The Histories

The Histories

One of the masterpieces of classical literature, the "Histories" describes how a small and quarrelsome band of Greek city states united to repel the might of the Persian empire. But while this epic struggle forms the core of his work, Herodotus' natural curiosity frequently gives rise to colorful digressions - a description of the natural wonders of Egypt; an account of Eu...

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Title:The Histories
Author:Herodotus
Rating:
ISBN:0140449086
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Paperback
Number of Pages:716 pages

The Histories Reviews

  • Lazarus P Badpenny Esq
    Mar 15, 2009

    "

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    As the British Government bludgeons the nation with its ideologically-driven 'Austerity Budget', note that the ancients had a strategy or two for surviving straitened times themselves. And they managed to pr

    "

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    As the British Government bludgeons the nation with its ideologically-driven 'Austerity Budget', note that the ancients had a strategy or two for surviving straitened times themselves. And they managed to protect 'front-line' services. Who doesn't like to wake up to the smell of freshly-baked rolls? Now, how does one get one's hands on Theresa May?

    "

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    Seriously. Wtf?! I mean, who hasn't dreamed of personally repopulating an island [I know I have:], but just how fertile does a guy have to be that an std leaves him debilitated to the degree that he can

    re-seed an entire race like some Zeus on the loose? I thought all these dudes preferred boys so what's with

    ? If I didn't know Herodotus had such a downer on hearsay I'd swear someone was pulling his leg.

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    Harsh.

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    Jeez, there has to be an easier way to discover you're a cuckold.

  • Trevor
    Apr 10, 2009

    The kids bought me this for Christmas and it is a thing of infinite beauty. I’ve been meaning to read these histories for years and never quite got around to it. I had never realised quite how remarkable this book would be.

    This version of the book is the third that I now own – I’ve also got a copy of the Penguin Classics and I’ve just finished listening to this as a talking book. But I am going to make my way through this book eventually, as it is hard to focus on many of the details of the wars

    The kids bought me this for Christmas and it is a thing of infinite beauty. I’ve been meaning to read these histories for years and never quite got around to it. I had never realised quite how remarkable this book would be.

    This version of the book is the third that I now own – I’ve also got a copy of the Penguin Classics and I’ve just finished listening to this as a talking book. But I am going to make my way through this book eventually, as it is hard to focus on many of the details of the wars and so on without a decent map in front of you to refer to – and this book has lots of maps and drawings and other illustrations, although, annoyingly, no illustration of the Egyptian labyrinth which Herodotus said was even more remarkable than the pyramids.

    Along the way Herodotus tells some incredible stories. Some of them sound like they are straight out of the 1001 nights. Others make your jaw drop open.

    There are also discussions of things like what is the source of the Nile, that really have whetted my curiosity to read more about the 19th century types who finally discovered the source. Now, why was this such a big question in the ancient world? Well, the problem was that the Nile seemed to come out of the desert and that isn’t exactly the sort of place where you would expect to find lots and lots of water. The winds that came for where the Nile seemed to flow out from were also always hot – and so the idea that perhaps the water in the Nile swelled once a year due to the melting of snow (although partly reasonable, obviously) didn’t seem to make a lot of sense when you thought that the river was coming out of a desert (deserts being the natural enemy of snow). It really is fascinating listening to Herodotus discussing these speculations about the source of the Nile and the paradoxes such speculations provided.

    In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “There ain’t no limit to the amount of trouble women bring”. There are interesting asides about the Trojan war and how Herodotus speculates that Helen was probably dead by the time of the war started and so when the Greeks asked for the Trojans to hand her over they literally couldn’t. He can’t see why else they would have allowed their civilisation to be crushed for the sake of one woman, beautiful or not.

    There is a woman who commanded a ship on the side of the Persians, there are women who come back as ghosts and complain about being cold (which their husband should know as the last time he tried to bake his bread the oven was cold – this would have taken me a while to understand if Herodotus did not explain that the husband had lain with her after she had died.) But this is not really a history that involves many women – this is a story about blokes doing what blokes like most – killing other blokes.

    All the same, my favourite bit of this came quite early in the piece. The story of the theft of Rhampsinitos’ treasure. I’m going to give you the short McCandless version of this as it really is a wonderful story and I can’t leave this review without talking about it.

    When Rhampsinitos (an Egyptian king) decided to have a place built for his treasure he didn’t know that the builder would put a stone into the works that could be easily removed. The builder told his sons about this stone as he lay dying and once the builder had died his sons nipped around to the king’s treasury and helped themselves to the riches inside. The king noticed this sudden loss of wealth and set a trap to capture those who were all too frequently popping in and stealing his goodies. The trap was quite successful and one of the brothers ended up getting caught. He told his other brother to cut off his head so that they wouldn’t both be discovered. This his all too obliging brother did. The king then had a body without a head in his treasury, but still had no idea how anyone could get into the treasury room without breaking any of the seals on the locks.

