History—the rational and methodical study of the human past—was invented by a single man just under twenty-five hundred years ago; just under twenty-five years ago, when I was starting a graduate degree in Classics, some of us could be pretty condescending about the man who invented it and (we’d joke) his penchant for flowered Hawaiian shirts.
The risible figure in question was Herodotus, known since Roman times as “the Father of History.” The sobriquet, conferred by Cicero, was intended as a compliment. Herodotus’ Histories—a chatty, dizzily digressive nine-volume account of the Persian Wars of 490 to 479 B.C., in which a wobbly coalition of squabbling Greek city-states twice repulsed the greatest expeditionary force the world had ever seen—represented the first extended prose narrative about a major historical event. (Or, indeed, about virtually anything.) And yet to us graduate students in the mid-nineteen-eighties the word “father” seemed to reflect something hopelessly parental and passé about Herodotus, and about the sepia-toned “good war” that was his subject. These were, after all, the last years of the Cold War, and the terse, skeptical manner of another Greek historian—Thucydides, who chronicled the Peloponnesian War, between Athens and Sparta, two generations later—seemed far more congenial. To be an admirer of Thucydides’ History, with its deep cynicism about political, rhetorical, and ideological hypocrisy, with its all too recognizable protagonists—a liberal yet imperialistic democracy and an authoritarian oligarchy, engaged in a war of attrition fought by proxy at the remote fringes of empire—was to advertise yourself as a hardheaded connoisseur of global Realpolitik.
more from The New Yorker here.