This is not what I would have said back in the days when I was studying Classics at the University of Melbourne. Classical Studies was not actually my initial choice for a second major: it was more a matter of what lectures were available as evening classes. However I soon fell in love with the subject because I had some wonderful lecturers to ignite my interest – notably Professor Michael Osborne, and Denis Pryor who took us for Greek and Roman Lit. I ended up spending many happy weekends absorbed in the books and journals in the Classics Library but keen as I was, I only browsed and read the required sections of Herodotus and his successor Thucydides. (I never got to Xenophon at all).
When one reads these key texts as a student, there’s an academic agenda underlying that reading. We had no personal computers or laptops in those days, much less an iPad, but the pen was always busy taking notes for the impending essay or exam. When one reads these histories for fun, at leisure, and spread over weeks and months of reading only when the mood strikes, one can enjoy the gossipy bits, the quirky details and the observations that remind us that the Ancients were not so very different to us after all. So any student dropping by to find erudite quotables will be disappointed with my thoughts here - this post is strictly frivolous. Serious scholars who’ve stumbled here should abandon this site immediately…
The other point to note is that there’s no way I could have afforded these lovely annotated editions with their bountiful maps and illustrations, even if they’d been available back then. These are handsome investment editions, and even though they are now much cheaper than they were when first published, (and you can get them in paperback) they’re still more expensive than the Penguin versions equivalent to the edition that I still have from all those years ago. (It’s just called The Histories). The Landmark Series is an indulgence.
The Introduction by Rosalind Thomas explains the caveat for the use of the title, ‘Histories’. Herodotus was a Greek who lived in Ionia in the 5th century BCE. Using ‘research’ from his extensive travels, his ‘Histories’ is a narrative explaining how the Greek city states briefly stopped arguing with each other to stave off conquest by the mighty Persian Empire. Herodotus was actually the world’s first historian, though not in the modern sense of the word. He blends facts, legends and bizarre digressions about gold-digging ants and hippos with manes like horses. And, just as the rigours of travel can muddle the details for contemporary travellers who are blessed with cameras, SmartPhones, Moleskine notebooks and travel blogs, Herodotus didn’t always get things right. He didn’t always write things down immediately; he wasn’t always discerning about the veracity of other travellers’ tales making their way into his histories; and he was a creature of his time, convinced that there were gods running about and influencing events.
His immediate successor, Thucydides, was snooty about Herodotus (without actually naming him) and in some ways with good reason: his History of the Peloponnesian War is more coherent because it’s written as a chronological narrative. Thucydides skips the gods as agents in human affairs, and (though scholars argue about this, as scholars do) his account appears to be unbiased. But he is coy about his sources, whereas (even when he thinks what they say is ‘silly’), Herodotus almost always attributes his sources, and often offers multiple accounts leaving the reader to sort it out for herself. I like this, and I also prefer Herodotus’ less dry style. Thucydides is inclined to be
a little rather pompous. Herodotus is more like a bloke at a bar in a pub, getting sidetracked from the main game, but much more interesting.
Anyway, much of what Herodotus tells us is verifiable using modern scholarship, and his labours give us a marvellous picture of life among the ancients. It’s for that reason that readers will find that allusions to Herodotus crop up in all kinds of places, and so he’s worth reading much as the Bible is, or Shakespeare.
I can’t remember if Thucydides has much to say about women. But in Book One Herodotus tells us some interesting anecdotes about two queens of Babylon, Semiramis and Nitokris. These women had a practical turn of mind, Semiramis organising engineering infrastructure to prevent flooding, and Nitokris diverting the Euphrates with channels as a defensive strategy against enemies. She had a sense of humour too, for her tomb was inscribed with a tantalising offer of money inside it – along with a stern warning not to touch the tomb unless the money really was needed. And it was actually left alone until Darius the Persian King (522 -486) happened along. He quickly succumbed to temptation and the ruse was revealed: no money, just scorn for his greed.
Herodotus was no feminist, though. He strongly approves of the Babylonian system of auctioning off its women so that the high prices paid for the beautiful could subsidise the dowries of the plain who would otherwise not had husbands at all. On the other hand he describes another of their customs as disgusting, and I’m inclined to agree. These unfortunate women, rich or poor, once a year had to ‘sit down in the sanctuary of Aphrodite and have intercourse with a stranger’… receiving silver tossed into their laps as recompense. (And the silver, being sacred property, can’t be spent either). Curious how often it is that religious rites involve sexual abuse of women, isn’t it?
But that was not the only case of cruel practices in those days. There was a fellow called Harpagos who plotted revenge for many years against his rival Astyages and it was this that led to a revolt by Cyrus who went on to become king of the Persians. Astyages (who was in power in Medea) suffered from that all too common omen that his son would usurp him, so he had sent Harpagos to kill the boy. When he eventually discovered that Harpagos hadn’t done it, he had the son of Harpagos killed and served him up to the unsuspecting father on a platter. And then he had the nerve to criticise Harpagos for helping the Persians! He ended up being enslaved himself in the end, which seems a mild enough punishment to me, though a bit rough on his subjects (the rest of the Medeans) who’d already had to put up with his cruelty for 35 years.
