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Takes All Kinds

Sean Sheehan

My favourite teacher at university, Professor John Gould, was a socialist (this was and probably still is unusual in a Classics department) and he liked to use Yeats as an example of how someone’s work could be tremendously admired even if their politics were objectionable. Another example might have been Enoch Powell, whose Lexicon to Herodotus (Cambridge, 1939) is still an indispensable  reference, and John Gould  acknowledged this when his own, equally valuable contribution to the ancient historian was published in 1989.

The unexpected is what always attracts Herodotus and many readers are themselves surprised when, on first reading him, they find themselves feeling so at home with a historian writing some two and a half thousand years ago. His warmly expansive and inquiring approach strikes a chord with us moderns that is pleasingly unanticipated and this is borne out by the wealth of material now available for reading and enjoying Histories; not just new editions in Greek and in translation,  but commentaries and invaluable collections of scholarly essays.

The two translations appearing in 2013 are not significantly different. Most of the time, Herodotus’s Greek is straightforward enough; his sense is clear and the translator can keep fairly close to the original language while rising to the challenge of conveying the relaxed pace of the Greek. Tom Holland, as might be suspected from his previous books, is the wordier of the two and the hardback Penguin Classics is a sturdy tome that will serve as its own bookend. Both books contain some annotations but they are bitty in compassion with those in the excellent Oxford World Classics edition.

Precious little is known for sure about Herodotus’s life. He was probably born around 484 BCE in Halicarnassus (Bodrum) and may have died around the age of sixty in southern Italy. He undoubtedly travelled widely and adventurously, visiting the Greek mainland, delving deep into Egypt, as well as exploring places in what is now Lebanon and Iraq. He ventured to these foreign places over two and a half thousand years ago, when the universe was conceived as a flattish disc of land inhabited at its outer fringes by fabulous creatures like gold-guarding griffins and the Hyperboreans, with wild Celts to the west, wilder Scythians to the north, unknown Indians in the east and  fabled Ethiopians  to the south. It was conventionally believed that surrounding these fringes was a body of water, Ocean, but for Herodotus there were only empty tracts of lands and a profound unknowability as to what lay beyond.

In the nine books of his Histories Herodotus endears himself to readers for his curiosity, enthusiasm and moral desire to know what is the case. In two mutually reinforcing clauses, followed by a more precise focus, he begins by augustly declaring why he presents the Histories:

so that the actions of people shall not fade with time, so that the great and admirable achievements of both Greeks and barbarians shall not go unrenowned, and, among other things, to set forth the reasons why they waged war on each other.

Recording the war between the Greeks and Persians is a consequence of Herodotus’s desire to preserve the memory of notable events:  He uses a word, aklea (“not glorious”, which Blanco translates here as “not go unrenowned”), which cannot help but evoke Homer’s preoccupation with the desire for glory (kleos), and Holland retains this link when his translation speaks of “the glory of those exploits” being kept alive. Holland is also a tad more precise with the Greek expression τά τε ἄλλα, which carries a stronger intent than that conveyed by Blanco’s translation (“and, among other things”). Holland captures the more forceful meaning with “additionally, and most importantly”, while Waterfield opts for “in particular”, emphasising a desire to inquire into the aetiology of the war rather than just chart the course of  the fighting. Herodotus is curious and wants to know not just what happened but why.

