By Michael Sims,
whose books include "Adam's Navel" and "Apollo's Fire"
Thursday, January 29, 2009
THE WAY OF HERODOTUS
Travels With the Man Who Invented History
By Justin Marozzi
Da Capo. 348 pp. $27.50
Reputations, unlike empires, sometimes fall and rise again. Who could have predicted that our new millennium would dawn with a reappraisal of the Greek historian Herodotus, whose extraordinary brain has been dust for 24 centuries? The man Cicero called "the father of history," the author of one of the most readable and entertaining books of the ancient world, was long out of style. Critics complained that Herodotus wandered too much; he was too gullible, ranged too far from respectable topics such as politics and war.
So what inspired a recent spike in the value of his cultural stock? Among academics, it comes in part from a growing appreciation for cross-fertilization among disciplines. Besides recounting the arrogant madmen running the Persian Wars, Herodotus evenhandedly explored the folklore, sexual habits and history of many different cultures, from Persian to Indian and, especially, Egyptian. But academics aren't his only fans. Back in the 1990s, bookstores noted a rise in Herodotus sales after his "Histories" was featured in Michael Ondaatje's novel "The English Patient." The film version even includes a campfire scene in which Kristin Scott Thomas recounts a sexy tale from Herodotus.
In 2007 came "Travels With Herodotus," the posthumous final book by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Then Pantheon published "The Landmark Herodotus," a gorgeous, irresistible volume, almost 1,000 pages long, that garnishes Andrea L. Purvis's lucid translation with a delicious array of extras: 127 maps and countless footnotes, datelines and appendixes, as well as photographs and drawings that bring the region and era to life. It makes this fascinating writer more accessible than ever to the nonspecialist reader.
And now we have an excellent new book, "The Way of Herodotus," by Justin Marozzi, the British author of a biography of Tamerlane. Marozzi's subtitle, like Kapuscinski's title, emphasizes travel with a man, not with a book. This personal relationship is a side effect of Herodotus's writing style. He reaches across the millenniums, tugs your sleeve and whispers, "Hey, look over there." The word "historie" originally meant an investigation. Herodotus's "Histories" opens with the following Homeric overture, from the Purvis translation: "Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time. May the great and wonderful deeds -- some brought forth by the Hellenes, others by the barbarians -- not go unsung; as well as the causes that led them to make war on each other."
Born literally at the meeting place of East and West -- Halicarnassus is now Bodrum, on the Aegean coast of Turkey -- Herodotus was anything but provincial. "Since they have observed this custom from the very beginning," he chuckles over the animal sacrifices of the Persian Magi, "let it be." Plutarch wrote an entire tetchy book damning Herodotus for, among other sins, a lack of hooray-for-the-Greeks patriotism. Kapuscinski called him "the first globalist."
Contrasted with other classical historians, Herodotus lacks the yawn-inducing sophistication of Thucydides, the backstage savvy of Suetonius and the portrait-sketching focus of Plutarch. But, animated by boundless curiosity about the human spectacle, Herodotus is a lot more fun than his colleagues. He reports that after sex the Babylonians fumigate their genitals with incense. With Monty Python solemnity, priests and military leaders in his "Histories" smuggle messages inside dead hares and play with phallic puppets. When a king dreams that his daughter urinated so much she "flooded all Asia," his advisers rush to interpret the vision's implications for their arid nation. "Sometimes it's the sober voice of an encyclopaedia," Marozzi writes of the Herodotean style, "at others it's Lonely Planet on acid." Herodotus could never have been an armchair historian, he points out, because "there were no other historians to study."
Marozzi himself is a risk and security consultant and a former foreign correspondent for the Financial Times. He traveled widely and lived in Egypt before retracing Herodotus. He's excellent at evoking character and scene, from the charismatic Turk who led the underwater excavation of the world's oldest shipwreck to the fundamentalist Christian comic books spotted in American enclaves in Baghdad, which recount the story of misled Muslims who eventually find Jesus and renounce their infidel ways. Marozzi dances in a Turkish disco and gets manhandled in the shadow of the Pyramids, chats with U.S. soldiers in Iraq and with Greek Orthodox priests in Athens. His descriptions sparkle. In Siwa, Egypt, he writes, "Donkey carts driven by young children rush by in a flurry of raised arms and beatings, blue-parcelled sisters and mothers perched on the back like an afterthought." His assessments of current political and religious battles read as spontaneous but well-informed. Marozzi seems worthy of his illustrious model, as he travels with the ghost of the father of history.