Herodotus, Books II-IV, Part One
Herodotus’ theme, as I observed in the first installment, is the conflict between Europe and Asia or, more properly, Greeks and barbarians. (In a day or two, we shall have a podcast on what barbarians are.) In a way, his work can be treated as a kind of essay in definition, that is, he is defining Greekness or Hellenism partly by describing Greek behavior and partly by the contrast, often merely suggested, with barbarians.
What seem like long digressions on the histories of the Medes and Persians, Egyptians, and Scythian peoples, thus fit into the overall pattern. These logoi are, whatever historical value they possess, highly entertaining in themselves, but we learn many things about these non-Greek peoples. In the famous Persian debate on government, there is an ethnological subtext that is not always noted: On the one hand, the Persians—unlike other barbarians—are capable of conceiving of free government, but in the end they reject it. Greeks, by contrast, even when they acquiesce in tyranny, prefer freedom. The Athenian tyrant Peisistratus, for example, is described as benign—particularly in his first regime—precisely because he does not interfere in Athenian custom and law. In other words, he acts more like a Spartan king than a tyrant like Periander.
We learn from the Scythian peoples that they are bold in defense of their freedom but they are not capable of self-restraint. One little instance: The Massagetae pile up bonfires of hemp and dance around breathing the fumes until they get drunk and pass out. Greeks find this strange. They like drinking parties, but they water their wine to avoid getting drunk, and even if they become convivial to the point of drunkenness, they conducted themselves with dignity and spent a long evening of music and conversation with their friends. Herodotus in a later book, in demonstrating the insanity of the Spartan king Cleomenes, says he had entertained some Scythian envoys for several days and picked up their habit of drinking unwatered wine. This gave rise, he says, to the phrase, "drink Scythian style."
The pretext for the long Egyptian logos that occupies most of Book II is the planned invasion of Egypt by the Persian king, Cambyses, the successor of Cyrus. Herodotus visited Egypt and parts of North Africa, and he was able to interview Greek settlers and merchants and, mostly through interpreters, a variety of priests. While his accounts are often wildly improbable, we have to bear in mind that he is in a position of an earthling who might visit another galaxy. HE had only one serious predecessor, Hecataeus of Miletus, and, while Herodotus treats him and other authorities with respect, he is usually working hard to refute them--even when one of them is correct, as in the explanation of the Nile floods.
The Egyptians had the oldest continuous civilization in the Mediterranean world (a statement that needs some qualification), and, although they had been conquered and humiliated by the Persians, most of their religion and customs was intact. It is true that Egyptian civilization grew up at about the same time as the Sumerians were establishing city-states in the land between the two rivers, and it is also true that Egyptian culture had changed a great deal between, say 3,500 and 500 B.C. Nonetheless, Herodotus, had he studied Mesopotamian culture more carefully than he did, would probably have concluded that the Sumerians were replaced by Akkadians, who were replaced by Babylonians, then Chaldaeans, then Assyrians. In fact, as we know from a study of culture and religion--e.g., the Gilgamesh story--the development was more like that of a gradual evolution than a series of conquests.
What Herodotus knows best is the rule of the later Egyptian pharaohs who had contacts with the Greeks. Otherwise he has to rely on what the priests told him. Some of their tales were clearly intended to take in the tourist, others reflect a misunderstanding of their own past or Herodotus's failure to understand. In general, he seems to like and admire the Egyptians, and he accepts their own accounts of how they were first to do everything at face value. This is partly because Greeks thought in aetiological terms. In other words, there is a cause for every custom and institution, whether bee-keeping or lyre-playing, and the cause usually comes down to the story of the first man or god to initiate the practice. Hence, the Egyptians, who insisted they were the oldest race, can claim credit for virtually anything. In the case of the solar calendar, however, Herodotus is more or less correct.
Herodotus treats the Egyptian gods as equivalent to Greek deities, and while the equations are sometimes very strained, it is a reasonable supposition. After all, if one really believes there is a powerful father-god in the sky, it is not strange that most human communities should worship him nor unexpected that they should give him different names or tell different tales.
Despite his manifest respect for the Egyptians--especially their architecture--the Greek is naturally amused by customs he does not understand, and sometimes it is like reading the diary of an early English visitor to India. Everything appears to be upside-down--especially their sex-lives. The tale of the clever thief and the Pharaoh's daughter in the public brothel is beautifully told, far more successfully than any surviving Egyptian tale.
I am only hitting the highlights of books 2-4, but we also observe that women play a larger and stranger role in barbarian cultures. There are queens among the Scyths, while Atossa plays a major role in Persian politics—she virtually dictates the selection of Xerxes as heir and is the star of Aeschylus’ Persians. There are strong women in Herodotus’ world, of course. His native town was ruled by Queen Artemisia—a Greek name for a Carian queen!—but she was not really Greek. Gorgo, the daughter of the Spartan king Cleomenes, warns her father against the wiles of an Ionian diplomat, but Herodotus portrays this as an extraordinarily close father-daughter relationship. Besides, from what we know of the Spartans, fathers do seem closer to their daughters than elsewhere in Greece. Perhaps it is because sons were so early sent off to boot camp and then to the soldiers’ messes. (Interestingly, the charming little Gorgo goes on to marry her cousin Leonidas, the hero of Thermopylae.)
In the filthy East, otherwise respectable women must do duty as temple prostitutes, and polygamy and incest are common. In the one Greek case of polygamy, a Spartan king who refused to divorce his barren wife was required by the Ephors to take a second wife to continue a blood line that went back to Heracles. I can just hear the monogamous Athenians, who strictly guarded the chastity of their women, saying, “My my, what strange twisted people those Babylonians and Egyptians are, not proper at all.”
I'll have more to say about the Persians and the Scythians in the next installment, but this should be enough for a discussion or at least a Q&A. Dr Johnson once opined that the man who is tired of London is tired of life, and his contemporary, Edward Gibbon might have added that to be tired of ancient historians is to be tired of human existence. In his autobiography, Gibbon recounts that after finishing his great work, he returned to the reading of the ancient classics, especially the historians.