Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Herodotus speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Balboa when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
If Keats were alive today he’s roll over in his grave. Think of it as the onset dementia of an old English major approaching ancient history.
Okay. I’ve read Herodotus and even spent time perusing Mediterranean maps on the Internet and sailing digitally across the Aegean on the SS Google Earth. I’ve punched my ticket and may even give Thucydides a try. But why does anyone in the 21st Century read Herodotus?
- They’re a history major in college
- They prefer their history seasoned with myth (It’s All Fiction)
- They identify with Heinrich Schliemann
- They’ve mastered Russian patronymics and are ready for ancient Greek names (and places)
- Ryszard Kapuscinski inspired them
- 300 is their favorite movie
- They just can’t get enough footnotes
- It’s on the list and they’re not dead yet.
For those who accept anything older than 3 February 1959 to be ancient history, Herodotus is considered an early—possibly the first—historian. Back when Herodotus was writing, history was fairly new, and for the most part consisted of war, oracles, and bacchanals (as opposed to our current events that are focused on war, pundits, and wine parties). Herodotus gave us those mythic accountings of Marathon and Thermopylae and Salamis; the messenger who dropped dead after running a marathon to announce victory; the 300 (more than at the Alamo) who perished delaying the Persian armies. The heroics related in Herodotus repelled the Persian horde and saved a nascent western democracy.
Although, here’s a fun thought experiment: Leonidas capitulates; Greece becomes Persian; the Dark Ages never happen; and today’s world looks like … what?