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Herodotus and the ancient resistance to historical accounting

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Why the written history of Herodotus was an abstract idea destined to influence rather than educate

(3rd edition - June 2007) by A.O. Kime
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This article reviews the ancient historian Herodotus but from a different angle... which includes how his contemporaries would have viewed his 'recording of history' during the beginnings of civilization. But first, briefly, Herodotus was born around 484 B.C. in what is now modern-day Turkey and, apparently for conspiring against Persian rule, was exiled in 457 B.C. After about 10 years of extensive traveling he ended up in Athens, spent some time there, then later settled in southern Italy. He wrote nine books which many consider historical accounts and since he was one of the first to do so, he is often referred to as the ‘father of history’. Fragments of earlier historical accounts exist but effectively nothing worthwhile survived the ages longer than the works of Herodotus…. except for the accounts of the more ancient Egyptians which were recorded by means of hieroglyphs.

However to call Herodotus a ‘historian’ may be imposing on the term somewhat because of his style and bias. His accounts might easily be compared to the works of Homer (circa 850 B.C.) who mixed fact with fiction in his Iliad. Of course, that's assuming Greek mythology is fiction... after all, it was Catholicism which called it mythology. At any rate, the Iliad was based on at least some historical facts which the 1870 discovery of Troy (ruins) further confirmed.

In the case of Herodotus, along with the facts he added his bias opinions, hearsay tales, and to spice it up in places, mythology was included. Yet, there were no guidelines for the proper way to convey historical accounts for Herodotus. Perhaps it's possible he wasn’t trying to be a 'historian' at first, that for whatever reason he was just using historical events as a backdrop similar to the Iliad. Perhaps only later did he recognize there could be interest in factual accountings. At any rate, his works are called The Histories apparently based on the term ‘historia’ (Latin/Greek) which means ‘inquiry’.

While we know professions evolve, becoming more ‘professional’ as time passes, similarly in the times of Herodotus no one knew what to expect from a historian... not yet considered a profession. Recording history in the manner we have become familiar didn’t exist then. This isn't a reflection of the prevailing intellect either since all professions began in uncharted waters. Besides, it takes less imagination to improve upon something than to initially discover and/or recognize its potential. In this case, because of the human ability to remember things, the need for a written accounting wouldn’t have been obvious at first.

Originally, in ancient times, men did what was necessary to survive… primarily to provide food and shelter for themselves and family. It later involved into the yearning for a more worthwhile existence. And, as they continually tried to improve upon their primitive lifestyle, to provide themselves with greater comforts and conveniences, which might be called ‘civilized additions’, nonetheless those additions are, in a sense, abstract and unnatural... although more-so true of 'advanced civilized additions' which came later.

While reading, writing and record-keeping are an integral part of civilization, along with such things as daily newspapers, holidays and institutions, they can often seem frivolous... because they are in a sense. We don’t really need them but, in the interests of civilization, in the interests of obtaining a more comfortable and dignified existence, they serve that purpose. Except, of course, there are great dangers in unnaturalness.

Rocks and sitting places

The 'recording of history' is an abstract idea as well and while there are benefits, we don’t 'need' to know of prior events, no more than lions or birds do, because it has nothing to do with survival or perpetuating the species. Besides, there are downsides such as keeping psychological wounds from healing, especially those of past wars. Memories fade in time, not so written documents. As it is, religious victories and defeats will be remembered for all time... as if sating curiosities is more important than letting a dead dog die.

Regardless the downsides, the slow pace of abstract ideas was due to the practical mindset of ancient man. Unlike the pretences of modern man, utilizing whatever was handy was commonplace without regard for 'appearances'. In other words, fully practical men of natural persuasions wouldn't give a hoot for a history book. As far as ancient man was concerned, a rock provided a place to sit just like a chair would without the need to construct such a sitting place. To him, constructing a sitting place in the presence of rocks would be foolish and abstract idea. While comforts were not sought for every situation then, or even foreseen, it was simply a matter of whether it was worth the trouble.

Due to this 'abstract idea' of recording history, Herodotus and his contemporaries were undoubtedly ridiculed at first. After all, considering humans have a memory, written historical accounts would have seemed redundant... just as redundant as a chair amidst a bunch of rocks. Except for a few, it is doubtful the public ever clamored for someone to prepare detailed historical accounts. Besides, or as another explanation, amidst the circulating tales (the common medium in ancient times) historical accounts would have seemed bland in comparison… boring. After all, storytellers are famous for spicing up a story, adding flair. In order to compete with these storytellers might explain why Herodotus spiced up his accounts.

