The Long and Short of It

In 500 BC, Herodotus explained why he recorded the GrecoPersian Wars; Herodotus wanted to ensure that “the actions of people shall not fade with time, so that the great and admirable monuments produced by both Greeks and barbarians shall not go unrenowned, and, among other things, to set forth the reasons why they waged war on each other.” Herodotus’ work, The Histories, introduced his world to a new genre of writing — nominally (namely), history itself.

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Prior to Herodotus, fellow Greek authors such as Homer and Hesiod also recounted past exploits of men and women, heroes, armies, empires, and gods. The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, are more or less responsible for establishing the Greek genres of myth and epic poetry: here, mortal and divine desires interact and antagonize each other, and the fates of civilizations are wagered across a narrative arc. Herodotus, however, was the first author to present a work based solely upon historical research, instead of an inspired retelling of mythic events.

Compare Herodotus’ opening, quoted above, with The Iliad’s inaugural invocation of the Muses to “sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.” The facticity of history, it would appear, has no need of divine mediation, and it is this novelty of Herodotus’ scope, genre, and authorial intention that led Cicero to nominate him the “father of history.”

Yet The Histories also famously contains fantastic tales of winged snakes, men riding dolphins, multi-genital cattle, and a distant country with a sky made of feathers. Despite the difficulty that both ancient and modern readers have had with these tales, he is ultimately unconcerned with whether winged snakes actually existed, and more interested that people believed they did. Herodotus’ goal is to relate both the verifiable truths of his own country and the strange rumours of foreign regions.In this way, his work constitutes an ethnography of history in addition to, and an anthropology of, history.

Thucydides,who authored the History of the Peloponnesian War half a century after The Histories, took issue with Herodotus’ method of presenting factual and fantastic elements in parallel. He explicitly included only the most realistic of military and political events in his work, and his “scientific history” gained wide acclaim from contemporaries and subsequent thinkers alike. Modern, realpolitik thinkers, including Thomas Hobbes and Leo Strauss, especially liked his work. These thinkers emphasized the distance between their proclaimed two schools of history: the Thucydidean-inspired Plutarch dubs Herodotus the “father of lies,” contra Cicero’s more generous epithet a few generations prior.

The stakes in this debate transcend such trivialities as whether or not some part of the sky is actually made of feathers or even whether such an image deserves consideration alongside things that “actually happened.” Herodotus emphasizes that there are aspects of his reports he does not agree with, and encourages the reader to make up his or her own mind. The reports are worth reporting, not because of their value relative to what is real or true but if what is real is more a function of what is told than what has happened.

The Histories’ inclusion of mythic elements challenges us to consider what “truths” may be hidden by communicating “lies,” and what effect the structure of history writing has upon the imagination of a culture. What appears, at first, a dry methodological disagreement thus comes to represent a much larger question: what are we willing to believe is real, and how is the subject we constituted through the predicate believe?

Scott Lansdowne contributes regularly to Analogue. He is an expert in knots, foosball, and his favourite drink is a Flaming Lamborghini. He lives in Victoria, BC.

Words by Scott Lansdowne, photography by Ilijc Albanese.