It is easy to see why Herodotus’ Histories may seem overwhelming. Too much is going on, right from the start. We have only just embarked on the Histories’ central theme – the origins of the conflict between Greeks and barbarians in the fifth century BCE – when the narrative suddenly changes tack and we find ourselves in a boudoir tale of nudity, intrigue and murder, only to veer off again when a dolphin saves the singer Arion from drowning. A wild ride!
Herodotus, a Greek from the city of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (today’s Bodrum in Turkey), published his Histories sometime between 426 and 415 BCE. His principal aim was to explain the unlikely Greek victory against the much stronger Persian army in the so-called Persian Wars that ravaged the Greek world between 500 and 449 BCE.
Statue of Herodotus
For his pioneering critical enquiry into the past he was named “father of history” by Cicero. His love of stories and storytelling, however, was notorious already in antiquity: Plutarch called him the “father of lies”.
Most of the tales have no clear link to the main story. They seem peripheral, if not entirely unrelated, to the account of the Persian Wars and their pre-history. Many characters appear only once, never to be seen again. To the reader accustomed to a stable cast of characters and a straightforward plot with a clear beginning, middle and end, Herodotus’ Histories read like a digression from a digression from a digression.
Yet as soon as one pauses and appreciates the stories for what they are one cannot but marvel at the events Herodotus relates. There is the conversation between King Croesus of Lydia and the Athenian statesman, reformer and poet Solon, on the true nature of human happiness. (The moral is, in a nutshell: call no man happy until he is dead.
That same king consults the Delphic oracle and learns to his delight that he will bring down a great empire. Certain of victory, he wages war against the Persians; as the oracle foretells, Croesus duly ends up destroying an empire – his own.
Herodotus’ ingenuity emerges most clearly when considered in relation to Homer, who had set the benchmark and provided all writers to follow with a model for talking about the past.
Consider for example his opening statement in the beginning of the book:
Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory.
Unlike Homer, Herodotus no longer claims to be inspired by the Muses. Yet his opening lines still pay homage to the world of the Homeric hero and his perpetual striving for kleos (“glory”). After all, Homer, too, reported great deeds by Greeks and non-Greeks alike and preserved them for posterity.
Herodotus combined the two major themes of Homeric epic – travel and warfare – into a single whole. Travel and the insights they yield are as dominant a theme in the ethnographic sections of the Histories as expansion, warfare and conflict are in the historical sections. Herodotus uses the gradual expansion of the Persian Empire to delve deeply into the cultures of those who came under its influence in the century preceding the war. In his account the historical and the cultural influence each other.
While Herodotus does not dismiss the Iliad and the Odyssey, he openly takes a swipe at Homer at least once. Helen, he claims, never made it to Troy: she was diverted to Egypt due to bad weather. Homer – so runs Herodotus’ accusation – simply changed the course of the story to make it fit the genre of epic poetry. This shows an awareness of the particular demands of the kind of account Herodotus hoped to write as being different from Homeric epic.
The father of history
What specifically sets Herodotus and his enquiry apart, then, is the proto-scientific way he explores the inner workings of the world. The question “why” drives this inquiry in all its aspects. It brings together the different strands of Herodotean investigation: Why did the Greeks and the barbarians go to war with each other? Why does the Nile flood? Why do the women of Cyrene abstain from eating beef?
Herodotus frequently finds the answer to these questions by looking at origins and beginnings. He takes the military conflict between Greeks and barbarians back to its roots in mythical times. In a similar vein he enquires into the source of the river Nile and traces the names of the twelve Olympians – the major deities of the Greek pantheon – back to their origins in ancient Egypt.
The quest for origins and beginnings runs deep in the Histories. It introduces a form of explanation which links the disparate strands of Herodotean enquiry by presenting them as part of an ordered cosmos. The world Herodotus outlines in the Histories ultimately and profoundly makes sense.
His efforts to establish himself as a credible researcher and narrator are tangible throughout. He is careful to tell his reader from where he derived his information on foreign lands, whether he witnessed personally or learnt from a reliable source:
As far as Elephantine I speak as an eye-witness, but further south from hearsay.