    So, he had the body of the thief hung up and guarded so that whoever cried in front of it would be brought before him. The thief who had cut off his brother’s head was then told by his mother that he had better do something to rescue his brother’s body or else all hell would break lose. He came up with a plan to get the guards drunk and to steal the body, which he did and also shaved half of their beards off to make sure they quite understood how stupid they had been made to look. The king was, needless to say, bloody furious. (I did mention this reminded me of the 1001 nights, yeah?) Anyway, the king then decides to get his daughter to work in a brothel, but before she sleeps with anyone she is to ask them what is the worst thing they have ever done and if any of them say anything like they cut off their brother’s head and stole his body from the king’s guards, she is to grab hold of him and call for the police (or whatever the Egyptian equivalent was at the time). The thief decides to play along, and goes to the brothel with the severed arm of a freshly dead corpse under his jumper. When he tells the king’s daughter about his exploits she makes a grab for him and he holds out the dead man’s arm, which she holds onto while the thief cleverly makes his escape. The king is so impressed with this man’s exploits that he begs him to come forward and receive a reward, which he does and ends up getting to marry the king’s daughter – I assume the daughter he gets to marry is the prostitute mentioned earlier, but I guess no one actually ever called her that to her face.

    The best bit of this is that it shows something Herodotus does the whole way through these histories. He will be telling one of these stories and suddenly they will start to become completely unbelievable and he will say, “of course, I don’t believe this stuff for a minute, but this is the story I was told in Egypt and what would you have me do? I have to tell you what I was told.”

    The other story that held me enthralled was of the self-mutilation of Zopyros – honestly, this is utterly remarkable. It is worth reading the book just for this story alone.

    There are lots of occasions where fathers are forced to do horrible things to their sons – my favourite is the story of a king who punishes one of his advisors by feeding him his son as the meat portion of a feast. The king then leaves this advisor in a position where he can revenge himself on the king. You know, if I was to feed someone their own child I would probably kill him straight away afterwards – call me overly cautious, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that the person who has feed you the flesh of one of your kids is never going to be one of you best friends ever again, no matter what else they do for you.

    This book is fantastic and the Landmark edition is like its name implies, really something special.

  • umberto
    Aug 20, 2009

    I think I'd like to invite my Goodreads friends to browse any Book you like, then take heart to start with Book I as the inception of the whole inquiry unthinkable to those Greek scholars at that time, but Herodotus could make it and you can't help admiring him when you read his famous preamble, "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 n

    I think I'd like to invite my Goodreads friends to browse any Book you like, then take heart to start with Book I as the inception of the whole inquiry unthinkable to those Greek scholars at that time, but Herodotus could make it and you can't help admiring him when you read his famous preamble, "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; and especially to show why the two people fought each other." (p. 4)

    This preamble, I think, in the 1970 edition may entice you as well, "HERODOTUS of Halicarnassus, his Researches are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples; and more particularly, to show how they came into conflict." (p. 41) Moreover, the one in this 1988 edition published by the University of Chicago Press is also interesting, "I, Herodotus of Harlicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another." (p. 33)

    First of all, don't be intimidated by its length, that is, 543 pages in the 1996 Penguin edition, please find any translation you're familiar with its style or wording then keep reading a few pages once in a while, don't hope to finish it in a few days/weeks since it's one of the masterpieces in ancient history, you need time to think, take notes and ask yourself why.

    Secondly, this is definitely his magnum opus for posterity of all nations to read, reflect and interpret in terms of reciprocal toleration as fellow human beings so that we learn not to make unthinkable mistakes again. In many engagements there, you can witness various unimaginably ruthless deeds instigated by the powers that be, fate and godlike valour of those true Greek and Persian soldiers. Those fallen heroes including all innumerable soldiers killed in various battles deserve our respect with awe, admiration and gratitude as our exemplary models of humankind.

    And finally, scholars should honour and keep him in mind since Cicero called him 'the father of history' and we can enjoy reading his second to none narrative. However, some chapters might not be interesting when he sometime told us about the flora/fauna seemingly unrelated to the looming hostilities. I take them as relaxing moments and we can learn from what he told us frankly and good-humoredly. Those ruthless war scenes, for instance from Chapter 20 onwards in Book IX, are amazingly described to the extent that we can visualize such ruthless gory scenes with increasingly stupefying horror in which it is hopelessly put into words.

    That's it and I think I'd reread the University of Chicago version for solace and advice in there whenever I'm free from work. It'd teach us of course to mind our own business, be kind, have mercy towards our fellow colleagues, friends, cousins, etc. since we all have limited time to live on earth.

