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Making History and Making It Up: On the Reliability of Herodotus, and Subsequent Historians

‘The Literature of War’ is the title of this seminar, so let me begin, rather grandly, with isolating a working definition of the word ‘literature’. At its loftiest, it can mean writings whose value lies in the beauty of their form or their emotional effect, the realm of letters, the writings of a country or period, even – as Stephen Dedalus has it in Joyce’s Ulysses – ‘the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man’. Somewhere in the mid-rank, it can mean all the writings, the existing body of knowledge, on a particular subject. At its basest, it can mean any printed matter, for example electioneering leaflets (flyers). Apart from understandably stressing and inviting a focus on the writings of Laurence Durrell, the call for papers for this conference is helpfully inclusive in welcoming submissions, and I quote:


on all aspects of war (e.g. the First World War, the Irish War of Independence or Civil War) in all periods, including the work of war correspondents (beginning with Thucydides). Topics which may be addressed include (but do not exclude other topics): 

Ancient Greek literature on war; the First World War; the Second World War; the Spanish Civil War; Women novelists on war; the American Civil War; the Greek Civil War. Films and television series which are based on novels will also be eligible for discussion, for example  Catch-22, Fortunes of War (Olivia Manning's Balkan and Levant trilogies), All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, The  Red Badge of Courage, et cetera.

 

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Plenty of room for manoeuvre there, then; or so one would suppose. But does ‘The Literature of War’ refer solely to artistic production inspired by or dealing with war? Or does it also include historical accounts and analysis of war? The reference to ‘Ancient Greek literature on war’ is only deceptively useful, as ‘literature’ could be read in its more imaginative sense as referring to Homer’s Iliad or Aeschylus’ The Persians, at the expense of its more quotidian application, which would permit Herodotus’ Histories. Thucydides is cited as the first war correspondent (a designation he might not have been entirely content with), but while it moves the remit outside the parameters of imaginative literature, it still problematises Herodotus, who was writing about events retrospectively, from secondhand accounts.

Of course, perplexity as to the status of historiography as a somehow tainted literary representation or a scientific objective recounting is nothing new, with E. H. Carr’s What Is History? (1961), for long the standard text for students entering the field, provoking fierce responses like that of Geoffrey Elton’s The Practice of History (1967), because of his relativism and his rejection of contingency as an important factor in historical analysis; that is, his almost proto-Baudrillardian notion of history as a partisan pursuit, written by the winners, or at least by those with vested interests or their own agendas. Elton, on the other hand, was a strong defender of the traditional methods of history and was appalled by postmodernism, seeing the duty of historians as empirically gathering evidence and objectively analyzing what it had to say. Fittingly, the Carr-Elton debate can be seen as a latter day reenactment of perceptions surrounding the virtues and drawbacks of Herodotus vis--vis Thucydides as historians of Ancient Greece, the methodology espoused by each echoing the practice of their predecessors.

For it is with ‘The Father of History’, as Cicero called him, that I intend to begin, regardless of whether or not his historical writings qualify as literature, or even if they can more aptly – depending on how you choose to define your terms – be classified as literature rather than history; and despite the fact that, at least as early as Plutarch’s pamphlet On The Malignity of Herodotus, he has also been known as ‘The Father of Lies’. The focus will be on discussing the reliability of Herodotus’ Histories, specifically exploring to what extent his Athenian sympathies, which he freely admits, colour his account of the reasons for Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 BC, and the extent of Greek unity in resisting that invasion. The chief problem with trying to evaluate the reliability, or otherwise, of Herodotus’ treatment of the Persian wars is that the basis of the assessment, given the dearth of other contemporaneous records with which to compare it, is invariably Herodotus himself: his comments on his own work are contained within that work.