My own observation bears out the statement made to me by the priests…
Of the Pelasgian language I cannot speak with certainty…
Frequently, he gives us all the different explanations sourced from others. In the case of the flooding of the Nile he adds why he favours one (incidentally, the wrong one) over all others. By presenting views other than his own, Herodotus gives his readers the chance to form their own opinion.
The same striving for precision, exactness and authority also explains his diligence when it comes to numbers, distances and measurements.
From Heliopolis to Thebes is a nine days’ voyage up the Nile, a distance of eighty-one schoeni or 4860 states. Putting together the various measurements I have given, one finds that the Egyptian coastline is, as I have said, about 420 miles in length, and the distance from the sea inland to Thebes about 714 miles. It is another 210 miles from Thebes to Elephantine.
Why does this level of detail matter, and do we really need to know it? We do! This kind of accuracy and precision bolsters Herodotus’ authority as a credible source of information (even though some of his data verge on the fanciful).
To Herodotus, at least, measuring the world, mapping new territory, noting the features of distant lands and territories are all part of the process of “sense-making”, in which the new and unknown is related to the well-known and familiar:
The difference in size between the young and the full-grown crocodile is greater than in any other known creature; for a crocodile’s egg is hardly bigger than a goose’s, and the young when hatched is small in proportion yet it grows to a size of some twenty-three feet long or even more.
At the same time, Herodotus shows a profound interest in names and naming and the translation of words and concepts from one language into another. He tells us that the name Egypt applied first to Thebes, and that the name of the Asmach people of Egypt means those who stand on the left hand of the king.
Being able to name things in the world is part of being able to explain them. Herodotus was not just pioneering critical enquiry; along with the world he discovered, he had to invent a method and a language.
Figuring out the fantastic
Occasionally the strive for authority and exactness falters and the reader is left wondering whether the narrator has been unreliable all along, such as when Herodotus’ observations truly defy credulity.
Take the gold-digging ants of India, “bigger than a fox, though not so big as a dog”; the winged snakes of Arabia that interfere with the frankincense harvest; the Arabian sheep with tails so long they need little wooden carts attached to their hindquarters, preventing the tails from dragging on the ground.
A fragment from The Histories on Papyrus dated to the early second century AD.
All these are instances in which Herodotean inquiry – despite his own claims to the contrary – slip beyond the realm of the authentic, credible and real.
But it would be a mistake to make too much of these examples. They are memorable only because they stand in such marked contrast to the accurate pictures Herodotus sketches elsewhere of the world.
And who can say for sure that the gold-digging ants, the long-tailed sheep and the flying snakes did not, in fact, exist? Some have argued that the gold-digging ants of India were actually marmots and Herodotus applied a Greek word for ant to a creature unknown to him but reminiscent (albeit faintly) of an ant.
Other creatures, however, take the reader fully into the realm of the fantastic. In his description of Libya, Herodotus says emphatically:
There are enormous snakes there, and also lions, elephants, bears, asps, donkeys with horns, dog-headed creatures, headless creatures with eyes in their chests (at least, this is what the Libyans say) wild men and wild women and a large number of other creatures whose existence is not merely the stuff of fables.
Some of these beings belong to a different, more archaic world, where the boundary between man and beast was fluid and uncertain. We can see a whole spectrum of more or less fantastic creatures, whose ranks included the Cyclops and Sirens of the Odyssey.
Herodotus accommodates such creatures in the absence of better information, but at the very least he feels the need to explicitly confirm their place in the new world of critical inquiry.
A special category is reserved for the most startling aspects of the world. In the Histories, the concept of the wondrous (thaumastos/thaumasios) is applied to those aspects of the world which at first defy explanation and seem to fall outside the laws of nature.
A floating island is a wonder; lions who attack camels but no other creature in Xerxes’ entourage – another wonder; the complete absence of mules in Elis – again a wonder. Ultimately, many of the phenomena Herodotus considers wondrous ultimately have a rational explanation of cause and effect. Others turn out to be divinely inspired.
