A message from the dawn of history

The father of history.

Herodotus, a historian. Image via Wikimedia commons.

This is a book review. At least, I think it is. It’s the first one I’ve done since primary school, when we had to write up the books we read so the teachers could see how we were progressing. So in a way it’s something quite new for me, but I’ve been pondering new things to do with my blog of late anyway, and this certainly seems to fit.

I’ve not even finished the book in question yet; in fact I’ve barely even started it. But it is quite a big book, and I did read a lot of background material on it before I started. And anyway, the whole point of this review has less to do with the book itself and more to do with what it stands for.

The book I’m talking about is called The Histories, and it was written two and a half thousand years ago by a man called Herodotus. Just let that sink in: the words I am reading in this volume originated – albeit in Ancient Greek – in the head of a man who was long dead over two millennia before I was a twinkle in the proverbial milkman’s eye. That’s so long ago I can’t really compute it – it’s just a big number; a yawning gap between us, filled with events and lives that have changed the world almost beyond recognition since the book was written.

Yet Herodotus’ words have successfully traversed this gap to land on the page in front of me, in a language I can understand. Through the magical medium of writing, I have been granted access to the thoughts of a great Ancient Greek scholar: the man known as “the father of history”. Not only that – from his perspective, I see the world in which he lived, the attitudes that governed the societies of the time and the actions that resulted from them. I hear of the tit-for-tat chain of kidnappings that culminated in the abduction of Helen and led to the Trojan War, I see how kingdoms rose and fell on the words of an oracle apparently speaking on behalf of one of the ancient gods. I am in another world, another time.

The Histories is not just any old book. As the name suggests, it represents the first ever attempt to record and analyse the occurrences that had shaped the known world  so that, as the author himself put it, “human events do not fade with time.” Indeed, the title of the book, which could also be roughly translated as “inquiries”, went on to become the Latin word “historia” and was later used to define the academic discipline we know as history today.

This is what is truly fascinating to me. In the end, all stories are “histories”, inevitably rooted in the circumstances in which they were written and shaped by the views of their authors, which are born of their experience of the world. Whether intentionally or not, they always reflect the wider context in which they were written. Some languages even use the same word for both “story” and “history”. In this context, Herodotus’ work represents a vital milestone not just in the discipline of history, but also in the discipline of storytelling.

The Histories often draws criticism from modern scholars for its bias and use of claims that have been disproven in later research, yet to denounce the work on this basis makes no more sense than to criticise a typewriter for not being able to send e-mails. Herodotus was the first to apply any kind of scientific approach or critical analysis to the events recounted to him, and the first person to attempt, more or less, to give an accurate account of the happenings of the time in chronological order. It is not perfect, but it set the groundwork for the historical methods used today.

Besides, this also adds to the beauty of The Histories. At the time it was written, the lines between science and religious belief were much less clear than they are now, and so many truths we now take for granted as proven facts had not even been conceived of at the time. The very notion of needing to prove a fact before writing it in an academic text was still relatively new, and certainly not rigorously adhered to. As a result, The Histories is an intriguing mixture of legend, fact and opinion transmitted to us from an age where the three were not seen as entirely separate.

One particularly memorable section makes vague reference to the “business” that brought the Hellenes to Colchis before they decided to capture the king’s daughter – explained in a footnote as the legendary capture of the Golden Fleece by Jason and the Argonauts. To us an ancient myth, but to Herodotus’ readers at the time, a story so well-known and universally accepted as true that it didn’t even need to be mentioned explicitly.

For me, this just emphasises the real purpose behind the book and behind any “history”, factual or otherwise: to allow an insight into how the author sees the world and the context from which this perspective arises. This is the magic of the written word: it preserves thoughts and views, snippets of imagination and snapshots of society, taking us to places and times we could otherwise only dream of. Regardless of its accuracy or academic thoroughness, The Histories achieves this purpose with aplomb, and thus passes my first book review with flying colours.

 

Ian thinks The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, edited by Robert B Strassler and translated beautifully by Andrea L Purvis, is a really, really good book. He especially enjoys looking at the maps and appendices, which provide lots of useful background information that helps him to understand the context of the writing.

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