The basic themes of the Histories emerge in the First Book. The opening sentence and paragraphs give us a fairly clear idea of the author’s intentions.
“This is the exposition / setting-forth of the history of Herodotus of Halicarnassus…”
In other words, Herodotus’ book is not history itself, much less the events that took place—if the latter were the case then the history of Herodotus would be the story of his life. No, history is a process of going places to find things out. A histor is a wise man who has learned things by investigation. The root is the same as oida, I know and is related to verbs of seeing. So historia (or, in H’s Ionic dialect, historie) is the process of investigation. Since there were few written historical accounts to consult before Herodotus set forth his findings, his research was mainly a process of going to see people who knew something.
“so that the things done by human beings may not become in time become extinct, neither the great and wondrous things done, some by Greeks and others by barbarians, may not lose their fame, especially for what reason they fought each other.”
So, it is not the mere facts he wishes us to learn, but the point of the conflict, so that we too may become histores, if only passively through reading.
Herodotus then treats us to an absurdly fanciful account of girl-snatchings, which supposedly led to the East/West conflict. How seriously is this intended? I don’t know. Most obviously, it links his theme with the great tradition of Greek epic poetry and mythology: Europa, Io, and Medea echo the story of Helen, whose abduction of seduction by Paris brought on the Trojan War. Since, elsewhere, he shows himself a fairly shrewd judge of human motivations, this introduction may be in part a jeux d’esprit. At any rate, he would tell us that we don’t know any more about the story than he or the epic poets did, and we should be content with a good story.
Indeed, two of H’s strongest points are his narrative skill and his willingness to tell any traditional story, including stories that conflict, whether he believes them or not.
Because the first verifiable conflict between Greeks and barbarians was the result of the Lydian kingdom’s attempt to dominate the Greeks of Asia Minor and the Eastern Aegean, he begins with the Lydians. Before embarking on his narrative course, however, he reminds us not to judge by present appearances: Formerly great cities have become small and vice-versa. Human happiness/good fortune, he reminds for the first but by no means the last time, is highly unstable [I.5] This is a lesson that Americans refuse to learn, believing ourselves exempt from the historical process that created the Egyptian, Hittite, Assyrian, Greek, and Roman empires only to destroy them.
Within the Lydian logos, H. interweaves many charming Greek stories, but the key passage is probably the chronologically impossible meeting between Solon and Croesus. Croesus is a sympathetic tragic hero, but a barbarian. He puts his confidence in his power and wealth and is not a little nettled, when Solon answers his question about “Who is the happiest man,” with the obscure Tellus of Athens and the legendary figures of Cleobis and Biton. Solon’s warning to count no man happy until you know the manner of his death is often cited, but commentators neglect the context. Tellus and the Argive brothers are not happy as individuals but as family men and members of a community in which they have respect and honor. Croesus’ downfall involves not only the loss of wealth and power but the premature death of his unimpaired son. If any passage in Greek literature can warn us against the foolish mistake of regarding the Greeks as modern individualists, it is this.
It is impractical to summarize this great book, but I am happy to entertain questions to keep the ball rolling.
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