Plutarch has an essay titled On the Malice of Herodotus, where he notes, among other insults, those wishing to detect all the “lies and fictions” of the famous Greek historian “would have need of many books.” Plutarch goes on to content himself with only a compressed account of Herodotus’ rhetorical twists and turns, poor citations, outright fabrications, fantastical imaginings and ancient slander, though the evidence amassed would, today, ensure Herodotus failed his tenure review.
In his condemnation, Plutarch is not wrong. But he is not entirely correct, either. Cicero better captures the complexity of the historian’s project when, in his book On the Laws, he notes
…in history the standard by which everything is judged is the truth, while in poetry it is generally the pleasure one gives; however, in the works of Herodotus, the Father of History, and in those of Theopompus, one finds innumerable fabulous tales.
Cicero has presented us with a nice little puzzle. The “Father of History” is a fabulist. He is an embellisher of tales, but also the founder of a genre where one rises and falls by their ability to convey the truth of the past. Imagine, for a second, if it were discovered Ron Chernow was not exactly accurate in his biography of Alexander Hamilton? That he not only played fast and loose with the facts of his subject’s life, but threw in vignettes based on 18th-century hearsay to spice things up? I’ll tell you. Old Chernow would be thrown in the historian’s stockade to be abused by future academic chuckleheads. He sure as hell would not have the title “Father of History” affixed to his name.
So, what makes Herodotus, a 5th-century writer, whose book, the Histories, is still required reading for all educated people, the exception? The answer to that question is a long one. It involves, among other things, the shifting popular understanding of the purpose of history and historians. Like the original conception of philosophy, which included the natural sciences, mathematics and what would later be termed theology, so too history, in the way Herodotus practiced it, would not have been classified as a narrow reporting. In fact, the title of the book commonly translated as the Historiesis more accurately titled the Inquires. A closer look at what Herodotus purports to inquire into, I think, helps resolve the tension between his status as a first-rate thinker and his so-called tall tales.
Take this famous passage near the opening of the text:
For my part I am not going to say about these matters that they happened thus or thus…I will go forward in my account, covering alike the small and great cities of mankind. For those that were great in earlier times most have now become small, and those that were great in my time were small in the time before. Since, then, I know that man’s good fortune never abides in the same place, I will make mention of both alike.
For Herodotus, the operation of history, as simple chronicle of place and time is somehow insufficient for understanding the human condition, for the sole reason that everything is in flux. The particulars, over time, matter, but their importance fades or becomes distorted, like the cities mentioned in the passage. Time’s corrosive, unceasing march has the tendency to “draw the color from what man has brought into being.” Herodotus thus wants to fashion a “history” impervious to decay.
What does not decay, and Herodotus understood this because he was much more than a simple account-giver, is human nature. There are constants in life that are in operation now in the same way they would have been in Athens or in some forsaken village in Lydia. Of the many tales we read about in the Histories—from the princely wisdom of Solon to the political and personal failures of Croesus, the peculiar religiosity of the Egyptians and, of course, the lessons of Persian-Greek wars—each applies today.
It is easy to understand, from the vantage point of enduring human nature, that what smooths the relationship between a strict insistence on historical accuracy and a lapse into invention or augmentation is the philosophic or moral lesson of the tale. Those lessons don’t necessarily fade with time, even if the actors and their empires have returned to dust.
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