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Dr. Larry Arnn On Herodotus

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HH: A historic eek in Rome, so it is perfectly timed that I talk with Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College in our weekly dialogue about history, specifically about the father of history, Herodotus. Dr. Arnn, welcome back, always a pleasure to talk to you.

LA: Great to be with you, Hugh.

HH: Now obviously, we’re going to talk about history, and I want to back up and say Hillsdale emphasizes a lot of history. In fact, right now, you have a brand new online course devoted to American history that people can go sign up at, as well as the Hillsdale Dialogues. Why bother? Everything is new, Larry Arnn. Everything is being reinvented. Why bother?

LA: Well, all you have to do is read some history to find out that’s not so. In fact, you can only think that if you haven’t read any history. It’s amazing the age, I mean, this thing that’s going on in Rome is of course a historic thing that has been going on for hundreds of years now, according to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, for two thousand years since Jesus. And to pick the successor to Peter, which the Catholics believe, the book of Matthew, when it says thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and what you bind on Earth I will bind in Heaven, and what you loose on Earth, I will loose in Heaven. They take that to mean that there’s to be a senior bishop in the Apostolic succession who is the head of God’s Church on Earth. And that’s been going on for a very long time. It is a process of great dignity and import.

HH: And it is history in the making, and people will be talking about it for centuries hence, every time. Like they’ll be talking about John Paul II and Benedict XVI for centuries going forward, so it’s interesting to live in historic times. But almost all times are by definition history. But some of them have not been recorded as well as others, and certainly, we’re going to talk today about Herodotus, the father of history. Why does he have that title?

LA: Well, because he wrote the first thing that we can really call a history book. The word history comes from the Greek word for inquiry, and Herodotus told the first great careful inquiry, and made the first great inquiry. He did it, by the way, by thinking about it for years and traveling to most of the places. And he was a brilliant human being who wrote the story of one of the greatest movements of people in all of human history.

HH: Do you teach Herodotus at Hillsdale?

LA: Of course. Everybody has to study it or has to read some Herodotus. In the core course, there isn’t very much Herodotus, but everybody has to learn the story of Herodotus, and then we have all the history majors read him extensively, and most of the students do, too.

HH: Now put him into context, because he does arrive and he does a new thing, at least as far as we know as a new thing. We have other books of history and the Old Testament, obviously, and we have books of history, sort of history in the Iliad that we’ve talked about, but he does a new thing. Tell people what that new thing is.

LA: Well, Herodotus, he tells the story of an event from the point of view of an intelligent and objective observer. And one way to get the thing is we live in a multicultural age today. We think that the study of all cultures, with the view that all the cultures are equal in some sense or another, that none can claim to be better, or that there can be any standard across cultures that let you judge whether a culture is good or not, Herodotus undertakes, in one sense, a great multicultural study. He travels to the East, to the great world of the Persian empire in the cradle of civilization, and the many nations it has conquered, and he tells the story of those civilizations. And the comparisons between them are very stark. We should talk about that some, because the Egyptians and the Persians are very different kind of people from the Greeks, and the differences are mutually exclusive. If the claims of one are true, the claims of the other cannot be true. And Herodotus goes into that, and believes that there is a way to arbitrate among them. Now his work is mostly an examination, a revelation of what they are like, and what their claims are. But also, there’s an arbitration among them, which is necessary because these great societies come into conflict with each other. And it is the first examination in that spirit.

HH: He lays them out in a series of books within the book, History by Herodotus, and I raise this because it’s the first thing I wrote down as I was reading it on the way to and from Japan. There comes the strange but true tale of Arion, who is this musician who falls afoul of the people who are taking him on his boat. And they give him a couple of choices, and he decides to dress up and he jumps in the ocean. He walks the plank, actually. And then he rides a dolphin, according to Herodotus, to safety, and they build a statue to him. And at that point, you put it down and you say now he’s picking up berries, he’s a vacuum cleaner of every anecdote out there. But doesn’t that undermine the legitimacy of the retelling that he’s coming, when he begins with obviously fable?