We get a good impression of Herodotus’ honesty from the frank manner in which he admits his Athenian sympathies, in expressing the opinion that Athenian resolution saved Greece from Persian conquest, however unpopular that opinion might be. Born in Halikarnassos around 484 BC, after extensive travels Herodotus migrated to the imperial city of Athens, like many intellectuals of his time. He was known to the city’s leading men, and loved democracy and praised it as responsible for Athens’ vigour and prosperity. It is therefore easy to see that his bias in writing would be towards Athens. Still more important is the fact that most of his informants were Athenians, which would obviously affect his presentation of the material. The prejudice of Athenian informants stands out in the treatment of cities for the parts they played in 480; and it is the prejudice of Athenian informants after Athens’ quarrel with Sparta and reversal of alliances, that is, after 464, when the work was written. Athens from then on was friendly to Argos and to Thessaly, and this accounts for the gentle treatment accorded these powers, both of which had joined the Persians. Thebes, on the other hand, which had also joined the invader under compulsion, is treated in a disparaging manner and even its contingent at Thermopylae is libelled. This is because Thebes was Athens’ enemy both then and later. The Phocians, who had a reasonably good war record, are rewarded with the derogatory comment that this was only out of hatred for the Thessalians. If the Thessalians had resisted the Persians, no doubt the Phocians would have joined them (VII.30). The reason is that, whereas Thessaly was in alliance with Athens during all the time that Herodotus was writing, Phocis, after being in the same camp from 457 to 447, had gone back to that of Sparta. The cities on the patriotic side fare no better, and show how disastrously misled Herodotus was by his Athenian friends. Aegina, he knew, had won high praise for good work at Salamis, but he describes them as slow to give Apollo his share of their prize of valour (VII.122), an Aeginetan as proposing the mutilation of Mardonius’ body and, absurdly, the island’s wealth as ‘originating’ from the purchase of golden ornaments looted on the field of Plataea by Sparta’s helots, who thought they were bronze. Corinth is the most conspicuous victim of this unfairness. He depicts their admiral Adeimantus as a coward and a fool (VIII.5), and holds the Athenian version that at Salamis the Corinthians hoisted sail and fled. But he does save his reputation for honesty by writing: ‘The Corinthians deny this and say that they were among the foremost in the battle; and the other Greeks support their version’ (VIII.94). Athens and Corinth were at war from 461 to 445, and probably soon after the peace of 445 Herodotus sailed for Thuria, and failed to get other opinions.

So the implication of all this is that it is important when reading Herodotus on the Persian Wars to look out for the bias of his sources, whom he only rarely names. There are also obvious discrepancies, for he writes as though he knows well what was said in councils of war, both Greek and Persian. The chances of this are slight, since the facts of the discussions would not be known to the men in the ranks, with whom Herodotus talked some thirty years later. That he believed them, if indeed he did, reflects a strong oral ‘saga’ tradition which it did not occur to him or anyone else to question, or at least to exclude. It should be added, however, that Herodotus was not totally incapable of objectivity, and often when a sentence begins with ‘It is said’ or ‘They say’ it is our signal to doubt him, or rather, what is recorded. As Herodotus himself says: ‘Throughout the entire history it is my underlying principle that it is what people severally have said to me, and what I have heard, that I must write down.’ (II.123) After all, the Greek word ‘historia’, from which our own specialised meaning is derived, meant ‘research’ or ‘inquiry’, rather than the definitive account. It is hardly Herodotus’ fault if no other version survives.

So, while from an early twenty-first century perspective, Herodotus may seem more like a chronicler rather than an analyser, it is important to remember history’s origins in storytelling, and the influence of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – the stories from both of which were recited orally long before they were ever written down – on Herodotus’ mindset and methodology. Indeed, in an echo of those tales told around a campfire, which rhymed to facilitate ease of memorisation, it is believed that Herodotus would have given public readings from his Histories in Athens. For this reason, we may find it more understandable that he is nebulous about the differences between tradition and history, and that he did not always realise that eye witness accounts of the same event can vary. If literature is what is written, and Herodotus was writing history, we should not forget the debt both literature and history owe to the oral tradition.

