On Herodotus' Histories

Herodotus The Historian


Herodotus' main sources were 'what he has been told' and 'what he has seen'. This was probably the best he could do and it must have been hard to ascertain facts about a war that had acquired mythical dimensions in his own lifetime, and few of whose participants were still alive for comment. He had few, if any, written documents to rely on—he queried priests, leading citizens, interpreters, eyewitnesses, 'men with traditions'—often fragmentary and unreliable. He also did land surveys and inspected battle sites.

Unlike Thucydides, Herodotus focused primarily on the non-Greek world. We know little about his private life and in Histories he offers practically no biographical information. On his travels, he covered a large part of the Persian Empire: he went to Egypt, at least as far south as Aswan, and he also visited Libya, Syria, Babylonia, Susa in Elam, Lydia, and Phrygia. He journeyed up the Hellespont to Byzantium, went to Thrace and Macedonia, and traveled northward to beyond the Danube and to Scythia eastward along the northern shores of the Black Sea as far as the Don River and some way inland. These travels would have taken many years (some estimate twelve) and contributed to the almost encyclopedic scope of the Histories, and its aura of comparative anthropology.

Ashurbanipal, last of the great kings of Assyria (reigned 668 to 627 BC), who assembled in Nineveh the first systematically organized library in the ancient Middle East, including a complete version of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Artists's recreation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, constructed c. 8th-6th century BC.

About his method he says, 'For myself, my duty is to report all that is said; but I am not obliged to believe it all alike—a remark which may be understood to apply to my whole History.' For conflicting accounts, he often records more than one, sometimes adding, 'so have I heard but I cannot be certain,' or if the account seems incredulous, 'my own opinion in the matter is .' Even when he records much that makes his work drift away from history, he still provides us valuable insights—as long as he believes in the truth of the stories he relates, and there's little doubt he was sincere and honest. In his own lifetime, his enthusiastic openness and tolerance for other cultures won him a derisive label—Barbarophile—reinforced centuries later by another famous Greek: Plutarch.

Herodotus neither questioned the mythical origins of the Greeks nor dwelled upon them much. During his travels, he merely tried to reconcile the regional discrepancies and contradictions in a few famous myths. For the distant past, he therefore rationalized the mythical lore—surely not a history in our sense—but for his own times he conducted a wholly rational investigation, surely a history. His religious inclinations are best indicated by the ambivalence of the passage below—while distrustful of active divine causation for everyday events, he nevertheless was a pious man and believed that divine retribution could strike those who soared too high, were arrogant, or committed egregious moral acts.

Tutankhamen's tomb (lower left) in the Valley of the Kings, western Thebes, Egypt.
Battle between Greeks and Amazons, section of Marble frieze from the Mausoleum of Helicarnassus.

'I cannot say that there is no truth in oracles, or feel inclined to call into question those which speak with clearness, when I think of the following . [an example of a prophesy]. When I look at this, and perceive how clearly Bacis [the oracle] spoke, I neither venture myself to say anything against prophesies, nor do I approve of others impugning them.'

Only in Athens could Herodotus have found the right climate and support for his enterprise. Pericles was the son of Xanthippus, the general who defeated the Persians at Mycale. Herodotus realized the momentous significance of the Persian wars and seized his opportunity. Subconsciously adopting and echoing the Athenian mindset, he glorifies their contribution, perhaps more so being an immigrant—we know that he gave public readings from Histories. This may be an inescapable side-effect of identity but one that must accompany any reading of his work—in response to his admiration of the Athenian present came the urge to glorify its past. It's unfortunate that we have no other non-Athenian account of the war. In fact, resentment from other city-states, which felt under-recognized or vexed by the lavish glory he heaped upon Athens at the expense of Sparta, led him to be branded father of lies. It is a history eminently suitable for the purposes of an empire.

He contrasts the Greek and the Persian character with this story: During Xerxes' early days in Greece when the Olympics were on, certain Greek deserters were brought before him and Mardonius. They were asked, 'And what is the prize for which they contend?' The reply: 'An olive wreath, sire, given to the man who wins.' Hearing this, Herodotus writes, a senior aide of Xerxes 'uttered a speech which was in truth most noble [if not of the best timing]—Good heavens! Mardonius, what manner of men are these against whom you have brought us to fight—men who contend with one another, not for money, but for honor!'

Paved roads were in use in the ancient Near East around 1200 BC.

Herodotus' Persians are the royalty and the aristocrats. His account projects a one-sided image of fawning courtiers, concentrated riches, minimal social mobility, and the most enlightened deeds coexisting with whimsical cruelty on the part of despots. This wasn't unusual in the extended Greek world either—there were storybook despots in Greek settlements, as in Sicily. He undervalues a host of Persian achievements and their common humanity with the Athenians. However, writing for the Athenians to whom his emotional loyalty is axiomatic, Herodotus' gaze is on the 'barbarians' and while he carefully avoids passing judgment on cultural peculiarities that have few obvious moral disadvantages, in his choice and selection of material he could well qualify as the first Orientalist.

According to the modern classicist, Sir Moses Finley, 'His great discovery was that one could uncover moral problems and moral truths in history, in the concrete data of experience, in a discourse that was neither freely imaginative like that of the poets nor abstract like that of the philosophers. That is what history meant to Herodotus; nothing could be more wrong headed than the persistent and seemingly indestructible leg-end of Herodotus the charmingly na´ve storyteller.'

Hammurabi, limestone relief; British Museum

Indeed a modern critique of Herodotus is that we often don't know whether to trust him. He retains a penchant for spicy, humorous, near-Homeric digressions, which, endearing and romantic as they often are, are hard to verify. They do, however, reveal his significant curiosity, tolerance, and compassion. Perhaps those were his chief guiding principles, with little consciousness of the historical process as we articulate it today. On his solitary travels, he surely pondered the character of many cities and peoples, and must have felt intense moments of wonder and solitude. We may never know, given his rising awareness of cause and effect, whether he ended up with a sinking feeling on the prospects of humanity, or, if he felt drawn to action alongside observation. He died a recluse, some believe in Italy. At one point in his narrative he soberly observes,

This, however, I know—that if every nation were to bring all its evil deeds to a given place in order to make an exchange with some other nation, when they had all looked carefully at their neighbors' faults, they would truly be glad to carry their own back again. 

What too is less important is whether he got his facts right—he very often didn't, and his work is laden with errors and fantasies—but facts alone do not make good history. His genius lies in the scope and manner of his unprecedented investigation and the relative importance he assigns to events and their causes—narrated rationally in human terms. His earnest and constant desire to understand 'the other' is what we postmoderns can continue to learn from Herodotus. 

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