Dawn, The Review, August 24-30, 2000
Somewhere around 430 BC in Greece, a man in his mid-fifties completed a medium sized book on which he had been working all his life. The book was about the heroic struggle between his own people, the Greeks, and the mighty empire of the Persians. But this political story was told through a series of interesting anecdotes, all heard by the magnificent old man during his travels in many countries of the world. For this book, he couldn’t find a name more suitable than the seemingly common and plain title: Researches, or, in Greek, Historia. Thus history was born, and the old man was, of course, Herodotus.
The ancients used to call Herodotus the Father of History. The moderns called him the Father of Lies. Yet, in his own mind he was neither inventing a new subject nor fabricating lies when he set out to write his book. “Herodotus of Halicarnassus,” the first line of the book went on, “his Researches are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples; and more particularly, to show how they came into conflict.” This single line contains many keywords: memory, put on record, astonishing achievements, our own people, other people, conflict. History, as it was known until our own times, was all of these things and just these things.
Ironically, history is silent about Herodotus, its own father. Almost nothing is known about him and we just have his book, plainly and yet magnificently titled Histories. Almost everything we known about his life is inferred from a between the lines reading of this single work. Quite remarkably, the book itself contains enough evidence to reconstruct the life of its author.
Herodotus had two major traits that made him a historian. The first was that he enjoyed life. In his book he never failed to grasp the human element buried in the political incidents he was going to record. The second dominant feature of his personality was that he was broad-minded. He listened to stories from different sources, and he was willing to give his enemies their due credit. This might have been because of his birth in one of the most international regions of the ancient world: Asia Minor. Halicarnassus, the city of Herodotus, was a Greek colony on the outskirts of the Persian Empire, and was an important trade centre between the East and the West. Thus Herodotus felt as much at ease in Persia as he did in the mainland Greece. These two features, his love for life and his broad-mindedness, helped Herodotus produce a book that remained popular in his own days as well as all times to come. Even today, when the academic trends have changed so much that Histories of Herodotus could be regarded more easily as a collection of fairy-tales than as a sourcebook of history, the book still retains much of its popularity and is never out of print, especially in its English translation.
When Herodotus was probably a few years old, he may have seen the great battle ships of the Persian emperor sailing towards the mainland Greece. The Persian Emperor, the King of the Earth, had decided to annihilate Greece. The child must have been told that the Persian Armada was far greater than the fleet of Jason, who had brought the Golden Fleece in the mythical times, or the navy that captured Troy in the ancient days. And soon afterwards, news arrived from the mainland Greece that the small but efficient navy of Athens with the help of other Greek states had sunk the great armada of the Persian King! Soon afterwards, Halicarnassus received visitors and tourists who had taken part in the great sea-battle. Herodotus met several of them, and learnt an eyewitness account of the astonishing event. The Battle of Salamis, in 480 BC, has been seen by the historians as the turning point in the history of the ancient world. Apart from its political impact, it also had a moral implication: power is impermanent. At least that was the lesson that Herodotus learnt from that incident. At the same time, another child far away in the mainland Greece itself was hearing the same stories, and learning the same lesson about the impermanence of power. His name was Sophocles.
When Herodotus was about twenty years old, his family decided to participate in a revolt against the local ruler of Halicarnassus. The ruler, supported by his Persian masters, defeated the rebells and executed its ringleader, a close relative of Herodotus. Herodotus had to flee for his life. He left his parent city and thus started his life-long wanderings into the foreign lands.
The first stay of Herodotus was the island of Samos, not very far from his native city. But he probably had a natural bent on travelling and it is assumed that he sailed frequently up the Black Sea and some of its tributary rivers. Once acquainted to the life of a stranger, the young adventurer began to like it and although his party was successful in its second rebellion against the ruler of Halicarnassus, Herodotus never settled again in that city. At the age of thirty, he set out to see the world.
We are not sure of the sequence of his travels, but we know that he visited Egypt, Babylon and many other cities of the Near East. In Egypt the great tombs of the ancient kings baffled him. In his characteristic manner, he refrained from giving them any special name, and described them for just what they were: built in a “pyramid” shape. Yet Herodotus could not help feeling disgusted at cruelty of the forced labor. When he was told scandalous stories about the kings who built them, he was all too pleased to believe them. One such story was about Cheops, the pharaoh who ordered the greatest pyramid. The story went on that when Cheops ran out of money he sent his daughter to a brothel where she earned money for her father’s pyramid through prostitution! Herodotus didn’t use his logic when he listened to this story. He wanted to see a perfect world, a meaning into everything. The story of Cheops satisfied Herodotus’ sense of purpose. The man who was cruel enough to enslave thousands of men for building something as useless as a tomb, must have been crazy enough to barter his own daughter to the same end. “No crime was too great for Cheops,” Herodotus concluded.
We are not sure how Herodotus financed his travels, nor do we know their purpose. It is generally assumed that like many other Halicarnassians he too was a merchant. But the ancients had an ear for interesting stories, and with his rich repertoire of exotic tales from all known regions of the world, Herodotus must have found hospitality everywhere he went. He was one international citizen that was never at a loss in any foreign land.