Herodotus lived in a time when oral traditions were still preserved with care, and he probably gained most of his information this way. Most scholars believe that even without extraordinary means, oral traditions, cultures, and memories can remain fresh for three generations. The Persian Wars were still within the three-generation span when Herodotus did his research, and he spoke to living witnesses of the great invasion.

By the fifth century, Greek culture was beginning to organize itself with historical learning in mind. Temples and Oracles were beginning to collate their records and temple archives were beginning to gain some acclaim. There are records that show by 403 BC Athens had a central archive in the Metroon, the temple of the Mother of the Gods, and some sources claim that the records there went back as far as the sixth century. Though we have little evidence, it is probable that other temples outside of Athens kept records not just of temple matters but secular ones as well. These document collections, however, would prove of little help to Herodotus.

The documentary evidence that is so valued among modern day historians was simply of no use to Herodotus. In the first place, the temple archives that housed what little documentary evidence there was did not open their doors to every wanderer who happened by. Unless a document was published – which means it was inscribed and set in a public place – the average person would not have had access to it, let alone been able to read it. Herodotus cites twenty-four inscriptions, half of them Greek, half not. Some of these he wrote down, some he recalled from memory (II.125), but for the most part Herodotus does not value documentary evidence very highly – the reason was not that it was unavailable, but that it was inaccessible.

Herodotus followed the same patterns of research and inquiry that have been par for historical investigations in the centuries that followed. He interviewed witnesses, both first and second hand, looked into documentary evidence, even travelled the same paths his Histories would go, all in an attempt to preserve the events, and to tell his story as it actually happened. But every historian, even the first, consciously and unconsciously shapes his narrative and judgements so as to convey a perception of his subject in a persuasive manner. The historian, by his delivery and style, has the power to distance the reader from the subject at hand or, by a simple twist of phrasing, invite them into the drama he creates. An ideal flow of events would be one in which one page describes one event, in an endless flow of history which begins at the beginning and ends at the ending. This, however, is a dream which no realistic historian even attempts to attain, and Herodotus was no exception. Herodotus interrupts the rhythmic progress of his history with privileged scenes – special incidents special only because Herodotus chose them – designed to develop themes that may not become apparent until hundreds of pages later. He inflates the incidents that he tells of with dramatic detail, while at the same time deflating, or even ignoring, other episodes – sometimes days, weeks, or even centuries go unrecorded, all for the sake of dramatic telling.

An example of this can be seen in the seventh book of the Histories. Herodotus wanted his audience to see the wonders that Xerxes accomplished in crossing his army over the Hellespont on the ill-fated invasion of Greece (VII.54-56). To place us there, Herodotus tells the story from the point of view of a local Hellespontine who watches and relates the story in awe. Whether this person was actually there or not, or even if he ever spoke of such an event to Herodotus or not, is not really the point. The story is painstakingly told as if it were happening at that time, and the eye-witness narrator draws the reader in so that he or she is no longer looking into a window to the past, but instead is a participant in it.

Despite the literate culture in which he lived and worked, there are still numerous elements in the Histories which hark back to the epic days of old. One of the key characteristics of epic poetry is the use of extensive catalogues, best exemplified by the listing of ships in Book II of the Iliad. This catalogue is paralleled by Herodotus' listing of the invasion force of Xerxes, and to a lesser extent the lists of Ionian cities, Greek fleets, and so on. He lists those city-states loyal to the Hellenic League, and those who were disloyal, as well as those who took part in the various battles scattered throughout his account, such as the naval forces at Artemisium. Genealogy, also a key component in the Homeric narrative, plays an important role for Herodotus. Of course, this may be for more practical concerns than a simple reverence for the epic poet. In cultures which preserve their history orally, genealogies and king-lists provide the best and in some cases only means of dating a past event. It may be known that something occurred in the tenth year of King X, but exactly how many years ago that was is unclear. By estimating the number of years between generations, however, it is possible to count backwards and estimate approximately how long ago an event occurred.

