Musings on how the father of history saw life and death

Herodotus and His World
July 23, 2004

Athens - or Jerusalem? asked the early Christian writer Tertullian.

Herodotus - or Thucydides? is a rather less famous but no less earnestly debated poser in historiographical circles. Until recently, many - perhaps most - would have plumped unhesitatingly for Thucydides of Athens, the historian's historian. But non-specialist general readers, including the many who were first alerted to Herodotus by The English Patient , have usually gone the other way. Fuad Rouhani, for example, the recently deceased first secretary-general of Opec, translated the passages of the Histories that showed his Persian forebears in their pomp and those that described their crushing defeats.

That Herodotus did not succumb to Hellenocentric triumphalism is only one of the glories that commend him more and more to scholars in the field.

Since the turn of the millennium, there have been three major collections of articles devoted to him, one other also published by Oxford University Press ( The Historian's Craft in the Age of Herodotus , 2001). To say that the volume of occasional papers under review is probably the least of the three is by no means an insult.

Among the most passionate of Herodotus' scholarly devotees was the late George Forrest, Wykeham professor of ancient Greek history at Oxford University. Forrest was the son of a distinguished leftwing journalist, grandson of a Scottish miner, and himself a leftwing intellectual noted for taking a public stand against the Greek dictatorship of 1967-74. He was also a compelling raconteur and pioneer populariser who injected gales of fresh air into the stuffy common rooms of Oxford ancient history. He died, alas, before he could give to the world the English-language historical commentary on the Histories that remains a desideratum. But a former pupil and colleague at Wadham College and Forrest's successor as Wykeham professor had the idea of convening a conference in his honour on themes related to Herodotus and have edited an absorbing collection of 20 of those invited papers.

The assembled cast of contributors is suitably international and cosmopolitan, representing three continents, though not the same three that Herodotus visited (how he would have relished being the Marco Polo of China or the Joseph-Francois Lafitau of the New World!). The skills and techniques on offer include chronography, textual criticism, narratology, epigraphy, archaeology, topography, cultural history and one delightful instance of lateral thinking, as well as plain old-fashioned history (both in its original sense of inquiry, as in natural history, and as reconstruction of "how it actually was"). The topics covered range from authorial voice to foundation legends, from oracles to Herodotus' stance towards contemporary Athens. The essays are ordered into four tidy, perhaps deceptively tidy, parts: "Narrative", "Peoples and places", "Religion" and "Herodotus and Athens". And the greatest of the four is "Narrative".

There is as yet no scholarly consensus on whether Herodotus was a cutting-edge intellectual, with perhaps a residual old-fashioned fondness for spotting the hand of god - or rather gods - at work; or rather a conventional religious believer (especially in the truth and power of oracles) and practitioner, with an unusually enlarged vision and open mind towards naturalistic explanations of human and natural phenomena. But there is a growing consensus that he was a master of the art of historiography as embedded narrative. As Carolyn Dewald subtly puts it in Brill's Companion to Herodotus (2002), he "presides over letting the material he narrates to us make sense" - though that sense is often, if not typically, complex.

Multiple viewpoints and interpretations coexist within his narrative, the relations between the different strands are shifting, and explanations are cumulative rather than competing.

In a word - borrowed from Mikhail Bakhtin - his text and method are dialogic, as Deborah Boedeker demonstrates in her chapter on his "prosaics of death". The peculiarity of Herodotus' approach to collective and individual deaths is sharply brought out by her thorough contrast with that of Homer - the most frequent point of comparative literary reference in this volume apart from Thucydides. Boedeker shows how Herodotus consistently avoids detailed, emotional or subjective treatment of combatants' deaths and delivers prosaic post-mortem judgements. Whereas the Iliad is motivated by heroic values, Herodotus' values are political, civic and strategic. For him, what counts are why deaths were risked and what they achieved, especially in political terms.

Under the "Peoples and places" rubric, the longest essay by far is Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood's characteristically learned take on Herodotus' - and other Greeks' - perceptions of ethnicity. She brushes away the intentional fallacy with an irritated gesture so as to focus fixedly on what Herodotus states and claims, and on the relevant contexts of audience reception. Were the Greeks Greek? Well, most were, at the time of composition; but for Herodotus they had not always been so, not even the supposedly "autochthonous" (sprung from the very soil) Athenians. Or, as she more formally puts it, Herodotus "deploys fluidity and ambiguity as part of his strategy of construction of a complex and often multivocal discourse". A discourse by no means entirely unlike her own.

Perhaps the most charming essay is placed under the heading of "Religion", though its informing spirit is secular and humanist. This is the late John Gould's unrevised paper titled Herodotus and the "Resurrection" - a reference to Piero della Francesca's Resurrection mural, still in situ in Borgo San Sepolcro. Gould had written possibly the best introductory book on Herodotus and was one the ablest interpreters of the desperate foreignness of ancient Greek polytheistic religion. Here he imagines what Herodotus might have made of this artwork's so-to-speak miraculous survival. Faced with something grossly abnormal, even uncanny, in what he was observing, his normal response was to look for a supernatural explanation, inevitably invoking divinity. Gould does his best, mutatis mutandis , to emulate that response.

My choice from the final "Herodotus and Athens" section is as far removed from Sourvinou-Inwood's in its register and tone as could be imagined. John Davies, in addressing the old conundrum of the emergence of democracy at Athens between the 6th and 5th centuries BC, expressly seeks to make his paper accessible to readers "approaching the complexities of Athenian public life for the first time". Whereas Gould had imaginatively inhabited the mind of Herodotus, Davies attempts the same for his own mentor, Forrest. He provocatively develops Forrest's "idea of democracy as an accidental outgrowth of a theory-free world" into the view that "the system which (Greeks) came to call demokratia was little more than a bodged-up set of responses to particular situations and crises". Up to a point, Lord Copper!

Herodotus' own view, had he sought to address that issue systematically, would likely have been rather more dialogic. Yet it is the value of an ambitious and uneven collection such as this that it causes one furiously to think and rethink, to inquire within upon everything, using possibly the ancient Greeks' greatest gift to the whole tradition of western thought - historia .

Paul Cartledge is professor of Greek history, Cambridge University.

Herodotus and His World: Essays from a Conference in Memory of George Forrest

Editor - Peter Derow and Robert Parker
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 378
Price - £58.00
ISBN - 0 19 925374

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