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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Herodotus (c. 484–425 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Benjamin Ide Wheeler (1854–1927)
THIS most delightful story-teller bears, strange to say, the title of the “father of history.” The art of story-telling, first fashioned in the usage of epic poetry, passed into the hands of the logographers of the sixth and fifth centuries, to whom must be accredited the relatively late and rather startling discovery that prose could be a medium of literature. Of their works we have little or nothing. The borderlands of the Orient, rich in materials of family and city tradition, of mythology, genealogy, theogony, of diverse national usage and custom, furnished them the natural stimulus to their work. The material had outgrown the staid restraint of the genteel epic, and bursting the traditional dikes, it spread itself abroad in great levels of plebeian prose. Herein both the historical prose style and the philosophical found their source.  1
  Herodotus stood on the border-line between logography and history. He felt himself akin to the logographers, and looked back through them to Homer as the head of his guild. In entitling his work, he used the word historia in the sense of story-telling; but lifted it by the character of his composition into its significance as history. His claim to the title “father of history,” first awarded him by Cicero, rests primarily upon the fact that he was the first to shape a collection of stories into the portrayal of a great historical proceeding, so as to endow it with a plot. The proceeding which he chose as his subject has proved to be one of prime importance in the total history of human civilization. It was the conflict between Greece and Persia in the beginning of the fifth century B.C.,—a great crisis and turning-point in the long history of that struggle between Orientalism and Occidentalism, which, ever since human record began, has been almost perpetually in progress by the shores of the Ægean. The writing of history begins, therefore, with the Eastern Question.  2
  Herodotus’s early home was such as to suggest to him his theme. He was born in Halicarnassus, a Doric city on the southwestern coast of Asia Minor, and died, probably at Thurii in Italy. His life covers thus the period from the Persian wars to the Peloponnesian War, and is commensurate with the period of Athens’s bloom. He was born, if we may trust Suidas’s evidence, of a highly respectable Halicarnassian family; and among his near relatives, probably his uncle, was Panyasis,—a collector of myths and folk-lore, and an epic poet of considerable distinction, whose influence in determining his younger kinsman’s tastes may well have been decisive. A revolution in the government of the city, probably of the year 468, occasioned the death of Panyasis and the exile of Herodotus. It is significant for the later attitude of Herodotus, as shown in his writings, that in this affair he sided with the democracy. After an exile of several years, part of which at least he is said to have spent in Samos, he returned to his native city, where later—at some time prior to 454—he participated in the overthrowing of the tyrant Lygdamis. Continued political disturbances caused him finally to withdraw permanently from the city. The jealousy of the mob, which had now joined itself to the hatred of the aristocracy, had made his longer stay impossible.  3
  From this time until 443, when he joined in founding the Athenian colony of Thurii in Italy, he was a homeless, cityless wanderer on the face of the earth. Athens, ever hospitable to strangers, afforded him the nearest approach to a home, and here he naturally made his abode at the end of his successive voyages. There is no good reason for rejecting the information that in the year 445 he gave a public reading of some portion of his history, and received therefor a vote of thanks from the Athenian Council and a reward of ten talents. The greater part of his travels was accomplished before this date; for two years later, in search of a home and rest,—and probably too of the leisure to complete his work,—he withdrew to Thurii. The most probable order of his travels is that which takes him first along the coasts of Asia Minor to the northern islands, Thrace, the Sea of Marmora, Byzantium, and the coasts of the Black Sea; then at some time after 445 brings him to the south, along the southern shores of Asia Minor to Cyprus and the Syrian coast, and into the interior through Syria and Mesopotamia to Babylon. Egypt he visited almost certainly after 449, and Kyrene in northern Africa may well have come next in order. The exploration of Greece proper,—where he visited Dodona, Zakynthos, Delphi, Thebes, Platæa, Thermopylæ, and various places in the Peloponnesus, including Corinth, Tegea, Sparta, and probably Olympia,—belongs in the last years before his departure for Thurii.  4
