Thursday, March 14, 2013

Herodotus and the English Patient

I'm sure that I first learned about Herodotus in high school, though I don't remember anything other than that he was 'the father of history'.  The next time I encountered him was in 1997, in the movie 'The English Patient'.  For those who haven't seen the movie, the title character was a desert explorer whose plane was shot down over the Sahara during World War II.  He is horribly burned and can't remember who he is.  He has no identification and the only belonging of his that survived the plane crash is a copy of Herodotus that he carried with him.  The movie is told in the present and also in flashback and here is the scene that got to me:

What an interesting story!  You have a king who plays a silly trick, without any thought to the consequences on his adviser and his queen.  The queen finds out the truth and gives the adviser, Gyges, a choice that will literally shake the kingdom.
Years later I actually picked up Herodotus to read and was surprised that this is the first story out of the gate.  It only seems proper then, to start writing about the Father of History from this standpoint.  He was, first and foremost, a teller of interesting stories.  In between the most interesting stuff he also works to provide the actual nuts and bolts of things like who ruled and for how long, but it is the stories that most captivate. 

So what do we learn here?  Candaules is the king.  He speaks at length of the beauty of his wife and finally orders Gyges to spy on her, so he too can affirm what the king is saying.  This one simple jest leads to the loss of his life and throne.  Lesson: don't treat your wife poorly.  That lesson is tempered a bit by the fact that Herodotus doesn't actually name the queen.  In later sections, he talks quite a bit about specific women, so the best guess is that he simply didn't know it.
It's easy to see how he captivated an audience.

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