Classic Lectures

Herodotus and the Invention of History (continued)

In the latter aspect as least, Herodotus reflected less his Ionian background, his generally cosmopolitan outlook, and his profound interest in cultures than his acquired Athenian allegiance. As the late Moses Finley wrote, “His political vision was Athenian and democratic, but it lacked any trace of chauvinism. He was committed, but not for one moment did that release him from the high obligation of understanding . . . Nothing could be more wrongheaded than the persistent and seemingly indestructible legend of Herodotus the charmingly naïve storyteller.” Though one must add here that his history, as a reading of book I suggests, stands somewhere at the boundaries between artful storytelling and explanation.  

In sum, Herodotus defined the boundaries of his invention, history, and tied that invention to the Greek, and particularly fifth-century Athenian, passion for the political life and for political understanding. No more than we can understand fifth-century tragedy outside the polis can we understand history in its earliest manifestation outside of polis political culture.  

In establishing a narrative of the Persian Wars, in separating many facts from myths, in devising enormously complex chronologies of events, Herodotus laid fair claim to his posthumous title, Father of History. On occasion, however, one encounters a fairly naïve interpretation of Herodotus that confuses the achievement of this eminent fifth-century Greek with certain modern ideas about the possibilities of scientific history, ideas that held that historical statements or generalizations derive from the true facts of history, patiently accumulated and clearly arranged. In this light, Herodotus’ prodigious attempts to sort out truth from fiction and to compare and criticize different accounts of the same event look indeed like the beginning of an evolution that, with some unfortunate detours, culminated in modern historical method. Now, only nonhistorians suffer the delusion that history is in any sense a science, a discipline in which one argues in a simple linear way from fact to generalization. The human mind—alas, even the historian’s mind—is more complicated and interesting than that. In fact, a careful reading of Herodotus suggests that he probably has far more in common with his friend Sophocles, the fifth-century writer of tragedy, than with any post-Renaissance or modern historian. Although this might appear to be a negative comparison and judgment, it is certainly not meant to be. The narrowest conceptions of history as an empirical discipline have long since been consigned to the trash bin reserved for intellectual silliness, and modern historians increasingly appreciate not Herodotus’ prodigious fact-grubbing, worthy as it may be of admiration, but rather his imaginative capacity to give shape to time—time being the historian’s medium and the shaping of time the historian’s principal task.

The great originality of Herodotus was most certainly not his empirical method, but rather, as I argued near the beginning, his attempt, once he got his selected facts in order, to interpret and explain the human past. The intellectual power of his opening sentence rests on his determination to find reasons for the great war, reasons that would explain the greatest of human events. The stories and facts that Herodotus patiently gleaned in his travels and oral interviews did not lead inexorably to his historical explanations or to his reasons. Rather, I would argue, his understanding of the deep patterns of divine action and of human history made sense of the facts and events he discovered, fit into a pattern, and then recounted. If Herodotus has a special affinity to modern historians, I would suggest that it rests on his discovery that facts, however fascinating, do not speak for themselves. Time and again, Herodotus tells us he has selected out what was worthy to be remembered. His principle of selection—selection being the key to historical architecture—depended very much on his sense of patterns in history, on his sense of the shape of time or those forces that order human events.

What do I mean by patterns? One such pattern Herodotean history shared with, if it did not borrow from, tragedy: the idea of the general instability of the human condition, of the reversals of fortune that were the human lot, and the associated political idea of the rise and fall of states. Another, related, pattern had to do with pride and fall and punishment. Time was the working out of such archetypical patterns. Historic time was, then, not unlike tragic time, a point made most obvious in the first book of Herodotus’ history, particularly in the story of Croesus. History, as the story and analysis of human things, could never penetrate and understand the divine and fated processes. History could, however, as an incomplete and partial science or field of knowledge, read some of the signs of those processes working in the world. Perhaps this is the thrust of Momigliano’s statement that, “even if we did not know that Sophocles was a friend of Herodotus’, we would perceive the latter’s connections with the former in moral, religious, and political feelings.” In sum, from Herodotus we begin to perceive that though the gleaning of facts may be the first crucial step in history, it is not history. History is accomplished only when time is given shape and when explanation and interpretation occur.

The idea of Herodotus as the progenitor of a certain empiricist idea of historical method continuously runs aground precisely on the question of the divine shaping of his history. A German classicist puts it provocatively and pithily: “Herodotus was the first and last representative (in the ancient world?) of theological historiography.” Fate and divine will were indeed historical forces for Herodotus, and human events were played out in a moral universe controlled by those supernatural forces. History, as the story of human things, inevitably reflected, however dimly, the divine plan. Yet to characterize Herodotus’ work as “theological historiography” goes too far. However intellectually unsatisfying to us moderns, Herodotus’ capacious sense of history encompassed both the divine plan, patterning, and human freedom and action (in this, not unlike both epic and tragedy). This marriage in Herodotus of a sense of overarching pattern and passionate interest in the human thing—in the earthly city—can be illustrated by the theme of the rise and fall of states.

Greek history in general, and that of Herodotus in particular, was founded on the idea of the general instability of all things. “The very notion of rise and fall,” Jacqueline de Romilly writes, “seems to be rooted in the inner sensibility of the Greeks. “ This insight was the source of what I find to be the Greeks’ most engaging and attractive intellectual characteristic, a grim and unrelenting realism about things, focused on such themes as pride and punishment, that united, as I have noted, tragedy and history around a common theme. In this, at least, Herodotus did not part from tradition. He tried, according to Fornara, “to show that, within the larger design woven by fate, good fortune was unstable and intrinsically corrupting, whether for individuals or for city states.” It was Herodotus’ discovery that the study of human things, of human events, illustrated great moral themes. And such themes were part of his explanatory framework. Before his disastrous expedition against the Greeks, for example, the emperor Xerxes was warned, “You know my Lord, that amongst living creatures it is the great ones that God smites with his thunder, out of envy of their pride. The little ones do not vex him. It is always the tall trees which are struck by lightning. It is God’s way to bring the lofty low” (book VII). Yet even this seminal moral principle did not exclude human responsibility or make less important human action. In the case of Xerxes, Romilly writes, “The pattern of rise and fall . . . had its warrant in God’s intervention, but the link is provided by the overconfidence and the imprudence of the King.” History’s domain was precisely that realm of linkage and the realm of contingency where human choices, mistakes, successes, and disasters served as signs and markers of metahistorical patterns and processes. (One might want to think through the great story of Croesus with this thought in mind.)

The same principle applied to states. The series of episodes, some legendary or even mythic in character, that progressively trace the nature of Eastern despotism and plot the rise and fall of the Persian Empire, suggests the deep patterning of the historical process along familiar lines of crime and retribution, rise and fall, hubris and nemesis. Even Athens, the ultimate victor and principal beneficiary of the Persian Wars, appears to have been an instrument of divine planning and an agent of divine will. In book VIII, for example, we are told of a storm in which the Persian fleet was battered and reduced in size, more equal to the Greek fleet. Herodotus writes, “All this was done by the god, that the Persian armament might be made equal with that of the Greeks . . .” In book VII Herodotus attributes the success of the Greeks in defeating the Persians to the Athenians and declares, “Greece was saved by the Athenians . . . It was the Athenians who—after the gods—drove back the Persian king.”