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Telling Tales

HERODOTUS: The Histories.\o7 Edited by Carolyn Dewald\f7 .\o7 Translated from the Greek by Robin Waterfield (Oxford University Press: 740 pp., $30)\f7 ; THUCYDIDES: The Peloponnesian War. \o7 Translated from the Greek by Steven Lattimore (Hackett: 508 pp., $39.95, $12.95 paper)\f7

June 14, 1998|PETER GREEN | Peter Green is the author of "Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age" and is visiting professor of history at the University of Iowa

In a very real sense, history as we know it begins with Herodotus. His predecessors--shadowy figures such as Hecataeus of Miletus, Hellanicus of Lesbos or Charon of Lampsacus--traveled widely and inquisitively, picked up oral traditions, retailed great-man anecdotes and genealogies but never combined their inquiries (historiai in Greek) into one great Enquiry, the critical, discursive What and Why of the past. Other surrounding civilizations still had not advanced beyond priestly records, king-lists, celestial observations or theological protocol: the obiter dicta of royal and religious authoritarianism, which left no room for free and rational debate.

It is the singular inventive achievement of Herodotus to have taken the ethnic and geographical investigations of earlier Greek researchers and fused them with the great epic tradition set forth by Homer. He hoped to do two things: save great deeds from oblivion and discover why Hellenes and barbaroi (foreigners who went "ba-ba-ba" instead of speaking Greek) came into conflict with each other, the What and the Why.

His achievement was directly challenged in antiquity and has faced bitterly hostile criticism ever since. One major reason, emphasized again and again by Plutarch in his furious essay "On the Malice of Herodotus," should really count in Herodotus' favor rather than against him: his broad-minded and cosmopolitan readiness to see both sides of an argument, to concede Persian virtue while admitting Greek faults. This quality arouses Plutarch's most splenetic attacks. For him Herodotus is, unpardonably, philobarbaros, what prior to politically correct enlightenment might have been termed a "wog-lover." Plutarch's prime historiographical principle is clearly "my country right or wrong." Those who study contemporary modern Greek historians--on the Macedonian problem, say, or Greek-Turkish relationships--may reflect ruefully that Plutarch stands more in the Hellenic mainstream than did the Father of History. The very virtues of Herodotus are, paradoxically, the chief reason why he has been pilloried as the Father of Lies, a lie being defined as what did not suit the ethnic group involved (today this tactic has acquired an uncomfortably modern flavor).

Contemporary criticism often attempts to prove not only errors in Herodotus' "Histories"--which certainly exist and in such an early work it's surprising there aren't more of them--but also deliberate falsification (one attack is bluntly titled "The Liar School of Herodotus"). Such animus suggests temperamental rather than rational hostility on the part of scholars. It is Herodotus' personality that irritates a certain type of intellect: his sunny cosmopolitanism, his open-mindedness over questions of religion, his obvious enjoyment of women (and the large role allotted to them in the histories), his addiction to anecdotes, his discursive digressions on anything from tribal couvade to the walls of Babylon and his refusal to take up any kind of ideological stance save in the pursuit of freedom (eleutheria).

Herodotus' near-contemporary and historical successor, Thucydides, is everything that Herodotus is not: obsessional, dogmatic, focused sharply on military and political affairs to the virtual exclusion of all else, a theorist trained by the Sophists and ready, as a result, to extrapolate universal generalizations from the face-off between two local city-states (poleis) in mainland Greece. There are no women in this formalized world (Pericles' advice to them, in the famous funeral oration as Thucydides reports it, is simply not to get themselves talked about at all), and the humorless historian also excludes all private life and anecdotal material, making it clear that his aim is very much instruction rather than entertainment. The enormous historiographical assumptions behind these principles are not examined as carefully or often as they should be, especially since it has been Thucydides, not Herodotus, who bequeathed to future writers a method and a template for historical research that is still very much with us today. Not by accident, I feel, the German scholar Detlev Fehling, Herodotus' severest critic, is equally passionate in his wholehearted, uncritical endorsement of Thucydides.

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