In this second post of the ‘History and Human Flourishing’ series, Suzanne Marchand explores the contemporary value and relevance of Herodotus in historical teaching and methodology. Though often overlooked in favour of a ‘scientific’ approach advocated by nineteenth-century acolytes of Thucydides, Herodotus and his Histories remain a rich — and much needed — guide to history as the story and study of human behaviours. In this post, Suzanne considers Herodotus’ appeal and lessons for historians today.
This post is the second contribution to the Society’s 3-part ‘History & Human Flourishing’ blog series. The first, by Darrin M. McMahon, explores the often-neglected study of the history of human happiness.
There is, in my view, too much Thucydides in our histories and perhaps in our hearts today. This is partly the fault of the nineteenth century, when he became exemplary of the ‘right’ kind of historian: cynical, disciplined, grimly determined not to waste time on trifling matters. Power, for him — in a way oddly reminiscent of the also still-pervasive work of Michel Foucault — is what drives history and defines all human interactions, regardless of what anyone might say. So much have we accustomed ourselves to this cynical view that even the cultural historians among us struggle to wrest ourselves from its grip.
This is why it might be healthy to recall that Thucydides devised his historical principles to demonstrate his superiority to an already famous predecessor — one who has always, also, had his advocates, even if his reputation suffered a tremendous blow in the age of Leopold von Ranke. Pace the military strategists and the philosophers of international relations, we historians do not have to be eternal Thucydideans. Indeed, in doing so we might find new means of flourishing by embracing some of the richer and weirder methods of writing — and especially of teaching — history and of conceiving human nature that Thucydides renounced.
Herodotus gave us so much broader a picture of the calculated and crazy things we do, how rulers succeed and screw up, how cruel and clever we can be.
The spurned predecessor to whom I refer to is, of course, Herodotus, whose Histories relate, in shaggy dog fashion, the cosmopolitan backstory and then the unfolding of the Persian Wars.
It would wrong to insinuate, as Thucydides does in the famous passage at 1.122, that Herodotus wrote merely for entertainment, and did not care about truth, or to assert, as would Plutarch five centuries later, that Herodotus maliciously skewed his story. There are entertaining and improbable stories in The Histories, such as the rescuing of the poet Arion by a sympathetic dolphin, and plausible but probably exaggerated ones, like the water management projects of Assyrian Queen Nitocris (1.185). But even more, there is with Herodotus a rich variety of life, women as well as men (by one count, only six are mentioned in Thucydides, to 370+ in The Histories). To these we may add animals, gods, rivers, kings, and others, motivated not just by self-interest or the yearning for power, but by dreams, vanity, misunderstanding, passion, stupidity, pride, or simply unknown forces the historian cannot fathom.
In Book 6 (6.129-130), Herodotus tells the story of Hippokleides, set to make an advantageous marriage, who drinks too much at his engagement banquet, resulting in a bout of ribald dancing during which, it is suggested, he reveals his privates. When his prospective father-in-law tells him that he has danced away his good fortune (the original ‘balls up’), the merry-maker’s response — still used as an adage in modern Greek — is ‘Hippokleides doesn’t care!’ Don’t we all recognize a Hippokleides in our lives, perhaps (at least occasionally) in ourselves?
Cicero termed Herodotus the ‘father of history,’ but in the same breath bracketed him with Theopompus, known for his long-winded digressions and his innumerabilies fabulae. What Cicero didn’t note was that Herodotus’ approach had a purpose: to convey a great deal of information and insight into human behaviour, at home, and abroad. Over the centuries, thousands of Herodotean fact-checkers have attempted to verify his information, sometimes finding him mistaken, but often recognising ways in which he was interestingly (if not perfectly accurately) right — about the Egyptian labyrinth, for example, or Persian horse lore.
But an even better reason for teaching Herodotus, or better teaching like Herodotus rather than, unrelentingly, like Thucydides, is that Herodotus gave us so much broader a picture of the calculated and crazy things we do; how rulers succeed and screw up, how cruel and clever we can be. Of course, his was also a very Greek way of seeing the world, and Herodotus’ stories about the despots of the East must be read with this in mind. But as he says in the very first line of his history, his intent throughout is to record for posterity the great deeds of the Greeks and the Persians, as well as to explain why they fought. I believe that Herodutus meant it, as he meant to show, too, that Egypt was full of wonderous things; that Scythia was home to brave if barbaric tribes; that some Greeks were cowards and tyrants; and others, at least some of the time, ingenious and courageous.