If Herodotus ever came closer to patriotism for any city it was Athens. He was drawn to that great metropolis of the ancient Greece, like many other intellectuals, due to the principle of human freedom that was the hallmark of that first democracy of the world. He must have been in his thirties when he migrated to Athens, and for once in his life he was willing to settle down. Ironically, he was denied the status of a citizen. Shortly before Herodotus arrived in Athens, or roughly around the same time, the Athenians had passed a law to stop the naturalization of the crowd that was pouring in over the ancient world to the new super power. Acquiring nationality had become a difficult process, requiring a double vote from the parliament, and whatever friends Herodotus had in Athens failed to acquire this honor for the historian. In spite of the fact, Herodotus remained an enthusiastic advocate of the Athenian democracy in the classical times.
Athens of the fifth century BC was an interesting place. The great leader Pericles was at his prime. Playwrights like Sophocles (c 495 – 406 BC) and Euripedes (c 480 BC – 406 BC) while a younger breed of entertainers and thinkers was coming up. If Herodotus arrived in Athens around 450 BC, and remained there for about ten years, as we generally believe, then he might also have seen an awfully irreverent teenager going around by the name of Aristophanes (c460 BC – 385 BC). Another young contemporary was Socrates (c469 BC – 399 BC), and it’s interesting to speculate whether the young philosopher, then in his twenties, ever stopped Herodotus to ask him, “What is history?”
In any case, it was here in Athens that Herodotus probably first began writing down his “researches.” A hundred years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible for any writer to write such a book in Greek prose. It had long been regarded that all great writing must be committed in verse. But a new awareness was growing since the previous century, and prose was now accepted as a medium for writing notable books. However, the boundary line between fiction and non-fiction was not clearly demarcated. It’s interesting to remember that when Herodotus sat down to write his book, he was looking at himself as a successor of Homer rather than a follower of Hecataeus, the Greek politican who had made an attempt at writing history around 500 BC.
To begin with, the poems composed by Homer had always been seen as the primary sources of information on the past. Somewhat recently, scholars had begun to question their authenticity. A new awareness was coming up, and it was stated that Homer was essentially a poet and therefore his work should be seen as literature rather than fact. Herodotus probably didn’t agree with this radical view. If something is interesting, it doesn’t mean it can’t be true, he must have thought. The only thing that distanced him from Homer was that Herodotus saw himself as a citizen of a “new world order.” Things had changed since the days of Homer. There are new heroes, and they must receive glory. This may not have been Herodotus’ own idea. It was all in the air. The Battle of Salamis, fought at the time when Herodotus was only four year old, might have been a military business to the ones who fought it. But to the generation that had grown up on stories about it, such as Herodotus himself, it was a second Trojan War. The parallels were so uncanny: once again, there had been a battle between the East and the West in which the Greek navy had defeated the Eastern power. But quite dramatically, if the first war was about the Greek invasion on an Eastern city, the recent one was fought to defend a Greek city against the Eastern invasion. And just as all Greek states had united by the bond of honour to restore Helen, they had united to defend the freedom of Athens. The generation of Herodotus felt that it was living in mythical times, and deserves a Homeric treatment. For Herodotus, who obviously shared this feeling of greatness about his times, it was all the more important that there should be a new Homer, so that “the astonishing achievements of both our own and of other people” should not be forgotten. And the essence of their action lied in the element of conflict – a principle of drama, which Herodotus might have picked up from his new friend Sophocles.
Herodotus planned his book on a literary canvas. Just like Homer, it should open at the middle of the conflict, and the background could be filled in later, as the story goes along. Also, it should have a progression and a satisfying ending. For that, Herodotus believed, he neither needed to twist the events, not invent from his own imagination. It was his firm belief that human action is governed by a divine code of ethics. Good deeds are rewarded, while bad deeds are punished, and destiny too plays a part. To the Greek mind, these three aspects of truth could explain the entire human history. Every action was either a consequence of a good action, or of a bad action, and if that didn’t make sense then it must have been an intervention by fate, or destiny. Unlike many other civilizations who played with the element of destiny in their world view, the Greek response to destiny wasn’t passive: they must be faced with courage rather than self-pity. This, then, was the theme of the book Herodotus called his researches while its plot was the centuries old conflict between the Greeks and Persians, beginning with the abduction of Helen of Troy of perhaps a little earlier. He went about it in a simplistic manner. Where he found contradictory statements about the same event, he recorded them all. He didn’t regard it his duty, or even his privilege, to tell his readers which ones were true unless where he found a clear argument. This approach may have had its root in the Athenian spirit of democracy, whose central principle was that everyone must get a hearing. The stories of Amazon women, phoenix, or the labyrinth of Minotaur may have sounded as absurd to Herodotus as they sound to his modern-day critic. But then he had heard far more absurd speeches being made in the name of political debate form the speaker’s platform in the city-centre Athens. If the citizens had the right to choose their own truth in the city-centre, why shouldn’t they have the same right when reading the researches of Herodotus?
We are not sure how long did it take him to complete his book. It is commonly believed that he took out several editions, and the first one was brought in his early days at Athens. He might still have hoped to get citizenship. Those hopes getting sour, he left for the Athenian colony of Thuria in Italy around 443 BC. It is supposed that he had enough wealth to purchase some property there and live happily ever after. Some believe that the passages in his book that refer to events taking place at Athens after 443 BC, are evidence that he returned to that city sometime in later in his life. And the fact that there is no reference to any event after 430 BC is taken as a proof that Herodotus died soon after that year. He might have died of plague during his second visit to Athens, since Athens was in the grip of that epidemic. But the event of his death, like almost everything about his life, is a mere speculation. The only thing we can say with certainty is that he existed. And that his existence made a difference, not only to those who came after him, but also to those who had lived before.