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Herodotus of Halicarnassus

Herodotus. Bust in the Agora Museum, Athens (Greece). Photo Marco Prins.
The Greek researcher and storyteller Herodotus of Halicarnassus (fifth century BCE) was the world's first historian. In The Histories, he describes the expansion of the Achaemenid empire under its kings Cyrus the Great, Cambyses and Darius I the Great, culminating in king Xerxes' expedition in 480 BCE against the Greeks, which met with disaster in the naval engagement at Salamis and the battles at Plataea and Mycale. Herodotus' remarkable book also contains excellent ethnographic descriptions of the peoples that the Persians have conquered, fairy tales, gossip, legends, and a very humanitarian morale. (A summary with some historical comments can be found here.)

This is the seventh part of an article in eight pieces.

Herodotus' life
Herodotus' originality
Herodotus on causality
Herodotus' sources
Herodotus as a
Herodotus the moralist
Further reading

Contents of 
The Histories

The Aegean region in the fifth century BCE. Design Jona Lendering.

Herodotus the Moralist

To Herodotus the teller of tales, these 'world inverted' stories must have been among his greatest successes. Nothing was more funny to a Greek than to hear about Egypt, where women urinate standing. But Herodotus never presents it as if he is joking. Strange customs have his sincere interest, not his contempt. It is as if he wants to show how much diversity there can be in human culture: other cultures are not just a little bit dissimilar, they can be completely different.

Knowing this, the critical observer will understand that he or she can be a complete stranger to others. The only way to cope with other cultures is tolerance, because no society can claim superiority. This is best explained by Herodotus' own words, when he expresses his own feelings about the story of the madness of Cambyses in section 38 of Book Three. As we have seen (above), this Persian king killed the sacred Apis bull, his brother Smerdis, the son of his vizier and twelve noblemen. On top of that, he had started an incestuous affair with two of his sisters and desecrated Egyptian tombs and mummies.

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In view of all this, I have no doubt that Cambyses was completely out of his mind; it is the only possible explanation of his assault upon, and mockery of, everything which ancient law and custom have made sacred in Egypt. If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably -after careful considerations of their relative merits- choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so, it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one's country.

One might recall, for example, an anecdote of Darius. When he was king of Persia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians of the tribe called Callatiae, who do in fact eat their parents' dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing. One can see by this what custom can do.

Again: reversion. And more than that: a reversion that shows that people simply must accept that foreign nations have foreign customs. It is useful to take a final look at the list of Cambyses' crimes: the murder of his brother, incest and unjustified executions are mentioned without comment. What causes the above quoted remark, are the killing of the Apis and the profanation of mummies: intolerance is what causes Herodotus' indignation. No one but a madman would mock a foreign culture.
Part eight
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