1 October 2017

Some Thoughts on Herodotus and Thucydides

Sigh. September has come and gone and I only made one manga release. I've been too busy to even keep up with the news and make a current events post, which is a real pity because the whole Kurdistan issue really does demand attention. Maybe this post to start off October will make me feel that I haven't been neglecting this blog too much. I honestly wasn't expecting to write this, but I just had an amusing thought the other day when I was re-reading parts of Herodotus' The Histories, so I thought I should write it down before I forget it.

Herodotus and Thucydides. Two names that really shouldn't need an introduction, but I'll still introduce them anyways in case non-history fans are reading this. Basically, these were two ancient Greeks who each wrote a major historical work covering the most important wars of the day. For Herodotus, it was the Greco-Persian Wars while for Thucydides, it was the Peloponnesian War. The legacy that these two monumental works left have made historians of the Western tradition consider Herodotus and Thucydides as the two fathers of their discipline. As the Hark a vagrant comic above shows, though, this poses a bit of a debate because the methodological and narrative styles of these two historians were quite different. The popular view is that Herodotus was more interested in telling a good tale whereas Thucydides was more interested in objectively reporting the facts. This is a view that I really don't approve of, as it seems an unfair oversimplification of their approaches to history. 
Thanks a lot, Google images, for associating gay porn with Herodotus in my mind now.
Although I don't intend to write about their stylistic difference in this post, to give an example, there's a much more participatory element to Herodotus' The Histories. Herodotus frequently inserts himself into his writing and it gives the feeling that he's talking to you rather than lecturing you. And while others have criticized his inclusion of unreliable hearsays, Herodotus himself is willing to tell you that there are different versions. In doing so, there's an implicit admission that "objective truth" in history may be impossible to reach, and the reader feels much more confident of his own position as the final arbiter in believing or rejecting his version of history. Thucydides, on the other hand, may have a reputation of being the "objective reporter," but there's a very slick-storyteller aspect to him when he invents extremely elaborate fictitious speeches and tries to reassure the reader that while they're not true word-for-word, the general theme or content is true. And overall, Thucydides tries so hard to persuade you that his interpretation of the Peloponnesian War is correct that once you become aware of it, you can't help but feel like he's more of an ideologue than some objective historian (more on this at the end of my post). There's a lot of scholarly analysis on such differences between Herodotus and Thucydides that get deeper at this question of who was really more truthful, but the point is, you shouldn't so easily peg Herodotus as the "father of lies." Hell, that quote is actually from Plutarch's On the Malice of Herodotus, which is quite a rabid polemic that may have been written because Plutarch, as a butthurt-Boetian, was incensed by how Boetians came off in The Histories. Then again, I gotta admit that whereas I first heard of Herodotus as a kid, I only heard of Thucydides much later towards the end of my teenage years. So maybe this whole revisionist spirit of defending Herodotus is unnecessary if Thucydides still registers only a tiny blip, if at all, for most people who couldn't care less about history.
With that introduction out of the way, let's get to meat of this post: historical forces. To borrow Ibn Khaldun's idea, this would fall under "inner history," the writing of which distinguishes a true historian from mere recorders of history. That is to say, a true historian writes on the How and Why of history rather than the What. Now unlike Ibn Khaldun who offers ʿasabiyyah as a major historical force, Herodotus never explicitly states some some grand theory of how history proceeds. And because of this, I never really thought about if he even implied one in The Histories. But back in January, I read J.E. Lendon's Song of Wrath (I've actually been meaning to write a post on it for some time, but I kept getting stuck because I didn't want to just write a summary). I felt quite foolish after reading it because Lendon made me realize that I'd utterly forgotten to be aware of the cultural context of ancient Greece when reading Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. And it's not surprising that I and many others did so. Thucydides' theory of power politics is so seductively modern and popular media's portrayal of ancient Greece emphasizes their rationality and cleverness so much. Seriously, if you hear "ancient Greece," are you telling me you don't immediately imagine some bearded philosopher in a toga? As a result, ancient Greece has somehow become warped into this anachronistic culture that is more a reflection of us than of the actual ancient Greeks. To give another example, if I mention veiled women or honour killings, you don't think of the ancient Greeks (be honest, you were imagining some brown person, right?). But the idea of honour was so central to the ancient Greek weltanschauung that if you really account for it, the idea that the ancient Greeks were "just like us!" seems ridiculous. This may seem obvious if you've read a lot of ancient Greek poems and plays, many of whose themes revolve around the concept of honour, but I do want to emphasize this before getting back to Herodotus.
Incidentally, if you're curious on ancient Greek practice of veiling women, read
Aphrodite's Tortoise: The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece.
Returning to Herodotus, have you ever questioned how The Histories is told? At the very beginning, he states: 
