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GENERAL INTRODUCTION - Herodotus, The History [431 BC]
The History of Herodotus, 4 vols. trans. George Rawlinson (New York: Tandy-Thomas Co., 1909).
Part of: The History, 4 vols.
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IN these volumes the works of the three famous Greek historians are presented to the public for the first time in a readable and entirely intelligible form. The very best English translations are rendered available, denuded of the obscurities of scholarship and robbed of all pedantry. Greek scholarship from the point of view of the school-master simply has not been considered. The heart is here without the covering of confusion.
For thirty centuries the whole world has felt the influence of Ancient Greece, and this influence is stronger to-day for liberty and justice than ever before. It was in Ancient Greece that the true universal spirit first found its expression, and so has come to be known as “The Greek Spirit”—the spirit of liberty which centuries later overthrew the tyrannies of the Old World and which gave us the great American Republic—the spirit of progress, the spirit of art and of literature, and of all that makes life worth the living.
The poetry of Homer and Anacreon, the philosophy of Socrates and Aristotle, the oratory of Demosthenes and Hyperides, the romance of Pericles and Aspasia, the art and sculpture of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, the heroism of Marathon and Thermopylæ, shed a lustre of glory around this most marvellous country of the ancient world and make a knowledge of its history and its literature an absolute necessity to the man who would have an understanding of the true aims and purposes of life.
Scholarship is not requisite to an appreciation of the actions of the Greeks and other people of antiquity as told by the Greek historians; for in all of us lies the deep curiosity that seeks information, and the love of the beautiful and heroic that lifts us to a broader plane of thought and endeavour.
While much of value has been discovered and written by modern scholars, history, as recorded by the men who actually lived it, must take first place. These records may not be as accurate in matters of fact as more recent writings, but they certainly are truer history; for they tell us more truly what manner of people they were among whom the authors lived. The earliest forms of this history, of course, are found in the epics of Homer. But of historians in the more modern sense of the word, the writings of three alone have descended to us through the lapse of the ages. These are Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon; and it is due to their wisdom and energy that humanity has gained its greatest inspiration toward that progress which spells perfection in the end.
Every day of our lives we are brought into contact in some way with the lives of the Greeks; and the main purpose of these volumes is to give a wider opportunity for the enjoyment in complete form of the record of ancient doings. If the works of Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon had been dry and uninteresting they never could have lived for twenty-three centuries, but would have sunk into oblivion along with their less entertaining contemporaries. It is their essential human interest and readableness which has preserved them through the ages; and the man, be he student or no, who can take up any one of these volumes and read it as he would read any master-work of fact, fiction or philosophy, is fortunate: for he will be entertained and instructed at one and the same time as never before. Like all the ancient classics, these works were written not to be read, but to be heard. They were read aloud by their authors to the populace in Athens and elsewhere; and this partly accounts for the fact that in reading them we seem to hear the authors talking, rather than to be reading the words which were written so many centuries ago. They had a story to tell, and told it in a manner and style so simple and straightforward that the marvel of their composition has aroused the admiration of all who have come after.
Herodotus was the first writer to put into enduring form a description of the acts of the nations, and is entitled, therefore, to be called “The Father of History”; also, he was the first great traveller who visited remote parts of his world in search of information. He had the knack of taking interest in the right things,—customs, habits, acts,—the things which have continued to interest people for twenty-three hundred years. He wrote in a style worthy of the glorious spirit of liberty which actuated his compatriots.
Thucydides was the first critical historian and he sifted the evidence for his statements with the utmost care. He alone among the Ancient Greeks wrote for posterity; for he it was who first conceived the idea that the history of the past bore a lesson for the future guidance of the human race. He recorded the occurrences of his day for the benefit of future ages.
Xenophon was the first war correspondent. He travelled with Cyrus and recorded his conquests in a style no modern journalist can hope to equal. He had the ability to give a graphic description of a battle in a few words, and his narrative reads like a novel of adventure. There is action and life in every line of his writings. We are brought into the very camp of Cyrus and made to know and love the great characters of his age. Socrates and all the famous men of his time were his intimate friends, and are portrayed in such vivid language that they are brought to life in his writings, and become to us once more men of flesh and blood instead of almost mythical characters of a by-gone age.
