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INTRODUCTION TO HERODOTUS - 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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INTRODUCTION TO HERODOTUS
HERODOTUS, “The Father of History,” was born at Halicarnassus between 490 and 480 , after the first and before the second of those two invasions of Greece by the Persians of which he has given us the history in a form to be appreciated until the end of time. With full truth it may be said that Herodotus invented history writing as we know it to-day—an art beyond story-telling, yet possessing all the force of the deepest human interest. He spent a large part of his life in travelling. These travels he undertook for the purposes of his history, and his activity, mental as well as physical, in collecting information and making inquiries, historical, geographical, ethnological, mythological and archæological, was extraordinary. His history was designed to record not only the wars but the causes of the wars between Greece and the Barbarians.
In these volumes Herodotus is presented to the reader in his two-fold character—as the profound historian and as the fascinating story-teller. The man is to be envied who has before him the pleasure of reading these works for the first time. The general subject of Herodotus is the conflict between Asia and Europe, which culminated in the Græco-Persian wars. It is an inspiration to follow his glowing account of these events. Few pages of history are so well worth the reading. Scenes of a magnificent drama are made to pass, one after another, before us. Take the Seventh Book, favoured of scholars: First we behold the preparations against Greece with which all Asia is “kept in a din” for three years; next, the assembly of half a hundred nationalities at Sardis; then the march through Asia Minor to Abydos, the review of the innumerable host, the passage of the Hellespont, the progress through Thrace and Thessaly to Thermopylæ. There, before the rocky face of Mount Oeta, the advance of the invading army is arrested: a few thousand freemen, fighting in defence of their homes, withstand millions, and inspire their countrymen to the later struggles at Salamis and Platæa which saved Europe from being overrun by Asia.
The history of Herodotus is the beginning of Greek prose. In reading him we feel very strongly that the style is the man, possibly because we know so little of the man. In any case the character revealed by the style is sympathetic in a high degree. Probably few writers in any age or country have so many devoted personal friends as Herodotus counts among his readers. He is so simple, so frank, so talkative, amiable and respectworthy. He wrote indeed not to be read, but to be heard, like all other classical Greek authors, and he read his history in public in Athens and other places. But, beyond the charm of style, Herodotus had the knack of taking interest in the right things. On the one hand, he could write in a spirit worthy of the glorious fight for liberty fought by the Greeks at Marathon, Thermopylæ and elsewhere: on the other, he delighted in the manners and customs of strange peoples, and in things ancient and mysterious.
Two characteristics of Herodotus should not escape our notice—characteristics which seem almost inconsistent with each other—his desire for accurate information, and his love of the marvellous. To the first we owe his tours of exploration, which carried him over the larger part of the known world; to the second, those episodes, founded to a greater or less extent in fact—but fact handled with poetic freedom—which give to his history a poetic charm. These stories, as we may call them, are of the most varied character. In some, as in the episode of Crœsus and Solon, a moral purpose is prominent; some, like that of Polykrates, or that of Aristagoras, are in large part historical; others, like the tale of Rhampsinitis and the Robber, are simply romances, comparable to the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
Like pearls on a necklace, these stories are strung along the thread of Herodotus’ narrative. They are told with the utmost simplicity of language, and, written as they were in the youth of the world, they have traits in common with the Old Testament narratives of the childhood of Moses and Joseph. Turning, as many of them do, upon the sudden and terrible changes in human fortune—upon the ebb and flow in mortal affairs which Herodotus ascribes to the envy of the Gods—they abound in sayings of a touching pathos, often quoted as strikingly characteristic of the author.
Dionysius, the greatest of all the Greek critics, in comparing Herodotus with other writers, points to the superior artistic skill which the historian displays in the choice of his subject and the manner of treating it. “He does not,” says the critic, “confine himself to the history of a single nation or a single state; no! he begins with the Lydian dynasty and comes down to the Persian war, including in one single narrative all the important transactions both of Greeks and barbarians that had occurred in the interval of two hundred and forty years.”