    Note: In fact, I have another Penguin copy with its front cover showing a painted vase depicting two soldiers in action (Persian vs. Greek), not this one so the page numbers as mentioned above may vary. Therefore, I've reposted my review since I don't know how to return to its previous book cover.

  • Grace Tjan
    Jan 18, 2010

    What I learned from this book (in no particular order):

    1. Ancient Greeks are quarrelsome and love to waste each other’s city-states for the pettiest reasons.

    2. From all forms of government known to man, democracy is the best. Tyrants and oligarchs suck.

    3. The Persian Empire is a mighty barbarian nation, but being cowardly, effeminate and slavish, it is eventually defeated by the quarrelsome but brave and civilized Greeks.

    4. Among the Greeks, the Spartans are the bravest.

    What I learned from this book (in no particular order):

    1. Ancient Greeks are quarrelsome and love to waste each other’s city-states for the pettiest reasons.

    2. From all forms of government known to man, democracy is the best. Tyrants and oligarchs suck.

    3. The Persian Empire is a mighty barbarian nation, but being cowardly, effeminate and slavish, it is eventually defeated by the quarrelsome but brave and civilized Greeks.

    4. Among the Greeks, the Spartans are the bravest.

    King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans heroically perished in the battle of Thermopylae. They also have the particularly icky custom of marrying their own nieces.

    5. The Delphic oracles are 100% accurate, except when someone manages to corrupt the Pythoness. The Gods are, however, a jealous sort and would strike any mortal who has the presumption of calling himself happiest on earth. Therefore, one should call no man happy until he is dead.

    6. Egypt is a country of wonders, but its citizens’ customs and manners are exactly the reverse of the common practice of mankind elsewhere. For example, the women there urinate standing up, while the men sitting down. The country also abounds in strange fauna, among them the hippopotamus --- a quadruped, cloven-footed animal, with the mane and tail of a horse, huge tusks and a voice like a horse’s neigh.

    7. The Scythians are a warlike nation that practices human sacrifice. The Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man that he kills in battle and cuts off all of his enemies’ heads, which he must show to the king to get his share of the war booty. They also like to saw off their enemies’ skulls, which they make into fancy gold-plated drinking cups.

    8. The manners of the Androphagi, being cannibals, are more savage than those of any other race. Darius the Persian smote them.

    9. The Atarantians, alone of all known nations, are destitute of names. The title of Atarantians is borne by the whole race in common, but the men have no particular names of their own. They also like to curse the sun because he burns and wastes both their country and themselves.

    10. In the Indian desert live ants that are larger than a fox. They like to throw up sand-heaps as they burrow, which are full of gold. This is why India is so rich in gold. In Arabia, there are sheep that have long tails, so long that the shepherds have to make little trucks for their tails.

    .

    BUT SERIOUSLY,

    Herodotus is a consummate storyteller who had a fine eye for the fantastical, although to his credit, he always qualified his more improbable assertions by stating that they are based on hearsay or other sources that he could not wholly verify. Much of the pleasure of reading his book is found in the lush descriptions of long lost nations and their exotic customs. His 'Histories' does not concern itself solely with history in the modern sense, but it is also a book of travelogue, ethnography, zoology, geography and botany. He is an excellent raconteur, almost always entertaining, except when he drones about speculative geography. We can easily imagine him, a man of seemingly inexhaustible curiosity, interviewing Marathon veterans for firsthand battle accounts, or interrogating Egyptian temple priests about their country’s history and religion. History for him is not a dry recitation of facts and dates, but an intensely human story acted by a vast cast of monarchs, queens, warriors, tyrants, gods and ordinary citizens. Regicides and rebellions are caused by personal passions, such as in the stories of Caudales and Gyges, and Xerxes and Masistes. Dreams compel Xerxes to invade Greece. Divine intervention decides the course of epic battles.

    A skein of tragedy runs through the historical drama that he narrates. The gods are so capricious and jealous that “one should not call a man happy until he is dead.” Xerxes, on beholding his massive force on the Hellespont, laments that “not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by.” Yet while man lives his short existence he is capable of epic deeds, and Herodotus chronicled them all.

