Herodotus’ Histories

My previous experience of Herodotus had been, as for many classicists, that of reading isolated episodes, either as set texts for teaching Greek GCSE, or as passages for unseen translation. I’d also read some of his stories in secondary literature, for example Psammetichus’ language experiment, or closely followed his account (without fully realising it) when listening to lectures on the Persian Wars. So I’d expected the popular distinction between Thucydides the proper historian – focused, intellectual, dry, and Herodotus the fascinated, travelling round the Mediterranean writing down funny stories, more anthropologist and geographer than historian. Well, he is, much more than Thucydides, anthropologist and geographer (and as such is enjoying a greater reputation among scholars today than those of fifty years ago), but in no way is he not a historian. I’d expected a rambling work, drifting from topic to topic, but from start to finish he is clear in his aims: to tell the history of the Greco-Persian wars, preceded by an account of how the Persian Empire became so dangerous in the first place.

Wider reading points out the importance of Aeschylean, tragic, themes of success leading to transgression leading to punishment (ύβρις -> νεμεσις): obviously this is the main moral from the whole narrative of Xerxes’ invasion, but Christopher Welser’s 2009 article about the very end of the work makes it clear how carefully Herodotus structured his work, not only to reflect generally on Xerxes’ fall, but more importantly on the dangers lying in wait after his Histories end for the resurgent Athenians. Their siege of Sestos, and cruel punishment of Artaÿctes (crucifixion, and stoning his son to death in front of him) cannot but make the reader concerned for what will in turn happen to his punishers.

One striking difference between Herodotus and Thucydides is the Herodotean lack of debate (Thucydides has his agents frequently discussing in formal speeches what course of action they are going to take and why); this is compensated for in a way by a much stronger sense of Herodotus himself: he frequently intervenes to explain his sources, or which of the competing accounts he personally prefers.

It’s also interesting to note how scientific thought is treated, for example:
-Sending messengers to the major oracles to ask a question on the same day – see who gets it right. (Delphi and Amphiarus only.)
-Thales’ predicting the solar eclipse at the battle before Pteria
-2:1 Psammetichus’ language experiment
-?7 The Persian Magi getting the winds to stop destroying their fleet (“but they might have just subsided anyway”); this is like the maid on the Odyssey, who, after praying for Odysseus’ return and hearing a thunderclap, wonders whether that actually was an omen, or “just thunder”.


Part 1: growth of the Persian Empire

Book 1

  • lots on women being stolen
  • Croesus and Cyrus: Croesus’ learning from his folly as in a tragedy or the Iliad; Cyrus’ conquest of Lydia
  • Cyrus’ birth, ascension & defeat of the Medes
  • Cyrus’ conquest of everyone else including the Assyrians, then his death fighting the Massagetae.

Book 2

  • Egypt: geography, the Nile, Africa

Book 3

  • Cambyses
  • Darius-first Persian conquest of Greek territory (Samos)
  • Darius’ (second) conquest of Babylon

(3:119 Antigone brother bit)

Book 4

  • Scythia (& Darius’ invasion)
  • Mapping of the world, inc. sun on right
  • Ignorance of the Alps
  • Libya and the conquest of Barca by Darius’ Egyptian stooges

Book 5

Part 2: Persia takes on Greece and loses

  • Ionian Revolt (halfway through, so, at 4.5 books in, exactly halfway in the whole work)

Book 6

  • Marathon

Book 7

  • Thermopylae

Book 8

  • Salamis

Book 9

  • Plataea and Mycale
  • New revolt in Ionia
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