The Man who Invented History, by Justin Marozzi
When Kristin Scott Thomas told a saucy tale out of Herodotus in the film of The English Patient, sales of The Histories shot up 450 per cent, according to Justin Marozzi, who has taken the seemingly inevitable step of travelling around the Herodotean world in the footsteps of the Father of History. Marozzi bubbles with enthusiasm for the man who was, he says, also the first travel writer, the first prose stylist, the first anthropologist, foreign correspondent, ‘an aspiring geographer, a budding moralist, a skilful dramatist, a high-spirited explorer and an inveterate storyteller’. It’s not an easy act to follow, but Marozzi writes with great vigour and his own observations are always sharp.
After its victory over Xerxes, 5th- century Athens became the most interesting place in the world. Marozzi points out that Herodotus could have known, among others, Hippocrates, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes, Pericles, Aristophanes and Thucydides. Herodotus’s object in writing his history was to explain why the Greeks won and the Persians lost; in doing so, Marozzi says, he invented the notion of East and West. He also laid down the bottom line on tolerance. ‘If anyone were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best,’ Herodotus wrote, ‘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.’
Travelling in Iraq, Egypt, Greece and Turkey, Marozzi proves the wisdom of this observation again and again, while celebrating the spirit of the historian, his humanity and his inquiring nature. He stresses his gift as an entertainer, too, imagining him regaling an audience at Halicarnassus with startling factoids, mostly of a sexual nature. Packing his book with digressions and tidbits, including a visit to Patrick Leigh Fermor, Marozzi follows suit, though now and then he stretches his Heredotean McGuffin a little thin. Plutarch called Herodotus the Father of Lies and Marozzi’s editor could have reminded the author that a few lies do season a book marvellously. Some of the historians he meets en route have little to add, and might have been usefully rolled up into a single, composite character with rather more to say: a cheat which takes us to an artistic if not a literal truth. Otherwise it’s a bit like listening to someone recount their dreams: the narrative lacks effect, and the book slips out of gear. But most books nowadays are too long.
Part of the travels is extracted from a year Marozzi spent in Iraq on a charitable project. He tours the National Museum of Iraq, set up by Gertrude Bell, with its director, followed by a wildly uninterested grunt who sweetly tells him to ‘go ahead, man, you do your history thing. I want to make sure you’re not history.’ The soldiers are interested in death and talking about women.
Equally fine — and to me, an eye-opener — is his account of a project to counter received ignorance. In Thessalonika, a city with its own grim story of ethnic and religious bigotry, an effort is being made to examine the innate bias of history textbooks and to offer, in parallel, alternative sources and arguments for the telling of history. Its director, a Briton of Serb and Croat descent, believes that the uncritical regurgitation of nationalist woes ‘contributed enormously to the savagery of the wars in the Balkans’. Irresponsible teaching of history, he points out,
is where you instil into the young a sense of victim mentality, a feeling that everyone around them is their adversary and that’s how it’s always been…. If you tell a ten-year-old his country has always been beaten up by its neighbour throughout its history, and then ten years later it’s war, he’s wearing uniform and he’s got a gun in his hands and his leaders are saying, ‘They’re still slaughtering us,’ this is what he believes and he goes on the rampage.
Herodotus celebrated ‘the glory of human diversity’. He had the conquered Croesus tell Cyrus, his captor in 546 BC: ‘No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace — in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons.’ Herodotus may be a slightly flaky guide to Bodrum, but Marozzi is right to remind us that he is not yet out of date.