The Greek “fathers of History” – Part I

Who was the “father of History”?

It seems certain that, as long as people have been able to talk, they have talked about events that occurred in the past, and as long as people have been able to record their thoughts in permanent marks, they have written about the past also. But writing history is something different, as I hope to show, and its origins (at least in western Eurasia – I must profess ignorance about other historiographical traditions, inter alia that of China) can be sought in the cities of ancient Greece in the latter half of the 5th century BCE – specifically in the work of two men, Herodotus and Thucydides, our two contenders for the title of “father of History”.

But let us first examine some examples of “pre-historical history” from the same cultural world as Herodotus and Thucydides – the great monarchies of the Near East in the first millennium BCE – in order to illuminate what was new about the historical enterprise of these two Greeks.

The Assyrians

In the sixth year of his reign (858-824 BCE), the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III [Šulmānu-ašarēdu] dealt with a revolt thusly:

I set his palaces afire. I departed from Argana and approached Karkara. I destroyed, tore down and burned down Karkara, his royal residence. He brought along to help him [list of armies and allies] – all together these were twelve kings. They rose against me for a decisive battle. I fought with them with the aid of the mighty forces of Ashur [the chief god of the Assyrians], which Ashur, my lord, has given to me, and the strong weapons which Nergal, my leader [Nergal was a god], has presented to me, and I did inflict a defeat upon them between the towns of Karkara and Gilzau. I slew 14,000 of their soldiers with the sword, descending upon them like Adad [Adad was the storm god] when he makes a rainstorm pour down. I spread their corpses everywhere, filling the entire plain with their widely scattered fleeing soldiers. The plain was too small to allow all their souls to descend into the nether world. The vast field gave out when it came to bury them. With their corpses I spanned the Orontes before there was a bridge….

A superbly vivid description of past events, and a chilling insight into the savage violence of the Assyrian kings, pioneers of such imperial techniques as mass slaughter and enslavement, transfer of populations, and so on and so forth. But this is not historical writing for two principle reasons: it does not present any means of evidencing its claims to knowledge about the past beyond the assertion of the royal author, and it does not suggest any mode of historical explanation beyond the favour of the “mighty forces” of the gods. We might also add that the text appears to have no purpose beyond glorifying and buttressing the divine authority of the king, and terrorising his enemies.

The Persians

The magnificent Behistun inscription of the Persian king Darius the Great [Dārayava(h)uš] – himself a central character in Herodotus – has similar characteristics. Authored at some point in Darius’ reign (520-486 BCE), tellingly this colossal (15m by 25m) work stands 100m up a limestone cliff on the ancient road between Babylon and Ecbatana (in western Iran, in modern terms) – clearly the intended readership is not human, but divine. To the accompaniment of a life-sized bas-relief of the king trampling his chief enemy and receiving the supplication of bound and subjugated opponents, Darius outlines at length how he overcame a succession of usurpers and rebels (“liars” – a central concept for the Persian elite, who, according to Herodotus, were taught three things as boys: to ride a horse, to shoot a bow, and to tell the truth) to establish his power across the vast territories of the Persian empire (from the Nile and the Hellespont to the Indus and Soviet Central Asia).

Here is just a flavour of the Behistun inscription (on the suppression of the Second Babylonian Revolt):

King Darius says: While I was in Persia and in Media, the Babylonians revolted from me a second time. A certain man named Arakha, an Armenian, son of Haldita, rebelled in Babylon. At a place called Dubâla, he lied unto the people, saying: ‘I am Nebuchadnezzar, the son of Nabonidus.’ Then did the Babylonian people revolt from me and they went over to that Arakha. He seized Babylon, he became king in Babylon.

King Darius says: Then did I send an army unto Babylon. A Persian named Intaphrenes [Vidafarnâ], my servant, I appointed as their leader, and thus I spoke unto them: ‘Go, smite that Babylonian host which does not acknowledge me.’ Then Intaphrenes marched with the army unto Babylon. Ahuramazda brought me help; by the grace of Ahuramazda Intaphrenes overthrew the Babylonians and brought over the people unto me. On the twenty-second day of the month Markâsanaš [27 November] they seized that Arakha who called himself Nebuchadnezzar, and the men who were his chief followers. Then I made a decree, saying: ‘Let that Arakha and the men who were his chief followers be crucified in Babylon!’

In broad terms the Behistun inscription shares the same features as Shalmaneser’s text. The only source is the assertion of the king:

Whosoever shall read this inscription hereafter, let that which I have done be believed. You must not hold it to be lies.

The only model of causation is the favour of Ahuramazda [the Persians’ god] and the virtues of the king:

On this account Ahuramazda brought me help, and all the other gods, all that there are, because I was not wicked, nor was I a liar, nor was I a despot, neither I nor any of my family. I have ruled according to righteousness. Neither to the weak nor to the powerful did I do wrong. Whosoever helped my house, him I favoured; he who was hostile, him I destroyed.

The inscription again appears to serve no purpose beyond that of royal propaganda – intriguingly, in this case, directed apparently to the heavens rather than to the people – and in this case, exceptionally dubious propaganda at that. The core of Darius’ story is that he did not, as might have appeared to be the case, come to the throne by overthrowing and killing his legitimate predecessor Smerdis [Bardiya] – in fact the person he overthrew was not Smerdis but an evil impostor, a magus by the name of Gaumata who himself had assumed the identity of Smerdis, usurped the throne and allowed “the lie” to “wax great in the land”; thus Darius did not disrupt, but rather restored, divine and legitimate order within the empire. It is not possible to falsify this claim at the distance of 2,500 years but one can only remain highly sceptical.

Look for the second instalment of this post, which will examine the revolutionary work of Herodotus of Halicarnassus and consider his claim to be “the father of History”.

2 thoughts on “The Greek “fathers of History” – Part I

  1. Pingback: The Greek “fathers of History” – Part II – Herodotus | The Rational Colonel

  2. Pingback: The Greek “fathers of History” – Part II – Herodotus (continued and concluded) | The Rational Colonel

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