In the writings of these three men we have all that has survived of the written history of Ancient Greece. More than this, we have the greatest of Greek prose literature,—literature which has defied the hand of time and which stands for all ages as the criterion of prose as Homer’s does of verse. An intimate knowledge of these authors is a liberal education in itself. To neglect reading them is to miss one of the greatest of literary pleasures.
This introduction is not intended to be critical, or in any sense explanatory, the hope in presenting it being solely to arouse a degree of interest in masters whose actual writings are, to an almost unbelievable extent, neglected by the very people who should know them as they do the Bible and Shakespeare,—whose lives will be broader and sweeter through the reading. The authors themselves have told the story, and no analysis is needed as an accompaniment.
Classical Greek literature begins with Homer, and ends practically, if not precisely, with the death of Demosthenes. During this period Greece was free. With the loss of liberty, literature underwent a change. Greece ceased to produce men of genius, and this constitutes one difference between the classical and later periods. A second great difference is that whereas the literature of the classical period was written not only by Greeks, but for Greeks, later literature was cosmopolitan; and to this change in the literature corresponds the change in the language, which from pure Greek became Hellenistic Greek. The earliest period of Greek literature is, then, classical, because it is the work of genius, and is due solely to Greek genius. It reflects Greek life and expresses Greek thoughts alone, and, like the language in which it is clad, contains no foreign element.
Its development was not complicated. The various kinds of literature, poetry and prose,—epic, lyric and the drama, history, philosophy and oratory,—not only remained true, each to its own type, but on the whole developed in orderly succession. This was because they were the work of different members of the Greek race, whose latent literary tendencies required different political and social conditions to draw them out. They were evoked, one after the other, by political and social changes; and so the stages in development of literature correspond with those of the nation’s life.
The growth of epic poetry, the earliest form of the literature which remains to us, was nurtured by a patriarchal state of society in which the family life furnished the literary public. Lyric, the next branch of literature, found favouring conditions in the aristocracies which succeeded to monarchy, and in which the social communion of the privileged class took the place of family life, and provided a new public for literature. The drama was designed for the entertainment of large numbers of persons, and was a response to the demands of democracy.
From this time on, literature no longer found its home in the halls of chieftains, or its audience in the social meetings of the few; but when the state came to consist of the whole of the citizens, literature became united with the life of the state as a whole, and thence forward was but one of the ways in which that life expressed itself. Literary men were not a class distinguished by their profession from the rest of the community, nor was literature a thing apart from the practical matters of life. The orators were active politicians or men of law; and their speeches were not literary displays, but had a practical object,—to turn the vote of the assembly or to gain a verdict. History was the record of a contemporary war or of a war which had occurred in the previous generations. Philosophy was but a picture in words of the conversations of cultivated Greeks on the great problems of life. The drama was not a mere literary entertainment; it was an act of common worship, in which the genius of man was devoted to the glory of the Gods.
Perhaps the history of Greece has more right than any of its sister-histories to excite our interest, since the effects of that country and its people are probably far greater, certainly more subtle and various, than those of any other upon our modern life. Nobody now attributes any real leading to the Romans in art, in philosophy, in the sciences, nor even in the science of politics. Great as Rome was in these respects and much as she has influenced our institutions, every student of Rome knows and confesses that this greatness and influence was due to the Greeks.
The first three stages of Greek history are, so to speak, isolated, and separated by two blank periods, one of which has to this day remained a blank over which no bridge has yet been constructed. Over the second, which immediately preceded history proper, the Greeks constructed a very elaborate bridge, which they adorned with sundry figures recovered from vague traditions and arranged according to their fancy. It is only after this reconstructed epoch of transition that we are sure of our facts.
