Èrodotus' Ìstories

Next up on the list is Herodotus' The Histories. Here Herodotus provides adetailed account of the Persian Wars, the parties involved, and the events leading to the wars.

But first, a word about the edition I selected: This is part of a series of Greek histories in translation, each called The Landmark X. They provide a load of maps, copious footnotes, and marginal summaries. They are certainly quite showy. Unfortunately, the maps are the same regions over and over. For the most part, all of these maps could be replaced with one good foldout map. And the footnotes are likewise repetitive. The vast majority of the footnotes come after a place name. The footnote then just says to see a certain map. As a person who compulsively looks at footnotes, this is quite tedious for me. It kind of forces the reader to ignore the footnote markers in the text simply to avoid being overwhelmed by "see map". But if you do that, then you don't see the few real footnotes. The footnoting system is also non-standard. Rather than the marker telling you which footnote you want precisely, you get a letter which must be combined with the paragraph number. The book does not always have footnotes on the same page as the marker either. These factors make finding the footnote you want somewhat more difficult than usual. I'm really baffled as to why they didn't just stick with a standard academic footnote style. They replaced it with something that is in every way inferior. The book also includes several academic essays in the back. Many of them are quite interesting. Unfortunately, a number of these are two- or three-page blurbs with virtually no citations. All-in-all, it's a very readable translation in a good binding. The extras just leave something to be desired.

Herodotus himself is often referred to as the "father of history" as his Histories is the first major Western attempt at writing a real history formed from contemporary accounts of events. His account of the war is considered to be generally accurate. He does, however, get a lot of criticism for his descriptions of contemporary cultures and historical events past living memory. I don't think this is entirely a fair criticism. Herodotus traveled a great deal and made inquiries, usually through an interpreter. He seems to have made an honest effort to recount what people told him. And even he is skeptical of many of these accounts. Further, the apparent ridiculousness of his claims have actually reduced over the course of the past century. As our understanding of cultures contemporary to Herodotus has increased, he has started to make a lot more sense. He seems to have at least gotten the methodological basics of writing history down while lacking good predecessors to serve as models. While it's easy to assume that things like source skepticism are obvious, many writers even today do a worse job than Herodotus. And if everyone you talk to says that giant ants mine gold in India and you can't make it there yourself to verify it, you can't just ignore what little evidence you have.

The story of the war itself is pretty depressing until the end. Without reading Herodotus, it is easy to only really learn about the Greek victories at Marathon, Thermopylae (sort of), and Plataea. In reality, virtually all Greek territory fell to the Persians except the Peloponnese. That's like 10-20% of Greece remaining. Athens itself was torched by the Persians. The only thing that really saved them in the end was that after Thermopylae the Greeks managed to avoid another major engagement for so long that the Persians simply had to send most of their army home due to a lack of supplies and the Persian emperor's insanity. And when it finally got to Plataea, aside from the Spartans and the Athenians, not many of the still free Greek cities were willing to stand their ground for very long. Greek civilization as we remember it was at the brink of annihilation. I won't spoil the play by play, but it is both frightening and compelling to read about Western civilization in its infancy reduced to a tiny ember and then to see it turn things around at the last moment.

One minor detail kept cropping up that kind of surprised me: the Spartans had great enthusiasm for freedom and a hatred of tyrants. This is surprising coming from slave owners with two kings. But it is important to remember that not all kings are tyrants. And being a tyrant king is kind of hard when there is a second king around to challenge you with his half of the army. As for the slavery bit, Spartans believed that they were simply different classes of people, some of whom were fit to be slaves while others were fit to be free. While oppressing a slave was just the natural order of things for them, oppressing a member of the free class was simply intolerable. It was so intolerable that the Spartans made a habit of invading neighboring cities that had succumbed to tyrants, kicking the tyrants out, and then just going home. The Athenians had a similar policy but it doesn't seem such an exceptional idea coming from the birthplace of democracy. But it is interesting to note that while Athens fell into tyranny several times, I have yet to find any mention of similar periods in Sparta. A dual-monarchy may not have the potential to be as free as a democracy but it also seemed to lack the potential for tyranny as well. I wonder if history has any other examples of sustained and functional dual-monarchies? I don't believe I've ever come across any.