What is history?

Herodotus, the “father of history,” begins his Histories, arguably the first book of history, with an explanation of his method and purpose in writing his book. In the first sentence, he informs his readers,

These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.

Within this single sentence, the world’s first historian offers a succinct definition of the field of human knowledge which he pioneered.

Herodotus begins by referring to his work as ἱστορίης, or “researches,” knowledge attained by observation and inquiry. Here Herodotus indicates his most significant departure from those who came before him. The telling of stories about the past, of course, existed well before Herodotus wrote his book in the 5th century BC. Herodotus distinguishes himself from these earlier storytellers, however, by basing his stories upon his personal research rather than upon a received ancestral narrative. Rather than passing on old stories in a version of the “telephone game,” Herodotus used observation and reason to discover the past and create a plausible narrative based on available evidence. After mentioning his method, Herodotus goes on to delineate his purposes for writing.

The first of his stated purposes is “preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done.”  Herodotus, in other words, wishes to protect and perpetuate the memory of the activities of certain persons beyond the personal life span of those particular persons. History is, then, in a sense, an extension of the personal memory. The historian is therefore a guardian of the collective memory of mankind, expanding the memory of each particular person backwards to encompass the totality of significant events in the life of mankind as a whole.

Herodotus’s second stated purpose for his writing is “preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory.” In addition, then, to merely preserving the record of past human activity, Herodotus wishes to render honor to those who were responsible for this activity. He desires not a mere chronology of dates and events but a narrative which inspires to reverence. In turn, of course, reverence will inevitably provoke imitation.

Herodotus’s final stated purpose for his writing is “to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.” He wishes to preserve not only the events and the activities of those involved in the events, but the causes of their actions as well. In preserving the causes of human activity, Herodotus imparts a doctrine of human beings as rational agents. Human activity is, for the historian, understandable and reasonable because it is traceable to particular motivations.

In his stated purposes, Herodotus makes implicit claims concerning human nature, claims which provide reason and basis for history as a discipline. In his desire to “preserve … remembrance” Herodotus claims for mankind the desire to remember the activities of other members of their species who lived before them, a claim that can be made for no other species than the human species. Herodotus also highlights further aspects of the discipline of history which can only aptly describe human activity. Activity that is predetermined or unfree is undeserving of any “meed of glory” and activity without “grounds” is random and irrational. Herodotus, then, in his second and third statements of his purpose, makes the implicit claim that human activity is free and rational.

Herodotus, no doubt, was merely prefacing his work with a statement of his own methods and purposes in writing. In so doing, however, Herodotus became the progenitor of a field of human knowledge which had not hitherto existed in its pure and independent state. By defining history as a field of research and inquiry intended for the preservation of the memory of human activities and their respective motivations, Herodotus discerned one aspect of the human drive to knowledge of self while setting its boundaries with other fields of human knowledge.

Alexander the Great (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.11)

Aristotle had many outstanding students. One of his students, a man named Theophrastus, for example, wrote two of the earliest books on botany. Perhaps the most famous and important of Aristotle’s students, however, was a young prince named Alexander.

Alexander, who would later be known as Alexander the Great, was not a Greek. Instead, he lived in a small kingdom just north of Greece called Macedonia. His father, Philip, was the king there. Aristotle was hired by Philip to be Aristotle’s personal teacher. Alexander learned many things from Aristotle. Among the subjects Alexander most enjoyed learning about were philosophy, religion, and art. Alexander was also very interested in literature. He loved the works of Homer so much that Aristotle gave him his own copy of the Iliad. Alexander later carried the book with him every time he left home.

In 336 BC, Alexander’s father, Philip, died and Alexander became king of Macedonia. Alexander had been eagerly waiting for the day when he would become king. He was very inspired by the stories of the great warriors and kings who had come before him. He dreamed of a conquering a vast empire like the conquerors he had read about.

Alexander set out on his conquests almost immediately. Within twelve years, Alexander conquered the largest empire that the world had ever seen. Alexander’s conquests included even the once-powerful kingdom of Egypt and the Persian Empire. In all of the twelve years he spent on his conquests, Alexander never lost a single battle. By the time Alexander was 32, his empire stretched from Macedonia to India.

He probably would have continued to conquer more land and expand his empire. At the age of 32, however, Alexander suddenly fell ill and died. After his death, Alexander’s empire was divided up among his top generals. The world would not see another empire as large as Alexander’s empire until the formation of the Roman Empire several hundred years later.

Although Alexander lived a short life and his empire broke up very quickly, he still had a very large impact on history. Through his conquests, Alexander spread Greek culture to other lands far away from Greece, such as Egypt. Greek language very quickly became the most popular and important language nearly everywhere around the Mediterranean Sea. Greek ideas, such as those of Plato and Aristotle, also spread nearly everywhere around the Mediterranean and changed the way that people thought. Most of all, Alexander’s conquests set the stage for the conquests of the Romans that would soon come.

 

Review Questions

 1. Who was Alexander the Great’s teacher?

2. What happened to Alexander’s empire after he died?

Primary Source: From Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.7)

The historian Thucydides was in Athens when the plague struck. After getting sick, he recovered from the plague and survived. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, written in about 400 BC, he describes the symptoms of the plague that he observed in others as well as what he himself experienced.

