Blogs > Cliopatria > B. C. Knowlton: Review of Two Books on Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski and Justin Marozzi

Jun 21, 2009 10:08 pm


B. C. Knowlton: Review of Two Books on Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski and Justin Marozzi



Ryszard Kapuscinski, Travels With Herodotus. Translated by Klara Glowczewska (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)

Justin Marozzi, The Way of Herodotus: Travels With the Man Who Invented History (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2008)

Herodotus is enjoying, or enduring, a great deal of attention these days, owing mostly to what The Historieshas to say about what Anthony Pagden has called “The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West.” More people than have read that book have seen 300, the simple-minded and extremely violent movie about the Battle of Thermopylae, which some have seen as an allegory and endorsement of the Bush Administration’s War on Terror. Herodotus does speak to the historical present; he does tell the history of the Persian Wars, which were understood at that time as a struggle between a despotic eastern empire and independent western states. But his Histories, that is, his researches or inquiries, have far more to them than the cut and thrust of the actual battles; and these two books will remind Herodotean readers of that.

At the end of Book 1 ofThe Histories, the Persian King Cyrus has died in battle while trying to conquer the far-away Massagetae. He has been succeeded by his son Cambyses, who as Book 2 begins is about to undertake the invasion of Egypt. But rather than carry on with an account of this campaign, Herodotus digresses, and tells us all about Egypt – the Nile, the pyramids, the political history, religious practices, and other customs unlike those of the Greeks. He went there himself, and spoke with everyone who would speak with him. He was obviously very interested in the Egyptians. He doesn’t get back to Cambyses until Book 3; but in the meantime he has presented to his readers a very compelling contrast between two ways in which a person, or a people, might encounter another – conquest, or inquiry.

Herodotus is often called The Father of History, where history means inquiry; but it is as the world’s first travel writer that he has inspired Kapuscinski and Marozzi. Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist who died just before the English translation of this, his last book, was published. He began his career in the mid-fifties, when his editor sent him on his first international assignment after giving him a copy ofThe Histories, which had just appeared for the first time in a Polish translation. He then took the book wherever he went. Like Herodotus himself, Kapuscinski tells us of his travels without telling us any more than that about why he is undertaking them. We hear nothing of the journalism he must have done; but we see him reading The Histories in various places, and it is clear that his sensibility and perspective have been strongly informed by Herodotus. Marozzi is a young English journalist with an academic background in History and an active career in security consulting and strategic studies. He studied under Paul Cartledge at Cambridge (though he didn’t read Herodotus until later), and grabbed for his travels “the highly accessible – and portable – Penguin Classics edition of The Histories” (xi). But the Herodotean influence is very much the same, and very much in evidence.

At the time when Kapuscinski began his travels with Herodotus, the Cold War was the current struggle between East and West. The Histories had only just appeared in a Polish translation, because the communist authorities had only just permitted it to appear. The “Iron Curtain” that formed the border between eastern and western Europe is in some ways comparable to the Hellespont of Herodotus’ time; but historical inquiry always complicates such comparisons. Kapuscinski comes from the eastern side of the historic divide, and knows very little about the western; but for some reason he becomes interested in “crossing the border.” At first he wants only to go to Czechoslovakia, though even this is considered irregular. But then, a typically inexplicable decision is made to send him across all sorts of borders, to India.

Kapuscinski’s sense of the significance of “crossing borders” is obviously informed by his experience of Stalinism and post-Stalinism, and as obviously informs his understanding of Herodotus. Herodotus had come from Halicarnassus, a Greek city on the eastern side of the Aegean; he was a Persian subject but a very cosmopolitan one. As a Herodotean traveler, Kapuscinski crosses borders and finds not just the opposite side but the varieties of otherness. India was an unaligned nation during the Cold War and one that Herodotus may or may not have visited, though his inquiries did find both definite strangeness and indefinite spaces there. To get to India, Kapuscinski must first fly to Italy – he must go west to get to the east. He flies in an American-made plane, and meets an Italian journalist who has already crossed the border in the other direction – and who speaks both Polish and Italian. Kapuscinski speaks only Polish, rather as Herodotus was thought to have known only Greek. But where Herodotus seems to have found Greek speakers wherever he went, Kapuscinski finds that he needs to learn English, since English was then, as Greek had once been, the language that crossed the most borders. Language, then, complicates Kapuscinski’s travels in a way that it did not Herodotus’ Histories. “Language struck me,” Kapuscinski writes, “as something material, something with a physical dimension, a wall rising up in the middle of the road and preventing my going further, closing off the world, making it unattainable” (20). Having been thus struck by language, and having begun to learn English alongside his inquiries, he finds that “I approached India not through images, sounds, and smells, but through words.” He “noticed, too, the relationship between naming and being” which gave him the words for the images, sounds, and smells. He “understood, in short, that the more words I knew, the richer, fuller, and more variegated would be the world that opened before me, and which I could capture” (21). Having said that, though, Kapuscinski carries on with his travel writing, in which he is well served by his English translator. For Marozzi, the crossing of borders and translation of languages do not figure or signify as they do for Kapuscinski; but if Kapuscinski’s travels are more linguistically complicated, Marozzi’s are more inquisitively implicated.

