A walk with the Ancients: Herodotus

I always like to have a couple of books on the go – something light to read at bedtime, like a crime novel or a book of short stories, and something more challenging for when I’m not falling asleep after one page. Not that there are rules – it all depends what mood I’m in, how busy I am, etc. Sometimes I almost long to get the flue so I have an excuse to stay in bed all day with a book!

One hefty tome I’m picking my way through is the Herodotus Histories. Written around 450 B.C., in the Ionic dialect, it is a record of the ancient traditions, politics, geography and clash of cultures of the then ‘known world’ – Western Asia, Northern Africa and Greece. Its main theme is the rise of the Persian Empire and the causes of the Greco-Persian wars.
Herodotus portrays the conflict as one between the forces of slavery (the Persians, whom he calls ‘barbarians’) on the one hand, and freedom (the Athenians and the confederacy of Greek city-states which united against the invaders) on the other. His aim is to preserve the memory of this clash of two worlds and also of the ‘works of man’ that he so admires. In doing so, he is sometimes a strict historian, sometimes almost a poet.

Herodotus, a contemporary of Socrates, was born in Halicarnassus, Caria (modern-day Bodrum, Turkey) and lived in the fifth century BC. Widely referred to, notably by Cicero, as “The Father of History“, he was the first to treat historical subjects as a method of investigation, by collecting his materials systematically and critically.
He travelled widely in the known world, looked at everything with insatiable curiosity, asked questions and wrote down the answers. We must remember this was in a time when an embassy would set out from Athens and, even traveling with all the facilities available to official missions, arrive in Sousa in Persia after three months! Herodotus went as far as Assyria and Babylon, Persia and Egypt. He sailed up the Nile. He went north to Kolchis, describing the snows of the Ukraine. He travelled the whole of Greece, and visited Sicily. His work can be described as a sort of historical and geographical encyclopaedia.

This treasure-trove of anecdotes sometimes seems to waver between history and myth; and yet, Herodotus of Halicarnassus both coined the term, ‘historia,’ and invented the genre. History can therefore be anything that he, the very first historian, pleases. And ‘historia’ – Ιστορία –  to Herodotus, meant ‘enquiry’ or ‘investigation.’ Also, many of the stories which were considered fantastic have, with later discoveries, been proven to be true.

image

 

Histories was, in the Alexandrine period, divided into the nine books that appear in modern editions, named after the nine Muses. I’m currently in the middle of book III, Thalia. I’m reading it in Modern Greek – the excellent Angelos Vlahos translation.
For English speakers, there are many translations, such as the Robin Waterfield one below.

image

 

Histories is a highly entertaining read, with amazing stories of emperors and kings, e.g., the tale of Gyges, a mere bodyguard who, after being forced by King Candaules to peek at his beautiful wife as she is undressing, murders the king, marries his wife and becomes tyrant of Lydia; or wealthy Croesus, King of Lydia, who keeps pestering the Delphic oracle, finally learning that if he attacks Persia, a Great Empire will fall – a riddle that Croesus does not understand until he has been ensconced on his own funeral pyre by Cyrus, King of Persia.
Herodotus also tells of the poet Arion, saved from drowning by a dolphin who carried him safely ashore; he relates that the Egyptians hunted crocodiles, respected their elders, and slept in huts that were on stilts to escape being bitten by mosquitoes which hovered near the ground.

Reading Herodotus is like taking a trip back in time, and discovering an ancient world in the company of an intelligent, observant and amusing guide. Highly recommended.

13 thoughts on “A walk with the Ancients: Herodotus

  1. Excellent article. Thank you.

    I was shocked by the fact (new for me) that Herodotus, my beloved father of history or, for some father of lies, was a contemporary of Socrates (and of Thucydides for that matter) The ethical, religious and political context in which they each write could not be more different, nor could their writings be more diverse.

    Herodotus published his histories in 440, so he must have completed his substantial travels between 460 and 440, a period of ascendancy of his adopted city, Athens. His travels were safe thanks to the entire Aegean being controlled by Athens and the weakness and compliance of the Persian empire, and he had a ready audience among the educated and leisurely Athenians. For him there is hardly any frontiers between mythology and history, moving between the gods and mortals with great ease.

    Thucydides started his writing only 9 years after Herodotus in 431, but kept it up while fighting in the Peloponnesian war until 411. His writing, which starts triumphant in the early books about the moral supremacy of Athens and especially of Pericles, darkens book by book as his city state commits crime after crime, which he records in detail. Gods have no place in this, only the folly of humans.

    As for Socrates, he developed his moral philosophy (which we know second hand through Plato and others) at the worst period of Athenian decline, when Athens lost the war, its empire and its democracy. His search for absolute moral truths and his (or Plato’s ) dabbling at defining the soul and meddling with reincarnation are a reflection of this dark period and a search of an absolute moral standard to bring light.

    Like

    1. I think Thucidides was quite a bit younger, for I seem to remember there being a story that he was very impressed by Herodotus reading his own works to a crowd. As for Herodotus moving between gods and mortals with great ease, to him believing in the gods and their (often suspect) doings must have seemed as natural as a Christian today believing in Jesus. Very interesting period, anyway.

      Like

  2. I love history, and am most grateful to Herodotus for inventing it. 🙂 That is indeed a mighty tome, but I see that it is available in Kindle which would be far less cumbersome to read in bed. I’ve put it on my wish list for when the current reading mountain has dwindled to a mole hill.

    Do we know whose disembodied head that is, on the cover of Waterfield’s book?

    Like

  3. How wonderful that you read Herodotus in the original Greek. I was introduced to Histories by another book, The English Patient, and had to then get a copy of Histories because Oondatje’s book kept referencing it. The version I have is translated by George Rawlinson. What a lovely blog. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not quite the original, the modern version, but the roots are the same. But Greek kids do a lot of Ancient Greek in school – it’s still hard to read in the original, though, because apart from everything else there were different dialects

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I can imagine. In India where I grew up, the roots of several languages are the same which means you can follow the gist of spoken language but not the written version unless you have studied it. Still, Greek history and myth fascinates me and influences my poetry so I’m very happy to know someone who reads those in their close-to-original form 🙂

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s