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Herodotus' Histories: Work of the Week

A nine-book history, running from the Trojan War to the end of the Persian Wars with Greece, and for this, I would argue quite rightly, he was dubbed by Cicero ‘the Father of History’. It is a remarkable work. it covers an impressive time span and a pretty vast expanse of space, too, from Greece up to the Gobi desert, and whilst he did not get everything right, there was a fair amount that he did and I feel that we should celebrate this more than we should condemn errors from our technologically advantaged dais.

Herodotus can range from serious political exploration to exciting, almost movie-like, action sequences (a favourite of mine is the final confrontation between the seven Persian rebels and the impostor-usurper Magus and his brother in book III)), interspersed a times with nice little stories such as Arion and his dolphin ride.

What is also impressive about Herodotus’ treatment of his subject matter is nicely summed up, thus, by John Gould:

Though he writes as a Greek and though his narrative unsurprisingly takes Greek culture

as definitive of what is ‘normal’ in human experience, Herodotus’ account of other cultures

is not an account simply of barbarous, primitive, and uncivilized behaviour. Herodotus is an

astonishingly unprejudiced observer in its variety.”

(Gould, 2000 edition, 1-2)

Herodotus does not condemn a non-Greek people for differences of practice and shows a sensitive appreciation of the strong attachment of cultures to their practices and belief in their justice, as his famous declaration, quoting the wonderful poet Pindar, that ‘custom is king’ shows. He demonstrates an understanding of how entrenched practice becomes and how difficult it is to ‘talk’ to another culture (some things don’t change). He also praises non-Greek practices. In short, his approach shows flavours of an embryonic anthropology and sociology in his exploration.

So, we have many lessons to learn from Herodotus. Explore widely and learn before you judge. He described his work as his ‘enquiry’. Let’s be learners.

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