two millennia.

During the past half-century, however, Thucydides’ almost superhuman reputation has come under severe critical scrutiny, while Herodotus’ stock has correspondingly risen—a fact to which Robert Strassler’s new Landmark volume of translation and commentary bears substantial witness. The change does little more than belatedly reflect a fundamental revolution in Western cultural values that has taken place during the last two hundred years. Greece, in particular the Athenian democratic ideal, only came to be privileged over Rome1 after the Greek, French, and American revolutions gave imperialism a decidedly shopworn look. Thucydides’ main virtue for the seventeenth-century monarchist Thomas Hobbes had been that “he made me realize how silly is democracy.” (This is hardly surprising. For true democracy Thucydides had no more time than did that aristocratic intellectual Plato; he welcomed the authoritarianism implicit in Pericles’ de facto rule as first citizen, and his favorite acknowledged form of government was in fact a limited oligarchy.) The swing toward idealistic republicanism was further developed in the English-speaking world2 by the banker George Grote’s unprecedentedly liberal History of Greece, published in twelve volumes between 1846 and 1856, which praised not only democracy but the Sophists as the true heralds of freedom.

This was the most radical change in Western assumptions about the ancient world since the Renaissance, and it prepared the ground for many other changes. Alexander the Great, for example, hitherto looked up to as the imperialist conqueror par excellence, now had to have his career of conquest explained and justified as a crusade designed to bring Hellenic culture to the benighted East (Victorian missionary work in Africa and Polynesia helped to support this view of him). The century-long struggle by feminists from the suffragette movement onward meant that eventually their automatic exclusion from the Thucydidean historiographical canon would be seriously questioned. Later still, first post-colonialism and then globalization meant a vast change—not always appreciated for what it was, or even, sometimes, noticed—in assumptions made about both other nations and one’s own when studying the historical evolution of ancient society.

That current trends in historiography echo, to a quite remarkable extent, the methods and assumptions of Herodotus is undeniable. The widespread use of social and ethnographic anthropology as an investigative tool is only the most obvious instance. Herodotus’ observations about different customs and cultures—which in fact take up the greater part of the first half of the Histories, as he surveyed the various regions of the Persian empire—make him a groundbreaking anthropologist. Personal motivation (as opposed to abstract trends) and the influence of women in public affairs are very much back in the picture. The new understanding of oral transmission provides a satisfying answer to those who dismissed Herodotean anecdotes as mere crowd-pleasing digressions, and sheds fresh light on his careful evidential distinction between seeing (opsis) and hearsay (akoê). Many of the Persians, despite belonging to the Barbarian Other, come off with honor and dignity in his pages, even during the final narrative of Xerxes’ invasion. Such insatiable and open-minded curiosity about the unfamiliar, including one’s (undemonized) enemies, got him labeled philobarbaros by Plutarch, but today counts strongly in his favor.3

Against these inroads Thucydideans have maintained a vigorous (and often contemptuous) defense. The positivist historians of the nineteenth century stressed Thucydides’ seriousness, his scientific objectivity, his advanced handling of evidence. (That he was exiled for military incompetence, did a hatchet job on the man responsible, and praised as virtually unbeatable the Spartan general to whom he had lost the key city of Amphipolis bothered them not at all.) Generals and statesmen loved him: the world he drew was theirs, an exclusive power-brokers’ club. It is no accident that even today Thucydides turns up as a guiding spirit in military academies, neocon think tanks, and the writings of men like Henry Kissinger; whereas Herodotus has been the choice of imaginative novelists (Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and the film based on it, boosted the sale of the Histories to a wholly unforeseen degree) and—as food for a starved soul—of an equally imaginative foreign correspondent from Iron Curtain Poland, Ryszard Kapuscinski.


