Holland on Herodotus

Last Thursday, 275 members and visitors to the Association braved the rain for the branch’s final lecture of the 2018-19 season with bestselling author, historian, and broadcaster Tom Holland. Student Ambassador, Ronnais Lloyd of Runshaw College, writes about the lecture and encourages you to fall in love with the many digressions of the Histories:


Ronnais Lloyd and Tom Holland

On what may be the 2500th anniversary of Herodotus’ birth, Tom Holland expressed his unwavering love for Herodotus in an enthralling lecture, noticeably staying on the subject and not digressing too much like Herodotus!

Herodotus, the Father of History, was an extraordinary Classical writer and historian, whose work has stood the test of time and is relevant to the complexity of the world today. Tom explained how Herodotus has been a huge part of his life: from falling in love with the Greco-Persian wars as a child, to devoting years translating The Histories. Tom talked about how his Iranian friend refused to read The Histories because of how anti-Persian the Hollywood film 300 was; when Tom argued that Herodotus was far more complex than that, still his friend refused to read it, and Tom is committed to showing that Herodotus should not be labelled the Father of Lies but rather the Father of Wonders because of his limitless fascination for finding out more about the world.


Just hanging out with Herodotus!

Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus in modern-day Turkey; his Greek/Persian cultural background explains his natural curiosity for both Greek and non-Greek civilisations. Indeed, a Byzantine source tells us that his father and mother were Carian, showing that he was a barbarian as well as a Greek and Plutarch refers to Herodotus as a ‘philobarbaros’, a lover of barbarians. He admired Persian culture; how they educated their children to ride, shoot, and tell the truth; and their custom of making decisions on difficult matters both sober and drunk, which, Tom suggested, may work for Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn during the disastrous Brexit negotiations! Pathos is also evoked towards the Persians on the eve of the Battle of Plataea. He described the Persians throwing a party with their Greek allies, the Thebans. Thersander of Orchomenus, poured libations and shared a cup with a Greek man, also telling him that only a fraction of the Persians would survive the battle and he began to lament. What is very important about this story is that it is an eyewitness account from 2000 years ago, which has influenced more recent recordings of history.

Herodotus shows his inquisitive attitude towards the Persians when he talks about their lineage. He records that in 546 BC, Halicarnassus was engulfed by the Persian empire under the command of Cyrus. He explains that Cyrus was fated to be a success due to the Medes’ dreams.  Astygages, the son of Cyaxares had a dream about his daughter, Mandane, in which he envisioned a stream of urine flowing from her that flooded the world– it was interpreted as her being pregnant! A second dream came to Astygages, this time it was that a vine grew from his daughter’s private parts and spread all over Asia. This was interpreted that it meant Cyrus was deemed to be a great king. Although the Father of History gives a fascinating account of the Persian lifestyle, he was later exiled from Halicarnassus; a Byzantine source states that this was because he tried to overthrow a pro-Persian dynast. After his exile, he began to travel and investigate the Western Mediterranean including places such as Samos, Athens, and Thuria.

In his ‘inquiries’, Herodotus seeks to see things from a multiplicity of views: he does not write propaganda, but tries to see through the eyes of other people. The Persian King Darius once summoned the Greeks at his court and asked how much money it would take to eat their own dead father. They replied they would not do it for any amount of money. In the presence of the Greeks, Darius later asked the Callatiae, an Indian tribe, who do eat their dead parents, what it would take to burn them. They cried out in huge distress and said not to speak of this again. This illustrates that Herodotus could see and contrast different customs and moral codes from across the world. 


Importantly, Tom touched upon Herodotus’ rather infamous digressions. At one point Herodotus promises to talk about the culture of the Egyptians, but it is only after long sections on geography and animals that he eventually goes on to talk about the kings and culture of Egypt! Herodotus was not, however, afraid of challenging his sources. He expresses his doubt about Phoenicians travelling around the world and seeing the sun on the right-hand side. However, this story can now be scientifically verified as they had crossed the equator. Herodotus also attempts to explain how Indians mined their gold and he describes large ants digging up gold in the desert sands. Again, this story might have some truth to it. The ants may have actually been marmots as the Persian word for this animal sounded like the Greek word for ant. It shows that Herodotus was as truthful as possible in piecing together what he had discovered. Yet, other times we are completely baffled by what he was talking about, especially the flying snakes! In the area of Boutos, Arabia, there were heaps of skeletons and spines of the snakes in a narrow mountain pass. Every spring the winged serpents from Arabia flew towards Egypt where the ibises killed them. The Egyptians say this is why they honour the birds. What makes Herodotus so frustratingly fascinating is that he can’t keep to the structure he promises because he gets sidetracked by his awe of the world.

Herodotus stated in his work that he wanted to ensure that “human achievements are spared the ravages of time”: he wanted the colour of ancient life to remain vivid and not fade like it has on Greek sculptures. To sum Herodotus up, he is not the Father of Lies but the Father of Fascination and Curiosity. I would like to personally thank Tom Holland for making me fall in love with Herodotus, his curiosity and his digressions! 


Many thanks to Tom for a brilliant talk and to all of our committee, volunteers, ambassadors, and supporters for another fantastic year of events. We look forward to our AGM and Celebration Evening (date tbc). Make sure to subscribe to our blog, as well as all of our social media pages, for the latest updates, our upcoming annual review, and so that you will be the first to know when we reveal who will be coming to Lytham St Annes in 2019-20…

Katrina Kelly, Chair and Jayne Kelly, Secretary LSA CA.jpg

Many thanks from your Chair and Secretary – Katrina and Jayne!