Herodotus’ Histories

Yesterday: The Odyssey   Tomorrow: “The Persians”      Twitter: @GreatBooksDude

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The classic histories are fascinating; there are dozens of them, and while I’ll eventually get to Thucydides, Xenophon, Livy, Sallust, Caesar, Plutarch, Tacitus, Ammianus Marcellinus, Eusebius, Bede, Gibbon, Macaulay, Churchill, Trotsky, and the rest of the crew, I have to put first things first and start with Herodotus, whose lengthy account of conflict between East and West is the first full extant work of history (and the first full extant book written in prose).  As I said with The Odyssey, filmmakers have made bank off of this book; while I can ask almost everyone in Los Angeles if they liked the movie 300 and get an answer in the affirmative–and while Dwight Howard can make a goofy speech out of Leonidas’ exhortation of Spartan valor–neither he nor they have any clue where this movie’s story comes from.  Of course it comes from The Histories. (Note that I am beginning to jump around in time.  I do not see the classics as needing to be read chronologically, so I will go from piece to piece as I feel one leads to the another.  The initial plan was to go chronologically, but I’ve rethought that.  My blog, my rules!  Hahahaha)

On a deeper level, this book lies at the core of at least one vision of international relations, notably that presented by Samuel P. Huntington in his marvelous work, The Clash of Civilizations.  It is doubtful whether one can fully comprehend the depth to which Huntington goes in his treatise without having understood the full implications of Herodotus’ Histories, and so here again we come across the possibility that those who conduct, analyze, and research foreign policy operate without the requisite tools to do so, not knowing even that these tools exist, let alone that they are essential.  Given that Huntington makes substantial factual errors–claiming, for instance, that one mark that separates the West from the East is an age-old separation of church and state, forgetting that this separation only goes back a little over 300 years at most and only in England, and that East-West conflict predates it by several thousand years–it is dubious that this book is not required reading in every class in which Huntington is taught.  In this book Herodotus uses age-old East-West conflict as a lens through which to view the recent Persian invasions of Greece, climaxing with the Persian Emperor Xerxes’ failed invasion in 480-479 BC. But it is not.

Now on to the three major symbolic passages of the book: 1) Herodotus begins with an account of previous East-West conflicts, many among the revered myths of the Athenians and most revolving around the theft and dishonor of women.  Then he gives an account of the Lydian Empire and its dynasty from the usurper Gyges (who, as Herodotus relates, was asked by his king to see his queen naked and admire her beauty, then forced by the queen upon pain of death to kill the king and take the booty) to the last Lydian monarch, Croesus.  Here he gives a legendary account of the visit of the great Athenian lawgiver Solon to Media and his argument with Croesus over the nature of good fortune and happiness; Solon believes happiness lies in possessing good fortune from birth to death, whereas Croesus believes it comes from having hoards of wealth.  He explores conflict between the Lydians and the neighboring Median Empire until its resolution into an alliance by marriage.  He proceeds to give an account of the rise of Cyrus (grandson of the Median king Astyages), the Median monarch’s attempts to suppress Cyrus on account of a dream he had about his grandson overshadowing him, and the war between Cyrus and Astyages.  Book I concludes with Cyrus’ conquest of the Lydian Empire, thus giving him control of the entirety of the Near East.  Croesus laments his fortune and recognizes the truth of Solon’s statements, then joins the entourage of Cyrus as something of a wise man.

This passage is symbolic of the variable nature of fortune, the first systematic evaluation of it in the West, and has led to four conflicting lines of thought about how to deal with it.  The first of these is that taken by the Stoics, the great philosophical movement of later Greece and middle Rome.  The Stoics believed that while you could not control fortune itself, you can control the mind’s perceptions of it and reactions to it, so that you can in essence nullify the goods and bads that happen to you and convert them all to goods.  This is almost passive-aggressive,  The second of these was Boethius, whose philosophy became the backdrop for all intellectualism during the Middle Ages.  Boethius believed that you should just ride it out and accept the ups and downs on the “wheel of fortune”; his philosophy is in essence passive.  The third line of thought was that of Machiavelli, who said in one of his controversial passages that “Fortune is like a woman, you must beat/rape her to keep her in line.”  This is the extremely active approach.  And the fourth of these is that of Montaigne, the great skeptic, who just takes the stance that we all die whether we have good or bad fortune, so who gives a shit?

