Herodotus the great Greek historian was born about 484 BCE, at Halicarnassus in Caria, Asia Minor, when it was subject to the Persians. He travelled widely in most of Asia Minor, Egypt (as far as Assuan), North Africa, Syria, the country north of the Black Sea, and many parts of the Aegean Sea and the mainland of Greece. He lived, it seems, for some time in Athens, and in 443 went with other colonists to the new city Thurii (in South Italy), where he died about 430. He was 'the prose correlative of the bard, a narrator of the deeds of real men, and a describer of foreign places' (Murray). Herodotus's famous history of warfare between the Greeks and the Persians has an epic dignity which enhances his delightful style. It includes the rise of the Persian power and an account of the Persian empire; a description and history of Egypt; and a long digression on the geography and customs of Scythia. Even in the later books on the attacks of the Persians against Greece there are digressions. All is most entertaining and produces a grand unity. After personal inquiry and study of hearsay and other evidence, Herodotus gives us a not uncritical estimate of the best that he could find. The Loeb Classical Library edition of Herodotus is in four volumes.
And that’s not all that Herodotus gives us. When he leaves his central story behind, which is often, he becomes the father of geography, ethnography, anthropology and much more besides. And he does it with such joyful savoir faire, all of it, the true and the false and the how could you possibly say. Without him we wouldn’t have the Scythian corpse sculptures, or the great birds from whose nests the Arabs pluck cinnamon bark, which comes from parts unknown. We wouldn’t have the Androphagi, or the man who had his son served up to him at banquet, or the people who eat their compeers when they reach the ripe old age, and in general we would have no idea how totally absurdly rife with cannibalism the non-Greek world is, which would be to our disadvantage. (We also wouldn’t have a hundred instances of horrible and unnecessary death inflicted by humans on their fellows to remind us just how awful these ancients could turn at the drop of an oracular censer.) And that is just as important as the story of the seven conspirators and the rise of Darius, or of the relationship that sprung up between Cyrus and Croesus the king of Libya, the crotchety guardian angel for all his captor’s endeavours. Or the Spartans throwing the envoys in the well, or "come and get them!" or “if their arrows block out the sun, then at least we’ll be fighting in the shade!” (We certainly wouldn’t have the movie 300, is what I’m saying.) It’s a different kind of wonder that the epideictic sort of above: it’s what the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows called:
"la cuna, n. a twinge of sadness that there’s no frontier left, that as the last explorer trudged with his armies toward a blank spot on the map, he didn’t suddenly remember his daughter’s upcoming piano recital and turn for home, leaving a new continent unexplored so we could set its mists and mountains aside as a strategic reserve of mystery, if only to answer more of our children’s questions with "Nobody knows! Out there, anything is possible.'"
And so the wonder of the unexplored-becoming-explored contends with sadness; and the wonder of great deeds too contends with the sorrow of a life that always threatens to turn brutsih and short, where wonder is temporary and suffering is infinite. There is that stunning, gut-wrenching conversation between Xerxes andhis uncle Artabanus as they sit by the Hellespont watching the construction of the pontoon bridge, ready to invade Europe and inflict unthinkable horror on millions.
And Xerxes looks over his war mans in rows like waves and starts to cry. And he explains:
"I was overcome with pathos, sadness at the thought that even among all these thousands of men I behold, in one hundred years, not one will be alive."
And his wise uncle Artabanus, the only one to advise against the invasion (until some prophetic dreams scared him into error) and a model for uncles everywhere, replies:
"In one’s life we have deeper sorrows to bear than that. Short as our lives are, there is no human being either here or elsewhere so fortunate that it will not occur to him, often and not just once, to wish himself dead rather than alive. For misfortunes fall upon us and sicknesses trouble us, so that they make this life, for all its shortness, seem long."
It is to weep, non? But at least--Zeus be praised--there are those moments of Wonder; and Herodotus is their Father.
"Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks."
Herodotus does not shy away from opinions about the events that he narrates; one of these opinions is related early in Book One:
"I know that human happiness never remains long in the same place."
This becomes more and more evident as one reads on through this excellent work. Reading it was an adventure into the history of the known world in that time.
"And there are these flying snakes, right?"
Right, Herodotus, right.
