Texas UP (2020) h/b 360pp £45 (ISBN 9781477318324)
Halicarnassus was on the cusp of the Persian Empire, and so its famous son Herodotus was perfectly placed to look both east and west in asking why the Greeks and Persians went to war with each other, why the Persians wanted to expand west in the first place, and why it was Greece that brought them failure and defeat when so many others had fallen before the Persian sword. Historie is a series of ‘inquiries’, and Herodotus constantly makes us see the complex nature of events, focalising narratives in his speeches, showing us that what people thought was true is interesting even when he thinks them mistaken (p. 127).
In the course of this inspiring book, P. takes us through many of the factors which all played a part in answering that deceptively simple opening question. Was Greek success down to Greek love of freedom which gave them more to fight for? Or a case of Greek toughies fighting against effete Persians? Persians, he tells us, were prone to brutality, Greeks to factionalism: but these generalisations ‘totter’ (p. 211), and rightly so as any history which was written solely on stereotypical racial lines would be pretty thin gruel. Herodotus enjoys the paradox that the Greeks’ worst qualities of disunity end up producing victory (pp. 172-3), but P. shows us how other factors (gods, Persian attire, Themistocles’ strategy, naval discipline, physical toughness etc.) also played their part, each one a contributory factor, but none of them clinching the argument. On rare occasions the historian can compare behaviour over time, such as his account (5.78) of Athenian behaviour before and after the expulsion of the Pisistratids (p. 164). Above all, P. reminds us many times in this book, events cannot be predicted, but they might be explained.
Herodotus applies sound rational arguments to sift out bogus answers to such scientific questions as the flooding of the Nile, always ‘showing his working’ and resisting the temptation to arm-twist the reader into buying any simple explanation. Herodotus did not write in a vacuum, of course, and P. discusses the historian’s interaction with other writers—Hecataeus, Homer, tragedy etc.—but looks with especial interest at the Hippocratic corpus (see especially pp. 80-101), where we see similar uses of inference, counterfactual logic and the quest to distinguish cause from coincidence in dealing with the human body as we do with the body politic. The historian and the medical writers alike avoided sweeping generalisations and showed that research is a matter of sifting through ‘similarities and differences’ and uncovering patterns which may (or may not) have explanatory force. History and medicine both need to attend to the distinctions between ‘custom’ (nomos) and ‘nature’ (physis)—between what is universal and innate from what is specific and ephemeral. P. well uses the celebrated remark of Anaxagoras, that ‘the evident phenomena are a sign of what is unclear’ (p. 2): in other words, uses your eyes and your brain to look behind appearances to discern the underlying reality. Competing explanations are set side by side to be true to the ‘polyphony that will always be there when different observers look at complex events from different perspectives’ (p. 233). Just like modern doctors, the historian ‘takes a history’ from the political patient and is aware that all diagnoses are provisional and can only be based on empirical evidence and comparative judgement.
Answering the question ‘why?’ involves hard thinking, and P. is good on the use of counterfactual logic to establish what happened from what might have happened (but did not). Herodotus ‘reconstructs the thinking’ of the long dead with plausible lines of reasoning: Histiaeus (6.30.1: p. 44) was executed at once because (Herodotus suspects) Artaphrenes and Harpagos were worried that if they let him go to Susa then Darius would forgive him for his earlier services—rather like the execution of Messalina in Tacitus (Annals 11.37), or the argument about whether Menelaus should take Helen back in Euripides Troades (pp. 73-5). This argument both explains the event and also fleshes out the characterisation of the king. There are some judicious remarks here on the legal ‘but for’ line of argument, along with some tantalising counterfactuals (of the ‘what if Catherine of Aragon had had a son by Henry?’ type). Is there scope for determinism in history? Was the fall of the Berlin Wall inevitable rather than the free choice of free people? P. manages to tread lightly and clearly through these philosophical issues without once mentioning Hegel or Marx and (in the manner of Herodotus himself) keeps his thinking firmly on the ground. Total predictability, P. reminds us, would give the kiss of death to what Herodotus calls ‘wondrous events’ (erga thōmasta 1.1).
