Writing history, and especially the history of the ancient world, is an uncertain business, in which the truth is as elusive as in metaphysics. Modern historians of the classical world necessarily rely heavily on the works of the ancients. And the supreme historians among the ancient Greeks had to rely on their own observations, the oral tradition, and the tales of any eyewitnesses they could find. The saying goes that journalism is the first draft of history; however, it was not mere journalists but the Greek master historians—Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon—who were the original men of the first draft. As the scholarly eminence Arnaldo Momigliano wrote tellingly, “There was no Herodotus before Herodotus.” When Herodotus (ca. 483-424 b.c.) was relating some 200 years of history that no previous historian had written, getting the story straight posed herculean challenges: He had to confront the Hydra of numerous irreconcilable reports and rumors over and over again, and inevitably he gave up trying to kill the many-headed monster and instead recorded every factoid, preposterous assertion, and bit of scuttlebutt that came his way. Sometimes he made clear what he found believable and what he did not; sometimes he left the reader to figure it out for himself.
The result is a work that has a privileged relationship with the truth similar to that of an epic poem—that is, Herodotus retails everlasting truths about baneful and glorious war, the several breeds of political men, the difference between regimes founded on love of freedom and those in which one man commands and the rest are his slaves, the varying proportions of reason and unreason in human affairs, and the immemorial conflict between East and West, in an omnium gatherum that incorporates propulsive narrative of momentous events, divagations into deep background and historical sideshows, divagations from the divagations, ethnographic investigations, and descriptions of marvels that the author has seen or heard tell of. If you want to know of the phoenix and the flying serpents of Egypt, the land where people do everything opposite to what they do elsewhere, so that men urinate squatting and women standing up, Herodotus will satisfy your curiosity. Little wonder that the man celebrated as the Father of History—the title first bestowed by Cicero—has also been known as the Father of Lies.
Getting the story straight is still hard. Even to call Herodotus’ masterwork The Histories (or The History, in the translation by David Grene that I will refer to throughout) is not historically correct: Istorie simply meant inquiries, and by creating the historical genre Herodotus inaugurated the tradition that would rename his book for posterity.
The book opens with the declaration that the actions to be related are remarkable and worthy of being memorialized in a form that will preserve their living essence: “I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another.” The reasons given by the Persians, who will become the Greeks’ principal enemy in the wars, extend far back into the haze of myth. The names are all familiar, but from the poets, and it is startling to see them in a work of history. In the Persian version, after the Phoenicians had abducted the daughter of the king of Argos, Io, and the Greeks in retaliation abducted not only the daughter of the king of Tyre, Europa, but also the daughter of the king of Colchis, Medea, and then Alexander, son of the Trojan king, Priam, carried off Helen, the Greeks seriously upped the ante by destroying Troy. This Greek conquest in Asia Minor was the unforgivable primal offense in Persian eyes, for “the Persians claim, as their own, Asia and all the barbarian people who live in it, but Europe and the Greek people they regard as entirely separate.” Herodotus forbears from weighing in on the truth of these tales but proceeds to tell of “that man that I myself know began unjust acts against the Greeks”: Croesus, the Lydian king who conquered Greek colonies in Asia Minor and forced them to pay tribute. “But before Croesus’ rule all the Greeks were free.” The Oriental lust for dominion and the Greek passion for freedom will constitute the moral polarities of the account. Yet Herodotus recognizes that this neat antithesis does not quite cover the vagaries of history: He writes that cities once great have now become small and cities once small have become great, so he knows that “man’s good fortune never abides in the same place.” A lesson that the victors in any war, and especially those with imperial aspirations, would do well to heed.
What is true of cities also holds for individual men, in particular those who have the fate of cities or empires in their hands, or believe they do. The story of Croesus points the moral. His far-reaching conquests made him immensely rich, and he considered himself the happiest of men. When he asked the Athenian visitor Solon, the writer of that city’s laws, who was “the most blessed,” Croesus fully expected the distinguished sage to say, “You are.” Instead Solon extolled some obscure Greeks, private men who had lived virtuously and died nobly in battle or peacefully in their sleep. Croesus fumed and demanded an explanation. Solon replied that no man can be called blessed until he is dead, and he has lived and died well. Croesus dismissed Solon as a useless dullard.
“After Solon was gone, a great visitation of evil from the god laid hold of Croesus, and one may guess that it was because he thought he was of all mankind the most blessed.” A dream foretold the death of his favorite son, and the prophecy proved true in spite of Croesus’ misdirected efforts to thwart it. Another prophecy, from the oracle at Delphi, the holiest in the known world, so overwhelmed him with its clairvoyance that he sacrificed thousands of animals and piles of gold to secure the favor of Apollo, the Delphic god. When fear of the growing Persian power and ambition made Croesus think of preemptive war, he naturally consulted two oracles, both of which told him that if he attacked Persia he would destroy a mighty empire.
