Maybe Herodotus isn’t actually a Historian

I have been writing obsessively about Herodotus for weeks now, but I’m not finished yet.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Herodotus is wrongly viewed as any of those labels that we moderns seem to think presuppose accuracy. Ethnographer, anthropologist, historian, etc. He is far more of an inveterate storyteller than a real “scholar” in the sense that we would take him.

Herodotus seems to have no trouble stretching the facts to fit his narrative, and that’s exactly the problem: he has a narrative and he cares about the narrative more than he cares about the facts, in many cases. His narrative is one that categorizes all of the nations of the Mediterranean in contrast with each other and with the Persians.

Perhaps this is because he takes a different view of how truth can be acquired. If we are inclined to view mythological stories as containing moral lessons, or wisdom, maybe Herodotus views his work as a similar project. It is supposed to project greater truths about cultures and people, through his narrative that has been made to adhere more closely.

I think this might be a general inclination in ancient thought in general when it comes to this sort of thing, especially without access to a plethora of evidence and eyewitness testimony, or films, or audio recordings, or accurate transcription. So rather than obsessing about finding perfectly accurate information, they try to glean larger philosophical and moral lessons from it. Perhaps this is why Cicero and other philosophers depend so heavily on mythological stories; not because they actually happened, but because they illustrate a larger concept.

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Style and Niche

One thing I hadn’t really thought much about before was the idea of modern stylistics and finding one’s own stylistic niche in the world.

I have taken a lot of classes where we discuss how ancient authors (or a few modern ones) discovered and developed their style, and often how it innovated the literary world at the time.

Cicero was an innovator at his time in developing Latin to its peak, and his style became very distinctive and imitated for hundreds of years after his death. Then you had writers like Seneca and Lucan who wrote in a more terse, less flowery style. There was a constant interchange of styles, and each author developed his own distinct voice.

Nowadays, much of our intellectual output appears to have more to do with ideas than style. Most of the modern history books I read are written in a plain, uninspiring style that is meant to get bare information across. Most of what you read on the internet is designed to get information and ideas across. College students are taught to write in a homogeneous fashion, often in imitation of other writers (Never use the passive voice! Avoid split infinitives at all costs!). College students even come to think in a homogeneous fashion, shaped more by the bland research papers they read rather than the great literature.

I contend that there is tremendous value in knowing different styles and even using a good style to your advantage, especially when paired with genuinely good ideas. It is like torture to read a research paper that has no consciousness of style, even if its ideas are sound and useful.

Language is a tremendous gift, and learning to use it well and beautifully is a worthwhile pursuit. I have tried to cultivate my own style that is clear and concise when it needs to be, but also pleasant to read. Because of my background in public speaking, I tend to think a lot about how something sounds when said aloud, which makes the writing flow a little more easily.

Eventually, I would like to find my own niche in the world of writing, but I am not sure what my style is yet, or what its characteristics are. My writing is very much influenced by my studies in Latin, which have made me far more conscious of the practicality behind language, such as the arrangement of clauses, introduction of new information, etc. Sometimes it seems very mechanical. But even the mechanics of a language can be beautiful, if used properly and with good understanding of how it affects the reader.

I think my goal is to develop a “modern” style that is not unsophisticated or “dumbed down,” being conscious of modern English use and its peculiarities, rather than trying to imitate older, less-relevant styles, which many people do. It works in some cases, but not always. Imitating other styles in fiction is an acceptable thing to do, depending on the purpose of the fiction, but I am not writing fiction, or as anyone other than myself, so I will use my own recognizable persona.

Applying Historical Methods: Two Approaches, and Further Thoughts on Herodotus

I had opportunity this afternoon to talk about my term paper for my Greek seminar this afternoon with my professor for the class, which ended up being a very fruitful discussion that got me thinking about historical methods. This was followed up by my next class, where the professor (completely unknowing of the conversation in the previous class) started off Latin prose comp by talking about historicism.

When engaging with a historical text, what are the possible approaches? The two that most readily come to mind are the factual and interpretive approaches. If I use Herodotus as my example, there are two ways to approach him and two questions you can ask. How accurate is he with facts? Or you can ask, how can we interpret his presentation of facts?

There seem to be a fair number of cases when you must apply the different questions at different times. Sometimes it is more appropriate to apply the interpretation question rather than the factual question, because then you can gain a more complete idea of what might be going on with the text.

