Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book #52 - The Histories (Herodotus)

These kids today I swear...they throw around terms like "old school" when referring to things that are from 2007.  Well screw that..."The Histories" by Herodotus was written sometime around 450-420 BC.  Now THAT'S frickin' old school.  In fact, Herodotus is often referred to as "The Father of History" since his is the first work of western history that we have, and one that he extensively researched and systematically arranged.  Now, by research I mean he traveled all around the ancient world, talked to everyone he could corner in a bar, and wrote down their stories.  Which leads me to wonder...what did he write stuff down on?  Paper?  Papyrus?  Did he use a pen?  Did he carry all his notes around with him in a backpack?  Because he was so old school that he didn't have a MacBook, or even a Commodore 64 running WordPerfect, on which to take notes.  In fact, this was before people made notebooks, or index cards.  So the practical aspects of writing a history like this in 450 BC are troubling to ponder.  Unless he just had one helluva freaking amazing memory.  But who let's just drink our whiskey and get on with it.

"The Histories" chronicles the story of the rise of the Persian Empire and the invasion of Greece by Persia.  The Greeks heroically, and rather remarkably, won the war against the huge Persian armies which vastly outnumbered them.  Herodotus opens the book with these lines:
Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus.  The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks...
How poignant is that: "To prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time"?  That's depressing when you think about it, especially when it comes to our own lives.  All the traces of our pain and heartache and joys and thrills and loves erased by time.  Crap, maybe I need to drink some more whiskey to help that process along.  Hold on...ahhh, better.  Anyway, Herodotus did a good job at meeting his objective because he is the sole source for much of the history and incidents he recounts.  He did indeed prevent the memory of these things from being erased by time.  Good going, dude!

As one starts reading "The Histories" it quickly becomes clear that Herodotus's work is not what would today be called a history book.  For one thing, Herodotus is much more anecdotal.  While the book does recount the origins and history of the conflict between the Greeks and Persians, it's not a dry recounting of a chronology.  Instead the book is laden with stories about individuals and events, many of which are fun and interesting to read, and some of which are probably not true (like the story of large ants that dig for gold). But they're fun to read anyway, so what the hell.  The second big trait of Herodotus's work is that he often goes off on long tangents that really digress from the narrative of the historic events.  The most notable of these is in Chapter 2, where he goes on and on about the customs, culture, and religion of the people of Egypt, whom the Persian Empire invaded before they turned their eyes to Greece.  These digressions are fun, and contain valuable anthropological and ethnographic information, but in our modern era of book editors and ADD drugs they are quite unexpected.

Herodotus chronicles the rise of the Persian Empire under its first great leader, Cyrus the Great.  One of Cyrus's early conquests was of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, whose leader was Croesus.  Croesus ruled from 560-546 BC, and was a very happy and wealthy man (hence the phrase, still in use, "as rich as Croesus").  I mean, this dude was so loaded with dough that Herodotus tells us he let his guests leave the palace with as much gold as they could carry, and Croesus didn't sweat that one bit.  Croesus conquers some Greek cities in Ionia, and then thinks that maybe he should invade Persia.  So like any good king back 2500 years ago, he first consults an oracle (no, not the software company) and asks whether he should invade Persia.  The oracle tells him that if he invades Persia he will destroy a great empire.  So Croesus gets all amped up, does a double fist pump, and proceeds to invade Persia.  Of course it turns out that the great empire he destroys is his own, as he loses his kingdom to Cyrus and becomes his prisoner.  (Lesson:  always think through carefully what an oracle tells you).  This story seems to be a parable of one of the great truisms of life, that good fortune is not immutable, and that happiness and good fortune and wealth can all disappear in an instant, depending on both chance and bad choices.  This theme of course is also mirrored in the defeat of the rich Persian empire at the hands of the poor Greeks.

