Warning: this post may contain spoilers for Herodotus’s Histories
Of course, Herodotus was writing about things that happened at least a generation before he himself was alive, which was around 500 BCE, so the spoiler warning, which is a little silly for my fiction books because I almost never include any spoilers, is probably even sillier than usual. In other words, this is a history text book about ancient history, from an ancient historian, with references to even more ancient history. One of the more staggering things you can take away from reading something like this is to think of the fact that when Herodotus wrote his Histories two thousand five hundred years ago, the pyramids had already been standing for almost as long a time.
If you’re worried that reading something that old is going to be painfully slow and unapproachable, don’t be: this read, at least in my translation, more approachably than the Babur Nama did (and had a much smaller number of footnotes – a mere 500 or so), and honestly felt in many places like I was reading a slightly dry epic fantasy. Compared to most modern works of history, this was hugely exciting and dynamic, with compelling characters, clever dialogue, and engaging plots. Modern historians might claim to be superior in terms of “factual accuracy,” but sometimes I think that might be missing the point. I read this in conjunction with listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast King of Kings, like I did with Caesar’s Commentaries, and Carlin’s description of Herodotus as providing the screenplay of history with color is an apt phraseology.
One of the most interesting insights I gathered while reading these books had nothing to do with the history itself, but instead was about language. Most people these days know on some level that modern English evolved from the language of the ancient Greeks, but reading these Histories show that even more than that, our language is actually full of references to ancient Greece. For instance, our word “meander” comes from the ancient Greek name for a particularly winding river (and that’s just one example of many that I found). Maybe this is just the linguist in me, but I find this simply fascinating.
The Histories themselves are split up into nine books, which more or less focus on the Greco-Persian conflicts of that time period, with numerous digressions to talk about the history of Egypt, Babylon, or other places that come up. These are not short digressions – Herodotus will often spend the better part of a book talking about, for instance, the history of the Egyptians that brought them finally to the point where they become relevant for the historical narrative he’s presenting. It’s always interesting to see how ancient peoples perceived the world around them, and explained what they saw or heard. Some explanations are surprisingly robust, and then there are those that are presented as perfectly rational, but to modern eyes seem completely ridiculous. Like the Egyptians having thicker skulls because they keep their heads shaved and therefore the bone receives more sunlight. Or the peoples of India gathering gold dust from the desert by stealing it from giant ants. Yet these same people who believed that it was perfectly rational to make tactical, military decisions based on what a goat’s entrails told them managed to build the pyramids, invent geometry, astronomy, and other sciences, navigate the Mediterranean, and rule a vast region of the world for hundreds of years.
I’ve written before about understanding belief, and reading these Histories really led me to think further about that topic. Even in the Babur Nama, which was written a mere five hundred years ago, there is significant belief in the power of omens to make major decisions. In the third book of the Histories, Darius is purported to convince his co-conspirators to attack the “imposter” on the Persian throne because they happen to see some hawks attacking some vultures, and it is presented as an obvious thing. Everyone is always consulting oracles to determine what they ought to do about decisions both major and minor, and they continue to do this, even though they almost always interpret the “prophecies” wrong and end up meeting some terrible fate as a result. The king of Persia supposedly had his brother killed because of a prophecy that turned out to be about someone else who had the same name. Parts can be read as indicating that the Spartan military would actually make tactical level decisions about when and how to attack based on what their sacrifices’ entrails indicated, which to our modern viewpoint just seems incredible.
Yet are we really any better, looking back on them from our tremulous pedestal of rationality? Goat entrails may have been replaced with the tangles of a computer’s circuits, but when was the last time you made a decision, even a relatively minor one, without consulting the Oracle of Siri, or Alexa, or Google, or Cortana (I’m sure I missed a few of those “digital assistants”)? I can easily imagine our distant offspring looking back and finding that practice as irrational as consulting entrails seems to us.
Herodotus has a rather interesting method of presenting history – he’ll often start a book with a discussion of, for instance, how Darius is setting out to conquer such and such region, only to spend the vast majority of the book actually telling us about the history of the region and all of its various peoples, before returning with a page or two at the end about them being made subject to the Persian Empire. At first, I found this somewhat annoying, because it was like the worst kind of “info-dumps,” subjecting me to all kinds of random information that didn’t seem very relevant to the main “plot” (I put these things in quotations because this isn’t, of course, a work of fiction, and therefore those terms probably don’t technically apply), but as I kept reading I found myself regarding these massively detailed asides as one of the more interesting aspects of the book, for the diversity of cultures they described.
It’s really quite staggering to think about, and it led me to reflect on how relatively homogenous the world has become. Certainly there are still many diverse cultures and beliefs and practices, and if you dig deeply enough into a region you’ll find microcultures that are thoroughly unique, but in the broadest strokes much of our modern world follows fairly similar practices, at least compared to the diversity represented in Herodotus’s Histories. Take, for instance, marital and funerary practices. Today, I do not think it too great of a generalization to suppose that most of the world more or less follows monogamous principles, and that the dead are mostly either buried or cremated, though of course the details vary significantly from one place to another and indeed from one person to another. Contrast that with the plethora of different practices described in the Histories, and all of those within the boundaries of the “known world” at that time, which included none of the western hemisphere, little of northern Europe, little of sub-Saharan Africa, nothing of China or the far east, and little of the Indian sub-continent.
Besides all of these reflections and insights on the world both modern and historical, the stories told within the Histories are some of the most compelling in human history. The stand of the three hundred at Thermopylae and the battle at Marathon are just two of the most famous examples of what, telling from the Greek perspective, are some of the pivotal moments in western civilization, all detailed in these books. Nor are they detailed in a dry manner, as they would be in a modern work of history – this is closer to how the history would look if we were to make a media reproduction of it today, with grand speeches, great lines (like: “it is good that the enemy shall shoot so many arrows at us that they can blot out the sun, for that way we can fight in the shade”), and dramatic final stands against terrible odds.
I will admit that some of the books that I read are not entirely approachable or easy to get through, but this one really was not one of those – it was fast-paced, well-written, and eminently readable. Whether you’re interested in history, culture, or just good storytelling, I encourage you to consider reading Herodotus’s Histories.