We’re due for a Herodotus revival. George R. R. Martin is clashing and storming and dancing all over the bestseller list, with his epic fantasies inspired by the real War of the Roses. And David Shields has become the talk of the MFA programs with his book-length screed, Reality Hunger, about embracing subjectivity and contradiction, and blending fact and fiction, to create a pleasurable narrative tension.
Well, The Histories by Herodotus is George R. R. Martin by way of David Shields. It’s a historical war epic that feels, to an uncomfortable and thrilling degree, like high fantasy. The sword-wielding and world-building in Herodotus is absolutely real. But it’s not. (But it is.)
1. As the world’s first historian, Herodotus takes what is either a primitive or postmodern approach to the recording of facts. He’ll present multiple versions of events and explain which one he likes best. Did Xerxes retreat from Greece with his land army, or did he board a Phoenician ship and command its sailors jump overboard when a storm almost wrecked them? Herodotus tells both legends, then declares the sea version to be false.
2. He plays favorites. Most historical figures, such as Themistocles, commander of the Athenian fleet, are displayed with all their virtues and flaws. Others, like Artemisia, a female captain in the Persian fleet, can do no wrong. Guess where Artemisia is from? Halicarnassus, the same hometown as Herodotus.
3. Figures and measurements in Herodotus are always a bit… off. He’ll carefully state the distance between two rivers in Macedonia, for instance. But it will be in stades, a unit we haven’t used for millennia, and whose exact length changed over time. Like a good math student, Herodotus shows exactly how he has calculated the total size of Xerxes’ army, which he places at 2 or 3 million soldiers. But historians today place the real number at 1/10 of that.
4. Herodotus is often our best source of anthropological information about the ancient world. But he’s hit-or-miss. He accurately describes the multi-ethic origins of the people of Cyprus, who are still, to this day, riven by competing allegiances to Greece and Turkey. And he recognizes that Ethiopians are really two tribes of people, with different languages and appearances and customs, long before one of those groups split off and became Eritrea. But he also declares that Leonidas, the Spartan king at the Battle of Themopylae, is literally and truly descended from Hercules, and he presents a detailed ancestry that supposedly proves it. He offers a similar lineage for the Persians and their so-called ancestor Perseus, son of Zeus.
5. You can never trust Herodotus on matters related to science and divinity, except when he’s truly crazy—then you can trust him. He believes in the wisdom of oracles. And yet he doesn’t believe in the ocean. (He’s heard the theory that all bodies of water on earth are connected, but he hasn’t seen evidence of it. Fair enough.) Sometimes his weirdest observations are the most true. He describes a lion attack in Greece, which sounds impossible, but there used to be lions in Greece. And for centuries people thought he was crazy to assert that in India, giant ants burrow into the ground and unearth valuable gold. But recently a French ethnologist found a tribe in Pakistan that catches marmots as they emerge from their holes, and harvests the gold dust that clings to their coats.
Finally, Herodotus shows up in his own history. As part of a delegation of Ionians that sails to Aegina to ask for military support in their rebellion against Persia. What kind of historian gives himself a cameo?
A damn good kind. The kind who’s due for a popular revival.