Notes on History

Herodotus’s Inquiries is, at root, an inquiry into the ontological status of the Greeks and the Barbarians, the two great empires of antiquity. What delineates the one from the other? How did the East come to be separate from the West? To what extent are they clear and distinct cultures?

Herodotus proceeds with this esoteric inquiry by exploring the character of the Greeks on the periphery, from the outside, by reiterating the stories men tell themselves of both their enemies and their friends. For example, he begins Book I by recounting what the Barbarians tell themselves of the origins of the Persian Wars -by a series of unjust kidnappings of their women. However, this is qualified by his acknowledgement that these cannot be verified. Almost immediately, the text is a presentation of the subtle skepticism Herodotus has for logoi in the form of rumors, though Herodotus does not deny the importance of these stories. One can apprehend a great deal about a culture by analyzing the stories its people tell, one can comprehend a great deal about a culture by understanding the stories its outsiders tell.

He marvels at the great wonders of the world: such as the prediction of an eclipse, the mores of the Asiatic and Egyptian peoples, the geographic distinctions, the Oracle’s ability to be bribed or convinced, and so on. His text is not a dogmatically skeptical piece, not constricting in this way as when one reads Descartes, Hume, or even Gibbon. Like Homer, he recounts the many wonders from around the world, however Herodotus removes himself from the poets to a degree, but merely restating the fanciful stories, making little commentary on their validity or believability. His project is not an attempt to disprove or dismantle the stories men tell themselves, indeed some have been proven to be deeply fruitful as in the case of the Gyges story, a Greek story told about Barbarian mores.

Aristotle made the famous delineation between poetry and history: history tells of what has come to be, and poetry tells of what might come to be. In this way, according to Aristotle, poetry is superior to history because it is more serious and philosophical (Poetics 1451b). However, on this point Herodotus draws swords with both Homer and Aristotle. In his opening passage, he acknowledges that his inquiry will be a “showing forth” of things that had come to be, including the tall tales of the poets, but he tests their falsifiability by presenting the varying differences of stories across cultures. Like Odysseus, Herodotus is a wanderer. However unlike Odysseus, he does not seek loot and ladies and adventures, but rather he seeks to comprehend the known world through open eyed inquiry (see Eva Brann). His project is an autopsia, which like many Greek words adopted in the modern sense, has degenerated from meaning “seeing-for-oneself” to the inspection of corpses. Herodotus is the first person that we know of who ventures forth just to see for himself, though we may speculate about the subtext for Odysseus’s piracy.

To the ancient mind, history was not dead or bygone, but rather alive and influential in the present. Time was much more fluid, rather than a numerical recording of things past. Herodotus notes that while many ancient cities that were once great are now small, and vice versa, acknowledging that human fortune or happiness do not endure, he will take an equal account of both, the great and the small cities.

As with the varying rumors abounding in Dostoevsky’s great work The Brothers Karamazov, Herodotus’s inquiries unearth the multiplicity of logoi in order to exoterically reaffirm their status as believable by many people, and also to provide an antidote in the form of conflicting stories or accounts given. Herodotus acts as the judge, relying on his authority to discern between the wise or the likely stories. Ironically, he is said to have recited his great work while living in an Athenian colony before moving to Italy where he died, echoing his accumulation of stories, both verifiable and according to Herodotus’s authority.

An Inquiry into Herodotus’s Project

Unlike the “archaeology” undertaken by Thucydides, Herodotus gives a survey of cultures and customs across the known world by scribing a book whose purpose is to “show forth” the “causes” of the Persian War so that humans will not forget the deeds of great men. I believe it was Strauss who once remarked in a letter that Herodotus’s Inquiries are magnificent because the text presents both the problem and the antidote to logoi. He exoterically reaffirms the poets, by echoing the many varying tales of the war against Persia, while at the same time denying any embellishments that he cannot independently verify -an early nod to the modern process of historical/anthropological inquiry.

Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed exhibited 1830 by William Etty 1787-1849
Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed by William Etty in 1830

As is customary for the Greek mind, Herodotus praises competition -the best of men are to be held in high regard. Men like Themistocles, Phidippides, Cyrus, and Leonidas. Indeed, like Thucydides who came after him, Herodotus naturally draws his great work in sharp contrast to the earlier Homeric epics. To Herodotus and Thucydides, both independent investigators, maintaining skepticism toward the excessive poet untruth is what distinguishes their inquiry from Homeric lavish.

