A Sinful Bookmark

What was Herodotus trying to tell us?

by Daniel Mendelsohn

Having read this review of a new edition of Herodotus, I truly regret the bookmark that’s been sitting in book four of my copy since April or so. I have good reasons; comps are quite scary when they’re getting closer, and Micah all of a sudden started going to bed in a quarter of the time, eliminating my sit-in-the-rocking-chair-and-read time. Nonetheless, I know full well that just beyond the Hyperboreans and Scythians, the famous parts of Herodotus start, the battles between Xerxes and the Greeks, yet my bookmark sits there, two hundred fifty pages in, waiting for me to return. I feel awfully ashamed.

The book, as this reviewer notes, is a rambling collection of chapters-long digressions on battlefield engineering, gold mining, the interpretation of prophetic oracles, and long speeches about forms of government, yet because of Herodotus’s skill as a writer, it all seems unified. I’ve even posted on this blog before some passages that struck me humorous. (Too tired to post a hyperlink right now.) And, from the primal sin of Gyges (no invisibility ring in H.’s version) to the overreach of Croesus to the failed desert warfare campaign of the power-hungry Persians against the power-apathetic Ethiopians (Tolkien readers, think of a nation out of which Tom Bombadil might have come), the book as I’ve read it is great fun as well as instructive morally. Mendelsohn ends his review with a look at that moral vision:

Many commentators ascribe this disaster to the flawed decisions of the son: a man whose bluster competes with, or perhaps covers for, a certain hollowness at the center; a leader who is at once hobbled by personal demons (among which, it seems, is an Oedipal conflict) and given to grandiose gestures, who at best seems incapable of comprehending, and at worst is simply incurious about, how different or foreign his enemy really is. Although he himself is unscathed by the disaster he has wreaked, the fortunes and the reputation of the country he rules are seriously damaged. A great power has stumbled badly, against all expectations.

As he notes throughout, Herodotus’s picture of Xerxes, the tyrant and imbecile who is complex even as he horrifies, is one of the great literary types for autocrats from his own day to ours. No doubt, reading that paragraph, O Reader, you had your own favorite autocrat in mind.

Now I’ve just got to read the actual Herodotus to make sure he’s not making things up. Scythians, here I come!

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