The book is absolutely chock-full of interesting events, culture, and perspectives that are either long gone ("Until their fifth year they are not allowed to come into the sight of their father, but pass their lives with the women. This is done that, if the child die young, the father may not be inflicted by its loss"), or just as true today, 2000+ years later ("No one is so foolish as to prefer war to peace, in which, instead of sons burying their fathers, fathers bury their sons.") It's hard to do the book justice in a review; as I flip through it there is just way too much to extract. The section on Egypt with accounts of the building of the pyramids and mummification was wonderful, as were the classic stories of the Persian invasions into Greece. By the way, forget the awful movie "300" which tells of Thermopylae, read Herodotus!
Many have drawn attention to the fact that in some cases the "History" provided is almost certainly not factual and plays between reality and lore. Herodotus is often criticized for this but I found the book all the more interesting as a result. To those who would harp on this point, I would recall Mark Twain's comment about history and question how much else of what we read as "history" is a truly objective recounting of events. :-) I am also reminded of a coincidence that occurred as I read Herodotus for the first time: I came across an article in Time Magazine that explained the discovery of the giant gold-digging "ants" he described in modern-day Pakistan, which turned out to be marmots, and indeed burrowed in gold-bearing soil.
The translation by Rawlinson is superb, as are the footnotes provided with the text. I highly recommend this particular version of the "The Histories".
One quote for the road; Xerxes while watching his massive army on the move: "'There came upon me', replied he, ' a sudden pity, when I thought of the shortness of man's life, and considered that of all this host, so numerous as it is, not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by.'"
I've read a few war epics, Homer's Iliad, Hugo's Les Misérables and Tolstoy's War and Peace, The Histories excels them all in terms of scope, structure, richness of content, intricacy and theatrical grandeur. The main theme / storyline is the Persian Wars, i.e., the conflicts between the Persian Empire and Greek nations, culminating in the invasion of Greece by Xerces I; the underlying theme is the struggle between tyranny and freedom, between the inexorability of fate and the triumph of the human spirit.
Like threads in a beautiful Persian tapestry, Herodotus weaves together numerous elements in his narratives, the histories and geographies of the many nations in Asia and Europe, the customs, cultures and achievements of the peoples, the remarkable characters and lives of individuals, and the oracles foreshadowing their fates, from kings to slaves, heroes and thieves, men, women and children, their words and deeds all distinct and memorable.
Some accused Herodotus of making up fanciful stories rather than recording the facts. I'm reminded of Thomas Mann's comment on War and Peace, "Seldom did art work so much like nature; its immediate, natural power is only another manifestation of nature itself; " If the best art is but a manifestation or imitation of nature, why make up stories when the facts themselves are much more wondrous and glorious?
You live many lives when you read this book. A masterpiece.
Although most would agree that Herodotus had a problem with facts, it is important to look at it contextually. Herodotus was one of the revolutionaries in history - he set out to make an honest book, comparing different versions of history and ethnography and explaining why he believed a version was true.
Worth reading but remember - categorize it in your mind as you read!
The only reason I read this version is that when I mentioned to my brother once that I had never really read any of the Greek historians, he said I had to read this one and then loaned me his copy. It took me a couple of years, but I finally got around to it. And I found that what he told me is true. The Histories is extremely readable and interesting. Herodotus spent a lot of time giving a background of the conflict, and mixes the historical with what we would call the mystical or fantastic. A lot of time is spent describing the cultures of the Egyptians, the Persians, and the various Greek city-states. If I forgot the significance of a name, I could just look him (rarely a her) in the index, where a short description could be found. If I became confused about where the Thracians were from, I could look at several helpful maps in the back.
There were several times that I became overwhelmed by the details (I guess I didn’t appreciate knowing what colors and costumes each people wore during battles). I also had difficulty following from one battle to another, but I’m not sure if that was the fault of the text.
I therefore recommend this for the casual, armchair historian who just wants to learn more about the ancient Greeks while reading a good story. I suspect the book would also work for the more serious scholar who wants to study the text.
This was our final assignment in my Greek class. So I read passages in Greek, translating them in Dutch. Some of the stories of the Histories are very famous, but I'd never realised they came from Herodotus.
Herodotus probably died about 429 BCE. He was a believer in setting out the evidence for a disputed point in the text, and sometimes left the reader little doubt as to which version of the facts he preferred. His account demonstrates an early stage in the development of historical methodology, and we are certainly much in his debt for his methods. I think he was the "Father of history" for his courage in placing alternatives before his readers.