What if we accepted a bit more of the Herodotean worldview, and his approach to engaging with the past?
Herodotus certainly did care about human happiness. One of his most beloved tales, that of Solon and Croesus (1.29-33), goes right to the heart of the issue. As Herodotus relates, during travels he initiated to avoid having to repeal laws he imposed in Athens, Solon visited the extraordinarily wealthy king of the Medes. During his visit, the proud king shows Solon his riches, whereupon Solon launches into a story, the moral of which is that as fortune is ever changeable, one should not count oneself happy until one rests on one’s deathbed, surrounded by adoring family and friends.
The story acts as a prophecy, as Croesus will soon fall prey to an epic form of pride inciting a fall. Croesus will recall Solon’s admonition as he is about to be burnt on a pyre after the conquest of his kingdom (1.86). This is no mundane proverb, and it teaches an important, perhaps better, lesson than most Disney movies: one can and should try to live a good, honourable life. But one might fail, and not necessarily because of a ‘fatal flaw’ — fortune can simply deal a bad hand. Isn’t this a sensible way for us to conceive of our fellow humans and their flaws? Sometimes the flaws get you, sometimes you simply have bad luck (which might be structurally conditioned). If the seventeenth century read the story as a warning against enjoying worldly riches (see image 1 above), we might read it as an admonition not to judge people by their fates, and to take seriously the view that there, but for the grace of God, or fortune, go I.
Most especially, I would like to advocate for more Herodotean teaching in the classroom … Environmental history has spurred us to put nature and animals in the picture, as did Herodotus; he would approve of discussing commerce and foodways.
What if we accepted a bit more of the Herodotean worldview, and his approach to engaging with the past? I don’t think scholarly history can do this entirely, but it would be a relief to escape the unrelenting cynicism of the Thucydidean-Foucauldians. But most especially, I would like to advocate for more Herodotean teaching in the classroom. College students have endured all too much ‘high’ political and military history in high school, and find more engaging lectures on ‘everyday life,’ whether in discussions of colonial Salem, or Roman Britain, or Nazi Germany. Environmental history has spurred us to put nature and animals in the picture, as did Herodotus; he would approve of discussing commerce and foodways.
Why not indulge in a few good stories, such as that of Queen Tomyris, who avenged her army’s slaughter at the hands of Cyrus by having him decapitated and his head dipped in a bag of blood? Herodotus told this story (1.212), and it was so memorable that even when his Greek text was lost to the West, medieval and early modern writers (including Shakespeare) knew and repurposed it; eighteenth-century porcelain makers, too, recreated it (see image 2). The story may well be apocryphal, but these too can occasion good teaching moments. Let’s see what we can do to make college history more Herodotean. Even if it won’t save us from the disdain of an increasingly presentist culture, at least, like Hippokleides, we might enjoy a last binge.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne Marchand is Boyd Professor of European Intellectual History at Louisiana State University. Her current research projects include a history of Herodotus’ readers from 1700 to the present, tentatively titled Herodotus and the Instabilities of Western Civilization. Her wide-ranging research interests include classical studies, art history, anthropology, history, and theology in modern Europe, as well as in the history of porcelain and related topics in the history of material culture and consumption in Central Europe.
Suzanne’s publications include the article ‘Herodotus and the Fate of Universal History in Nineteenth-Century Germany’, Journal of Modern History (forthcoming, 2023) and the monographs Porcelain. A History from the Heart of Europe (Princeton UP, 2020) and German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Race, Religion, and Scholarship (Cambridge UP, 2009).
Her essay, ‘Flourishing with Herodotus’ appeared in Darrin McMahon’s edited collection, History & Human Flourishing (OUP, 2023).
ABOUT THIS SERIES
History and Human Flourishing is a three-part series featuring posts by contributors to the recent collection, History & Human Flourishing, ed. Darrin M. McMahon and published in 2023. The first post in this series is Darrin M. McMahon’s ‘History and Human Flourishing’ and the final post is by David Armitage (Harvard).
IMAGE HEADER: A Roman copy (2nd century AD) of a Greek bust of Herodotus from the first half of the 4th century BC. Public domain.