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  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Voyages and Travel
II. Herodotus on Egypt
By Professor George H. Chase
HERODOTUS is called “the father of history.” The phrase goes back to Cicero, and its justice has been universally recognized, for Herodotus was the first writer in the course of European literature to use the word “history” with the meaning in which it has since been used, and to exemplify this meaning by the composition of a history in the modern sense of the word. Before his time there was a literature which in certain ways resembled history, the writings of the so-called logographers, consisting of “logoi” or “tales” which treated, in a manner closely resembling the epic, the stories connected with the foundation of the Greek cities, or the genealogy of single families, or the marvels of remote regions. Herodotus himself shows the influence of this earlier sort of writing; his history is full of “logoi,” and he shows great interest in the geography of distant lands and the manners and customs of foreign peoples. But what distinguishes him from his predecessors and gives him a unique place in the history of literature is the fact that he was the first writer to undertake the narration of a series of events of world-wide importance upon a comprehensive plan and to trace in those events the relations of cause and effect.  1

  The theme of the History of Herodotus is the struggle between the Persians and the Greeks, which, more than any other single event, determined the later history of Europe. There are many digressions, but the main subject is never lost sight of through all the nine books into which the work was divided by later grammarians. The earlier books trace the gradual growth of Persian power, the conquest of the Lydian Empire, of Babylon, and of Egypt, 1 and the Persian expeditions to Scythia and Libya; with Book V we come to the Ionian revolt and the burning of Sardis—events which led up to the Persian attacks on Greece; Book VI describes the punishment of the Ionian cities and the first invasion, ending with the glorious victory of Marathon; and the remaining books record the great invasion of Xerxes.
  Herodotus’s inspiration came largely, no doubt, from the time in which he lived. He was born early in the fifth century, and so was of the next generation to those who took part in the Persian struggle. He must have known and talked with many men who had fought at Marathon and Salamis. His own native city, Halicarnassus in Caria, was subject to Persia, so that he must early have learned to know and to fear the Persian power. Fate and inclination seem to have combined to make him a traveler. He was twice exiled from his native city, and was for many years “a man without a country, until at last he obtained citizenship in the town of Thurii in southern Italy, a sort of international colony which had been established by the Athenians in 443 B. C. on the site of the old city of Sybari. He certainly spent some time in Athens, where he enjoyed the friendship of Sophocles, and doubtless of others of that brilliant group of writers and artists whose works have made the “Age of Pericles” 2 a synonym for the “great age” in Greek literature and art. There are traditions that he gave public readings at Athens, Olympia, Corinth, and Thebes; and he speaks with first-hand knowledge of many other places in Greece.  3

  But the journeyings of Herodotus were not confined to Greece and its immediate neighborhood. From his own statements we learn that he had traveled through the Persian Empire to Babylon, and even to distant Susa and Ecbatana; had visited Egypt and gone up the Nile as far as Elephantine; had gone by sea to Tyre and to Libya; and had made a journey to the Black Sea, visiting the Crimea and the land of the Colchians.
  He seems also to have traveled through the interior of Asia Minor and down the Syrian coast to the borders of Egypt.  5
  The purpose of these travels presents an interesting problem. The simplest and most natural supposition would be that they were undertaken simply as a means of preparation for writing the History. But many other theories are possible. It has been thought that Herodotus was a merchant and that his journeys were primarily business undertakings. Against this it may be urged that the History shows no evidence of a commercial point of view, and that Herodotus speaks of merchants as he speaks of many other classes, with no suggestion of special interest. Again, it has been maintained that the journeys were made simply to collect evidence about foreign lands, with no direct reference to the History. Those who hold this theory believe that Herodotus was a professional reciter, like the rhapsodes who recited the Homeric poems, only that he took as his subject, not the great events of the heroic age, but the description of distant countries and their inhabitants—that he was, in short, a sort of ancient Stoddard or Burton Holmes. To such a belief the tradition that he read parts of his work at different places in Greece and the amount of space devoted to the aspect of foreign countries and the ways of foreign peoples in the History itself lend a certain amount of color. Finally, it is possible that some of the journeys had a political significance. Most of the countries which Herodotus visited were regions of which a knowledge was of great importance to the Greek statesmen of the fifth century, especially to Pericles, with his well-known scheme for founding an Athenian Empire, and it is pointed out that the large sum of ten talents (over $10,000) which Herodotus is said to have received from the Athenian Assembly can hardly have been paid simply for a series of readings, but must have been a reward for political services. All these theories suggest interesting possibilities, but none of them can be proved. Herodotus himself merely states that his History was written “that the deeds of men may not be forgotten, and that the great and wondrous works of Greek and barbarian may not lose their name.” In any case, the fact remains that he did at last put his materials into the form in which we have them and thus established his fame as the first writer of history.  6