Marozzi introduces his travels with the man who invented History with an introduction to his reading of The Histories. That reading begins, as so many others have done, with the Prologue in which Herodotus of Halicarnassus tells us what he is going to do and why. Though Marozzi does not do an academic reading, his academic background is evident in his discussion of Herodotean historiography; and though his reading is less earnest than Kapuscinski’s, it is also more purposeful. Kapuscinski reads Herodotus’ Prologue only on page 74 of his Travels, and then only as a respite from his reportage. Marozzi’s angle takes in the beginning of History; Kapuscinski’s the end of memory. Both readings are generally, but not simply, consistent with the current understanding of Herodotus as the historian of the struggle between freedom and despotism. Marozzi’s actual travels begin in Bodrum, the city in Turkey that was once Halicarnassus, and in which he does not merely inquire like Herodotus but inquires after him. The modern borders between Turkey and Greece in some ways line up with the ones that existed in antiquity, but in other ways have been very much reconfigured by history. Marozzi’s Herodotean inquiries find that the father of history has been pretty much forgotten in Bodrum. One person he speaks to, who regrets that no one is interested in Herodotus anymore, also insists that he wasn’t a Greek but rather a Carian. Marozzi corrects that misapprehension for his readers, much as Herodotus does when he says that he reports what people tell him, but doesn’t always believe it. And as Herodotus no doubt had to look hard for people who could tell him what he wanted to know, and had to make inquiries that got below the surfaces of the places he visited, so Marozzi finds a museum director who is superintending an excavation of an ancient sunken ship; and this leads to inquiries which Herodotus obviously couldn’t have made for himself, but which would have as obviously interested him very much.

Marozzi also makes his Herodotean way to Iraq, where at the surface of the ancient history a war is going on. As always, history is being both made and destroyed; the people who are living it are typically ignorant of it. But, as always, critical inquiry can discern and discover much. “All the elements of the war in Iraq carried an unmistakably Herodotean echo,” Marozzi writes: “they sounded the enduring themes of empire, imperial over-reach, the sensible limits of power, cultural confrontation and the clash of civilizations, democracy versus dictatorship, West versus East, religion, greed, hubris and its consequences” (71). In one of many close readings of apposite episodes, Marozzi tells of the wise advice the Persian King Xerxes received from his uncle Artabanus, when Xerxes was determined to invade and conquer Greece. Artabanus reminds him of his father Darius’ failed invasion of Scythia, and of what God thinks and does about those who exhibit hubris. Xerxes, in the end, doesn’t take the wise advice, and the rest, as they say, is history, with its inevitable application to Bush Administration policy. Marozzi goes on to consider just what history has to say about such events and developments. We hear from academic historians and active-duty servicemen who tell us what is going on and what it means. We catch up with King Cambyses, who, having invaded and taken over Egypt, behaves so outrageously that Herodotus concludes he must be mad. Marozzi concludes that “Herodotus’ message is even more timely and relevant today than it was two-and-a-half millennia ago. But it goes unheeded, as it always has and as it always will, because history teaches us that we do not learn from history” (95).

Marozzi undertakes his travels with Herodotus precisely so that he can write this timely book; Kapuscinski only happened to have Herodotus with him as he undertook journalistic work that he would have done even without him, and his book reads more as a memoir of a long career. Marozzi travels where Herodotus had traveled, to see what could be seen and say what could be said about those places early in the 21st century; to inquire like Herodotus and to find Herodotus in his inquiries. Kapuscinski traveled where Herodotus had not – not only to India but also to Africa – and brought Herodotus along to read in his free time. Though the Herodotean influence is much in evidence, it is also more incidental and impressionistic. And though both authors note that, for all his interesting inquiries, we know very little about Herodotus himself, both also admit that they came to consider Herodotus himself, and not just his Histories, as their traveling companion.


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Elliott Aron Green - 7/27/2009

Knowlton and, it appears, the author Justin Marozzi, much overdo the theme of the "east-west clash of civilizations." Martin West, a far more renowned scholar/historian than Justin Marozzi, has stated that ancient Greece was in many ways an Oriental country, civilization and culture. Even Herodotos, by the way, pointed out Egyptian and Phoenician contributions to ancient Greek classical culture. Aristotle pointed to Egyptian pioneering mathematical notions passed on to ancient Greece. Moreover, examination of Pythagoras' personal practices and his rules for his quasi-religious movement in Magna Graecia show several significant parallels to Judaism and the Bible. Further, the stories of Jason and of Iphigenia too have Biblical parallels.

Then, Knowlton approvingly refers to Marozzi's denial of Herodotos being Carian. But how does either of them know for sure? Doesn't Herodotos deprecate, even sneer at, the Greeks in several passages of the Histories?? Wasn't Halikarnassos also in Caria, which overlaps Ionia to be sure? Perhaps a bit more modesty on an issue that cannot definitively be answered would be appropriate for both Knowlton and Marozzi.