Herodotus’ Histories, written c. 430-25 BC, are the “grandfather” of all empirical chronicles. These 600 or so pages take a little patience. I found that the lengthy digressions (in Books I and II) about various far-flung races, with their marvels and tall-tales, distracted from the more interesting narrative of Greco-Persian warfare. Still, perseverance is rewarded.

Herodotus often indulges a wry sense of humor. The Pharaoh Amasis (the commoner made ruler of Egypt), melted down a gold vessel to make a statue to one of the gods which his subjects “treated with profound reverence.” At this point Amasis revealed that the statue was once a chamber pot. This witty parable served to show the caste-minded Egyptians that just as they had come to worship this once contemptible object, “so they had better pay honour and respect to him too.”

The book resumes the main theme of East-West conflict with the Persian conquest of Egypt by the end of Book II, although it’s not until Book V (halfway through The Histories) that we get to the revolt of the Ionians and the invasion of Greece by Emperor Darius. A key point in Herodotus’ analysis is the contrast between Persian autocracy and servility with Greek notions of freedom. No doubt some of the atrocities attributed to the Persians are exaggerated. Nevertheless, Persian rule could be cruel and capricious. It lacked the intellectual liberty and self-confidence born of self-rule that made Hellenic culture unique.

Aside from the main military actions at Marathon (490 BC), Salamis (480) and Plataea (479)—which secured Greek independence from foreign hegemony—the most interesting aspect (for me) was the dialogues between the leaders of Persian society. One doubts that these are authentic, though they may have some basis in fact. Even if Herodotus is imposing his own views on historical actors they are revealing of ancient Greek political and ethical sensibilities. Thus in a debate with Darius, who has just overthrown the Magi usurpers, the wise Persian nobleman Otanes criticizes the absolutism that gave rise to the crimes of the evil Cambyses and instead advocates rule of law. By contrast, Darius embraces a ruthless political pragmatism that anticipates Machiavelli by 1,900 years: “We are all after the same thing, whether we lie or speak the truth: our own advantage. Men lie when they think to profit by deception, and tell the truth for the same reason. . . .  It is only two different roads to the same goal.”

However imperfect the ancient Greeks were (Herodotus makes this quite clear), there does seem to have been an invaluable if indefinable quality that set the West apart the East.

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