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Herodotus Book One Notes

Classics Notes > Greek Literature of the 5th Century BC Notes

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Discuss how Greeks and Barbarians are portrayed in Herodotus Historiae and in how far their characterizations are fundamentally different in Book One. The word barbaros is not found in any extant literature earlier than Herodotus; indeed the idea of the barbarian 'other' does not seem to have existed much before his time. He is sometimes called the father of anthropology because he was the first [extant] author to research and catalogue eastern cultures in the way that he does; however in so doing he is not just defining what it is to be a barbaros, he is also defining what it is to be Greek. This is often called the mirror of Herodotus because Greek culture is defined by comparison to a (often negative) illustration of other cultures; furthermore his investigations deemed it necessary for him to explore what it really meant to be Greek. In book eight he defines this as not actually living in Greece itself but as "being of the same blood and tongue, having in common temples of the gods and sacrifices and shared customs." In essence a person could only tell if he shared these things with another if he knew of a significantly drastic alternative and this is what Herodotus provides in his work. In contrast the East almost becomes a single undifferentiated block, hence "the other". This does not mean that he was putting all the customs and eccentricities of the barbaroi on a podium to be derided by a Greek audience; after all barbaros implies nothing more than a person who does not speak Greek. He himself was from Halicarnassus, a Greek city ruled by Persians in Asia Minor which was heavily intermixed with the Carians; therefore he was almost uniquely placed to see both sides with a fair, open mind. He begins his work with the statement, "Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deed- some displayed by Greek, some by barbarians- may not be without glory." He gives equal precedence to both peoples and does not discriminate against foreigners just because they are different. (Obviously certain differences do receive open and implied criticism, but this is not the aim with which Herodotus sets out.) The Lydians are a good example of this because they are not straightforwardly Eastern and are a kind of in between race and so Herodotus does immediately establish a clear boundary between what it means to be Greek and what it means to be a barbaros. This comes from their geographical proximity to the Greeks and it was the belief of Herodotus that normality rested in the centre of the world around Greece and the Ionic coast of Asia and then as you get further away from the centre things get stranger and stranger. The Lydians invoke the oracle at Delphi and give generous gifts when they are successful and in order to win its favour and furthermore Croesus even invokes the Greek God Zeus; something which the other Eastern leaders are never seen to do. He also has a fascination for all things Greek; he wins an alliance with the bravest Greeks, he takes the advice from a Greek called Bias and welcomes the sage Solon in his court, eventually learning an important moral lesson from

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