Eternal themes of power, greed and fate
Beyond the question of whether any (let alone all) of the Histories’ events occurred as Herodotus relates, his stories share a common humanity. The examples of all-too-human foibles and traits like overconfidence, greed and envy but also of fate, luck and fortune reverberate down the ages. Through these stories the Histories still speak to us, 2500 years later.
Traditionally, the Histories were dismissed as anecdotal. Herodotus was seen as lacking gravitas and not on par with Homer, Euripides, Thucydides, Cicero and their like. Consequently, the Histories were not considered central to the humanist canon. Over the last three decades, however, this has changed; Herodotus’ Histories are now widely regarded as a foundational text in the Western historiographic tradition.
Classical scholars have discovered that the work has a coherence after all. Unity between the digressions and the main narrative emerges on a level other than plot: by theme. Many stories in the Histories are case studies in the nature of power.
It is not Everyman who makes history in the Histories: the focus is squarely on those at the top of the game. Yet in most instances the rise to power is followed by a sudden and catastrophic fall.
The reasons are always similar: power leads to excess. Blindness to the limitations of human action incurs the downfall of mighty kings like Candaules, Croesus, Cambyses and Xerxes. The condition they suffer from – the Greek word is hybris – is depressingly modern and familiar.
Jacques Louis David’s painting of the Spartan king Leonidas at Thermopylae - an event described by Herodotus.
The Histories are a compilation of stories packed into each other like nesting Russian dolls. Successive stories share with each other – and the larger historical narrative of which they are part – the same insights, themes and patterns.
Once you can read one, you can read them all. New insights emerge from the way individual stories play with the formula, highlighting different aspects of the theme.
As tales of the nature of human power, the “digressions” speak directly to Herodotus’ core theme: the rise and fall of all empires, in particular the Persian Empire and its spectacular defeat by the much smaller Greek contingents in the Persian Wars.
Yet the Histories are not merely a historical source for the Persian Wars. Herodotus dwells extensively on the pre-history of the conflict and touches on the cultural and ideological issues at stake.
All this is set on the broader stage of the ancient world and includes geographical references, climatic observations, flora and fauna as well as notes on differences in the customs and lifestyle of Greeks, Persians and other peoples.
Thanks to this broad focus, it is not hyperbole to say that, in a profound sense, the Histories are about the entire world as it came to be understood and mapped out towards the end of the fifth century BCE.
Wonder and discovery
The Histories stand at the transition from an older, mythical worldview – that of the heroic or archaic age as represented in Homeric epic – to a new, classical outlook that manifested in the exacting mode of enquiry into the workings of the world.
The name for this form of investigation – historia – did not yet mean “history” as we know it; it simply meant, in a general sense, “critical enquiry”. Herodotus occasionally mentions consulting written sources, but he does so mainly to distance himself, his method, and information from other authors, notably Homer and the poets.
The most subtle feature of the Histories, perhaps, is the profound sense of balance that pervades all aspects of the cosmos. In the world of Herodotus, any excess is ultimately corrected: what goes up must come down. This applies to individuals, to empires and to peoples.
The divine is central to Herodotus’ view of the world: the gods guarantee a perpetual historical cycle. This dynamic ensures that imbalances of power or greed – the too-much and the too-little – ultimately level each other out.
The traditional gods of the ancient Greek pantheon are still very much alive in the Histories. Yet in contrast to Homeric poetry, they no longer intervene directly in the world. They have receded to a transcendental distance from which they oversee and steer the workings of the world.
We may no longer share Herodotus’ view of the past, yet we delight in the richness of the world he sketched. Its stories, landscapes, characters, and insights into human nature linger long after the reading. What makes the work stand out above all is the Histories’ sense of wonder and discovery. Herodotus’ Histories remain a classic testament to the pleasures of researching and learning.
All translations are from: Marincola, J. (1996) Herodotus: The Histories. Revised edition. London. Penguin Books.