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How To Read Herodotus?

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The title of this post ends in a question mark because I don’t know. As the ancient zen Buddhist proverb says: “To begin, begin”. And that’s what I did, on and off, now and then: to read one of the first historical non-fiction works of humankind, written by an Ancient Greek citizen of Halicarnassus (now Bodrum, Turkey), called Herodotus.

It’s fascinating to read about culture, habits, wars, disputes, technologies, seas, slavery, hatred, and food from more than 2450 years ago. Two thousand four hundred fifty years ago! In that completely strange—at least to us, the modern reader—world, people seemed to live and die by very different standards. Histories can be a bit daunting to get into precisely because of the huge leap in time: endless Greek, Persian, and Egyptian names are spilled all over the pages that made my head spin, geographic information got me lost as soon as I tried to pinpoint their location, and the omnipresent layers of religious information is easy to get confused by.

Therefore, I wondered: what am I missing, how should I read Herodotus' work? Do I need to be flipping back and forth, carefully scrutinizing the footnotes and inspecting the maps that comes with the Dutch translation I am reading by Wolther Kassies? Should I first read a modern biography and an introduction to the work before trying to understand the words of the father of history (according to Cicero, but according to his adversary Thucydides merely a teller of tales)?

With our without timeline to assist the reader, it’s not only the contents that makes Histories a fascinating read, but the way Herodotus wrote it. It’s everything but a dry enumeration of the facts: Herodotus loves to get sidetracked by a compelling tale he overheard and thinks we the reader might enjoy as well. For example, there’s a bard that escaped from a pirate ship by playing a song and jumping on dolphins—that has little to connection to the subject at hand. A lot of sentences and stories start or end with:

  • I have heard from the priests that …
  • … But I don’t believe that story.
  • An alternative version I picked up is that …
  • … This is the most credible alternative.
  • I leave to the reader which version to believe.

At least he tried to present the facts and cite his sources, even if they were gossip he overheard from someone who got it from someone else. Even in the later books—the work is divided into nine books, believed to be recompiled by others after the discovery of the text—he openly credits Xerxes and the Persians for their customs and bravery; the very same people that came to destroy his homeland. He has traveled to Alexandria and Babylon to record facts about the far, and for most fellow Greeks, unknown, lands. Although some early and current scholars claim some or even many of Herodotus' tales are simply made up, it is clear that he put in effort to describe, to the best of his abilities, what he encountered.

The first sentence of his work reveals his intentions:

This is the showing forth of the Inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassos, to the end that neither the deeds of men may be forgotten by lapse of time, nor the works great and marvelous, which have been produced some by Hellenes and some by Barbarians, may lose their renown; and especially that the causes may be remembered for which these waged war with one another.

Some things aren’t recorded. “This isn’t worth mentioning” he then writes. Huh? Or how about this: “I will not go into the way he was murdered”. Or a “I will elaborate on this later” that was forgotten about and never made it in. And some things could indeed be called at least partially fables and myths. The tale of king Astyages who got word from an oracle of a future treat to his kingdom and in response sent his general Harpagus to kill the treat, the young Cyrus, is such a tale that’s been a favorite subject of 18th century painters. It gets crazier: when Astyages hears that Harpagus didn’t kill Cyrus, he came up with a plan for revenge: inviting Harpagus to dinner, who unknowingly eats the grilled remains of his own son…

And that’s just Book I—Histories is filled to the brim with those nowadays hard to believe tales. Admittedly, it does make the historical work much more engaging to read compared to the dry stating-the-facts work of Thucydides. In the afterword of my edition, Tom Holland writes:

In a sense, Herodotus is the actor of the best endless story of all time.

Since Herodotus used to “publish” his work by orally reciting them at festivals, these tales surely were a great way to captivate an audience. But in-between these strange short stories, the reader is also served more believable facts: how the crocodile in Egypt has a buddy that cleanses his teeth and gets rid of leeches, how the Babylonians embalm their dead in honey, what kind of costumes the Persians wore, and what material which pyramid was made of. Any kind of historical work, nowadays, can be traced back to one single source: Herodotus' Histories.

From what I gathered, an endless army of researchers over the last few hundred years, combined with rediscoveries of ancient sites, have all more or less supported the bigger picture in Histories. In other words, most historical reports could be called accurate. But that’s also a bit of a minefield: Herodotus' claim of the sheer size of the city of Babylon with its hundred gates is based on hearsay instead of personal impressions, even though he writes as if he visited the place. Two thousand years ago, carefully detailed facts were less important than a good story, but the general gist still rings true. People didn’t have Wikipedia back then to quickly fact-check blurted out claims, which makes me hesitate to rely on it during my read.

This makes me wonder. How come Histories was somehow preserved and made it into the 21th century? Endless copies and parts of the original survived, while other ancient authors were less lucky when the Great Library of Alexandria burned down and was ransacked. At one point in Histories, Herodotus himself says he wasn’t the first to travel and write down what he saw for prosperity. Perhaps there were a lot of other wonderfully captivating works in existence that never made it into the modern era.

There’s still a lot of enjoyment (and confusion) to get out of Histories. I only got as far as book III. My translation is 900+ pages long, excluding footnotes. I have the feeling that I shouldn’t treat this work as an ordinary book that can be read from cover to cover…

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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