  • Riku Sayuj
    Jul 28, 2011

    The prime subject of The Histories is the twenty years (499-479 B.C.E) of war between Greece and Persia for domination of the Greek world, but he intersperses this main narrative with plenty of personal interest stories, “wonders” about firsts and bests, historical p

    The prime subject of The Histories is the twenty years (499-479 B.C.E) of war between Greece and Persia for domination of the Greek world, but he intersperses this main narrative with plenty of personal interest stories, “wonders” about firsts and bests, historical parallels and occasionally his own biased judgements, but always making it clear that he is interested

    in presenting a viewpoint — he leaves the act of judgement to the reader. It would be true to assure that it was Herodotus who helped create the concept of the discipline of “history,” in part by stressing and criticizing his sources and accepted traditions. My job is to record what I have been told, make of it what you will that is the dominant warning note wherever H’s authorial voice intervenes in the narrative. That should be the disclaimer all history books should come with.

    All the main themes of the book are evident in its beginning and ending, in keeping with the circular narratives that H prefers to adopt. All the intervening incidents act like reinforcements of the overall thrust inherent in the beginning and ending.

    We begin with an insecure Hellenic world, just shaking off the shackles of tyranny and tasting real ambition for the first time. Meanwhile in the other end of the world, an existing empire is being shaped into a fearsome tyrannical force by the new Persian rulers. Soon the Persian empire starts to extend ominously outwards and gobbles up most of the known world. This infringes on a core idea of H — the concept of natural limits and over-extension. Persia is meant to fall. “The Small shall become the Big; and the Big shall become the Small.”

    As long as empires are driven by ambition, history is doomed to repeat itself.

    The gods set limits and do not allow human beings to go beyond them; Herodotus makes it clear that the Persians have to fail in their plan to conquer Greece, because they have overreached their natural boundaries. Xerxes announces his campaign by telling his advisers that he intends to conquer Greece so that ‘we will make Persian territory end only at the sky’ (7.8).

    Then we are taken through the many over-extensions of the Persian empire under a succession of rulers (in Ionia, Scythia, etc), until they are poised to encroach upon the newly non-tyrannical Greek world. Here we enter the climactic middle of the narrative and is drenched in the details of the gory encounter. Many heroes, legends and dramatic material is born here and we emerge on the other side with a clear sense that it was Athens, without the yoke of tyranny, that was able to bring down the fearsome war machine of the Persian empire. David has won out against Goliath. This is achieved due to much luck and much pluck, but in the final analysis H seems to imply that the fault was with the hubris of the Persians.

    It needs to be pointed out that:

    So, even as this main narrative concludes, we are shown what is the inevitable result of Hubris that over-extends its own reaches. And of how tyranny in any form is not going to triumph over people who have tasted what freedom means.

    Herodotus could have ended there. But he doesn’t. Instead he takes us to the Ending to rub in the message and to instill that message with its true significance — what is its bearing on the future? For, an investigation of History is meaningless unless it can educate us about the future. And it is the future that H ironically points to as he takes us through the concluding sections of his Histories.

    For now it is the turn of the Greeks to over-extend. In the thrill of victory and in the thrall of a thirst for revenge, in the spirit of competition with its own neighbors, Athens and Sparta launch out on its own imperialistic enterprise to mainland Asia. This is to culminate in H’s own day with the Ionians looking upon Athens as the equivalent of a Tyrant.

    The beginning of this period saw the triumph of the Greek mainland states over the might of the Persian Empire, first in the initial invasion of 490 and the battle of Marathon, and then in the second invasion of 480/79, with the battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea, and finally Mycaleb in Asia Mnor.

    This unexpected victory against what seemed like the mightiest empire on Earth resonated in Greek consciousness through the fifth century and indeed beyond. The Greeks in general, and the Athenians in particular, because they had played the major part in the triumph of “Freedom”, saw these victories as a triumph of right over might, courage over fear, freedom over servitude, moderation over arrogance. It helped crystallize and reinforce Greeks’ attitudes to their own newfound way of life and values, intensified their supreme distrust of monarchy and tyranny, and shaped their attitude to the Persians. And after what they visualized as the great struggle for freedom, the people of Athens entered upon a spectacular era of energy and prosperity, one of the great flowering periods of Western civilization.

    In more practical terms, Athens’ naval success in the Persian Wars and its enterprise immediately after led to the creation of the Athenian Empire, which started as an anti-Persian league and lasted for almost three-quarters of a century (479-404).

    H seems to imply that Athens should learn from these investigations of the past, see what Tyranny can do, see the dangers of over-extension, understand the need for balance, respect certain international boundaries, and stay its own overreaching hand.

    And indeed within fifty years of the Persian defeat the dream had faded, and before the end of the century Athens, over-extended abroad and overconfident at home, lay defeated at the mercy of her enemies, a Spartan garrison posted on the Acropolis and democracy in ruins. Much in the intervening years had been magnificent, it is true, but so it might have remained if the Athenians had heeded Herodotus. He had portrayed the Greek victory as a triumph over the barbarian latent in themselves, the hubris that united the invader and the native tyrant as targets of the gods. The Persian downfall, or at least the defeat of their imperialistic ambition, called not only for exultation but for compassion and lasting self-control.