Cyrus goes on to conquer other lands, including Babylon.  Then, when he is killed in battle, his son Cambyses takes over as head of the Persian Empire.  Cambyses invades Egypt, and it is here that Herodotus goes into the great diversion I've already mentioned, going on for pages and pages about the people and culture of Egypt.  It's interesting, and no doubt of great importance to ethnographers and anthropologists and Egyptologists, but some of the reading here was a bit dry for my tastes.  Nonetheless, the story picks up again when Cambyses conquers Egypt, and then according to Herodotus goes insane.  He tries to invade Ethiopia with disastrous consequences, kills a sacred Egyptian bull, kills his brother, and then marries and subsequently kills his sister.  Good times.  Eventually some folks have had enough, and conspirators kill Cambyses, and one of the conspirators, Darius, takes over as head of the Empire.

Under Darius, the Greeks living in Ionia revolt against Persian rule (500-494 BC).  Darius clamps down hard on the situation, but then is so pissed off at the Greek peoples that he decides to attack Athens and burn the place to the ground as retribution.  This lead to a showdown between the Greek and Persian armies at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC)...about 20,000 Persians vs. 10,000 Athenians and their allies.  The Greeks charged and routed the Persians, resulting in 6400 Persian dead and only 192 Greeks dead.  Go Athens...WOOOO!!!  The Persians scampered away, and Athens had saved all of Greece from Persian enslavement, paving the way for classical Greek civilization to flourish and give us Plato, Socrates, and all the other greats who formed the basis of western civilization.  

So now everyone lived happily ever after in peace and harmony, right?  Uh, well, no.  Turns out Darius was now even more pissed at the Greeks.  "#*$^$% Greek motherf#*$^#!!  I'll #&$% kill those @&*^$" he allegedly said, or something to that effect.  So he decides to put together a HUGE army and totally subjugate all of Greece.  Then he dies suddenly.  Ah well, so all is forgotten then and everyone lives happily ever after in peace and harmony, right?  Um, such luck.  His son, Xerxes, is even more of a hothead than his old man, and decides to put his father's plan into action.  So he takes his HUGE army, which Herodotus claims has 2,641,210 men in it (which seems like stretch to me, but whatever) and invades Greece.  But two things happen before the invasion which illuminate Xerxes's personality for us.  First, an old rich guy who's always been a loyal and trusted supporter of Xerxes comes to him and says "Xerxes, dude, my five sons are all in your army.  Do you mind if the oldest one stays home with me to look after the farm because I'm old and can't do it any more?  The other four sons will gladly fight and die for you".  Xerxes tells him to bring the eldest son to him, and when the father does Xerxes has the son killed and his body chopped in half, and makes his entire army march between the two halves of the son's body as they march out of Persia.  Lesson learned:  don't fuck with Xerxes before he's had his morning coffee...or afterwards either.  Then, Xerxes has his engineers build a bridge across the Hellespont, a narrow strait (located in modern day Turkey) that separates Asia from Europe.  So they build the bridge but then a storm comes along and destroys the bridge before the army can cross.  This does not sit well with Xerxes, so after chopping the engineers' heads off, he instructs his men to whip the waters of the Hellespont and then throw chains in the water to symbolically tell the Hellespont that it is his slave.  Now in those days, when there were Gods watching over everything, that was just not cool.  But that's Xerxes for you.  No one messes with him, consequences be damned.

Anyway, Xerxes has his fits and then his HUGE army invades Greece.  It's only the largest freaking army ever raised!  Greece is doomed, right?!?  And to make matters worse, many Greek city states said "Fuck it" and decided not to resist the Persians or help in the fight.  This pretty much left mostly Athens and Sparta to fight the Persians on their own.  Fortunately Sparta helped put together an alliance called the Hellenic League, with Athens, Sparta, and some other city states all agreeing to stop fighting one another and to pool their resources to fight the Persians.  They first met the Persian army head on at Thermopylae, a narrow pass in the mountains where the Persian army had to pass through to get to the rest of Greece.  About 6,000 Greek defenders were there to fight the several million Persians.  The Greeks had the high ground in defending the pass, so they had an almost impregnable position, but then most of the Greeks freaked out and ran away, leaving only a small ragtag defense lead by 300 Spartans and commanded by the Spartan king Leonidas.  Despite being hugely outnumbered, the Spartans and friends held the enemy at bay for two days.  But then on the third day, the traitor Ephialtes told the Persians of a pass through the mountains by which they could surround the Spartans.  Goddamn those traitors...they're always fucking things up!!  This lead to the downfall and defeat of the small Greek contingent.  Herodotus describes how the Greek defenders heroically fought with their swords, and then with their hands and teeth, until they were finally killed to the last man.  While this battle was a terrible defeat for the Greeks, it assumed legendary status almost immediately, and thus fired up the Greeks.  This battle sparked the legend of Spartan bravery, illustrated by a story Herodotus tells of the Spartan Dieneces, who when informed that the Persian archers were so numerous that their barrage of arrows would completely block out the sun, said "So much the better...then we shall fight our battle in the shade".  Years later, a memorial would be put at Thermopylae, with the famous epitaph "Oh stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we lie, obedient to their decrees".

