Herodotus: The Histories: Review

If you think that you are immortal and that you command an army which is also immortal, it will be pointless for me to declare my judgment; but if you have realized that you are a mortal man yourself and command others who are so likewise, then learn this first, that for the affairs of men there is a revolving wheel, and that this in its revolution never permits the same persons always to have good fortune.

This is, according to Herodotus, what the former King of Lydia, Croesus, said to Cyrus the Great as he prepared to march against the Massagetai, a tribe situated in modern Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. There was no one better prepared to make this case than Croesus. He was once a mighty king and wealthy beyond measure. Then he went to war to try and stop the Persian expansion and lost everything.

This wheel of fortune is the central theme in Herodotus’ The Histories, which is a landmark of Western civilization in more ways than one. It’s the first prose book that survives to the present. Previous texts were based on Homeric poetry in hexameter verse. The Histories is also the first historical study which postulates that there are known causes from the past which influence the events of the present. Herodotus was criticized by Thucydides and others for his heavy reference to the gods, but the former didn’t always believe those things, and the bigger picture is his outlining of an interconnected web of human (rather than divine) events that led to the rise of the Persian Empire and how this great power would ultimately war with the Greeks.

Herodotus goes on many digressions in The Histories which can be annoying to modern readers, but the saving grace of it is that he goes over the customs, histories, and lifestyles of people in a way that is sometimes illuminating and corroborated by modern evidence (as in the case of the Scythian peoples), and sometimes is entertaining for its own sake. Sometimes, however, the digressions are indeed annoying and feel like dead-ends, just to warn you.

Herodotus The Histories

Fortune’s Wheel

The Histories details how fortune and the qualities of men and nations meet to determine the fate of the world.

Though Cyrus met his end at the hands of a hostile force and his son, Cambyses, died early with no heirs, the Persian Empire reached even greater heights of prosperity during the reign of Darius. Having taken power after overthrowing a usurper (Herodotus’ take on these events is entertaining if probably inaccurate), Darius took the Persian Empire to its greatest territorial extent, conquering many of the Ionian Greeks and venturing across the Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles) and even over the Danube (which Herodotus calls the Ister).

However, even Darius met the limits of his power in Europe. His campaign into Scythia only gave him frustration and he got a bloody nose at the Battle of Marathon when attempting to subjugate Greece.

A few years later, Darius died, leaving to his son Xerxes a mighty empire, but one who’s myth of invincibility had been shattered. Xerxes vowed to finish what his father started, burn Athens to the ground, and conquer Greece, but received this warning from Mardonius when he held a council on the matter.

You see how God strikes with thunderbolts the creatures which stand above the rest and suffers them not to make a proud show; while those which are small do not provoke him to jealousy. You see also how he hurls his darts ever at those buildings which are the highest and those trees likewise for God is won’t to  cut short all those things which stand out above the rest. Thus also a numerous army is destroyed by one of few men in some such manner as this, namely when God having become jealous of them casts upon them panic or thundering from heaven. then they are destroyed utterly and not as their worth deserves, for God suffers not any other to have high thoughts save only himself.

Mardonius was spurned for this advice by others. Xerxes agreed with his detractors and invaded Greece. The first sign that things, indeed, might not be going according to plan was when the Persians had some trouble getting across the Hellespont and Xerxes felt the need to scourge the ocean in response, but that was nothing compared to things to come. It’s Herodotus who tells us the world famous story of the Battle of Thermopylae, with 300 Spartans (among others, including 700 Thespians that took part in the last stand) exchanging their lives for many thousands of Persians.

That wasn’t enough, though. The Persians marched passed Thermopylae and into Attica. The Histories goes into enough detail that you see the burning embers falling thick as snow throughout Athens, feel the pain of the last inhabitants trapped in the acropolis, and smell the ash blanketing the ground.

Yet, true to his narrative technique, Herodotus soon shows us that this is the height of the Persian’s fortunes. The wheel soon turns again. The Athenians had taken cover in Salamis behind the “wooden wall” of the ships of their navy. Determined to reduce them all to slavery, Xerxes followed them, but received warnings not to attack. It was here where the Persians met disaster. Xerxes’ fleet was destroyed and he returned to Asia. The Persians met defeat again at the Battles of Plataea and Mycale, ending the invasion.

Man and Fate

When recounting the Battle of Thermopylae, Herodotus famously says that “of human beings there are many, but men there are few.”

It’s in this battle and other parts of The Histories where we see that man’s fate is determined by his interactions with fortune and how good he is at being able to turn the wheel in his favor. Xerxes could have avoided his defeats had he not jumped onto the wheel when it was turning downward for the Persians, as Mardonius warned him.

While fortune turns on its own accord, The Histories is keen to remind us that men still have an influence on it. Are we smart enough to see when not to take stupid risks and thus incur the displeasure of fortune? Are we strong enough to fight off our enemies and seize fortune in this way?

The Histories abounds with examples, in the lives of nations and in those of individual men, of how to not only play the wheel of fortune, but to turn it as much as you’re able to.

Herodotus was a man who journeyed around his world, seeing what there was to be seen and taking in the stories of people and cultures. His adventure becomes yours and the lives of the famous people he outlines, in their fortunes and misfortunes alike, become your guideposts when you read The Histories.