Herodotus: A Historian for All Time

As a new translation of the writings of the ‘father of history’ is published, Paul Cartledge looks at the methods of enquiry that make the Greek master such a crucial influence on historians today.

Tales of war: A detail from the fourth-century bc Sarcophagus of Alexander shows a Persian horseman killing a Greek warriorIn the beginning was the word – historiê, ‘enquiry’ or ‘research’: the word used by the West’s first historian in order to describe both his method and his achievement, his ergon (‘deed’). Herodotus of Halicarnassus was born in or about 484 BC. The Greek city of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum) was then a subject of the mighty Persian empire, which had been founded some two to three generations earlier by Cyrus II and by now stretched from the Punjab to the Aegean.

Halicarnassus was itself originally a foreign implant, settled by Greeks from the Peloponnese at the turn of the last millennium BC, among the non-Greek, ‘barbarian-voiced’ Carians, as Homer had called them in the second book of the Iliad. Herodotus’ own immediate family indeed bore Carian or Carian-inflected names. Happily, though, Herodotus (‘Gift of Hera’) proved to be one of the Greeks least infected by the sort of virulent anti-barbarian prejudice that was fanned by the subject he made his own life’s work: the Greco-Persian Wars of 480 and 479 BC and their more immediate origins.

Herodotus’ declared aim in his preface was to ensure:

That human achievement may be spared the ravages of time, and that everything great and astounding, and all the glory of those exploits which served to display Greeks and barbarians alike to such effect, be kept alive – and additionally, and most importantly, to give the reason they went to war.

At least that was his aim according to a new translation of the entire Histories by Tom Holland (Allen Lane). He is well known to ancient historians as the author of Persian Fire, his history of the Greco-Persian wars. But for this absorbing new translation of Herodotus, a project that can be traced back to the excitement of his ten-year-old self after discovering a two-volume translation, Holland had to get his Greek up to a sufficient level of competence to cope with the peculiarities and quiddities of a prose dialect (Ionic) that is both idiosyncratic and not the standard Attic. It was my eagerly undertaken task to vet (and annotate) his translation, from the standpoint of a professional classicist who has been reading Herodotus in the original Greek since the age of 19. In my view, Holland’s is a powerful rendering that allows all the drama and mysteriousness of this great book to be fully appreciated by modern readers.

Holland has returned to Herodotus many times since he was ten and never once been bored by him. Indeed few history books written since can compare for sheer drama with Herodotus’ narrative of the Persian invasions of Greece, and the Histories contains much more than that besides; all human life is there. For Herodotus was an endlessly curious man and gathered information about the world around him from as many people and places as he could investigate. The history of events was only the beginning of his interests. Whether it was the pyramids of Egypt, the cannabis habit of the Scythians, the flora and fauna of Arabia or the table dancing of the Athenian aristocracy, he was fascinated by them all. To this day phrases derived from the Histories – from ‘rich as Croesus’ to ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – are part of the mental furniture even of those who have not read him. Sometimes he is sceptical and sometimes credulous, but his love of recounting what he has learned and his insistent desire to communicate that love never cease.

Above all, as Holland says in his translator’s preface, ‘Herodotus is the most entertaining of historians. Indeed, he is as entertaining as anyone who has ever written – historian or not. It is hard to think of another author of whom the same could be said, let alone one who wrote almost two and a half millennia ago.’ Herodotus, Edward Gibbon wisely opined in a footnote to the Decline and Fall, ‘sometimes writes for children and sometimes for philosophers’. And also, thank goodness, for everyone in between.

Here is but a small, suitably ‘philosophical’, sample of the new translation, taken from book 3 chapter 38 (the source text translated is the edition of Karl Hude, in the standard ‘Oxford Classical Texts’ series, first published in 1908):

Just suppose that someone proposed to the entirety of mankind that a selection of the very best practices be made from the sum of human custom: each group of people, after carefully sifting through the customs of other peoples, would surely choose its own. Everyone believes their own customs to be by far and away the best. From this, it follows that only a madman would think to jeer at such matters. Indeed, there is a huge amount of corroborating evidence to support the conclusion that this attitude to one’s own native customs is universal. Take, for example, this story from the reign of Darius. [Darius I, Great King of Persia, r. c.522-486 BC]. He called together some Greeks who were present and asked them how much money they would wish to be paid to devour the corpses of their fathers – to which the Greeks replied that no amount of money would suffice for that. Next, Darius summoned some Indians called Callantians, who do eat their parents, and asked them in the presence of the Greeks (who were able to follow what was being said by means of an interpreter) how much money it would take to buy their consent to the cremation of their dead fathers – at which the Callantians cried out in horror and told him that his words were a desecration of silence. Such, then, is how custom operates; and how right Pindar [Greek lyric poet, c. 518-447] is, it seems to me, when he declares in his poetry that ‘Custom is the King of all’.

As Herodotus well knew, the world is an infinite place, full of complexities and contradictions, and one person’s truth can just as easily be another person’s lie. Note that he did not himself pass negative judgment on the Callantian Indians’ funerary cannibalism, even though almost all Greeks would have automatically regarded that as typically ‘barbarous’ behaviour to be roundly condemned, the sort only to be expected of inferior non-Greek ‘barbarians’. It was not for nothing therefore that Herodotus’ own description of what he was engaged in should have been ‘enquiry’ – historiê. No wonder, too, that in his ‘enquiry’ he should have sought to provide a whole multiplicity of perspectives.

The sources of our information about the world are now more in flux than they have been for generations. There could be few better moments to read and reflect upon the book which first sought to organise knowledge and understanding of humankind’s deepest and most searching experiences at home and abroad, in war and in peace.

Paul Cartledge is AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge.