The Histories

Next to Aristotle’s TopicsThe Histories may be the most vaguely titled book ever written. I suppose you can get away with that when you’re the Father of History, as Herodotus is called, and as the author of the first narrative history it’s not like there was much room for confusion at the time. Besides, while Herodotus makes the Greco-Persian Wars his ostensible subject, he’s so far-ranging that the broad title describes the work well enough.

Herodotus could also have accurately titled it “Things that Interest Me.” Though some historians will address tangential topics in the course of their books, Herodotus revels in sharing only tangentially related anecdotes, ethnography, geography, information about landmarks, and so on. For example, while discussing Croesus’s rule in Ionia, he makes sure to add that he had donated a number of things to the Delphic Oracle, and adds that much of this is still there (at least as of when he was there last), and worth seeing; it’s as though he saw himself as a combination of John Keegan and Rick Steves. Some readers may find these digressions annoying, but personally, I find them charming, and some of my favourite stories from The Histories are things that a modern historian would likely have left out. Besides, in Herodotus’s defence, much of this information does provide background information that helps the reader understand the motivations and situation of the many nations and individuals involved, directly or indirectly, in the Greco-Persian Wars. Speaking of complaints, there’s apparently a long history of criticising Herodotus’s factual accuracy and method. Translator Robin Waterfield writes in the introduction to the edition I read that, though there are certainly factual inaccuracies in The Histories, modern research has occasionally vindicated Herodotus. Besides, Herodotus is careful to emphasise to readers that he is only repeating what he has been told by his sources, and when a story seems to him implausible, he’ll say so and generally explain why he’s sceptical. After discussing the conflicting accounts regarding whether Xerxes sent a message to the Argives offering friendship on the basis of a common ancestry, which, some Greeks said, was why the Argives didn’t coöperate with the rest of the Greeks in resisting the Persian invasion, Herodotus says this:

Now, I am not in a position to say with absolute certainty that Xerxes did send this message to Argos and that an Argive delegation did go to Susa to ask Artaxerxes about their friendship. The only version of events I am prepared to affirm is the one told by the Argives themselves. I do, however, know this much: if everyone in the world were to bring his own problems along to market with the intention of trading with his neighbours, a glimpse of his neighbours’ problems would make him glad to take back home the ones he came with. In other words, there are worse things in the world than what the Argives did. I am obliged to record the things I am told, but I am certainly not required to believe them— this remark may be taken to apply to the whole of my account. After all, one can also hear it said that it was actually the Argives who invited the Persians to invade Greece, since they had come off badly in their conflict with the Lacedaemonians and felt that any situation was preferable to their present distress.

Now, one reason to read history is to draw lessons from the past, and though Herodotus usually refrains from moralising on his subjects, typically just relaying the facts as he understands them and leaving the interpretation to the reader, there are a lot of takeaways in The Histories. One fairly well-known example comes when Aristagoras, the tyrant of Miletus, goes to Sparta representing the Ionian Greeks, asking for them to help the Ionians revolt against Persian rule. Cleomenes, a king of Sparta, declines once he realises that such an expedition is unfeasible, but Aristagoras then goes to democratic Athens, where he does succeed in convincing the masses to go along with the plan. The incident is like a lesson in Monarchism 101, on how it’s easier to move a large group to action than to convince an intelligent individual.

One common theme throughout The Histories is the value of good advice, and the danger of not heeding one’s advisers. For example, while Xerxes is on campaign in Greece, he had two Greek subordinates with him, Demaratus and Artemisia. Both, at a few points, give Xerxes good advice on how to conduct the war and how to handle his navy, but he ignores them and, of course, the Persians ultimately lose the war, in part because of his decisions. It’s something of a flip-side of the above, a lesson in Dangers of Monarchism 101.

Another theme that comes up a few times is how a nation is formed by their environment. In fact, this is the note that Herodotus ends the work on, as he relates this anecdote about Cyrus giving advice to the Persians:

This Artayctes[…] was the descendant of Artembares, who was the author of a certain proposal which the Persians passed on to Cyrus for ratification. The proposal went like this: ‘Since Zeus has given sovereignty to the Persians and to you in particular, Cyrus, now that you have done away with Astyages, let’s emigrate from the country we currently own, which is small and rugged, and take over somewhere better. There are plenty of countries on our borders, and plenty further away too, any one of which, in our hands, will make us even more remarkable to even more people. This is a perfectly reasonable thing for people with power to do. Will we ever have a better opportunity than now, when we rule over so many peoples and the whole of Asia?’

Cyrus was not impressed with the proposal. He told them to go ahead— but he also advised them to be prepared, in that case, to become subjects instead of rulers, on the grounds that soft lands tend to breed soft men. It is impossible, he said, for one and the same country to produce remarkable crops and good fighting men. So the Persians admitted the truth of his argument and took their leave. Cyrus’ point of view had proved more convincing than their own, and they chose to live in a harsh land and rule rather than to cultivate fertile plains and be others’ slaves.

As I mentioned above, I read Robin Waterfield’s translation. Of course, I can’t comment on the accuracy or compare it to other translations, but his version is very readable, and includes a helpful introduction and endnotes. Many of the notes are just a running outline of events, summarising Herodotus’s narrative, which may seem redundant, but the narrative is so broad in scope, and Herodotus takes so many side-roads to get through the narrative, that these summaries actually are useful. My only complaint, a minor one, is that I wish that Waterfield had translated the units of measurement, instead of making me refer to a table in an appendix to figure out how long, say, a stade is.

Every educated person should have some familiarity with the Classics, so Herodotus is already “required reading” in a sense. The Histories never feels like a project, though. Herodotus’s tone is casual throughout; it feels like sitting on a front porch while he relates these various stories, sometimes stopping to go into a tangent, as often does happen in oral storytelling. So, by all means give The Histories a read; you’ll get some culture, and I can almost promise that you will enjoy it.