Herodotus writes with more narrative power than most novels. He has more insight into the human condition than all psychology departments. If hubris is what happens to arrogant kings in Herodotus’s account, then King Croseus is the hero of this story. He humbles himself when he is beaten and as a result is a wise counselor to the Persian kings. Most kings, however, aren’t like Croseus.
The story isn’t straightforward. He begins with the claim that he will give the background to the Persian war. He does. He also gives the background to everything else. Remember how in the Iliad when Homer would introduce some random dude, spend ten pages giving his backstory, only to have him killed off on the next page? Herodotus does the same thing.
There is a method to the madness, though. It’s quite brilliant. All of his random sidebars add up in the very end to present a coherent narrative. Further, there is a movement in his narrative which highlights liberty over despotism, which is the argument the Greeks used to unite themselves against Xerxes.
The ultimate showdown, first at Marathon, then at Thermopylae, and finally at Salamis, isn’t quite the “all of a sudden” event that the film 300 suggested. Much of Asia Minor was long understood to be Persian territory. Also, many Greek cities were quite friendly with Persia and no one saw a contradiction The tension, urged on by dreams and omens, developed over decades.
The climax of the story is Athens, not Sparta (which makes sense, given that Herodotus wrote this in the early stages of the Peloponnesian Wars). This compromises his neutrality, though it does make for good reading.
“Here I am forced to declare an opinion which will be displeasing to most, but I will not refrain from saying what seems to me to be true. Had the Athenians been panic-struck by the threatened peril and left their own country, or had they not indeed left it but remained and surrendered themselves to Xerxes, none would have attempted to withstand the king by sea….As it is, to say that the Athenians were the saviors of Hellas is to hit the truth. It was the Athenians who held the balance; whichever side they joined was sure to prevail. choosing that Greece should preserve her freedom, the Athenians roused to battle the other Greek states which had not yet gone over to the Persians and, after the gods, were responsible for driving the king off. Nor were they moved to desert Hellas by the threatening oracles which came from Delphi and sorely dismayed them, but they stood firm and had the courage to meet the invader of their country” (VII:139).
Book I: Greece and Persia before the War
Book I has all of the elements of dark comedy and poignant tragedy. It isn’t a straightforward tale, though. He begins by explaining the background to the war with Persia, but it looks like he is getting sidetracked.
Book II: Egypt
Did Egypt copy Greece or did Greece copy Egypt? Herodotus argues that Greece took much of its religious terminology from Egypt (116). Nevertheless, while there is overlap, there are also differences. Egypt didn’t have quite the overt phallic symbolism that Greek rituals had (115), though it had obscenities of its own sort.
The Egyptians also were the first to put forth the idea of the immortality of the soul (145).
Custom is stronger than any Nomos and rulers disregard that at their own peril. Herodotus notes:
“For if it were proposed to all nations to choose which seemed best of all customs, each, after examination, would place its own first; so well is each convinced that its own are by far the best. It is not therefore to be supposed that anyone, except a madman, would turn such things to ridicule. I will give this one proof among many from which it may be inferred that all men hold this belief about their customs. When Darius was king, he summoned the Greeks who were with him and asked them for what price they would eat their fathers’ dead bodies. They answered that there was no price for which they would do it. Then Darius summoned those Indians who are called Callatiae, who eat their parents, and asked them (the Greeks being present and understanding through interpreters what was said) what would make them willing to burn their fathers at death. The Indians cried aloud, that he should not speak of so horrid an act. So firmly rooted are these beliefs; and it is, I think, rightly said in Pindar’s poem that custom is lord of all” (III:38).
While Herodotus doesn’t draw the explicit point, a point which I think Thucydides will later draw, this is why global government is always doomed to fail.
What role do humans play in history? Herodotus is very clear that God (more on that later) and Nemesis respond to human Hubris. The “gods” (whatever that word means) also punish excess in vengeance (IV:205).
Herodotus ends with wisdom from Cyrus, who was urged to become lord over Europe:
“It is only reasonable that a ruling people should act in this way, for when will we have a better opportunity than now, when we are lords of so many men and of all Asia?” Cyrus heard them, and found nothing to marvel at in their design; “Go ahead and do this,” he said; “but if you do so, be prepared no longer to be rulers but rather subjects. Soft lands breed soft men; wondrous fruits of the earth and valiant warriors grow not from the same soil.” The Persians now realized that Cyrus reasoned better than they, and they departed, choosing rather to be rulers on a barren mountain side than dwelling in tilled valleys to be slaves to others” (IX:122).