A Man who Falls in Love with the Barbarians
Time seems to dictate how we read and write.
In the chilling autumn night, the twin beams of white lights connect earth to the heavens, reminding us the painful past: the cosmic clashes between the East and the West that claimed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. Perhaps, in this night, the Histories by Herodotus will take on another life. Indeed, “the cause of the hostilities” between the two people is unfortunately still relevant (I.1). And the heroic battles immortalized by Herodotus may once again unite a divided people in defense of liberty of the fatherland.
But, maybe Herodotus’ Histories offers more than that. And the modern translators’ refrainment from naming this work as the Persian Wars, as their predecessors had done, speaks about the Histories’ complexity. In fact, one can argue that Herodotus writes his ethnographical surveys of the “barbaroi” (for Greeks, those who do not speak the Greek language), foreign lands, and exotic cultures with great affection. And we cannot claim such arguments as our own creations; Herodotus’ contemporaries have half-condescendingly dubbed the great historian as the philobarbaros—lover of barbarian—almost two and a half millennia ago.
Wait! The Herodotus we know seems to be awfully ethnocentric. As pointed out by James Redfield in his essay “Herodotus the Tourist,” Herodotus is a tourist, and he travels to see the wonders and great sights [theoria] and to collect things that “a Greek finds odd”. Indeed, “oddity is an ethnocentric principle,” and that Herodotus finds the Egyptians’ shaved heads, Scythians’ portable homes, and Persians’ names that always end with “s” (as in Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes) odd precisely because he has ethnocentrically judged these foreign practices “by the standard of [his] own culture” (Redfield). Herodotus seems and actually is very ethnocentric.
Moreover, Redfield laments that Herodotus fails to go native. In fact, “the Tourist makes no attempt to fit in; he rather accepts a specific social role: that of foreigner” (Redfield). In addition to that, the Great Traveler creates a fictional Solon, who travels to Lydia and schools King Croesus the Rich on the essence of happiness, which the Orient chief fails to understand and suffers for his hubris (I.29-31).
And this pattern of paring a wise, experienced Greek with a haughty non-Greek repeats throughout the Histories. Interestingly, Redfield argues that Solon “appears in Herodotus’ narrative as a kind of alter ego of the narrator himself, [who] did not so much derive his interpretations from his inquiries; rather he brought to his inquiries value and categories wherewith to interpret them.” And if Redfield’s suggestion is to be accepted, then our suspicion is true: Herodotus seems to be the resourceful but annoying intruder to the foreign lands.
However ethnocentric Herodotus is, he nevertheless respects the local nomoi, customs. And he spares no pages to show that the cultures are simply different and that no culture is absolutely and objectively superior to another one. In Book Three, he vividly recounts the story of Darius’ meeting with both Greeks and Indians in support of his claim that “each [people] regards its own [culture] as being far the best” (III.38). While Indian Callatiae tribe “[crying] out in horror” when Darius asks them to “cremate their fathers’ corpses” as Greeks do, Herodotus’ compatriots sternly reject “to eat the corpses of their fathers,” per Callatiae-style (III.38). To conclude this digression, Herodotus agrees with Pindar that “nomos basileus—custom is king of all” (III.38).
This stand of Herodotus—cultural relativism—is perhaps the most striking figure of the masterpiece. Indeed, Herodotus’ idea, that the Otherness should be respected instead of erased, is so progressive and modern that one would wonder why xenophobia still plagues humanity twenty five centuries later.
And the answers may lie in between the lines of our modern historical narrative. Unlike the “Father of Lies,” who prefers to add a “convincing psychological tough” to even his enemy, modern historians leave the historical personas as inhumanly rational believers of the Realpolik (Mendelsohn, “Arms and the Man”). Instead of allowing the authoritarians, like Xerxes depicted in the Histories, to have “feeling for human life” and to “consider the brevity of human life by pity,” the modern anti-heroes are deprived of their “complexity” by our politically correct citizens (Mendelsohn, “Arms and the Man”).
Unceasingly, the twin beams of lights travel through time and space, searching in the heaven for an answer or explanation missing on earth. And the rediscovered Histories relives the “erga thomasta, ‘marvelous deeds,’” of both the East and the West, breaking down “the archetype that has plagued the sleep of liberal democracies ever since [into] the figure of the Persian king Xerxes,” a tragic protagonist that shall invite no hatred (Mendelsohn, “Arms and the Man”).