The Greek “fathers of History” – Part II – Herodotus (continued and concluded)

A central question since antiquity that remains unresolved to this day is: can we trust Herodotus and his marvellous tales? In antiquity he was attacked and denounced as the “father of lies”, and this view of Herodotus – as an ancient Baron Münchausen, a teller of tall tales and a fabricator of his alleged travels and sources of information, still has currency today (see particularly the German scholar Detlev Fehling in Die Quellenangaben bei Herodot). The weight of modern scholarship, however, gives more credit to Herodotus’ attempts to resolve the exceptionally difficult problem he was grappling with: how to acquire knowledge about the past, going back 50 years (to the Greco-Persian Wars) and beyond (the “back-story” takes Herodotus well beyond the range of living memory, over 100 years into the past), in a society poised between orality and literacy, and embracing cultures whose language he did not know and in whose lands he was a tourist? The key insight has come from modern anthropology and ethnography, which have taught us of the riches and rewards that the use of orally transmitted traditions of preliterate societies can yield. And Herodotus was much more careful in handling his material than he is sometimes given credit for. Let us look at one notorious example.

Detail of a miniature of gold-digging ants in the land of Gorgoneus, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101r

There are other Indians further north….these are the most warlike of the Indian tribes, and it is they who go out to fetch the gold – for in this region there is a sandy desert. There is found in this desert a kind of ant of great size – bigger than a fox, though not so big as a dog. Some specimens, which were caught there, are kept at the palace of the Persian king. These creatures as they burrow underground throw up the sand in heaps, just as ants in Greece throw up the earth, and they are very similar in shape. The sand has a rich content of gold, and it is this that the Indians are after when they make their expeditions into the desert………When the Indians reach the place where the gold is, they fill the bags they have brought with them with sand, and start for home again as fast as they can go; for the ants (as is said in the Persians’ story) smell them and at once give chase; nothing in the world can touch these ants for speed……

This is seriously disconcerting: the “father of History”, retailing an obviously absurd and impossible tale about gold-digging ants? How can we believe a word this fabulist says? Yet on closer inspection, we see that Herodotus subtly and sceptically suspends judgement here: he is careful to distance himself from the account of “the Persians”, and goes on to conclude that “According to the Persians, most of the gold is got in the way I have described.” We see a similar process at work in Herodotus’ attempt to get to the truth about the Egyptian king Psammetichus’ (664-610 BCE – approximately 200 years before Herodotus) famous experimental investigation of the origins of language:

That this was what really happened I myself learnt from the priests of Hephaestus at Memphis, though the Greeks have various improbable versions of the story….The version of the priests, however, is the one I have given. There were other things, too, which I learnt at Memphis in conversation with the priests of Hephaestus, and I actually went to Thebes and Heliopolis for the express purpose of finding out if the priests in those cities would agree in what they told me with the priests at Memphis. [these places are all in Egypt]

Here Herodotus travels, checks, investigates, and compares sources of information in an attempt to distinguish the true or plausible from the false or improbable – in short he inquires in a way that is recognisably “historical” (contrast the bald assertions of Shalmaneser or the Behistun inscription). Herodotus does not do everything we might want – his sources are, by their very nature as oral testimony rather than written document, incheckable and unverifiable, and it is frustrating that he cites so often national collectives (“the Persians”, “the Egyptians”) rather than more specific groups or individuals (which “Persians”? which “Egyptians”?). Nonetheless we see in Herodotus the first known attempt to grapple with the central historical problem – how do we find out reliable information about the past?

