The Ancient Entertainer

The Man who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus by Justin Marozzi

Balkans Books Classics Eastern Europe Ethnicity History Iraq

When Napoleon stood and watched Moscow burn in September 1812 and realised that his glorious victory over the Russians was in fact “the herald of great disasters”, he is said to have hissed: “What extraordinary resolve! What men! These are Scythians!”

Napoleon knew the passage in Herodotus where the Scythians defeat the Persians by drawing them deep into their territory. He linked the Russians with their wild, steppe-living forebears, whose habits provided Herodotus with some of his most colourful material, and he recognised in his own calamitous position the sort of sudden change of fortune, the hubris and nemesis, relished by Herodotus the story-teller. It is a measure of Herodotus’s extraordinary legacy that at great historical moments, an echo can usually be found in his Histories. It also says something of the ageless qualities of his writing that in the space of a couple of years, two distinguished writers – Ryszard Kapuscinski in his Travels with Herodotus and now Justin Marozzi in this book – should follow in his footsteps.

You can see immediately why Marozzi so admires Herodotus. They have much in common. Each uses a quick and colloquial style. Each dwells lovingly on the physique of women, and draws out any story that contains a sexual element. Each is attracted to war but appalled by its effects, and each is driven by an awareness that great wonders exist beyond their own shores and their own times – and by the restless urge to record them.

In his own political outlook, Marozzi is also a committed Herodotean. In this book as well as in his journalism, he rails admirably against the current narrowing of world-views, the post-9/11 ideology that has closed liberal minds, the brutish and simplistic dualism that has lain behind the “war on terror”. Herodotus was above all a swaggering champion of diversity, whose persistent curiosity about alien beliefs and traditions was not merely a balanced or relativist stance but a celebration of humanity in all its forms. In the very first lines of The Histories, he spells out his intention to record “great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians”. The relevance of what follows, and the spur for Marozzi’s own travels, is that such sentiments are now far from prevalent.

In occupied Iraq, Egypt and Greece, Marozzi finds many of the educated and powerful diminished by prejudice, imprisoned by their own partisanship, cocooned by historical ignorance. He reads Islam-bashing leaflets distributed by Americans in Iraq, listens to Greeks explaining that Turkish men are all rapists, witnesses the condemnation of women by Egyptian Islamists, and hears the pervasive chauvinism of the Balkans. Two and a half thousand years since Herodotus – 2,500 years of progress – have left the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East a hotbed of hatreds, bigotry and murderous grudges.

Yet for all his passion for Herodotus, Marozzi sometimes strains to connect him or his writing to his own experience. Little is known of Herodotus’s life, nor how many of the places he writes about he actually visited. Marozzi begins in Bodrum where Herodotus may or may not have been born and finds in the hedonistic sprawl of the Turkish resort nothing but a single bust of his hero. His journey is not continuous. He spends several months in Iraq, then crops up in Egypt, then Athens, Mani and Thessaloniki. He recounts many vivid scenes. Sometimes he tries to link them to Herodotus and sometimes in the spirit of Herodotean digression, he just throws them in anyway. He talks to lots of people about Herodotus. “I love Herodotus! I adore him!” (Professor of Egyptology). “Oh, I just looooooove Herodotus!” (purring hotelier in Greece).

The great pleasure of his book comes from its focus on the text itself. In his detailed dissection of The Histories, Marozzi brings them alive. He cleverly raises Herodotus above the traditional carping about authenticity, about whether he was writing “real” history or simply telling good stories. The Greek historia does not mean “history” in the modern sense, with its courtroom emphasis on admissable evidence and reliable sources. The title, according to John Marincola’s Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, should be understood as more general than that, as an “inquiry” or “investigation”.

Herodotus is usually called “the Father of History” (or “Father of Lies” in Plutarch’s view). In fact his place in the literary pantheon is much more interesting. He wrote of battles and politics, natural history, ethnography, architecture. But he mixed them with a host of unforgettable images, fairy-tale genealogy, incredible inventions and rites (gold-digging ants, snake-tailed women, giggling and pot-smoking Scythians, blizzards of feathers). In our literal-minded age, the elision of mythology and fact, hearsay and event, breaks the rules. But the achievement of The Histories is in the creation of something universal, an account of the contradictory nature of our beliefs and perceptions, the weird ways in which we explain the world. Justin Marozzi has done a wonderful job in reminding us of the life-affirming scope of Herodotus, his flair as an entertainer and his generous, open-hearted view of his fellow man.