On Liking Herodotus

Peter Green

  • The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland
    Penguin, 834 pp, £25.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 7139 9977 8
  • Herodotus: 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
  • Herodotus: 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
  • The 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.

Nevertheless, the shibboleths of traditional authority, so well served by Thucydides, proved resilient – the number of powerful right-wing classicists was surely a significant factor – and it is only lately that their iron grip on ancient historiography has been loosened. Emergent feminism showed that the arbitrary exclusion of women from the Thucydidean canon was a prejudicial weakness. Postcolonialism and globalisation have brought about changes in the study of other nations and their relation to one’s own. The rapid development of ethnography and social anthropology has resulted in a radical reassessment of Herodotus’ pioneering efforts: he is beginning to look astonishingly modern, a groundbreaking anthropologist avant la lettre. In addition, ad hominem motivation, as opposed to abstract trends, is nowadays conceded – surprise, surprise – to have played some role in historical decisions, while studies in the nature of oral transmission, too, have done a great deal to rehabilitate Herodotean anecdotage. Psychology has taught us that Thucydides’ confidence in his own objectivity was, as Cartledge writes, somewhat self-deluding. What has taken so long to break down has been Thucydides’ authority as a figure of the establishment, and for that – and the parallel rehabilitation of Herodotus – we can thank the shrinking reputation of the establishment itself.

It’s ironic that one of the most radical developments in the understanding of Herodotus’ historiography was triggered by his fiercest Thucydidean critic. The German scholar Detlev Fehling, in a work translated in 1989 as Herodotus and His ‘Sources’: Citation, Invention and Narrative Art, argued that Herodotus, far from being a serious historical pioneer, was an early Baron Münchausen, who enjoyed nothing more than telling tall stories to a captive audience. But Fehling conceded Herodotus’ great skill as a creative writer, and the admission attracted many literary critics to a field they had largely ignored. Our improved knowledge of Herodotus’ techniques as a narrator, his position between oral and written sources, his uses of rhetoric and analogy, his handling of myth, and his general approach to characterisation is due to the sharpened interest of those from other disciplines.

The result has been an outpouring of work on every aspect of Herodotean studies. The only area where progress has been comparatively slow – probably because of all the new research that needs to be taken into account – is the one where the need is greatest: for a new, comprehensive, up-to-date commentary. Here the shape of the future is suggested by Reading Herodotus (2007), a study of Book 5 edited by Elizabeth Irwin and Emily Greenwood, where a group of scholars got together, divided up the text and put the resultant findings through the wringer of collective criticism. Everywhere else there is a real embarras de richesses, a dazzling variety of (not seldom contradictory) choices.

Rosaria Vignolo Munson has put together two hefty volumes of articles chronicling the recent development of this revaluation of Herodotus. Volume 1 deals with the narrative of past events, Volume II with ‘the atemporal description of cultures and lands’: Munson apologises for the arrangement, which recalls Felix Jacoby’s long influential but reductive thesis, now largely abandoned, of Herodotus’ progress from ethnographer to historian; as Munson writes, most scholars now think of him as the master of two complementary modes of discourse, unified by an emphasis on ‘reliability and historical method’. It’s hard to see, though, how her material could have been better organised.

The main result of all this new research has been to intensify the complexity of Herodotus’ work, sharpening the factious differences between his interpreters. This is nowhere more apparent than in the various attempts to define his personality, not only historically, but in terms of the tantalisingly elusive creative ego he presents throughout the Histories. He was a traveller, but how reliable are his claims? Born in Anatolian Halicarnassus, possibly of Carian ancestry, and domiciled later in the south Italian Panhellenic colony of Thurii, he was a Greek of the periphery: did he, as was alleged, leave Ionia because of his opposition to a dictator, and what, if any, effect did this have on his historiography? What was his relationship with the Periclean regime in Athens? Supposedly he was paid ten talents (a huge sum) for the public readings that glorified Athens’ role in the Graeco-Persian Wars. But it has also been convincingly argued that the Histories relay covert warnings against aggressive, and growing, postwar Athenian imperialism, uncomfortably reminiscent of Persian behaviour, which led to the fatal conflict with Sparta. As Munson’s balanced discussion makes clear, the scanty available evidence is neither sufficient nor reliable enough to resolve these problems, which is unlikely to discourage scholars from trying.