LA: Well, there’s a great essay about Herodotus by Leo Paul de Alvarez, and if you send me an email, I’ll get Leo Paul’s permission, and then I’ll send it to you. It’s very worth reading. It’s very interesting. He’s a very smart man. He thinks that particular anecdote is key to the whole book, because, he claims, that the difference between the Greeks and the Persians, and the reason they fought, is that the Persians have no sense of poetry. And whereas the Greeks adore, admire poetry. And I’ll explain what that means. Poetry comes from an ancient word which means to make. It’s a kind of human making that forms an image of the way things are. And I’m going to interrupt for a second and tell you about the structure of Herodotus. I said this at the end of the last show. Herodotus is nine books, and the first book, the first five books, are a study of these different cultures. And they are profound and extremely interesting, and I’ll tell you a few conclusions from them. The last four are a war story, and that’s this Persian horde comes to Greece to invade and overcome the Greeks the way they have everyone in their path throughout the East. And the battles are among the most famous battles in history, and the heroism in them is moving and extremely well told. So you’ve got a study of societies and a comparison of them, and then you’ve got the war story of them coming into conflict. And it is surely one of the greatest books every written because of that. Now go back to the poetry.

HH: Yeah, to Arion, because I’m confused by how this matters that much. So please educate me.

LA: Well, start with this. Herodotus says in the beginning of the book that the Persians decide to try to conquer the Greeks, because they don’t like something they did. And the something they did was to launch wars on nations for abducting and raping four women, the last of them, and they’re all immortal women, and mortal women both, you know, because the Greeks have that. They have some of the mortals are children of the gods, and they’re very special, like Achilles was thought to be such. So Helen is one of them. And they think that only because she was a beautiful woman, that that was the cause. It was wrong to rape and abduct a woman, but to launch a thousand ships over it just because she’s beautiful? The Persians think that’s excessive. And so there’s a difference between the Greeks and the Persians about the love of beauty. Now I have to add another step. And you know, I want to emphasize to people that to understand Herodotus is a fantastic thing to do, and it’s not as hard as it might sound. I keep saying that, and that makes it sound harder when I say it, but I’m going to keep on. So think of this argument. This is fundamental to classical thought. Aristotle says we all long for the good. And the good is the excellence of each thing we see. And we all want to be good people. That means fully people being the way people ought to be. We want to be self-controlled and moderate and courageous. We want to be intelligent and even in our judgments. We all want to be like that. And the most shining examples of that are beyond good. The word for good is agathos. They are kalos. They are beautiful. And in English, when we say of somebody that something we really admire, something we’ve seen that we just love, we might look at a person and say that was a beautiful thing you did. See, that sense, that drives the Greeks. And it’s the account of the Greeks that that drives everyone, the longing for the good and the highest form of the good, the beautiful. And Herodotus begins the work, and remember, Herodotus is living in the 5th Century B.C., in the 400s B.C., and along is coming Socrates and Aristotle and Plato not long after him. And he begins by saying the Persians denied that.

— – –

HH: Larry Arnn, you were saying when we went to break what the cultural differences between the Greeks and the Persians were. But it wasn’t just Persia that Herodotus was concerned about. As well, he also dove deep into Egyptian life.

LA: Yeah, and see, so let’s talk about reincarnation for a minute.

HH: Okay.

LA: And help me remember, I want to go back to that question of the good, and I’ll lodge this point. Herodotus says of the Persians that they are the tyrant people. Now by the way, the Persians are good to the Jews at various times in the Bible, and they’re in the Bible. Cyrus and Darius are in the Bible.

HH: They allow the rebuilding of Jerusalem, yup.

LA: That’s right. But he says they’re the tyrant people, because the Persians believe that whatever it is illegal to do, it is also illegal to think. And that means that you can make thoughts by legislation conform as much as you can make deeds, and that both can be perfectly done. Cyrus himself, the greatest of the Persian kings, and the one who was the best to the Jews, Cyrus, the Gyndes River thwarts him once, and so he punishes it by dividing it into 360 channels to punish the river.

HH: Yes.

