Greek History Writing

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Alcibiades tutored by Socrates by Francois-Andre Vincent, 1776. Public Domain. Alcibiades was an Athenian general that played a destructive role during the Peloponnesian War.

Prologue

Herodotos (c.490–c.425 BCE) and Thucydides (c.460– c.399 BCE) were great Hellenic / Greek historians. They wrote during the fifth century BCE, about 700 years after Homer. The time of Herodotos and Thucydides was a time of unprecedented intellectual, scientific, and material prosperity and enormous pride that came from the victory of the Greeks over the Persians during the first two decades of the fifth century BCE.

The Greeks were free people. They invented democracy, political theory, philosophy, science, and the dramatic theater. They put democracy to practice in the polis, a small-scale state, usually a republic that was the testing ground for the Greeks’ political, religious, philosophical, scientific, agricultural, and cultural institutions. The Greeks also made remarkable advances in architecture, medicine, technology, the arts, and literature. They knew they had started an original political and cultural experiment in the Mediterranean, perhaps the world. But they also knew they had to learn how to cut their own Gordian knot of nearly perpetual conflict and war.

The Greek commonwealth

The Greek world of the fifth century BCE was a commonwealth of about 1,500 poleis (city-states, many of them republics). Those states spread all over mainland Greece, southern Italy and Sicily (Magna Graecia), southern France and Spain, northern Africa, the Black Sea coast, and Ionia, the coast of Asia facing the Aegean. The intense antagonisms between some of these Greek poleis did bring down the brilliant edifice of Greek culture and civilization, which Western scholars describe as the golden age of Greece.

Thucydides and Herodotos

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Bust of Thucydides. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada. Public Domain.

Thucydides, a general and a beneficiary of Athenian democratic culture, lived the brutalities of war and exile firsthand. He wrote his history to teach the Athenians and other Greeks a lesson. He was convinced of the rightness of his cause, so he said his History of the Peloponnesian War would last forever. Perhaps it will. So far it’s been the best history ever written.

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Persian Satrap Cyrus the Younger (left) is meeting with the Spartan general Lysander in Sardis. Persia funded Sparta to keep fighting Athens. By Francesco Antonio Grue, 17th century. Public Domain.

In the same spirit and before Thucydides, Herodotos wrote about the Greeks and non-Greeks so that their achievements would not be erased by time.

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From Athribis, Lower Egypt. 2nd century copy of a Greek original of 4th century BCE. Julius Tang. Herm bust of Herodotos. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

Herodotos was an Ionian Greek. He was born in Halicarnassus / Halikarnassos, a Greek polis in Ionia, the coastline of Asia Minor facing the Aegean Sea. Herodotos wrote about Greeks and non-Greeks with the passion and intimacy and detail of a well-traveled and well-read scholar who went out of his way to be fair and accurate in his reporting. This does not mean he was entirely objective. No historian can do that. Herodotos gave too much credit to some of the bragging stories he heard in Egypt about Egyptian culture. In the second book of his Histories, he attributed a lot of Greek innovations / traditions to Egypt, thus undermining, to some degree, the very ancient and autochthonous origins of Greek culture. In the same careless fashion, Herodotos suggested in the fifty-eighth chapter of the fifth book of his work that it was the Phoenicians who brought their alphabet to the Ionian Greeks and, from there, to mainland Greece. Herodotos’ errors are haunting Greeks to this day. Enemies of Hellenism (Christians and selfish classicists and other scholars with a political agenda) keep repeating them, particularly the malicious allegation that the Greeks learned their alphabet from the Phoenicians. More on the bad habits of Herodotos below. However, Herodotos’ rush judgements pale by comparison to the magnificent story he left of both Greeks and non-Greeks covering the time from the eighth century to the first two decades of the fifth century BCE.

Herodotos was an open-minded Helene. He grew up next to Asians. He did not form his opinions about people on the basis of skin color. He considered the Libyans the healthiest people on Earth. He said the long-lived Ethiopians were the tallest and most handsome people in the world. And he admired the Skythians for their matchless courage and skill in defending their freedom. Skythians are the ancestors of southern Russians. Herodotos writes with so much knowledge and empathy about the Egyptians, the Libyans, the Ethiopians, the Persians, the Skythians and other people of Asia and Europe that his account is unprecedented and unsurpassed in the annals of human culture. That, and his masterful story of how and why the Greeks defeated the Persians in a series of wars that determined the nature and future of Greek (and Western) culture, explain the genius of Herodotos. He is in fact the father of history.

