Book Review:The Way of Herodotus

Herodotus, the Man Who Invented History
British cover


Destination: The Mediterranean and Middle East

Book: The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History (2008) by Justin Marozzi (Also available for Kindle) (In England the title is The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus.)

This book has become even more appropriate since the wave of unrest broke out in Arab countries. We’ll be doing a series of articles on books relating to Arab countries over the next few weeks.

Poor Herodotus has suffered the fate of so many experts who make their subject accessible to the masses. He made history so interesting that he was exiled from him home town during his lifetime. Later, Plutarch dissed him and present day “serious” historians shun the father of their own discipline as an amateur.

Justin Marozzi, in Travels With Herodotus, runs the risk of being shunned himself by his fellow historians, since he dares to combine history with a travel memoir. Not only that, but his approach manages to make history–dare I say it–popular.

Marozzi, who says that when he read history at Cambridge, (American translation: when he studied history) Herodotus was off the table. His later introduction to The Histories created a dedicated fan and he decided to pursue the same journey that Herodotus undertook.

Although Marozzi makes no attempt to slavishly follow the physical path of Herodotus’ travels around the Mediterranean and points nearby, he closely follows in the master’s philosophical path.  Since I have never read the entire Histories, the author reminded me that Herodotus set out to learn why two countries went to war. The Histories opens:

Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds–some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians–may not be without their glory; and especially to show why two people fought each other.

And while history still pursues many questions of human behavior, the question of why two countries fight each other still captures our attention.

Since Marozzi himself is a historian, his following in the footsteps of Herodotus  includes going to Iraq and pondering the American involvement in the Iraqui war.  This was the only part of the book where I felt the author let down his master.  Herodotus wrote with scrupulous even handedness about the Persians and the Greeks, assuming that while each side believes they are right, there is some justification on both sides. Herodotus says:’

Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best.

That is a wise observation, and keeps The Histories from being a diatribe against the Persians and an apologia for the Greeks. However, Marozzi’s strong anti-war feelings come out in his long chapter on Iraq–much longer than is justified by Herodotus’ own brief visit to Babylon.  He shows us that there are differing opinions on whether Herodotus actually took an anti-war stance himself, but Marozzi hangs his hat on perhaps the best-known quotation from the father of history: “In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war fathers bury their sons.”

Ishtar Gate _DSC17938
Detail of Ishtar Gate, now in Berlin's Pergamon Museum

Modern scholars also disagree about the accuracy of Herodotus, and about that, Marozzi says,

My own inclination is to believe him, while retaining a gentgly raised eyebrow at some of his taller stories.  If, in his foreign reportage, we judge him as an ancient travel writer, rather than as a twenty-first century historian, then the verdict is more favourable.  We shouldn’t forget that Herodotus is the first great travel wrier as well as historian and that travel writing has a long and distinguished tradition of artifice and exaggeration.

Despite the fact that he throws a bit of mud on travel writers, this strikes me as a reasonable approach to Herodotus.

An Egyptian enthusiast for Herodotus says, “I think he’s quite wonderful, charming, he’s an absolute riot, a great storyteller, the best way to get people to read history.” Egypt was totally unknown to Herodotus’ world, and he very accurately described mummification and the size of the pyramids. (See a Herodotean quote that opens a guest post on Egypt.)

If you are fascinated by the ancient world, don’t miss the site of Musee Achemenide.  This collection of 8000 items from 15 museums around the world, traces the history of Persia. Now what would Herodotus made of that, had he been a traveler with a lap top?

I liked this book and think it is a valuable tool for travelers to  Greece, the Middle East and north Africa. I like it so much that The Way of Herodotus will not show up in my next giveaway, so you’ll have to buy your own copy for your own traveler’s library.

Disclaimer time: I bought this book myself. So there! I did, however borrow that lovely Ishtar Gate photo from Flickr and I HIGHLY recommend that you click on it to read the narrative that goes along with it. Very informative.

And if you want to read more about Herodotus:

Have you ever let classical writers guide your way? In what countries? We traveled with Thucydides at our side in Greece.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

18 thoughts on “Book Review:The Way of Herodotus

  1. The most time-honored rationale for knowing and doing history is that we can learn from the past. The challenge, however, is in knowing which lessons to draw on and how best to make use of them. Straightforward applications of the past to the present can distort events and lead to erroneous conclusions. At its best, history provides us with possible rather than probable understandings, and the ability to take precautions rather than control possible futures.

  2. Great review, Vera… this part of the world is so rich in history it’s hard to know where to start. the storytelling in this book sounds like a good entrance in to such a complex and fascinating region.

  3. Great review, Vera. And I’m showing my ignorance at not being familiar with the writings of Herodotus. Perhaps I’ll fix that by reading The Way of Herodotus.

  4. For some reason the search thing is not working for me- keeps just having me on this page. I will try tomorrow.

  5. I would hope that historians would appreciate his combining his take on Herodotus with a travel memoir, for this makes “Travels with Herodotus” more accessible.

    In any case, fascinating. Thank you, Vera.

  6. This does sound fascinating. I love history and travel- and figuring how ‘why this’ ‘why that’- so I think this might just be up my alley 🙂

    Do you know any great books on Turkey?

    1. Connie: Put Turkey in the search box on the right, or look under categories. I loved the classic guide Strolling Through Istanbul. However, I tried to read Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence and could not get through it. He’s a Nobel Literature award winner, so what’s wrong with me?

      1. thanks for the tip- will do! hah- as for me, I find some of the most ‘prized’ writers are not my cup of tea :)…but then, some are…so go figure. I actually love down to earth writing- and can wade through a book which might seem tedious to someone else- but if it has facts- I’m a happy camper!

  7. Sounds like a fascinating book. I seem to remember a mentioning of Herodotus in my Classics studies years and years ago. I like to learn more about him and finding out more through tracking his travels sounds like the way to go.

  8. I have read a little of this guy – what a moniker (The Man Who Invented History). While most of his stuff is inaccurate, it is fascinating as to what made was recorded at the time almost 2,500 years ago. One thing I do like – his own history was poorly captured!!

    1. Mark: Reading Travels with Herodotus, I was surprised to learn how accurate Herodotus was about many things. It is hard to explain the fact that he described the process of mummification in great, accurate detail and calculated within inches the size of the major pyramids, but then would go off on flights of fancy about some things. However, he was mostly in totally unknown territory and taking the word of the locals. When I read about beliefs that people had in the 17th century (alchemy, anyone?) it is easier to understand why these “wild tales” might not have seemed beyond the realm of possibility.

  9. Very nice post!

    Another interesting Arabian traveller is Ibn Battuta, who travelled about in the region (and further) in the early 1300s.

  10. Justin Marozzi’s “The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History” sounds awesome! I see that it is available as a nookbook. Will download asap. Thanks. -r

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