LA: The river must do what he says. Later, when Xerxes is bringing his great horde across the Hellespont, near the Dardanelles, in Turkey today, between Turkey and the Balkans, that the Hellespont acts up and thwarts him, and so he throws whips and shackles into it to punish them. The Persians are a people who think they can make nature and man do and think whatever they want, which the Greeks do not think. Now the Egyptians think something like that. Herodotus talks a lot about the practice of mummification, the preserving of bodies. And their view, that the body is the fundamental thing. They also believe in a kind of reincarnation. And reincarnation is an odd doctrine, because what it amounts to is the view that the soul is such a thing that it can occupy bodies that are both rational and non-rational. You can be a monkey and a locust and a man, or a donkey. And that means that the essential quality of the human being is not reason. That means that created in the Divine spirit is not possible for people who think like these people. So they’re very ready to call their kings a god, but they’re not really ready to think of human beings in general as created in the image of God. I’ll read you one of my favorite speeches from Herodotus, the general who leads the Persians against the Greeks is named Mardonius. And here’s how you talk to Xerxes if you’re Mardonius. Master, he says, he’s going to be giving him some advice. You are the greatest Persian there has ever been. Nor will there ever be anyone to equal you in the future, either.

HH: Wow.

LA: So you see that that means? So you know, Hugh, you are the greatest radio host I have ever known. Nor will any other ever appear.

HH: You know, I may take that bit of tape and play that a few times, Dr. Arnn.

LA: Please do. Please do. None ever like you. They’re talking to Xerxes like that. And when they get across, and they’re fighting, the difference between Xerxes and Leonidas, one of the two Spartan kings, the Spartans always had two, one of the two Spartan kings is down in the narrow place holding off with 4,000 men, 300. Herodotus actually says two and a half million men. 300,000 is probably what it was. And he’s down there fighting and dying with the men. Xerxes is up on a dais above, watching. Very different. And there’s this Spartan king who has defected. He lost a battle and was deposed, and he defected to Xerxes and became his source, and he was also a flatterer of Xerxes, like everyone else about him, just like Mardonius. And at one point, Xerxes says to Demaratus, he says I don’t understand this formation. Who whips the Greeks to make them fight? And Demaratus is trying to explain to him no one does.

HH: No one does. Now I want to go back to the…

LA: They fight for their honor and their homes. And Xerxes laughs at that. It is not conceivable. In other words, there’s no equality in the Persian world, or the Egyptian world. And there’s no room for freedom in those worlds. There’s no room for the independence of reason to grasp the world. The world rather can be made as the ruler wants it to be. And that’s how they think. And through these five books at the beginning of Herodotus, he tells these most amazing stories about the people that he himself sees, and whose records he has read, mostly through oral tales. And he tells what they are like. And they are very different from the Greeks.

HH: Oh, my gosh, are they different. But why the Egyptians? I understand why you would contrast the Persians and the Greeks. They came to blows. They decide the fate of the world. But why the long digression, because it’s just bizarre stuff, right? He’s also quite salacious in the details that he will retell in order to get people to read about the various couplings that go on in Egypt, and the various demands on lineage, et cetera. But why bother diverting to Egypt when it’s in fact the Persian-Greek war that is where he is building to.

LA: By the way, that point about sex is an excellent way to recruit people to read Herodotus.

HH: Yes, it is. There’s quite a lot of sex in Herodotus.

LA: And I’d like to say, Hugh, there’s never been, nor will there ever be, such a radio host as you. But he says, the thing is, the Persians have conquered the Egyptians, and the Egyptians are part of the Persian empire, and they are in the war. So it is a conquest now with, it is a conflict now with the Egyptians, too.

HH: And so that, it’s just one of their major allies, so he wants their story to be told along the side of that.

LA: Or rather subject peoples.

HH: Subject people.

LA: One of their major subject peoples. That’s what they are.

HH: Now…

LA: And they are absorbed into this, and they are absorbable into it in a way that the Greeks prove not to be.

HH: And before the break, the Persians are unstable to a certain extent, because they really don’t have a governing system. They have power struggles that are awesome to behold and wild to see. But they don’t really have a system that endures beyond tyranny.