    As should be quite obvious, there is much to learn in this for modern times too, but with an added twist. For Hubris did not end its romp through history there. It took on new wings once history started being recorded. Now every new emperor was also competing with history. Alexander had to outdo Xerxes. Caesar had to outdo Alexander. Britain had to outdo Rome. Germany had to outdo Britain. USA had to outdo Britain, etc. A never-ending arms-race with imperial history and the accompanying Hubris that powers it.

    So Herodotus, even as he recorded History so as to blunt its devastating force on the lives of men, also unwittingly added new impetus to its influence, by adding the new flavor of recorded glory to the existing receptacle of legendary glory. Hubris drank it up.

  • Brian
    May 10, 2013

    It wasn't just Vollmann's fourth reference to Herodotus in a span of 20 pages in

    , it was the reality and shame that I'm in my 40s and the most I know about the war between Persia and the Hellenic city states is what I learned from the movie

    . Thus, The Histories.

    First: I can't imagine what it would have been like reading these nine books by Herodotus in any format other than this simply amazingly researched and presented volume. The Landmark has to be the final word

    It wasn't just Vollmann's fourth reference to Herodotus in a span of 20 pages in

    , it was the reality and shame that I'm in my 40s and the most I know about the war between Persia and the Hellenic city states is what I learned from the movie

    . Thus, The Histories.

    First: I can't imagine what it would have been like reading these nine books by Herodotus in any format other than this simply amazingly researched and presented volume. The Landmark has to be the final word on Herodotus: the maps, the footnotes, the appendices, indices, forwards and notes - it is an astounding collection created for the layperson like me to approach a subject that is seemingly dry and yawn-worthy. But The Histories is anything but boring. At times, even page-turning, jaw-dropping awesome. When you say to your partner, "Honey, listen to this -" and then quote Herodotus, you know something amazing has happened.

    Herodotus does more than just recount tales of war, he goes to great lengths to describe the culture and the history of dozens of the denizens in his world. An astounding undertaking in any age - made even more incredible given that this was written 600+ BCE. His even-handed histories and details of Persia, a nation looking to conquer and subjugate his own, is an astounding feat of scholarship and academia - even before those words had meaning.

    I was so impressed with The Landmark that I purchased their publications on Thucydides and Xenophon. By the time I've finished both of those, I'll be able to play horseshit bingo the next time I watch

    .

  • Huda Aweys
    Aug 25, 2013

    لم تكن تلك فكرتي عن (تاريخ هيرودوت) قبل قراءتي له ، كنت أطنه أكثر علمية من ذاك لكثرة ماتم الإستشهاد به و الرجوع إليه أكاديميا

    ***

    حكايات لطيفة و مشوقة على أي حال :) ، و من أكثر حكاياته التي لفتت ناظري حكاية قمبيز مع ملك إثيوبيا ...، و

    (الأمازونيات)

    كنموذج من النماذج الأنثوية الفريدة في التاريخ القديم

  • Christopher
    Dec 17, 2013

    How to review Herodotus? It's much like trying to review the Bible. Most would probably say something like, "I liked the blood and guts and stories about the cheating wives of kings; the genealogies were boring." But I found the entire book utterly captivating. It's something special to be able to lose yourself in a world that's completely different from your own, that has a rich history of its own with strange characters and stranger frontiers.

    Herodotus is truly a child of the world, marveling

    How to review Herodotus? It's much like trying to review the Bible. Most would probably say something like, "I liked the blood and guts and stories about the cheating wives of kings; the genealogies were boring." But I found the entire book utterly captivating. It's something special to be able to lose yourself in a world that's completely different from your own, that has a rich history of its own with strange characters and stranger frontiers.

    Herodotus is truly a child of the world, marveling at its every wonder. To the modern reader, much of what he writes is quaintly naive (and at times pretty racist). For instance, when describing Indians (a people he located in the very northwestern part of what we now know as India), he says that they "dwell farthest to the east and closest to the sunrise. For east of the Indians lies an uninhabitable desert of nothing but sand." (3.98.2) These Indians also "have intercourse out in the open just like animals" and "the seed they ejaculate into their wives is not white like that of the rest of men, but black like their skin and like the semen of the Ethiopians." (3.101.1-2) And in describing the land of Egypt, he constantly spews wildly inaccurate exoticisms. He describes the symbiotic relationship between an alligator and a plover (bird); the alligator, who is the most vicious creature in the world, opens its mouth to let the plover eat the leeches from his gums (not true, despite the misinformation still circling today, even). There is a report of ants that are smaller than dogs but larger than foxes who gather gold out of the desert. He tells a story about a race of one-eyed men who steal gold from gold-hoarding griffins, but he discounts the story because he can't believe in the existence of one-eyed men (the eagle-headed lion, however, he has no trouble accepting.)

