Review: The Histories

The Histories The Histories by Herodotus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an old review, from GoodReads. I wanted it on my blog, so I am posting it here.

“These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were the grounds of feud.”

Herodotus’s reference to his “researches” (sometimes translated “inquiries”) uses the Greek word historie, from which we get “history.” This is the first recorded use of the word.

The main subject of The Histories is the twenty years (499-479 B.C.E) of war between Greece and Persia. Herodotus begins by presenting the alleged origins of enmity between Greece and Persia in mythic times. He adds Persian and Phoenician accounts that he has heard to Greek ones. These stories have to do with the abduction of women. According to the Persians, the Phoenicians began the quarrel by carrying off the Greek woman Io and taking her to Egypt. The Greeks retaliated by abducting the woman Europa from the Phoenicians, and later they carried off Medea of Colchis, which motivated Paris to abduct Helen. Herodotus says that the Persians trace their enmity toward the Greeks back to the Trojan War. The Phoenicians, on the other hand, insist that Io left willingly.

After summarizing these stories, Herodotus says that he will not discuss further which account is correct, and changes the subject to historical causes more recent than the legendary past: “I prefer to rely on my own knowledge, and to point out who it was in actual fact that first injured the Greeks…” Herodotus traces the beginning of the conflict to when Croesus of Lydia conquered the Greek towns of Asia, but Books I – IV focus on other issues. Most of this part of the book is concerned with geographical accounts, stories of notable people, and ethnographies of the peoples ruled by the Persians. Some scientific issues also come up, such as the cause of the flooding of the Nile. Starting with Book V, in which the Persians suppress the rebellion of the local Greek population in Persian territory (the Ionian Revolt) the narrative becomes more tightly focused.

Herodotus is a moralist; he presents the story of the Persian Wars as a story of how the hubris of the Persian rulers leads to their defeat, and demonstrates how “the god with his lightning smites always the bigger animals, and will not suffer them to wax insolent… likewise his bolts fall ever on the highest houses and the tallest trees” (Bk VII).

The website Livius.org has commentaries that I found really helpful when I was reading this.
http://www.livius.org/articles/person…

The website also has an interesting essay, “The Significance of Marathon” on the historiography of the battle of Marathon, which occurs in Book VI.

“It is often said that the battle of Marathon was one of the few really decisive battles in history. The truth, however, is that we cannot establish this with certainty. Still, the fight had important consequences: it gave rise to the idea that East and West were opposites, an idea that has survived until the present day, in spite of the fact that ‘Marathon’ has become the standard example to prove that historians can better refrain from such bold statements.”

Some great reviews by other readers on GR:

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show…

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show… (this one’s pretty funny)

some highlights:
Bk I: The story of Croesus & Solon & Cyrus – The wealthy king of Lydia, Croesus, urges Solon, the Athenian lawgiver [magistrate] to admit that he is the happiest of men. (Croesus at this point as captured nearly all the Greek towns along the west coast of Asia.)

Solon warns him that no one can be called happy until he ends his life well. “Call him, however, until he die, not happy but fortunate. Scarcely, indeed, can any man unite all these advantages: as there is no country which contains within it all that it needs, but each, while it possesses some things, lacks others, and the best country is that which contains the most; so no single human being is complete in every respect — something is always lacking. He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, in my judgment, is entitled to bear the name of ‘happy.’ But in every matter it behooves us to mark well the end: for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.”

Croesus dismisses Solon’s answer, “since he thought that a man must be an arrant fool who made no account of the present good, but bade men always wait and mark the end.”

Croesus suffers for his arrogance when his son Atys is accidentally killed in a boar hunt. Croesus later attacks Cappadocia, part of the empire of Cyrus the Great (and part of modern Turkey). In the conflict that follows, Cyrus captures the city of Sardis. Croesus’s other son is killed in the fighting, trying to protect his father, and Croesus is captured. Croesus tells Cyrus the story of Solon’s warning to him years before, and how everything had turned out exactly as Solon had said, although it was nothing that especially concerned him, but applied to all mankind alike, and most to those who seemed to themselves happy… Then Cyrus, hearing what Croesus had said, relented, bethinking himself that he too was a man, and that he was a fellow man, and one who had once been as blessed by fortune as himself, that he was burning alive; afraid, moreover, of retribution, and full of the thought that whatever is human is insecure. So he bade them quench the blazing fire as quickly as they could, and take down Croesus and the other Lydians, which they tried to do, but the flames were not to be mastered.”

Croesus prays to Apollo and a rainstorm extinguishes the flames. Cyrus, “convinced by this that Croesus was a good man and a favourite of heaven” asked him after he was taken off the pile, “‘Who it was that had persuaded him to lead an army into his country, and so become his foe rather than continue his friend?’ ‘What I did, oh! king, was to thy advantage and to my own loss. If there be blame, it rests with the god of the Greeks, who encouraged me to begin the war. No one is so foolish as to prefer war to peace, in which, instead of sons burying their fathers, fathers bury their sons. But the gods willed it so.”

