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  • Giant gold-digging ants,

  • a furious king who orders the sea to be whipped 300 times,

  • and a dolphin that saves a famous poet from drowning.

  • These are just some of the stories from The Histories by Herodotus,

  • an Ancient Greek writer from the 5th century BCE.

  • Not all the events in the text may have happened

  • exactly as Herodotus reported them,

  • but this work revolutionized the way the past was recorded.

  • Before Herodotus, the past was documented as a list of events

  • with little or no attempt to explain their causes

  • beyond accepting things as the will of the gods.

  • Herodotus wanted a deeper, more rational understanding,

  • so he took a new approach:

  • looking at events from both sides to understand the reasons for them.

  • Though he was Greek, Herodotus's hometown of Halicarnassus

  • was part of the Persian Empire.

  • He grew up during a series of wars between the powerful Persians

  • and the smaller Greeks,

  • and decided to find out all he could about the subject.

  • In Herodotus's telling, the Persian Wars began in 499 BCE,

  • when the Athenians assisted a rebellion by Greeks living under Persian rule.

  • In 490, the Persian King, Darius, sent his army to take revenge on Athens.

  • But at the Battle of Marathon, the Athenians won an unexpected victory.

  • Ten years later, the Persians returned, planning to conquer the whole of Greece

  • under the leadership of Darius's son, Xerxes.

  • According to Herodotus, when Xerxes arrived,

  • his million man army was initially opposed by a Greek force

  • led by 300 Spartans at the mountain pass of Thermopylae.

  • At great cost to the Persians,

  • the Spartans and their king, Leonidas, were killed.

  • This heroic defeat has been an inspiration to underdogs ever since.

  • A few weeks later, the Greek navy tricked the Persian fleet

  • into fighting in a narrow sea channel near Athens.

  • The Persians were defeated and Xerxes fled, never to return.

  • To explain how these wars broke out and why the Greeks triumphed,

  • Herodotus collected stories from all around the Mediterranean.

  • He recorded the achievements of both Greeks and non-Greeks

  • before they were lost to the passage of time.

  • The Histories opens with the famous sentence:

  • "Herodotus, of Halicarnassus, here displays his inquiries."

  • By framing the book as aninquiry,”

  • Herodotus allowed it to contain many different stories,

  • some serious, others less so.

  • He recorded the internal debates of the Persian court

  • but also tales of Egyptian flying snakes

  • and practical advice on how to catch a crocodile.

  • The Greek word for this method of research is "autopsy,"

  • meaning "seeing for oneself."

  • Herodotus was the first writer to examine the past

  • by combining the different kinds of evidence he collected:

  • opsis, or eyewitness accounts,

  • akoe, or hearsay,

  • and ta legomena, or tradition.

  • He then used gnome, or reason,

  • to reach conclusions about what actually happened.

  • Many of the book's early readers were actually listeners.

  • The Histories was originally written in 28 sections,

  • each of which took about four hours to read aloud.

  • As the Greeks increased in influence and power,

  • Herodotus's writing and the idea of history spread across the Mediterranean.

  • As the first proper historian, Herodotus wasn't perfect.

  • On occasions, he favored the Greeks over the Persians

  • and was too quick to believe some of the stories that he heard,

  • which made for inaccuracies.

  • However, modern evidence has actually explained

  • some of his apparently extreme claims.

  • For instance, there's a species of marmot in the Himalayas

  • that spreads gold dust while digging.

  • The ancient Persian word for marmot is quite close to the word for ant,

  • so Herodotus may have just fallen prey to a translation error.

  • All in all, for someone who was writing in an entirely new style,

  • Herodotus did remarkably well.

  • History, right down to the present day, has always suffered from the partiality

  • and mistakes of historians.

  • Herodotus's method and creativity earned him the title

  • that the Roman author Cicero gave him several hundred years later:

  • "The Father of History."

Giant gold-digging ants,

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    April Lu posted on 2018/12/11
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