‘Blame’ is a thorny area here, and P. brings in (pp.69-70) Antiphon’s Tetralogies, Gorgias’ flamboyant Helen and Euripides’ dramatisation of similar issues in Trojan Women—where Hecuba uses (891-3) the same line of argument as Artaphrenes and Harpagos did at 6.30.1 (and which was a standard part of the tale as Aristophanes’ Lysistrata 155-6 makes clear). ‘Who is to blame?’ rarely ends up with a single culprit, and the historian can elicit sympathy for the delusions which drive a Candaules or a Cleomenes (6.75-84: p. 160) to their demise. Different people offered different explanations for Cleomenes’ madness: all of them claimed that it was to punish his impiety (except the Spartans, who would say that, wouldn’t they?), and it is even possible that the impiety could be seen as an early symptom of the derangement itself. ‘[Herodotus] is more concerned to analyze, to investigate, and to explain than to praise or to blame, and strengths and faults exist and emerge side by side’ (p. 88).
Herodotus is not out to sling mud, then, and neither is he out to titillate the readers. He had plenty of chances to do that in his ‘Persian tales’ but gave us little of the exotic world of (say) the 1001 Nights. The account of Candaules’ wife, for instance, offers no soft-focus details of maids, eunuchs and chamberlains: she ‘just comes in, takes her clothes off, and puts them on a chair. We might be in a suburban apartment’ (p.130), a far cry from the biblical Book of Esther with its lavish account of the acquisition and preparation of Xerxes’ girls. The topsy-turvy world of Egypt is given full play, but the historian also shows how the Egyptian king Proteus ends up maintaining Greek values more faithfully than the Greeks themselves (p. 36). There is a strong contrast of Greek ‘freedom of speech’ and Persian tongue-tied inhibition in the face of the Great King—see for instance the furious rebuke which Xerxes gives to his uncle Artabanus who is urging restraint (7.12)—but we also see that kings are themselves prisoners of history (p. 200) who have to live up to their ancestors (p. 141) and are embarrassed by u-turns (p. 155). Herodotus makes us leave our conceptual comfort-zones: in Darius’ seminar on how to dispose of dead fathers (3.38). ‘Greek readerly smugness is firmly put in its place’ (p. 143). ‘National nature may be one thing, and it matters: human nature is something bigger’ says P. wisely, and compares the ways the Greeks and Trojans in the Iliad begin the poem as polar opposites and end up sharing similar feelings of familial grief.
P. is judicious in his assessment of the role of the gods (pp. 146-162). It is plain that people ascribed some agency to the gods, but equally plain that one cannot directly ascertain divine motives. Oracles are important, but predicting the future is not the same as making things happen, which all suits Herodotus’ ‘distinctive diffidence’ (p.169). Gods provide one avenue of explanation, but their mercurial behaviour resists being predictable.
There are some fascinating pages on political theories of freedom and P. gently forces us to reject any simple ‘message’ in this history. ‘Equality of speech’ (isegorie) has its attractions but can lead to a mess of indecision as in the Salamis debate (8.58-64); while Persian submission to central management may enforce cohesion but also misses many a trick. Liberty can become licence, ‘freedom from’ (good) becomes ‘freedom to do what one wants’ (not good), which can result in imperialism (p. 189). Herodotus was alive to the dangers of what J.S. Mill was later to call the ‘tyranny of the majority’ (p. 192ff) and avoids using the word demokratia to describe early moves towards democracy such as those of Cleisthenes: P. rightly points out that not all his audience would be sympathetic to democracy.
P. gives us a thorough account (pp. 218-222) of places where Herodotus may be alluding to later events, showing that ‘the past still matters’ (p. 224) but also using the familiar to explain the unfamiliar, which all makes the history (and the historian) more believable and more ‘relevant’: contemporaries ‘must have wondered if Persia might still play a role in the Greek fighting. If so, they were right’ (p. 230). There may also (P. suggests) be a noblesse oblige moral implicit in there too: people who were saviours of Greece in the past ought not to be bullying their neighbours now (p. 227).
The book is impeccably produced and a credit both to its author and to the University of Texas Press who have made this book available (in hardback) at such a reasonable price without cutting corners on quality. The copy-editing is excellent (I spotted only three typos, none of them major), and there are indexes of passages in Herodotus and in other writers as well as a general index. One third of the book is taken up with endnotes and 27 pages of bibliography which take the reader into the full details of the massive scholarly investigations behind these fluent pages. Greek is quoted (and translated) where the phraseology is important but extended passages are usually quoted only in English (e.g. Themistocles’ speech at 8.60: pp. 170-171). P.’s infectious enthusiasm and raconteurish panache makes him the ideal scholar to write about this most enthusiastic raconteur amongst historians. P. manages to be almost as eye-opening, mind-expanding and entertaining as his subject, and Herodotus would surely be highly satisfied if he were here to read it.