In this episode of the Philosophy Hour at Literary Tales we pivot to an examination of the “Father of History” Herodotus and his infamous book
The Histories. Is there some unifying theme to this seemingly disparate work? Indeed there is. Historia, in Greek, means inquiry. And what Herodotus inquires about is the nature of human action. He finds, over the course of his work, that justice ( tisis) is the governing force of human action.
A bronze sculpture of Herodotus, the so-called “Father of History.”
A stone relief of Darius the Great, Darius I, in Persepolis. Darius I is a prominent character in the Histories and the “King of Kings” of Persia who orders the invasion of the Greek city-states which brings about the Persian Wars.
Noël-Nicolas Coypel, “The Abduction of Europa,” 1727. The Abduction of Europa is retold by Herodotus but with a human face. For a supposed “theologized history,” Herodotus began an important humanizing movement in Greek consciousness by retelling the great mythological stories as not between gods and mortals but mortals and mortals, thereby identifying the human realm as the chief focus of his inquiry. Despite all the praying and invocations to the gods, humans are the central subject of Herodotus’ Histories.
The world according to Herodotus, ca. 450 B.C. Although we have the benefit of hindsight, the map is – comparatively speaking – fairly accurate given the limitations of the 5th century B.C.
Jacques-Louis David, “Leonidas at Thermopylae,” 1814. The famous battles of the Persian Wars are all recounted by Herodotus in the later books. The Battles of Marathon (Book 6), Thermopylae (Book 7), and Salamis (Book 8) have all been romanticized in the Western inheritance. The nineteenth century, during an excessive period of philhellenism, saw an explosive artistic creativity interested in ancient Greek history and culture.
Georges Rochegrosse, “The Heroes of Marathon,” 1859. The Battle of Marathon was one of the defining battles of the First Persian Wars. The Greek victory is covered by Herodotus (Book 6) and propels the narrative onward to its conclusion. The Greeks steadfastly stood their ground and defeated a Persian army at the beaches of Marathon. Legend has it that a runner, Philippides, was dispatched to inform the Greeks of their victory. After running the 26 miles and announcing the victory, the messenger died of exhaustion. The 26-mile marathon pays homage to this event.
Wilhelm von Kaulbach, “The Battle of Salamis,” 1868. The Battle of Salamis was the culminating event of the Persian Wars. The Greek victory, spurred by Athens, changed the history of the ancient Western world. Athens became the chief Greek power in the world after the war and embarked on an ambitious democratic and imperialistic policy that edged the Greek world toward the Peloponnesian War. The Battle of Salamis is one of the last major event covered by Herodotus (Book 8) and helps bring the book to closure since after the victory the Greeks return to Asia Minor and begin liberating the Greek cities that had been captured earlier in the war, and this is where Herodotus ends his “history.”
Leo von Klenze, “The Acropolis at Athens,” 1846. The result of the Persian Wars was the rise of Athens. Here is an idealized and romanticized painting of the Acropolis during the so-called Athenian Golden Age.