Here is the long and storied background to how this brick of a book has been in my possession, unread, for 20 years: I picked up The Histories from the sale rack at A&B sound when I was a romantic undergrad student, smitten by Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, in which The Histories plays a supporting role (it is the book that Ralph Fiennes’ character carries with him everywhere and turns into a journal, pasting in paintings that Kirstin Scott Thompson’s character made of the petroglyphs in the Cave of Swimmers). I keep meaning to read it, and even made several attempted starts, but The Histories does not make for easy casual reading.
The Histories dates to 426-415 BCE, and is essentially the first history book. The Greek author Herodotus is primarily focused on telling the story of the Persian Wars between the Greek city states and the Persian Empire under Xerxes, but I use ‘primarily’ very loosely here. Herodotus is interested in the unusual and the interesting, as well as the background that brought the Greeks and Persians to a place of conflict. This means that he traces the rise of the Persian empire, we get side stories about just about everything that catches his eye- unscrupulous kings, Egyptian customs, family squabbles, etc. Eventually we get to the stories about the Persian war that are still somewhat cultural background knowledge: the battle of marathon, from which we get the modern marathon race, the battle of Thermopylae where 300 Spartans knowingly fought to the death to prevent as many Persians as possible from getting through the pass into Greece (rekindled in public consciousness with the 2006 Gerard Butler movie 300), the naval battle at Salamis and the final land battle at Platea (these last two I was much less familiar with, although the word ‘Salamis’ sounded familiar).
The translated version I read included a number of resources that I found very useful: a list of the dynasties for the big players (Persia, Sparta, Egypt, etc.); a chronology to place the events Herodotus describes into a more academically vetted timeline; an introduction to place Herodotus and his background into context (writing after/responding to Homer, likely the same person although unlikely to have traveled to all the places he describes, etc.); maps of Greece, Egypt and eastern Mediterranean and footnotes that were really helpful (while I read I would leave my bookmark at the right footnote section so I could flip back and forth).
Despite all of these resources, this was not an easy read- I had to read in the morning when I was wide awake, I often felt lost as I didn’t have enough context for what Herodotus was describing (he is writing to an audience familiar with things like oracles and divine intervention). I spent a lot of time googling where things were taking place (the maps weren’t as detailed or inclusive as I wanted), if we had statues to tell us what a number of these famous kings looked like, whether certain events actually occurred as he alleged, etc. (ie: did Xerxes actually cut a canal through a Greek peninsula? Archaeologists now say yes).
At the end of the day I am glad I read this, but I’m not sure how much knowledge I feel like I’ve gained. I have more general knowledge of the pre-biblical Mediterranean world, and am grateful we have Herodotus first hand observations/histories to flesh out our understanding, but I also feel like he is such an unreliable and tangent-prone narrator that I would need to read a modern history book to feel like I really understand the motives or machinations of the Persian Wars. On the plus side: reading this did inspire an interest in learning more, shoring up this hesitant knowledge and also visiting all these smaller, lesser known places, largely in mainland Greece. Atlas Obscura has a ‘lesser known Greece’ trip that looks just about perfect…
Counting The Histories for the “Mythic” cbr13bingo square only because I’m saving “White Whale” for another entry.