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Persian, left, and Greek soldier, right, fighting. Kylix, 5th century BCE. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece. Public Domain.

Herodotos’ history is such a marvel of delight, philosophical reflection, accuracy, and comprehensiveness that it is still an indispensable source for understanding the Greeks and their neighbors in the Mediterranean, Asia, and Africa.

Both Herodotos and Thucydides described and analyzed events in the life of the Greeks that were momentous in their immediate effects and long-term consequences. They tried not to take sides in their histories, or, at least, they chose not to allow their preferences to bias their narratives. They read the literature of their times. They carefully marshaled the evidence, talking to participants, observers, or survivors from both sides of the conflicts they described. Their story of the wars (Persian, 490–479 BCE and Peloponnesian, 431–404 BCE) has the originality, freshness and excitement of great literature and unforgettable history to this day.

History writing after the fifth century BCE

Other distinguished Hellenic historians (for example, Xenophon, Polybios, and Ploutarchos / Plutarch – late fifth century BCE to the second century CE) continued with the scientific tradition of Herodotos and Thucydides. They described their time with remarkable accuracy and few prejudices.

Xenophon, c.430–354 BCE, born in Athens during the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, was a younger contemporary of Thucydides who abandoned writing his History of the Peloponnesian War in 411 BCE. Xenophon started where Thucydides left off. He described the events of the last seven years of the Peloponnesian War to 404 and Greek history to 362 BCE. Xenophon, like Herodotos, was a polymath and a good global historian. He knew the Persians rather well. He wrote a brilliant account of the Anabasis, the March up-country of the ten thousand Greek soldiers. This was the story of the retreat of Greek soldiers from Persia in support of the Persian prince Cyrus against Cyrus’ brother, King Artaxerxes. Xenophon loved Socrates and had a lot of respect for Sparta. Like Thucydides, Athens exiled him. He left us memorable biographies, and rural and political studies about Sparta, Athens, and Greece.

Polybios, 200–118 BCE, writing about 200 years after Xenophon, was a witness to the destruction of Greek political independence and freedom by the Romans. The year was 146 BCE when the Romans obliterated Corinth as a warning to the rest of the Greek poleis occupied by their troops. The Romans exiled Polybios from Greece and kept him in Rome for about 20 years. Polybios served Rome as a soldier and advisor to one of the greatest Roman generals, Scipio Aemilianus. He wrote a valuable history of the rise of Roman power in the Mediterranean that is a model of clarity, reason, and fact. He was so crushed by Greek civil wars that he almost breathed easier with the final victory of the Romans over the Greeks. Perhaps he thought the Greeks needed such a telling lesson to abandon their fierce antagonisms and form one polis. But he must have realized that Roman military occupation of Greece was an unlikely school for the emergence of a united and free Hellas. He had the understandable illusion the Romans were bringing a new era of peace and security to both Greece and the Roman world. He prayed to the gods that he would remain loyal to the Romans, and, in their turn, the Romans would keep him in their favor for the rest of his life. The gods listened to his prayers.

Plutarch / Ploutarchos, 45–120 CE, lived about three centuries after Polybios. He was a learned scholar and priest of Apollo from the small town of Chaeronea in central Greece. He served the Greek and Roman governments well at a time when Rome was the sole imperial superpower in the Mediterranean. He wrote profusely about Greeks and Romans with eloquence, wisdom, and scholarship. He respected Rome, but, unlike Polybios, he did not have any special loyalty to Rome. He loved Hellas — and only Hellas. So much so that he attacked Herodotos because Herodotos, in error, gave credit to the Egyptians and Phoenicians for things that belonged to the Greeks alone. Plutarch was particularly incensed that Herodotos dared to suggest that the Greeks borrowed their Olympian gods, including Pan and Dionysos, from Egypt and that Herakles, son of Zeus, and the Greeks’ greatest hero, was more Egyptian and Phoenician than Greek. Plutarch accused Herodotos of careless scholarship and pro-barbarian sentiments. Herodotos was reckless, Plutarch said, in his use of worthless Egyptian stories “to overthrow the most solemn and sacred truths of Greek religion.”[1]

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Plutarch, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. Public Domain.