In exploring the world’s first known intercontinental clash, Herodotus becomes our earliest known investigative journalist, orientalist, internationalist and global traveller, inquiring (the word history comes from the Greek historiē ‑ a learning or knowing by inquiry) into ethnographic matters and much else besides. It is not until book six of the Histories that we reach the battle of Marathon (490 BCE), the decisive event during the first Persian invasion of Greece. Along the way, there are innumerable digressions and micro-narratives, as delightful as they are edifying, beginning with the tale of the uxorious king of Lydia. This unfortunate monarch is so kinkily enamoured of his wife’s beauty that he arranges for his bodyguard to hide in the bedroom and watch her undressing. We all understand voyeurism as a part of the human makeup, whether in the ancient world or our own, but experiencing its enjoyment through the mediation of a third person seems peculiarly modern; think of its role in the narrator’s attempt to understand the Widmerpools’ marriage in Dance to the Music of Time (and the comic twist Dickens gives it in Bleak House with the Badgers). Mind you, the story of king Candaules is only one instance of Herodotus’s interest in sexual matters of a deviant kind; one suspects a degree of titillation craftily concealed behind scholarly curiosity as he recounts how the Lydians prostitute their women, or describes the mandatory Babylonian custom for married women to annually offer themselves to a male stranger.

What becomes clear is Herodotus’s intense interest in all forms of the unconventional, whether they relate to human habits or to geographical wonders (thōmata). He is fascinated by Egypt and the nomadic Scythians for this reason; notwithstanding his exposure to Greek rationalism, his ethnography becomes a Trojan horse that smuggles in a predilection for shibboleths. The bizarre or the exotic earns his attention, like the Scythian burial practises described in the fourth book (largely substantiated by archaeological research in Ukraine). Everything is a fish that comes into his net and there is no assumption of cultural superiority on his part, hence his generosity in acknowledging the achievements of barbarians, though this would come to earn him the wrath of Plutarch. He knows full well that social norms are culturally determined but this goes deeper than a humanist’s nod to cultural relativism. For at the heart of the Histories lies a void where the human subject threatens to disappear into a whirlpool of custom and superstition. It is not just that the human subject becomes a passive instrument of ethnographic history but that individuals, though driven by a complex of motives –  Herodotus covers arrogance, malice, hatred, economic necessity, greed, power, trust, obligation, anger – can only weave their desires through a tapestry of different “worlds” (nomoi), so that everything is rooted in a determinate standpoint, one constituted by a culturally specific transcendental horizon, a network of signs and meanings that structure our reality.

During Darius’ reign, he invited some Greeks who were present to a conference, and asked them how much money it would take for them to be prepared to eat the corpses of their fathers; they replied that they would not do that for any amount of money. Next, Darius summoned some members of the Indian tribe known as Callatiae, who eat their parents, and asked them in the presence of the Greeks, with an interpreter present so that they could understand what was being said, how much money it would take for them to be willing to cremate their fathers’ corpses; they cried out in horror and told him not so say such appalling things.

Herodotus, asserting “Nomos is king of all”, is acknowledging what Lacan terms the big Other, the fabric of socially defined meanings and rules which govern our behaviour. Any perceived breakdown in the functioning of the big Other can induce anxiety and thus to pass from one horizon of meaning to another is fraught with danger; it is not an easy passage (poros) because between the two lies a no man’s land, an aporia. Herodotus tells the tale of two Scythians, Anacharsis and Scyles, who each independently made such a journey into the space of unScythia, went native as colonialists used to say, and, like Kurtz, they paid for it with their lives. (China Miéville politicises a not dissimilar idea in The City and the City, complete with a secret government force, Breach, which polices citizens who might transgress and make a journey from one city’s space to the other’s.) There was a time when the book to talk about in this field was a study that evoked not Lacan’s big Other but just the Other of Levinas. The book, Hartog’s The Mirror of Herodotus, was a landmark study of a Greek/non-Greek differentiation at work in the Histories that posits the idea that perceptions of the Other serve as a means of reflecting on ourselves. Such a message is currently in danger of being submerged in a vulgar and triumphalist fundamentalism that would divide the world between a secular individualism (the West) and a theocratic authoritarianism (the Middle East). Some supporters of this “clash of civilizations” dichotomy find the idea embodied in the Histories, forgetting that there are far more “Western” tyrants in Herodotus than barbarian ones from the Orient. If Herodotus were alive and writing today he would not be taken in by the ideology of a “war on terrorism”; instead, he would have looked at the background history to the conflict from both points of view and not imposed a simplistic West versus Islam/liberals versus jihadists optic.

