Only a Madman Laughs at the Culture of Others

The Legacy of Herodotus

The opening sentence of Herodotus’ Histories, which recount the wars fought between Greece and Persia in the early fifth century B.C., unrolls like a long musical phrase rising to its Homeric crescendo and then dying away into momentary quiet:

Herodotus of Halicarnassus here publishes the results of his research, in order that the actions performed by men may not fade over time, nor the great and wonderful deeds, which both the Greeks and barbarians have displayed, lack renown, and, along with all other relevant matters, the cause that drove them to wage war on each other.   

We are so used to hearing Herodotus called “the father of history” after Cicero’s clever formula (On the Laws 1.1.5) that it has become common to take him for a credulous old fuddy-duddy whose history is full of amusing and delightful stories spun from a kernel of dubious factual content.  He certainly is the father of history, though his credulity has been vastly overstated.  We have no evidence to suggest that any of his predecessors in eastern Mediterranean history, ethnography, or geography matched the enormous scope of his inquiries into the origins and course of the Greco-Persian wars.  However, he is also the father of Western literary prose.  The Histories are the first complete surviving work of artistic prose, one that exercised a profound...

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