Story and History

By Manning, J. G. | New Criterion, September 2014 | Go to article overview

Story and History


Manning, J. G., New Criterion


Tom Holland, translator

Herodotus: The Histories.

Penguin Classics, 880 pages, $40

We have all read Herodotus, or more likely translations of Herodotus, in one class or another in our school days. But go on, confess it, you've probably only skimmed him, perhaps wishing for a good summary instead; his famously long-winded, and sometimes mysterious, digressions were just too hard to follow. What was Herodotus doing with all of these strange stories? And why was that "English Patient" so attached to his copy of him? And for that matter why has Tom Holland, who has produced a wonderful new translation, carried Herodotus with him since the age of twelve? What explains such devotion?

There are many reasons. Herodotus's Histories, as Holland points out in his foreword, is the first nonfiction work of the West. And appropriately, given later historical development, his is an account of the first great military conflict between East and West. This great war has often been viewed as a struggle between good and evil, between the forces of freedom and despotism, liberty and empire, principally because Athens (and Hollywood) wanted it viewed thus. In any case, the Greco-Persian Wars, as they are called, ended in a surprising victory by a bunch of Greeks, who didn't like each other much, defeating (fending off, really) the mighty Persian Empire, whose panoply of soldiers, if not quite looking like something out of the movie 300, were fearsome enough. Not bad ingredients for a book.

That war lies at the heart of Herodotus's Histories, but there is much more. Four books more, to be exact, that serve as a kind of historical explanation of the origins of the war itself. If that were not enough, we also have strange and wonderful stories, of Greeks and non-Greeks alike, for which Herodotus was roundly criticized. Along the way we also have the first connected narrative of ancient Egypt. That's important because this Greek-filtered history of Egypt in Herodotus's Book II was essentially what we knew about Egypt until hieroglyphs were deciphered in the nineteenth century.

Why so many things about Egyptians, Scythians, and the madness of King Cambyses? Wasn't the Greek victory against the Persian Empire enough? Well, in part it is because what we have before us is not an author writing from beginning to end on a publisher's deadline, but rather a work of a lifetime, an accumulation of travel, observation, and reflection, written over twenty or more years. But the explanation also lies in the mind of Herodotus himself and what he wanted to say about historical causation, and what we might call in modern parlance "deep history" as far back as the ancients could reach. In the oral world of the fifth century B.C., that means roughly a century!

Herodotus (ca. 484-ca. 425 B.C.) was the "Father of History," as Cicero called him, but the "Father of Lies," too, as Voltaire pronounced. And that stinging label has tended to stick. And if you are inclined to add to the list, and many scholars have been so inclined, Herodotus was the Father of Anthropology, the Father of Ethnography, the Father of Geographic Determinism, the Father of Historical Geography, and the Father of Historical Dynamics. For the final epithet, read the last paragraph of the work (9.122) on the nature of empire. Let's throw in the Father of Digression to get the full measure of the man. Even in antiquity, these digressions, the propensity to get distracted by odd stories, the constant feeling of the reader--or more likely the listener, in antiquity--of hearing the voice of Homer telling fairy stories, all had the ring of confused unsophistication once Thucydides entered the picture.

And it has been Thucydides ever since who has ruled over all of the ancient writers of history as the supreme historian, the master of no-nonsense realpolitik, of grand strategy, of "international relations," of hardnosed analysis and contemporary reportage. …

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