Despite the enormous respect and love I have for Herodotos, I agree with Plutarch. In the second book of his Histories, Herodotos speaks about the Greeks like an enemy of Hellenic culture. In addition, he said the Persians learnt pederasty from the Greeks, and Thales, the seventh century BCE Greek natural philosopher from the Asia Minor polis of Miletos, was Phoenician in origin.[2] But what I found especially troublesome, was his assertion that he could not fathom that the Greeks were in a position to become the model for the Egyptians. Only the Greeks, Herodotos said, borrowed their entire religion from the Egyptians: the names of most of the Greek gods, the gods themselves, and the Greek festivals came from Egypt, not the other way around.[3]

Plutarch was right about the father of history. Herodotos’ affection for Egypt went to his head. Or, perhaps, he was trying to tell the Greeks something about the stability of Egyptian institutions. He was proud the Greeks defeated the Persians, but, in his old age, he could also see the Greeks were about to do themselves in. They were moving inexorably to ruin with their incessant civil strife. Herodotos witnessed the first six years of the Peloponnesian War, the Greeks’ most murderous conflict. This was the time that he probably finished his own immortal work. And writing his book while the Greeks were slaughtering each other must have been a terrible experience. He could, no doubt, remember what a high-ranking Persian said to a Greek, Thersander of Orchomenos, just before the battle of Plataia in 479 BCE. This Persian officer said to Thersander that there is not a worse anguish a man can endure than to know something is wrong, or seeing clearly something bad is about to take place but being unable to do anything about it.[4]

Plutarch could agree with Herodotos about that. Plutarch was equally insightful about the future of the Greeks living under Roman occupation. He saw the dark clouds of Greek captivity already gathering all over Greece. In less than sixty years after Greece lost its liberty, Plutarch says, the country was reduced to poverty and obscurity.[5]

 

However, Greece under the Romans paid a price far worse than being a poor province of a vast empire. Greece became an impoverished country open to all kinds of plunderers and barbarian invaders. Nothing was sacred or secure anymore – not even the immortal gods and the Greeks’ piety towards those gods. What happened to Rome eventually reached Greece.

Any lessons for us?

History writing is difficult. It demands knowledge, courage, and virtue. Modern historians try but cannot imitate Herodotos, much less Thucydides. They are caught in similar imperial conflicts, hubris, exploitation. Patriotism and strategic interests continue to cloud the minds of more than historians. War is a pandemic of desolation and death. Thucydides was heartbroken. He loved Athens and respected Sparta. He could not take sides. He said the Spartans started the Peloponnesian War because of fear. They feared the rising star of Athens selling everybody a piece of democracy and prosperity. Pericles, leader of Athens, proclaimed that Athens was the school of Hellas. America is not reluctant in selling its business model – to all. The same things have been happening in the war between America and Russia through the proxy of Ukraine. Russia, playing the role of Sparta, notified the United States to stay out of her backyard, Ukraine. But America, drunk with superpower wine, ignored Russia’s pleading.

Another effect of this new Peloponnesian War is the tremendous expansion of the business of war. The munitions industry did not exist in antiquity. But now it is the most powerful impetus for war. It is making so much money, its lobbyists are ceaselessly adding fires for more war.

President Biden, like most Democratic and Republican politicians, is a war monger. Yet peace is the equivalent of life, especially when two opponents like the United States and Russia possess nuclear weapons. Americans ought to wake up and seek peace as much as they should demand their government fight the spreading climate chaos, another version of global war.

Read Herodotos and Thucydides. Their clear thinking and virtues are alive – for all time.

1. Ploutarchos, On the Malice of Herodotos 857.13d-e.

2. Herodotos, The Histories 1.135; 1.170.

3. Herodotos, The Histories 2.42-59.

4. Herodotos, The Histories 9.16.

5. Ploutarchos, Kimon 1.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.