LA: And the Greeks are also often unstable. But the Greeks, when they have stability, and this is a great point about America, it comes from the fact that each human, each citizen, is understood to carry the ruling principle of the nation in his own breast. And he is an independent being. And to hold the station of a citizen is to hold a high station. Not in Persia.

— – –

HH: Larry Arnn, let’s switch to Chapters 6, 7, 8, and 9 so that people get a sense of the collision that occurs between these two vast cultures that he spent so much time describing for us.

LA: Well, Xerxes’ father had invaded Greece. The father was Darius. And I want to keep rereading this. There are many great things about the Persian civilization, and they were good to the Jews, among their captors, the best. But Herodotus points at the stark difference. When the Greeks read the story of Helen and the Trojan war, they see a noble thing done for a worthy cause, ultimately the cause of beauty. And the Persians are offended by the story. It seems out of proportion and wrong to them. That’s how Herodotus starts the book. So that produces, then, two invasions of Greece, both of them en masse, overwhelming power for the Persians. And in 490, Darius invaded and lost the battle of Marathon. And that was at the time of Themistocles, who emptied the city of Athens and put them in the hollow, wooden walls. They put them in the ships. And then at Marathon, the Greeks, although greatly outnumbered, proved to be a superior force to the Persians, and overwhelmed and destroyed them. We have the marathon now, because that’s the distance that the messenger ran to inform the Athenians of the victory. And so to run a marathon is to reproduce the carrying at speed of that great message by a wounded warrior – 26.2 miles.

HH: 26.2 miles, yeah.

LA: Yeah, and so the Greeks are repelled, and there’s a defeat. And then the son of Darius comes, and he, too, has gone from strength to strength, and Persia is bigger and more powerful under Xerxes than it was under his father, Darius. And he decides to do it again, and this time, he’s taking everybody.

HH: And everybody that he can find. It took, what, four years to get ready to do this?

LA: That’s right, and the claim is by Herodotus that he took two and a half million people. That’s quite a few. And in those logistical ages, you know, how do you feed them?

HH: Yeah.

LA: And he thinks, and remember, they are a people who think that nature can be made to conform to human thought, and also that human thought can be made to conform to human thought of the most powerful. And that’s a distinction between the doctrines of power and any decent understanding of poetry…

HH: Yeah.

LA: …which is thought to be an image with an integrity of its own reflecting nature somehow. He thinks that when he goes over there with this many people, the war will be won before it begins. And the Greeks, who are possessed for a long time of what they call the phobos, which is the Greek word for fear, they fear the Persians. They know they’re coming back. They know they are vastly more numerous. And sure enough, they come across the Hellespont, and they invade in enormous numbers. And they have to decide what to do, and the Greeks, unlike the Persians, are chronically very divided, because they have a measure of citizen independence, and because they’re individual city-states. And so they finally, at the last minute, adopt a strategy, and here it is. Xerxes has got to come across, come along a mountain range beside the sea, and there’s a path, a road, and there’s a place where it narrows called Thermopylae, which means the gates of fire or the hot gates. And it’s rocky, and it can’t be expanded. And they decide to send a force up there led by 300 Spartans. And the Spartans are the greatest of the warriors of the early classical world. Only the Romans can really rival them. And they had a certain kind of society. The only profession allowed for free men for citizens was the profession of arms.

— –  –

HH: Dr. Arnn, when we went to break, and we were talking about the fact, the only thing a Spartan could to was be a warrior.

LA: That’s right.

HH: And that’s what citizens did.

LA: And there weren’t that many citizens, and that meant all the work had to be done by slaves. So Sparta was a slave society. But could they not fight? They’re drill was perfect, and the Greek way of fighting was heavy infantry – shields and men stacked up one behind the other, and it was like a scrum in rugby football. They would make contact with the enemy, and grind forward, stabbing from underneath the shields and over the shields, and nobody could do that like the Spartans. And so 300 Spartans, and about 3,700 others from the Greek cities, decide to take a stand against what Herodotus says is two and a half million people in this narrow place where only a few can fight at a time. And Xerxes thinks this is going to be over in an instant. And the first day, he sends people out against them, and the Greeks drive them into the sea almost without loss. And then second, he sends the immortals against them, and the immortals are his top troops. And they’re called immortal because when one is killed, there’s always another standing ready to take his place. They can never be destroyed. And it’s the greatest honor to be a member of the immortals. And the Greeks simply cream the immortals.

