Herodotus and the Question Why

A book by Christopher Pelling

Christopher Pelling shares the fruits of a lifetime of research on the Father of History. His epic tome asks many questions but offers no simple answers.

Written by Roel Konijnendijk on

If you have heard of Herodotus, you have probably heard bad things about him. He is widely regarded as a credulous, superstitious romantic, whose stories are more sensational than historical, and whose numbers are impossible to believe. But the last few decades have seen a revival in academic interest in the oldest surviving historian, whose work provides an enormous amount of information about Greeks, Persians, and the world in which they lived.

Christopher Pelling’s new book, Herodotus and the Question Why (Austin: University of Texas Press; 2019), builds on this recent scholarly rehabilitation of Herodotus. It is not a summary of reasons why Herodotus is not so bad after all; as the title indicates, it is devoted to the specific theme of causality and explanation in the Histories. But it is steeped in the insights and approaches of works that mean to get the most out of this source rather than discard it as the unreliable narrative of a fantasist. It contextualises rather than criticises; it considers the work on its own merits rather than judging it with hindsight. It gives Herodotus room – perhaps too much room – to be rhetorical, elusive, inventive and paradoxical. But in doing so, it shows just how much there is to gain from taking the Histories seriously.

That said, besides the titular “Question Why”, it is not easy to get a sense of exactly what the work is about. Depending on how you look at it, there is either no formal introduction or a whopping six introductory chapters (105 of the 236 pages of main text) before Pelling gets into the meat of Herodotus. None of these early chapters spell out what is to come, but they set the stage and introduce the concepts that recur throughout the book.

The first chapter can best be described as exploring the dimensions of Herodotean explanation. It covers aspects of the main theme, from the Greek words involved to the forms of historical reasoning that Herodotus could assume his audience understood. Chapter 2 tackles the question of blame – who started the Persian Wars? – only to demonstrate that Herodotus’ explanations are never that simple. Chapter 3 is a more involved discussion of causal reasoning, examining how one could prove something in fifth-century Greece. Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the ways in which Herodotus was influenced by the methods of earlier historical as well as rhetorical and medical writing. Chapter 6 offers a survey of different ways, known from the medical authors, to organise multiple interacting explanations for a single phenomenon.

There is a great deal on the Hippocratic corpus in this first half, and it seems at times as though Herodotus hardly gets a look in. But Pelling rightly stresses that these medical texts provide essential background for understanding Herodotus’ explanations. Not only does the historian’s way of thinking about geography, ethnography and history owe much to contemporary medical science, as Rosalind Thomas showed two decades ago; these texts also give us a sense of what sort of explanations were considered valid and persuasive in Herodotus’ time.

The early chapters also set out some of the concepts Pelling uses to throw light on his theme: the notion of “revision in stride”, or correction of general claims in light of new evidence; explanation as a “game for two”, in which author and audience both do some of the work; explanations derived from inherent features of a person or institution; “explicability without predictability”, where something can help us understand an event or decision in hindsight, but does not suffice to predict that it will occur; and the so-called “life-is-like-that explanations”, which appeal to a universal understanding of life, death, power, empire, the gods, and so on. These concepts help us see patterns in the work of an author whose explanations are rarely singular or straightforward.

The rest of the chapters examine the Histories from a range of thematic perspectives. Chapter 7 discusses beginnings and narratives; chapters 8 and 9 deal with empire, Persia and the Persian court; chapter 10 concerns the gods. Chapters 11, 12 and 13 discuss Herodotus’ reasons for the Greek victory, with special attention to the vaunted role of freedom and democracy. Chapter 14 tackles heroism and individual agency. Chapter 15 examines links between the events described by Herodotus and those outside his main narrative; a catalogue on pp. 218-222 helpfully lists all the times the historian points forward to events after 478 BC. Chapter 16 offers a summary and conclusions. The final third of the book consists of endnotes, a 27-page bibliography, an index of passages in Herodotus and other authors, and a general index.

In each chapter, Pelling adds to the agnosticism that characterises his interpretation of Herodotus. Careful reading shows that the historian rarely just offers a single reason for anything, and that he cannot be pinned down on the simple causalities that less sophisticated retellings of the Persian Wars have led us to believe are Herodotean in origin. He does not argue that Greeks are civilised and Persians barbaric, that Greeks are brave and Persians cowardly, or that free and clever Greeks defeated a Persian expedition born of despotic hubris. Instead, his explanations are complex and multi-layered, and actively resist recourse to stereotypes.

But the reader is left with the impression that we can no longer say anything with certainty. In Pelling’s view, we should not adopt any simple reading of Herodotus’ words, but we should not discard anything either. His answer to a series of rhetorical questions about the commonly suggested causes of the Greek victory gives a sense of what this looks like (p. 167):

We have seen enough earlier in the book to doubt whether matters can be quite so simple, and we shall see more. The events regularly play out in a way that complicates all of those views. Still, one further lesson from earlier chapters is that simple views can be overlaid or renuanced, but that does not mean that they are wholly contentless. There is something, no doubt, in all of those approaches that will survive.

Pelling’s Herodotus is the product of decades of scholarship providing more subtle, more contextualised, more sensitive readings of his work. The historian who was once dismissed as a hapless storyteller is now seen problematising and questioning and complicating, charging his narrative with foreshadowing and veiled inferences. But the result of all that nuance is a fog of partial or parallel explanations. How did Herodotus explain the events he described?

To be fair, there are also some helpful answers on offer. One is Herodotus’ sense of the inevitability of imperial expansion – simultaneously a warning and an exculpation. Another is the degree to which some actors in his narrative are effectively “prisoners of history”, unable to assert agency against greater forces working upon them. Pelling points out that Herodotus, contrary to his reputation, rarely cites the gods to explain events; when he does, it is usually in conjunction with strong human factors. The discussion of Persia and Athens as illuminating extremes – one of tyranny, the other of freedom – is insightful, as is the point that if no factor is sufficient to make the future inevitable, it is those who do nothing to change their fate that deserve the greatest scorn. With the help of these footholds, we can regain some sense of what Herodotus was trying to do.

Pelling does not necessarily make things easy for the reader. Laconic remarks aside, the sentences are long, the vocabulary is demanding, and the Greek is not always translated. Familiarity with Herodotus’ work is taken for granted, and some arguments can be difficult to follow without a copy of the text to hand. Paragraphs are full of asides and afterthoughts; there are constant references to other parts of the book (though always with helpful page or chapter numbers). Some passages are cited and summarised over and over again. The style is marked by many rhetorical questions to which Pelling rarely offers a straightforward answer. All of this may be deliberate, either as an honest reflection of a personal scholarly journey or as an homage to Herodotus himself. But those expecting a popular history or an easily-accessed treasure trove will face more of a challenge than they bargained for.

Even so, the book rewards the effort. There are not many scholars alive who could match the depth and breadth of Pelling’s understanding of Herodotus; this work lays it all on the table. Every page shows his careful thought, meticulous attention to detail, and desire to push the envelope in our reassessment of the much-maligned historian. The work is a monument to Pelling’s enduring fascination with Herodotus, and it shows that there is always more to be learned.