Herodotus, 0: Introduction

Since the Persian Wars—like the Punic Wars, the Crusades, and the West’s ongoing struggle with Islam—serve to define who we are, it will  be useful to reread Herodotus, particularly the books that are directly relevant to the cultural struggle between the West and its enemies.  For those who are picking it up for the first time, I must warn you that reading Herodotus, the most entertaining of historians, may become a habit. I have read his work twice in Greek and several times in English

Herodotus was a Greek, born in the late 480’s in Halicarnassus, a city in Asia Minor.  The city had been founded, according to tradition, by Dorian Greeks who were eventually booted out of the Dorian confederation of six Asiatic colonies Kos, Cnidus, Lindos, Kameiros and Ialysus; but, according to the story, it was expelled from the league when one of its citizens, Agasicles, took home the prize tripod which he had won in the Triopian games, instead of dedicating it to the Triopian Apollo. The story may be true but it may also reflect a growing tension between Dorian cities and the increasingly Ionian Halicarnassus. By Herodotus’ time, the city was in culture and dialect Ionian, that is, related to the brilliant Greek colonies on Asia Minor and in the Cycladic Islands that had revived Greek civilization after the collapse of Mycenaean Greece.  Nonetheless, Greeks shared the city with barbarian Carians, albeit Hellenized Carians for the most part, and it was absorbed into the Carian kingdom (which included Kos, Nisyros and Kalymnos), whose ruler, Queen Artemisia, plays so prominent a part in his narrative of the Persian invasion of 480.  She was of Carian-Greek ethnicity by her father Lygdamis I, and half-Cretan by her mother.  The Carian language was I-E, related to Luwian, which became dominant language of Hittite empire.  By the time of the Persian Wars, Carians would have spoken mostly Greek as their primary language,

Herodotus went into exile about 454 after the tyrant Lygdamis, a grandson of Queen Artemisia, killed a close relative, the epic poet Panyassis.  Nonetheless, although he had good reason to hate her family, Herodotus is very partial to Artemisia, whom he portrays as a wise advisor to Xerxes on his expedition.  He spent time in Athens and became friendly with the Alcmeonid family, before going off to join the Athenian colony at Thurii (founded 444/3).  He was a great traveler, as you have seen, and visited the Middle East, Egypt, and Italy, as well as  many Greek cities on the mainland  in the Aegean.  He was a relentless seeker after information, as the word History (investigation, fact-finding) implies.

Although Herodotus appreciated the Persians for their genuinely good qualities, he saw the struggle between Greeks and Persians as of monumental, even metaphysical significance.  Modern historians of the Persian Empire often treat the invasions of Greek as a frontier problem.  The fact that these historians have to read Herodotus and Aeschylus, because the Persians did not produce history or tragedy, should be a clue as to where they have gone wrong.  Herodotus portrays the wars as a conflict in which the Greeks expressed their common identity, but it is also true to say that even up to the present, his book has served to recreate  that identity.

Herodotus writes in the Ionic dialect, which is closely related to the latest form in which epic poetry was written. It was also the dialect of the early elegiac and iambic poets as well as of the earliest philosophers.  Attic, which is a branch of Ionic, is more clipped, and Attic prose writers developed a paratactic style, that is, one that relies heavily on a formal construction of subordinate clauses.  Herodotus, by contrast, tends to construct sentences that are strung out a bit like beads on a string.  He is nothing, if not graceful, and his narrative abilities—and strung-on style—make him a fit subject for comparison with the epic poets. Despite his Ionian cultural background, Herodotus portrays the Ionians of the late 6th and early 5th centuries as vacillating, divided, and not as warlike as their ancestors who had fought Lydians, Carians, Thracians, and Cimmerian savages,

The early Greeks, who were not unified either in dialect or ethnicity, were divided into distinct ethnic and dialect groups:  The Ionians, who were predominant in Asia Minor, the Aegean islands, the great island of Euboea, and Athens, represented (with the exception of backward Athens) the cultural elite of the Greek world.  Their dialect, with an admixture of more ancient words from different dialects, was the language of Homer, elegiac poetry, and the philosophers.  And, even after the triumph of Attic as a literary language, Ionic Greek persisted long enough to influence the development of Koine and modern Greek.   

The Dorians, a branch of more primitive Northwest Greeks, had taken over the Peloponnesus and spread to Sicily and elsewhere.  The Aeolians believed themselves to be descended from Mycenaean refugees who fled the invading Dorians.  The songs of Sappho and Alcaeus, written in Aeolic Greek, are worth the effort to master the language.  There were, of course, other peoples:  Boeotians and Thessalians, whose dialects were partly Aeolian, Locrians, et al., but, since this is only the briefest summary, I have spoken only of the dialects that were common in literature.

The basic themes of the Histories emerge in the First Book.  The opening sentence and paragraphs give us a fairly clear idea of the author’s intentions.

This is the exposition / setting-forth of the history of Herodotus of Halicarnassus…”

In other words, Herodotus’ book is notwhat we normally mean by the word history, that is an account of past events much less the events that took place.  If the latter were the case then the history of Herodotus would be the story of his life.  No, history in the Ionian sense is a process of going places to find things out.  A histor is a wise man who has learned things by investigation.  The root is the same as oida, I know and is related to verbs of seeing.  So historia (or, in Herodotuss’ Ionic dialect, historie) is the process of investigation.  Since there were few written historical accounts to consult before Herodotus set forth his findings, his research was mainly a process of going to see people who knew something.

So that the things done by human beings may not become in time become extinct, neither the great and wondrous things done, some by Greeks and others by barbarians, may not lose their fame, especially for what reason they fought each other.

So, it is not the mere facts he wishes us to learn, but the point of the conflict, so that we too may become histores, if only passively through reading.

Herodotus, though correctly called "the father of history"--there is no earlier text in any language that can be compared with his grapplings with the past--he did write within a tradition of Ionian seekers of wisdom. The early Ionian "physicists"--Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes--had sought explanations for natural phenomena by trying to conceive an element or elements that underlie perceptible reality.

Anaximander is said to have made a world map, and it must have been something like that map that Aristagoras of Miletus used, when he tried to hoodwink a Spartan king into backing the Ionian revolt.  Hecataeus of Miletus, whom Herodotus frequently refers to (not always by name) had made a map and written his own accounts of natural and ethnographic phenomena, which Herodotus cites, typically, only to reject.

So then, while Herodotus is the Father of History, he is also the father of geography and anthropology.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Michael Strenk says:

    This is very useful. Thank you for the links showing geographic locations, very helpful. I have Rawlinson and Greene. I’ll dump Greene as I need room on the shelf anyway.

  2. Jacob Johnson says:

    Here’s to a new habit, hopefully a compulsion.