A Historian For Our Time

Thucydides may have been the more trustworthy historian, but Herodotus would have been more fun to share a wineskin with—and is a better guide to the god-filled geopolitics of the current era.

This leads us to Herodotus, the historian of the war between the Greeks and the Persians, which preceded the war among the Greek city-states that Thucydides chronicled. Thucydides wrote some decades after Herodotus. Rather than recount, in the manner of his predecessor, stories of remote events based on secondhand and thirdhand sources—accounts that have, as a consequence, transmogrified into myths—Thucydides tends to write about contemporary history through firsthand sources. As a historian, then, Thucydides is more trustworthy. He is also more limited. Thucydides gives us a distilled rendition of the facts, Herodotus a sparkling impression of what lies just beyond them.

Herodotus evinces a receptivity (it would bear full flower in Shakespeare) to the province of the heart and the attendant salience of human intrigues. He illustrates how self-interest is calculated within a disfiguring whirlwind of passion. Atossa, a wife of Persia’s King Darius, appeals to her husband’s male vanity in bed, while begging him to invade Greece. She does this as a favor to the Greek doctor who has cured a growth on her breast, and who wants to revisit his homeland. Anyone who has studied the private lives of the Ceausescus in Romania, the Milosevices in the former Yugoslavia, the Gamsakhurdias in Georgia, and the family of Saddam Hussein in Iraq (not only his deranged sons but the sons-in-law he murdered) knows how central such matters are to international politics.

Obviously, Thucydides knows this, too. Fear, honor (am­bition), and interest are the pillars through which his own history works. But it is Herodotus who more colorfully brings these obsessions to life.

Herodotus’s subject is Greece and Persia and their respective “barbarian” penumbrae in the Near East and North Africa—the vast, exotic tapestry of what the ancient Greeks referred to as the oikoumene, the “inhabited quarter” of the world. According to the late historian Marshall G. S. Hodgson, this is a world that, particularly under the relative peace, tolerance, and sovereignty of the Achaemenid Persian Empire and later empires, provided a sturdy base for the eventual emergence of the great confessional religions. We are vividly acquainted with it thanks to Herodotus. Thucydides might have given a better memorial lecture, but Herodotus—whose curiosity extended beyond politics to natural history, geography, and comparative anthropology (including sexual mores)—would likely have been more fun to share a wineskin with. Herodotus fills the same need that great novels do: he allows us to see the world whole.

Herodotus was born a Persian subject sometime between 490 and 484 B.C. in Halicarnassus, in southwestern Asia Minor. He died in the Greek colony of Thurii, in southern Italy, around 425 B.C. In Thurii, he wrote much of The History. (The title of Herotodus’s work is variously translated as The History or The Histories. In this essay, all direct quotes are from David Grene’s 1987 translation, but I have also drawn on material from the introductions to translations by A. R. Burn and Tom Griffith.) Herotodus’s life shows how ancient Greece was much larger than Greece itself. On book jackets he is portrayed as old and therefore wise, befitting his reputation as the “father of history.” Yet he did his wide-ranging traveling in his twenties and thirties. He is derided as the “father of lies,” because of the fantastic stories he appears to credulously record. This criticism is as much a misunderstanding as a calumny. The word history comes from the Greek istoreo, which means “to inquire.” The kinds of narratives that arise from such inquiries, or researches, are those originally associated with Herodotus. Because of Herodotus, history is, in spirit, a verb: “to find out for yourself.”

Herodotus sees himself as a preserver of the memory of civilizations that in some cases had been, and in other cases would yet be, obliterated—in an epoch when record keeping was virtually nonexistent—so he divorces himself from the urge to judge men and events. He knows that nothing is more important than preserving what people said and believed: the myths, the fables, and even the lies that they lived by. Because human beings cannot function without their illusions, the vital truth, he suggests, lies in causation—the strands of perceptions and misperceptions that lead people to take the actions they do.

Above all, he is an indefatigable traveler and inquirer:

I sailed to Tyre in Phoenicia, having learned that there was there a specially holy shrine of Heracles; I saw it indeed, very richly decorated and with many dedicatory offerings … I talked with the priests of the god there and asked them how long it was since the shrine was established … they said that the shrine had been founded at the same time as Tyre was settled and that people had lived in Tyre for twenty-three hundred years. I saw in Tyre, also, another temple … called after Heracles of Thasos; and so I went to Thasos.

His History is filled with detailed descriptions of places that to ancient Greeks—as well as to contemporary Americans—are dimly known back-of-beyonds.

He writes about the Scythians who live on the far side of the Cimmerian Bosporus, where it is so cold that to make mud in the winter you have to light a fire; about the sturgeon that swim in the rivers nearby and can be pickled, and the great mounds of salt that form where these rivers enter the Pontus Euxinus (Black Sea). Lurid descriptions of cannibalism and brutality abound in The History, like the Persian tradition of occasionally burying children alive as gifts to the “so-called god of the underworld.”

Herodotus writes at a time when the concept of the end justifying the means indicates something far baser than the shrewd moral equivocations Machiavelli would later contemplate. To wit, Darius sets up the weaker members of his own army to be annihilated by the Scythians for the sake of a tactical diversion. The fact that Saddam Hussein treated his own forces similarly is evidence of just what a throwback to the ancient world the Iraqi dictator was—and, conversely, how in certain instances, the ancient world is still part of our own.

The old inheres in the new: Herodotus describes the Spartan warriors, who subsist on twice-daily porridge and diluted wine, defeating the Persians, whose general staff ate lavishly upon tables of silver and gold. One can’t help but think of the dining facilities, laden with steak and lobster, of the American troops in Iraq, and the meager fare of the insurgents who often run rings around them.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is an Atlantic national correspondent and the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis. His latest book is Imperial Grunts.

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