    Herodotus's histories are great fodder for contemporary literature. I have no doubt that every story that could be told had already been told by the time of Herodotus. The influence of literature like this is most plainly seen in fantasy works; after all, the ancient Greeks lived in a fantasy world, where gods wreaked havoc and monsters resided in the shadows. George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire would never have existed without Herodotus and the works of his peers. His tyrants, whores, valiant knights, plots of political intrigue and betrayal, may very well have all been lifted right off the papyri of these ancient texts. And no one could blame him for doing so. This is good stuff.

    So Herodotus is truly a child of the world, marveling at its every wonder. But if he's so gullible, can we really call this history? My answer is that I don't really care what you call it. This is better than history. It's entertaining, it's fascinating, it's educational at times. Much like the Bible, it's got a bit of everything. It's a collage of knowledge, ancient rumors, wild speculation, and bewildering stories, that's begging out to be read and enjoyed by even such a removed generation as ours.

    P.S. A quick note on the Landmark edition, translated by Andrea L. Purvis and edited by Robert B. Strassler. With all these maps and appendices and copious footnotes, why would you ever read a different edition? It's well worth it to shell out a few more bones for this one.

  • Jan-Maat
    Sep 04, 2015

    What do Herodotus and

    have in common? Progress through digression.

    I suppose my first acquaintance with the work of Herodotus was through that technicolor cold war drama

    in which a rampantly heterosexual force of Spartans defends freedom, liberty, and all that good stuff from allegedly ferocious yet ineffective hordes of freedom hating Persians. The appalling, appealing, simplicity of that film is a grave disservice to the genius of Herodotus – already mauled by Th

    What do Herodotus and

    have in common? Progress through digression.

    I suppose my first acquaintance with the work of Herodotus was through that technicolor cold war drama

    in which a rampantly heterosexual force of Spartans defends freedom, liberty, and all that good stuff from allegedly ferocious yet ineffective hordes of freedom hating Persians. The appalling, appealing, simplicity of that film is a grave disservice to the genius of Herodotus – already mauled by Thucydides barely after completing – if complete it is – his surviving work.

    Later I was shocked into actually reading the first half of an old Everyman edition of Herodotus by a National Geographic article but it was only now at an advanced age - older quite possibly than many of the protagonists described in the Histories - that I have finally read through the complete Herodotus.

    The conflicts between the Persians and the Greeks, culminating in the battles of Marathon, Salamis and Plataea, form a framework in which Herodotus digresses his way round the Greek world: physically

    , intellectually, culturally, but the eventual war is less the story of the clash of civilisations than the clash of relative inequality of development.

    Because one of the things that has struck me reading the whole thing in a linear fashion is not so much the framing narrative structure but the repetition of themes and narrative parallels: the wise advisor to the ruler, that a hard land makes for a hard people, that change follows on from transgression.

    One of the early starting points in Herodotus' narrative is the rise of Persia under Cyrus. Then, in the beginning, the Persians are poor. They inhabit a harsh land. By the end of the story the Persians possess a mighty empire, they are rich and rule over wealthy peoples but they make war against the Greeks. They have forgotten Cyrus' warning, which Herodotus kindly reminds us of:

    (p543). For narrative purposes the Greeks in the time of story - already several generations before Herodotus was composing his work - were poor. In their Olympic Games they compete for Olive Branches and honour, rather than gold or silver like sensible people

    , simply because they have nothing better, the contrast between a rich Persian meal and a Spartan one

    is an occasion for laughter.

    There's a criticism of Imperialism in this - what is the point of waging war against people who sleep in tents, wear leather, live in a country so unfruitful that they can eat all they can find but can never be filled? The repeated lesson, never learnt, taught through repeated harsh blows

    is that transgression through aggression that is not sanctioned by God, gods, Fate, or Mandate of Heaven as expressed variously through the opaque words of Oracles, and

    really this is about expansion beyond your ecological base, ends in grim failure perhaps in the form of having your decapitated head dipped into a bag of blood - such was Cyrus' fate at the hands of Queen Tomyris - ah, another theme here - call no man happy until his death!

    By the time Herodotus's work was completed it is the Greeks who in turn are wealthy and powerful, on the verge of fighting the Peloponnesian war (during which, so much for the eternal clash of civilisations, the Spartans will turn to the Persians for aid in defeating the Athenians, but in Herodotian style, I digress, with purpose). We can read this, whether Herodotus intended this is another question, with irony. Success will lead to wealth, an inevitable softening, and pride leads on to a fall

    .

