Herodotus has to be my favourite ancient historian. Hailed as both ‘father of history’ and ‘father of lies’, he wrote a history of the time of the Persian Wars that was everything the later Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars was not: racy, dodgy and fond of tangents. It’s from Herodotus that many of the best stories of ancient Greece come. For example, in Book 6.127-129 he tells the tale of Hippocleides, who was doing pretty well in the contest to win the hand of the daughter of Cleisthenes until he drank rather more than he could handle and danced on a table, ending by standing on his head and beating time with his legs. Cleisthenes told him he’d blown his chances and Hippocleides replied ‘It’s all the same to Hippocleides!’
When I used to teach Herodotus to first-year students at university, I developed a simple way of remembering the basic points about how he categorizes different peoples: bed, bread and dead. That’s to say, when describing anyone, whether that’s the Egyptians or the Amazons, the main things that grip him are what they do sexually, what they eat and how they deal with their dead.
Different ways of handling marriage fascinate him. He tells us that the Babylonians run an annual marriage market in which the unmarried women of each village are graded by their looks and auctioned off, starting with the most beautiful. When these are all sold, the less attractive are given a dowry from the proceeds of the sale, so that all end up married.
He frequently goes into the details of burial customs. The Thracians lay out the bodies of the dead for three days. At the funeral of a king, the Scythians kill one of his concubines and various other personal attendants, then get high on hemp, before killing more servants – and horses – a year later.
He is particularly interested in those who mix up the categories of bed, bread and dead – for example, the Egyptian mummifiers who like to have sex with the corpses of attractive women before mummifying them, or the Issedones who eat their dead fathers, mixing up the flesh with some lamb, and then gild their skulls.
It’s still debated whether stories like this contain any truth, but they were clearly very appealing to Herodotus and to his audience. So why were these the big three areas of interest? The ancient Greeks had very clear ideas about what was ‘normal’ and ‘right’ in each of them. Marriage should be between one man and one woman, arranged by their families. The Amazons come out as pretty weird here, because in various ancient versions of their customs, they either have an annual sex binge with the men of a neighbouring tribe, or they have tame men who are lamed to stop them running away. And in Herodotus they need to kill three men in battle before they are allowed to marry.
Food should consist of what is cooked, not what is raw, and a key aspect of this was the staple product of bread. The dead should be treated with appropriate respect and placed in the earth; think here of the play Antigone in which the disrespectful treatment of the body of the heroine’s brother is at the heart of the drama. Those who had contact with a corpse were polluted. There were rules on how a corpse should be prepared for burial, on where people could be buried, and on how long the period of mourning should last. Eating people was wrong – but so was a completely vegetarian diet.
Bed, bread and dead: so important in ancient Greek anthropology, precisely because they were the areas of human life by which the Greeks defined themselves.
To find out more: there’s an Open University free open access unit on Herodotus which you may enjoy!