The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man who Invented History
US: Feb 2010
“What you’ve got to understand about Herodotus, Justin, is that he’s not a man. He’s a text.” So says the Greek historian Marianna Koromila, whom Justin Marozzi encounters while travelling in the footsteps of Herodotus. She may have a point; if we try to create a picture of the man, we have little to go on other than his Histories. This text is essentially an account of the Greco-Persian wars, which took place in the fifth century BC, but its frequent deviation from the central military theme means that it stands as an important document in aiding our understanding of the ancient world.
Marozzi is more interested in the figure of Herodotus. In contrast to his contemporary Thucydides, who produced the much drier History of the Peloponnesian War, Herodotus is an engaging, frequently playful, writer who provides detailed insight into the cultural intricacies of the various civilisations he came across while writing his Histories. Taken with his easy going style, and the breadth of his research, Marozzi is inspired to set out and write a book of his own, taking Herodotus along as his travel companion.
The resulting product is essentially a travel book, but on occasion there are attempts to cross the boundaries of genre. Marozzi describes himself as a ‘travel writer, historian, journalist and political risk and security consultant’, and with a portfolio of interests this wide, his enthusiasm for the polymathic Herodotus is no surprise. However, some of Marozzi’s areas of expertise are better suited to this project than others.
As travel writer, his task is simplest, and it is this aspect of The Way of Herodotus that is most successful. Beginning in Herodotus’ birthplace, Bodrum, in present day Turkey, he journeys through Iraq to Babylon, visits the pyramids of Egypt and finishes by touring Greece. While this last section, which is the lengthiest, drags on somewhat, the earlier chapters are often a genuinely fun read.
The inclusion of historical content is also well done. Herodotus is regarded as the progenitor of modern history, so it is reasonable that a writer who is following in his wake should consider the history of the places he visits. This is at its most fascinating off the coast of Turkey, where the world’s oldest known shipwreck, the Uluburun, was discovered in 1982. The wreck dates from the 14th century BC, and when Marozzi points out that this makes it a millennium older than Herodotus’ Histories, the historical perspective is perfectly realised.
Issues of political risk and security are also relevant when Marozzi travels to Iraq and is escorted by American military through areas in which car-bombings are a regular occurrence. Much is made of Herodotus’ attitude towards war: ‘no one is fool enough to choose war over peace’, he wrote, but as we know there are still many who go against this maxim. Herodotus might still have relevance to the contemporary world, but this does not mean that his wisdom is always heeded.
There are many strengths to be found in this book then, but when we read it as a book about Herodotus himself there are also weaknesses. Marozzi’s method of tying his narrative around his subject is to liaise with various historians who he expects will keep him on the right track. While there are some insightful comments to be found in their input, in other cases the experts seem disinterested, or have little to say. Ultimately, not enough is known about Herodotus for him to be as important to Marozzi’s narrative as he is. There is only a skeletal amount of information to work with, and here a fleshier account is required.
In order to put meat on Herodotus’ bones, therefore, Marozzi resorts to imaging how Herodotus would behave when faced with the present day situations that are taking place in his old stomping ground. As a result, we are given the bizarre images of Herodotus enjoying himself at a foam party in a Bodrum nightclub and applauding a speech by the Grand Mufti of Cairo.
The historian’s occasional inclusion of sexual anecdotes is also made too much of; Marozzi is constantly describing how much sex there is in the histories, and takes a slightly excessive delight in recounting stories about Egyptian sexual habits and prostitution in Babylon. Admittedly, this is fascinating material, but it’s material that one can read about in the original Histories, and having it all repeated in this book serves no function other than to sensationalise Herodotus.
Still, putting Herodotus at the centre of a travel book is a brave device in itself, and even if Marozzi doesn’t quite pull it off, he is to be commended for his efforts. At the very least, there is plenty here that should inspire readers to pick up Herodotus’ Histories, and much more in that text to inspire all manner of pursuits.