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Cultural Bias And Structure In Herodotus

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Category: History Other

Autor: anton 29 November 2010

Words: 743 | Pages: 3

Herodotus' writes his Histories for Greeks. Specifically for Greeks living in Herodotus' own time. The statement of purpose which begins the work seems to contradict this hypothesis. Herodotus claims to wish to "prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievementsВ…" [Herodotus, 1.0]. The underlying assumption here is that the author is preserving these events and achievements for future generations and perhaps even future civilizations. The text however does not does not follow these guidelines. Herodotus assumes that his reader will have certain amount of common knowledge.

When discussing geographical distances, Herodotus often gives them relative to distances that Greeks would be familiar with. "The journey inland from the coast to Heliopolis is more or less as long as the journey from the Altar of the Twelve Gods in Athens to the temple of Olympian Zeus in Pisa." [Herodotus 2.7]. Herodotus assumes that his readers will have an innate feel for the Greek distances he provides otherwise he would not offer them.

Herodotus does not describe anything that Greeks are familiar with. He makes this clear by stating "I will not describe the shape of a camel, because the Greek already know what one looks like." [Herodotus 3.103]. This attitude might be entirely indiscernible if not for this statement for the simple fact that we have no idea what the В‘average' Greek knew. With this statement though we can extrapolate that all of the exotic animals, peoples, and lands which Herodotus describes are unknown to the average Greek. Herodotus does not take into account that what is common knowledge for a fifth century Athenian might not be common knowledge for a fourth century Athenian or a twentieth century American.

Herodotus organizes his work in a dual structure. The primary structure is a domino-like succession of events. Tacitly beginning with the Trojan War but more firmly beginning with the line of Persian kings these events lead inexorably to the Persian War. These primary structure events are ordered chronologically and generally delineated by political or military leaders.

Within this primary structure lies a secondary tangential structure. Herodotus tangentially discusses almost everything which is brought up in his historical narrative. Any subject, region, or people that is mentioned within the primary structure is a candidate for secondary structure examination. Most often this comes in the form of a discussion of some land that the Persians conquered. These secondary structure tangents often include their own historical narratives, geographical descriptions, and anthropological observations. The secondary structure of The Histories almost obscures the primary structure, making it difficult for a casual or first time reader to follow the overall narative.

So we are presented with a narrative history quite similar to a modern history but which goes off on tangents on subjects when they first appear in the narrative (this of course includes tangents off of tangents).

The structure of The Histories presents a problem. The secondary structure of The Histories almost obscures the primary structure, making the book difficult to follow. We are presented with two possibilities. Either Herodotus is not a good author or The Histories was not meant to be read as a book. Given the oral nature of fifth century Athens the later is far more likely. Books were likely a rarity in Herodotus' time given the difficulty in reproducing them. Given the oral tradition of epic poetry and the ubiquity of oral speeches in the Assembly's political deliberations, it is likely that books were largely transmitted orally. If The Histories were being read aloud it would be much easier to follow as digressions are a normal element of speech. Sections of the secondary structure could easily be omitted В– for either time or audience considerations В– without disrupting the overall continuity of the work as a whole.

Some elements of Herodotus are not suitable for oral performance. The list of tribute amounts each territory was to pay Persia for instance would have a soporific effect on even the most alert Athenian. Furthermore there is a sense that Herodotus in aware of enduring nature of the written word and takes advantage of it to preserve his creation for the future (even if he is writing it for the present). I suspect that in Herodotus we see an incomplete transition from orality to literacy.

Herodotus is widely acknowledged to have a pro-Athenian bias. His first four books do little however to reveal such a bias.


Herodotus, The Histories

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