“The History” Essay, Research Paper

Herodotus, in his book The History, tells us a good deal about how, in the course of the 5th Century, the Greeks came to define themselves by casting “barbarians” as a negative foil for those traits which they admired in themselves. By ?barbarians?, Herodotus means the ?Others?, those who were not Greek or European. The Persian Wars marked something of a watershed in this regard. Prior to the 480s the Greek view of their eastern neighbors did not seem to have been excessively negative or hostile. Following the Persian Wars, however, Easterners came to be portrayed in pejorative terms. According to Herodotus?, they were seen as decadent and effeminate, in large part due to their excessive wealth and “soft” living. Their slavish lifestyles, particularly in their willingness to serve absolute despots and their grotesque use of eunuchs, the practice of circumcision, and their strange gods further distinguished them from the Greeks. By contrast, Herodotus? viewed the Greeks as virile and independent, proudly fighting in defense of their cities, their families, their gods, and for their own freedom and dignity. Thus, the theme of The History of Herodotus is the struggle between the East and the West. The East, represented by the Persian Empire, signified tyranny and oppression. The West, represented by the Greek city-states, signified freedom. As Herodotus interprets the Persian Wars we see the beginnings of Western Civilization and the association of that tradition with freedom.

The Greeks had always been aware that foreign, barbarian peoples worshipped different gods and had customs different from their own. The rise of ethnographic studies, however, encouraged a systematic examination of the nature of human culture and society. To the Greeks this suggested that customs which they had always taken to be founded in immutable divine power, sanctioned by the Olympian gods, were in fact merely human inventions which other societies either ignored or directly contravened. Herodotus? framework, in The History, is that of Greek interest. He provides a series of assumptions of Greek practice that can be contrasted with barbarian modes of behavior.

Herodotus? description of the East begins with a kingdom that is nearest to Greece, Lydia- an ?in between? country. In Lydia we see a king who is fascinated by Greece, Greek gods, Greek insights and Greek friendship. Herodotus also introduces a disturbing sexual aberration in the story of Candaules, a Lydian. ? This Candaules fell in love with his own wife?.? (The History of Herodotus, Grene, Book 1, chapters 8, p. 36). He was so in love with his wife that he asked his bodyguard Gyges to see his wife naked. Candaules reasoned that, ? Gyges, I do not think that you credit me when I tell you about the beauty of my wife; for indeed men?s ears are duller agents of beliefs than their eyes. Contrive, then that you see her naked.? (The History of Herodotus, Grene, Book 1, chapters 8, p. 36). The fact that Candaules has fallen in love with his own wife is disturbing to Herodotus and the Greeks. However, for any man or women to be seen naked is shameful to both the Greeks and the barbarians. ?For among the Lydians and indeed among the generality of the barbarians, for even a man to be seen naked is an occasion of great shame (The History of Herodotus, Grene, Book 1, chapters 10, p. 37).

Herodotus describes the religion of the barbarians as grotesque especially in their use of eunuchs, the practice of circumcision, and their strange gods in comparison with the Greek religion. For example, Herodotus discusses a series of key Greek ideas toward sacrifices; the expectation that blood will be shed, that meat will be boiled over wood, that animals rather than humans will be killed, that wine will be used, that there will be an act of pouring, etc. However, in Sctythia these traditions are foreign: animals are killed by strangulation rather than by knife, the carcasses may be roasted over burning bones rather than wood, and the victim is sometimes human, the wine is poured over the human victims head. (The History of Herodotus, Grene, Book 4.60-4).

Their excessive wealth as noted in Herodotus? accounts of the fame of Gyges’ wealth and the lavish nature of Croesus’ offerings at Delphi, made the barbarians ?soft? compared to the Greeks who were frugal in their living and in their offerings to the Gods (The History of Herodotus, Grene, Book 1, chapters 50-51,71). To Herodotus, this behavior made the barbarians easier to conquer, but also more likely to expand.

Herodotus does not consider Greece as a single unified country. The position of Sparta often serves as a sort of internal Greek ?Other.? The burial customs of Spartan kings are explicitly linked to barbarian practices. The court stories, especially those concerning Leotychides? and Demartus? births and inheritances, are similar to those practiced in the East (The History of Herodotus, Grene, Book 6, chapters 58-89). Herodotus also associated Spartan military tactics, for example the shuffling of the Spartan troops before the Battle of Plataea, with those of barbarians (The History of Herodotus, Grene, Book 90).

The barbarians? slavish life style, particularly the Persian willingness to serve absolute despots like Xerxes was the most significant difference between them and the Greeks. Greece was perceived as a center of democracy and individual freedom. The people of Athens were strong and fought for their political and social freedom and the Greek people were allowed to express themselves with fearless frankness. However, the people of Persia were soft. They did not care about their rights but rather about their wealth and luxuries. Thus, Persia was seen as a center of tyranny and oppression where a nervy atmosphere hung over the people and no one was allowed to speak freely.

In some cases, however, both the barbarians and the Greeks act similarly. The sworn agreement between Alyattes and Cyaxares, were made in the same manner Greek agreements were made, by cutting the skin of their arms and licking one another?s blood Gods (The History of Herodotus, Grene, Book 1, chapters 74). When both sides are discussing their strategies for battle in Book 8, the Greeks as well as the Persians refrain from their freedom of speech. The Persian debate re-centers the familiar atmosphere, Xerxes does not even ask for opinion himself, but Mardonius does the questioning for him; Queen Artemisia is the only one to speak frankly. Themistocles also is to speak no more freely than his Persian counterparts (The History of Herodotus, Grene, Book 8, chapters 60-70, p. 576-581). Also, at this point in the book, Herodotus? makes another striking comparison between the Persians and the Greeks. Herodotus describes the self-interest of the Persian grandees while both sides are discussing their strategies. This he associates with Greeks and therefore concludes that angling for personal advantage is not confined to one side (The History of Herodotus, Grene, Book 8, chapters 60-70, p. 576-581).

Thus, in Herodotus? The History, the development of civilization moves toward a great confrontation between Persia and Greece, which are presented as the centers, respectively, of Eastern and Western culture. The clash of cultures is predominant from beginning to end: that the peoples of Europe are different from those of Asia in fundamental ways that has made conflict between them inevitable. Herodotus, in The History, relates the behavior of all barbarians as contrast with that of the Greeks. However, there were some occasions when the barbarians did act like the Greeks, as with signing agreements. There were also times when the Greeks acted like the barbarians, as in their inability to express their freedom of speech at the discussion of strategies before battle. But these instances are few. Therefore, Herodotus theory is that any non-Greek will act in a manner that is in contrast of that of a Greek behavior in the same situation. The Greek pattern is considered superior. For these reasons the West-Greece-is thought of as championing the cause of political and individual freedom while the East-Asia Minor is that of being under the slavish rule of Dynastic Kings.


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