Is their quarrel with Homer one that is characterized by inspiring courage and greatness among the living, or rather is it to “show forth” an accurate procession of past events -great deeds that occurred without hyperbole? Or perhaps these two are not necessarily in conflict with one another -can the writer present a record of past events without the help of the poets? The inquiry into human greatness begins with the desire to seek and find greatness, and once it is found, greatness must be remembered. Greatness stands emboldened against the ever impending threat of tyranny, a tyranny that is either exemplified by the will of the tyrant that comes from the East (the Lydian Empire that upset its own customs when Caundales seals his own fate and Gyges becomes king, only for his empire to decay under the lavish leadership of Croesus, and it is then conquered by the Persians under Cyrus followed by his mad son, Cambyses, who completes the tyranny over the east by conquering Egypt, and Darius the tactician, and Xerxes, whose failures in Greece spawned the decline of the Persian War) or the Democratic Athenian tyranny of laws and endless progress. In the Aristotelian sense, the end of tyranny is “self-protection”, meaning guard or protection.

The Homeric epics wrestle with two chief concerns. The first is a poem about the city, Ilium, and its destruction. The Iliad states its subject at the outset, the wrath of Achilles and how his rage tragically sealed his fate. The warrior is necessary for the city in motion, his power is immense, and his life is gloriously remembered, but it can be tragic based on whether or not the war is won. He is swift and lacks tact. Alternatively, we are given the example of a man, Odysseus, a tactician who Homer credits with winning the war due to his cunning plan to exploit the Trojans deference for piety. Herodotus, on the other hand, examines neither of the noble types per say, but rather he surveys the varying geographies, laws, customs, and politics that form the competing ideologies of the East and the West. In paving the way for the modern ‘historical science’ Herodotus, hailing from Halicarnassus, attempts to maintain impartiality -the locus of his inquiry is neither Greek nor barbarian, and it is not a defense, or apologeia. It is rather a “showing forth” of causes for a great war so as to demonstrate human greatness. In using the Persian War, Herodotus takes the particular (the Persian War) to wonder about the universals. History in the Herodotean sense is not a mere timeline or record of events, but rather an active inquiry into human greatness. it is presented in the Greek spirit of competition as if to boldly challenge anyone to supersede his text.

Herodotus’s project subordinates the poetic for alethea, the unveiling of the true account. Like Gyges, Herodotus looks upon beautiful and noble things that are not his own, thereby transgressing the most sacred custom of antiquity. He is a traveler, a wanderer like Odysseus who sees many things that are not his own, and in looking upon things unfamiliar to a man lies the root of empire -a dangerous decline into tyranny is imminent. Recall the fate of Gyges that is played out generations later with the arrogance of Croesus in Lydia. The story of Gyges is the first full story mentioned by Herodotus, it is also repeated by Glaucon the early books of the Republic (Politeia) however it is crucially edited and misremembered by Glaucon, revealing much about his psychology but that is an inquiry for another time. Herodotus’s inquiry is perhaps more dangerous than Gyges’s transgression because Herodotus does not have political ambitions. He is not bound by nomos, or laws and customs, but rather he is in pursuit of truth and this inquiry is dangerous to the city because the city depends on untruth, knowledge of things beautiful and noble that belong to oneself. If a man travels from city to city he sees laws and customs that are entirely foreign, perhaps even values of good and evil that are incompatible with his own. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, he sees natural ‘laws’ that are the same everywhere, i.e. fire burns the same everywhere, food grows well in fertile climates, and so on, but not everyone devours devours their dead as in the case of Darius comparing the customs of the Indians and the Greeks.

However it is not my contention that Herodotus’s work permits danger to the city. By echoing the logos of the Athenians he both exoterically praises their greatness and Pindar’s claim that custom is king, while also esoterically wrestling with universal questions.

