Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2822: HERODOTUS

by: Haleh Ardebili

Today, we visit Herodotus. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

From twenty five hundred years ago, Herodotus said these words:

Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks ...

So Herodotus began his collection of books titled The Histories during the 5th century BC. Many great English translations and commentaries are available. I particularly enjoyed Robin Waterfield’s translation.

Herodotus is a master storyteller. He weaves and intertwines his characters and events, sometimes seemingly unconnected, into cohesive captivating stories. He’s also the first person who attempted to scrutinize his information. He used cross-referencing, logical deductions, and perspective analysis to provide objective and factual descriptions of the events of his time. And for this, he’s considered the father of history.


Fragment of The Histories

At that time, oral preservation of historical events was still common. Inaccuracies occurred during the transfer of information across different generations and languages. Herodotus also recognized the influence of a person’s ethnic background and political perspective. In fact, he attempted to re-narrate certain events in his book depending on who told the story.

However, Herodotus wasn’t consistent. As a result, we read intimate conversations that cannot be verified and erroneous depictions of people, creatures and events.

This inconsistency is a weakness and flaw. But it also lends a fantastical dimension to the book: He tells of giant gold-digging ants and a race of one-eyed men. If Herodotus had been able to investigate further, they might have disappeared. Still, these fantastical features combined with factual history do make enjoyable reading.

Battle of Salamis painting
Battle of Salamis

Herodotus also tells us about the role of women in ancient times. Greek, Assyrian and Persian women in his book appear to play critical roles in decisions and events related to war, peace, religion, and justice. We read about Artemisia the female commander of naval warships advising Xerxes, Queen Nitocris re-directing the Euphrates river for strategic defense, the priestess of Apollo at Delphi, the Pythia advising powerful figures ...

the Pythia painting
The Pythia

This fascinating work by Herodotus — part history, part entertainment — is a timeless masterpiece. For those who fantasize about time travel, the fact that a man from two thousand five hundred years ago is successfully communicating with us is quite astonishing. And our thanks do to those who preserved, protected and brought this treasure to us ...

I’m Haleh Ardebili at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


References:

Herodotus, The Histories, Translated by R. Waterfield, Oxford World’s Classics, 1998 (with Introduction by Carolyn Dewald)

W. Wybergh How, J. Wells, A Commentary on Herodotus, V.1, Books 1-4, 1912

All images are from Wikipedia.

This episode was first aired on August 21, 2012



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.