Herodotus creates Western historiography with his concern for commenting on oral narratives, citing and evaluating sources and weighing the evidence. His two threads of inquiry, the historiograpic and the ethnographic, have traditionally been separated out from one another but understanding the current appeal of the Histories entails weaving together the warp of the narrative historian and the weft of the periegetic storyteller. This is the rationale shared by most of the contributors to the collections of essays edited by Rosaria Vignolo Munson, even though she divides her two volumes along traditional lines.

From a functional perspective of course, the ethnographic and geographic excursions are not essential for the plotting of historical events but at a philosophical and ideological level both strands share a common concern with getting the facts right, allowing for the force of culture and celebrating human successes while acknowledging the danger of thinking there are no limits to what could or should be achieved. There are different ways to record history and sometimes Herodotus likes to come at it sideways, in a non-Thucydidean narrative manner that might seem like too much hithering-and-thithering but which serves its purpose in pleasing, roundabout ways.  A good example is provided in the introduction to Volume 2 when we are reminded how Herodotus tells us about the Armenian traders who make their way down the Euphrates on round boats made by stretching leather over willow reeds. When their wares (including the reeds) are sold they make their way home on donkeys, carrying the leather which will later be used for new boats. This snapshot of hardworking, resourceful but anonymous people, content to use the river but not challenge it by sailing upstream, counterpoints the over-reaching kings who defy nature by diverting, dividing or bridging mighty rivers in their drive to control and conquer. Such contrasts between steadfast communities who live within their means and proud rulers who respect no limits are a recurrent feature of the morality of the Histories and therein lies if not a truth then certainly a cautionary history lesson.

Volume 1 covers a lot of ground: Herodotus’s sources, mostly oral but also written; his methods and discourse as revealed by narratological aspects of the Histories; patterns of causation when telling of conflicts; his political and religious thought. Volume 2 succeeds in rescuing his interest in other cultures from the charge of being mere storytelling and travel writing. The essays demonstrate an underlying ethos at work as the ancient historian sets out exploring new worlds, à la Odysseus, but without invoking the Muses. Specialists who study some of the cultures he describes, also covered in the second volume, give credence to his tales. Another essay, by Christopher Pelling, is genetically linked to Hartog’s book mentioned earlier but he finds the Greek/Other antinomy to be more complex than it is often presented.

Accompanying the remarkable broad-mindedness that characterises Herodotus’s understanding of other ways of life is a commitment to certain ground-zero principles that cut across customs and cultures. They serve as absolutes amidst a maelstrom of beliefs that on the face of it lack groundedness. The Histories might seem to display a presentist riot of transient values, a postmodernism of the ancient world, but all this is in fact underpinned by a transcultural foundation of human consistencies and certainties. Herodotus expresses this in the language of religion: all men, he says, “know equally about divine things” but he does not presume to say what all men know, only that it is made manifest in various ways; it can be shown but not easily said. As Heraclitus, a contemporary of Herodotus and also from the coast of Asia Minor, expressed it: “The god at Delphi neither quite explains nor hides; he gives a sign.” This is far from knowledge as we usually employ the term but it goes to the heart of the matter, though far distant from the grim way experienced by someone like Scobie in Graham Greene’s novel: for Herodotus, it is more acquiescence than angst; approbation rather than anguish. He holds to a metaphysic of non liquet that expresses itself as an acceptance of the intrusion of supernatural causation in human affairs. Epistemologically and theologically, this may be neither rational nor satisfying but for Herodotus it is decidedly for real and it bespeaks a vigilant respect for boundaries: keeping to this side of some alien elsewhere. The divine intrudes when a transgression threatens to upset a border that should remain undisturbed: Xerxes in crossing the Hellespont turns the sea into land – building a land bridge by laying boats side by side across turbulent waters – and is doomed to failure for his hubris. Major rivers (Gyndes, Halys, Ister) and deserts (Arabia), as boundaries that should not be crossed, take on a metaphorical force. The importance for Herodotus of rituals and temples is part of this metaphysical landscape; they embody an orientation towards existence that accepts the need for some things remaining as givens. Constituting an outer envelope of life, they belong to a realm that can be called the divine if only to separate it from the quotidian. In An Armenian Sketchbook, Vasily Grossman observes in the church-filled country that he doesn’t sense any believers but “What I did see were people carrying out rites.”

