Monday, April 28, 2008

What was Herodotus trying to tell us?

The New Yorker (Daniel Mendelsohn)

A very enjoyable six-page review of Herodotus. As it is almost impossible to read anything on ancient Egypt without stumbling into Herodotus I feel moderately justified in including this article in the blog. Here's an extract:

In Book 1, there are the exotic Massagetae, who were apparently strangers to the use, and abuse, of wine. (The Persians—like Odysseus with the Cyclops—get them drunk and then trounce them.) In Book 2 come the Egyptians, with their architectural immensities, their crocodiles, and their mummified pets, a nation whose curiosities are so numerous that the entire book is devoted to its history, culture, and monuments. In Book 3, the Persians come up against the Ethiopians, who (Herodotus has heard) are the tallest and most beautiful of all peoples. In Book 4, we get the mysterious, nomadic Scythians, who cannily use their lack of “civilization” to confound their would-be overlords: every time the Persians set up a fortified encampment, the Scythians simply pack up their portable dwellings and leave.

By the time of Darius’ reign, Persia had become something that had never been seen before: a multinational empire covering most of the known world, from India in the east to the Aegean Sea in the west and Egypt in the south. The real hero of Herodotus’ Histories, as grandiose, as admirable yet doomed, as any character you get in Greek tragedy, is Persia itself.

What gives this tale its unforgettable tone and character—what makes the narrative even more leisurely than the subject warrants—are those infamous, looping digressions: the endless asides, ranging in length from one line to an entire book (Egypt), about the flora and fauna, the lands and the customs and cultures, of the various peoples the Persian state tried to absorb. And within these digressions there are further digressions, an infinite regress of fascinating tidbits whose apparent value for “history” may be negligible but whose power to fascinate and charm is as strong today as it so clearly was for the author, whose narrative modus operandi often seems suspiciously like free association.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A better question would be; 'what were those who Herodotus scribed for, trying to tell us or even better, telling us what to believe...' He was a scribe, nothing more nothing less. It was not him. Those who ruled social life as well as religion told him what to write...

When do intellectuals finally stop promoting nonsense for the sake of money.