History : Mar-Apr 2018
Nile to Aswan—over 600 miles from the sea. He also visited Mesopotamia and has left a de- scription of Babylon. Heading west, he visited the Greek colonies on the shores of the Black Sea and then went on to spend time with the Scythians of the Ukrainian steppe. He traveled along the coast of modern-day Libya too. How did he travel? On foot or on horseback? How did he pay his bills, and where did he stay? Did he record his findings on rolls of papyrus? Perhaps most intriguingly, how did he com- municate? It seems that he only spoke Greek (as would have been natural among Greek travelers of the time). Some of the regions that Herodo- tus passed through were colonized by Greeks. Greek traders and mercenaries along the north- ern coast of Egypt would have helped him ac- cess the information he needed, as did bilingual Egyptian priests. But what happened when he got to the Scythian steppe, as he traveled up the Dnieper River among barbarian tribes? Histo- rians will puzzle over the missing details while marveling over this massive work, the first aca- demic venture into the past. universal history. For all his belief in rational inquiry, he believed that human activity was ephemeral, and that even the power and ambi- tion of kings and conquerors could vanish one day: “Man is altogether a creature of accident [at the mercy of chance],” he reports the Athe- nian sage Solon warning King Croesus. Fore- shadowing the defeat of Persian emperor Xerxes at Salamis—and even, perhaps, the hubris of Athens, which, as Herodotus died, was about to be brought low by renewed conflict—he has Solon go on to warn the fabulously rich king of Lydia: “We must of every thing examine our end and how it will turn out at the last, for to many [the heavens] show but glimpses of hap- piness and then pluck them up by the roots and overturn them.” Histories’ Mysteries Other than the writings themselves, Herodotus left behind little description of his exact meth- ods. Modern historians puzzle over how he col- lected and stored his information over his vast travels. He must have been physically hardy: On his visit to Egypt, describing the exotic croco- diles and ibises he sees, he traveled down the The Problem of the Past PART AUTOBIOGRAPHY, part history, and part travelogue, Travels With Herodotus, by Pol- ish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski (published in English in 2007, shortly after his death) embraced the multidisciplinary spirit of its subject. Following in the footsteps of the Greek writer, Kapuscinski reflects on how Herodotus’s interviews with people he met underlined the eternal challenge faced by historians: to craft an accurate narrative us- ing differing, often contradictory viewpoints: “Everyone colors after his fashion, brews up his own mélange of reminiscences. Therefore, getting through to the past itself, the past as it really was, is impossible. What are available to us are only its various versions, more or less credible, one or another of them suiting us bet- ter at any given time. The past does not exist. There are only infinite renderings of it.” LOCAL HISTORIAN Above, a modern statue of Herodotus in his birthplace, Halicarnassus— today, the city of Bodrum, Turkey GIULIO ANDREINI/ AGE FOTOSTOCK 48 MARCH/APRIL 2018 CARLOS GARCÍA GUAL IS PROFESSOR OF GREEK PHILOLOGY AT THE COMPLUTENSE UNIVERSITY OF MADRID, SPAIN.