This is the showing forth of the Inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassos so that neither the deeds of men may be forgotten by lapse of time, nor the works great and marvellous, which have been produced some by Hellenes and some by Barbarians, may lose their renown; and especially [emphasis added] that the causes may be remembered for which these waged war with one another.
The key part is that last bit. The bit about the causes that brought Greeks and barbarians to war, referring to the Greco-Persian War which serves as the real meat of The Histories. Granted, Herodotus seems to have diverse interests and isn't afraid to talk about customs of foreign cultures and other things, but consider this. If you were writing a history book about the Greco-Persian Wars, how would you begin it? You'd probably begin by talking about who the Greeks and Persians were, and examining their early relations, such as during the Ionian Revolt which served as an immediate cause to the war. Now how does Herodotus begin his work? He starts by talking about some incident in which the Phoenicians abduct women of Argos. And this event is placed so far back into the mists of time that it even precedes the Trojan War! Keep in mind that the ancient Greeks considered the Trojan War as sort of a dividing line between the Ages of Myth and Ages of Man. It's one thing for Herodotus to think there's nothing strange with beginning his book on the Greco-Persian War before the Persians were even historically relevant, since to the Greeks, Persians and other non-Greeks were really more or less the same; they were literally all barbarians as long as they didn't speak Greek. Accordingly, in Herodotus' view, he's not writing about the Greco-Persian War, which is not how he named it, but the great war between Hellenes and Barbarians. However, it's a completely different issue if Herodotus thinks it's all hunky-dory to begin his book with an incident that's pulled back from a mythical age. Just imagine if you were reading a history book about the causes of the Opium War and the author thought that Marco Polo's travels to Yuan-China was a highly appropriate and relevant starting point to understand how Europeans came to wage war against China. Obviously, this won't fly from our modern perspective, but the fact that Herodotus offers no real explanation of why he's beginning his grand narrative of the Greco-Persian war with such an ancient incident implies that this choice made perfect sense to his intended audience. 
Candaules, the inspiration to many NTR-doujins.
For the ancient Greek readers of The Histories, they likely weren't wondering, "What the hell do the ancient Phoenicians snatching some Greek 'booty' or the Trojan War have to do with the Persians attacking us in the reign of Darius and Xerxes (5th century BC)?" They would have immediately understood that Herodotus was painting a cycle of vengeance for honour. The tit-for-tat chain of hostilities between the Greeks and the Barbarians wasn't just fluff to pad out The Histories (who the hell would even pad out the beginning of a book?). It was Herodotus reinforcing the ancient Greek worldview that honour was a fundamental historical force shaping the course of human events. As such, it's no surprise that all the stuff in The Histories preceding the first Persian invasion of Greece is imbued with this cycle of honour and dishonour. For instance, consider how Herodotus narrates the Kingdom of Lydia's history. Candaules, the last king of the Heraclid dynasty, dishonours his wife Nyssia by showing her naked body to his retainer Gyges. Nyssia, furious, carries out her revenge by having Gyges murder Candaules. However, since Gyges overstepped his bounds by also establishing his own dynasty, the Oracle of Delphi predicts that the Heraclids will have their revenge against the sons of Gyges five generations later which indeed comes true (no shit, the Oracle predicted it). 
Harpagus eating his own son, from Historie v1 p182
Another example is the rise and fall of Cyrus. The Median king Astyages orders his general, Harpagus, to kill the baby Cyrus, whom Astyages feared would replace him as king as foretold by his dream. Harpagus, harbouring strong distaste for such a dishonourable act, does not kill the baby and years later when Astyages finds out the truth, he kills Harpagus' son and tricks Harpagus into eating the flesh of his own son. This serves as the cause for Harpagus' later betrayal of Astyages by siding with Cyrus' army in the fateful battle that brings down the Median kingdom. Cyrus, having become king, is portrayed as an honourable man for the most part, but his fall comes when he commits the dishonourable act of tricking the Massagetae nomads with wine and then massacring them when drunk. Tomyris, the Massagetae queen, then has her revenge by killing Cyrus in battle and dishonouring his corpse. Although Herodotus himself admits that there were numerous tales of how Cyrus had died, perhaps the fact this version neatly fits into Herodotus' grand theme that history is shaped by vengeance for honour explains why he purposely chose to tell only this version. These are just a few of the more famous examples. A closer reading will reveal a ton of other instances all operating under this logic of the cause and effect of honour and dishonour.
