Herodotus Histories Vol 1

Ancient civilisations


I'm preparing for a historic wargame between Roman Imperial and Egyptian armies, and while I paint the miniatures I wanted to listen to a relevant audio book. Unfortunately, I wasn't exactly able to find anything beyond some documentaries on Youtube. There are some really good ones on there, and I've watched hours and hours about the cultures (civilian and military and religious). I'm no scholar and I don't really know where to look for historical texts about the time period I'm interested in, but as I searched I stumbled across a guy named Herodotus. It's the wrong century by almost 500 years, but I was suprised to find his writing fun, funny, intriguing, and I guess probably even educational. This is my review of the first volume of Herodotus's Histories.

Herodotus was born in 484 BCE, and he documented a lot. In fact, he wrote so much that he's sort of considered the first historian. None of it's useful to me for my game research, except that it does help me imagine I'm getting into the mentality of people who lived so long ago that their world is basically a fictional fantasy setting from my perspective. I can't really envision what life would have been like in 500 BCE or 40 CE but Herodotus's writings is often about essentially tourism, combining what he himself experienced in his travels, as well as stories he was told by locals about regional cultures and conflicts. It shouldn't be, but I guess it's always a little surprising when you hear about somebody who lived thousands of years ago with basically the same thoughts that you often have. You feel a connection with these people, as they make good and bad decisions, as they strive to do their best, as they look for their place in the world, for love and acceptance.

Frame of reference

The humans are the same as ever, but the world has obviously changed since Herodotus. Or rather, human perception of the world has changed. From Herodotus, it occurred to me that religion wasn't exactly an institution back then, as it is today. Religion was just a part of nature. Herodotus speaks of gods, both his own Hellenic gods and foreign pantheons, both as a casual assumption and as something sacred, depending on the context. When he speaks of the gods casually, it's like you and I might talk about a mobile phone or a café or a TV show. You don't have to explain the concept of these things, and you probably don't often ask yourself why and how they exist. They're just part of your world. Things you don't think about. That's how Herodotus treats the gods. Gods are assumptive, so innate in the world that it precedes being taken for granted.

And yet Herodotus also recognises, just like you and I would, that there's such a thing as respect. Some things are too personal, precious, or "sacred" to be talked about casually. There are several times that Herodotus refrains from naming a person or a god or from describing a religious ceremony purely out of respect. He says as much. He writes that he knows a thing, but that it would be improper for him to speak of it. And so he skips it. Because that's what you do when you're a real human with feelings and compassion for others. It's more beautiful and sensitive than I'd expected from a writer in 500 BCE..

Now this is podracing

Look, I've read (or in some cases tried to read) Chaucer and Beowulf and Shakespeare and Dickens and a bunch of other old content, and there's a lot that I just don't understand. I often feel like I don't need to understand it, and put the book down. Herodotus is nothing like those.

I'm sure it depends on what translation you read, but the Librivox version was tranlated by Godley in the late 1800s or early 1900s and it sounds pretty much like normal everyday English. I'd go so far as to call it an easy read, and only partly because the language of it is so common. The other thing that makes the book enjoyable is that the stories are just plain entertaining. I'm pretty sure a lot of these so-called "histories" are actually tall tales but that's probably a big part of what makes them so fun. Here are a few of my favourites.

  • A king takes his army to go conquer a city (Babylon, if my memory serves, which it usually doesn't). On their way to the city, his army comes to a river and one of his horses drowns. He takes this as a personal insult, so he decides to stop his campaign and puts his army to work rerouting the river purely out of spite. They manage to do it, and then continue on to war. However, they took so long rerouting the river that his enemies saw him coming and prepared their city for the attack, and so his seige fails.
  • A rich bloke sets a bunch of traps in his treasury to protect his wealth from thieves. Some thieves break in, and one falls into a trap. The thief doesn't want to be punished and shamed for his transgression, so he tells his brother to chop off his head. His brother complies, and takes his head back to their mother, I guess as consolation. The rich guy comes into his treasury the next morning and finds a headless thief in his trap, and vows to discover why and how his simple trap managed to behead its captive. This sets off a whole chain of hilariously escalating schemes, concluding in having his own daughter become a prostitute to infiltrate the seedy underworld of thieves.
  • You know the graphic novel and movie 300? Yeah, that's in this book!

Read this

Much to my own surprise, after a few chapters I wasn't reading Histories for the education. I was reading it because it was a collection of quick, quirky, fun, and funny stories. If you happen to be an RPG or wargame player, you'll get inspiration from Herodotus, no question about it. But maybe you're not a gamer. Great news! You'll be entertained instead.

Photo by Tim van Cleef on Unsplash

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