History: Big Fights and Big Egos

400px-Herodotos_Met_91.8Aha! After an extended period of alternating Herodotus’ Histories with some of the Greek tragedies that referenced and/or dealt with many of the events in that tome, I’ve just finished the huge volume, and am pretty well prepped for our discussion tomorrow. It’s probably unwise to make any sort of evaluation or offer up any general thoughts so soon after closing the book– but what’s staying with me right now is how pettily entire nations have apparently always dealt with each other.

Towards the end of the book, I was reminded of having watched some special on body language used by contemporary world leaders– one of those news-channel shows you find yourself stuck with in the middle of the night, when insomnia has you awake, but not enough to do anything fruitful with yourself– that went into idiot details such as whose hand, when offered in a shake, appeared on top of the other person’s; or who was privileged enough to have maneuvered himself (because let’s face it, it’s still usually a he) into a position where the camera captures him facing the lens in full-frontal manliness, whereas his handshake partner is left with only a 3/4-profile at best, the poor chump. Regarding the ancient version of such games, I had to grin at the Tegeans whining about their position on a battle line, arguing that, because of some amazing feat an ancestor had achieved, they should get the cool spot, and not the Athenians– who, even though they gave a big-picture rebuke in the end (viz., whatever, guys; we’re about to be attacked, so take whatever place you want), had to go through their own lengthy speech to prove their worthiness of taking up the prime battle real estate.

I also found it just precious how Athens and Sparta finally started being all nicey-nice to each other, once confronted by a horde of Persians about to crush them to dust; I’ll have to find out just how long it took before they forgot this lesson on the value of cooperation, and were at each other’s throats again for useless reasons.

But other than that, I’ve truly enjoyed small moments of (usually unintentional) comedy:

  • One of the best-named characters in the Histories? Thorax of Larissa. I can’t help picturing him as other than insect-like. (1)
  • The Andrians’ reply to the Athenians’ attempts to bully them out of money: You guys are big and rich and powerful, and we’re poor. So try as you might to get anything from us; you won’t succeed, “For the power of Athens could not possibly be stronger than [the Andrians’] inability [to pay].” (2)

as well as descriptive phrases I’d like to bring back into general parlance:

  • “Lemnian deeds” to refer to something really wicked. (3) As in, Earl hooked up with his wife’s sister and took her savings when they skipped town in her car? What a Lemnian deed!
  • “a thoroughly Persian gift” (apparently, giving someone “an army which should obey no other leader” was just such a gift). (4) I suppose putting someone up in a penthouse with a staff of domestics answerable only to the lucky recipient might constitute a contemporary thoroughly Persian gift.

There’s much more, and much of it truly serious, to consider– but for now, I’m just happy to have finished the thing, and so I’ll celebrate by simply recording the feat, and move on to something else.


(1) He’s putting up a good fight for best-named figure in general in an ancient text; his closest rival is Metatron, who shows up especially in Kabbala, and who should be credited as the original ancestor of the Transformers.

(2) Herodotus, Histories, transl. George Rawlinson (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1997), 466.

(3) ibid., 353.

(4) ibid., 519.


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