More Than a 'Mere Herodotolater': Paul Cartledge Visits the Archive of History Today to Retrieve a Critical Appraisal of the Greek Proto-Historian Herodotus by the Inimitable Oxford Don Russell Meiggs, First Published in 1957

Article excerpt

Right from the start the founders of History Today envisaged 'History' very broadly indeed: temporally and spatially, so as to encompass not only 'ancient history' as conventionally defined (Greek and Roman, together with the relevant European, Asiatic and North African); but also as unconventionally defined (premodern, non-Western). Happily, Herodotus, one of the founding fathers of all history, was soon given his place within this magazine's covers. Russell Meiggs (pronounced Meggs) happens also to be one of my heroes, so there's a special pleasure in plucking him and his essay on my ultimate intellectual ancestor out of the archive.

Meiggs (1902-1989) was not just the quintessential Oxford 'Greats' don. He was as interested in the trees and timber of the ancient Mediterranean as he was in the politics, economics and ideology of the fifth-century BC Athenian empire and was more expert in the archaeology and history of the Roman port of Ostia than of Peiraieus. He was also an expert epigraphist (a student of Athenian documentary inscriptions) and more than competent in his knowledge of prehistoric Greece. He was not only very clever but also very funny and tirelessly inquisitive, interested in everything and everybody, constantly practising his own idiosyncratic brand of historia (which in ancient Greek meant 'research' or 'enquiry'). He found in Herodotus a kindred spirit; indeed, Meiggs was rightly dubbed a modern Herodotus. How he would have rejoiced in the current Herodotus revival, one due to a combination of the end of the Cold War (which had privileged the study of Herodotus's major successor Thucydides) and the positive gains of the postmodern paroxysms of the 1980s and 1990s. For we have all come to appreciate the extent to which history is (also) story and that how a past is (re)invented in words can be as important as what supposedly factual matter is rescued from oblivion. Herodotus, as his famous preface makes clear, would have understood.

Meiggs' article begins with a compare and contrast exercise vis-a-vis Thucydides, but then switches to consider the influences--cultural, intellectual and contextual (the great West-East clash of civilisations between Greece and Persia)--that helped shape the mind of our man from Asiatic Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum). Meiggs recognises and duly praises Herodotus's cultural tolerance and even-handedness, in particular towards the religious customs and beliefs of others, his historically-minded dedication to foreign travel, his emphasis on the need for personal observation and enquiry and his ability to ask the right sort of questions. …