    Since History didn't exist before Herodotus (or Thucydides depending on your point of view) we can hardly say that history in Herodotus is cyclical rather than linear, instead the philosophy that unfolds is that the nature of existence itself is cyclical. Wisdom is the result of hardship, learnt by riding Fate's wheel in a complete cycle. Alienated in self imposed exile Solon is the wise advisor to Croesus. After defeat in the war which he brought about, Croesus can be a wise advisor to Cyrus. In exile the Spartan King Demaratus is a wise advisor to Xerxes.

    To judge Herodotus as a writer of history is a little unfair, this is a transitional work. Part of his approach comes from the epic - he is explicitly looking back to Homer and the Iliad, another part we would think of as folktale and fable which is about moral teachings, traditional wisdom, and tropes

    , another the travelogue - Rebecca West's

    is a direct descendent

    . History, though, as a narrative of events with an analysis of causes is one of his gifts just as Egypt was the gift of the Nile, even if in part on account of Thucydides sharp response to Herodotus.

    It also manages to capture the transition that occurs when the past and historical memory slips over into fable. This is not only something we can see in the presentation of Cyrus and Cypselus but more pointedly in the examples of Delphi and Thebes. Already by Herodotus' time Delphi was painting over its prior Persian sympathies and we get some fantastical stories instead of how weapons left in the sanctuary divinely appeared around the temple or how a great loud voice was heard shouting from within all of which conflicts completely with the oracular statements that Herodotus records which instead are defeatist if not actually pro-Persian. The Thebians, despite their contingent dying to a man at Thermopylae, are recorded as pro-Persian - this is attributed to Herodotus making use of Athenian informants.

    Still, I like how archaeology now confirms Herodotus' stories of steppe women wielding weapons, just as zoology confirms that the genitals of both sexes of camel face backwards

    . Some historians even take things one stage further and prefer Herodotus' account of Athenian strategy developing in reaction to the Persian advance to the discovered inscription at Troezen which gives the retreat down the coast and the evacuation of Attica as previously agreed strategies.

    Unlike in the old film, Herodotus' Persians are gallant and honourable foes (if occasionally given to whipping the sea for it's misdeeds), but then we are in the epic tradition. The enemy has to be worthy of the hero. Herodotus is far more effective here than say Livy in his treatment of the war with Hannibal - there we have to read Punic virtues and attractiveness between the lines to understand the fact that Livy doesn't attempt to explain of Hannibal surviving and thriving in Italy for years on end.

    I wondered reading if Herodotus would make for a complete elementary education, Aesop meets Aeschylus with the wonders of Egypt thrown in. Admittedly you would have to deal with questions like "Mummy, Daddy, what does 'refused normal intercourse and lay with her in an unnatural way

    ' mean?" so this would be no course of action for the fainted hearted - but one only for those prepared to bend the bow of the long-lived Ethiopians and to bring up their offspring to respect the Oracle at Delphi, admire wisdom, and be curious about the customs of other countries.

    If I may deviate from my current deviation and recover the thread of my narrative the other point that struck me reading the complete work rather than just the first half was how Murray's

    was in good part a commentary and analysis of Herodotus, drawing its anecdotes about the Oracle at Delphi or Greek Colonies from this work.

    On the subject of the latter, pausing to mention the colonists who departing their homeland threw a lump of iron in the harbour swearing never to return until it floated or those told by the Oracle at Delphi to set up a colony in Libya even though they had no idea where Libya was or how to get there, I arrive at the Greek settlers at Miletus who married Carian women after having murdered all their menfolk. The colonists pass a law

    (p60). Later there is a similar story about captured Athenian women whose children born of rape band together to the point that they are all considered dangerous by their captors who put them all to death, this inevitably leads to divine punishment and the need to ask advice of the Oracle at Delphi, but I digress, though before returning to my theme again the pattern of violence as self-destructive behaviour that brings down an entire community - the whole of the Persian wars in Herodotus' account is figured as the culmination of a series of violent abductions that can only ever end in disaster because the human passions can not be stilled until divine retribution forces the community polluted through its violence to offer up propitiation. This reminded me of Michael Wood's point about western Europe having adopted ancient Greece as a forebear -

    " was not all fine statues and beautiful ruins, heritage isn't a clear cut matter, the baby comes with the bathwater.

    The great contrast here in my mind is with the Romans. They have the Sabine women, who despite the violent beginning represent reconciliation and the unity of different peoples. The Romans base an ideology of empire and themselves as an Imperial people on the basis of a myth of reconciliation, the Greeks an ideology of civic distinctiveness on a history of sectarianism enforced beyond the point of self-harm. Something clear from Herodotus' account is how divided the Greeks are, with many supporting the Persians and some opposed, not out of great principals but on account of local rivalries.

