Herodotus, "the father of history", and the benefit of doubt

Herodotus was happy to report what he was told but felt “under no obligation to believe it entirely – something that is true for the whole of my narrative”. The man who loved “wonders” was committed to wondering whether they were real.

New Statesman
History boys: a bust of Herodotus and Thucydides. Image: Alamy

Herodotus: the Histories
Translated by Tom Holland
Penguin Classics, 834pp, £25

In Tom Holland’s new translation of The Histories, Herodotus, the “father of history” (in Cicero’s phrase), born circa 480BC, describes a Babylonian marriage practice: “The [custom] that I myself rate the cleverest is one that they share with the Eneti, a people from Illyria – so I have learned. Once a year, in every village, this was the scene that wouldbe staged: an assembling of all the girls who had ripened into the full bloom of marriageability. These would then be led in a great throng to a given spot, where a crowd of men would stand around them in a ring.”

He continues: “One by one, an auctioneer would raise the girls to their feet, and put them up for sale, starting with the most attractive, and then, once she had been sold for a good price, moving on to whoever was next on the scale. (It should be pointed out that the girls were being bought as wives.) All the rich Babylonians who were in the marriage market would bid furiously against one another for the beauties, while those who were less well off, men who did not demand good looks in a wife, would end up being paid to take the plainer girls.”

Herodotus explains: “This was because, once the auctioneer had run through the sale of the prettiest lots, he would haul the ugliest girl up to her feet (or even a cripple, if there was one) and auction her off by asking who would accept the smallest amount of money in exchange for taking her as his wife – and whoever accepted the lowest figure would duly get her. The funds for this came from the sale of the attractive girls, thereby ensuring that it was those with good looks who served to provide dowries for their ugly or crippled sisters.”

He goes on to write about the system of returns if the marriage broke down, ending with a lament that this “wonderful” custom had lapsed and families were now forced “to pimp out their daughters as whores”. This passage is a fine example of Herodotus’s curiosity about the alien habits and customs he so eagerly garnered during his travels to all corners of the known world. “What a piece of work is man!” is the subtext humming away beneath his kaleidoscopic undertaking. There are no abstract forces at work here and barely any divine ones; just interactions between human beings – princes and peasants, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, of all races, cultures and backgrounds.

This human dimension is at the heart of his achievement. The story he tells is of the clash between east and west – Persians against Greeks – which reaches its climax in the battle of Marathon in 490BC and in Persia’s huge revenge assault in 481-479BC (Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea), ending in its defeat. Lacking libraries and search engines, Herodotus travelled the world to generate his narrative, beginning it an astonishing 200 years earlier and weaving a multithreaded tapestry mostly out of a mass of undigested oral traditions. First, he traced the history of the Near East, Egypt and Babylon, then picked up Persia under its kings Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius and Xerxes, through its expansion into Egypt, southern Russia and Asia Minor, until it came into contact with Greeks living in Ionia (now the western coast of Turkey).

The working hypothesis that he developed identified the driving force behind human affairs as a standard Greek duty: reciprocating with those who had done you a favour by means of favours and with those who had done you harm by harm. It was this reciprocal obligation, spreading its tentacles from person to person, nation to nation, from Spain to the Caspian, from Scythia to Africa, that explained the great conflict.

No less human and humbling is the feature of his work that distinguishes his from all other contemporary accounts of the past and makes him the west’s first real historian: his openness to doubt. He intervenes in his narrative no fewer than 1,086 times to qualify it by adding: “I am only repeating what X says”, “Whether their explanation is valid, I am not qualified to say”, “I would be amazed if this story were actually true” and so on.

In other words, Herodotus was happy to report what he was told but felt “under no obligation to believe it entirely – something that is true for the whole of my narrative”. The man who loved “wonders” was committed to wondering whether they were real. It is no coincidence that ίστορία (“istoria”), the Greek word that gives us “history”, meant “inquiry”. You will not find ceaseless inquiry and questioning of that sort in the Old Testament or other contemporary accounts of the past. If some have accused Herodotus of being a liar or purveyor of fairy stories, it is his authorial interventions that draw attention to the problems he faced.

As for the gods, Herodotus exemplified one of the Greeks’ most important intellectual achievements: to demand that accounts of the world be humanly intelligible. That meant not allowing the supernatural any significant place in one’s explanation of how and why the world came to be as it was. To this premise he remained true, assigning no general theory of historical causation to divine intervention, although in certain specific cases, it seems he could think of nothing better. That is fair enough, for it corresponds with human experience. Some occurrences do seem inexplicable and Herodotus occasionally signalled this by adding a reassuring, popular generalisation (“Divinity is envious and disruptive”). Yet he did not expand such inexplicability into a grand law of history. For Herodotus, it was human failings that brought disaster.

No wonder that the historian Tom Holland has been captivated by Herodotus since he was a child. His pleasure shines through his relaxed, idiomatic, expansive and often dramatic translation – sometimes, perhaps, too dramatic. When Herodotus writes (literally), “Great nemesis from god took hold of Croesus,” Holland translates: “The noose of a divine and terrible anger began to tighten around Croesus.” The image of the noose cannot be justified and the Greek (the aorist tense) specifically rejects the notion of inception. Nemesis struck: the rest was history. Yet the story of Croesus is intensely dramatic – A Lexicon to Herodotus (1938) by Enoch Powell shows that the powerful nemesis (something like “righteous indignation”) is used only here – and if Holland rather ramps up Herodotus’s blunt assertion, so be it. He, like Herodotus, is a storyteller par excellence.

My one misgiving is technical. While the maps and glossary index are excellent and the introduction and accompanying historical notes to the translation admirably to the point, I feel readers could do with a little more help to find their way through the story, which, especially in the first half, is full of digressions on customs, events elsewhere in the Mediterranean, and so on. It is easy to get lost. A more detailed route map through the story than the brief one on offer, or explanatory page headings, would solve the problem.

Peter Jones is a co-founder of Friends of Classics