By the time we get to Book Two, Herodotus seems like an old friend. I was fascinated to see that more than two millenia ago, the Persians were interested in the origins of life. They wanted to know where the earliest people on earth emerged. And how to find out? With another example of extreme cruelty. Two infants were selected from among the ‘ordinary people’ and raised in a ‘secluded hut by themselves’, with no human contact and fed only by goats. This was because Psammetichos (the Egyptian king) thought that the first sounds uttered by these poor children would reveal the answer. It turned out to be ‘bekos’ (bread) in the Phrygian language so, lo! proof incontrovertible that the Phrygians were first, yeah! (Too bad about the children’s psychological development, eh?)
Sometimes, of course, Herodotus trips himself up with an opinionated observation where he comes off badly. There’s a sequence which is rather droll for a modern reader who enjoys the benefit of modern astronomy: Herodotus pours scorn on various theories about the origins of the Nile and when it floods. ‘A man could at least think logically about such things’ he pompously says, and then shares his own complicated little pet theory about the sun being driven off its usual course by storms …
Other observations are just funny. He records that Egyptian women had only one garment while the men had two – but fails to tell us what the women wore on laundry day – their birthday suits? On the other hand he goes into more detail than you really want to know about how they care for, butcher and sacrifice various animals. As well as the description of the hippo (which proves he never saw one), there’s also a lovely one about a pet crocodile with golden ear-rings and bangles on its front feet. You can also learn all you ever wanted to know about embalming, and the ‘true’ story of Helen of Troy.
I’m working my way through Herodotus during commercial breaks of the current Masterchef season on TV. There are soooo many ads I’ve read up to the end of Book 2 and we’re only up to Week 3! I’ll come back to this post when I’ve read some more as and when the mood takes me but I’m not reading this with any timetable in mind – that’s the pleasure of reading it when there’s no exam to pass…
Update: Book 3
Herodotus clearly relished regaling his listeners with tales of sickening cruelty. In Book 3 he goes on and on about mad King Cambyses (son of Cyrus) of Persia who inflicted countless acts of violence against all and sundry, including his own brother Smerdis and the sister he’d been given priestly permission to marry. I was kind-of hoping he’d come a cropper in the desert when in rage he marched his men off without pausing to organise supplies, but no, of course, he survived, while heaps of them died and one division disappeared altogether. Herodotus reckons they were caught up in a sandstorm, but I like to think that they got smart and deserted en masse.
As is wont to happen when a king is mad and has killed rather a lot of people, a usurper arose, and lo! it might even have been Smerdis if he wasn’t murdered as he should have been on Cambyses’ orders. When Cambyses finally died of a self-inflicted gangrenous wound after seven years (much to his subjects’ relief) the Magus Smerdis took over granting tax relief to everyone, which is always a popular move… But was he the real Smerdis? Who knows? As modern rulers know, the populace like their leaders to have legitimacy, and even generous tax rates can’t always allay doubts. It was all bound to end in tears for Smerdis and it did: a Conspiracy of Seven arose and bumped him off (and all the other Magi) so that Darius could become king. Herodotus says that they still celebrate this day as a great festival, but I think the Iranian Revolution (the last one) has probably put paid to that….
What is fascinating in Book 3 is the mention of the tunnel works built by the Samians. This edition really comes into its own with topics like this, for what seems like fairly dry information about a long tunnel suddenly takes on much greater significance when you see photos of the tunnel entrances and more significantly, the diagram that shows this tunnel stretching 4000 ft (1,330 metres) from one side of Mt Kastro to the other. It was built to bring water from a spring on the north side to the south side inside the city walls, and it really is an astonishing feat of engineering. Herodotus was impressed, and so am I. (Securing water supplies really was an issue for these ancient cities. Herodotus ascribes some rare rain in Thebes to supernatural forces, because it had never been known to rain there before or since, and if you look it up on Wikipedia you will see that he was right to be astonished because the modern city of Luxor built around the ruins of Thebes gets by on 2.3 mm per year).
Book 3 is where we get the bizarre tales of gold-bearing ants; Indians wearing wool grown on trees (probably cotton); and very strange methods of acquiring frankincense, cassia and cinnamon (they lure birds down onto the ground with large pieces of meat and when the birds carry these up into their nests, the nests (full of cinnamon brought by the birds from who knows where) crash to the ground with the weight of the meat. Oh yes, and there are sheep in Arabia with tails so long that the Arabians kindly make little carts to carry them…
The story of Zopyrus is the weirdest of all. Darius was having a little trouble subduing Babylon, so Zopyrus, convinced of his own importance by the portent of his mule giving birth, decided to help out. The Babylonians had been holding out behind their stout walls for 19 months and he needed to convince them that he was a deserter, so he cut off his own nose and ears and told them that Darius was responsible. (He was still apparently able to speak and hear well enough, I guess). To convince them further, he led two (or was it three?) expeditions against Darius, slaughtering thousands of men from his own side. After that he was trusted enough to be able to open the city walls up at a crucial moment and let Darius in to take the city, so I guess it was all worth it, eh? On to Book 4!
