The Histories

With my bachelor in History I’ve desired for a long time to read the work of Herodotus, who is often called the father of History. He wasn’t covered in detail during my bachelor’s program, but he is described as the first who used a critical investigative method to write history rather than destiny or the will of the gods. His work covers the expansion of the Persian Achaemenid Empire and how it was halted by the Greeks. During my holiday I finally got around to finish reading it (and the extensive footnotes with scientific commentary on his work).

As you read The Histories, you often see passages where Herodotus analyzes different accounts of specific events. If he reports stories which he considers dubious, he argues why these are unlikely to be true or should be be dismissed. If he can’t decide which version is true, he leaves the judgment to the reader.

The Achaemenid Empire and the Greeks are the red thread in the work, but Herodotus often deviates from this red thread. Often because he provides long geographical, ethnographical, historical and zoological descriptions on the regions which make up or are invaded by the Achaemenid Empire. Some of these are rather long-winded and boring.

At several points it becomes clear that Herodotus hasn’t traveled to all those regions himself, such as when he describes the hippopotamus in Egypt. You’ll understand why people call him unreliable as he reports on the bizarre cultural practices of some exotic tribes, Arabian flying snakes and Scythian werewolves. While some of his stories are fantastical, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss all of it. The giant Indian gold-digging ants have actually been identified with marmots, for example.

Herodotus doesn’t just write history, he writes to entertain his audience with a good story as well. This is obvious in his impossibly detailed descriptions of dialogues. Sometimes this entertainment seems to be detrimental to historical accuracy. For example when an ophthalmologist sent by the Egyptian pharaoh to the Persian king is (indirectly) the cause for the Persian invasion of Egypt. Herodotus doesn’t mention anything about the strategic reasons for the invasion. It’s like believing the abduction of Helen was the real or sole reason for the Trojan War. Even so, there is always a core of truth in his work.

In the second half of The Histories the pace is picked up as it focuses more on the war between the Persians and the Greeks. The Persian king Darius and his successor Xerxes have many ambitious and manipulative subordinates who work more to further their own goals instead of what benefits the empire. They do have a fair share of good advisers to which they listen. To the amusement of the reader the kings more often follow the bad advice of their underlings who seek career advancement!

The amusement of Persian bad judgment is varied with Greek fortitude. You become inspired when the Greeks settle their internal conflicts and form a unified front against the Persian threat. You are deeply impressed by the Greek self-sacrifice in their last stand at Thermopylae. You feel glorious when the Greeks win a heroic victory at Salamis in spite of the low odds, as if your favorite just won sports a championship. You rejoice as the Persians are punished for their overconfidence! Like the ancient Greek audience of Herodotus, you will love the hubris and the inevitable punishment it calls for. If you’re from Iran though you’d probably say the Athenians started it when they pillaged Sardis.

The irony of history is that eventually Athens itself would fall victim to hubris, when it started to oppress the other Greek cities through its foundation of the Delian League. Athens got its just deserts with the disaster of its Sicilian Expedition and its defeat in the Peloponnesian War.

Herodotus may be the father of history, but he is also rooted in his own time and culture. He obviously believes that humans have agency and can steer history without divine intervention. But that does not mean the gods play no part. In The Histories divine vengeance or tisis for the sacrilegious acts of some Persians (and occasionally Greeks) is a common theme. An example are the storms which batter the Persian fleet.

Speaking of Greek religion, Herodotus reports extensively on revelations and predictions of the future given by oracles. Like his contemporaries, he believes in the ability of oracles. His report that an oracle was bribed by the Spartan king Cleomenes for a favorable prediction doesn’t damage that belief. However, as modern readers we know that predicting the future isn’t possible and all oracular predictions must have been made up after the predicted events happened. Herodotus isn’t alone in this, as many Greek and Roman historians have used the same literary device. But how did they reconcile their genuine belief in oracles with this reality of ex eventu oracular predictions? Google Scholar doesn’t provide me answers.

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