Saturday, July 12, 2008

50 Greatest Books - Herodotus

The Father of History.
The Histories by Herodotus Globe & Mail

July 12, 2008
Tom Holland

History, like poetry, began with war. Around 440 BC, some three centuries after Homer, singing of the wrath of Achilles, composed The Iliad, a Greek by the name of Herodotus embarked upon a project no less epic. His goal was to explain what would now be termed "the clash of civilizations": the inability of the peoples of East and West to live together in peace. A fateful and enduring theme - and prompted, in Herodotus's case, by a concern to explain how the King of Persia, the most powerful man on the planet, had recently sought to conquer Greece.

The onslaught had been launched back in 480 BC. Set against the unprecedented juggernaut of the Persian invasion, the Greeks appeared few in numbers and hopelessly divided. The result seemed a foregone conclusion. And yet somehow, astonishingly, against the largest expeditionary force ever assembled, the Greeks had managed to hold out. The invaders had been turned back. Greece had remained free.

Two and a half thousand years later, and the story remains as thrilling and remarkable as ever. So stirringly did Herodotus tell it, and with such an epic sweep, that it has come to serve as the very founding myth of European civilization: as the archetype of the triumph of freedom over enervated despotism. Yet it is a startling fact that what will perhaps most strike the reader of Herodotus is not any tone of xenophobia, but rather the very opposite: curiosity and open-mindedness. "Philobarbaros," one indignant compatriot labelled him: the closest to the phrase "bleeding-heart liberal" that ancient Greek approached.

The truth is that Herodotus was both intensely a man of his background, and inexhaustibly curious about the world that lay beyond that of the Greeks. Indeed, such was his enthusiasm for pursuing the line of a good story that it ended up giving to his great work something of the character of a shaggy dog story. Readers who start The Histories in the expectation of reading about the heroics of Thermopylae or Salamis will find they have a long way to go. Only a couple of pages in, and suddenly Herodotus is giving us a strange tale about a king who presses a bodyguard to have a peek at his naked queen - with predictably fatal consequences.

Then comes a story about a musician who is captured by pirates, and escapes them by jumping into the sea while playing his lute - and is promptly rescued by a dolphin. No wonder that Herodotus, "the father of history," has also been sneered at as "the father of lies."

But that is unfair, for not only does it overlook the extraordinarily subtle ordering of themes that gives such an underlying unity to his material, but also - and even more crucially - misrepresents how he saw his own role. "For my job," Herodotus explains at one point, "is simply to record whatever I am told by each of my sources."

Here, as he well appreciated, was something new. For the first time, a chronicler had set himself to trace the origins of a great event, not to a past so remote as to be utterly fabulous, nor to the whims and wishes of some god, nor to a people's claim to a manifest destiny, but rather to explanations that he could investigate personally. Committed to transcribing only living informants or eyewitness accounts, Herodotus had duly toured the world - the original anthropologist, the original foreign correspondent. The fruit of his tireless curiosity was not merely a narrative, but a portrait of an entire age: capacious, various, tolerant. The word that gave to his achievement was one that well deserved to stick. "Enquiries," he termed it: historia.

I first read Herodotus when I was 10. Since then, I have returned to him many times, and never once been bored. It is hard to think of another author of whom I could say the same, let alone one who wrote two and a half millennia ago. "Herodotus," Edward Gibbon declared, "sometimes writes for children and sometimes for philosophers."

And also, thank goodness, for everyone in between.

Tom Holland is the author of Persian Fire. He is currently translating Herodotus for Penguin.

Gutenberg Project - READ the Histories.
The Histories of Herodotus Volume 1
The Histories of Herodotus Volume 2

This is one classical book I have started reading,several times, but never quite managed to read all the way through.

1 comment:

Rebecca Reid said...

Wow, I've always been kind of scared of this kind of work, but reading this review has inspired me to give it a try. I've always heard of Homer and Virgil but not Herodotus as much.