Considered as a logographer, nothing can be said too highly in praise of Herodotus. But then we must regard him as governed by the principles of a logographer, blending together into one mass the various materials which offered themselves to him; here the tale brought by some skipper of a merchant ship, there the story which beguiled the discomforts of the caravanserai after a day’s journey was over, or the details which some veteran sailor or septuagenarian hoplite poured out, of the doings at Salamis or Marathon. The local traditions which embodied in a mythical form the early history of the several states,—the popular poetry which embalmed the memory of the worthies of the past,—the peculiar customs prevailing at the religious festivals, to every one of which was attached some story to explain it,—would furnish a mass of materials not less valuable for his purpose than formal historical documents.
Herodotus was guided by no modern spirit of criticism in the collection or selection of his materials. We must be satisfied to enjoy his work as a composition of surpassing beauty and interest, reading it as a contemporary would have done. It would, however, be a great error to dismiss the reader to the pages of Herodotus under the impression that while his materials were very different from those at the hand of a modern historian, his work is deficient in historical value. The very phenomena discoverable in it, and which take it out of the category of histories such as those of Tacitus or Thucydides, will increase our conviction of the fidelity with which it reflects the current opinions, feelings and habits of the time in which it was written.
A candid reader who will read the history through, unhampered by any theory, simply putting himself in the position of a Greek of the fifth century before the Christian era, will probably not doubt that the author saw much with his own eyes—more than any other man of his time. Herodotus satisfies us fully as the most fascinating of Greek prose writers. He illustrates perfectly the habits and feelings of the time in which he lived, and awakens attention to the common motives of human action exhibited in forms belonging to a state of things which has long passed away.
The merits of Herodotus as a writer have never been questioned. Those who make the lowest estimate of his qualifications as an historian, are profuse in their acknowledgment of his beauties of composition and style, by which they consider that other commentators upon his work have been unduly biased in his favour, and led to overrate his historical accuracy. Scarcely a dissentient voice is to be found on this point among critical authorities, whether ancient or modern, who all agree in upholding our author as a model of his own peculiar order of composition.
Herodotus, by selecting for the subject of his work a special portion of the history of Greece and confining himself to the narration of events having a bearing, direct or indirect, upon his main topic, has obtained a unity of action sufficient to satisfy the most stringent demands of art, equal, indeed, to that which characterises the masterpieces of the imagination. Instead of undertaking the complex and difficult task of writing the history of the Hellenic race during a given period, he sits down with the one (primary) object of faithfully recording the events of a particular war.
His work, though not finished throughout, is concluded; and its termination with the return of the Greek fleet from Sestos, distinctly shows that it was not his object to trace the entire history of the Græco-Persian struggle, since that struggle continued for thirty years afterwards with scarcely any intermission, until the arrangement known as the Peace of Callias.
The real intention of Herodotus was to write the history of the Persian War of Invasion—the contest which commenced with the first expedition of Mardonius, and terminated with the entire discomfiture of the vast fleet and army collected and led against Greece by Xerxes. The portion of his narrative which is anterior to the expedition of Mardonius is of the nature of an introduction, and in this a double design may be traced. The main object of the writer was to give an account of the rise, growth, and progress of the great empire which had been the antagonist of Greece in the struggle, and his secondary aim to note the previous occasions whereon the two races had been brought into hostile contact. Both these points are connected intimately with the principal object of the history, the one being necessary in order to a correct appreciation of the greatness of the contest and the glory gained by those with whom the victory rested; and the other giving the causes from which the quarrel sprang, and throwing important light on the course of the invasion and the conduct of the invaders.
Had Herodotus confined himself rigidly to these three inter-connected heads of narration, the growth of the Persian Empire, the previous hostilities between Greece and Persia, and the actual conduct of the great war, his history would have been meagre and deficient in variety. To avoid this consequence, he takes every opportunity which presents itself of diverging from his main narrative and interweaving with it the vast stores of his varied knowledge, whether historical, geographical, or antiquarian.
The power of Herodotus to portray female character is worthy of notice. Unlike Thucydides, who passes over in contemptuous silence the part played by women in the transactions which he undertakes to record, Herodotus seizes every opportunity of adding variety and zest to his narrative by carefully introducing to our notice the feminine element involved in his events.
Thomas Mathew Alexander.