  There are not lacking those who, on the basis of inaccuracies in our author’s reports, deny that his itinerary ever took him far from the coast line of the Ægean and eastern Mediterranean. Thus Professor Sayce, in his Introduction to Books i.–iii., limits Herodotus’s travels to coasting trips along the shores of Thrace from Athos to Byzantium, to Palestine and Syria, among the islands of the Ægean, with visits to Lower Egypt and certain sites in Greece. Though Herodotus distinctly says he visited Egyptian Thebes, and pushed on up the Nile as far as Elephantine, Mr. Sayce prefers to brand our good friend as a deliberate liar, forsooth, because he calls Elephantine a village instead of an island, and does not wax warm enough in praise of the wonders of Thebes! To those who have read the pages of Herodotus as they were meant to be read, and have not used them exclusively as material for seminary criticism, the genial simplicity of the writer is likely to be too well known to suffer his being made an arrant rogue on slight evidence. He loved a good story, and surely would not let it take harm in his hands; but plain lying was not his forte. There really exists no sufficient reason for supposing he did not visit the places he actually says he did.  5
  After settling at Thurii, he may on occasion have taken up again the wander-staff; but direct evidence does not exist. It is not even certain that he visited Athens again. His mention of the Propylaia (Book v., 77) refers by no means certainly to the Propylaia of Mnesicles, completed in 432, but more probably to the older structure on the same site. His allusion to events in Athenian history occurring after the beginning of the Peloponnesian War (431) does not necessitate the hypothesis of residence in Athens. His whole attitude, on the contrary, toward the issues and events involved in that struggle, betrays the feeling of one observing from a distance, rather than of an eye-witness and participant.  6
  Pitifully little it is, therefore, that we know about the man himself. When after a period of relative neglect his writings sprang again into attention in the second century B.C., the facts of his life had so far been forgotten—fate of a man without a country!—that even the busy gleaning of the grammarians failed to find materials sufficient to construct a fair biography. He lives only in his writings. Whether he wrote anything else than the nine books of history that have come down to us under his name is not perfectly certain, though he in two different passages promises to return to a subject in his ‘Assyrian Notes.’ Aristotle in his ‘Animal History’ cites a remark of Herodotus that may well have had a place in such a work, and certainly is not taken from his existing writings; but there is no other evidence that any such book existed. The theory that he wrote it and intended ultimately to incorporate it in his history, much as he did the ‘Egyptian Notes’ which constitute the second book, is rendered improbable by the evident completeness of plan characterizing the existing work.  7
  The History as we have it is divided into nine books, named from the nine Muses. This division, not mentioned by any one before Diodoros (who lived in the first century B.C.), and not presupposed by the author himself in referring to other parts of his history, may have been the handiwork of the Alexandrine grammarian; but was fittingly made, and corresponds to real lines of division which must have been present to the author’s mind and purpose. In spite of the bewildering variety of the material brought together in the single books, and in spite of digressions and excursuses, each book will be found to contribute its distinct and appropriate part to the plan of the whole, and steadily to lead the subject up to its complete unfolding. Reducing to lowest terms, we may summarize the subject of each book in its relation to the whole as follows:—I. The rise of the Persian empire through the downfall of the Lydian. II. Egypt. III. The establishment of the Persian empire,—Cambyses, Smerdis, Darius. IV. Persia against Scythia and against Libya. V. Advance of the Persian power towards a conflict with Athens. VI. The self-assertion of the Hellenic spirit in Ionia, and the quelling of the Ionian revolt; its self-assertion in Greece, and the battle of Marathon. VII. Xerxes’s march against Greece. VIII. Salamis. IX. Platæa, Mycale, and the failure of Persia.  8
  The story is complete in itself. It is fashioned after a plot, and is set forth in all the stately form of a great drama. There is introduction, assembling of the elements of conflict, conflict, catastrophe, lesson. The tale begins with the rise of the Persian power, gathering unto itself the strength of the barbarian world. It ends with Persia’s failure and discomfiture. The motif is sounded at the start. Overweening greatness challenges the envy of the gods, and is smitten with the divine wrath. Hybris meets its Nemesis. The presumption of Crœsus received in the first book its rebuke from the Athenian Solon. The Persian power which rose to greatness on the ruins of Crœsus’s power vaunted its pride in Xerxes’s host, and received in the last book its rebuke from the Athenian State.  9
