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.”
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:
- Freya Stark follows Herodotus up the coast of Turkey
- Find old travel books
- And on my personal reading list, I’m adding Travels with Herodotus (Vintage International) by Ryszard Kapuscinski and the classic travel book, The Histories by Herodotus.
Have you ever let classical writers guide your way? In what countries? We traveled with Thucydides at our side in Greece.