Spurred on by the oracles, he went to war, and the empire he destroyed was his own. Oracles are famously ambiguous, and Croesus overlooked the darker interpretive possibilities. Were, say, Thucydides telling the story, he would have made clear that if Croesus had possessed as much prudence as he did magnificence and piety he might have avoided the hard fall. It would have seemed to Thucydides that belief in the uncanny and the supernatural serves one’s purpose only so long as one is equipped with sufficient reason—that is, so long as one has the intelligence to discount the supernatural and rely on one’s virtue. But what Herodotus teaches is that Croesus’ imprudence was in fact an insufficiency of piety: He might have preserved his empire had he further consulted the oracle for elucidation.
Reason and unreason are fatefully conjoined, and one can only hope to prevail for a time, in Herodotus’ world, or even merely to survive there, if one acknowledges the supernatural forces that overdetermine all human action. Herodotus inhabits a moral universe in which there is an abundance of strife and suffering but there are evidently no accidents. The gods see all and decide all: The fate of men and empires is ultimately not under human control. From fearsome human passions for power and wealth and empire—the irrational desires that reason serves and cannot master—the rule of the gods is conceived: The cruelties and terrors men inflict on one another are too frightful to attribute purely to human agency. Herodotus writes that people everywhere have the same knowledge of the gods, and he shows that what they all know is the helplessness of human nature, which cannot govern its most ferocious impulses by reason, and must look to divinity for whatever justice can be found in this dark and tragic place. Operating on the familiar principle that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must, men in Herodotus’ world are no better or worse than they have ever been. However, Herodotus’ human beings cannot bear the responsibility for their own worst deeds; they need divine overseers to mete out appropriate punishments.
Yet men act, apparently with wills of their own. And this is the paradox of the tragic sense of life that Herodotus shares with the poets: Tragic heroes choose freely, or seem to, even while realizing an inescapable destiny. A man’s character is his fate, said the philosopher Heraclitus, but philosopher’s wisdom goes only so far for Herodotus; signs, portents, oracles, and prophetic dreams all testify to the inexorable authority of the invisible world, so that at most one might say that character colludes with the unseen powers, and one could even be tempted to concede that a man’s fate is his fate is his fate.
The tragic figures in Herodotus tend to be Persian rulers rich in hubris. King Cyrus, greatest of the barbarian despots, displayed the tempestuous arrogance that will not tolerate any superior power, even if it is a force of nature. When one of his sacred white horses was drowned in the turbulent waters of the Gyndes River, “Cyrus was furious with the river for its insolence and threatened it: ‘I will make you so feeble that, for the rest of time, even women will easily cross you without wetting their knees.’ ” He interrupted his military campaign against Babylon so that his troops could spend the entire summer on an engineering project to divide the offending river into 360 ankle-deep rivulets. One sees here the stupendous grandiosity that is the motive force behind Persian overreaching to the point of catastrophe.
After conquering the Babylonians, Cyrus set his sights on the Massagetae; ignoring the circumspect advice of his war council, he listened instead to Croesus, who in captivity had become Cyrus’s most trusted confidant and who pressed the king to advance into hostile territory, admonishing him of the unbearable shame he would incur by yielding ground to a woman, the Massagetaean queen, Tomyris. Having made his move Cyrus dreamt that night of Darius, the son of a loyal subordinate, with wings on his shoulders that overshadowed Asia and Europe. Cyrus interpreted the dream to mean that Darius was plotting against him. “But to him the god was giving signs that he himself should die, right there where he was, and that his kingship should pass to Darius.” When Tomyris offered Cyrus the chance to return her captured son and to withdraw in peace from her land, he refused and rushed into battle, which Herodotus says was the most devastating ever fought between barbarians; Cyrus was killed and his army defeated.
Barbarians will be barbarians, and “Tomyris sought out his corpse among the Persian dead, and when she found it, she filled a skin with human blood and fixed his head in the skin.” Thus the bloodthirsty Cyrus would drink his fill in brutal poetic justice. Sometimes a man, or a woman, will add an emphatic fillip to the will of the gods. And the arabesques that barbarians give to physical and psychic monstrosity are endlessly inventive.
Against barbarian despotism and savagery, Herodotus pits Greek love of freedom and nobility in war. He has a particular brief for Athenian democracy, which enhanced immensely the city’s greatness: “It is not only in respect of one thing but of everything that equality and free speech are clearly a good; take the case of Athens, which under the rule of princes proved no better in war than any of her neighbors but, once rid of those princes, was far the first of all.”
Yet the gullibility of the Athenian demos embroiled the city in a war with Persia that ought to have been avoided. Aristagoras, prince of Miletus, an Athenian colony taken over by the Persians, had gone to Sparta to supplicate the king, Cleomenes, for support of the Ionian revolt against Persian subjugation; Cleomenes, paragon of rectitude, with only his city’s good in mind, sent him packing. Turning to the Athenians, Aristagoras “promised them anything and everything,” and won them to his cause. “It seems that it is easier to fool many men than one.” The Athenian popular assembly voted to send 20 ships in support of the Ionian effort. “These were the ships that were the beginning of evils for both Greeks and barbarians.” After the expedition had captured and burned the city of Sardis, the Athenians, exasperated by their allies’ fecklessness, withdrew their aid. But upon hearing of the Sardis disaster, Darius, now the Persian king, first asked who the Athenians even were, then launched an arrow into the air and prayed for vengeance against them; he ordered a servant to tell him three times at every meal, “Master, remember the Athenians.” The upshot was a Persian expedition against Athens and its Greek allies, which repulsed the barbarian forces at Marathon in 490 b.c. Darius did not lead that failed venture, and he died before he could mount his own intended punitive mission.
