Herodotus “The histories”
Herodotus’ The Histories is a pivotal work in the genre of historical writing as well as in Western literature in general. It is one of the earliest books known today dedicated to exploring the history and describing not only lifestyles and traditions of the society in which the author or his ancestors (Ancient Greece) lived but also lifestyles and traditions of different peoples and cultures that the author learned about in his travels. Thus, Herodotus defined a historian not necessarily as someone who collects records about past battles or other significant events but rather one who travels and tells stories about the way people live, worship, and dress, the rituals they practice, and other aspects of their cultures. This vision of history later became largely influential. This review will address each of the book’s nine parts separately.
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One aspect that might surprise the reader exploring The Histories is that the author dedicates remarkable attention to describing mythological stories. It is important to understand that, for the Greeks, myths were not only a part of their religion in the modern sense but also part of their historical heritage; in other words, their mythology was in some respects their history. In Book One, Herodotus describes the abduction of Helen, wife of the king of Sparta, by Paris, a Trojan prince, causing the Trojan War. Herodotus interprets this well-known story in a more historical vein, eliminating elements of supernatural intervention and making his interpretation closer to history than mythology. Many other myths are told in Book One, along with accounts from the Persian Empire where Herodotus had traveled.
Book Two begins with the conquest of Egypt and a description of an experiment that exemplifies Herodotus’ writing: storytelling instead of merely recording dates and events. The new Egyptian king, Psammetichus, decided to find out what language was the most ancient, and the experiment he conducted involved isolating two newly born children from any language by prohibiting their caretakers from pronouncing any words in their presence as they were growing up. The king wanted to see what language the children would eventually speak. At some point, the children started pronouncing the word “becomes,” which turned out to be the Phrygian word for bread. Based on this, the king declared that the Phrygians were the most ancient race. In further accounts of Egypt, Herodotus acts not only as a historian but also as a geographer and biologist: He describes the land of Egypt as well as the animals living there that are unknown to the Greeks, both real (such as crocodiles and hippopotami) and fictional (such as phoenixes).
Book Three is mostly dedicated to the Persian conquest and rule of Egypt. However, this part of The Histories is also dedicated to peoples of whom the ancient Greeks knew very little, such as the Indians. Herodotus stresses that there are different tribes of Indians having dramatically different lifestyles and traditions. Some are cruel, such as the so-called Padaians who kill any member of their tribe who falls ill, feasting on his or her flesh so that this ill person does not waste their resources. In contrast, other tribes are nonviolent; moreover, they never kill any living creatures, and they do not breed cattle or sow crops but rather eat herbs and do not even build houses. In many other stories about remote peoples, Herodotus tries to introduce to the Western reader as much of the information he has learned from Persian sources as possible.
Book Four is dedicated to the history of the Scythians and partially to the history of North Africa. Scythians were nomads who lived in different parts of Eurasia for centuries and came into contact with many other cultures, including the Persian culture, from which Herodotus was able to learn about them. He describes the Scythians’ traditions, some of which sound brutal, such as putting out the eyes of anyone they capture in their conquests or inserting a bone tube into a mare’s anus to lower the udder when milking the mare. The author describes these people as strong and persistent warriors; their conquests are said to have been so fierce that “every man [in the opposing army] forgot he was a soldier and fled” (241). When writing about North Africa, as in the description of Egypt in Book Two, Herodotus describes not only people and events but also the fauna of the places discussed.
Book Five is dedicated to a certain period in the history of Greece. From this book, one can learn that ancient Greeks did not comprise a single nation; at different times, the people called “Ancient Greeks” today were separated into distinct groups that were often at war with one another. For example, the Thracian race is described as divided into different tribes, and Herodotus warns that if united, they would be one of the strongest military forces because the Thracians are the second most numerous race in the world after the Indians. Also, this book introduces a Macedonian king named Alexander who should not be confused with Alexander the Great; the latter lived decades after Herodotus’ death.
Book Six describes the defeat of the revolt in Asia Minor against the Persian rule, to which part of the previous book is dedicated. Furthermore, this book reflects on the history of the two most powerful city-states in ancient Greece: Athens and Sparta. Finally, the book contains a description of the famous Battle of Marathon between the Athenian and Persian armies. The Spartans came too late to participate in the battle; however, they came to the site of the battle and “praised the Athenians on their good work” (404) after looking at the dead bodies.
In Book Seven, further events in the confrontation between the Greeks and the Persians are described. In particular, it refers to the expedition of King Xerxes. Xerxes has doubts about invading Greece, but he is eventually convinced that Greece should be attacked, and thus, he starts preparing for a new war. In this war, the Greek forces were separated, as some city-states joined the Persians. Additionally, another famous battle—the Battle of Thermopylae—is described, in which an outnumbered Greek army led by King Leonidas of Sparta resisted the powerful Persian army for three days, blocking a pass leading to the Greek territories. The story about 300 Spartans is based on Herodotus’ description of the battle.
Book Eight documents further events in the history of the second invasion of Greece, led by Xerxes. Two key events here are the Battle of Salamis and the Battle of Artemisium, both occurring on the sea. Artemisia, the queen of a Greek city-state that allied itself with the Persians, played a particular role in these battles. The queen personally commanded several ships during these conflicts, and Herodotus seems to praise her skills as a military leader, noting that Xerxes certainly respected her. The author calls her participation in the invasion “a marvel” and stresses that she was led by her “own spirit of adventure and manly courage… only” (447). Book Eight also describes the rescue of Delphi and the abandonment of Athens.
Finally, Book Nine continues documenting the second Persian invasion of Greece. Two key events described in this part of The Histories are the Battle of Plataea and the Battle of Mycale, which together ended the invasion and marked both the victory of the Greeks and the destruction of the Persian army. Highlights include the murder of Masistius, “a distinguished Persian officer” (561) who commanded the Persian cavalry, by the Athenians after abandoned Athens was taken for the second time. Another highlight involves the author’s descriptions of relationships in Xerxes’ family. The king seduced his sister-in-law—the wife of his brother Masistes—and her daughter. The king’s wife Amestris cruelly ordered the torture and mutilation of Masistes’ wife. Masistes tried to revolt but was killed by Xerxes’ order. At the end of the book, the Persians acknowledge the Greeks’ victory and leave.
Herodotus’ The Histories is a collection of both historical records and stories about the ways people lived, not only in Greece before the author was born but also far away, in Persia, Egypt, and even India. The nine books of this work have been highly appreciated by specialists in ancient literature and historians alike who lived and worked during the centuries that followed Herodotus’ time, including historians today.