Update Book 4:
Book 4 is not quite so interesting, though one-eyed men, gold-guarding griffins and Issedonians who chop up the bodies of their fathers and mix them into a stew with their flocks and sacrifice them may be fascinating for some. Herodotus himself is a bit doubtful about some of the tales he retells. Mules apparently aren’t born in the land of the Eleans because of some curse,and hey, it’s too cold in Scythia for oxen to grow horns, and the horses get frostbite. I do like this part LOL:
…it really makes me laugh when I see so many people drawing maps of the earth and not one of them giving an intelligent representation of it. They draw Ocena flowing around the whole earth, portray the earth to be more perfectly circular than if it were drawn with a compass, and make Asia the same size as Europe. (p296)
True, as Darius sets off on his conquest we meet the Amazons who know nothing about women’s work, and the Makai women who wear leather bracelets declaring how many men they’ve had, but in general there is rather too much geography in Bk 4, and considerably more than you want to know about how the Scythians (thought to be nomads of the Crimea) treat the bodies of their enemies taken in war …
Update – yes, after a long hiatus, but Masterchef and the ad breaks are back, so here we go with Book 5:
Hmm. Once again we get another example of the cruelty of the Ancients. The multiple wives of a dead Krestonian compete for the honour of being declared his favourite wife, after which her throat is cut over the grave and she is buried with his body. The rest of the Thracians export their children overseas. Oh, and there’s a slave whose head is used as a message board: Histiaios tattoos it (ouch!), waits till the hair grows back (would it, where it had been tattooed??) and then sends him off to Aristagoras with instructions to have a haircut when he arrives.
But while Herodotus seems rather too credulous about some things (e.g. unavenged ruses and so on) there is another example where he is happy to present two sides of the argument (e.g. whether the Crotoniates accepted foreign help to win their wars or not) and let the reader decide for himself. He gets sidetracked from his story about how the Athenians rid themselves of tyrants with his discovery of how the Greeks acquired and then adapted their alphabet from the Phoenicians, and the notes says this is true. How intriguing that even so long ago they were interested in knowing the origins of writing! Once he gets back on track he has this to say about Athenian equality:
So the Athenians had increased in strength, which demonstrates that an equal voice in government has beneficial impact not merely in one way, but in every way: the Athenians, while ruled by tyrants, were no better in war than any of the peoples around them, but once they were rid of tyrants, they became by far the best of all. Thus it is clear that they were deliberately slack while repressed, since they were working for a master, but that after they were freed, they became ardently devoted to working hard so as to win achievement for themselves as individuals. (p. 400)
Did I not just read in John Cusack’s book, They Hosed Them Out that a large percentage of the Nazi armaments manufactured by slave labour were deliberately defective?
(However, Herodotus isn’t always anti-tyrant. According to the Appendix, although he denounces tyranny in Book 5, in later books he is not so critical, suggesting that since tyranny (usually lasting only a generation or two) was a common pattern of government, perhaps the Greek work simply meant ruling monarch).
There’s an interesting little anecdote about the origins of Athenian dress. There was another of those endless territorial squabbles, this time with the Aeginetans, and whether by divine intervention or superior skill, the Aeginetans killed all the invading Athenians but one. When this hapless fellow made it safely back home, the wives of the dead Athenian army stabbed him with the pins of their cloaks and the poor fellow died. And so it was decreed that women were no longer allowed to wear Dorian clothing – with pins, but had to wear a Corinthian tunic which had no pins. It seems a rather lame punishment to me….
BY the end of Book 5 the Persians are back in the ascendancy – on to Book 6!
Editor: Robert B Strassler, Introduction by Rosalind Thomas, Translation by Andrea L. Purvis
Title: The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories
Publisher: Quercus 2008
ISBN: 9781847246868 (Hardback) 1024 pages
Fishpond: The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories
Other titles for your classics shelf in this series:
(These are available as paperbacks, but they are big heavy books of 1000+ pages and will almost certainly fall apart with reading so I recommend the hardbacks. However, if you wish to find them at Fishpond, follow the hardback links above, and then click the link on Robert Strassler’s name. eBooks are currently unavailable, but you may also be able to make enquiries from there. (But I wouldn’t want an eBook version: the maps would not be big enough to see the details, and their value is in being able to see all three of the overlapping maps that show the locator map, the main map and the inset map.)