Ancient Greece is considered the birthplace of Western Civilization. The first democracy’s distinct city-states and incredible poems and histories have endured to this day.
It is one thing to study and appreciate history and culture after thousands of years of research, examination and debate; defining and redefining people and events in an ever-evolving process as new facts or documents are discovered. Yet an interesting perspective to consider is: What did the Greeks think of themselves? How did they see their contemporary heroes, villains and conflicts? Were their own interpretations different from our own?
In “The Greek Histories,” edited by Mary Lefkowitz and James Romm, select stories from four of Greece’s first chroniclers are brought together as a historical representation from their own records.
First in the works to be presented are those of Herodotus. Living in the 5th century BC, his opening words to his work came to redefine the word “history” into the concept of “a written account of the past.” His account mainly covers the Persian Wars, when Xerxes, king of Persia, ventured east to devour Greecian territory into his growing kingdom. This selection covers the brave and noble defense of Greece at the incredible battle of Thermopylae.
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Thucydides is the next author, following with the recounting of the Peloponnesian War. This event between Athens and Sparta lasted about 27 years, though it had its share of active and passive times. He lived through the war and was able to travel and interview its participants.
Xenophon follows him, and from his most famous work, “Anabasis,” comes the story of his journey into Persia as a mercenary, working for the brother of the Persian king. This campaign would take the Greeks farther east than they had ever ventured.
The final chronicler is Plutarch, who in lieu of writing epic, historical events, chose to capture biographies of important personages. His work paired individuals in a dual historical and moral perspective.
“The Greek Histories” is fascinating, as it allows the ancient Greeks to speak for themselves, without the lens of distance. Once in a while, the reader can find them subject to the same pitfalls that plague journalists and historians to this day: bias and flattery, misinformation and historical inaccuracies. This incredible volume is an introduction that allows the modern reader to get a unique perspective of history.
David Arndt is a freelance reviewer in Fredericksburg.