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.

But exotic—and, by our standards, morally repug­nant—stories form only the substructure of Herodotus’s work. As for the superstructure, here again is Hodgson, whose multivolume masterpiece on the civilization of Islam covers roughly the same geographical terrain:

Herodotus wrote his history, he said, to preserve the memory of the great deeds done by the Greeks and the Persians: unrepeatable deeds that have an enduring claim to our respect. Those deeds cannot be imitated, though they may be emulated and in some sense perhaps surpassed. But even now we dare call no man great whose deeds cannot somehow measure up to theirs.

The essence of Herodotus’s History, then, is that the more hideous and intractable are the ways of humankind, the more glorious are the heroes who rise above such circumstances. To focus on the worst is not to give oneself up to fate, but to take a necessary step before calculating the possibilities of overcoming it. Artabanus, Xerxes’ uncle, tells the Persian king, “He is the best of men who, when he is laying his plans, dreads and reflects on everything that can happen [to] him but is bold when he is in the thick of the action.”

In modern times, this message has achieved its highest artistic expression in a work that, even more than Hodgson’s, can be likened to that of Herodotus: The River War: An Historical Account of the Re-Conquest of the Soudan (1899), which Winston Churchill wrote when he was in his mid-twenties. The young Churchill, like Herodotus, mixes landscape description with geo­political analysis, philosophical ruminations with the arcana of weapons maintenance, and on-the-spot interviews with disquisitions on rainfall, soil fertility, and the behavior of nomadic tribes. Churchill understands that while tribalism is not the highest good, it provides cohesion in places that would otherwise unravel. Like Ibn Khaldun in the fourteenth century, and the Prussian master strategist Helmuth von Moltke in the nineteenth (whose own travel writing about the Turkish Near East evinces many of the hard-nosed qualities of The History and The River War), Churchill knows that the truest political and military insights arise from the most uncomfortable of ground-level impressions: few places start out as a clean slate. In considering their actions, wise policy makers work near the limits of what is possible, because all situations have the potential for better and worse outcomes.

Likewise, Herodotus’s History, if it is about anything, is about understanding the complexities of fate: moira in Greek, “the dealer-out of portions.” This occurs against the background of a monumental struggle between Greece’s relatively enlightened European civilization and Persia’s less-enlightened Asiatic one. This Herodotean world resembles our own in its emphasis on the eastern Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, and the Iranian plateau. It’s a world where successful leaders have an understanding of cultural context and a knack for seeing just what’s out there—and where unsuccessful leaders have neither. As Artabanus warns Darius to no avail: Do not make war against the Scythians—a swiftly mobile and nomadic people without cities or sown land, who offer no focal point of attack for a large, well-equipped army.

To manage the demons of fate and uncertainty, one first has to respect their awesome, mystical power. Solon, the Athenian, advises Croesus, the arrogant and wealthy king of Lydia, to call himself lucky, not blessed, no matter how much money he has; as long as he is alive, anything might still happen to him. So it passes that all of Croesus’s wealth and power are lost in a war against the Persian ruler Cyrus. As Croesus lies on a pyre, fettered in chains, waiting to be devoured by fire, in lamentation he calls out, “Solon!”

Or take Xerxes. Atop a hill, surveying his navy sailing into the Hellespont, and his army on the adjoining shores and plains, he declares himself a happy man, but then bursts into tears. “For pity stole over me,” he explains, “as I made my meditation on the shortness of the life of man; here are all these thousands, and not a one of them will be alive a hundred years from now.” Again, it is Artabanus who tells the king sagely, “Life gives us greater occasion for pity than this,” for as short as life is, there are disasters that make it seem long, and make us wish we were dead. And in fact Xerxes will lose both his navy and army in the course of his invasion of Greece.