HH: Yeah, they’re not so immortal.

LA: They drive them into the sea, and the Persians, by the way, in all of the relations, all of the wars between the Greeks and the Persians, which go on long after this, the Persians can never stand on a battlefield with the Greeks, and that’s partly because of something about the two societies, and that is the Greeks are able, each man, to occupy his place and fight as a unit more coherently than the slave societies, because each man is carrying the cause in his own breast. That’s a great story about the West and its way, that is to say freedom somehow actually results in greater unity in moment of crisis than dictatorship can do.

HH: And what does it do, their example? I think this is one of the key things. As it courses through Greece, the knowledge of the destruction of the Spartans, but their bravery and that of their allies, and the treachery that destroys, what effect does it have on Greek development?

LA: Well, of course, that’s a heroic tale. And the Greeks are only beaten because a traitor shows the Persians a path around their place where they’re making a stand, so the Persians can attack them from both sides, both ends. And then the Spartans and the Thespians refuse to leave. And so a few hundred of them remaining make a stand to the death, and they’re killed at the end. In fact, if you want to, there are two, by the way, really great things. The wonderful Victor Hanson, a friend of mine and a great classical scholar, was an advisor to that film 300.

HH: Yes.

LA: And it’s not perfect, by Victor’s account, but it’s good, and you should watch it. It’s very stirring, and it shows how they fought, with exaggerations, but roughly right. And then there’s an excellent fictional book called Gates Of Fire by Steven Pressfield.

HH: Frequent guest on this show, and a wonderful, wonderful book, yeah.

LA: Really something. Yeah, you should read that, too.

HH: Yeah.

LA: But read Herodotus. And then the fact of this glory, you know, it ends with, this is in Herodotus, too, it ends with the Persians appealing one last time to the Spartan king, Leonidas, lay down your arms, and you can be at the head of the Persian armies, the most honored of the subjects. You fought so well, we admire you, lay down your arms. And Leonidas replies, you want our arms, and this echoes in the Greek world for centuries, come and get them.

HH: And the inscription you mentioned last week?

LA: Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here in obedience to their laws, we lie. And this defeat, noble, honorable, supremely wonderful kind of defeat at Thermopylae is followed quickly by a huge naval victory at Salamis, and then a massive land victory at Plataea a year later, so that the Greeks are, sorry, the Persians are expelled again from Greece. And it’s the great story of the arrival of the Greeks as the greatest people in the known world.

HH: But then that leads to the question which sets up next week as we go to Thucydides, and we may be there for a while. How could a country so inspired by victory, and so moved by sacrifice, quickly fall into the destruction 27 year civil war?

LA: Well, that’s because you asked the same question of the Jews, don’t you? The Greeks, too, seem to be a stiff-necked people. And they don’t get along, right? The Athenians come out of the Persian war very powerful, and spreading all over, because their principal rule, and we’ll examine this when we talk about Thucydides, is different. The Greeks are alike and profoundly, if you compare them with the Persian people, in their conquest. But they are different from each other in ways that also matter. And that leads to a conflict, because the Athenians are becoming too great. And the Spartans are afraid of them. The phobos again, and so that leads to them fighting, and ultimately, by the way, to their destruction, their reduction of their civilization from its preeminent place.

HH: And we will tell that story, or begin to tell that story next week. 30 seconds, Larry Arnn, do your students love Herodotus when they’re done with it?

LA: Oh, yeah. Of course, they do, because he’s very lovable.

HH: Yeah, he is. There’s so many unusual things in here. Some other day, we’ll come back and talk about oracles and Delphi, and all this other stuff. But Dr. Larry Arnn, to Thucydides next week. Herodotus wonderfully and well introduced by Dr. Larry Arnn. All of our dialogues are available at And if you hadn’t ever heard of Herodotus, perhaps now you’ll go and download it. If you’ve got an iTune store account, it’s actually free.

End of interview.


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