When Herodotus sat down to write his epic history of the Persian Wars sometime in the second half of the fifth century BC, he can hardly have thought he would still be required reading 2,500 years later.
It's unlikely he had any inkling that future generations would celebrate him as the 'Father of History', as well as a pioneering geographer and anthropologist, not to mention the world's first travel writer and foreign correspondent, a fearless explorer, irrepressible storyteller, madcap dramatist, author of the first prose epic and an enlightened multiculturalist before the word even existed. It's particularly doubtful he ever anticipated David Hogarth addressing the Royal Geographical Society as its president in 1927, saying he was looking forward to 'spending quite a respectable portion of Eternity in talking to Herodotus'.
His ambition, set out in the opening lines of The Histories, seemed more modest: 'Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds--some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians--may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought each other.'
This was a radical blueprint for a study of the past; the first time such a concept had ever been formulated. On one level, it was a straightforward narrative chronology of the cataclysmic conflict between the Greeks and the Persians--from the invasions of Cyrus in the middle of the sixth century through those of his successors Cambyses and Darius, culminating in the drama of the vast expeditionary force launched by Great King Xerxes, King of Kings, worshipper of Ahura Mazda, Lord of Light, and the rousing, history-changing finale marked by the battles of Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea in 480-79 BC. It was from this tumultuous encounter and Greek victory that the West was born, and Herodotus was on hand to record its dramatic birth.
Yet The Histories is much, much more than that. The history Herodotus envisages--and indeed writes so triumphantly--is something far grander in scale, as universal as it's possible to be. He deliberately awards himself the widest possible remit. Declaring his interest in 'great and marvellous deeds' provides him with the stepping stones from which to spring the most elaborate digressions, from a penetrating study of the Nile to a survey of the strange sexual practices of the Scythians, from a genealogy of the Egyptian pharaohs to eyebrow-raising stories of eunuchs castrating the man who removed their testicles.
HISTORY AND LIES
Born sometime around 490 BC, our Greek historian and geographer celebrates the wonders of the world with a life-grabbing energy that is never less than infectious. The weird and wonderful roam like wild animals through his pages. He introduces us to dog-headed men that live in mountains; the gold-digging ants of India, bigger than a fox, smaller than a dog; and the fabulous flying snakes of Arabia.
Herodotus delights in the glory of human diversity with a vigour that infuriated the parochial Plutarch, who rather uncharitably dubbed him the 'Father of Lies' for some of his taller stories. Like a 19th-century explorer kicking off African dust from his boots as he lectures in the hallowed halls of the RGS on some far-off tribe unknown to his audience, Herodotus takes us into the peculiar world of the Libyans and Lydians, Egyptians and Ethiopians, the Massagetae and the Scythians, Thracians, Persians, Babylonians and Indians. Who are these people, he asks; what are they like, where do they come from, and what makes them tick? How do their customs and traditions --political, social, sexual, architectural, religious, commercial --differ from our own?
These sorts of interests placed him far ahead of his time. It was little wonder that dreary old Plutarch should find Herodotus' fascination with Egyptian culture and fathomless antiquity so threatening. …