Though he often, and innovatively, writes in the first person when voicing opinions, we know frustratingly little about Herodotus himself, and much of what we do know has to be deduced from his own work. His birth was dated by one ancient source to 484/3, and this—though probably arrived at by mere guesswork—seems about right. He was a native of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum), on the Turkish coast south of Miletus, in what then was Caria. His parents were prominent citizens, but their names—Lyxes and Dryo (or Rhoia)—suggest Carian, rather than Ionian, ancestry, as does that of his uncle (or possibly cousin) Panyassis, a soothsayer and epic poet. Halicarnassus, like its most famous son, was in every sense cosmopolitan: a largely Greek city, part of the Persian Achaemenid empire, and ruled on Persia’s behalf by a Carian dynast named Lygdamis, grandson of the warrior queen Artemisia who accompanied Xerxes during his great invasion, and of whom Herodotus gives us an unforgettable portrait.

Brought up in this busy trading port, with access to the age-old caravan routes that ran eastward from Sardis to the Persian capital of Susa, Herodotus, not surprisingly, displays a sharp interest throughout the Histories in the practical details of commerce. In this he differs sharply from upper-class Athenians, who regarded business and economics as socially beneath them, something best left to money-grubbing resident aliens. On his own account he traveled widely—in Greece, Egypt, Phoenicia, Asia Minor, to Scythia and the Black Sea region—and may have paid his way as a merchant.

But he was also clearly imbued with the spirit of freedom (eleutheria) so prominent as a leitmotif throughout his work, and seen by him as the answer to tyranny. He and Panyassis both fought against Lygdamis’ rule: Panyassis was killed, Herodotus exiled (perhaps more than once). He went to Samos, then Athens, and in about 440 to the new international colony of Thurii in south Italy. In fact, like Thucydides, like Polybius, he spent much of his life in exile—to the great benefit of his magnum opus. As David Asheri rightly stresses in A Commentary on Herodotus Books I–IV, “Life in exile broadens horizons, limits parochialism, furthers skepticism and impartiality.” References in Herodotus’ work to early incidents in the Peloponnesian War, principally between Athens and Sparta, which broke out in 431, suggest that he was alive perhaps until 425. Thurii showed his tomb in the agora, but both Athens and Pella in Macedonia also claimed to have his body.

Other facts are scarce. The Histories was in all likelihood his only book, and he made a good living giving public readings from it (in lengthy sessions, it would seem: “the shadow of Herodotus” became a popular phrase for lecturers who overran their time). His final departure from Halicarnassus, according to one account, was caused (after Lygdamis’ removal) by his unpopularity among his fellow citizens. After his death, however, his birthplace took great pride in him: one recently discovered inscription there lauds him, accurately, as “the prose Homer.” In Athens he is said to have been a good friend of Sophocles, and this is plausible. A surviving portrait-bust shows him with a forked beard, and there is no reason for the sculptor to have invented such a detail.

We know nothing about his private life, even whether he was married: his marked literary interest in women and sexual oddities—such as Nasomonean brides having intercourse with the wedding guests—gives away nothing on that score. In ways his great work is as enigmatic as its author. Its first four books deal with the growth and expansion of Achaemenid Persia, founded by Cyrus the Great in the mid-sixth century BCE, and contain ethnographic accounts—some, in particular that on Egypt, extremely long and detailed—of the numerous peoples either absorbed piecemeal or, like the Egyptians, reluctantly dragooned, into the Persian empire, as well as those others brought (like Athens and Sparta) into uneasy contact with it. They also contain strategically placed digressions on such things as Solonian wisdom, the genesis of Athenian democracy, and the dynastic feuding between early Spartan kings.

  1. 1

    See the excellent account by Frank M. Turner in The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (Yale University Press, 1981), chapter 5, pp. 187–263.

  2. 2

    Conservative Germans, interested in creating a united Germany from a congeries of small quarreling states, understandably found the authoritarian policies of Philip and Alexander of Macedon more to their taste.

  3. 3

    See, e.g., Alan Griffiths and Sara Forsdyke in The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus, edited by C. Dewald and J. Marincola (Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 134, 225.

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