Herodotus was also given to interrupting a speech or other dramatic moment to make sure his audience had followed the story correctly up to that point. In Book V, for instance, he interrupts Aristagoras' speech by inserting, ‘While speaking, he was pointing to the map of the earth that he carried around engraved on his tablet (V.49). This hardly seems relevant, especially since Herodotus had described the map earlier in the same paragraph. For a literate man, reading the Histories, there would be no need to repeat the description of the map – he could easily back up a few lines and re-read the description if it pleased him. This repeating of the description is a throwback to the days of oral epic poetry, where elements were repeated because, obviously, in lengthy recitals of epic poetry, with attendant fuss and movement in the crowd, there must have naturally been some loss of attention and comprehension.

Herodotus draws the reader into his work through the use of other old-time epic devices. In the text of his work, the words and forms he uses also serve the same purpose. He consistently uses the second person singular in his work, the vocative case, almost as though he were talking to the reader personally. For instance, when discussing his (erroneous) belief that all Persian names end in ‘-s’ he writes, ‘On searching this out, you will find no exceptions to this among their names.’ (I.139) This also allows Herodotus to permit his readers to hold different beliefs, by showing the existence of different points of view.

Herodotus' use of digression is also a leftover device from Homeric times. At first glance, the numerous digressions in Herodotus' narrative seem like haphazard placements of material, sometimes relevant, more often not. This view, however, comes from a modern interpretation of the style of historical writing. The contemporary historian also arranges his narrative in a dramatic form, but he or she uses footnotes, endnotes and citations to show the inner workings, or raw data, of his work. These notes allow the historian to share sources and present tangential information, and provide the basis of opinions. Herodotus, however, was not able to use such conventions as footnotes or endnotes (or, for that matter, pages, chapters, or books). Because of this, his digressions had to be placed more carefully, so that he could make his point without losing his audience. The digressions are also a throwback to the ring composition technique of Homer, where a linear narrative is temporarily interrupted for a cycle of three interlaced stories, before being resumed.

One of the biggest problems many historians have with Herodotus is his use of direct speeches in the later books of the Histories, for example when Xerxes gives his reasons for the invasion of Greece (VII.8-13). It is clear that there is no way Herodotus or his sources could have obtained word for word transcripts of the speeches of local Greek leaders, much less Xerxes and the other Persian emperors. Therefore we must accept that these speeches were made up by Herodotus, or his sources, for some greater purpose. While the dramatic speech is certainly a throwback to the epic days, it performs another function. Recent scholars have pointed out that in Greek history, the narrative is used to relate historical events, while the personal speeches are reserved to provide rational explanation for these occurrences. These dramatic speeches are often used by Herodotus both to give his impression, and to reveal his opinion, of a character; his understanding, and explanation of, a policy; and, most importantly, to keep his audience interested in the progress of the tale.

From the foregoing, the fictional techniques employed in the earliest historical writing will be evident. One of the traits that separate Herodotus from many historians who came after him is the way in which he relates to his audience. He uses humour, irony, and sarcasm in a way few have since, especially in the way he relates to the unbelievable, or demonstrably false, portions of his history. Indeed, it may be Herodotus' use of baser literary constructs which make his Histories so appealing to casual readers, and so disliked by professional historians. Herodotus may have been at the forefront of the historical revolution in Greece, but he clearly was descendent from a long literary line. He made the jump from the epic poems of Homer to secular history, but he did not forget the roots from which his genre came. It is possible that Herodotus employed the same structures and methods of the epic poet because of the similarities in their work. Herodotus was not a blind poet, but his did tell a tale. He was not honoured as telling the stories of gods and men, but he still sought to make a living by entertaining others. Herodotus used tried and trusted ways of telling a great story, and incorporated them into his Histories when it was committed to paper. To do this he abjured the high-minded Greek rhetoric favoured by the philosophers, and instead chose the epic language of one of the greatest storytellers ever.