His hotheaded son Xerxes succeeded him and inherited his hatred of Athens. Vast power believes it deserves vast dominion, over the richest lands in the world, and Xerxes conceived the project of universal empire in colossal self-regard and desire for vengeance: “For the sun will look down upon no country that has a border with ours, but I shall make them all one country, once I have passed in my progress through all Europe.” Cautious voices tried to dissuade Xerxes, and he was inclined to heed them—until a terrifying figure appeared in his dreams to insist on the war plan, and the very same vision appeared to his uncle Artabanus, who had prudently counseled against the war and against putting too much stock in dreams. Prophetic enchantment overrode mere reason and the war was on.
Over the course of five years Xerxes gathered an army of 2,641,610 fighting men, with millions more in the service train, Herodotus writes, by far the largest army the world had seen. (Modern estimates put the figure at 75,000 to 100,000.) The lash drove the barbarian soldiers on; Xerxes even ordered his men to inflict 300 lashes on the waters of the Hellespont, after a storm had smashed the bridge he had built to span the strait.
Free men do not require the bite of the whip on their backs to defend their freedom. Old enmities forgotten for the time, Greece stood united against the Persian onslaught. The experience of freedom steeled the Spartans to fight to the death against insurmountable odds. The 300 Spartans who defended the mountain pass of Thermopylae against a Persian horde and died fighting became the symbol of Greek valor. Disaster threatened. Xerxes took Athens. Only divine intervention saved the Greeks, in the form of a storm that sank most of the Persian fleet. “All this was done by the god, that the Persian armament might be made equal with that of the Greeks and not much greater.” The Greek navy routed the Persians in the sea battle of Salamis in 480, the Greek army routed the enemy at Plataea in 479, and Xerxes fled.
The Greek triumph and the Persian defeat represented the contrast between two human types. When after Thermopylae Arcadian deserters told Xerxes and his generals that the Greeks were holding the Olympic games, in which athletes competed for an olive crown, a Persian grandee exclaimed, “What sort of men have you led us to fight against, who contend, not for money, but purely for the sake of excelling?” The war was won on the playing fields of Olympia and lost in the sybaritic Persian court where immeasurable luxury was the ultimate good.
Yet Herodotus knew that this sterling Greek virtue and unity in the name of freedom were not made to last. In the days of Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes (who ruled from 465 to 424), “more ills befell Greece than in all twenty generations before Darius. Some of these came about through the Persians, and some by the acts of the chief peoples of Greece warring against one another.”
This last reference was to the Peloponnesian War, which pitted Athens against Sparta, drew in a host of other Greek cities and colonies, and lasted far longer and was far more destructive to Greece than the Persian Wars. Some 15 years perhaps after Herodotus’ death, Persia actually became a Spartan ally for a time, and Persian treasure combined with Spartan courage to force the oppressive oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants on Athens. So Herodotus honors the Greek defense of its freedom against overwhelming Persian might, but he also alludes to the Greek implosion that followed the heroic moment. Great cities fail, the best passes away, and this elegiac note dominates The Histories. Xerxes wept when he looked upon the masses of men under his command and observed that not one of them would be alive in 100 years; Artabanus redoubled the sorrow when he said in response that every man who has ever lived or will ever live will wish many times during his life that he were dead.
Herodotus unforgettably amplifies Artabanus’ point with a sidelight to the main event: the story of Hermotimus, “a man who, being wronged, achieved, of all the people I have known, the greatest vengeance.” Captured by enemies, Hermotimus had been sold to one Panionius of Chios, who made his living castrating comely youths and selling the geldings, highly prized by the barbarians for their unimpeachable trustworthiness. Hermotimus became the most honored eunuch in Xerxes’ court. Traveling with Xerxes’ expedition, he happened upon Panionius, greeted him as a long-lost friend, thanked him for the great benefits he had enjoyed, and promised to return the favor if Panionius and his family would accept his hospitality. When Hermotimus had secured his prey, in exultation he told Panionius that the gods in their justice had delivered the evildoer into his hands. Hermotimus thereupon compelled Panionius to castrate his four sons, then forced the sons to castrate their father. Here was perfect justice, after a barbaric fashion, which Herodotus records as a fitting lesson for the ages.
Last year or perhaps the year before marked the 2,500th anniversary of Herodotus’ birth. We can be grateful still to have his work after all these years, but his bleak teaching does not suit our time and place, which is averse to the tragic sense of life. Trigger warning: Human sorrow comes in infinite variety, and you can be sure that the gods spare no one; nothing human endures, and life is far from sweet even while it lasts. The Father of History did not lie about that.
Algis Valiunas is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard