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.

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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

6 Responses

  1. Jacob Johnson says:

    I had imagined that this would be more prosaic, which I don’t have distaste for really, but it is rather regrettable to have to put it down, which makes the obstructions all the more intolerable. It is starting to fill in the sparse picture of incomplete puzzle from the various synthesis books I’ve thumbed through.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Although Herodotus is the first writer of prose whose whose work has survived more or less intact, he is anything but prosaic. In my many readings of the work, I usually breeze through books two and three, but, while this was not his intent, the reader begins to get the feel of his approach before embarking on the big story of books V following.

  3. Harry Colin says:

    Herodotus seems a religious person, or at least one who is respectful of other religions. His descriptions are unadorned – at least to this point in my reading – with negative or dismissive commentary. He explains, for instance, how Persian practices differed from the Greeks; I found their lack of images or statues interesting, considering how frequently modern man thinks of graven images among the peoples of those times. Herodotus’ approach to such matters is yet another lesson it would be profitable for contemporary historians to learn.

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    I always enjoy reading historians like Herodotus who are somewhat familiar with the marvelous and are therefore willing to simply describe it as handed down to them without too much exaggeration or too much emphasis on their own personal suspicions of events. Several times in his work he will simply state to the reader that he does not believe a certain account or event but his description is it was told to him is accurate. It is difficult for we moderns to identify with the marvelous or wonderful because we experience so little of it in our sheltered living and abtract thought with ideas.
    I recently heard Clyde Wilson say during an introduction of one his former students that he learned more from this student than the student learned from him and I thought to myself what a marvelous truth that is in the fields of teaching and learning and one that we do not see as even possible given our prejudice that teaching should be something that you put into a student instead of something you draw out from them. I have no doubt that Clyde Wilson has forgotten more history of the South than the young man he was introducing will ever know, yet that was Clyde’s testimony and I believe his testimony was true. Or another example is Shelby Foote who is now of course dead and gone and a man who I have never met. It is said by Northeastern establishment type scholars that his history was anecdotal and therefore suspect in its overall narrative of the Civil War. Yet, his telling of those “anecdotal” stories in his southern accent is of course the most marvelous or one of the most wonderful part of Ken Burn’s documentary. It must be also admitted by such critics that the entire field of sociology, when it is most like what it purports to be, is nothing more or less than the provincial and anecdotal writ large into the language of statistics. So, I always enjoy Herodotus as a rare and original historian who kept the respect of that innocent ad honest custom Euripedes describes when he simply said ” The myth is not my own, I had it from my mother.’ Or as we say about history, ” it is not just our own it is handed down to us.” And as Clyde Wilson has said in another context about learning history, ” You must read alot of it, to come to know it.’

  5. Jacob Johnson says:

    I found the details of the pillars erected by Sesostris notable, bringing to mind the way in which the Indian or Highlander have been honored after being defeated and conquered with sports team names etc. I found it odd that he did not want to explain the reason for animals being consecrated to the gods since it is a religious matter, as he had already mentioned other details of religion, until it was explained that it was out of necessity that he did so.

  6. Allen Wilson says:

    I got started late. One thing which is irresitible is the fact that even when his ideas about, say, geography are clearly wrong, we can see how and why he would have drawn such conclusions, all of which are reasonable according to the knowledge he had available to him at the time. The idea that the Nile divides Asia from Africa would have seemed reasonable to many in his time, especially if they thought that the Nile valley was originally a gulf that was filled in by the fiver. Also, the notion that the Nile, if diverted into the Red Sea, would fill it up with silt in twenty thousand years or less is remarkable, and probably true.