Where this seems most readily applicable is with the Herodotus I’ve been working on, because I began by asking the factual question and found myself pretty unsatisfied with the results. Herodotus makes a lot of connections to things that could not possibly be right, and some of it dubious enough that Herodotus himself probably didn’t even believe it. So, the conclusion I would be forced to draw is that Herodotus is a crap historian and that we should all dismiss him. That’s what Plutarch does in his essay frankly entitled, “On the Malice of Herodotus.” Plutarch complains bitterly that Herodotus disguises his gross alteration of facts under his pleasant and easy style. That’s only one side of the coin, perhaps.

I was especially baffled when I was looking at some of the more obscure religious connections of Book 2 and finding that Herodotus appears to be forcing a lot of random connections between cultures. Most of it is so wildly untrue that on that basis, we have to dismiss Herodotus on multiple levels. But I wasn’t about to give up there, so I decided to divorce the idea of true “historicism” from Herodotus. He doesn’t necessarily claim to be a historian in the sense that we take “historian.”

If we think a historian is concerned only with accurate facts, then Herodotus is no historian. Of course, a historian is only human, and can’t be absolutely correct all of the time, but Herodotus goes off the deep end as far as accuracy is concerned. So, maybe if we give Herodotus a bit more of a break we can ask some better questions.

While he talks about his “research” and recording the “glorious deeds of Greeks and barbarians” he may be taking that a lot more loosely than we would. Particularly in the first half of the work, where he is trying to compare and contrasts cultures. He may have a different agenda. His primary focus is the Greco-Persian Wars, which is detailed in the second half, and he writes with eyewitness testimony still available to him. The first half, however, may be a bit more of a rhetorical jaunt through cultures in an attempt to categorize cultures and build a case for the superiority of Greece, and the reason why Persia was an inferior culture. Though I do not want to sound as though I think Herodotus is writing anti-Persian propaganda; I don’t think that. I think he is genuinely trying to explain why the cultures of Egypt and Greece have more longevity, and he connects it to customs, particularly religious customs.

He draws a lot of parallels between Greece and Egypt to reinforce the connections between the two, and Plutarch attacks many of these exact connections as they are obviously untrue. Yet, I think Herodotus’ main point is to build a narrative in which Greece is thoroughly connected to all of the oldest and most powerful nations on earth, namely Egypt and Phoenicia. Greece will ultimately prove the “best” because of her commitment to the ideals of liberty, rather than tyranny, which becomes more obvious in later books, but in the earlier books he seems to be stressing slightly different ideas. He is careful to include all of the most important religious categories among nations to enforce the connections, which may mean forcing the facts and the myths to fit his narrative, as he builds a case for the superiority of Greece.

I would rather not comment on the morality of Herodotus’ choices when it comes to his work, but I am beginning to see a more conscious pattern here that transcends the facts. If I can prove this in a satisfactory manner, then it might change how we look at Herodotus for the better.

Again, I think it is often fruitful to ask interpretive historical questions rather than factual ones in many cases, particularly when engaging with ancient texts. Many of the historians are not tied so closely to factual accuracy as we seem to think, but felt freer to have other agendas. My theories about historical inquiry do not apply to modern history, where we have access to so many different types of evidence. “Literary history” might be a better term for what I am talking about, since ancient historians were just as concerned with stylistics and presentation as they were with the events themselves. My method tends to take in more of the ancillary considerations like philosophical orientation and style, which I think makes many works more readable and accessible.

 

Caesar, Homer, and more Discoveries in Herodotus

Over this past week, I have slipped in as much reading as I can when I am not busy with other work. I have been working steadily on Homer, and also on Caesar. I am doing this somewhat in preparation for comps, which are this coming week. Anything Latin or Greek could be on the exams, so I have been supplementing my usual fare with extra reading.

Caesar has been interesting; I didn’t think I would enjoy it all that much, but I have actually had a hard time putting it down. He is the only historian I have read who refers to himself in the third person, which lends a really interesting gloss to the events (Apparently, Xenophon does this in his Anabasis, which I have not yet read). It has the effect of simultaneously situating Caesar firmly in the events as the general, but also removes him from the events as the historian. It was an intelligent decision to do so, I think, because then he can give the impression of being an impersonal observer and lend more credibility to his account, while also having eyewitness testimony. Then he can more easily allow readers a more immersive experience since he has removed his identity as the primary mediator of information, so the reader can situate themselves in the same observational position as Caesar. That is the extent of my observations so far on Caesar.

