Herodotus for beginners?
February 4, 2015 2:49 PM   Subscribe

I just got a copy of the Tom Holland translation of Herodotus out of the library. I am not a student of Classical Lit (before this I've only read Homer and the tragedians), but a creative writer following a hunch that Herodotus might help with the project I'm currently working on. Any ideas where to start in The Histories? What to look for when reading? What you loved about reading it?

I have glanced at the resources in this post but I'm looking for something more general.
posted by HeroZero to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Rhampsonitus (from the Egyptian section) is pretty wacky.
posted by chaiminda at 2:52 PM on February 4, 2015

I think reading it from the beginning is great. Herodotus is like reading hyperlinking on the web - he embeds stories within stories, so it can be hard to just jump in somewhere because he'll eventually get back round to something he started before.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:29 PM on February 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

Look for...wackiness. Herodotus is commonly compared to Thucydides as the earliest historian. He was definitely earlier. The question is whether he counts as a historian. Thucydides wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War, in which he fought as an Athenian general. He was careful about researching his topic, thinking about cause and effect based on mundane (i.e., realistic, not divine) mechanisms, and mostly tells a plausible story. Herodotus does not do these things.

Um, look for the Ethiopians if you want an example of what I'm talking about.
posted by d. z. wang at 3:33 PM on February 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

To elaborate on the answers above, Herodotus gives us the word History, since he described what he wrote as historia, meaning inquiries. And it is certainly not exactly history in any modern sense - he has been called the father of lies as well as the father of history. The Histories cover a considerable range of digressive material, principally ethnography and anecdote. Generally he doesn't commit himself to the tall stories he relates, and gives sources for them, sometimes presenting alternative versions.
If what you are interested in are the stories embedded within the Histories, then yes, the tale of the Egyptian thief is one of the most fun (that's book 2, section 121). Gyges' ring (book 1, sections 8-12) would be another example, but the point of that story is that, whilst it appears as a self contained episode, it later turns out to be a cause behind the downfall of Croesus (which roughly spans book 1, sections 30-91 (although that also includes the story of Pisistratus within it)). And the story of Croesus is important because it provides the first example of a pattern of an eastern tyrant who overreaches his power and is laid low, which culminates in the defeat of Xerxes in book 8. Herodotus opens his work by giving his intention 'to show why the two peoples [Greeks and barbarians/Persians] fought with one another' and, whilst the bulk of the material may be described as digression from that, it does give structure to the whole. In other words, I also vote for reading it from beginning to end - if you find yourself getting bored with a particular section then you can always skip ahead. And if you've got on fine with Homer and the tragedians then Herodotus shouldn't be a challenge. (Now Thucydides on the other hand ....)
A large part of the fun of Herodotus does lie in the stories he tells, and the implausible details such as the famous gold-digging ants (book 3, sections 103-105). But other ways of looking at the text would be to focus on the history and read it alongside a more modern account of the Persian wars, or to look at it in a more literary fashion in terms of structure and the development of different themes. Like with Homer there is a considerable influence of oral tradition in the Histories, for example in the technique of ring-composition, where a story is enclosed within a story or a thematic point is returned to after a digression. As much as Herodotus can seem to go off on tangents I think there generally is value in considering context and larger patterns within the work.

You can probably tell from the above that I've written a few essays about Herodotus not so long ago - and those are my thoughts based on your question, but I can probably say more if you want to ask anything more specific!
posted by an opinicus at 5:05 PM on February 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

you should start at the beginning. his first story, while involving semi-mythic figures, could be easily recast with gangsters in a noir story. aside from the fantastic tales, there are many other stories which have a humanity you won't find in Thucydides.

Thucydides wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War, in which he fought as an Athenian general. He was careful about researching his topic, thinking about cause and effect based on mundane (i.e., realistic, not divine) mechanisms, and mostly tells a plausible story. Herodotus does not do these things.

One of the many differences is that Herodotus is actually careful with his historiography: he lays out quite clearly which things he witnessed himself, which were told to him by reputable sources and which are hearsay and which are theoretical speculations. Whereas Thucydides, with his long unsourced speeches, is basically writing what we would call historical fiction, albeit focused narrowly on war and politics.

In terms of synthesizing politics, war, religion, ethnography, and science; arguably, Herodotus is much more the modern historian. Although, Thucydides was obviously the model for older European historians.

One of the amazing things about Herodotus is that he sketches an ethnography of the classical ancient world, including sexual practices, much of which would not be out of place in Conan the Barbarian. It's just full of amazing digressions and descriptions of people who have vanished from the earth, and are described by practically no one else.

Read all of it. Also, there is a lot of sexuality which we would find repugnant (including necrophilia!) which was expurgated in older translations.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:31 PM on February 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I agree to start from the beginning, and be sure to read it all the way through. Herodotus was among my favorites when I was studying ancient languages and literature in school. Several answers above allude to 'wackiness' and they are on the mark. Herodotus is a ton of fun!
posted by trip and a half at 6:38 PM on February 4, 2015

Read it all, and look out for the bit about collecting gold in India by feeding camels to giant ants; that was always my favorite!
posted by fifthrider at 7:05 PM on February 4, 2015

I could write an essay on this, but since it's late and I need to get up early for my morning run tomorrow, the best things to read to contextualize Herodotus (one of my favorite ancient writers, and the David Grene translation is by far the best) are the following: M. I. Finley, The Use and Abuse of History; Charles Fornara, The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome; and Arnaldo Momigliano, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography.

The only thing I'll add is that those who called Herodotus "the father of lies" were angry at him because he refused to favor the Greeks over their adversaries. Plutarch, I'm talking about you.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:57 PM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

BTW, I'm not as down on Thucydides as ennui.bz was. But Thucydides definitely took on H., as his only serious rival. If you want to explore the difference between the two in more depth, in addition to the Finley, Fornara, and Momigliano books I mentioned, take a look at Donald R. Kelley, Faces of History: Historical Inquiry from Herodotus to Herder.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:01 PM on February 4, 2015

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