Friday, January 6, 2012

The Histories of Herodotus

With The Histories, Herodotus (ca. 484 – 425 B.C.) would eventually earn the title “The Father of History, but also “The Father of Lies,” thanks to investigative methods that were sometimes less than rigorous. He broke ground by travelling extensively around the Mediterranean, the Aegean and beyond to collect oral histories, facts and legends that make up The Histories.


Herodotus states that his purpose is to preserve “from decay the remembrance of what men have done” and to prevent “the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory.” Parts of the early chapters of his book are based on travels he made to places such as Egypt, while the greater part of the book concerns the Persian Wars, which started in 499 B.C. and lasted until 449 B.C.


Perhaps the most challenging aspect of reading Herodotus is to make sense of the many unfamiliar people and places that he mentions. The reader would do well to avoid getting bogged down in the details and just follow the advice of Clifton Fadiman: to “read for the stories, the digressions, the character descriptions, the fantastic oddments of information about the manners and customs of dozens of ancient peoples.”

Candaules Shews His Wife to Gyges, 1820, by William Etty (1787 - 1849)

One of the first stories is about Candaules, king of Lydia, and his bodyguard, Gygas. The king is inordinately boastful of his wife’s beauty and forces the reluctant bodyguard to hide in the royal boudoir to get a good look at the queen, naked. The queen recognizes Candaules’ trick, but she does not confront him at the time. Later, though, she calls for Gyges and presents an ultimatum: to make amends for the disgrace she has suffered. Gygas can either commit suicide or murder the king and claim the queen and the throne for his own. Gygas choses the latter. The deceased king has earned a place in psychology, though. Candaulism is a sexual practice (some might say “disorder”) in which a man exposes his female partner, or images of her, to other people for their voyeuristic pleasure. Reportedly, the FBI agent turned spy for the Soviets, Robert Hanssen, engaged in candaulism, sharing explicit photos of his wife without her knowledge.

Herodotus tells another memorable story. The poet Arion has just won a prestigious music competition in Sicily and is sailing back home across the Mediterranean. His shipmates conspire to steal his winnings from the contest, and insist that he can either commit suicide, in which case his body will be given a proper burial upon landing, or he will be thrown overboard. Arion asks for permission to sing one last song. During his song of praise to Apollo, dolphins gathered around the ship, and when Arion jumped into the water, one of the dolphins carried him to safety at the sanctuary of Poseidon.

Arion on a Sea Horse, 1855, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 - 1905)

One especially fascinating section of The Histories is based on a trip that Herodotus makes to Egypt, where he examines the pyramids and offers detailed explanations of why and how the manmade wonders were constructed.

Most of the book, though, explains the progress of the Persian Wars.

Conflict had been brewing between the Persians and the Greeks for at least a half century before the outbreak of what we call the Persian Wars. Cyrus the Great had conquered Ionia (in Asia Minor) in 547 B.C., and Persian tyrants had exerted control from that time, until larger parts of Hellenic Asia Minor rebelled against the Persians starting around 499 B.C.

In 493 B.C., the Persian king Darius the Great launched an assault on Greece as retribution for the burning of Sardis, the Persian regional capital in Asia Minor. Later, Xerxes, the son of Darius escalated the conflict to a much higher level, assembling an enormous force to march from Persia, through Asia Minor, across the Hellespont and on to the cities of Greece.

Herodotus estimates that Xerxes sent two-and-a-half million fighters and that many more support personnel. Despite outnumbering the Greeks and scoring many victories, the Persians couldn’t match the fighting spirit of their opponents, nor their skills in naval warfare, and were eventually forced into retreat.

As far as we know, the approach taken by Herodotus in reporting events was unprecedented. He tried to present the story from various perspectives, comparing and contrasting the many accounts he had heard. His narrative of the war features a great deal of "invented dialogue" not unlike a technique employed by many history writers today. Whatever liberties he took with the facts, Herodotus did set a standard for investigating and explaining the history and culture of the world.

Long stretches of the book are a hard slog but, overall, Herodotus emerges as someone I would like to meet, a man whose curiosity and point-of-view provides a book still worth reading after 2500 years.

Herodotus, The Histories, in The Portable Greek Historians, edited by M. I. Finley.

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