As for Herodotus, I have steadily been growing more nuanced in my understanding of his story-telling. Since I’ve mainly been working on Books 1 and 2, I have the most clear idea of it in those books, but I’ve been connecting some dots across Greek literature. The Greeks seem to connect “eros” with tyranny, and this connection might be another key to Herodotus’ stories (or some of them, at least).

“Eros” is defined here as a kind of sexual love, though when it refers to your country it refers to the excessive love of your country, the sort that leads to reckless behavior on behalf of your country, or towards other countries. Herodotus explores both kinds, I believe.

Part of the reason why Herodotus is so shocking is because he includes a lot of salacious stories of lust and sexual misconduct, but that is part and parcel of why nations become tyrannical or ill-fated. Hence, the women-snatching story; it has clear erotic overtones, as does the story of Kandaules and Gyges. Eros leads to reckless behavior and reckless desires, and that causes many problems, and had implications for the fate of entire nations. It was Gyges’ misconduct that condemned Lydia as a country, and would condemn the Persians as well.

If you further connect this to Pericles’ Funeral Oration and the moment where he asks the Athenians to have “eros” for their country, this is what leads to their demise. They become reckless, and it is a fatal  flaw in Pericles’ exhortation to his fellow citizens.

Perhaps this idea is something underlying Greek thought about history, and it does explain some things rather well. If you have an eros for your own country, it leads to all sorts of problems. I think perhaps part of Herodotus’ point is to analyze nations and the “erotic” connection there, so to speak, especially in how they relate to other countries.  It leads to recklessness on a national level as well as on an individual level, and the behaviors are perhaps rather similar at times.

Spring fever, Homer, Scam emails and other unrelated happenings

Spring has arrived, and I am also 32 days away from graduating from college. The closer I get to finishing, the less motivated I feel to do things that weren’t my idea in the first place. Instead of doing homework over the weekend, I did a lot of outside reading. Most recently, I have read Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” which is fantastic.

I also took the weekend to see how long it would take me to read through a book of the Iliad in Greek. I didn’t read it all in one shot, but it only took me a couple of days to finish it. I remember  being an intro student to Homer, and something like that would take 2/3 of a semester. Now I can read through it in a matter of hours, and I will only get faster as I relearn the vocabulary.

Homer is pretty easy once you master a core vocabulary, since the same words and concepts tend to repeat a lot. I hadn’t dedicated read any Homer for a while, so I had forgotten some of those words. I have moved onto book 2, and will try to have the entire Iliad read in Greek as soon as possible, though realistically probably not until the middle of summer.

Last night, as I was going to bed around 11:30pm, I got an email with a subject: culture. It was a company called “David Publishing” with a journal called “Culture and Religious Studies” or something non-descript like that.  Clearly, they had been surfing through the program lists for SCS and other conferences where I had presented papers, because they mentioned my Thucydides paper, title and all. I fail to see how my paper on counterfactual narrative in Thucydides’ Pylos narrative has anything to do with religious studies, which was curious to me, since it seems pretty irrelevant to most people’s lives unless they study Thucydides.

But the grammar was terrible and the whole thing smelled “phishy.” So I looked it up, like a good scholar, and learned that it was indeed a scam, based in China apparently and bent on extorting money out of young scholars who don’t know any better, or how publications work.

I love scam emails and think they’re hilarious, except for the fact that people do occasionally fall for them and end up losing a LOT of money because they don’t know any better. I’m kind of tempted to send them a dummy version of the paper, and scam them back, until the point that they try to extort $20 per page out of me, which isn’t going to happen.

Other than that, my life continues much as it had before. My Herodotus research still proceeds apace, though it is on the backburner because I have other papers to work on too. One paper is supposed to be a comparison of Horace and Juvenal for a Roman literature class, which I keep procrastinating on. The other thing is Latin prose comp, which is the bane of my existence, since it’s difficult and I almost never spend enough time on it. Alas.

I hope add some more of my further discoveries about Herodotus soon, though probably not today. Possibly tomorrow, since my Thursdays are usually just for doing homework and nothing else.