Now what of the historical forces imagined by Thucydides? "The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable." This famous line has since become the foundation of political realism. Any talk or essay giving you an overview of the Peloponnesian War will quote you Thucydides explanation about Sparta's fear of Athens' rising power. The part that they don't quote, however, is the sentence that immediately precedes that statement. "The real cause, however, I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight." That's the Richard Crawley translation and here's the Benjamin Jowett translation: "The real though unavowed cause I believe to have been the growth of the Athenian power, which terrified the Lacedaemonians and forced them into war." Formally most kept out of sight? Unavowed? Notice something? This is Thucydides basically admitting that most Greeks of his time didn't think about the war's cause in terms of rising and declining powers. But because Thucydides' language of power-politics is so widely ingrained in our thought, we've grown accustomed to not questioning it. Hence, we still have all the hubbub about the infamous Thucydides trap in political roundtable discussions even though the very existence of a Thucydides trap is highly contested (read this article for the famous rebuttal by Arthur Waldron). For historians, it's important to try and understand past events not simply according to our modern-day logic, but that of the people who actually lived through them. This is really what Lendon's Song of Wrath is all about. It's a very persuasive attempt to show how the first phase of the Peloponnesian War actually ran on the logic of Greek honour. 
Fucking read this shit if you consider yourself a fan of military history.
With this in mind, Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War feels very much an antithesis to the kind of history presented by Herodotus' The Histories. Not just because of some simplistic notion that Herodotus liked telling fanciful lies while Thucydides pioneered the method of the objective historian. Both were interested in reinforcing a view of what shapes human events. For Herodotus, this was the culture of honour and vengeance cycles that most ancient Greeks thought was an essential aspect to life. For Thucydides, it was the more modern-sounding logic of power. As I said before, Herodotus began his work with the Phoenicians abducting Greek women to show how the vengeance cycle between Greeks and Barbarians was initiated. But how does Thucydides begin his work? He begins by analyzing the earliest history of Greeks, including even the Trojan War, before finally getting to the Peloponnesian War. This may seem baffling at first, but remember that Thucydides theory of power-politics wasn't something that his intended audience would have found obvious or even real. He needed to first convince them that there was definitely something real to how raw power causes conflict, and he does this by showing how organized violence arose in the mists of time. Thus he writes in Book 1.2, "For the productiveness of the land increased the power of individuals; this in turn was a source of quarrels by which communities were ruined, while at the same time they were more exposed to attacks from without." Even more revealing is how he explains the Trojan War. Now remember that literally every ancient Greek would have known about at least one version about that war. They would have attributed its origins to the Gods or Paris dishonouring Menelaus by abducting his wife Paris. Thucydides, then, seems nearly blasphemous in his analysis of that war's origin purely in terms of power-politics. He even goes so far as to say, "I am inclined to think that Agamemnon succeeded in collecting the expedition, not because the suitors of Helen had bound themselves by oath to Tyndareus, but because he was the most powerful king of his time. . . the other princes followed him, not from good-will, but from fear." It's for this reason that you can't just label Thucydides as some objective historian. His entire goal is to sell to you that his theory has real, substantive explanatory power for historical events! 
This is what I meant when I previously said Thucydides can be one slick son-of-a-bitch. Very often, the fictitious speeches he inserts is carefully designed to reinforce this theme of power as the true mover of history. Consider the rhetoric when the Athenians debate what to do with Mytilene after its failed revolt against Athenian hegemony in Book 3.37. Both Cleon, who argues that the Mytilene men should be killed and their women and children enslaved, and Diodotus, who argues for Athens to show clemency, make their case by analyzing the best way that Athens can preserve its power. Honour doesn't figure as a serious argument. In fact, Diodotus outright states, "But we are not in a court of justice, but in a political assembly; and the question is not justice, but how to make the Mytilenians useful to Athens." When the infamous Melian dialogue occurs later in the book (see above video for a modern re-enactment), again, Thucydides' fictitious speeches are designed to convince you that the Athenians are motivated entirely on the cold geopolitical logic of power. Thucydides, at the beginning of his work, made a snide jab at the likes of Herodotus by writing that Thucydides' own work was "not distrubed either by the verses of a poet displaying the exaggeration of his craft, or by the composition of the chroniclers that are attractive at truth's expense." But when you see how debates like those over Mytilene or Melos' fates are presented, you'll realize that Thucydides is guilty of the same crime. Hence, when he mentions "the absence of romance in my history," you shouldn't equate his disavowal of romanticism with pure objectivity. He's simply replacing a romantic view of history, moving in response to honour and dishonour, to one that's moved by the decidedly unromantic theory of power.

Well, that's all I have to say on Herodotus and Thucydides for now. If this post persuades some of you to read The Histories, History of the Peloponnesian War, or Song of Wrath,  (maybe even all 3?), then I guess it's mission accomplished. For the record, I will say I like Thucydides more than I like Herodotus.


  1. "For Herodotus, it was the more modern-sounding logic of power." Pretty sure you meant Thucydides there.

    1. Woops. thanks for pointing that out.

  2. Great read, thanks for your thoughts on the matter.

  3. I don't mean to bother you, but when can we expect more manga stuff?

  4. Combination of Thoughts on History and manga is a winning combination. Thank you.