  The fitness of Herodotus for the task that he undertook is another question which has been vigorously debated. Even in antiquity the History was violently assailed. Plutarch wrote an essay “On the Malignity of Herodotus,” and a late grammarian, Aelius Harpocration, is said to have written a book entitled “The Lies in the History of Herodotus.” In modern times, the judgments passed upon the work have often been severe, and even the greatest admirers of the historian are forced to admit that it shows many serious defects. Like most of his contemporaries, Herodotus knew no language but his own, and he was therefore forced to rely on interpreters or on natives who spoke Greek. He himself is perfectly frank about the matter, and usually tells the source of his information. “This is what the Persians say,” “Thus the priests of the Egyptians told me,” are types of expressions which recur again and again. Even when Greek matters are involved, he seems usually to have relied on oral tradition, rather than on documentary evidence; he rarely mentions an inscription as the source of his information. It is not quite fair to call him entirely credulous and uncritical, for he often questions the truth of the statements he records and tries to weigh one theory against another, as when he discusses the inundation of the Nile. But in him, as in the majority of his contemporaries, the critical faculty was not developed, and his work suffers in consequence. He was, moreover, an inveterate story-teller, and it often seems as if he recorded stories for the mere love of telling them. Not a few of the tales he tells, like the story of the treasure chamber of Rhampsinitos, belong rather to the realm of folklore than to that of history.

  Another quality in Herodotus which resulted disadvantageously for his History was his strong religious bent. His was still the age of faith, when men saw the hand of the gods revealed in all human affairs, and Herodotus was deeply imbued with this belief. In the History, therefore, much attention is paid to oracles and signs, and the chapters that treat of foreign lands are filled with attempts to correlate the gods of the barbarians with the gods of Greece. The Second Book, with its constant striving to prove an Egyptian origin for many of the Greek divinities, is only the most striking example of a general tendency.
  Regarded as history, therefore, the work of Herodotus suffers from grave defects, and it is not to be wondered at that ancient and modern critics have vied with one another in pointing them out. The attitude of many of these critics is well expressed by an Oxford rhyme:
        The priests of Egypt humbugged you,
A thing not very hard to do.
But we won’t let you humbug us,
Herodotus! Herodotus!
  Yet it must be said that in spite of much adverse criticism, few people have been led to believe in any bad faith on Herodotus’s part. The defects which his work betrays are defects of his race and his time; and to offset them he has many merits. Few Greeks of any age showed themselves so fair-minded in dealing with barabarian nations. He is as ready to praise what seems good in the customs of foreign races as he is to praise the customs of the Greeks. If he is too fond of stories to be a good historian, at least he is a prince of story-tellers. His style is lucid, simple, and straightforward, showing everywhere the “art which conceals art”—a wonderful achievement, when one considers that this is the first literary prose that was written in Europe. Finally, few writers of any age have succeeded so well in impressing on their work the stamp of personality. As we read the pages of the History, the picture of the author rises vividly before us. We can almost see him as, tablet and stylus in hand, he follows the interpreter or the priest through the great cities of the Persian Empire or the temples of Egypt, eagerly listening and questioning, quick to notice differences from his own Greek way of doing things, courteous, sympathetic, always on the watch for the story that will adorn his narrative. Quite apart from its value as a record of facts, the History of Herodotus is intensely interesting as a human document, as a record of the beliefs and the impressions of a remarkable member of a remarkable race at the period of its highest development.  10
Note 1. Harvard Classics, xxxiii, 7ff. [back]
Note 2. H. C., xii, 35ff. [back]


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