Fate is like a brute force of nature against which the individual sometimes struggles in vain. As Polycrates, the benevolent tyrant of Samos, grows richer, he is advised to part with the thing he values most, so as to protect himself against a vengeful god. He goes out in a boat and throws away his gold ring. A few days later a man catches a fish that he gives as a gift to the Samian king. When Polycrates’ servants cut up the fish, they find the ring. The thing the king valued most is now back. And it transpires that the king is soon lured to the mainland of Asia Minor by the false promises of the Persian governor of Lydia, who puts him to death by crucifixion.

Fate can also be misinterpreted. Cambyses, king of Persia, has a dream that he is toppled and killed by a man named Smerdis, so he kills his brother of that name. But it is another Smerdis, a Median tribesman, who rises against him. Leaping on his horse to travel to Susa to make war against this Median, Cambyses accidentally pierces his thigh with his own sword. This happens in a place called Ecbatana, in Syria. An oracle had told him he would die in Ecbatana. Cambyses had thought that would be the Median town of that name, where he would die peacefully as an old man. But having misread all the signs, the Persian king dies of a self-inflicted wound in this faraway town.

Of course, fate can be conquered, but it takes all the force of the human spirit. That may be the decisive lesson bequeathed by Herodotus. When the Athenians ask the oracle at Delphi what will happen if they stand and fight against the Persians, the oracle replies:

Wretched ones, why sit you here? Flee and begone to remotest ends of earth, leaving your homes …
Many a fortress besides, and not yours alone shall he ruin …
Get you gone out of the shrine! Blanket your soul with your sorrows.

Rather than give in to this terrible fate, the Athenians consult the oracle a second time. “Give us a better oracle about our fatherland,” they say. “Be moved to pity … or we will never go away from your shrine but remain right here till we die.” Then the priestess gives a different, more obscure answer:

A wall of wood, which alone shall abide unsacked by the foemen;
Well shall it serve yourselves and your children …
Do not abide the charge of horse and foot that come on you,
A mighty host from the landward side, but withdraw before it.
Turn your back in retreat; on another day you shall face them.
Salamis, isle divine, you shall slay many children of women …

The Athenians convince themselves that if this oracle had meant ruin for them, it would have said “O cruel Salamis” rather than “Salamis, isle divine.” Thus, they prepare for a great sea battle at Salamis with their wooden wall of ships, and go on to save Greece. The story shows that even the Delphic oracle can be challenged by men determined toward a different fate. But to state such a fact rarely suffices; without a gripping narrative to back it up, a moral principle is a mere declaration. That is the significance of The History.

Take the story of the Three Hundred Spartans at Thermopylae, who are prepared to stand fast in the face of annihilation by the Persians. Leonidas, king of Sparta, was ambitious, not to live but to leave a great name. For there had been a prophecy that either Sparta would be destroyed by the barbarians or a Spartan king would be killed. Herodotus sets up Leonidas for glory in the way that he introduces him, in biblical form, “Leonidas … the son of Anaxandrides, the son of Leon, the son of Eurycratides, the son of Anaxandrus, the son of Eurycrates, the son of Polydorus,” and so on.

True heroism requires a moral basis. Herodotus gives us stories that reveal the vast difference between the values of the Greeks and those of the Persians. After honoring Xerxes’ campaign with generous gifts, Pythius the Lydian asks the Persian king a lone favor: that of his five sons, who all intend to fight with Xerxes against the Greeks, the eldest be released from service so that he may be the caretaker of his father’s possessions. The request fills Xerxes with anger. He orders his men to cut the eldest son of Pythius in half “and to set the two halves of the body on each side of the road … and the army should march between them.” There are no limits to this Persian monarch’s cruelty and presumptuousness: he even orders that the sea itself be scourged, for delivering up a storm that destroyed a bridge he had built.

Contrast such behavior with that of Pausanias, king of Sparta, who defeats the Persian army at Plataea. Because the Persians cut off and impaled the head of Leonidas at Thermopylae, Pausanias is urged by a fellow Spartan to do likewise to the body of Mardonius, the Persian general. Pausanias refuses, explaining:

Such actions are more fit for barbarians than Greeks, and even in them we find it a matter of offense. For conduct such as this, God forbid that I should find favor with … any who approve such acts! It is enough for me to please the men of Sparta by decent action and decent words.

