The opening sentence of Herodotus’ Histories, which recount the wars fought between Greece and Persia in the early fifth century B.C., unrolls like a long musical phrase rising to its Homeric crescendo and then dying away into momentary quiet:
Herodotus of Halicarnassus here publishes the results of his research, in order that the actions performed by men may not fade over time, nor the great and wonderful deeds, which both the Greeks and barbarians have displayed, lack renown, and, along with all other relevant matters, the cause that drove them to wage war on each other.
We are so used to hearing Herodotus called “the father of history” after Cicero’s clever formula (On the Laws 1.1.5) that it has become common to take him for a credulous old fuddy-duddy whose history is full of amusing and delightful stories spun from a kernel of dubious factual content. He certainly is the father of history, though his credulity has been vastly overstated. We have no evidence to suggest that any of his predecessors in eastern Mediterranean history, ethnography, or geography matched the enormous scope of his inquiries into the origins and course of the Greco-Persian wars. However, he is also the father of Western literary prose. The Histories are the first complete surviving work of artistic prose, one that exercised a profound influence on Greek historiography for over a thousand years down to the time of Procopius in the sixth century A.D. Herodotus raised the medium of prose to a prominence and sophistication it had never before enjoyed. He stands alongside Plato as its master.
Herodotus’ style elicited a wide range of qualities from the ancient critics. He was, first of all, “most Homeric,” in
pseudo-Longinus’ words (On the Sublime 13.3), for the many words and phrases he borrowed from Homer. Longinus may also have had in mind the historian’s Ionic dialect along with his descriptions of battle, narrative variety, mythological digressions, and dramatic dialogues between sharply etched personalities. Dionysius of Halicarnassus thought that Herodotus, as an emulator of Homer, strove to give his writing the sort of variety (Letter to Pompeius 3.11) suggested by these diverse traits. But the ancients also found other characteristics in Herodotus that may not seem entirely consistent with his Homeric bent. Dionysius of Halicarnassus again compared his prose style to the most powerful poetry for its persuasiveness, charm, and sweetness (On Thucydides 23). Even Plutarch, a vituperative critic of Herodotus for his supposed “anti-Greek bias,” recognized the insinuating flow of his Greek. In The Malice of Herodotus, perhaps the world’s first book review, he couples Homeric narrative with verbal fluency:
The man’s an artist, his story pleasant, and grace and power and vivacity fill the narrative; he tells his tale like a Homer, not knowledgeably, but sweetly and fluently. That, quite simply, is what beguiles and attracts everyone, but just as we must watch for beetles in roses, we must watch for his slander and partisan abuse, which come masked under a smooth and soft appearance . . .
The Homeric tale that Herodotus told was not, as modern readers might expect, about war itself. His purpose in the Histories was, as he carefully articulated at the end of the first sentence, to explain the cause of war. The first five books and a good deal of the four subsequent ones explore the nomoi, or customs, of the two cultures that came into conflict: Hellas and Persia. From Book 1.170 to Book 5.17, a span that covers over a third of the text, Herodotus describes no regular warfare between Persians and Greeks. He concentrates on the “great and wonderful deeds which both the Greeks and barbarians have displayed.” The remainder of Book 5 traces Darius’ penetration into Europe, while Book 6 narrates the Ionian Revolt from Persia (499-494 B.C.) and culminates with the Battle of Marathon (490). It is only in Books 7-9 that we finally get to Xerxes’ wars, the sea battles of Artemisium and Salamis (480), and the final land battle at Plataea (479). That is, some two thirds of the Histories is devoted to an explanation of how the two cultures grew ever more hostile, until war became inevitable.
Herodotus’ narrow interest in this investigation was to explain how a group of small, poor, disunited, perpetually warring but independent Greek states could defeat the vast Achaemenid empire, which had absorbed all the ancient states of the Near East into a highly centralized autocracy ruled by the great king. His larger interest, however, was to portray the full spectrum of human behavior that lies between the two poles of Hellenism and barbarism. In pursuit of this project, he tended to dissolve—or at least blur—the strict opposition between the two extremes by detecting similarities and parallels. He gave his audience a continuum of human behavior and culture whose mundane history mirrored the cosmic polemos to maintain order. The Histories employ ethnography and war as tools to render fully comprehensible the human world that Herodotus inhabited, and his later readers would inhabit.
