Thursday, September 28, 2017

History by Herodotus

History Book Club
Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The History of History

            Herodotus, Oxford World’s Classics: Herodotus, The Histories, Translated by Robin Waterfield, with introduction by Carolyn DeWald, Oxford University Press: New York, 1998, 2008. 792 pp.

            Herodotus is considered by many to be the father of western history. He was born in about 485 Halicarnassus, which is now Bodrum, Turkey, He seems to have spent most of his life travelling from one place to another. Born into a wealthy Greek-Carian family, Halicarnassus was part of the Persian Empire, and Herodotus’ family opposed the ruler, and were exiled to the island of Samos. During his life he visited Egypt, and traveled through Palestine to Syria and Babylon. He headed to Macedonia and visited all the islands of the Greek Archipelago: Rhodes, Cyprus, Delos, Paros, Thasos, Samothrace, Crete, Samos, Cythera and Aegina. He sailed through the Hellespont to the Black Sea and kept going until he hit the Danube River.

Asia Minor, in the time of the Græco-Persian Wars

            During all this time he collected stories, and told them to groups, as he began to construct a history of the Græco-Persian War. It was probably written down by others, and not assembled into the nine books that we see in this edition until after his death.

            What a story it is!  If much ancient history seems to be a dull catalog of kings and battles and palace intrigue, this is a refreshing shower of intrigue, sex, skullduggery and color. Over and over he inserts little stories from his travels, like the Arabian sheep whose tails were so huge that they dragged on the ground, one cubit wide (18”) and four cubits (6’) long. The Arabs built little carts to follow the sheep around. Sound like a tall tale?  And there are rats from India as big as dogs, and a tale about a mule giving birth.

            Herodotus starts Book 1 with the mythic stories of the abductions of four women.  They represent the four geographical areas the Histories will cover: Io is an Argive Greek who is taken to Egypt; Europa is a Phoenician taken to Crete; Medea is a Colchian, from the region of the Black Sea, and first goes to Greece and then eventually to Media; and Helen is a Spartan who is taken to Troy. 

            Herodotus reports that some of these kidnappings may have been exaggerated.  For instance, Io is reported to have slept with the Phoenician ship’s captain in Argos, and then discovered she was pregnant.  Rather than face her parents, she sailed away willingly with the Phoenicians to Egypt.

            There are lots of little stories inserted throughout.  Early in Book 1 there is this Lydian King named Caudales, who thought he had the most beautiful wife in the world. He remarked about this to his loyal subject, Gyges, but he sensed that Gyges didn’t believe him.  As if it mattered.  Caudales then set up a scheme where Gyges could be stationed next door to the royal bedroom, so that when the queen disrobed, he would see her. It was then planned for him to depart without being detected.  The queen, however, did detect him, and was enraged that she should be humiliated. She didn’t let Caudales know how she felt, though. In the non-Greek world, Herodotus writes, it was a thing of great shame to be seen naked by anyone other than your wife or husband.

            The queen had her slave woman summon Gyges, and told him that he must either kill Caudales, her husband, or kill himself. Gyges elected to kill his king, and so that is how the royal line shifted. There was a payoff to the Oracle at Delphi involved in this. The priests at Delphi collected some fine treasures as bribes to sway the public.

            All this was a leadup to the men who would lead the Persian and Greek armies.

            The Græco-Persian Wars went on and on, from 492 to 449 B.C. Persia’s empire in those days extended all the way across the Anatolian peninsula to the Aegean Sea.  In 522 B.C. Darius became Shah of Persia. Herodotus tells a long tale about a self-educated doctor named Democedes, from Greece. Darius heard about Democedes and had him brought to him because he was suffering from a painful, debilitating ankle.  Persian doctors had tried all kinds of painful, forceful attempts to cure him, but it looked like he’d be crippled for life. Democedes had a very gentle treatment that cured the ankle completely.  Darius was delighted, and sent the doctor off with his eunuchs to visit the royal wives. They dipped cups into their chests of gold and gave them to him.  But he was enslaved.

            Then Atossa, Darius’ main wife, developed a growth on her breast.  Democedes cured that, and the queen promised to work on getting him freed to go back to Greece.  She suggested that it was time for him to demonstrate his manliness. He said he planned to invade Scythia (modern Ukraine), but she said she heard that Greek women slaves were excellent, and she wanted some. 
            Some Greek city states in the western part of the Persian Empire were rebelling, so this seemed like a good idea.  Darius sent several senior Persians on a trip to gather detailed intelligence about Greece, and had them take Democedes as their guide.

            Then Darius launched an invasion of the Greek mainland. However, much of his fleet was destroyed in a storm, and he returned to Persia. Two years later. A Persian army of 25,000 men landed unopposed on the Plain of Marathon. The Athenians asked help from the Spartans, but they were having a religious celebration, so the Athenians, with 10,000 men, faced the Persians. The Greeks surprised the Persians, killing 6400 while losing only 192.