In this context, it should be noted that the words which have been used of him are not always as rude as ‘liar’ would suggest to us. Again, etymology comes to our aid. Cicero’s ‘fabulosus’ might better be translated as ‘storyteller’, reminding us of Thucydides’ announcement that he, for a change, is not going to indulge in such publicity-hunting to please the masses (I.22); while, if the explicit word ‘pseustes’ is often employed, it might be pointed out that to this day in Greek ‘psemmata’ – ‘lies’ – is often less insulting than it sounds to us, meaning ‘Nonsense!’ rather than ‘That said with intention to deceive’.

Although Herodotus’ overall emphasis lay on the actions and characters of men, he also attributed an important role to divinity in the determination of historical events. Thucydides, in contrast, largely eliminated divine causality in his account of the war between Athens and Sparta, History of the Peloponnesian War, establishing a rationalistic element which became the defining characteristic of subsequent Western historiography. For Thucydides, history was in the most fundamental sense a strictly human affair, capable of analysis and understanding entirely in terms of known patterns of human behaviour, without the intervention of the supernatural. Although Thucydides never mentions Herodotus by name, he voices his veiled contempt for his predecessor in the opening of his own work:

The absence of an element of romance in my account of what happened, may well make it less attractive to hear, but all who want to attain a clear point of view of the past, and also of like or nearly like events which, human nature being what is, will probably occur in the future – if these people consider my work useful, I shall be content. It is written to be a possession of lasting value, not a work competing for an immediate hearing. (I.22)

However, it would be wrong to surmise that this represents the real judgement of Thucydides about the achievements of his forerunner. After all, he paid Herodotus the high compliment of beginning where The Histories left off, implying that there was no need to go over that ground again. Furthermore, Thucydides paid Herodotus the even higher compliment of grasping and accepting, as virtually no other contemporary had done, the great discovery the Father of History had made: namely, that it was possible to analyse the political and moral issues of the time by a close study of events, of the concrete day-to-day experiences of society, thereby avoiding the abstractions of the philosophers on the one hand, and the myths of the poets on the other.

But do Thucydides’ much vaunted passion for accuracy and concomitant contempt for myth and romance in compiling this factual record of a significant conflict render this version of the events he treats of more reliable than Herodotus’ work on an earlier period? Thucydides’ extreme scepticism did not extend to the myths and poems as a whole. The poets may ‘exaggerate the importance of their themes’, and the chroniclers ‘are less interested in telling the truth than in catching the attention of their public’, but their main narratives are accepted as historical fact. What is really telling, however, is that Thucydides uses speeches and digressions with almost as great a frequency as Herodotus did, even if he prefaces their inclusion with apologetic caveats, a kind of ancient proto-postmodern way of assimilating the grand lessons of a preceding modernism, and presenting them in a more self-conscious manner. Furthermore, unlike Herodotus, Thucydides never names his informants, and on only two occasions does he say that he was a direct participant: he suffered from the plague, and he was a general at Amphipolis. So, we are compelled to take Thucydides on faith almost as much, if not more so, as we are Herodotus. He left no ground for re-examination or alternative judgement. We cannot control the reliability of his informants, since they are not named. We cannot check his judgement of what was irrelevant, since he omitted it ruthlessly, unlike the more inclusively generous, if sometimes sloppy, Herodotus; or of what he decided was a false report or wrong explanation, since he left that out too.

The concept of historiography as representation, which can easily shade into fiction, while being presented as factual truth, has correlatives in our own time. Herodotus’ treatment of the Persian invasion implies an underlying conflict between the absolutism of the East and the supposedly free institutions of the West, between Persian monarchy and Athenian democracy. Without too much of a stretch, it could be argued that Herodotus was indulging in an early species of what Edward Said has subsequently termed, after the title of his 1978 book which almost single-handedly founded postcolonial studies, Orientalism.

