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The Historians: Herodotus What is History?. ‘Like tears in rain’: The Impulse to Write History Watch the following scene from Blade Runner, then compare.

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Presentation on theme: "The Historians: Herodotus What is History?. ‘Like tears in rain’: The Impulse to Write History Watch the following scene from Blade Runner, then compare."— Presentation transcript:

1 The Historians: Herodotus What is History?

2 ‘Like tears in rain’: The Impulse to Write History Watch the following scene from Blade Runner, then compare it to the first words written about writing history: “Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds – some by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought each other.” (I, 1) DISCUSSION POINT. What drives us to write history? What drove Herodotus? Can you identify three important features of this quote?

3 ‘Like tears in rain’: The Impulse to Write History “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe …” > Herodotus’ Histories present many of the wonders of his time – from legends and heroes to different cultures, exotic animals and superstitions, encompassing the full range of human life as it was then experienced. He sets out to preserve extraordinary achievements and events – in his own lifetime, the defeat of a great Persian army by small Greek poleis. He hopes to explain why such great events could take place, and in doing so he will search for the truth among the many stories and fables of the time. In searching for the truth, he must display fairness, or justice, to all parties, in this case Greek and barbarian.

4 Herodotus: Who was he?  Born 480s BC, in Halicarnassus (Bodrum – pictured on front page), in Ionian Greece (now west coast of Turkey). An area of intellectual ferment and openness; also a ‘frontier’ between Greeks and Persians.  Herodotus claimed to have travelled extensively – south to Elephantine in Egypt, east to Babylon, west to Thurii in Italy, as well as across Greece and the Aegean, particularly Samos.  The dominant event of his lifetime – the Persian Wars – took place when he was only a child. His adult life coincided with the period of Athenian dominance in Greece and the high point of Athenian culture.  Death after 430 BC (just after the Peloponnesian War began). DISCUSSION POINT: As a ‘Carian’ from Ionia, Herodotus was something of an outsider to mainland Greeks. Yet, arguably this position gave Herodotus a unique perspective on historical events and cultural issues. How does your own social position and life experience affect your writing/understanding of history?

5 Herodotus: What influenced him to write history? Herodotus did not invent the ‘inquiry’ – he inherits the metaphysical reasoning used by the Ionian Greeks: Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Hecataeus etc. and applies it to worldly events. Herodotus uses the narrative and drama of Homer’s epic poems, but the form of prose allows him to ‘follow the truth’. As he states in his introduction, he is driven to write history partly as a response to the incredible defeat of the Persian invasion by the Greeks. DISCUSSION POINT: Do historians ever come to history purely to seek the truth, or is there often a preoccupation that drives them? What drives you to write history, and how does it affect your project?

6 Herodotus: Who was he writing for? Herodotus’ work, like much ancient Greek writing, was written to entertain a crowd at a symposium. A symposium was partly an intellectual/cultural gathering, with discussions and dramatic readings, and partly a drinking party. Presumably much of this audience were from Athens, or from settlements in its naval empire, who enjoyed the tales of their city’s heroism and glory, but who also perhaps revelled in stories of faraway places and exotic customs, helping Greeks to define themselves. Herodotus is ‘accused’ by later ancients like Plutarch of seeking the patronage of cities such as Thebes, Corinth and Athens, yet this is an anachronistic attempt to discredit him, or at least explain his bias.

7 Herodotus: What did he include in his History? Books I-V: describe the rise of Persia, with frequent digressions: describing the social, religious and sexual practices of various societies (Egyptians, Scythians), describing architectural wonders (Samos, pyramids), styles of dress, strange animals; allegories (Polycrates, Croesus) and even technical and geographical theories and descriptions. Books VI-IX: similar descriptions of the Greek world and the escalating conflict between Persia and the Greeks (Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea). Women also play significant roles in many key scenes of the Histories. DISCUSSION POINT: How much does your project draw from other disciplines – social science, anthropology/cultural studies, psychology, gender studies, science, economics, mathematics/statistics, religion? Could your project be improved with a more multidisciplinary approach?

8 Herodotus: Views of human nature and society Inclusivity of viewpoints and topics indicates a remarkable tolerance; contradictory stories stand side by side; frequent suspension of judgement. Ethnographical surveys indicate a strong curiosity: towards the world as a whole, towards non-Greeks, towards the Greeks themselves – defining identities. Characters are given multiple dimensions – Xerxes, Polycrates, Themistocles, the Oracle at Delphi. Use of allegories to provide general moral points about greed, lust, pride and power – not sanctimonious Ambivalent about progress Inclusion of humour/lighter subject matter DISCUSSION POINT: What are your main assumptions about human nature/behaviour, and how have these affected your project so far? How do/will you deal with contradictory viewpoints?

9 Herodotus: How does he interpret cause and effect? Herodotus often refers to fortune as being fickle (the story of Polycrates and Amasis) and chance being significant in the unfolding of events. Herodotus also draws upon the dramatic concepts of hubris and nemesis. Hubris: a person steps beyond the acceptable bound of behaviour in terms of power, wealth, success, etc. Nemesis: retribution (sometimes divine) and undoing. Occasionally the nemesis is divine, but more often it is ascribed to ‘fortune.’ Herodotus also searches for logical explanations to many questions and puts forward his own theories based on reasoning. During Xerxes’ march to Greece in 480 he frequently refers to supply depots, water supplies and geographical features as important factors in the campaign. Like most other ancient historians, Herodotus sees cause and effect as essentially a moral idea, and obviously does not consider socioeconomic factors. DISCUSSION POINT: When you investigate the cause of an event (in MH or AH), how do you select which causes are the most important? (What does this reveal about your own assumptions of human behaviour?)

10 Herodotus: How did he write history? Years of wandering, asking many questions, recording responses, occasionally making judgements and theorising Including contradictory voices (polyphony) Utilising oral histories (logoi) Use of digressions – following truth in every direction Use of first person, conversational tone, “self-reflexive” References to inscriptions, artefacts; not documents Some ‘artful shaping’ (e.g. Arion and the dolphin) Research ethics and silence on sacred matters The first prose work? DISCUSSION POINT: How does the form of your own project (an academic essay) shape and/or limit the history you write? Could you use an alternative method to present your project, and if so, how would this change the way your history was interpreted? OR Is an academic essay really the best model for writing history? Why?/Why not?

11 Herodotus: How important is he? The first historian. The ‘inventor of the West’? Unpopularity: “Herodotus as the father of history had few children.” E.H. Carr. Some ancients suspected him of naivety/gullibility, while moderns were uncomfortable with his inclusion of religious and fantastic elements and his conception of cause and effect. (I suspect many modern historians also found his tolerance of contradictions and his ‘lighter’ touch decidedly unscientific and uncomfortable.) Postmodern revival – inclusive, multicultural, polyphonic. Herodotus is back! “Herodotus writes sometimes for children, and sometimes for philosophers.” Gibbon DISCUSSION POINT: Do you think Herodotus could help you in your own writing/understanding of history? If so, how?

12 Reading Herodotus The Histories is not a ‘History of the Persian Wars’ in a modern sense. In the first half of the book it rarely moves in a linear pattern. Instead, it is a sprawling voyage of discovery of the peoples around the Mediterranean, providing information about real events, people and places, as well as a glimpse into the imaginations, concerns and obsessions of a range of ancient peoples. It is not to be read quickly, but can be ‘dipped into’ at virtually any point. Herodotus is there to teach us, and to tempt us with the wonders of faraway places. Above all, the Histories are there to enjoy.


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