The essays in Munson’s first volume raise more questions than they solve. Pride of place goes to Momigliano’s ground-breaking 1958 study of the sceptical reception of Herodotus’ determination to use direct inquiry as a way of assembling the evidence for his account of ‘events he was too young to have witnessed and of countries whose languages he did not understand’. Today field anthropologists and oral historians have shown that the results more than justify the dangers of this method. At the same time, as Robert Fowler wrote in ‘Herodotus and His Contemporaries’ (1996), he had – in addition to Homer, elegiac and lyric poets and Athenian dramatists to give him patterns of narrative and characterisation – many now largely lost Ionian prose writers, mostly ethnographers, annalists and natural philosophers. He used these writers to balance what he saw, his debriefing of other witnesses, and his own interpretation of tradition and hearsay. Fehling’s charges of creative invention, while unconvincing to a majority of scholars, did stimulate a closer analysis of the widespread oral traditions that existed, as Munson writes, ‘independently of what Herodotus ends up doing with them’.

Many of the essays Munson includes involve inherent, and ultimately insoluble, ambiguities about Herodotus’ own beliefs and intentions. Henry Immerwahr’s 1956 study of causality in the Histories (why did they fight each other?) identified an interlocking pattern of themes: the rise and fall of rulers; the dangers of expansionism; and the powerful impact of vengeance, divine as well as human, and often across the generations. Yet what Herodotus really thought about the main protagonists in the Graeco-Persian wars is anything but clear: freedom is good (but can be abused), tyranny is bad (but can be used for good ends), and both sides get a very mixed verdict. There are silent reminders of what the immediate future held for Athens’ neo-imperialism and Sparta’s obstinate militarism, not to mention both states’ wartime heroes, such as Themistocles and Pausanias. Even Herodotus’ allegedly Persian constitutional debate – considered by many an anachronistic fiction – on whether monarchy, oligarchy or democracy is preferable (monarchy wins the day) is bristling with problems. Herodotus’ firm assertion of its historicity – despite the purely Hellenic terms in which he frames it – is only the most obvious.

In Munson’s second volume similar problems arise. Herodotus dismisses as mythical the old concept of the world as a disk encircled by the stream of Ocean, arguing that at every point on the periphery of the known world are impassable deserts. So far so good: just like the remote past, what lies beyond exploration lacks visual witness. Herodotus is signposting the limits of accessible information. Yet his deductive empiricism remains very much attached to mythical analogy, and so he keeps hunting for supposedly inevitable correspondences, reconstructing, for example, the unknown course of the Nile in the south from what he takes to be its presumptive mirror image in the north, the Danube. Catherine Darbo-Peschanski attributes this view of physis (nature) to Herodotus’ belief in a general and overarching divine pattern ruled by dikê (justice), covering all aspects of culture from geography to the animal world, including human society and individuals, where reaching beyond proper limits is to call down disaster.

More complex still is Herodotus’ huge debt to Homer: is this limited to constructive literary borrowings, or has Homer’s own archaic worldview rubbed off on him – despite his assurance, in his proem, that he is responsible for his own work, saying, in effect, as Munson puts it, ‘I am not Homer and my knowledge does not rely on the Muse’? Here the influence of Fehling’s thesis of Herodotus the literary liar is widely detectable in recent work. John Marincola makes an intriguing case for Herodotus sometimes imitating the tall-story-telling of Odysseus, and expecting his audience, familiar since childhood with the Odyssey, to know when he was doing it. But this is to project on the past the sophisticated thinking of a later age: for Herodotus the struggle is to retrieve actual facts. As David Branscome writes in Textual Rivals, ancient critics ‘found fault with Herodotus precisely at those times when they felt he did not live up to his perceived promise of delivering the truth’. It was no easy business for him: the real achievement of the Histories, when set beside their mistakes, is to have got so much right.