Although a fact not realized until modern times, the overabundance of knowledge has a downside as well. For example, the moon was a lot more interesting before 1969... it's mystery and romantic hue having been consumed by facts. The act of demystifying saps the joy of living of which wonderment is a key ingredient. In this respect then, science and historians did us no favors.

Also, the debut of historians was delayed because of the prevailing mentality surrounding that of keeping a diary. Few people have ever kept diaries, apparently not then, and assuredly not now... most people rely on their memory. Most people are seemingly of the conviction that if they forgot something then it probably wasn’t worth remembering. Or else it was something they wanted to forget. Mimicking the human memory, historians are equally selective... only recording what they think is worth recording. And, typically human, it's obvious history books prefer some things forgotten as well. In this respect then, history books are very similar to the human memory... faulty and incomplete.

Since the absolute need was not there, and since the benefits of historical knowledge seemingly only lingered in the minds of a few, should explain the absence of historical accounts prior to the time of Herodotus going back to the earliest times of written languages (3000 B.C.) It is uncertain however whether the recording of history was initially seen as having a practical value or merely as a way to sate one’s curiosity. Both, after all, would attract interest. As said, the recording of history has its limits too, even today only a miniscule part of history is being recorded and, like memory, it is selective. While most major events are recorded, but who determines what is worthy? While it's up to the historian, although governments have a hand, but like many things modernly abstract and considered civilized, recording history became a double-edged sword. The historical accounts of today, including news reporting, often portrays realities which aren’t quite accurate… often unintentionally but also to influence the public with a purposeful bias.

The double-edged sword

What originally seemed like a good idea to those who adopted the idea of recording history probably didn’t know it could have a dark side. They probably didn’t realize some 'advancements' can enslave rather than free a people, influence rather than educate, or present hazards unheard of in ancient times. Having gone too far in its quest for comforts and conveniences, in effect society subbed its nose at naturalness and thus 'compatibility' itself.

While the dangers increased as society progressed, more-so beginning with the industrial revolution, we also know progress is unstoppable. In that case, we should redefine 'progress'. For a worthwhile existence, perhaps future generations will keep the worthy additions and trash the rest. Some people have already begun the process by disconnecting their TV sets.

On the other hand, an argument could be put forth that the concept of 'civilization' just hasn’t materialized yet. Something must exist first before we can say it failed.

On the positive side, historians provided a way in which to judge the progress of man. Adding to what the ancient ruins and monuments can testify to, historians helped fill in the blanks. From Herodotus, we learned of the Athens-Sparta-Persian conflicts and their dates for example.

Thanks to ancient history we know wars existed then as well... proof the nature of men hasn't changed. Whether civilized or uncivilized, wars happened and happened often... the only difference being 'civilization' made wars more destructive. It was therefore a good thing Herodotus came along when he did... at a time mankind was largely uncivilized otherwise we'd have little on which to judge progress. Herodotus and the Egyptian historians therefore did us a favor. To date then, we're still barbarians who only feign being civilized.

Why history repeats itself

Some things haven't changed since Herodotus and the most glaring example is the 'glory' in war. As in the past, medals are still issued for heroic deeds. Except, it doesn't seem to fit the times anymore... not if we're to consider ourselves civilized. In a civilized society, one would expect wars would be viewed upon as shameful episodes... that no soldier would want a medal as a reminder. But alas, bloodlust is within the nature of man... there's something exhilarating about war. It's also exhilarating to watch war movies... especially the actual footage.

Often berated for their gladiator spectaculars, the Romans didn’t do anything mankind isn’t doing today except film their death and destruction. Movie cameras weren’t invented yet whereby Romans could watch the same warrior get killed repeatedly… like we do. Too bad for the Christians too... they had to perform reruns in person. Nor would anybody buy a book detailing the blood and guts if they could see it for themselves. A written historical account just can't sate the craving... which perhaps explains why history keeps repeating itself.

While the abstract concepts of civilization are unnatural, further removed from reality is the religious fanaticism in the Middle East… of a insane mentality still stuck in the 12th century. In either case however, it's still about wars, deprivation, persecution and the continual rejection of a natural existence compatible with nature. In light of this, perhaps instead of being called the ‘father of history’, Herodotus would have preferred 'father of historians'.

A.O. Kime

Last modified: 02/29/16