Herodotus wrote on a huge range of topics in his History because besides the main story line, the Persian Wars, he added in all manner of observations of the locals, who begat whom, details of local feuds, who was in, who was out, how they did it and how they made sure people were doing it enough so there would be plenty of begating. Add plenty of supernatural causes and effects. But the main structure of the story was the wars between the Persian Empire and the Greek States, so the first part of The Histories is concerned with the build up to those wars; the animosities brewing over time, why it seemed like a good idea to the Persians to invade Greece in the first place, and what that enterprise actually entailed.
Let’s face it; if you are like me, a typical American, we got the story of the Persian war way, way second hand from 18th and 19th century European sources that were already heavily biased towards considering the Persian Empire of 5th century BC as some sort of pre-Ottoman Turkish Empire. The entire story was boiled down to this: Persians: corrupt, evil, mindless slave hordes from the distant east, invade the Greeks – who of course are; virtuous, good, intelligent, free-thinkers and are just innocent victims of a horrible invasion by a monomaniacal madman. But since the Greeks were so swell, they won. The movie The 300 is an example of this thinking. Hey, it’s a great movie! But there’s more to the story.
This characterization of the Persian wars is pure baloney – an infantile morality play for the weak-minded. “See, there’s these really good guys, and these really bad guys, and finally, the really good guys win“. It didn’t go down that way. That’s just not how it was back then and we know it wasn’t; Herodotus knew it wasn’t, modern scholarship and archeology shows it wasn’t. It was a lot, lot messier than a bunch of people who spoke Persian, and a bunch of people who spoke Greek and their really big war.
If the Persians had won argument is a counter-factual. They didn’t. Anyhow, the Greeks self-destructed soon after – read The History of the Peloponnesian Wars by Thucydides if you are interested in seeing the Greeks then proceed to kick their own asses; much to the amusement of the Persians. I’ll cover it here. Takes time. Stay tuned.
The eastern Mediterranean, Greece, Anatolia, the western part of nowadays Turkey, was colonized by Greeks; and they constantly bickered and warred with one another. There was no Greek nation; just a bunch of Greeks settled on islands, coastlines, and basically fighting each other; and fighting with the other locals. And they loved to exile each other; sometimes after say a bad little war or revolt, or even an election, the losing big-man or king or whatever would be exiled or even flee (that is; get away with his skin). And if Greek, where did they often go? You got it. To their buddies in Persia. Happened all the time. They’d go party with the Persians for awhile. Sometimes Greeks would just go party with the Persians because it rocked. Happened all the time back then. They hung out together.
And since a fair number of Greeks had, for some time actually, settled in Anatolia, now right next door to the newly expanding Persian Empire, guess what? All kinds of dangerous combinations of dastardly diplomacy, double-dealings, petty paybacks, and the occasional kidnapping and rapine – of goddesses – was bound to crop up now and then given the bad-boy nature of these folks. Eventually, there’d be trouble. If you don’t believe me, read Homer, The Iliad and the Odyssey.
Into this maelstrom of human machinations marches Herodotus. You’d think with this massive war-story potential; that’s what he’d write about, and he did, sort of. Picture this though: You are a modern day Herodotus. You go to France next summer to write a knock-down drag-out WWII novel and visit Normandy Beach, various battle fields, the whole trip. I don’t know where you got the money, maybe you were a successful “merchant”. But you ended up having a bunch of interesting adventures of your own – met some cool people; I mean these people are different! Weird customs, weird laws, some of them wealthy, some of them broke, some of them tough as nails, some soft as silk. You start working them all into your novel. Maybe you start making stuff up. And remember, if you don’t know what you’re talking about, say twice as much to compensate. This is the flavor of Herodotus.
Telling an epic war-story by building in all sorts of local detail, background, descriptions of exotic people doing exotic things in far-away places, in order to put the war story in a multidimensional setting; Herodotus – he started it. So he gets to be the “Father of History“.
Next up we are going to skip a bit forward, (because you have to know Herodotus starts right off with some racy sex stories – guy was a genius – we’re going to skip them for now…) and gets into the stories concerning King Croesus in Lydia, (Anatolia) because they are tons of fun to read about and write about.
Herodotus bust courtesy: http://www.crystalinks.com/herodotus.html