The first stage is that represented by the prehistoric remains—which, though they are plainly very various in development, and therefore probably in age, are yet by most of us classed together as “without father, mother or descent”—discovering to us the earliest civilization in Greek lands. What went on in Greece between the epoch of this curious pre-Hellenic, perhaps imported, culture and the age of Homer, none of us can ever guess. But the fact that the popular poetry chose for the scenes of its adventures the sites of Troy, Mycenæ, and Tiryns—where both the earliest and rudest of these remains and those more developed in architectural skill and in ornamental design have been found—would seem to show that the importance of these places either lasted down to the “epic” time or was so recent as to hold the popular imagination.
As regards the “epic age,” there are ample reasons for not dating it very early. The society described seems to belong to the eighth century before the Christian era; but it was gone before the poets wrought their compositions into the famous epics, which were the opening works of Greek literature. The Iliad and the Odyssey may be taken as descriptive of this second stage of Greek history, which was certainly separated by a considerable period from the third.
This last begins with the contemporary allusions of the earliest lyric poets, Archilochus, Callinus, Tyrtæus—none of them are earlier than 700 , and who more probably lived from 660 onward. In the seventh century we have contemporary allusions to Gyges, king of Lybia, known to us from Assyrian inscriptions; we have yearly Archons at Athens, and a series of priestesses at Argos; presently we have historical colonies and many other real evidences on which to rely. But before 700 it is not so. Only some stray facts remained, as when Tyrtæus tells us that he fought in the second Messenian war, and that the first had been waged by the grandfathers of his fellow-soldiers.
But at last we emerge into the open light of day and find ourselves in the seventh century (more strictly 650-550 ), in that brilliant, turbulent, enterprising society which produced the splendid lyric poetry of Alcæus and Sappho, of Alcman and Terpander, and whose prose literature developed from then onward to a swift culmination in the masterpieces of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon.
Athens was founded about 1557 by Cecrops. About 600 , after the death of Codrus, the last king, the city became a republic, the constitution of which was framed by Solon. He placed the sovereignty in the hands of the people, who decided upon the objects which had been deliberated upon by a senate of great numbers. The magistrates, or archons, were at first chosen for life, but afterwards for ten years, and finally their number was increased and they were elected annually. Athens reached its greatest glory about the time of the Persian war, but about 404 the city was taken by Lysander, a Lacedæmonian, toward the conclusion of the Peloponnesian war; her walls were thrown down and her government changed, and from this blow she never recovered.
Sparta, which was founded about 1516 , was an aristocracy, but about 884 , Lycurgus became the legislator of the country. He placed the authority of the state in the hands of a senate, the laws of which were approved or rejected by the people. There were two magistrates or hereditary kings, five popular magistrates or ephori (like the tribunes of Rome) who were elected annually. Sparta reached her greatest glory after the Peloponnesian war, when, having humbled Athens and seized Thebes, Syracuse and the Persians sued for her alliance. In 186 Sparta was captured by Philopæmen. The walls were razed and the laws of Lycurgus abolished.
There were four great monarchies of antiquity, the Assyrian, the Persian, the Macædonian, and the Roman. Of Assyria we know but little. It is presumed to have been founded in 2232 by Nimrod. It endured for about 1400 years, and from its fragments the three monarchies of Media, Nineveh, and Babylon were formed. The most interesting events of its history were the celebrated expedition of Ninus against the Bactrians and the reign of Semiramis, with whom Ninus became acquainted at the siege of Bactria, where that wonderful woman displayed her extraordinary genius.
The Persian monarchy lasted for about 200 years, from 538 to 326 It was founded by Cyrus, who, by inheritance or conquest, reunited under one head the kingdoms of Persia, Media, Lydia, Babylon, and Nineveh. There is much disagreement as to the history of this prince, even Herodotus and Xenophon being opposed to each other in the recital of many incidents of his reign.
The Persian dominion extended from the Indus to the Euxine and the Mediterranean, and from the Jaxartis and the Caspian Sea to Ethiopia, Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Babylon, of course, became a principal city of the Persian monarchy, Cyrus having made himself master of it by turning the course of the Euphrates. In the time of Semiramis two magnificent palaces, erected on the opposite shores of the Euphrates, communicated with each other by a subterranean vault constructed under the river; and here, in one of these palaces, were to be found those hanging gardens so famous among the Greeks. Susa, Ecbatana, and Persepolis were celebrated cities of Persia and occasionally the residence of the royal family.
