The Histories by Herodotus
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Fascinating. This was my first time reading this classic.
Herodotus is one of the first writers we can call a systematic and modern historian. His bias for the Greeks and against the Persians is evident throughout, though.
He shows historical sense at the beginning, saying he's going to relate everything he knows, not just the lands and rulers that are powerful today, but the obscure, too. Time brings rulers down and raises unexpected peoples, so who knows who the future will want to know about?
Oracles seem to be in the know, Herodotus thinks. He keeps coming back to oracles being fulfilled, even when men try to keep them from happening. He will also refer to a singular God as being in control of events, sometimes, though.
About 75% of the 600 pages relates customs of peoples in the Mediterranean, Baltic and African regions, along with lists of peoples and rulers. The rest relates the history of how Persia came to invade Greece and what came of it. There are a very few golden nuggets of why Greece fought so hard against Persia.
"Athens... proved... how noble a thing equality before the law is... for while they were oppresssed under tyrants, they had no better success in war than any of their neighbors, yet, once the yoke was flung off, they proved the finest fighters in the world.... So long as they were held down by authroity, they deliberately shirked their duty in the field, as slaves shirk working for their masters; but when freedom was won, then every man amongst them was interested in his own cause" (p.340).
"The people there had had a taste of liberty and were too well pleased to have got rid of Aristagoras [a tyrant] to be willing to welcome another ruler of the same stamp" (p.361).
This is a main theme: the Greeks beat back the Persians against overwhelming odds and lack of unity themselves, because they were motivated to keep their freedom and not come under the Persian yoke.
There is some vulgarity, crudity and lewdness to watch out for. You can tell he's relating these stories for the sensationalism of it, but you don't get the sense he is wildly exaggerating them. It's just how sinful human nature is. Sometimes we have to look at this to remember our depravity, the way we look at pictures of Auschwitz.
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