Friday, December 04, 2009

Herodotus, "The Father of History"

Title: The Histories
Author: Herodotus, Tr. by Aubrey de Selincourt

“So much for what Persians and Phoenicians say; and I have no intention of passing judgment on its truth or falsity. I prefer to rely on my own knowledge, and to point out who it was in actual fact that first injured the Greeks; then I will proceed with my history, telling the story as I go along of small cities of men no less than of great. For most of those which were great once are small today; and those which used to be small were great in my own time. Knowing, therefore, that human prosperity never abides long in the same place, I shall pay attention to both alike.”

A copy of Herodotus’ Histories has sat on my bookshelf for years, unread and pristine. I bought it ages ago as an ambitious college student, intrigued by the role it played in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. But my courage failed in the face of its behemoth size – 603 pages of translated Greek prose – and I never opened it. Two weeks ago, I finally resolved to take the plunge. Now my Histories is dog-eared and tattered, with ink stains on the cover and text messily underlined on nearly every page (reading with a pen helps me focus). And the only thing intimidating me now is this review. How can I possibly describe this sprawling, grandiose work in one neat, tidy essay?

Well, I’ll start with the basics. In the 5th century BC, the Persian army bridged the Hellespont and invaded Greece, where a few stubborn city states – led by Athens and Sparta – refused to submit to the rule of Xerxes. The army was massive and diverse, for by that time Persia had conquered much of the known world. Indian archers, Egyptians infantry, and Ethiopians in leopard-skins … all of these could be found in the Persian army. This was no ordinary war, this was world war – with the Greeks standing alone.

And The Histories, which ostensibly concerns itself with the Greek-Persian conflict, is therefore a world history. Herodotus tells the story of the rise of the Persian empire, and thereby tells the story of all the peoples it conquered. And he doesn’t limit his tale to battles. Myths and legends that he learned during his extensive travels can also be found in these pages, as well as a smattering of natural history. Particularly fascinating is his account of Egypt, its wonders, and the mystery behind the annual flooding of the Nile.

These digressions are more entertaining than you'd imagine – and often blood-curdling. Many people in this book are killed in weird ways. There are numerous stories of murder, revenge, and human sacrifice. When a man died in Thrace, for example, his wives (yes, plural) entered into a keen competition to determine which of them he loved best. The winner was bestowed a lovely prize: her family slaughtered her over her husband’s grave, and she was buried by his side. The other wives lived on, but considered themselves disgraced.

I’m so glad I wasn’t born in Thrace.

There is so much that can be said about The Histories. And as I just finished it yesterday, my mind is still teeming with all the thoughts and stories it crammed into my head. This review will never be able to eloquently describe them all. So I’m going to make my last few points in the from that feels most natural to my legal-trained mind: bullet point!

  • Even in translation, there is some wise and beautiful language here. One of my favorite passages describes a counselor, Artabanus, who warns Xerxes that he will have the world’s two mightiest powers against him when he invades Greece. Xerxes, confused, asks how the poor Greek army can possibly compare to his own. Artabanus replies that it was not the Athenians and Spartans he had in mind, but the land and the sea -- for there is no harbor anywhere large enough to shelter Xerxes’ fleet in a storm, nor no land rich enough to feed his massive army. I liked that.

  • Xerxes and the Persian army were nothing like they are depicted as in the recent movie The 300. They were not deformed monsters who fought in loin clothes and body piercings. In fact, as far as empires go, they seem to have been pretty honorable. Xerxes does have a few “crazy tyrant” moments, but he also treats his enemies with respect (usually). In short, Herodotus tells his story in an impartial manner. There are heroes and villains on both the Greek and Persian sides, and the only thing that seems to be perfectly good is the ideal of freedom.

  • The women in The Histories are mostly chattel, passed around from man to conquering man. There are a few exceptions, however, including a bold queen of Babylon, and a woman named Artemesia, who commanded the troops from Halicarnassus and became one of Xerxes’ most trusted advisors. It was always nice when one of these ladies showed up. I got a little tired of the testosterone after awhile.

  • Herodotus’ descriptions of geography are fascinating, particularly because there comes a point where he simply has to say he does not know what lies beyond. Can you imagine what it must have been like to live in a world where you really did not know where the continent of Europe ended? As far as you know, it could have gone on forever. How strange that must be, to live in a limitless world.

I think that’s enough writing for now, sorry for the rambling review. But if you have a long vacation coming up, or just want to read something challenging and rewarding, you could do worse than pick up a copy of Herodotus. It's an effort, but not nearly as scary as I thought it would be. Just keep a pen handy for underlining.

Labels: , , ,

posted by Elizabeth at 11:07 PM