The chief occurrences of Persian history, exclusive of the expeditions of Darius and Xerxes into Greece and the retreat of the ten thousand Greeks under Xenophon, are the incidents connected with the life of the founder, Cyrus; one of which was the overthrow and captivity of Crœsus.
During the historical period Greece produced many men of wonderful characters and talents, with whose names and deeds we are familiar. All were versatile to a degree almost beyond our comprehension, and the character of one, Alcibiades, who plays a large part in the pages of Thucydides and Xenophon, was unique even for his time. A disciple of Socrates, he was one of the most extraordinary men of antiquity. He united in his person almost every good quality and almost every bad one. He was, by turns, the glory and the scourge of his fellow-citizens. Thirst for power and the desire of pleasing were the predominant features of his character; and it was chiefly by means of the second that he satisfied the first. To a pleasing figure and a ravishing exterior he joined all the powers of the mind and all the charms of elocution. The people liked his courage, they admired his manners, and, in truth, taken altogether, he was irresistible. Faults, which he took no pains to conceal, they pardoned; and if at any time they were forced to condemn him for his misdemeanours they soon hastened to recall him to their favour.
It was this temper of the populace in relation to Alcibiades which induced Aristophanes to say, “They hate, but cannot do without him.” He pleased at Athens by his gracefulness and sprightliness; at Sparta by his frugality; in Thrace by his intemperance; and in Asia by his luxury and magnificence. It was Alcibiades who planned the expedition against Sicily, and it has been thought that it might have succeeded if he had been placed and continued at the head of it. He was, however, displaced by his fellow-citizens; but, doubting this judgment of his actions, he went over to the enemy, and was the principal cause of the disasters which befell the Athenians.
His country being upon the brink of ruin, he was recalled. Putting himself at the head of the army of Athens, he beat her antagonists by land and sea, re-established her affairs, and returned to the city covered with laurels. Banished a second time, he entered again into the interests of Persia. Finally, being equally dreaded by his friends and foes, they united to destroy him. Assassins were employed to set fire in the night to a cabin which merely served to shelter him from the inclemency of the weather, and, as he attempted to fly from the the flames, they pierced him to death with arrows.
Thus perished the great, the gay, the licentious Alcibiades, who, during the whole course of his life, was, emphatically, all things to all men.
Among the great men of Greece we may reckon the celebrated Pericles, the husband of Aspasia, that remarkable woman who taught eloquence to Socrates, who was well skilled in politics, and whose excellent qualities, obscuring her vices, served to impress Pericles with respect for her intellect, as well as to inspire him with a greater degree of devotion to her charms.
Pericles governed the Athenians nearly his whole lifetime; not by force of arms, but by the power of his genius and the force of his eloquence. No person ever presented in a greater degree than he did the faculty of subjugating the multitude to his will by the arts of popular seduction. By some it was said that the sovereign of the Gods had confided to him the thunder and the lightning; by others, that the goddess of persuasion dwelt on his lips, adorned with all her graces.
He filled Athens with the master-works of art, and distributed to the multitude, in largesses or entertainments, the riches of the republic. His reign was that of the fine arts, which under him attained the highest point of perfection. A difficulty in making out a fair statement of his accounts, and the hope that he still might be enabled to preserve his authority by a change of circumstances, were the causes that induced Pericles to plunge Athens into the Peloponnesian war, which was as fatal to him as it was to his country. He died of the plague which prevailed during the first campaign of that contest.
Chroniclers tell us that whenever Godfrey de Boillon entered a church splendid with painted glass and painted carvings he would stand for hours gazing at the saintly figures, unmindful of the passage of time, while reading the sacred legends and causing the histories of the saints to be recounted to him. He who enters the door of knowledge opened by these volumes and travels the world of the Ancients with Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon will emerge as from a dream-journey filled with pleasure and profit, which shall remain his until heart and mind have ceased to know and to enjoy.
Thomas Mathew Alexander