Classic Lectures

Herodotus and the Invention of History (continued)

In my view, it is a misinterpretation of Herodotus and the unity of his histories to assume that in these passages he did not mean what he clearly stated: that Athens, in leading the defeat of the Persians, was doing the work of and enjoying the protection of the god(s). That this was not simply a manner of speaking or a conventional patriotic bromide is, I think, demonstrated by the total structure of the histories from beginning to end, a structure that time and again reveals Herodotus’ ability to link the metahistorical and the world of immediate human action.   

Neither individuals nor states are to be understood simply as robot-like instruments of the heavenly script or of the often obscure and rather ominous rules that governed time. If universal rules—rise and fall, crime and retribution, pride and punishment—applied to all and if no individual or state could forever escape destiny, nonetheless there were fully human ways to live and to act in time. “Know thyself,” Herodotus admonishes time and again. That is, know one’s place and that one is not a god, a theme of both epic and tragedy. Know that, whatever the gods may order, moderation, self-control, and self-restraint are the necessary qualities of the good life. The great political theme of fall and decline, had a necessary countertheme: the rise of states. And for Herodotus, the most conspicuous examples of risen states in his time were the two very different Greek cities, Athens and Sparta. Their greatness, displayed in the Persian wars of the early fifth century, raised questions about the divine plan and fate, but also questions at the human level about the conditions of Greek success generally and of Athenian success in particular and whether that success might be perpetuated over time. Herodotus advanced a bold hypothesis: political success was related to the character or culture of a society. The particular genius of the city-state was its adherence to self-imposed law, in other words a certain conception of liberty. It was not climate that explained the dynamic quality of the Greek states aligned against Persia, nor riches, but law that defined a political culture within which liberty, collective self-discipline, and civic heroism could all prosper. To a question about the Greeks posed by Xerxes, Demaratus responds, “ . . . poverty is Greece’s inheritance from of old, but valor she won for herself by wisdom and the strength of the law . . .” (book VII). Romilly writes of Herodotus’ explanation of Greek success: “Early practical experience was turned into a discovery.” Virtuous citizens, informed by law, brought about the greatness of states and, moreover, the promise of stability and the possibility of staving off the decay and inevitable fall that states shared with all organisms. For states, as for individuals, there was then a realm of freedom, a realm of contingency where good cultural traits and sound constitutions potentially made a difference, perhaps assured the rise of states and their longevity. Thus culture and constitutions, and the relations between them, became a major theme of Herodotus’ study.

It is fair criticism of Herodotus that he never fully integrated his levels of explanation, ranging from the metahistorical to the motivations and actions of states and individuals, into a satisfactory whole. This may inevitably be true of “theological history.” Especially if, as David Grene has argued, “there are two worlds of meaning that are constantly in Herodotus’ head. The one is that of human calculation, reason, cleverness, passion, happiness. There one knows what is happening and, more or less, who is the agent of cause. The other is the will of the Gods, or fate, or the intervention of daimons . . . And this power’s relation to man is bound up with a maddening relation between man’s reason and understanding and such ‘signs’ as the Divine has allowed us to have of its future or past intervention.”

With Grene’s analysis, we return to an earlier theme. It is among the historian’s tasks to attempt to read these signs and to relate them to change over time. Yet, and this is the principal point of the lecture, Herodotus’ discovery that the great moral and religious themes that suffused his thinking could be linked intellectually to the patterns of human affairs and actions—to the processes of history—had, perhaps ironically, the effect of advancing the idea that human things could be explained in human terms and that tentative, if not ultimate, explanations could be offered about the way the world works.

At this juncture, Herodotus connects remarkably to a modern historical sensibility. Modern historians generally do not fall into the vocabulary of pride and fall, divine retribution and such. Yet a few, some of the best among them, continue to contemplate the great issue of historical necessity and contingency. Contingency is the historian’s natural field of play, but the idea that forces beyond direct human control and immediate understanding constrain human freedom and agency also informs at least one corner of the modern historical imagination. In this, at least, the modern historian may be far more comfortable with Herodotus—even with his outlandish tales—than with those sober founders of the modern profession who established the “science” of history.