The second major passage is that surrounding the revolt of the Persian nobles against the usurping Magi.  It happened thus: after Cyrus passed in battle, the empire was transmitted to his son Cambyses.  According to Herodotus, Cambyses murdered his brother Smerdis while he was in Egypt.  But there was in Persia two Magi, brothers, one of whom looked like Smerdis and carried the same name.  They conceived a plot wherein that one would claim that Cambyses really hadn’t killed Smerdis after all, and he would impersonate Smerdis and be master of the Persian Empire.  When Cambyses died they put this plan into execution.  But one of the nobles, knowing that this Magus had had an ear cut off for a previous crime, sent his daughter, in the harem, to feel out whether the king had both of his ears, a dangerous task but an informative one if effectively done.  She found that he had but one ear, and word got back to the nobles, and seven of them formed a conspiracy which succeeded.  At this point they needed to figure out what kind of government to establish, so three of them put forth proposals: one for democracy, one for aristocracy, and one for monarchy.  Ultimately monarchy was selected, and Darius became the next Persian Emperor.

Now the discussion itself, needless to say, is extremely unlikely ever to have happened.  But the passage, by forcing out the pros and cons of each form of government, allows Herodotus to philosophize on the nature of government and which is the best.  Or does it?  In fact I do not believe that this necessarily is the case; in the hands of the Persians, whom Herodotus is showing to be a civilization not only distinct to that of the Greeks but in opposition to it, this discussion may be perverted.  Ultimately the discussion is had time and time again through the ages.  Plato brings it up in his Republic.  Aristotle does it in his Politics.  Livy does it in the History of Rome.  In various forms the cons of some are discussed; Thucydides makes democracy look like a joke in History of the Peloponnesian War, Machiavelli argues for a mixture in Discourses on Livy, Milton argues for a perpetual senate (aristocracy), Rousseau argues for mob rule (democracy).  It is one of the most fundamental of all discussions and a whole genre of political theory argues it, and Herodotus beat all of them to it.

The third passage that is worth note is that of the Spartans holding the pass at Thermopylae.  Enough has been said about this elsewhere; it is easily one of the ten greatest war stories of all time, and it can be seen in a sensationalized visual form (as stated previously) in 300. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/300_(film) for more details).  When I do a blog on the greatest war stories ever, it is sure to be on there.

Herodotus is called both the Father of History and the Father of Lies.  But what “lies” he told may not have been all intentional.  For one thing, it is clear that he followed the Egyptian history of Manetho quite closely; and thus what errors Manetho makes, Herodotus follows.  (Kids, don’t cheat, you’ll not only have your friends’ right answers there, you’ll have their wrong answers there too!)  It is also relevant that of the historians who cover the Persian Empire, Herodotus’ information is the closest to accurate.  And while there are certainly untruths, they serve a purpose, anyways.

At the end of it all, whatever your feel about the accuracy of the book, Herodotus’ achievement is absurd.  Without an effective means of taking notes, he reduces history in various parts of Greece, Asia Minor, Persia, Egypt, and Russia to nine books, organized into three sets of three books, and–despite many inaccuracies–makes relevant and timeless points.  Exploring themes of freedom and slavery, courage and weakness, wealth, power, and success, and a battle against the odds, this is a must-read.

For more information, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Histories_(Herodotus)


7 thoughts on “Herodotus’ Histories

  1. Pingback: From Daggers to Archers to Cannon | greatbooksdude

  2. Regarding fortune, fortune is fickle, this upwardly mobile forever propoganda is directly undercut by Herodotus’s tales; as well as knowledge of government instituted crime back then, ie getting a cut from privateer-pirates, taxing or appropiating rival factions to cover budget shortfalls. When a constitution concentrates power in a few, those few, judges, per county can be vulnerable to any criminal network of hundreds.

    • I think this is only partially true. Government-instituted crime is part of human nature, and is as much of a problem at present as it was then. Power is prone to abuse. But dispersing power makes the problem worse, not better. More people with more power run the risk of more people who are not qualified or not prepared to exercise that power properly.

      No comment about judges, I know many, personally and fairly intimately. I disagree.

      • Herodotus is like a hippy traveler, seeing the foreign counties; he is more like jack keroac than a stuffy pompous historian. There is a journal-like ism to his work. He writes of the colorful

        My theory about constitutional flaw, may be taken theoretically, as an equation, to disprove, or agree makes sense.

        Thanks for being upfront. I only can speak for their behavior towards me so far

  3. Herodotus is like a hippy traveler, seeing the foreign counties; he is more like jack keroac than a stuffy pompous historian. There is a journal-like ism to his work. He writes of the colorful

  4. Jacob burkhardt writes a lot of crime concurrent through athens, through corrupt litigation, political factionalism, and overzealous economic laws; Polybius also details, crime as a way of life and cultural force in classical greece

    • Yes, this is true. But I suppose that’s not a terrible lot different from government in the US in the 1920s. Corrupt litigation is still a huge problem, as are overzealous economic laws. Thucydides describes similar things. Athens was out of control, and democracy is a dangerous, dangerous thing.

      I find Burkhardt to be a weak source, personally.

      Definitely you should read the political theory with me. You’d love it. Not just stuff from classical antiquity, but all the way from Plato to Lenin. Tons and tons and tons of material.

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