This travel book to the Levant is inspired by the storytelling ability of Herodotus and written by a man who wishes to escape the freezing fog of his Norfolk home and journey through the warm lands of the south. But we are in good company: Justin Marozzi first wins our attention with his honesty and then keeps it with his wit, writing with an infectious and earthy enthusiasm, camouflaging his scholarship and personal bravery under the cocky, light-hearted, bar-friendly banter of an amateur sleuth. However, those looking for a detailed companion-gazetteer to Herodotus's travels or a speculative biography immersed in the Aegean trade routes of the 5th century BC should leave this volume on the shelves.
Marozzi's travels zigzag across the Levant, from Turkish Bodrum to war-torn Baghdad, down the Nile and on to Greece, through Athens, Thrace and Samos. We get to hobnob with scholar-savants, to lunch with Patrick Leigh- Fermor and to walk and talk with an inspiring pantheon of modern heroes: a supremely handsome Turkish underwater archaeologist, a fiery Egyptian single-mother activist (deserted by her fundamentalist Islamist lover) and a squad of confrontational Athenian communist bikers, as well as an erudite, right-wing, Orthodox priest. My favourite in this rich gallery of characters is Sebek, a chain-smoking Balkan historian based in Thessaloníki, trying to cut away thousands of years of nationalist bias and anti-neighbour propaganda with his joint history project.
There can be no doubt about the passion with which Marozzi espouses the cause of Hero dotus, most especially in his retelling of any tale with a sexual reference. It reminds one of some over-friendly history master, serving up the salacious bits to keep the classroom interested. There is also some wild speculation. Marozzi suggests the Greek historian "would have been the finest drinking companion imaginable" and says that he was "wry, amusing, intelligent, deft, humane, chatty, ingenious, cosmopolitan". He also announces that Herodotus "would have enjoyed himself at the Crazy Foam Party" - a nightclub established in his home town of Bodrum, which specialises in a phallic cannon discharging white foam into the packed dance hall.
At times, it seems as if the man Marozzi is pursuing can be found reflected in the retina of those he is interviewing: "He's a travel writer really . . . I think he's quite wonderful, charming, he's an absolute riot, a great storyteller, the best way to get people to read history . . . going off on this wonderful trip . . . and telling you all about it with all those wonderful stories, getting confused along the way."
This assimilation between author and subject adds another level of complexity to the pleasure of reading the book. Part of Herodotus's appeal is that two voices come through the pages of his history. The first is that of the proud nationalist, aspiring to write an epic account of the conflict by which the mainland Greeks heroically defended themselves from invasion by the Persian empire. This report is a conscious attempt to commemorate the bravery, nobility and superiority of the Greeks over their barbarian neighbours. However, in the process of refining this work, Herodotus so diligently researches the background of the two adversaries and their allies that he later undermines his initial objective. The Persians are shown to be every bit as cultured as the Greeks, and both are seen to be the inheritors of the much older civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. However, far from portraying the Greeks as victims of unprovoked aggression, Herodotus goes so far as to identify that it was Greek support for the Ionian rebellion (of cities along the Asian shore) against the Persian empire, which sparked off the whole conflict.
In a similar way, Marozzi begins his travel book as a Spectator-reading pro-interventionist, who supports the invasion of Iraq to the extent that he takes up a job in the "allied" administration in that bizarre transplant of the United States, the green zone headquarters in Baghdad. But in the process of fact finding and making his way through the region, he acquires a tangibly different mentality - that of a man supporting cultural diversity wherever he finds it, rather than seeking the imposition of a new order by an outside power. Both Marozzi and Herodotus can be seen to have been transformed by their journeys and by the pursuit of knowledge.
Come next winter, Marozzi should pack his bags again and continue the next volume in quest of Herodotus. Just as he has shown how modern Greeks can delight in their dual Byzantine and Ottoman heritage, can love the cross and the crescent and also start reviving the worship of the Olympians, I look forward to him in a contemporary version of Book Four of the Histories, travelling among the Berber tribes of North Africa and inhaling deeply in Scythian tents. We may now all agree with him that Herodotus makes a great travelling companion, but by way of exchange I would like him to stop bashing the reputation of Thucydides. No need to compare - just thank the gods that Greece brought forth the pair of them.