  The last three books stand in marked contrast as well as parallelism to the first three. In the closing section of the work, Hellas is the scene, Hellenic history is the central interest; in the first section, barbarian history fills the foreground, and Lydia, Egypt, Mesopotamia are the scene. In Books vii., viii., ix., we have a single continuous account, clear and definite in outline and plan; in i., ii., iii., we find a vast assemblage of various narrative, rich with the varied colorings and dreamy fancies of the East. These stand in the world of the known, those issue out of the misty depths of wonderland.  10
  Between these two groups the fourth, fifth, and sixth books play a mediating part. In geographical location they belong neither to the civilized Orient nor to the Occident. The fourth reaches far to the north, then far to the south. The fifth draws near to the frontier, and deals with Thrace and Ionia. The sixth bestrides the frontier, and reaches to the shores of Attica. Chronologically they also form the bridge between the beginning and the end. The first three books deal with vast stretches of time, quoted not in decades or generations but in centuries. The three central books limit themselves to the thirty years prior to the battle of Marathon, as the last three do to the ten years subsequent thereto. The fourth book is conceived more after the spirit of its predecessors than its successors, but yet belongs in scene and purpose to the latter rather than the former. As Mr. Macan has remarked, the middle books are “intermediate and transitional in character. They present a dissolving view, or a series—nay, a large amphitheatre—of dissolving views.” The art which has fashioned the plan of the whole reveals itself also, on minuter analysis, in the outline of the separate books. We cannot be certain that this plan in all its features was outlined by the author before beginning his work. We are rather inclined to think that except for some crude vision of the whole, the plan grew upon him as he wrote and arranged. His first impulse to authorship arose from his interest in the life and customs of diverse peoples, aroused perhaps by his uncle’s interest, and conditioned and strengthened by his early residence on the frontier of diverse civilizations, and by his travels. A suggestion for the classification of his material was presented by the exhibition of the practical outcome of diverse attitudes of life, in the conflict joined at Salamis between the two extremes.  11
  The composition was doubtless the work of years. Various attempts to assign certain parts to certain years of his life have proved vain. He no doubt added from time to time here an anecdote, there an excursus; and as he inserted and rearranged, the finer details of a plan emerged. It is not likely that the book was given to the world before his death; there is indeed a tradition—not all too trustworthy—that it was published after his death by his friend the poet Plesirrhoös. However that may be, the work was practically complete. The last revision, which might have removed a few minor inconsistencies, had not been made; but as for a purpose to continue the work so as to cover for instance the age of Pericles, or even some shorter additional period, it is out of the question. Such work was not to his mind, nor appropriate to the material he had collected and which enchained his interest. The deeds of great heroes of the past, not the political strife of the present, allured him. He was a child of Homer. The conflict of Asia against Europe was the same old theme of which Homer had sung. But we are not confined to negative evidence. The fact that the plan of the work as it stands is complete, furnishes positive assurance. The closing incident of the ninth book naturally concludes the story. The hybris of Xerxes has met its defeat. The expedition to Sestos gave the evidence that Xerxes’s bridge was broken through and Europe rid of the intruder. The closing words of the last book form an ideal conclusion to the work. They represent the older policy of the Persians when under the guidance of Cyrus:—“So the Persians, seeing their error, yielded to the opinion of Cyrus; for they chose rather to live in a barren land and rule, than to sow the plain and be the slaves of others.” Thus Solon’s rebuke of hybris at the beginning of the work is echoed from the lips of the great Persian at the end.  12