Bk II: Herodotus’s story about Indian burial customs:

“… if one were to offer men to choose out of all the customs in the world as seemed to them the best, they would examine the whole number, and end by preferring their own; so convinced are they that their own usages surpass those of all others. Unless, therefore, a man was mad, it is not likely that he would make sport of such matters. That people have this feeling about their own laws may be seen by many proofs; among others, the following. Darius, after he had got the kingdom, called into his presence certain Greeks who were at hand, and asked — ‘What he should pay them to eat the bodies of their fathers when they died?’ To which they answered, that there was no sum that would tempt them to do such a thing. He then sent for certain Indians, of the race called Callatians, men who eat their fathers, and asked them, while the Greeks stood by, and knew by the help of an interpreter all that was said — ‘What he should give them to burn the bodies of their fathers at their decease?’ The Indians exclaimed aloud, and bade him forbear such language.”

Bk III: Sosicles of Corinth’s response to the Spartans, who at this point in the narrative plan to reinstate a tyrant in Athens. Sparta’s allies are skeptical of the plan, but only Sosicles the Corinthian argues against it:

“Surely the heaven will soon be below, and the earth above, and men will henceforth live in the sea, and fish take their place upon the dry land, since you, Lacedaemonians [another name for the Spartans] propose to put down free governments in the cities of Greece, and set up tyrannies in their room. There is nothing in the whole world so unjust, so bloody, as a tyranny. If, however, it seems to you a desirable thing to have the cities under despotic rule, begin by putting a tyrant over yourselves, and then establish despots in other states… If you knew what tyranny was as well as ourselves, you would be better advised than you now are in regard to it.”

Sosicles then tells of how Corinth was once ruled by an oligarchy, before it became democratic.

Bk VII: The battle of Thermopylae
“And now there arose a fierce struggle between the Persians and the Lacedaemonians over the body of Leonidas, in which the Greeks four times drove back the enemy, and at last by their great bravery succeeded in bearing off the body. This combat was scarcely ended when the Persians with Ephialtes approached; and the Greeks, informed that they drew nigh, made a change in the manner of their fighting. Drawing back into the narrowest part of the pass, and retreating even behind the cross wall, they posted themselves upon a hillock, where they stood all drawn up together in one close body, except only the Thebans. The hillock whereof I speak is at the entrance of the straits, where the stone lion stands which was set up in honour of Leonidas. Here they defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians, who in part had pulled down the wall and attacked them in front, in part had gone round and now encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left beneath showers of missile weapons.

Thus nobly did the whole body of Lacedaemonians and Thespians behave; but nevertheless one man is said to have distinguished himself above all the rest, to wit, Dieneces the Spartan. A speech which he made before the Greeks engaged the Medes, remains on record. One of the Trachinians told him, ‘Such was the number of the barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude.’ Dieneces, not at all frightened at these words, but making light of the Median numbers, answered ‘Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade.’ ”

Bk VIII: Xerxes reflects on the passage of time:
“And now, as he looked and saw the whole Hellespont covered with the vessels of his fleet, and all the shore and every plain about Abydos as full as possible of men, Xerxes congratulated himself on his good fortune; but after a little while he wept.

Then Artabanus, the king’s uncle (the same who at the first spake so freely against the king, and advised him not to lead his army against Greece) when he heard that Xerxes was in tears, went to him, and said: ‘How different, sire, is what thou art now doing, from what thou didst a little while ago! Then thou didst congratulate thyself; and now, behold! thou weepest.’

‘There came upon me,’ replied he, ‘a sudden pity, when I thought of the shortness of man’s life, and considered that of all this host, numerous as it is, not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by.’

‘And yet there are sadder things in life than that,’ returned the other. ‘Short as our time is, there is no man, whether it be here among this multitude or elsewhere, who is so happy, as not to have felt the wish — I will not say once, but full many a time — that he were dead rather than alive. Calamities fall upon us; sicknesses vex and harass us, and make life, short though it be, to appear long. So death, through the wretchedness of our life, is a most sweet refuge to our race; and God, who gives the tastes that we enjoy of pleasant times, is seen, in his very gift, to be envious.’” 

View all my reviews

Published by Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

This blog is for my thoughts on reading. A couple of my friends on GoodReads have blogs, so eventually I decided to start one myself. I hope to get involved in the book blogging community and become a better reader and writer! I am not accepting copies of new books for review, but I would be interested in new editions or new translations of classic authors. Find me on Upwork (as an editor) in the profile link. From September 2018 to October 2020 I blogged at Blogger.

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