Though the attitude of Herodotus to women is in marked, and welcome, contrast to that of the vast majority of ancient male writers, feminists still get only limited satisfaction from his views. Carolyn Dewald, in an exhaustive 2007 survey of women in the Histories, makes clear that he’s not pushing gynocracy. What separates him from the rest of the field is his interest in and readiness to discuss a wide range of female characters, high and low, most of them not Greeks, in a non-judgmental manner. He dislikes their abuse by men in power, and sees most of them as defenders of established custom, religious tradition and their community’s moral high ground. Though fascinated by such activists as the naval commander Artemisia, he sees these as women who have in effect become men. In dealing with Persian women, we are doubly handicapped: our only narrative accounts are Greek, and they paint the Achaemenids as luxurious, decadent and effeminate. Archaeology and epigraphy can only correct this picture to a limited degree, and we’re lucky that Herodotus, despite his prejudices, is better informed, more honest and more objective than the rest.

His position regarding religion is particularly tricky: while on the face of it at least a deist (he talks of ‘the divine’, or of gods, generically, in the plural), he is also willing to consider the more sceptical arguments then current among Ionian natural philosophers. All views get an airing, and the reader is left to decide. A famous instance occurs during a discussion of the geography of Thessaly:

The Thessalians themselves say that the gorge through which the Peneios flows was the work of Poseidon – a reasonable claim. Anyone who believes it is Poseidon that makes the earth quake, and that the rifts created by earthquakes are the work of this deity, would say, having seen that particular gorge, that Poseidon had created it, since – as was clear to me – the fissure in the mountain is the work of an earthquake. [Translation mine]

Despite the modern determination by some – for example, Scott Scullion in The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus (2006) – to see the author of the Histories as a thoroughgoing secular sceptic, I find more plausible John Gould’s argument that Herodotus accepted a supernatural level of causation similar to that outlined by Darbo-Peschanski: a unified principle operating throughout nature and human society, and variously represented by a multiplicity of equally valid ethnic systems and customs. This, it should be emphasised, did not stop him keeping a sharp eye out for false beliefs and superstitious errancy duly exploded by advances in rational science.

The most complex area of recent Herodotean studies is ethnography. What was the purpose of those careful analyses of non-Greek cultures? How far were they integrated with the themes of invasion and civic resistance, and the political governance best suited to each, that are never far from the surface in the books chronicling Xerxes’ invasion and its eventual defeat? Here probably the greatest aid to clarity is Joseph Skinner’s exhaustive monograph The Invention of Greek Ethnography. Skinner’s subtitle, ‘From Homer to Herodotus’, is significant. The fact that ethnographic prose is a fifth-century phenomenon, he writes, has encouraged the idea that ‘ethnography itself was a fifth-century phenomenon.’ His survey shows how wrong this assumption was. Herodotus had a far wider matrix of evidence available on which to base his observational conclusions than has previously been assumed. Matters of culture and identity, even the relatively simple (it was thought) binary distinction of Us and Them rested on the interactions and networking of cultures more hybrid and more closely connected – through trade, religion, art, poetry, immigration, conquest and socio-political experimentation – than the boldest scholars have dared to assume. Jacoby’s positioning of Greek ethnography as a developmental ‘staging post in a linear narrative’ is beginning to have a curiously colonial look, and certainly demands reassessment. I have barely sketched Skinner’s achievement, but this is surely his most important discovery. The relevant essays that Munson reprints add to it by stressing the impact Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology has had on subsequent scholarship, not least by identifying the culturally determined grid of customs, from religion to diet, through which Herodotus organised his experience of the Other. Many of his errors may be traced either to the over rigid application of analogies (as with the Nile and the Danube) or the prejudices of his informants.

