There’s two types of bestsellers: fashionable tripe that’ll be forgotten in a couple of years, and good stuff that remains highly readable, though it makes the literati shake their heads.  The only way to tell the difference is to wait.  2400 years should do it, as in the case of Herodotus’s History.

Herodotus invented our sense of the word ‘history’– ἱστορίαι in the first line of his text meant ‘investigations’.  He seems to have travelled extensively in the Mediterranean, asking pretty much everybody he met about their cultures and how they got caught up in the Persian War.

He has an interesting approach to organizing his work: he follows the rise of Persia, and as the Persians reach each section of the world he talks about its culture and history.  As a result he doesn’t get to the Persian invasion of Greece till Book Six (of nine).

What struck me most about Herodotus is that all his stories are personal.  There’s not a shred of geopolitics and economics, besides a generalized lust for conquest.  Wars are all because X offended the son of Y or stole Z’s sister or whatnot.  There’s some talk about subjects of the Great King being “slaves” and the shamefulness of Greeks choosing the Persian side (there’s a concise verb for this, “medizing”), but it’s really orthogonal to the Greek-Persian conflict.  The objection to Persian rule isn’t that it’s absolute but that it’s foreign; also of course that once feelings intensified, Athens and Sparta faced destruction if they lost.

The other striking thing is the brutality.  Many of the stories Herodotus tells include rape, murder, prostitution of one’s family, bodily mutilation, and cannibalism.  Of course, to some extent that’s the point: the frisson of horror made a good story then as it does today.  Still, it comes up so often that it’s clear that one of the accepted perks of being an absolute ruler was to commit horrors.  (Though not always with impunity; such indulgences might provoke betrayal or revolt.)

Herodotus talks about all sorts of indecencies, but he’s reticent about one thing– the details of religious rituals, evidently too holy to talk about.  Even talking about the gods seems to make him uncomfortable.  At the same time, he has a curious certainty that everyone’s gods are the same as those of the Greeks, though under different names.  (He also likes to supply everyone with an eponymous Greek ancestor– e.g. the Persians derive from Perseus.)

Often he tells us he doesn’t believe some story he’s heard– e.g., he surmises that a story that the air of the far north is full of feathers just refers to snow.  On the other hand he can be by our standards quite credulous.  (E.g. he reports that lionesses bear only one cub; one might wonder why the lion population doesn’t halve with each generation.)  He, like the rulers he describes, is very deferential to oracles, especially that of Delphi– though he approvingly tells of the story of 0ne ruler who tested a number of oracles about a matter known only to him and henceforth consulted only Delphi, which answered correctly.

Some tidbits:

  • Every culture seems to need an opposite.  Herodotus finds his in Egypt, where sex roles are all backwards: the women run the shops and the men weave; women piss upright and men squatting.
  • The handsomest men in the world are the Ethiopians.
  • For being so martial, the Spartans twice fail to send armies on time because they’re busy celebrating festivals.
  • Almost every bit of martial history I read contains a stray female warrior or two.  Herodotus mentions two: Tomyris, a Scythian queen who defeated and killed Cyrus, and Artemisia, one of Xerxes’s commanders, said to be one of his favored advisors.
  • It’s notable how many of the Greeks “medized”, willingly or not.  At the end the resistance came down to the Peloponnesos plus Athens, and even Peloponnesene cities like Argos refused to help.

Granted that Herodotus wrote in part for an Athenian audience, the impression I get is that the main factor in the success of the Greeks was Athens’s decision (due to Themistocles) to devote all its resources to shipbuilding.  Thermopylae was just a speed bump to Xerxes; the sea battle at Salamis was what made him return home with most of his army.  (Athens and Sparta share honors for the final battle at Plataea.)