World map extrapolated from Herodotus

What was the purpose of Herodotus’ work? There is no simple answer to this question, as with the narrowly propagandistic texts of Shalmaneser and Darius. His introduction has already given us one answer: the recording and memorialisation of great deeds, conceived both broadly (deeds and achievements of all kinds – cultural, physical, political-military) and widely (deeds of all peoples, Greek and barbarian [in Greek this potentially means simply “non-Greek-speaker” and need not carry the implication of cultural inferiority. Indeed Herodotus was castigated by Plutarch in his essay “On the Malignity of Herodotus” for, among other things, his barbarophile tendencies], individual “great men” and cultural collectives). Underlying this can be detected the project of mapping the inhabited world [the oikoumene], not just physically but culturally and conceptually , perhaps both as an attempt to understand Greekness through the mirror of the barbarian “other” (see François Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus) and also in order to draw the radical and very modern conclusion of cultural relativism:

I will give this one proof among many from which it may be inferred that all men hold this belief about their customs. When Darius was king, he summoned the Greeks who were with him and asked them for what price they would eat their fathers’ dead bodies. They answered that they wouldn’t do it for any amount of money.  Then Darius summoned those Indians who are called Callatiae, who eat their parents, and asked them (the Greeks being present and understanding through interpreters what was said) what would make them willing to burn their fathers at death. The Indians cried aloud, that he should not speak of so horrible an act. So firmly rooted are these beliefs; and it is, I think, rightly said in Pindar’s poem that custom is king of all.

I believe this is the first historical instance of the basic idea of tolerance and cultural relativism: that different peoples live their lives in different ways, that everyone thinks their way is natural and right, and that in fact no-one is therefore “right”.

Yet Herodotus clearly placed a high value on freedom and the nascent democracy of Athens, and this is a central and obvious theme of his work – the triumph of freedom-loving Greeks against the hubris of the despotic Persian state. The ringing endorsements of liberty come not just in the mouths of his characters:

“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.” (Spartan response to a Persian suggestion that they surrender)

but in his own authorial voice:

Thus Athens went from strength to strength, and proved, if proof were needed, how noble a thing isegoria (literally equality of speaking – an early word for democracy) is…for while they were oppressed under tyrants, they had no better success in war than any of their neighbours, yet, once the yoke was flung off, they proved the finest fighters in the world.

We can thus implicate Herodotus as the progenitor of the long-lived, resonant and baleful “clash of civilisations” theory of eternal conflict between west and east, freedom and despotism. But again the truth is, I think, not so clear. In the words of Peter Green, “Yet what Herodotus really thought about the main protagonists in the Graeco-Persian wars is anything but clear: freedom is good (but can be abused), tyranny is bad (but can be used for good ends), and both sides get a very mixed verdict.” There is also a strong argument that the thrust of Herodotus’ argument is directed, silently and implicitly, against the contemporary imperial violence and hubris of the Athenian democracy – that he uses the 50+ year-old tale of the breaking of Persian imperial ambitions to warn the Athenian democracy that it risked treading the same ruinous path into the void.

Herodotus’ inquiry, then, yielded a sui generis work of extraordinary complexity, fecundity and range (there are nearly 1000 named individuals in Herodotus; by my count War and Peace features 133). But is it history? We have seen crucial features of his work that were novel and unprecedented and that do bear the hallmarks of what we would identify as historical consciousness. Herodotus does attempt to address questions of historical causation within a broadly secular and non-mythical framework; he attempts to establish means for determining reliable information about the past; and his work has purpose and meaning, albeit broad and complex. Is Herodotus, then, the “father of History”? We will need to investigate the near-contemporary work of Thucydides in order to pass judgement.

Note on further reading

The obvious move is to actually read or at least to sample Herodotus himself. George Rawlinson’s translation of 1858-60 is freely available online. I have used the Penguin Classics translation by Aubrey de Selincourt (with excellent introduction and notes from John Marincola), although I have doubts about the accuracy of the translation. I have not yet looked at the new translation by Tom Holland, introduced by Paul Cartledge.

This article by Peter Green in the LRB is a handy short survey of current thinking about Herodotus.

For a fuller but still short and very readable overview of Herodotus, I recommend John Gould.

1 thought on “The Greek “fathers of History” – Part II – Herodotus (continued and concluded)

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

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