Monday, May 19, 2008

Herodotus and The Histories

History can be pretty dry at times. A good history book spins a story that gives life to the people involved and is vivid in the retelling of its subject. An amazing read is The Histories by Herodotus. This book is the granddaddy of them all and centers on the rise of the Greek world and their battles versus the Persians. This is required reading in nearly every Greek culture/history classics course. It is a joy to read. You can start and stop in different sections and seek out specific things to read about on a rainy night.

Herodotus is not afraid to take you down a tangent of history that you probably do not want to know. A chapter might discuss how a city fell to a general. Instead of then proceedign to what happened next, Herodotus will then tell you how that general's people rose to power right up to that point and the general's part in that rise. The tangents make the book so rich. Some of the small stories are fantastic little nuggets of culture and life in Greek days. Imagining a Greek suitor losing a maiden's hand in marriage because he danced on his head on a table is extremely funny, and this is a sidestory to explain how generations later a certain political leader was born. Thank God his dad wasn't table head dancer.

In college, I had the joy of learning about Greek history from two inspiring guys, Professor Frederick Ahl and Barry S. Strauss. Prof Strauss has written quite a few books. I regret being abroad when he was starting a new class of ancient military tactics and campaigns. Prior to the war in Afganistan, Prof Strauss wrote an op-ed in the daily newspaper that explained how we should wage a war in Afganistan to avoid the mistakes the Soviets made. It was amazing to see it unfold as his blueprint showed in one column. Prof Strauss was of the mindset that you can use the past to solve today's problems. As the saying goes, history doesn't repeat itself, but often times, it rhymes. Prof Ahl was keen on explaining how some watered down translations have altered the interpretation of so many classics. He wanted us to think Greek when we read Greek. I looked forward to exams just to share my ideas of the classics or form an argument for an interpretation. He was extremely cool to chat with and once told me "jesus, i rarely meet survey class students who pay this close attention to my lectures". These guys were the type of lecturers that I wish the econ dept had in greater numbers, or any number. It's 5 years on, and I still read these classics. Thanks guys.

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