What Is History?

Our inquiry into the great books has brought us to the fruits of Herodotus’s masterful Histories praising the greatness of ancient men. Cicero, rather dubiously, once called Herodotus the pater historaie or the “father of history”, and also the “father of lies”. Even today, many modern scholars and archaeologists search for ways to ‘disprove’ Herodotus’s account of the world -as if the criteria for proof is his chief concern in the book.

Before we inquire further, we must ask the fundamental Socratic question: What is history? How did Herodotus understand this term? How is it different from our understanding of history? Our modern word, after all, comes to us from the title for Herodotus’s enduring text. The word history had originally meant “inquiry” in Attic Greek. History is not necessarily an account of the past, but rather it is an inquiry into something, perhaps an event that has passed. What is Herodotus exploring in his book? What are his inquiries?

In Book I, he gives two clues as to the purpose of his inquiries: he says he is seeking the causes that led to the Persian Wars against the Athenians, and he is also writing his perspective down so that the acts of great men are not forgotten. His history is not prejudicial -he demonstrates (or “shows forth”) the great and powerful deeds of all men, both barbarian and Greek. He also gives multiple accounts of these stories from many different people -some of them diametrically opposed to one another. He presents these differing rumors, and weighs their merits based on independent criteria. We might compare Herodotus to a modern cultural anthropologist, however what he demonstrates is an account of things past, events that have now concluded. For what reason?

Perhaps a second clue can be ascertained at the closing of Book IX (the final book) in which we are reminded of the wisdom of Cyrus who discourages his Persian compatriots from moving their families to more comfortable regions of their vast empire, where they might more easily grow their crops, however Cyrus claims this act produces weak men who stand for hardship in the place where their countrymen live. Herodotus, at root, is presenting an account of things past to incite the people that are living not to become soft or weak. Examples of great men are Leonidas of Sparta, a man who rejected a Spartan religious festival alongside 300 men to give his life and delay the Persians at the pass of Thermopylae; Cyrus the Great in his diverse empire; Solon and his sage advice to Croesus the Mede in looking to the end of a man’s life in order to properly judge his happiness and wealth, and Themistocles in his persuasion to the Hellenes to stand their ground at Salamis.

Perhaps the purpose of the inquiries is to present a picture of human greatness, one that might be imitated. For one cannot imitate an image of human greatness without recalling the deeds of great men. His text is also not an explicitly ‘anti-war’ argument, but rather it is necessary for those who would act with foresight in the world to recall the successes and failures of nations that have come and gone. Unlike Homer, whose Iliad presents ‘rage’, specifically the ‘rage of Achilles’ and how this rage led to his swift-footed death and decline to an unsatisfied life as a shade in Hades, and also of a ‘man’ the cunning tactician Odysseus whose guile led to the winning of the Trojan War. The Homeric works are not analyses. However, in Herodotus, his inquiry is an explicit analysis, scribed in prose rather than sung in the ancient poetry of Homer.

On the other hand, one consistency between Homer and Herodotus concerns the question of fate. Does fate govern history? What role do the gods play? Herodotus’s assumption is that men can learn of causes in order to portend the events of the future, like the Pythia at Delphi. If Historia is guided by fate, or perhaps divine revelation, then men will not be made strong -to seek excellence in great deeds that will not be forgotten. The wisdom of these words begins with Solon, the Archon of Athens, as he advises Croesus, who is later taken as an advisor to Cyrus and his son Cambyses, the insane emperor. This is in contrast to the Spartan defector who serves as an inferior guide to Darius’s son Xerxes as he tried to reconquer the Hellenes. The latter failed while the former flourished.

Courage and bravery in the face of death is the greatest quality the men of Herodotus’s world can exemplify. Perhaps we, too, can see vague traces of this Inquiry in our own modern world, distant as we are from the ariston valued by all of ancient Greece. After all, recall that the Greeks shocked the Persians in their ceaseless quest for excellence at the Olympic games when word reached the Achaemenids that the Greeks competed only for an olive wreath rather than riches.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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