Herodotus was hailed as “The Father of History” by Cicero; To me, he might as well be the Father of Humanism.
The Histories is a magnificent epic which excels in scope, structure, richness of content, intricacy and theatrical grandeur. The main theme is the Persian Wars, i.e., the conflicts between the Persian Empire and Greek nations, culminating in the invasion of Greece by Xerxes I; the underlying theme is the struggle between tyranny and freedom, between the inexorability of fate and the triumph of the human spirit.
Like threads in a beautiful Persian tapestry, Herodotus weaves together numerous elements in his narratives, the histories and geographies of the many nations in Asia and Europe, the customs, cultures, artistic and architectural achievements of the peoples, the remarkable characters and lives of individuals, and the oracles foreshadowing their fates, from kings to slaves, heroes and thieves, men, women and children, their words and deeds all distinct and memorable.
Some accused Herodotus of making up fanciful stories rather than recording the facts. I’m reminded of Thomas Mann’s comment on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, “Seldom did art work so much like nature; its immediate, natural power is only another manifestation of nature itself; ” If the best art is but a manifestation or imitation of nature, why make up stories when the facts themselves are much more wondrous and glorious?
You live many lives when you read this book. A masterpiece.
And now, as he looked and saw the whole Hellespont covered with the vessels of his fleet, and all the shore and every plain about Abydos as full as possible of men, Xerxes congratulated himself on his good fortune; but after a little while he wept. Then Artabanus, the king’s uncle …went to him, and said:—“How different, sire, is what you are now doing, from what you did a little while ago! Then you did congratulate yourself; and now, behold! you weep.”
“There came upon me,” replied he, “a sudden pity, when I thought of the shortness of man’s life, and considered that of all this host, so numerous as it is, not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by.”
“And yet there are sadder things in life than that,” returned the other. “Short as our time is, there is no man, whether it be here among this multitude or elsewhere, who is so happy, as not to have felt the wish — I will not say once, but full many a time — that he were dead rather than alive. Calamities fall upon us; sicknesses vex and harass us, and make life, short though it be, to appear long. So death, through the wretchedness of our life, is a most sweet refuge to our race: and God, who gives us the tastes that we enjoy of pleasant times, is seen, in his very gift, to be envious.”
“For though they be freeman, they are not in all respects free; Law is the master whom they own; and this master they fear more than thy subjects fear thee. Whatever he commands they do; and his commandment is always the same: it forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes, and requires them to stand firm, and either to conquer or die.”
- Herodotus. The Histories. Trans. George Rawlinson. London: Everyman’s Library, 1997.
- “The History vol.1” at Gutenberg
- “The History vol.2” at Gutenberg
- “The History” at ebooks@Adelaide