Senior Honors Thesis, Tulane University
Historical Causation in Herodotus
It is perhaps appropriate that Herodotus, intent as he was on recording the first, the biggest, and the best, and "other great and wondrous deeds," was accorded a superlative of his own, namely the father of history. Rambling and myopic in his obsession with detail, Herodotus seems to the incautious reader to do little to earn this accolade. In contrast to modern historians, Herodotus appears to include little analysis in his narrative and to draw few conclusions from his material. The ancients themselves criticized Herodotus' methods. Thucydides (I. 21)snidely dismissed his predecessor by refusing to include to mythodes, "mythical lore," in his history of the Peloponnesian War. Aristotle is well known for giving Herodotus the title "father of history," but in his Poetics it is clear Aristotle meant this honor as a dubious one. Aristotle relegates Herodotus to the company not of historians in the modern sense but rather of mere chroniclers. He intimates that the creative process, poiesis, is lacking in Herodotus and in history in general so that "poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars" (Poetics 51a36). Aristotle set the academic approach to Herodotus for centuries. Scholars, even though fascinated by the wealth of information in the Histories, largely agreed with the assessment of Herodotus as expressed by Thucydides and Aristotle.
Modern scholars have broken with a long tradition and some have shown Herodotus to have composed a complex and organized work. I shall build upon this scholarship to identify the thematic structure of the Histories. In many cases, this revision has been accomplished by downplaying the archaic subtlety of the Histories. While in is true that Aristotle's statement is far from accurate, it does not follow that Herodotus' narrative lies at the other end of the spectrum, exhibiting a strict logical or chronological order. Rather Herodotus chose a style that allowed him to move freely among subjects and times, thereby maintaining and expanding themes of the Histories. Herodotus used individual stores, or logoi, to illustrate his opinions of the mechanics of history. For example, in his first book, Herodotus relates the story of Gyges and Candaules. Candaules, anxious that his servant Gyges should believe that Candaules' wife was the most beautiful woman in the world, arranged for him to see her undressing. Unfortunately for Candaules, his wife saw Gyges and quickly surmised what had happened. The unnamed queen summon Gyges the next day and convinced him to overthrow her husband. Gyges agreed, and together, servant and wife, murdered Candaules and seized the throne.
This logos, then, is the earliest exposition in the Histories of the dominance of custom, nomos, and the dangers of violating it. Gyges tells his master: "From olden times that which is good has been sought out by men, and it is necessary to learn from them. Among these things is this one: for each man to look to the things of himself" (I. 8). Another theme which Herodotus develops repeatedly as a force of history, that of an impersonal fate, is also found in the logos on Gyges and Candaules. Herodotus says of Candaules that he was destined to an ill end, and later, that crime of Gyges would be repaid in the fifth generation. The latter prediction could, to some degree, be attributed also to Herodotus' third and perhaps most oft mentioned theme, the jealousy of the gods. While not articulated in the story of Gyges and Candaules, this theme is developed soon after in Solon's speech to King Croesus. Chastised by Croesus for considering common deceased Greeks to be more fortunate that he, Solon replies to the king: "Croesus, you ask this of me, who knows that the divine is entirely jealous and unpredictable concerning the affairs of men. . . For many indeed, the gods, having shown them happiness, ruins them utterly" (I. 32).l This warning, in keeping with the dramatic timbre of the entire meeting, foreshadows the next segment of the logos: "after Solon's departure, a great nemesis came upon Croesus-to make a guess-he thought himself the happiest of all men" (I. 34).
Within the first thirty-three chapters of Book I, then, Herodotus articulates three motifs which, either singly or in concert, will advance most of the important action of the Histories. In this thesis, I shall study the development of these three themes, or universals to use Aristotle's term, in Book I. I shall then examine how these themes are stressed in Book VI, which contains Herodotus' account of the Persian invasion of Greece in 490 B.C.
To comprehend the larger themes in the Histories, it is necessary to analyze the structure of Herodotus' narrative. What is termed histories apodexis, "the showing forth of inquiry," is ever present a chain of stories. Moreover, he arranges these logoi in paratactic fashion so that, although the logical connections within and among logoi are not expressed, each segment derives part of its meaning from its location within the greater narrative. Each logos, therefore, seems to be self-contained, but, as I shall argue, Herodotus makes use of these seemingly unconnected logoi to shape a complex and ultimately comprehensive narrative.