Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, January 05, 2013

HERODOTUS: The Persian Wars (Book Seven)

Scholars refer to Herodotus as “the father of history.”  How can that be?  Did nothing important happen before Herodotus came along?  Was there no history before him?  What about Egypt and our reading of Exodus?  The whole Exodus story happened long before Herodotus was born.  We’ll leave the “father of history” questions for professional scholars.  But amateur readers would do well to ask questions.  What use is history anyway?  Is it like reading literature or more like studying science?  What good does reading history do?  More specifically, what good does it do ME?  Herodotus may not answer all these questions but his history of The Persian Wars gives us a good place to start.  Let’s see what we can find out from Mr. Herodotus.  Xerxes is a Persian king and has called a meeting with his top leaders.  He tells them that We Persians have a way of living which I have inherited from my predecessors and propose to follow… this is what I intend to do.  I will bridge the Hellespont and march an army through Europe into Greece.  He has a grand strategic plan: I shall pass through Europe from end to end and make it all one country.  Let’s stop there for a moment and reflect.  Is this a good idea?  Would Europe be better off if it really were all one country and not divided up into dozens of smaller ones?  Isn’t that basically what they’re trying to do, even today, with the European Union?  Xerxes wants to hear what others think of his plan.  Mardonius, an advisor (and Xerxes’ cousin), likes the plan: Have we anything to fear from them?  The size of their army?  Their wealth?  The question is absurd; we know how they fight; we know how slender their resources are… Well then, my lord, who is likely to resist you when you march against them with the millions of Asia at your back, and the whole Persian fleet?  Believe me, it is not in the Greek character to take so desperate a risk.  This attitude can be found on every committee.  Let’s do it. There’s no consideration of any possible downside, just a rosy prediction that everything will go smoothly.  On the other end of the scale are people like Artabanus, another advisor (and Xerxes’ uncle) who see nothing but gloom and doom ahead.  Artabanus says It is my duty to tell you what you have to fear from the Greeks.  You have said you mean to bridge the Hellespont and march through Europe to Greece… These Greeks are said to be tough fighters… suppose they were to succeed in one area alone; suppose they fell upon our fleet and destroyed the bridge?  Then, my lord, you would indeed be in trouble… I urge you therefore to abandon this plan; take my advice and do not run any such terrible risk when there is no necessity to do so.  Let’s put ourselves in Xerxes’ shoes.  What should we do?  Who do we listen to?  This is one purpose of reading history: Decision-Making 101.  Both sides made their best case: one for going to war with Greece, the other for staying home in peace.  Now the decision is left to us.  In real life Xerxes made the final decision and had to live with the consequences of that decision.  Reading history gives us a chance to see how those decisions played out.  In this case, the advice of Artabanus turned out to be the best advice.  The Persians should have stayed home.  Instead, they marched through Europe on down into Greece and the rest, as they say, is history.  This is where 300 brave Spartans made their famous stand at the pass of Thermopylae.  Herodotus thought this was a story worth telling.  And ever since then thousands of history lovers thought this was a story worth reading.  So, is history like literature?  Yes, if the historian can write well.  Is it like science?  Yes, if the historian follows facts without bias.  But is it even possible for a historian to study the past and not bring at least some pre-conceived values to the table?  Herodotus himself says: My business is to record what people say, but I am by no means bound to believe it.  And that may be taken to apply to this book as a whole.  Good for him.  The “father of history” should feel that way.


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