Sunday, June 22, 2008

His Stories - The Histories

I'm a fan of history, even when I was a kid. The more ancient the history the better. I am fascinated with the early civilizations that thrived on our world when the ideas of civilization was new. In particular, I've always been interested in the ancient Greek civilization from it's early Minoan empire and up to the crumbling of Alexander's realm. I stumbled upon Herodotus, a man who is often credited with being the father of history in the western world. Of course there are plenty of people who also call Herodotus the father of lies - so it really depends on who you talk to.

Herodotus decided to tell the story of the Greek world and it's surrounding neighbors (mostly Persia and Egypt) from the birth of these civilizations and up to the final epic battle of the Greeks against the Persians (for those of you who are not history nerds, this includes the battles captured in the film "300") I didn't know what to expect, since Herodotus lived around 490-420 BC or so, and this book was obviously a translation, what would it be like?

It was nothing I ever expected in a history book. It was part travelogue, part history, part folk tale collection, part myth, part political analysis, part patriotic war story. Herodotus weaves all these things together, constantly adding new elements. It starts out as a analysis of why Europe (represented by the Greeks) and Asia (represented by the Persians) are destined to battle, and why it's essentially pointless. This theme seems to carry over in surprising ways throughout the history. Even when he takes a side chapter to explore Egyptian history and folklore, the theme of destiny and war appears time and again.

The basic impression I got was that Herodotus was not obsessed with facts. He wanted to tell a good story, with a theme and base it around true events, people and places. He gets away with this because much of his facts are really stories told to him by another person. He often starts a section with "The Egyptians say that..." and then will follow it up with "But the Greeks think that..." and end with "I lean toward the Egyptian tale, because it makes the most sense." So you get the outlandish stories of gold digging ants with the more mundane stories of vast gold mines in the rocky wastes of northern Asia.

In a way Herodotus was really the father of Historical Fiction. But in his day, a history was more story than fact - and it was acceptable. Each historian would put their own stamp on the history and even the perspective would change things. When Herodotus was writing the Greeks were fighting among themselves in the beginnings of what we would consider a civil war. In "The Histories" Herodotus stresses that the union of the bickering city-states is what helped the Greeks repel the Persians on two separate occasions. Later the Roman writer, Plutarch would write some less than flattering things about Herodotus and contradict much of what the earlier author said.

But things don't change. Perspective still frames history books: as they say, the winners write them. So it's difficult to say what is really true in history - it's all a story after all. However I think more histories should include amazing stories of gold digging ants and dog headed people - it would make things much more interesting.

Do you think History is defined by perspective? Do you think that Herodotus' style of history writing is too bias and crazy to be taken seriously? Do you have a favorite history or author who captures the feel of a time period well? Does all this talk about history make you feel dusty and sleepy?

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