I would like to conclude this lecture on the “invention” of history with a few summary remarks on Herodotus’ historical method. We have seen that there are some snares packed into the notion of Herodotus, Father of History, and the association of his fathering with the emergence of critical rationalism in a modernizing mode. While there is some truth in these generalizations, we shall badly misread Herodotus if we expect to find in him a fact-driven historian who understood history as a sequence of events linked in some linear fashion by cause and effect. Herodotus understood one big thing (yes, historians can be hedgehogs): There were great permanencies that governed universal history, and those permanent things appeared in human history in different times, places, and settings. To his credit, Herodotus thought it important to record and to explain those appearances, and thus he opened the realm of contingency—of human actions—to methodical study and to interpretation.  

His selection of facts, then, was not an impartial exercise, a gathering of data in the manner of a modern social scientist. And, to be sure, Herodotus viewed the world and its history through the categories of a Greek mind. But Herodotus did not believe that  history was just one damn thing after another. His history was driven by a worldview and by his theories and his understanding of the permanent things at play in the universe. He selected episodes to relate and accepted events as true that conformed to his ideas of the patterning and processes of history, episodes and events that confirmed the boundaries of the world he knew, but also illustrated the transgressions of those boundaries.  

As we think about the problem of reading this ancient historian, let’s conclude with an episode from book VIII, an episode that takes place well after the great victories over the Persians, victories won by the Athenian admiral, Themistocles:

The Greeks, since they decided against pursuing the barbarians’ ships further . . . beleaguered Andros with the purpose of taking it. For the Andrians, the first of the islanders to be asked for money by Themistocles, had refused him. Themistocles put his proposition in these words: “We Athenians have come with two great gods to aid us, Persuasion and Necessity, and so you should render up your money to us.” But the Andrians answered this by saying, “. . . we have a most plentiful poverty of land and two useless gods, who never quit our island but love to dwell in it . . . Penury and Helplessness. These are the gods we Andrians possess, and so we will give no money.” Such was the answer of the Andrians, and they gave no money and were now besieged . . . Themistocles, whose greed for money was insatiable, kept sending threatening messages to other islands . . .

What are we to make of this? Through an earlier conversation at the Persian court, we have learned that the Greeks were a particularly formidable enemy because of their institutions and law-bound culture. We have also learned that from the beginning of their known history the Athenians have been prone to rashness, error, and mistakes. At the height of the Greek, and particularly Athenian, fortunes after the defeat of Persia, we now observe the corruption and the excesses of some of the victors who undertake a brutal little imperialist shakedown of the Andrians and other islanders. We consider the dictum that good fortune breeds pride, excess, and then downfall. Perhaps, as we observe the rapacious barbarity of some of the Athenians, we even question the distinction between democracy and despotism, civilization and barbarism, between us and the other. We wonder if the Athenian political culture, based on self-governance and self-discipline under law, will hold in the face of Athenian success. In thinking like this, we have entered the mental world of Herodotus, the Father of History.

These classic Hum lectures were selected by Peter Steinberger [political science 1977–]. For more in the series, see the March and June issues of Reed magazine.

Further Reading

Jacqueline De Romilly, The Rise and Fall of States According to Greek Authors (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991)

Charles W. Fornara, The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983)

Arnaldo Momigliano, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990)

—Author info: Ray Kierstead, Richard F. Scholz Professor of History & Humanities, Emeritus, graduated from Bowdoin College and received his PhD in history from Northwestern University. In 1956, he received a Fulbright Fellowship to attend the University of Paris and there developed an interest in his principal scholarly field, early modern France. After some years of teaching at Yale University and the Catholic University of America, he joined the Reed faculty in 1978, retiring in 2000. During retirement he has continued to lecture in the humanities program.