The debt owed by Herodotus to Athenian tragedy, with its implacable trajectories from grandeur to abjection, has been much commented on by classicists, some of whom even attribute his evolution from a mere note-taker to a grand moralist of human affairs to the years spent in Athens, when he is said to have been a friend of Sophocles. (As one scholar has put it, “Athens was his Damascus.”)
Athens itself, of course, was to become the protagonist of one such tragico-historical “plot”: during Herodotus’ lifetime, the preëminent Greek city-state travelled a Sophoclean road from the heady triumph of the Persian Wars to the onset of the Peloponnesian War, a conflict during which it lost both its political and its moral authority. This is why it’s tempting to think, with certain classical historians, that the Histories were composed as a kind of friendly warning about the perils of imperial ambition. If the fate of the Persians could be intended as an object lesson for the Athenians, Herodotus’ ethical point is much larger than the superiority of the West to the East.
Only a sense of the cosmic scale of Herodotus’ moral vision, of the way it grafts the political onto the natural schema, can make sense of his distinctive style, of all the seemingly random detours and diversions—the narrative equivalents of the gimcrack souvenirs and brightly colored guidebooks and the flowered shirts. If you wonder, at the beginning of the story of Persia’s rise, whether you really need twenty chapters about the distant origins of the dynasty to which Croesus belongs, think again: that famous story of how Croesus’ ancestor Gyges assassinated the rightful king and took the throne (to say nothing of the beautiful queen) provides information that allows you to fit Croesus’ miserable ending into the natural scheme of things. His fall, it turns out, is the cosmic payback for his ancestor’s crime: “Retribution would come,” Herodotus says, quoting the Delphic oracle, “to the fourth descendant of Gyges.”