Wednesday, July 18, 2012

An Interview with Herodotus

To celebrate the publication of Reading Herodotus (on Kindle - paperback and hardback versions out 31st July) by Debra Hamel, I am delighted to present an interview with the man himself...

Herodotus by R. Seidemann

Questions about Reading Herodotus.

CD: So, Herodotus - who exactly are you?

H: Well, some millennia ago the answer to that question would have been fairly straightforward. I'm a travel writer, really. I was born in Halicarnassus, in what you moderns call Turkey, on the coast of the Aegean Sea. It was a multilingual community--people in the street speaking in the various Greek dialects, of course, but also Carians and Persians and traders from the Levant. It sparked my interest in faraway places. I spent a good portion of my prime--we're talking the fifth century here, mind, and that's B.C.--traveling around the then known world, and I wrote about the things I saw and learned. They call me the Father of History, because no one before me had written anything quite like what I came up with--my researches, the History, as it's called. So, that's me. The complicating factor is that it's currently 2012 A.D. My survival into your modern era is a mysterious issue best left to scientists and philosophers.

CD: Tell us a little more about your greatest work. Why did you write it, for instance.

H: A general curiosity about the unknown sparked, as I suggested, by the multicultural milieu in which I spent my formative years. There was a lot of unknown back then, too. I dare say it was easier to be an explorer then than it is now as there was so very much left to explore.

At any rate, my History is, generally speaking, an account of the expansion of the Persian Empire under its first four kings--Cyrus, Darius, Cambyses, and Xerxes. But that's the general framework of the thing, onto which I pack a lot of stories and geographic and ethnographic information. All of it culminates in the two Persian Wars of the early fifth century B.C., when Persia invaded Greece and was twice repulsed by the Greeks, first by the Athenians, fighting more or less on their own, and the second time by a coalition of Greek allies--people who regularly fought wars against one another and couldn't agree on much other than that the Persians could not be allowed to take over Greece. They, the Greeks, were vastly outnumbered and yet, against all odds, they survived, beat back the Persians, and went on to thrive in subsequent decades. The battles were the stuff of legend in my day, and rightly so: it sounds almost trite to say it, but the future of civilization really was hanging in the balance at Marathon and Salamis and Plataea. We're all living in a world that was shaped by the Greeks who fought those battles.

CD: And why do you feel Ms Hamel needs to update it now?

H: It's been a long time since I wrote the History, and it goes without saying that a lot has changed since then. Back in the day my audience used to listen, rapt, as I described the eight principal rivers that bisected Scythia. Now, not so much. Tastes have changed, and information is much easier to come by now. Any child nowadays can log onto Google Maps and see for himself what rivers run through Scythia. No need to read about it from me.

So, if you're out to introduce the History to a new audience, your task is two-fold. You'll want to cull some of the information I included that is not especially interesting to the modern reader. And you'll want to provide readers with the background information I neglected to include because I could assume my audience was familiar with it. Hamel does both while maintaining the general outline of my work. I think the whole project is rather exciting.

CD: I have noticed you are on Twitter. Please tell me what you think of 'Social Networking'.

H: It's the closest thing to magic that I know of. A global dialogue. A global agora, with ideas and information shared virtually instantaneously. How amazing is that? It's the kind of thing where you catch yourself thinking about how astonished people in my day would have been if the capacity to tweet were suddenly available to them. But you can't do that, of course. The existence of Twitter implies the existence of the internet and all the other modern technologies that led to this point in history. Besides, a Twittering man, 2500 years ago, would have been a magician, or a god. Men have become gods.

Kind of you to mention my Twitter account, @iHerodotus. I'm using it to post an abbreviated version of my History, one section per tweet, one tweet per day. We're in book four now. The whole thing should be finished in January of 2015. All the tweets, by the way are collected at, so people can catch up on what they've misse

CD: What are the bare essentials for a classical period travel writer/historian? In other words - what do you pack?

H: Very different from what I'd pack today! A GPS would have been nice. Or a halfway decent map. But I had parchment, of course, for notes, a good knife or two, a blanket, a sturdy hat. Various types of currency, though Athenian owls could open a lot of doors. Onions. Olive oil. A towel.

CD: If you had to pick out the most weird finding in your Histories - what would it be?

H: What leaps to mind is the way in which the Scythians memorialized their kings. A year after a king died the Scythians killed fifty of his servants and fifty horses and they stuffed the corpses and arranged them in a merry-go-round-like display around his tomb. I go into more detail in my book, but you get the idea. I'm not particularly judgmental, but people do some strange things.

General Questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?

H: Not to harp on the Scythians, but I refer to them somewhere in my History [4.46] as phereoikos, which means "house carrier," that is, someone or something that carries its house with them. The Scythians were house carriers because they were nomads. The term has also been used of snails, though, who of course carry around their shells.

Someone once told me that in northern Europe there were giant, man-sized snails that the locals hunted for food. After they'd killed and eaten the snails they'd clean out the shells and live in them as if they were snails themselves, and there were whole villages of these snail homes. But I never saw any of this myself and I'm not sure that I believe it, frankly.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?

When I was a boy one of the stories that got told a lot was about Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos (before my time), who ostensibly had it all: he'd enjoyed a string of military successes; he had more than adequate wealth and everything that went with it. For all his success, though, and however worthy a man he may have been, he was destined to die a horrible, really awful death. And it happened that there was simply no way for him to avoid this fate. I found his predicament...maybe sad isn't the right word, but chilling, not so much because of his individual fate, awful though it was, but because of the larger truth to which it pointed: that even the most fortunate of us can fall utterly. Fate, as they say, can turn on a dime. It's the wretched lot of humanity.

CD: What is happiness?

H: A life, lived well, that also ends well.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?

H: I usually go online. I check my Twitter account, Google myself, that sort of thing.


Blogger Anne S said...

Wonderful interview - very amusing. Herodotus sounds kinda cool. Will check out Debra Hamel's book.

Fri Jul 20, 11:14:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Anne - it sure is! I highly recommend.

Fri Jul 20, 11:21:00 am  
Blogger Paul Halpern said...

Fun interview. I'm wondering if he revealed his secret to longevity. Maybe it's his Mediterranean diet!

Sun Jul 22, 03:47:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Could be, Paul! I read that one of the reasons for the current Greek economic crisis was the longevity of Herodotus's ancestors.

Mon Jul 23, 08:58:00 pm  

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