“The Loeb Library, with its Greek or Latin one side and its English on the other, came as a gift of freedom to a very obscure but not altogether undeserving class.” For those with a little or very rusty Greek, this is as true today as it was when Virginia Woolf made the observation in 1917. These perfectly sized books, compact enough for the pocket but not flimsy like a paperback, are designed to last and withstand repeated reading. The focus is on the words ‑ no annotations  are provided ‑ with Greek on the left and, on the facing page, a translation that carefully follows the original language without being too literal or pedantically correct.

When it comes to annotated editions of Herodotus in Greek and currently in print, there is no complete set to match that of the Loeb Library. However, a combination of texts, some published by Cambridge and some by Bloomsbury, from the old Bristol Classical Press (BCP), is available and between them the reader will find grammatical, lexical and syntactic help for six of the nine books. The provenance of the BCP titles ranges from Book VI, first published in 2000, to Book I that slipped into the twentieth century with a first publication date in 1909 (Book II goes back to 1939). The Cambridge editions are modern ones and Book V, by Simon Hornblower, should be worth the wait when it appears before the end of this year. Finally, there is the hugely impressive Commentary on Books I-IV that was a welcome relief when it appeared in paperback (the hardback was prohibitively priced at around €250). The fifty-page introduction by Asheri, scholarly but accessible, offers what is probably the best general account of Herodotus. He makes a good case for seeing Histories as developing out of independent logoi and the two others contributors share his understanding that Herodotus had a consistent philosophical and historical view of his subject matter.

A Commentary on Herodotus Books 1-IV, edited by Murray and Moreno,  €55, Oxford, ISBN 978-0199639366
Herodotus: Volume 1: Herodotus and the Narrative of the Past, edited by Rosaria Vignolo Munson, €47, Oxford, ISBN 978-0199587575
Herodotus: Volume 2: Herodotus and the World, edited by Rosaria Vignolo Munson, €47, Oxford, ISBN 978-0199587599
The Mirror of Herodotus, by François Hartog, €47, University of California Press, ISBN 978-0520264236
The Histories, translated by Walter Blanco, €12, Norton, ISBN 978-0393933970
Herodotus: The Histories, translated by Tom Holland, €29, Penguin Classics, ISBN 978-0713999778
Herodotus: The Histories, translated by Robert Waterfield, €12, Oxford World Classics, ISBN 978-0199535668
Histories: Bk. I-II, €19, Harvard, ISBN 978-0674991309
Histories: Bk. III-IV, €18, Harvard, ISBN 978-0674991316
Histories: Bk. V-VII, €19, Harvard, ISBN 978-0674991330
Histories: Bk. VIII-IX, €18, Harvard, ISBN 978-0674991347
Herodotus, Book I, edited by JH Sleeman, €20, Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-0674991347
Herodotus, Book II, edited by WG Waddell, €20, Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-1853991851
Herodotus, Book V, edited by Simon Hornblower, €27, Cambridge, ISBN  978-0521703406
Herodotus, Book VI, edited by EJ McQueen, €20, Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-0674991347
Herodotus, Book VIII, edited by AM Bowie, €24, Cambridge, ISBN 978-0674991347
Herodotus, Book IX, edited by Michael Flower and John Marincola, €26, Cambridge, ISBN 978-0521596503

Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012).