The Histories by Herodotus (trans. Aubrey De Selincourt)

“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory.”

“No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace—in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons.”

Herodotus combined history, folktales, geography, zoology, astronomy, ethnography, and travel writing into a remarkable work of literature yet to be matched in its uniqueness. There really is nothing else quite like it. Readers expecting a traditional work of history in the modern sense of the word will be sorely disappointed. Herodotus loves digressions. All of this makes for a read that is both extremely entertaining at times, when focusing on the main historical narrative, the literary folktales, and the strange practices of other cultures, and which can be painfully dull at other times, when focusing on zoology and long-winded geography lessons.

Herodotus main narrative takes us through the Persian War, the epic battle between Greece and Persia where the two sides fought in the name of freedom and slavery. However, the Battle at Thermopylae where three hundred Spartans successfully guarded the pass against thousands of Persians, the naval Battle at Salamis that established Athens as a naval power, the burning of Athens and subjugation of Attica, and the Battle at Plataea to end the war, only occupy the last three books of Herodotus. The first six books record the conquests of Asia and history of Persia from Cyrus the Great to Darius. In between we get all sorts of odd stories as well as deeper looks at the cultures that the Persians conquer.

The major conflict of the novel is one that still plagues us in modern times, the battle between the so-called East and so-called West. Herodotus works in the tradition of Homer—as does all Ancient Greek literature—who is the first writer to develop the West versus East conflict. Herodotus opens his work by exploring the origins of this conflict; he blames it on an incident where Phoenician merchants stole Greek women when they put to port. This begins an unjust cycle of vengeance as the Greeks soon return the favor by stealing Europa from the Phoenicians. Of course, not long after the Trojan Paris comes along and steals Helen from Spartan Menelaus, igniting the Trojan War. Persia in the work stands as the embodiment of Asia: decadent, rich, lavish, soft, imperialistic, and ruled by a King. These values stand in stark contrast to the impoverished disunited Greeks made hard by their rugged and infertile environment, but enjoying liberty as free citizens. These are stereotypes that persist today when we think of Iran or another Muslim country or even China in contrast to The United States of America and other “Western” nations. This book reminds us that the conflict between East and West has ancient origins, and much to the chagrin of many Western-naysayers that other nations besides Europe have engaged in vicious imperialism.

However, the portrait is far more complicated. Herodotus isn’t content with mere binary divisions of us versus them, although he paints the various cultures of the Asian world as strange and abnormal in their practices compared to Greece; still, he complicates matters by discussing the Greek states ruled by tyranny, each a kind of Persian Empire writ small. These states tended to be nonfunctional and weak militarily, which is why they were unable to resist Persian occupation while the Greeks from the mainland easily defeat the Persian army. The tyrannies of the Greek world are another reminder that history repeats itself; the tyrants usually come to power because the disgruntled and disenfranchised commoners of the various city-states resented the monopoly of power the aristocracy held. With this in mind, it is worth noting that many dictators in the modern world came to power on the backs of the poor who often saw either Marxism or Fascism as the only options in protecting their interests.

This theme of freedom versus slavery is Herodotus’ most important and most pronounced themes. When Xerxes invades Greece he cannot image freedom inspiring men to fight harder than a tyrant’s whip:

“But let me put my point as reasonably as I can – how is it possible that a thousand men, or ten thousand, or fifty thousand, should stand up to an army as big as mine, especially if they were not under a single master, but all perfectly free to do as they pleased?”

Two Spartans who visit Persia have a discussion with a Persian named Hydarnes who tells them of all the riches and luxuries they would receive if only they submitted to the King. He cannot understand why the Spartans continue to resist Persian rule when it would mean gold, riches and luxury beyond their wildest dreams. The Spartans have a powerful response:

“You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced, so you do not know if it tastes sweet or bitter. If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too.”

Here we see two different viewpoints of the world. Is it better to be rich and a slave or poor and free? Herodotus continually emphasizes the differences in cultures. At times, he admires elements of others cultures, but more often he contrasts them to Greek standards as being abnormal and unnatural, the most obvious case being the different gender roles of other societies. His ethnography covers a wide variety of ancient societies, such as India, Arabia, Egypt, Scythia, Lydia, Syria, Palestine, and even a few mentions of the Celts. It is surprising to learn that the Ancient Greeks knew about cultures as far flung as India, and it is also surprising that China is absent from the work, not even as a rumor. Among these major cultural regions existed hundreds of little tribes and societies; the first element that stands out in this work is the wide dispersion of tribes and factions, a hodgepodge of unfamiliar names, which have long since died and disappeared from this earth. In our modern world where too often people get criticized for the faintest hint of nationalism or cultural pride, Herodotus is an important reminder of how fragile cultures, societies, and unique ways of life can be and why we need to fight for them; all too easily your society, your beliefs, your dreams can be erased from history as nothing more than a footnote.

