The History of Civilization, Pt II

“An Account of Egypt,” by Herodotus

Note: Before discussing this next step on my journey through the history of civilization, I should note that the density and often confusing nature of reading Herodotus found me deciding to break a rule: I began to write in this book. I’ve always written in my paperbacks, as that’s been part of my training as an academic in a literary discipline. But for some reason, I always treated my hardbacks–especially these 100 year old hardbacks, as not-collectible-and-valuable-in-that-way as they are–as things of enduring significance that should not be marred. But reading this, I decided that’s silly. So, I took my trusty Cross pencil, and began to write notes. I’m glad I did, as it helped me make sense out of, learn many things from, and find enjoyment in, a reading that is in some ways a 90-plus-page slog of dense and confusing prose about places, people, and events that are so foreign to me they are quite difficult to follow. Lesson: write in your books, folks. Page numbers are from Volume XXXIII of the collection.


“An Account of Egypt” is an excerpt from Book II (Europe) of Herodotus’s Histories; it’s essentially a long digression from the general narrative of the conquests of the Persians. Here, Cyrus has died, and his son Cambyses has come to power, and leads his empire into Egypt. Herodotus uses this point in his historical narrative to give a lengthy account of the physical aspects of Egypt, the lives of its peoples, its cities and regions, highlights from its dynastic history, its religious beliefs and ritual practices, etc. These are based on his own travels throughout Egypt, as well as his discussions with many of Egypt’s priestly class.


If we retroactively apply Freeman’s notion of race to what Herodotus is doing here, it’s very clear that the Egyptians are a distinct race, and a distinct race that has been able to assimilate individuals from outside of the Nile Delta, like Libyans and Ethiopians (peoples with whom the Egyptians interact throughout the historical narrative presented here), as well as Hellenes (with whom the Egyptians have significant intercourse throughout the history, but who come to be peoples integrated into the “Egyptian race” only in a few particular moments somewhat late in this narrative). But what is truly interesting about what Herodotus presents here are the ways in which different “races,” different cultures, show connection, interaction, borrowing, repurposing, and reinterpretation of many of the same ideas, beliefs, and phenomena. Herodotus, a fifth-century Hellene from Asia Minor, understands that he is writing to his fellow Greeks. But in his presentation of the Egyptians, he goes out of his way to let his readers know that the Egyptians share many of the same beliefs (though applied differently), worship the same gods (though named differently), and have significant commonalities with the Hellenes. In difference, there is unity.


This is not to say that Herodotus is writing some kind of early form of our postmodern rhetoric of diversity (it’s also not to say that he isn’t, but that’s not a question I’m really interested in thinking through). What I see Herodotus doing here, beneath the historical accounts, beneath the geographical descriptions, beneath the political reflections, beneath the considerations of natural and religious phenomena (and their connections), the first great historian is pointing out to us that feelings of exoticism in other cultures–and we have every indication to believe that the Greeks saw the Egyptians as exotic and strange–is based not in the strangeness of that other culture, but in its familiarity. We feel another person to be exotic and strange when we recognize ourselves within him, but he is manifesting those things we recognize in a way that we would have never enacted. This produces deep and profound fascination–and perhaps a healthy fear–though not revulsion or blanket dismissal. This exotic fascination, rather than blanket rejection or revulsion, produces the productive push-and-pull between sameness and difference that helps cultures to evolve and change (both for good and ill). If, as the Classics‘ introductory headnote claims, Herodotus is concerned with “the struggle between the Greeks and the barbarians,” it is interesting to consider the ways in which the Egyptians are themselves not barbarians with which the Hellenes struggle, but from which they can productively learn to change and grow. This is not to say that the Egyptians are not barbarians; I’d be surprised if the Greeks thought any differently about the Egyptians than the Egyptians thought about the Greeks, inasmuch as “Egyptians call all men Barbarians who do not agree with them in speech” (82).


Much of the narrative here is honestly taxing and confusing, using placenames that are unknown to us in our day, and referencing historical figures and events that are covered by deep and significant obscurity. The accounts of physical phenomena and rituals are often repetitive, and Herodotus’s tendency to insert lengthy explanatory parentheticals into the flow of the narrative account of a particular battle or king’s reign makes for difficult, and often confused, reading. But despite these, this is satisfying and intriguing reading, for the reasons outlined above, and also because it provides:



  • An account of the relationship between man and nature. We see evidence and examples of man’s ingenious utilization and mastery over nature, but also his profound dependence and subservience to it. This is especially apparent in the talk about the Nile, and how it is used in all aspects of Egyptian life–agriculture, war, religion, and even politics, especially as we see acts of self-aggrandizement associated with particular kings, the building of the pyramids, and diverting water from the Nile in the service of both the building and the making statements of political power and personal significance of the dead great men.
  • An alternative presentation of the events of the Iliad is provided, as the kidnap of Helen is remembered by the Egyptians. Herodotus thus causes us to reflect on how myth and history interact with each other to serve the purposes and exigencies of different times, places, and contexts. We see an example of the ways in which we often change both myth and fact to serve our purposes.
  • A vision of the universality of history, of its repetitions. In an interesting moment, we are given an account of the arrival of Ionians and Carians, intent on plundering, and wearing bronze armor. King Psammetichos had been warned of the arrival of “men of bronze” from the sea by the Oracle of Leto, thus presaging a similar moment between the Aztecs and the Conquistadors millenia later (78-79). We also see a notion of war as a liberal art, and are told that warriors and priests own land free from tax, thus recognizing something that we still hold to be true (though increasingly less so with regard to religion)–that religious faith and a willingness to die in defense of nation/race/culture/people are essential parts of what makes a civilization a civilization (85). Finally, a reference to a law passed during the reign of Amasis, which was later borrowed by the great Greek ruler and proto-political theorist Solon, suggests that citizens are accountable to the State, and not radically free, atomized individuals accountable only to themselves (89). This is an essential principle of law and government throughout time, even in our latter-day liberal republicanism.


Thus, the significance of Herodotus–at least this particular excerpt–seems to me to be less its accounting of historical events or its narrative qualities (though both of these do, indeed, exist in spades, despite how taxing I found the reading in many places), but the way in which it points out how history both situates us within a particular, concrete set of contexts, and elevates us beyond these same contexts as well. History, as Herodotus presents it here, is an accounting of how things came to be, and also a reflection on the permanence of things, of the enduring sameness of things that seem, on the surface, incredibly different.


Up Next:  The next item listed in the reading course is the Book of Job. While I understand the desire to look at the Ancient Hebrew writings as a part of “the history of civilization,” Job seems a strange choice here to me. There are other parts of the Tanakh that would seem to be a better fit for “history,” and Job would seem to be a great fit for some other sort of reading course. So I’ve decided to skip Job. Instead, I’ll be looking at two of the lectures in Volume LI, which includes lectures by Edwardian-era Harvard faculty and other learned folks on the various topics considered in the Classics. I’ll be reading the “General Introduction” lecture to the history section by Professor Robert Matteson Johnston, and then the “Ancient History” lecture by Dr. William Scott Ferguson. These lectures will serve as orientation moving forward, as I dive into ancient Greece.

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