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.



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