    Lets finish with the Spartans. Not as laconic, proto-all-American superheroes of the battlefield tanned and oiled fit to star in technicolor, but as examples of Herodotus' style. It is the Spartans and Athenians who breach the norms of international diplomacy by murdering the Persian Ambassadors - Herodotus is no whitewasher (though perhaps his early audiences admired their ancestors precisely for that violation). Best of all is his fascinated treatment of the Spartan King Cleomenes, at once decisive and brilliant but transgressing acceptable behaviour - for instance having holed up some enemies in a sacred wood he tricks some of them out claiming they have been ransomed and has them slaughtered (pp349-50). The Spartans put him on trial for failing to capture Argos, in his defence he argues that having offered sacrifice at the temple of Hera he saw flame flash from the breast but not the head of the statue

    (p350). The outcome of all this is that Cleomenes goes mad, and with a knife, cuts himself into strips while in the stocks. Again: transgression, pollution, and call no man happy until he is dead.

    (p421)

  • peiman-mir5 rezakhani
    Jul 03, 2016

    دوستانِ گرانقدر، با آنکه زنده یاد «هرودوت» این مورخ نامی، در برخی از اخباری که ارائه نموده، در مورد ایران خصمانه برخورد کرده و در جاهایی نیز نوشته هایش بسیار با واقعیت فاصله دارد، امّا در هر حال میتوان گفت که یکی از کتبِ تاریخی مرجع میباشد که برخی از اخبار و رویدادهایی که نوشته، تنها در همین کتاب یافت میشود... این مورخ نامی زحمات بسیار زیادی برای بر جای ماندن تاریخ برای انسانهای امروزی کشیده است و مشکل فقط و فقط همان تحریف هایی است که بعضاً به دلیل دشمنی دیرینه با ایرانیان، وارد اخبارش کرده است.

    دوستانِ گرانقدر، با آنکه زنده یاد «هرودوت» این مورخ نامی، در برخی از اخباری که ارائه نموده، در مورد ایران خصمانه برخورد کرده و در جاهایی نیز نوشته هایش بسیار با واقعیت فاصله دارد، امّا در هر حال میتوان گفت که یکی از کتبِ تاریخی مرجع میباشد که برخی از اخبار و رویدادهایی که نوشته، تنها در همین کتاب یافت میشود... این مورخ نامی زحمات بسیار زیادی برای بر جای ماندن تاریخ برای انسانهای امروزی کشیده است و مشکل فقط و فقط همان تحریف هایی است که بعضاً به دلیل دشمنی دیرینه با ایرانیان، وارد اخبارش کرده است... البته اخباری را که تحریف شده است را اگر بر تاریخ ایران تسلط داشته باشید، به خوبی متوجه میشوید.. به گونه ای که در هرکجا که ایرانیان یا فلان پادشاه ایرانی را کوچک انگاشته، بدانید که کینه و بداندیشی از سوی «هرودوت»، در پشتِ آن رویداد و خبر، نهفته است

    درکل، به عنوان مکمل میتواند کتاب مناسبی جهت فهم تاریخ سرزمینمان و همچنین تاریخ یونانیان و رومیان باشد

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    در بند 141 از تاریخ «هرودوت» اخباری از «کوروش بزرگ» نوشته شده که بدون تردید از خواندن آن لذت میبرید و به شعور و خرد نیاکانمان افتخار میکنید

    در بند 141 نوشته: یونانیانِ این سرزمین (منظور آسیای صغیر بوده است) که مغلوبِ «کوروش» شده بودند، سفیری نزد او فرستادند و تقاضا کردند که با آنها به همان نحو رفتار کند که با پادشاه مغلوبِ لیدیه (کرزوس) رفتار کرده بود. یعنی در امور داخلی آنها دخالت نکند و همان امتیازها را برایشان بشناسد. «کوروش» جواب مستقیمی به آنها نداد، ولی این مثال را برایشان آورد: نی زنی به کنار دریا رفت و دید ماهی هایِ خوشرنگ در آب شنا میکنند. پیش خود گفت: اگر نی بزنم یقیناً اینها به خشکی خواهند آمد. ولی چندان که نی زد، اثری از ماهیها نیافت... پس توری برداشت و به دریا افکند و عده ای از ماهیها در آن افتادند... وقتیکه ماهیها در تور میجستند و می افتادند، نی زن گفت: حالا بیهوده می رقصید، میبایست آنوقت که نی میزدم میرقصیدید.(رقصیده باشید)...پایان

    یاد «کوروش»، آن ایرانی بزرگ و خردمند، تا همیشه زنده و پاینده باد

    «پیروز باشید و ایرانی»