First Steps into History with Herodotus

Herodotus is hailed as the father of history, being one of the first writers ever in recorded history to set down a written and (mostly) empirical narrative of different peoples and cultures. His classic work, The Histories, traces the greatest kings in the Persian empire and their influence throughout ancient civilization. From the central narrative that are the exploits of Cyrus the Great to Xerxes, Herodotus branches out to explore the surrounding geography and cultures (often people that were defeated or resisted the Persians).

Fun fact, I recognized Herodotus’ birthplace, Halicarnassus, only because I’ve played the board game 7 Wonders. Otherwise it would just be another long name in another list of long, long names.

Clearly my shtick is not in history, but I was drawn towards building a better understanding of ancient civilization because of my Bible reading plan this year. If you’ve seen my reading page, you’ll know that I’ve already covered most of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and I’m working on Deuteronomy now). These books are common to both the Christian and Jewish faith, but they are also commonly cited by online trolls to explain why Christianity is irrelevant / outdated/ terrible / etc.

Now if you’re any sort of thinker, you’ll already know that understanding any book necessitates an understanding of the book’s historical context. In many a case, the laws that were cited as being silly / weird / stupid were laws that were given to the Israelite people because of their historical context. A law not to mix types of fabric was given because the surrounding pagan cultures believed in such a practice for good luck from the gods. Another law to avoid boiling a goat in milk is a similar command to avoid practice of a then-commonly known spell and ritual for fertility. In all these cases and more, =I depended heavily on biblical commentary to understand certain laws and customs.

Hence the need to learn more about ancient civilization and culture. Of course, I don’t think I’ll be giving up commentary use any time soon. Reading what others have already realized about the Bible is always helpful. However, understanding what the ancient world was like has already improved my understanding of the Bible as a whole.

Some of the accounts Herodotus records are hilarious (I’m saving them for another post), and some of them particularly dramatic (I was actually interested in knowing whether Xerxes ended up conquering Greece or not!). He also records an unflinching view of how brutal the ancient world was. Children slaughtered to make a point to their parents, women treated like items, and humanity crushing in its unending attempt to be greater, stronger, and better than others.

When comparing the cultures presented in Herodotus with the laws that are given in Deuteronomy, I do see that following God’s laws entirely would have set the Israelites quite apart from their neighbours, especially in matters of justice, treatment of women, and kindness. This isn’t to say, of course, that the Israelites’ conduct was perfect (far from it), but the laws that were set down do speak to a very different God than even the ancient ones celebrated in the past.

So I am pretty happy to say that I’ll likely keep on reading more historical accounts. It’s one more strange thing I’ve changed in my reading habits. I used to like only fiction, but I guess history is fascinating because it actually happened… and here we are now, a product in part of what happened so many years ago.


Featured photo by Mohsen Tebi on Unsplash.

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