  Herodotus is by no means a trained scientific observer. He sees with the natural eye. His crocodiles and hippopotamuses are somewhat awry, but he tells what children would like to hear about them. What is now the everyday cat was then among the marvels of wonder-land. His contributions to piscatology are not masterly, and his faith in what is told him concerning the habits of animals he has not seen is beautifully free from scientific doubt. The description of Babylon is not that of a Baedeker, but constitutes no evidence that he had failed to visit it. In regard to geography he thought himself well in advance of his day, and smiled disdainful smiles at those who make “the earth circular, as if turned out on a lathe.” His remarks concerning language show that he was innocent of all knowledge of foreign tongues, and that his capacity for observation was slight. Thus he presents, as an argument for the connection of the Colchians and the Egyptians, their similarity of language!  13
  When he is describing the customs of strange peoples he is always entertaining, and usually instructive. Here his gift as a story-teller stands him in good stead. When he opens his mouth to tell us a story, then he is at his best. The ring of Polycrates, the contest for Thyrea, the boyhood of Cyrus, King Rhampsinitos and his money, are samples of his tales pitched in every key,—the marvelous, the genuine, the spirited, the grimly humorous. His descriptions of battles are full of movement and interest; not precise and strategically clear, but gossipy and active, and above all things interesting. They were composed to be heard, and not to be studied out with a map. No better illustration could be cited than the magnificent story of Salamis. The failure of scholars to agree regarding the plan of this battle has been in some measure due to their unwillingness to listen to Herodotus as a naïve story-teller rather than as a naval expert. There is no general canon by which the credibility of his material can be tested. Each statement must be weighed by itself. What he heard, or what he understood, and what he saw or thought he saw, he reported—so far as it interested him. If he heard two accounts of an occurrence, he sometimes gave them both and left the reader to choose. Sometimes he expresses a mild doubt, but generally he reports the current stories in a delightful miscellany of folk-lore and history. He does not hesitate on occasion to admit his ignorance, and carefully distinguishes his inferences from his facts. Neither infallibility nor dogmatism is his besetting sin. He could not speak the languages of the foreign countries in which he traveled, and was therefore often at the mercy of the local dragomans. The statement concerning the inscription on the great Pyramid, which expressed the greatness of the work in terms of the onions and garlic consumed by the workmen, savors strongly of dragoman philology. So soon as he passes the Greek language frontier we mark the effect upon his material. Books he used relatively little as sources. Hecataios is the only logographer he cites. His materials were chiefly obtained from oral testimony and observation.  14
  Strikingly characteristic of Herodotus is his religious conviction. History with him was all Providence. The gods rule in the affairs of men; they declare their will to them in signs and through oracles; the great events of history and the experiences of individual lives admit of explanation in terms of Divine purpose. This attitude of simple faith conditions throughout both the collection of materials and their use. If we have found in him history still undifferentiated from folk-lore, quite as much do we find it undifferentiated from theology. His work is folk-lore, history, theology, and epic all in one; but history is pushing to the fore. Rich as it is in the materials of history, it cannot be history for the people of to-day. It is better than that, for it is a picture of what history was to people then.  15
  BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.—Since the Aldine Editio Princeps (1502), Herodotus has had many editors. The most helpful recent editions are those of Stein, one with critical apparatus, another with German notes. There is a fair annotated edition by Blakesley in the ‘Bibliotheca Classica.’ Much better is the masterly translation into English by Rawlinson, with copious notes and special essays, in four volumes, first published in London in 1858, and often reprinted. There is also a good translation by G. C. Macaulay (1890). All the citations which follow are drawn from Rawlinson’s original edition, which is one of the noblest monuments of English classical scholarship.  16
  The best recent English work on Herodotus will be found in Sayce’s ‘Herodotus, i., ii., iii,’ (1883), Macan’s ‘Herodotus, iv., v., vi.’ (1892), and the complete edition by How and Wells (1912). An extremely readable French book is ‘Hérodote, Historien des Guerres Médiques,’ by Amedée Hauvette (Paris, Hachette: 1894).  17

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