What Is History?

Our inquiry into the great books has brought us to the fruits of Herodotus’s masterful work 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 venture forth in search of ways to ‘disprove’ Herodotus’s account of the world -as if the criteria for proof is the chief concern of his 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 purposes of his inquiries: he is seeking causes that led to the Persian Wars against the Athenians, and he is also writing this 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 come to a close. 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 to not become soft and weak. Examples of great men are Leonidas of Sparta who rejected the religious festival that the rest of Sparta was celebrating with 300 men to give his life and delay the Persians at the pass of Thermopylae, Cyrus the Great in his diverse empire, Solon in his advice to Croesus the Mede to look at the end of a man’s life in order to judge his happiness and wealth, and Themistocles in his persuasive abilities to encourage 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, who epics are presentations of ‘rage’, specifically the ‘rage of Achilles’ and how this 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 is that of the question of fate. Do the acts of men occur by fate? 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 served 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 it is from the ariston valued by all of the ancient Greeks. 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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