On Liking Herodotus

Peter Green

  • BuyThe Histories by Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland
    Penguin, 834 pp, £25.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 7139 9977 8
  • BuyHerodotus: Vol. I, Herodotus and the Narrative of the Past edited by Rosaria Vignolo Munson
    Oxford, 495 pp, £40.00, August 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 958757 5
  • BuyHerodotus: Vol. II, Herodotus and the World edited by Rosaria Vignolo Munson
    Oxford, 473 pp, £40.00, August 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 958759 9
  • Textual Rivals: Self-Presentation in Herodotus’ ‘Histories’ by David Branscome
    Michigan, 272 pp, £60.50, November 2013, ISBN 978 0 472 11894 6
  • BuyThe Invention of Greek Ethnography: From Homer to Herodotus by Joseph Skinner
    Oxford, 343 pp, £55.00, September 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 979360 0

When, as a vaguely anti-authoritarian ex-service undergraduate, I first studied Herodotus seriously in the years immediately following the Second World War, my overriding impression was of a man both broad-minded and cosmopolitan; fascinated by the infinite varieties of human nature; surprisingly alert to the influence of women in history, which I’ve always thought of as the subtext, by no means always sexual, of so much public action; appreciative of thaumata, marvels, wherever they might be found (parallels with the New World suggested themselves); and open-minded about religion. A curiosity about foreign beliefs and habits was combined with an ingrained respect, not only for these alien ethics, but also for the achievements of other nations generally regarded by Greeks as inferior (and thus despised), hostile (and thus hated) or both. He wanted, he said, to save from oblivion the ‘great and marvellous deeds’ not only of the Greeks, but also of the Barbarians – mainly the Persians, and their imperial subjects, whose barely defeated invasion is his main subject (one reason he was labelled philobarbaros by Plutarch). He also wondered, with typical Ionian curiosity, why they fought each other, and set himself the task of finding out, in a work twice as long as Homer’s Iliad.

Most of the reasons I liked Herodotus were, I soon found out, precisely those which generated virulent contempt for him in the minds of (mostly senior) ancient historians, for whom he was a superstitious, simple-minded anecdotalist, with a regrettable cherchez la femme tendency. His historiographic habits tended to be dismissed by means of a simple comparison with those of his immediate successor, the Athenian Thucydides, who at the time was idolised in academic and political circles for his supposed objectivity and his high seriousness – not always distinguishable from lack of humour. No one apart from me seemed to take much notice of R.G. Collingwood’s aperçu in The Idea of History (1946) that Thucydides’ ‘harsh, artificial, repellent’ style was the creation of a man with a bad conscience, busily stifling Herodotus’ pioneering historiography in his own pursuit of eternal verities.

Thucydides was certainly, in a phrase then just becoming fashionable, an establishment figure, a fact reflected in his historiography. He rejected the idea of being entertaining, and said so. This meant excluding from his concept of history, as both irrelevant and unserious, women, private life (and private motivation), illustrative digressions, economics, religion: more or less everything that made up Herodotus’ worldview, except warfare, politics, diplomacy and government as conducted by those in authority. Arbitrary and limiting though this concept of history was, it became, through his influence, the template of historiography for two millennia. It was eagerly accepted, century after century, by the same ruling class about and for whom he wrote, the class to which he himself, though exiled and out of favour through accidents of war, unquestionably belonged.

As Paul Cartledge writes in his introduction to Tom Holland’s new translation of Herodotus, the resemblance Thucydides’ merciless analysis of civil war on Corfu bears to Orwell’s reading of totalitarianism, complete with doublespeak, was exploited to some purpose by Thucydideans in recent times; and the classic Athens-Sparta dichotomy he presents has often been cited in order to use him as a Cold War authority on ‘a bipolar world divided resolutely along ideological lines’. But those who sermonised from this text were merely the most recent members of the exclusive club of all-male power-brokers and intellectuals for whom Thucydides had been a supportive, and subtly flattering, guide at least since the Renaissance. Herodotus, with his passion for freedom, his hatred of aggressive imperialism and his readiness to note the other man’s viewpoint, was never taken up in quite the same way, or not until recently. No accident, I’ve always felt, that Thucydides’ favourite form of government was oligarchy, or that Hobbes, who translated him, said he’d learned from the task just how silly a thing democracy was. From Thucydides’ time to ours, oligarchy has had a huge, if seldom acknowledged, attraction for men in office at both ends of the political spectrum.

It’s no coincidence either that Cartledge should mention these points in trying to explain the swing of opinion away from Thucydides towards Herodotus over the past half-century. Since the Renaissance, Cartledge writes, opinion has run ‘firmly in favour of Thucydides’, who has always been ‘the historian’s historian: an acute, disabused, accurate observer, analyst and reporter of the world as it was and is’. Such long-term unanimity makes all the more striking the recent shift towards Herodotus. What has produced so radical a change?

Cartledge suggests two main reasons. First, the battering of traditional historiography by postmodern theory, which ‘claimed in essence that there is no such thing as historical objectivity and truth’. This led traditionalists to a gradual ‘liberalisation of historiographical norms’, and a greater acceptance of ‘the extremely individualist and pioneering historiographical mode of Herodotus’. Second, the end of the Cold War. Both phenomena, Cartledge argues, rendered less congenial both Thucydides’ ‘severe, and somewhat self-deluding claim … to tell objectively and accurately only the actual facts of the past’, and his decision to limit those facts to ‘significant political, diplomatic and military events and processes’. But the recent expansion beyond Thucydidean historiography has far deeper roots; what Cartledge lists as causes are simply the latest symptoms.

The most influential force was surely that produced by the revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was only then that Greece – and Athenian democracy – came to be privileged in the West over the imperial legacy of Rome. George Grote’s History of Greece (1846-56) preached idealistic republicanism. The bastions of conservative authority were under attack. Conquest for conquest’s sake was no longer universally viewed as glorious: Alexander’s expedition was sanitised by the Victorians as a crusade to bring Hochkultur to the benighted heathen.

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