Historia for Herodotus is an inquiry into a specific moment, the Persian Wars, in order to “show forth” human greatness in opposition to tyranny, a universal question. In order to do this Herodotus presents the misleading and often contradictory stories told among and between groups. Skepticism toward the poets and rumor-mills of ideology is rife throughout his book. The closing story of the text appropriately parallels the first story told of Gyges in Lydia. The final story praises the wisdom of Cyrus in his rejection of relocating to more favorable climates for any easier life, for otherwise he falls prey to leading his empire into disarray, looking upon foreign property, securing the fate of the Persians. He instead builds an empire wherein each city practices their customs independently and is adopted under the universal subjection of Persia, the Acheamenids. However, Cyrus faces the problem of tyranny early on in rejecting the life of ease standing in opposition to his advisors who want to move to softer soiled regions where they might eat and drink better. But Cyrus decides against this for soft men and soft soil are handmaidens.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

What Was The Cause of The Persian Wars?

In our quest to put the Persian Wars on trial, we find our inquiry focused chiefly on two groups: the Athenians and the Persians, or the Achaemenids. Herodotus, a wandering traveler like Odysseus, identifies the search for the causes of the war as one of main reasons he sets out to write the text. He traces the origins of the ‘global’ conflict to threads carried down from tyrants and democrats that existed generations prior to the central crux of the conflict.

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David in 1814

In Athens, the origins of its culture are traced to the wisdom of Solon, the legendary Archon of Athens. Like Herodotus, he travels abroad to visit the halls of Croesus, king of the Lydians and advises him that the happiest and richest of men are to be judged only by the ways in which they end their lives -defending their polis as Greek men are prone to do. He does this to upset Croesus’s comfortable and luxurious tyranny that has become an empire. The Athenian character, on the other hand, is characterized by its reaction against the threat of slavery -a desire to preserve custom.

While Herodotus cannot verify the stories of injustice told by the Phoenicians and the Persians, he does trace the seed of empire to the power transfer from Kaunales to Gyges -a regicide.

The story of Gyges is the first full story, logoi, in the text and in it Herodotus reveals a theme can be traced throughout the text. Gyges is bound by fate to either die or commit regicide for looking upon another man’s wife -namely the wife of Kaundales. In order to preserve custom, a custom violated by King Kaundales, the tyrant, Gyges must either seize power or else perish. The barbarians blame the cause of the war on the abductions of women, though it is later acknowledged that only a weak and inferior man would go into battle over a woman.

However, the first to transgress the Hellenes was Croesus, the third descendent from Gyges. He attacked the Ephesians, Ionians, and Aeolians. Croesus fails to properly address customs and understand oracular prophecies leading to the death of his son. Meanwhile, the Lydian empire had grown decadent and weak as Croesus traveled from his home widely to where the climate was more comfortable, at Sardis. Additionally, Croesus was also comfortable with his assumed interpretation of the Oracle at Delphi’s prediction for future events and his desire for more “land” being the chief reasons why he invaded Cappadocia, infringing on Persian territory. However, underestimating the force of the Persians, blinded by his own decadence, Croesus and the Lydians flee behind the walls of Sardis, a foreign city hoping for urgent aid from the Spartan allies.

In a world of only masters and slaves, an empire, such as the Lydian empire ruled by Croesus, cannot afford to grow complacent and decadent. Their once coarse strength, emboldened by a will to be the best, grows soft and arrogant -chaos and self-destruction is forgotten about.

However, the growth of the Persian empire, under Cyrus “The Great”, is the result of a new empire composed of many free peoples. As discussed elsewhere Cyrus was often viewed as a liberator, especially among groups like the enslaved Jews in Mesopotamia (see the Book of Isaiah). His empire was not one of conquest, but rather a ‘diverse’ empire composed of different nations and societies, each practicing and maintaining their own customs. The Persians merely absorbed the peoples and required tribute be paid. However, like the Lydians and the Medes before them, as well as all empires thereafter, the Persian empire was forced the make a choice about whether or not it would continue to expand or decline -there is no neutral position for an empire.

Cyrus had initially instigated a revolt for Persia by promising great wealth and luxuries. The future leaders of Persia, especially the mad king Cambyses, also fall subject to this fate -slaves to their rapacious desire for material pleasure. On the other hand, the Athenians fight to defend themselves against the threat of slavery, for wont of being the most excellent. Cyrus is described by Herodotus as “wise” but the later emperors, such as Darius and Xerxes, behave more like Achilles in pursuit of revenge rather than tactically like Odysseus. The difference between the Athenians and the Persians is that one fights for conquest and the other fights against slavery.

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

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.