As a rule, however, there was no ostensible cause; but people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends.

 

Review

 Write a summary, using your own words, of Thucydides’s description of the plague’s symptoms.

The Peloponnesian War (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.6)

Following the Greco-Persian Wars, two Greek city-states emerged as particularly strong and important. One was Athens, the home of democracy, which, under the wise leadership of a man named Pericles, had steadily built up a large navy that allowed it to control an empire around the Aegean Sea. The other was Sparta, the city of well-trained and courageous warriors in the southern part of the Greek peninsula, called the Peloponnesus. Although they had been allies throughout the Greco-Persian Wars, the two had been rivals in power for some time. They finally began to battle each other for dominance in 431 BC.

The war between the two city-states was lengthy and often difficult because they were so mismatched in their strengths. Whereas the Athenians had a large and powerful navy, the Spartans had a strong army. As a result, the Athenians were strongest at sea while the Spartans were strongest on land. Each tried to fight the other in that area where it had its strength and avoid fighting where it had its weakness.

Early in the war, Sparta gained the upper hand by using its strength on land to surround the city of Athens. Their plan was to cut off supplies coming to Athens from the outside. They hoped that by not allowing food and other necessities into the city the Athenians would be forced to send out their army to battle them. And they knew that the Athenian army could not stand up against their powerful warriors.

The Athenians were forced to abandon the farms around their city to the Spartan army now surrounding them, but they were able to bring food and supplies into their city by sea. They used their strong navy to have food shipped to them from their colonies. While the Spartan siege did not prevent supplies from coming into Athens, it did keep the people contained in the city. All of the people of Athens were forced into a densely packed area inside the city’s center. The result was that a disease broke on near the beginning of the siege and spread quickly among the people.

The plague in Athens killed more than 25% of the population, one in every four people. Even those who did not die often got sick with the disease and had to endure its horrible symptoms. Even if a person recovered, they often were left permanently disabled by the plague.

In spite of the plague, the Athenians refused to surrender to the Spartans. In order to break the stalemate, each side tried to convince the other city-states of Greece to join them. The Athenians used their powerful navy to continue to force other city-states into submission and join their side. In 415-413 BC, however, this policy went horribly wrong for the Athenians. They attempted to invade Sicily, an island many miles away from Athens. The Sicilians, however, defeated the Athenians and slaughtered 40,000 soldiers from Athens and the city-states allied with Athens.

In the end, the plague and the disaster of the Sicilian Expedition weakened Athens so severely that they had to surrender to the Spartans. The Spartans considered destroying the city and enslaving the people, but decided against it. Instead, they tried to put an end to the Athenian democracy by making Athens an oligarchy like themselves. The attempt to change Athens’s government to an oligarchy resulted in the murder of many important Athenians and a great deal of tumult in the city. The attempt eventually failed and Athens’s democracy was restored.

Following the Peloponnesian War, neither Athens nor Sparta ever regained the strength each had formerly possessed. Both were so weakened by the war that they had no choice but to stop fighting each other. While they continued to influence the other Greek city-states with their ideas, neither was able to establish a dominant position over the other Greek city-states again.

 

Review Questions

 1. Which two Greek city-states fought the Peloponnesian War against each other?

2. Who won the Peloponnesian War?

 

 Vocabulary Words

 democracy – a system of government in which the people rule themselves by voting on decisions

oligarchy – a system of government in which a state is ruled by a small group of people

Primary Source: Herodotus on the Battle of Thermopylae (History, Book VII) (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.5)

This is a short selection from Herodotus’s description of the Battle of Thermopylae in his book about the Greco-Persian Wars, which he wrote over a long period between 450 and 420 BC.

So the barbarians under Xerxes began to draw nigh; and the Greeks under Leonidas, as they now went forth determined to die, advanced much further than on previous days, until they reached the more open portion of the pass. Hitherto they had held their station within the wall, and from this had gone forth to fight at the point where the pass was the narrowest. Now they joined battle beyond the defile, and carried slaughter among the barbarians, who fell in heaps. Behind them the captains of the squadrons, armed with whips, urged their men forward with continual blows. Many were thrust into the sea, and there perished; a still greater number were trampled to death by their own soldiers; no one heeded the dying. For the Greeks, reckless of their own safety and desperate, since they knew that, as the mountain had been crossed, their destruction was nigh at hand, exerted themselves with the most furious valor against the barbarians.

By this time the spears of the greater number were all shivered, and with their swords they hewed down the ranks of the Persians; and here, as they strove, Leonidas fell fighting bravely, together with many other famous Spartans, whose names I have taken care to learn on account of their great worthiness, as indeed I have those of all the three hundred. There fell too at the same time very many famous Persians: among them, two sons of Darius, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, his children by Phratagune, the daughter of Artanes. Artanes was brother of King Darius, being a son of Hystaspes, the son of Arsames; and when he gave his daughter to the king, he made him heir likewise of all his substance; for she was his only child.

