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,…

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