To be honest, I didn’t know anything about Herodotus until I picked up The Man Who Invented History by British travel writer and historian Justin Marozzi at the Dhubai duty-free, at the start of our Christmas trip to Thailand. Sandra and I were flying out to see our friend Hugh Paxton and his wife Midori and were stuck for ten-hours at the airport between flights.
Marozzi’s book on Herodotus introduced me to a writer who is everything I would like to be. He was first and foremost entertaining, keeping his reader’s interest in the potentially dull origins of the war between Greece and Persia through plenty of digressions [especially into the sexual habits of the Egyptians, Amazons and whoever else comes across his path]. He was insightful into the frailties of human nature and able to draw out lessons that have resonances in the modern world. As Marozzi points out, you can’t avoid thinking of the ill-conceived war between Persia and Greece without feeling there are comparisons with the situation in modern-day Iraq.Justin Morozzi is one of those depressingly brilliant scholars who achieved a Starred Double First in History from Cambridge and at the age of 35 has already written a best-selling history of the global conquered Tamerlane and several other well received books. He has travelled extensively through the Islamic world, including a 1,200 mile camel trek across the Libyan Sahara described by desert explorer and SAS veteran Michael Asher as “the first significant journey across the Libyan interior for a generation” and is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. I remember how put-out I was when a chap I worked with years ago said that another popular historian Michael Wood, [who had been dating his sister] was “a really nice guy”. I have this imression that Justin Marozzi is as well. Oh, how I hate him! Anyway I digress, much as Herodotus does all the way through TheHistories.
Even when Herodotus gets it completely wrong, like his descriptions of the gold digging ants the size of foxes and flying snakes, he is compelling and that is the mark of a good writer. Does the material he produces make you want to keep reading. Is it a page-turner? Yes it is, or at least Marozzi’s depiction of The Histories is. No less of interest is his own narrative describing travels across the same landscape as Herodotus, divided by 2,500 years.
Marozzi uses Herodotus to justify and explain his sympathy for Iraqies oppressed by the occupying forces of the “coalition of the willing” and compares the outward looking multicultural Greeks of Herodotus’s time with aspects of inward-looking Greek culture today. He also notices in modern day Egypt, the same obsession with religion that Herodotus described and so on…
Strangely, before we left Thailand for the equally long journey home, Hugh gave me his copy of Ryszard Kapusinski’s Travels With Herodotus, an equally entertaining book by the veteran Polish writer who carried a copy of of with him for fifty years while he criss-crossed the globe.
Kapuscinski was the Polish Press Agency’s only foreign correspondant for more than ten years from 1954 with an overview of more than fifty countries to report from. Now, that was a real job! Like Morozzi, he was captivated by Herodotus’s humanity and abilty to draw out from reported converstaions, anecdotes and a historical narative insights into human nature. His world view could be summed up by the idea that human happiness does not stay in any one place for long and if you start getting too big for you boots, the world [or the Gods] have a way of slapping you down. These are not bad things to be reminded of.