Meanwhile the fighting raged elsewhere.  The Greeks fought the Persians to a partial victory at the naval battle of Artemisium, which happens at the same time as the Battle of Thermopylae.  With the Persian army advancing, Athens was evacuated and was then plundered by the Persians.  The Greek fleet withdrew to Salamis, and when it heard that the Acropolis in Athens had been sacked, many grew disheartened and decided to leave and just go and settle elsewhere.  But the Greek Themistocles persuaded others to stay and fight, leading to the decisive naval battle at Salamis.  The Greeks were outnumbered by the Persians (so typical), but since the battle was fought in a narrow strait, the large number of Persian ships made it difficult for the Persians to maneuver.  The result was that the Persian fleet was decimated.  Xerxes suddenly freaked out, and worried the Greeks would destroy his bridge across the Hellespont, stranding him and his army in Europe.  So like a little girl he turned and fled, leaving a smaller army under command of the general Mardonius to see if they could make a last ditch effort against the Greeks.  But the Spartans and the Athenians and the rest of the Hellenic League again pooled their efforts and defeated Mardonius at the Battles of Plataea and Mycale (479 BC), which happened on the same day (there's a lot of these same day battles in Herodotus...odd).  The Greeks decisively win both battles, and Mardonius is killed at Plataea, and the Persian threat to Greece is thus ended!  Yay!!  So everyone lived peacefully happily ever after, right?  Well, no, of course not...a generation later Athens and Sparta went to war with each other.  But that's not in Herodotus...that's chronicled in the work of Thucydides...also on my "to be read" list.  And that's a story for another day.

The work ends curiously.  First, back in Persia Xerxes attempts to seduce his brother's wife, and then his brother's daughter (the latter successfully).  This leads to the destruction of his brother's family.  Oops.  Herodotus does not mention it in his book, but Xerxes is eventually assassinated.  Then the book ends with a flashback to an anecdote about Cyrus the Great.  An adviser suggested to Cyrus the following (and I paraphrase):  "We're a big and powerful country now and can invade anyone we like.  Let's conquer a rich, fertile country where the living is easy, and then we can all move there instead of living in this Gods-forsaken desert".  Cyrus replies something like "Soft lands breed soft men", and says it is better to stay in a harsh land and rule rather than move to a soft and fertile land and be others' slaves.  Why does Herodotus end on this note?  This may be a warning to the Athenians, who had become very powerful after the Persian Wars and had somewhat of an empire of their own.  Or it may be a warning to the effect that happiness never lasts, and that even when people are in a good position they get restless and then want something better; but that can lead to something less happy than what they had in the first place and to their eventual downfall.  And that's pretty much what happened to Persia.  Don't let it happen to you.

I read part of this book when I was in college, but never finished it.  For anyone who has started this book and then put it down, I recommend picking it back up and seeing it through.  Reading it now has been an awesome and rewarding experience.  Sometimes we leave things uncompleted, through boredom or perhaps wanting something more captivating and fast-moving, sleek and sexy, easy and fertile.  But often it turns out that we didn’t fully realize what we had in our hands and tossed it casually aside because it was too much work, or took too much effort.  Tossing something aside because the initial thrill has gone, or because we’re distracted by something else that comes along, or because the going is not as easy as it was at first, is a good way to miss out on the best things in life.  Sometimes it pays to stick it out in the harsh lands and work on something that will stay with one for life, to struggle against its being erased by the inevitable passing of time.

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