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Volume 8, Issue 3: Hisoria

The Possession for All Time

Cris Schlect

With good reason, Herodotus of Halicarnassus has been called the Marco Polo of antiquity. He spent the better part of his life, some 2,500 years ago, traveling away from his home, a small city on the south-Aegean coast of Asia Minor. He knew the Aegean region well and probably visited Athensthen in its -- Golden Age -- more than once. He went as far west as Italy; southward, he sailed the Nile clear to Assuan. His eastward travels took him to Babylon and Susa. To the north he sailed the Black Sea and up the rivers that flow into it, and he travelled through Thrace and Macedonia. He learned the customs and the past of the people he met, and he recorded what he learned.

Ancient scribes and librarians copied his writings on scrolls of papyrus. When they were rolled, visible on the outside of the papyrus -- serving the purpose of titles on our modern day book covers -- was the following inscription: HRODOTOU ALIKARNHSSEOS ISTORIHS. These are the first three words of the text, which one scholar translates, "Herodotus of Halicarnassus: Researches." Before Herodotus, the Greek word historia, here rendered "researches," was a general term that could refer to any inquiry into any matter. But because of Herodotus's prominence, its meaning became much more specialized. History, as the term has come to be understood, was born: a systematic inquiry into past events and their relations to one another. One lexicographer notes that the meaning added to this term by Herodotus's influence "marks a literary revolution."[1]
Thus Herodotus is deemed "the father of historiography." Indeed, for he was among the first who sought to record events the way they actually transpired and to critically weigh his sources of information. Others would follow in his steps: Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Livy, Tacitus, to name but a few, as well as such great biographers as Suetonius, Diogenes Laertius, and especially Plutarch. What survives from these ancient sources supplies us with most of our knowledge of antiquity, and their writings are among the greatest works of Western literature. From Herodotus's day forward, the value of historical study has been noted by all educated Westerners, and historical study has held a firm place in our thought ever since.
Herodotus lived during the height of classical Greek civilization. Ancient tradition places his birth at 484 B.C (e.g., vii.233) and makes an observation that would have been obsolete in 413 B.C. (ix.73). Thus the completion of his work, and likely his death, probably occurred between these years.
Herodotus is great not only because he is the father of historiography, but because of the events he recorded and the manner in which he researched and recorded them. He says that he writes "in order that the memory of the past may not be blotted out from among men by time and that great and marvelous deeds done by Greeks and foreigners and especially the reason why they warred against each other may not lack renown" (i.1).[2] Thus his purpose: to chronicle the Persian Wars, along with the events leading to the conflict.
The Persian Wars were essentially two great Persian campaigns into Greece. In the first, in 490 B.C., King Darius I sailed an invading force of 600 ships across the Aegean Sea and landed at Marathon, about twenty miles northeast of Athens. The outnumbered Athenians met them at Marathon and startled them with the first organized infantry charge on record. Darius retreated to Persia.
The second campaign was led a decade later by Darius's son and successor, Xerxes, the probable husband of the Bible's Esther. Xerxes marched a host of 1.7 million men (!) around the north Aegean to attack Greece. Whole towns were devastated when the army passed through peaceably just to take in a meal.
Xerxes met his first opposition in a mere few hundred Spartans at Ther-mopylae. They nearly held off his immense army. Continuing southward, Xerxes marched unopposed into Athens and burned the city. The Athenians had evacuated to Salamis island, believing that a sea-fight was their last hope. Xerxes's armada sailed out against them, having a four-to-one advantage. But Athenian strategy, prowess, and resolve won the day. The defeated Xerxes limped back to Persia. The Greeks would not become Persian subjects.
Many speculators have wondered how the world might be different today if Hitler's Germany had won the Second World War. But what if Persia had conquered Greece in 480 B.C.? Athens wouldn't have experienced its Golden Age. Alexander the Great wouldn't have spread Greek culture throughout the known world. The Romans wouldn't have had Greek shoulders to stand on.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus chronicled the rise of Persia to a preeminence the world had never before witnessed. And of all Persia's wars of conquest, Herodotus tells of the greatest, which ended in failure. Athens saved Greece, he said. Indeed it did. In doing so it saved civilization as we know it.

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