            The Persians went home, and Xerxes replaced Darius, and ten years later, they marched on Greece again. This time they brought a huge force, Herodotus wrote “5,283,220” which included Arabian camel riders, cavalry, and thousands of sailors and marines. Herodotus writes also about the thousands of camp-followers, cooks, concubines, eunuchs, Indian dogs, and yoked animals. Later scholars think it was far less. The Greeks encountered them at a narrow mountain pass called Thermopylae, on the Greek coast 200 km. northwest of Athens. Greek strategy called for their navy to defeat the Persian navy at Artemisium, nearby. There was treachery and heroism. The Persians marched south and burned Athens, but the city had been evacuated.

            Herodotus pauses at Artemisum to tell about one encounter between a Persian and Greek ship. Even after the Greek ship had been captured, one marine, Pytheas, fought with amazing bravery, even as his whole body was being hacked to pieces.  The Persian marines were so impressed with his bravery that they bandaged him up, dressed his wounds with myrrh, and treated him with honor, while all the other captives were treated as slaves.

            The next month the Persian fleet sought to attack the Greek navy, but Themistocles, the Greek naval commander, faked a retreat and led them into a trap at the Strait of Salamis, a few miles up the coast from Athens, and beat them soundly.

            A short time later the Persians retreated to Asia again.


    TOPICS FOR 2017-18

Wednesday, September 28, 2017: The History of History. Read any book about Historiography, or methods of recording history, from Herodotus and Thucydides to Saint Augustine to Ibn Khaldun. You might want to read about ways people have used history as propaganda, or to build up the image of a leader, or focus upon a particular kind of history. [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]

Wednesday, October 25, 2017: The Industrial Revolution in New England.  Development of mills, the textile industry in Lowell, Lawrence, Manchester and elsewhere. Life in the mills, quality of life in the cities. Advent of the steam engine. Railroads. Banking and commerce in the Industrial age. Labor problems and unionization. Iron and steel production. Coal mining. Communications. [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]

Wednesday, November 29, 2017: The Decline of Major Powers.  How does it happen, that a nation that has been calling all the shots suddenly finds out that it’s not the Big Cheese any longer? Read about Athens and Sparta, or look at Rome, or the Arab Caliphate, Spain, Great Britain, France, Germany, the Soviet Union. Do we see China coming to take the mace away from the United States of America?  [Suggested by Beverly Verrengia]

No meeting in December

Wednesday, January 31, 2018:  Manifest Destiny: The 19th century period of American expansion that the United States not only could, but was destined to, stretch from coast to coast. Western settlement, Native American removal and war with Mexico. Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark Expedition, Missouri Compromise, Oregon Territory, Indian Wars, Union Pacific Railway, Texas, California… [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]

Wednesday, February 28, 2018:  Famous Travelers and Adventurers before the 20th Century—their lives and stories. Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark, Stanley and Livingstone, more. [Suggested by Walt Frederick]

Wednesday, March 28, 2018:  The U.S. Navy in Asia. The Asiatic Squadron. The Yangtze Patrol. Patrolling the Philippine Islands, “China Sailors”, World War II, The Seventh Fleet. [Suggested by Walt Frederick]

Wednesday, April 25, 2018:  A look at the world and times of Jane Austen. Rockport Public Library is celebrating “Austen in April”.  Read about the life of Austen, or focus upon England in the early 1800s, the Royal Navy at that time, the gentle English world Jane lived in. Feel free to read Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, or any of her novels to gather a sense of Jane and her world. [Suggested by Christiann Guibeau]

Wednesday, May 30, 2018:  A History of Public Relations. Managing the news, propaganda, image-building. Hitler’s Joseph Goebbels. Ancient persuasive techniques. How information, false. Tainted or factual, can be used to elect leaders, start wars, and more. [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]

Wednesday, June 27, 2018: The History of Language. Can you understand the English spoken by Chaucer? [WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote; The droghte  of Marche hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich  licour,]  Choose any language and learn how it grew from its ancient roots, how it absorbed other languages, how it spread, and its variations in use in the world today. Did you know that only one in 40 Italians spoke Italian in 1861?  What language is most widely spoken in the world today? How are languages changing in modern times? [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]

Wednesday, July 25, 2018:  Immigration to America. How did we all get here?  Read about the history of immigration, at any stage – from first settlers to the great immigration waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries; victims of the Irish Potato famine, Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, Europeans suffering poverty in their countries, Africans brought here as slaves, Chinese brought here to build railroads; Fugitives of war everywhere; Mexicans and Central Americans coming to pick crops. Read about immigration policies and national drives to keep out or encourage immigration. [Suggested by Walt Frederick.]

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