My Professor of Ionic Greek was a very funny guy. He said that the charm of reading Herodotus is that his prose reminds you of your Great Aunt telling family history. The whole story is one big run-on sentence meandering back and forth and including everything from news of the great war to gossip about somebody’s wife cheating with the milkman. And sometimes it’s difficult to tell which part she feels is more important.
In the same way, Herodotus starts off the history of the Persian War by claiming its origin was the kidnapping of Helen by the Trojans! From there we get a family history of the first Asian ruler to conquer the Greeks living in Asia Minor. Apparently, the origin of this dynasty involves a King allowing his wife to be seen naked by a commoner. This triggers his wife’s anger so severely that she conspires with the commoner to kill her husband and usurp the throne. All of these stories are given with either a tongue in cheek or a storyteller’s desire to be complete.
But in between all this chatter you get some stories that are told nowhere else and that record the (mostly) accurate exploits of the ancient world’s greatest generation. You’ll hear about Marathon and Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea. You’ll meet Leonidas and the Spartans, Themistocles and the Athenians and Xerxes and the Persians. And mixed in with that you’ll hear unlikely stories of the origins of historical nations based on the amorous adventures of Heracles and other demigods. And you’ll feel that you’re in the midst of a tumultuous time full of heroes and villains. And you’ll discover the ancient dichotomy of the East vs. the West. It’s freedom versus slavery. It’s nation versus empire. It’s intelligence versus brute force.
There are places where the story bogs down. You see Herodotus was a world traveler and he relates all the tales he was told in his various travels. During his time in Egypt he collected much material on the rulers and doings in Egypt. Sometimes it gets to be a little much. But mixed in with this minutia will be stories that sound like they came out of the Tales of the Arabian Nights.
In terms of historical accuracy Herodotus was far inferior to his successor at Athens, Thucydides. His history chronicles the aftermath of the Persian War. This was a sort of Cold War between Athens and Sparta that eventually went hot. Thucydides provides precise details of the military and political actions and forgoes all mythical and religious causes. But the content is basically the story of Athens committing suicide. I much prefer reading the story of its finest hour.
Every summer I read from two greek classics. I read the Odyssey and I browse Herodotus. Those two books give me hope that the legacy of the West isn’t a myth. Odysseus tells me that the value of the brave man and the faithful wife can overcome the chaos and nihilism of the world. And Herodotus tells me that freedom reappears in this world from time to time and that it is the most valuable substance in the universe.
In future installments, I’ll select some of the stories that I think make the case that the gossip Herodotus is still relevant and interesting 2,400 years later.