Herodotus’ mission required a new investigative technique: He would rely on his own direct autopsy and on oral report—subject to very critical evaluation—rather than poetic mythologies. He adopted a kind of empirical rationalism, rejecting Ionian mythmaking and even Homer as a factual authority. His mission also required inclusiveness. He states in 1.5.3 that, after indicating the man (Croesus) who first began unjust acts against the Greeks, “I will move forward in my account, touching equally on the great and small cities of mankind, for among those that were once great, many have become small, and those that were great in my time, were formerly small.” While Herodotus limited his inclusiveness by careful exclusions, the scope of the Histories is so vast that, according to one estimate, a full index would need about 10,000 items. One of the great mysteries about his methodology is how he collected, organized, and preserved the results of his research while traveling about much of the ancient world (Egypt, the Black Sea, the Levantine coast, North Africa, southern Italy, and possibly Babylon), perhaps sailing as a merchant seaman. Any fair a priori estimate of his chances of completing the Histories, as Arnaldo Momigliano once wrote, would be nil.
Among his Hellenic contemporaries, confident of their cultural superiority, Herodotus is unique in the openness with which he views alien cultures and wisdom. His presentation of the Greco-Persian wars is particularly free of Greek parochialism. He expresses greater admiration for Persian nomoi than for those of any other foreign people, praising their courage, respect for brave fallen foes, truthfulness, hardy strength, simplicity, boldness, and devotion to Persian national freedom. They are not, in many ways, unlike the Greeks. This praise of Persian national character, however, is moderated by acute criticism of specific Persian autocrats. He is quite ready to draw the contrast between what Persian custom requires and what individual Persians actually do. The fatal weakness of the Persians is despotism, which is always based on fear and compulsion (7.103). The Greeks, on the other hand, may be disunited and parochial, but that makes them all the more difficult to defeat. A hard farming life on poor soil begets relentless soldiers. In Books 6 and 7, Herodotus specifically addresses the characteristics of the Greeks that let them defeat Persia: independence, law, respect for limits, moderation, disdain for luxury, mental acuity, and hatred of despotism. The Spartan traitor Damaratus succinctly defines the Greek spirit to an incredulous Xerxes: “Poverty is always native to Greece, but valor is acquired—won by wisdom and mighty law; with its aid Greece wards off poverty and despotism” (7.102). Herodotus clearly respected these traits and shows how they gave Greece the narrow edge for victory, though he must also have seen the terrible irony in the way some of those very same traits were leading to the suicide of Greece in the Peloponnesian War.
Herodotus’ strongest statement about cultural chauvinism comes in Book 3, during his account of Cambyses’ sacrilegious behavior in violating Egyptian temples, tombs, and sacred statuary. The king had been growing increasingly unstable for some time, but, when Cambyses entered the temple of the Cabiri, mocked the images, and burnt them, Herodotus responds with the following observation:
This makes it abundantly clear to me that Cambyses was completely insane; for otherwise he would not have set out to deride holy things and sacred traditions. If one were to propose to all men that they select the best customs among all those that exist, each would, after considering them, choose his own; so assuredly does everyone think his own customs are the best. Indeed, it’s unlikely that anyone other than a madman would subject such things to ridicule.
This insight into the subjective partiality every people has for its own culture is all the more striking when we consider the almost canonical antipathy between Greek and barbarian in Aeschylus’ Persians or the crude caricature of barbarians in the comedians. The sacrilege of Cambyses points to the dangers implicit in cultural chauvinism, but Herodotus is not, by our standards, a cultural relativist. He admires much in the Hellenic spirit yet faults the Greeks equally with the Persians. None of the Greeks at Salamis, for example, escapes criticism for personal failings. As a kind of cultural outsider, set adrift from his own city-state of Halicarnassus and, indeed, from Ionia itself, he wandered the world, collecting materials for the Histories without any premeditated intention to find heroes and villains, good and bad states, base and noble religions. That impartiality enabled him to gather his data with a cool generosity whose like cannot be found in the ancient world—and rarely in the modern.
His generosity is surely as pertinent today as it was 2,500 years ago. We have now been told that the dominant source of future international conflicts will be culture. It is hard for me, living simultaneously in the cultures of America and Japan, to imagine how any other approach than tolerance can avoid the endless cultural wars we have been promised. My Japanese eyes have let me see the best in Asian cultures sympathetically, just as my American eyes have let me see Asia objectively. Both views are complementary, integral, and irreversible. Those of us who live a true multicultural life are, in one sense, wandering the world with Herodotus, cut off from the parochialism of our native lands. It is a lesson that those who do not wander the world must also learn.