How far have all these investigations affected our general understanding of Herodotus, and in particular the basic task facing a prospective translator of the Histories? Rather more, I suspect, than is generally admitted. In a pungent contribution to Herodotus and His World (2003), Dwora Gilula writes that the text of most available translations, being based on Hude’s edition, ‘reflects attitudes of past generations, particularly 19th-century scholarship’, with its taste for textual emendations, many of which (as she demonstrates) are historically inadmissible. Tom Holland has caught one or two of Gilula’s examples, but in most cases he still follows Hude. Should he have preferred Haiim Rosén’s more recent Teubner text? Hardly: as Gilula writes, ‘Rosén was not a historian and was not interested in readings that have historical significance.’ Consequently many of the errors introduced by emendation, and sanctified by a series of translators, survive in Holland’s new and uncomfortably chatty translation, which by going all out for modern phrasings produces a recurrent uneasy sense of anachronism. And by constantly semi-glossing on Herodotus’ bare narrative, Holland often makes him sound like a verbose abstractionist.

We get a good example of both at the beginning of the Histories. What Herodotus actually tells us, in my translation, is that the Phoenicians, on arrival at the Mediterranean, ‘at once took to making long sea voyages, carrying Egyptian and Assyrian merchandise, to various parts of the [mainland], including Argos. At this time Argos was first among all [cities] in the land now called Hellas.’ From Holland’s version we learn that ‘they began investing heavily in the long-distance shipping business, exporting goods from Egypt and Assyria to a wide variety of markets. Pre-eminent among these was Argos, the city which at that time was the leading power, by any reckoning you care to mention, in the land which is now called Greece.’ This inflates Herodotus’ spare prose, and anachronises its historical sense, by converting Greek Hellas into Roman Greece and by crediting the Phoenicians (in the original treated as quasi-mythical) with what sounds like modern economic know-how. Holland’s goal is presumably to give readers a feeling of familiarity with the material. To the same end current slang abounds. It’s impossible to lose entirely Herodotus’ narrative joy, and Holland’s paraphrastic prose does often enough let most of the magic through. But those in search of Herodotus’ lean and beautifully structured ‘strung-along’ style will look in vain.

What, then, is the overall impression given by this mass of revisionist scholarship published over the last few decades? Herodotus is now taken more seriously than he ever has been, at least since the Renaissance. No undergraduate today is likely to ask his tutor (as Sir John Myres recorded in 1953), ‘Sir, if Herodotus was such a fool as they say, why do we read him for Greats?’ Even though the secrets of his workshop aren’t all out yet (a favourite apothegm of Momigliano’s), it’s safe to say that we have a far better understanding of Herodotean method than our predecessors did. That’s no small achievement.

Yet in the process Herodotus’ status as a historian has been silently undermined, and here it would be hard to deny that Fehling’s subversive praise of his creative genius may have done almost as much harm as his determination to prove the Histories a farrago of imaginative inventions. It’s no accident that recent scholars tend to treat Herodotus as not quite a historian, despite some well-judged attacks on the ‘liar thesis’ – ancient critics, they point out, found fault with Herodotus precisely for failing to maintain the truthfulness he promised, which they would hardly have done had he been more or less openly offering tall stories like Odysseus. Oswyn Murray sees him as a ‘narrator’, ‘the creator of a new generic form which only later became identified as history’. Branscome talks about ‘the multifaceted nature of Herodotus’ peculiar brand of historiography’, and argues that his authorial persona corrects by example the various inferior investigative techniques of his characters, such as Solon or Xerxes. For him Herodotus is merely an ‘inquirer’. This kind of nervous waffling only makes sense when we understand that Herodotus’ wonderfully modern historiographical principles are being judged – yet again – against the reductive definition established by Thucydides. The more I think, even today, about Collingwood’s perception that Thucydides was destroying his predecessor’s historiography in pursuit of eternal verities, the more convincing I find it.