Thus two brothers of Xerxes here fought and fell. And now there arose a fierce struggle between the Persians and the Lacedaemonians over the body of Leonidas, in which the Greeks four times drove back the enemy, and at last by their great bravery succeeded in bearing off the body. This combat was scarcely ended when the Persians with Ephialtes approached; and the Greeks, informed that they drew nigh, made a change in the manner of their fighting. Drawing back into the narrowest part of the pass, and retreating even behind the cross wall, they posted themselves upon a hillock, where they stood all drawn up together in one close body, except only the Thebans. The hillock whereof I speak is at the entrance of the straits, where the stone lion stands which was set up in honor of Leonidas. Here they defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians, who in part had pulled down the wall and attacked them in front, in part had gone round and now encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left beneath showers of missile weapons.

Thus nobly did the whole body of Lacedaemonians and Thespians behave; but nevertheless one man is said to have distinguished himself above all the rest, to wit, Dieneces the Spartan. A speech which he made before the Greeks engaged the Medes, remains on record. One of the Trachinians told him, “Such was the number of the barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude.” Dieneces, not at all frightened at these words, but making light of the Median numbers, answered, “Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade.” Other sayings too of a like nature are reported to have been left on record by this same person.

Next to him two brothers, Lacedaemonians, are reputed to have made themselves conspicuous: they were named Alpheus and Maro, and were the sons of Orsiphantus. There was also a Thespian who gained greater glory than any of his countrymen: he was a man called Dithyrambus, the son of Harmatidas.

The slain were buried where they fell …

 

 Review Questions

 1. Who was the leader of the Persians/barbarians?

2. Who was the leader of the Spartans?

The Greco-Persian Wars (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.4)

After the end of the Greek Dark Age in about 800 BC, the city-states of Greece began to flourish. The epic of poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were written in about 800 BC and were performed all over Greece. The ideas and practices that made Greece unique began to form and increase in importance. In contrast to the Greek focus on liberty, however, the nearby Persian Empire instead believed that all people should be forced to submit to their emperor, who was viewed as being almost a god. The Persians invaded Greece twice to try to conquer it. These two invasions of Greece by the Persians are called the Greco-Persian Wars.

The Persians invaded Greece the first time in 490 BC. They landed near the Greek polis of Athens and demanded that the Athenians immediately surrender. The Athenians refused and began to prepare themselves for battle. They sent messengers to Sparta, the other very strong Greek polis, but the Spartans were unable to help. The Spartans were in the midst of a religious festival during which they were forbidden by their beliefs to engage in war. The Athenians had to fight the Persians on their own.

The battle took place at Marathon. In the Battle of Marathon, a much smaller and weaker Athenian force was able to defeat the powerful Persian Empire. It was a great victory of Greece. Without this victory, Western Civilization would not exist. The ideas of democracy, medicine, and science would have been lost forever had the Greeks been swallowed up by the Persian Empire. The Athenian soldiers sent a messenger named Pheidippides to bring the happy news back to the people in Athens. Pheidippides ran the entire 26 miles from Marathon to Athens. As he entered the city of Athens, he shouted, “We have won!” and collapsed dead from exhaustion. Today, when people run a marathon, they run 26 miles just like Pheidippides did.

The Persians were very angry at the Greeks for their defiance. The Persian emperor believed that he was a god and that all people should submit to him. Ten years after their first invasion of Greece, they invaded again in 480 BC. This time, the Spartans came to fight alongside the Athenians.

The Spartan soldiers, led by their king Leonidas, fought the Persian soldiers at the Battle of Thermopylae, near a valley between two mountains. At that place, Leonidas and his 300 Spartan soldiers were able to hold off the entire Persian army for several days. By the end of the battle, all 300 of Leonidas’s soldiers were killed but they had killed thousands of Persians. The Greek historian Herodotus guesses that about 20,000 Persian soldiers were killed in the Battle of Thermopylae. While we cannot be sure of the exact number, we know that so many Persian soldiers had been killed that the Persian army was forced to turn back rather than moving to attack the Greek cities. Although Leonidas and all 300 of his men were killed, they won the battle because they were able to protect Greece from the Persians. Today, there is a plaque on the spot where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought that has this inscription:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,

That here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.

The Athenians also fought the Persians again during the Second Greco-Persian War. Because they Athenians had a very large and strong navy, they decided to fight the Persians on the sea. At the Battle of Salamis, the Athenians were able to destroy almost 300 ships full of Persian soldiers, preventing them from landing in and attacking Greece. The Persian navy was almost entirely destroyed in the battle.

Following the defeats by the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae and the Athenians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, the Persians were forced to once again withdraw from Greece. They had been beaten so badly by the Greeks that they never again invaded. As a result, Greek culture was allowed to continue to flourish and grow.

 

Review Questions

 1. List the year each of these battles occurred and which Greek polis was involved in the battle.

a. Battle of Marathon

b. Battle of Thermopylae

c. Battle of Salamis

Primary Source: Bull-Leaping Fresco (c. 1900 BC) (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.3)

bullleaper

 

 

Review Questions

1.      Are the bull leapers men or women?

2.      Some historians think the paintings of the bull leapers do not show something that people actually did because it would be impossible to jump over a bull that way. What do you think?