While Herodotus leads us to a majestic and, I would argue, morally based worldview, what sets his History apart from other works, both ancient and modern, is his powerful evocation of just what human beings are capable of believing, and how deeply they do indeed believe, for the sake of their own salvation. It is a belief made tangible by the fact that the ancients, living without science and technology, saw and heard differently—more vividly—than we do.

Take the story of Phidippides, a professional runner sent from Athens to Sparta as a herald to plead for help against the Persians. Phidippides tells the Athenians that on Mount Parthenium, en route to Sparta, he saw the god Pan, who bade him ask his countrymen: “Why do you pay no heed to Pan, who is a good friend to the people of Athens, has been many times serviceable to you, and will be so again?” The Athenians are convinced that Phidippides has told the truth, and so, as Herodotus recounts,

when the Athenian fortunes had again settled for the good, they set up a shrine of Pan under the Acropolis and propitiated the god himself with sacrifices and torch races, in accord with the message he had sent them.

This is more than just a charming story; it may well be the truth as the Athenians related it to Herodotus. The runner probably believed he saw Pan. He did see Pan. A vision of the god was likely, given his fatigue, the pantheon inherent in his belief system, and the wonder-filled fear of the physical elements that has since been lost to human beings. The ancient world was “settled so sparsely that nature was not yet eclipsed by man,” Boris Pasternak wrote in Doctor Zhivago. “Nature hit you in the eye so plainly and grabbed you so fiercely and so tangibly by the scruff of the neck that perhaps it really was still full of gods.” If rationalism and secularism have taken us so far that we can no longer imagine what Phidippides saw, then we are incapable of understanding—and consequently defending ourselves against—many of the religious movements that reverse the Enlightenment and affect today’s geopolitics.

Indeed, Xerxes’ decision to invade Greece—after getting so much conflicting advice on the matter—may have come not from any rational analysis but from a dream. Herodotus is not credulous. As he writes, and repeats in different words throughout his work, “I must tell what is said, but I am not at all bound to believe it, and this comment of mine holds about my whole History.”

Writing about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, D. H. Lawrence suggests that the story is deeper than metaphysics or ordinary symbolism. The same goes for many of Herodotus’s accounts. The Persian army that disappears in an Ethiopian sandstorm. The lions that kill all the camels in a Persian encampment, leaving the other animals and human beings alone. A prisoner’s chopped-off hands, left clinging to the gates of the Temple of Demeter the Lawgiver on the island of Aegina. Here are images and cultural revelations in brushstrokes of the most glittering oils. The Trausi, a Thracian tribe, who surround a newborn baby and lament for it, for all the ill it must endure, even as they bury their dead with “joy and delight.” The blind Egyptian pharaoh, who is told by an oracle that he will be cured by washing his eyes with the urine of a woman who has known only her husband: after trying the piss of one of his wives after another, he is cured only by that of his last wife; and he kills them all except for her. The Babylonian women, who must go to the temple of Aphrodite “and sit there and be lain with by a strange man”; beautiful women depart the temple quickly enough, but the ugly ones sometimes wait years, veritable prisoners of the temple, before a man agrees to lie with them.

It would be naive to think that our world is not, in its own way, just as fantastic, just as unreasonable. Given the adversaries we have fought, and are likely to fight still; given the mirages that cloud our own judgment about distant places about which we think we know much, but in fact know little; given all of that, the dreamlike delusions and psychoses revealed in the stories of Herodotus provide a richer insight into what we are up against than does much contemporary analysis. Coping with the world of the coming decades will require an arresting imagination. Leaders who cannot mentally escape their own narrow slots of existence will fail. Herodotus will be as valuable as Thucydides.

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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