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Unmissable, eminently readable classic
on 25 August 2009
'After the capture of Babylon, Darius invaded Scythia.' Thus commences book four of the Histories, and if these are the kind of words that set your pulse racing, your eyes going all dreamy, this book is for you.
The ancient Greek historian's famous opus has an impressive geographical and chronological spread, and this, together with its precedence over most recovered documents of its type, explains why it is regarded as so important. Herodotus relates over a century of Persian expansion, including the Egyptian and other conquests, from about 600 BC, and of Persian conflict with the Greeks, culminating in his compatriots' victories at Salamis and Platea. As it is explained in the notes and introduction, much of his account has been reaffirmed by modern historical and archaeological research, some of it over earlier condemnations, though much is also being questioned.
Indeed, intriguingly, this rings both as history as we understand it and as something else. Herodotus explicitly aims to make an objective and truthful account, unlike other chroniclers of antiquity (for example Egyptian) driven by religious, political or artistic imperatives. He traces facts to sources and steps back when sources conflict. This is familiar. But in other ways, his book is from a culture very distant from ours. Herodotus believes in oracles, in the premonitory value of dreams. It doesn't shock him that a queen might give birth to a lion, or a god strike down an army to protect a sanctuary. Hubris is always punished, and disregard for the warnings of fate, or the desecration of temples. And descriptions are inflated for effect. For example, Herodotus has five million Persian subjects crossing the Hellespont; this probably exceeded the adult male population of the Persian empire, and modern historians have the number at 100,000 to 200,000. In many ways, the Histories are myth, epic, as much as history, and they probably tell us as much about the ancient Greeks and their beliefs as about what happened in the Persian wars.