One needs to be careful in accepting all of Herodotus’ historical claims and facts about these cultures. At times his history matches up well with records from these societies. For example, after the Persian King Cambyses falls to the Massagetae (see, ever hear of them?), the Magi, a priest-class in Persia, revolt against Persian rule. Seven Persian conspirators ally to form a counter-rebellion that brings Darius to the throne. According the Persian sources in the form of the Behistun Inscription, this rebellion actually took place and Herodotus gets 6 of the 7 conspirators’ names correct. Most of our knowledge about Scythia relies heavily on Herodotus since they left no written records. He tells us the Scythians buried their kings with their servants and horses, drank the blood of their enemies, included women as warriors, and were a nomadic culture. For awhile scholars assumed Herodotus was embellishing for effect and didn’t take these statements to be historically accurate. However, later archaeological evidence confirms that kings were buried with their servants in Scythia and women did serve as warriors. When discussing the origins of the Scythians Herodotus recounts a story about Heracles mating with a snake-woman in the region. Archaeology has uncovered pictures of a snake-woman as serving a prominent function in Scythian society; historians assume it was some sort of goddess, but without written records it is hard to tell.

Still, Herodotus also gets plenty wrong. Much of his commentary on Ancient Egyptian religion does not match up with what hieroglyphic records tell us about their practices and beliefs. His history of Egypt is practically useless for Egyptologists when compared to other sources at their disposal. The general consensus among scholars is that he viewed and interpreted the Egyptians through a Greek lens, admiring their Ancientness and wanting to appropriate their culture to give Greeks a more ancient origin. This was a common practice in the ancient world; for example, Virgil appropriates the Ancient Trojans to give the newer Roman Empire that had conquered the older Greece, a more ancient origin. There is even debate whether Herodotus ever visited Egypt or not, with scholars falling on both sides of the equation.

As I already mentioned, history is not the only type of narrative that fills these pages. More interesting than the historical parts of the narrative is the plethora of folktales spread across the books. Herodotus tells us about Candaules, the king of Lydia, who invites his servant Gyges to spy on his wife while she is changing because he fears his servant doesn’t believe him about his wife’s immense beauty. The wife discovers Gyges spying on her and realizes her husband’s betrayal. She offers Gyges an ultimatum to kill the king and become her husband or he must die for his impropriety. Gyges chooses the latter and becomes the new king. However, an oracle warns that five generations later the king’s descendants will have their revenge. Five generations later King Croesus of Lydia, an actual historical figure, starts a war with Persia and is deposed. The folktales tie into the larger historical narratives. Similarly many of these folktales involve taboo subjects like cannibalism, incest, and even necrophilia.

Names from famous myths appear in Herodotus, but he transforms them into historical figures. Despite stripping the supernatural away from history, the work makes clear that he still believes in oracles, the gods, and fate. In fact, a major theme of the work is you cannot avoid fate. Constantly Kings and leaders attempt to change fate or misread oracles, omens, and dreams in their own favor. The most famous example is when Croesus wanting to know if he should attack the Persian Empire receives the response that if he attacks he would destroy a great empire. Of course he fails to note the ambiguity of the prophecy, and the empire turns out to be his own.

Kings fall because of their hubris, their false belief that they can transgress nature and possess invincibility. They believe they can change fate and their good fortunes will never alter. Herodotus tells of Solon meeting with Croesus, an encounter which probably never happened historically. Solon warns him against the mutability of human fortune, a theme that plays throughout Greek literature. The gods grow jealous of too much human success. Croesus soon learns this the hard way when his son is killed by a freak accident, and Persia conquers his lands and subjects him to slavery. King after king succumbs to their own hubris, even Xerxes the Persian king who loses to Greece.

The strength of Herodotus’ work is that even with its focus on ancient conflicts so many of the issues it raises feels extremely modern. We find ancient propaganda, imperialism, ethnic cleansing, tyranny, democracy, and the usual foibles of human behavior, Even as many of the elements that Herodotus records might revolt the moral sensibilities of some people, it is worth admitting the cold hard truth that we are still dealing with almost all of these problems in our modern world. So although the narrative might be about the Ancient world, cannot be entirely trusted as accurate history, in so many ways this work still speaks to our modern world and the difficulties we face today, which is why I think more people ought to spend the time reading it.

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3 thoughts on “The Histories by Herodotus (trans. Aubrey De Selincourt)

  1. Great review! I am trying my hardest to get to this one but life has sadly intervened for the moment.

    I found Aeschylus in his The Persians is curiously lacking the “us vs. them” mentality as well. Those Greeks appear very open-minded, or at least some of them. 🙂

    I can never understand why people don’t like digressions in classics and for that reason I’m certain that I’ll love this book. Now if only I can get started ….. :-Z

    • I’m very hit or miss with digressions. Sometimes I like digressions in books and sometimes I can’t stand them. I suppose it depends on how much I like the “main” story. I hope all is well in your real life.

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