Said’s originality was evident in the way he defined the subject of his book. Orientalism is, first, an academic specialisation: a topic studied by archaeologists, historians, theologians and others in the West who are concerned with Middle Eastern and North African cultures. But Said added two further meanings to the term. Orientalism is also something more general, something that has shaped Western thought since the Greeks: namely, a way of dividing up the world between the West and the East. What appears to be a simple geographical fact is, says Said, actually an idea. The division of the world into these two parts is not a natural state of affairs, but an intellectual choice made by the West in order to define itself. The third meaning for Orientalism is more historically specific. Since the latter part of the eighteenth century, when European colonialism in the Middle East developed most fully, Orientalism has been a means of domination, a part of the colonial enterprise. Said argues that colonialism is not only about the physical acts of taking land, or of subjugating people, but is also about intellectual acts. The academic study of the Orient is unthinkable outside its colonial context and vice versa. So, rather than just an innocent scholarly topic, Orientalism is a general way of imagining the world’s divisions and a specific mechanism for furthering the colonial quest.

Following Foucault, Said describes the Orient as a product of discourse; that is, not as something in the world that is discovered and analysed, but as something created by Western institutions and ideas. The definition of the Orient is a means of regulating it; the apparent truths discovered are in fact ideas circulated and accepted as part of Western colonial activity in the Middle East. The sense of the Orient as a discursive construct, in turn, enables Said to make one of his most important and striking arguments: what the West believed it had discovered about the East tells us little about the colonised cultures, but much about the coloniser’s. The texts and disciplines that comprise Orientalism – historical narratives like that of Herodotus, analyses of religion, travel writing, etc – reveal the values and preconceptions of the West, of the way people in Paris or London, or indeed fifth century Athens, wanted to see themselves, their fears and ambitions and prejudices. In particular, the image created of the East is used as a means of constructing one’s own identity. The picture of the East functions as a distorting mirror image, enabling the West to say that whatever they are, we are not. This emphasises the way in which a duality, often referred to as a dyad, is set up: West and East, us and them.

An unlikely literary example of these attitudes comes from the pen of the late Russian poet and Nobel laureate, Joseph Brodsky, in his essay ‘Flight from Byzantium’. Indeed, so vitriolic is his repugnance, it is tempting to speculate that he is intentionally verging into parody:

The delirium and horror of the East. The dusty catastrophe of Asia. Green only on the banner of the Prophet. Nothing grows here except moustaches. A black-eyed, overgrown-with-stubble-before-supper
part of the world. Bonfire embers doused with urine. That smell! A mixture of foul tobacco and sweaty soap and the underthings wrapped around loins like another turban. Racism? But isn’t it only a form of misanthropy? And that ubiquitous grit flying in your muzzle even in the city, poking the world out of your eyes – and yet one feels grateful even for that. Ubiquitous concrete, with the texture of turd and the colour of an upturned grave. Ah, all that nearsighted scum – Corbusier, Mondrian, Gropius – who mutilated the world more effectively than any Luftwaffe!

Snobbery? But it’s only a form of despair. The local population in a state of total stupor whirling its time away in squalid snack bars, tilting its heads as in a namaz in reverse toward the television screen, where somebody is permanently beating somebody else up. Or else they’re dealing out cards, whose jacks and nines are the sole accessible abstractions, the single means of concentration. Misanthropy? Despair? Yet what else could be expected from one who has outlived the apotheosis of the linear principle?

From a man who has nowhere to go back to? From a great turdologist, sacrophage, and the possible author of Sadomachia?


Brodsky even goes on to argue that: ‘By divorcing Byzantium, Western Christianity consigned the East to non-existence, and thus reduced its own notion of human negative potential to a considerable, perhaps even a perilous, degree.’ He also implies that: ‘…the anti-individualistic notion that human life is essentially nothing – i.e., the absence of the idea that human life is sacred, if only because each life is unique’, originates in the East, and that Western Christianity’s neglecting the experience supplied by Byzantium is the reason why college campus killers are classed as mentally ill, and presumably suicide bombers are labelled religious fanatics, as opposed to just plain evil. If supposedly enlightened Western humanists can harbour such sentiments, what hope can there be for reconciliation and mutual understanding?

