What useful lessons could a history of the Greco-Persian Wars written in 430 B.C. possibly have for us today? Several, if you ask Swarthmore’s J. Archer and Helen C. Turner Professor of Classics Rosaria Vignolo Munson and Carolyn Dewald ’68, professor emerita of classical studies at Bard College.
“Herodotus is called the father of history because [Herodotus’ Histories] is the first work of historiography that has actually survived in the West,” says Munson. “He's very important because he is the first one who wants to examine the causes of events in the past, like for example, why war happened, and why people win wars.”
Histories has it all: fact, fiction, betrayal, murder… and don’t worry if it’s all Greek to you.
“[Herodotus is] great at really just sliding in information to locate you so that you know what the point is going to be because you're given the background,” says Dewald.
Munson and Dewald have shown the same commitment to accessibility in their commentary.
“We took the Greek text of the first book and we made this commentary,” says Munson. “It is preceded by very full introductions to various topics Herodotus talks about, including the various people that he treats.” Line by line, they explain the Greek grammar, what it means, and offer interpretation and parallels.
Munson posits that the recent surge of interest in his work is because his exploration of the fragile nature of truth still resonates today. “He has come to the realization that memory is relative, and so sometimes he says, ‘The Athenians say this, and the Persians say this other thing. I really cannot tell which one of the two versions is right.’ He makes you aware of his research and of his efforts.”
Perhaps, in an era where misinformation proliferates rapidly, this level of transparency causes us to question how we know what we know and what makes us trust our sources.
And if we think respect for different cultures is a modern value, Herodotus proves us wrong.
“He is describing the expansion of the Persian Empire … they were a superpower, multi-ethnic empire,” says Munson. “He just stops and examines all the various peoples that the Persian had conquered. He says the custom is king of all, so whatever is one's custom, you have to respect it.”
Though Herodotus took pains to interview eyewitnesses and provide evidence for many of his claims, Histories includes figures from Greek mythology and a bit of his own moralizing.
“One of the things that he really hates is tyranny, the autocratic king, the dictator, the one who conquers other lands,” says Munson. “Very topical, especially now with the war in Ukraine. He would have a very clear position on that.”
And for those of us who grew up on folktales like The Tortoise and the Hare and The Emperor's New Clothes, Herodotus’ warnings about the dangers of hubris might feel familiar.
“In many cases, he shows that the reason why there is a downfall from great prosperity to not so great over time is because people have hubris, have pride, and they go overboard,” says Munson. “On the one hand, they are punished by the gods, but the way they're punished by the gods is simply by the fact that they start acting in unreasonable and self-detrimental ways.”
Some of his cautionary tales are still scandalous by today’s standards. Histories is rife with husband-murdering queens and sister-marrying kings.
“[Herodotus] went around and collected great stories,” says Dewald. “It's really fun reading.”
So, why still read such an ancient text? Because it has so many layers, there is always more to uncover.
“A lot of the stories are extremely funny in an extremely sly kind of way,” says Dewald. “I've been reading Herodotus for over 40 years, and I'm still finding things. ‘Wait a minute. Oh, that's a joke.’ But the joke always sends us to things that are pretty deep and worth thinking about.”