More on Herodotus

My hottest scholarly pursuit is my Herodotus theory, which has been growing into a passion unlike any I have experienced yet. I confirmed with my Greek history professor that there is something about Herodotus that has “left people confused.” No one has been able to write a definitive book on the structure or even the purpose of Herodotus.

I do not want to claim that I have done anything remarkable, since I have yet to definitively “prove” my newest theory, though I have been doing a lot of research in trying to find a scholar to confirm that I’m not the first one to have this thought: maybe we expect too much out of Herodotus in terms of the real “history” of things, but that does not discount the idea that he could have had something else in mind. I have yet to find any other scholar who has explicitly stated what I have so far come up with, except for one of my professors at school hinting at it once, which is what set me on this goose chase to start with.

I have noticed that Herodotus puts a special emphasis on the themes of stealing and looking at what isn’t “yours” to look at, or what isn’t meant to be seen. These are the first two stories told in the beginning of Book 1, and this theme can be found throughout. I can think of a handful of other examples: Heracles in Book 2, Rhampsinitus in Book 2, for starters.

This does not by any means solve all of the problems associated with Herodotus, but it might be an underlying thread in his own thinking that serves to explain at least some of what is going on.

So, more concisely stated I think this is what is going on:

Herodotus is building an interpretive paradigm for his readers through the first stories of Book 1 which serve as broad analogies for how cultures operate. Cultures operate through sharing and even “stealing” to a certain extent. The first story is about how different people  groups were kidnapping women from others, which led to Paris kidnapping Helen. The second story is about Kandaules and Gyges, which is a paradigm for how tribalism works, and the tension between thinking one’s own culture is best and the idea that what is ours must be preserved from outsiders. It is the same tension that drove Persia into trying to conquer other peoples, despite their tendency to adopt foreign customs (1.135).

There seems to be an immediate contrast between Persia and Egypt and the kinds of customs that are examined, and how a culture’s relationship to custom determines their foreign policy.  For example, Herodotus describes Persian customs and presents their religious customs as diametrically opposed to Greek customs and their everyday customs are more or less familiar. They consciously adopted different customs from the Medes, the Egyptians, and the Greeks (which are three of the biggest players in the Mediterranean history of that time, interestingly enough). But there is a conspicuous difference between the Persian custom and the Egyptian.

Herodotus presents Egyptian religion as being very similar to Greek religion in many ways (not all, but many), and their every day customs are diametrically opposed (in absurd ways that Herodotus could not have possibly known, too, which makes the contrast even more stark). The thread which seems to hold Egypt and Greece in a bond of peace is how they relate to each other with their customs. They have enough of their religion in common that it seems to transcend the need for war. The Persians, on the other hand having adopted customs of dress and pleasure seeking from other groups, war against them readily enough. The Egyptians and Greeks are portrayed as having many cultural links which consist of mythological figures connected to Greece, but not necessarily Egypt. Those characters tend to be ones who bridge cultural gaps, or more dramatic gaps. For example, Heracles figures into the story of Book 2 as a character who transcends the mortal/immortal bounds, while two other characters, Cadmus and Melampus, serve as characters who transcended cultural boundaries. Cadmus came from the Phoenicians and settled in Greece, while Melampus supposedly learned certain religious customs in Egypt and brought them into Greece, earning himself respect as a great teacher. The common tie there is religion, which is conspicuously absent in Greek dealings with the Persians. There are no transitional figures who bring religious customs from one to the other, and no mention (at least so far) of any Greek mythological figures. It is not that the Persians could not have known them (in Herodotus’ account of things) because they cite Paris as the cause of the Trojan war in the beginning of Book 1, so they are generally aware of those stories.

Herodotus’ account of history before the actual conflict of the Persian Wars is so heavily mythologized and filled with legend that I wonder if perhaps there is another purpose in mind, at least in part. Because of his mythologizing and storytelling, most ancients and many others have dismissed him as absurd and hardly worth their time. Perhaps there is a reason why his stated purpose in the proem of the whole work is so ambiguous, because at least in the first four books, he is working out a system for understanding what causes cultural clashes, in studying the “nomoi” of other peoples. He looks at which kinds of nomoi which are shared and which are not between different cultures, and that is what makes the difference. Being able to communicate with another culture religiously is important, even if you share none of the “everyday life” sorts of customs with them.

I’ve  run out of time for now, but I will write more on this later.