In an essay entitled, with a phrase she borrowed from Said’s book, ‘The Imaginary Orient’, the art historian Linda Nochlin discusses the work of French Orientialist painters such as Delacroix and Gerome, paying particular attention to the latter’s The Snake Charmer, the image which graced the cover of the original edition of Orientialism. She argues that these paintings are not the accurate depictions of Oriental life they seem to purport to be, but are fantasies which would be better understood as imaginative inventions, rather than true images. In this, she may presume too much about the intentionality of the painters – all art, after all, being a representation; but she goes on to propound that these imaginative fantasies also have a political purpose, that is to remind the viewer that it is the West that is the locus of morality, representing as they do a decadent culture which needs either moralising, or rescuing from its own inexorable decline, and so help to justify Western intervention in the East.

To be sure, in Herodotus’ day it was the Persian Empire that was the aggressor, looking to colonise Greece, and the united city-states, including Athens, were merely defending themselves. The notable difference in our day is that it is the democrats who are doing the invading, with the sanctioning intention of toppling an absolute ruler. However, Herodotus’ contention that democracy was the cornerstone of Athenian superiority, and his praise of it as responsible for Athens’ pre-eminent position, might make us mindful of the justifications invoked for the invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain, and the continuing conflict there. And while bringing the benefits of democracy and freedom to a former dictatorship was the general goal of the invasion, the proximate goad was the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction within the jurisdiction of that regime, a piece of ‘intelligence’ which was subsequently exposed as a faulty, if useful, fiction. However, that the reason for going to war ultimately proved to be another instance of imaginative invention, every bit as much a representation (or version, or spin) as elements of Herodotus’ Histories, has not bothered the advocates of invasion unduly since it has been discovered, evidence that people are still as enthralled by mythic embroidery masquerading as objective fact as they ever were.

There are, of course, some problems with Said’s notion of Orientalism. Firstly, his analysis can serve to further polarise Western and non-Western culture. Secondly, he does not give sufficient weight to the idea that all cultures are created by cross-cultural exchanges, even if one of the parties is in a less powerful position than the other. That the concept of ‘hybridity’ has sprung up as a response to postcolonialism is no surprise. Examples from twentieth century musical history are the crossover of blues, jazz and soul in America, and reggae and ska in Britain. (To be sure, white music has always borrowed heavily from black music, frequently without proper accreditation, which can result in the process being cast as yet another example of colonial cultural pillaging, rather than friendly exchange and sharing; but this is a large topic, which could form the subject matter of a separate study, in essay or book format.) Relevant contemporary examples, again from the field of popular music, would be the emergence of Turkish hip-hop in Germany, and African hip-hop and world music in France, both movements which feature not only immigrants, but mixed-race groups – a phenomenon that is much slower to take hold in America, although the racial and cultural eclecticism of groups like T.V. On The Radio offer some hope for a new direction there.

So, Herodotus’ prejudices, however freely he admits them, and the notion of history as a representational construct rather than a collection of chronological facts, carry resonances to this day. In the case of my own country, Ireland, plays by Brian Friel like Translations and Making History engage with how history is made, and remade. But, since we are in Greece, and Western society may be regarded as the product of the conflux of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures, of Athens and Jerusalem, both of which flourished in close proximity to the East, as represented by Byzantium, perhaps it can be suggested that fruitful avenues of study would be the work of writers, whether they are native to this region or not, who have engaged with the conflicts between clashing cultures in this geopolitical area, and the accommodations that have been reached, for example Damascus Gate by Robert Stone, and My Name is Red, and Snow, by Orhan Pamuk. Inside this golden triangle, we may learn that ancient history is not so different from our own, so-called modern, version; and that the phrase ‘the art of the historian’ may come more freighted than we would like to imagine.


Forthcoming in The Literature of War: Proceedings from the Durrell School of Corfu Conference, May 2007, Cambridge Scholars Press, Newcastle, September 2008.

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