Today the method which aims at the reconstruction of historical events on the basis of data that are quantifiable becomes every day more generally accepted; for this reason it would be proper to ask who is the author of this historical method. In my opinion the first quantitative historian was Herodotos.
The "Father of History" is not considered by the generality of scholars of ancient history and culture to provide an example of sound historical method. He is almost universally considered a man of mediocre intellect who believed all sorts of fairytales, collected spurious anecdotes, and gullibly accepted partisan versions of events. (1)
Most of the work of Herodotos is a geographical and anthropological introduction to the last three books of his history, which concern the campaign initiated in 480 B.C. and continued through 479 by the Persians for the conquest of the Greek mainland; it is thus in relation to this part that he must be judged as to his competence in the art of establishing historical truth.
Herodotos was not contemporary with the events he described and, hence, had to rely on opinions, reactions, and interpretations of witnesses. (2)
In his account of the campaign of the Persians against Greece and of the Greek efforts to resist it, Herodotos used all the data he could gather about the numerical composition of the forces engaged, as a testing principle. Critical historians, beginning with Barthold Georg Niebuhr, have turned upside down the scientific method of Herodotos by considering the quantitative data as additional imaginative material that should be disregarded. When Niebuhr states that the forces of Dareios in the campaign against the Skythians must have numbered 70,000 men rather than 700,000 (3) and that the Greek army at Plataia must have amounted to much less than 100,000, (4) he does not submit any evidence beyond the subjective insight. This attitude has been continued up to the present.
The evaluation of Herodotos in the works of critical historians who are committed to what they think to be a positivistic method, is a long series of insults. In substance, Herodotos was a gullible simpleton who was inclined to accept what informants told him and who reported versions of the events provided by people who believed in ancient religions, mythology, and oracles. Having gathered these data without eliminating all that was colorful, dramatic, or unusual, he presented them without any general principle of historical causation or development. The notion that a historian must operate on some general principle of historical causation or development is necessary to historians who fragment historical evidence into elementary propositions. For them this is a torturing problem, the object of endless investigations and disputes, because they reject whatever form of organization exists already in the available data. Yet the method of Herodotos, so violently scorned, is in keeping with the best methods of recent science. It is those who belittle him who could be called pre-scientific. (5)
Quantitative methods, of which today statistics is the most striking example, do not tell us all about social reality and can concentrate only on some skeleton points, but they provide us a principle for discriminating within the welter of intuitive generalizations. In my opinion this was the spirit of Ionian science and of pre-Greek science. The simplest example of quantification in the field of historical science is provided by chronology: to order the accounts and testimonies according to time, astronomical time, is the most common method of discrimination, even though it could be observed that it is quite a mechanical one and little related to the psychic time which is the true tempo of social events. History in pre-Greek times began by correlating events with astronomical cycles, and the modern historian who counts by centuries and years should know that he is following the same procedure.
Although for critical historians the Father of History represents the very bottom of historical science, the truth is that there never was a historian who was able to pack into so few pages a greater mass of information about the history and the culture of such a wide area. In spite of almost two centuries of efforts directed at collecting new sources of information employing all sorts of new techniques, Herodotos remains our most important source of information for Greek history and culture. He is about equally valuable to the scholars of Persia and Egypt. The studies concerning Asia Minor and the Near East in ancient times would be indeed in a poor state if we could not rely on Herodotos. Furthermore, it can be added that if it were not for the dramatic and emphatic way with which he presents the information -- the very occasion for the strongest criticism -- the interest in ancient studies concerning the mentioned areas would have been born much more slowly, if at all. The rediscovery of ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia is a direct result of the way in which Herodotos presented the history and the culture of these areas as interesting and problematic. (6)
It is because of Herodotos' account of ancient Egypt that there was organized the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt which initiated the rediscovery of ancient Egyptian civilization; this expedition aimed at finding in ancient Egypt the fulfilment of ideals that had been expressed by the Enlightenment and had exploded in the French Revolution.
The Napoleonic expedition to Egypt had had an antecedent in the Egyptian voyage of Tito Livio Burattini, the first systematic advocate of a new decimal metric system; (7) Burattini was in Egypt collecting data for Father Athanasius Kircher, the author of Oedipus Aegyptiacus, (8) when he met and cooperated with John Greaves, whose report was commented upon by Newton. (9)
Those who identified themselves with the new science initiated by Kepler and Galilei had recognized a kindred spirit in the work of the Ionian scholar Herodotos and in the pre-Greek civilizations that he described. It was because Herodotos seemed so akin to the mind of these representatives of the new science, that Barthold Georg Niebuhr, one of the first important representatives of romantic reaction, directed his fire against him. The attack against Herodotos was linked with the attack against the scientific ideals of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. As Newton had recognized that the Pyramids of Gizah expressed a vision of the world similar to the science of his time, Niebuhr equally perceptibly did recognize what in Herodotos was akin to the accursed Galilean science. (10)
Critical historians totally neglect that Herodotos wrote Ionian prose, a literary form of which the most important examples are provided by medical writings. Quantification is the crucial element that caused Greek medicine to acquire a scientific form and to become free from magical thinking; as Hippokrates and others point out, Greek medicine acquired its character because it started from the study of diets and in relation to athletic performances, factors that were quantified. The ideal of quantification is clearly expressed in the treatise On Ancient Medicine (IX):
Therefore the greater complexity of these ills requires an even greater precision. For it is necessary to aim at some sort of measure. But except for bodily sensations no measure can be found either number or weight, whereby precision could be achieved. Therefore it is an arduous task to make knowledge so precise that only small errors would be made here and there.
It is clearly implied that even in the study of personal reactions to experience one must try to introduce quantification wherever possible or at least strive towards a precision modeled on quantification.
Up to the time of Niebuhr it was agreed that Herodotos wrote in the style of scientific prose; for this reason Neibuhr accused him of being a pretender who tried to imitate the outward form of scientific style.
Niebuhr recognized that Herodotos presents scientific data and speaks in scientific terms, but these would be mere quackery because Herodotos was a pretender who tried to ape the scientific style that was being born in Greece at the time. According to Niebuhr "when Herodotos was observing and writing, there were indeed more than a few Greeks who had more than an elementary knowledge of mathematics and astronomy". (11)
Herodotos did not even have this knowledge, which really did not amount to much, since a rather accurate notion of the configuration of the inhabited earth developed only much later in the Hellenistic age. But later the basic scientific concern was totally disregarded and attention was paid only to what is considered the fabulous element. It is true that Herodotos relates myths, legends, tales, and even gossip, but this is material that even the most scientific historian would have had to consider, since it was the type of information that was available; what is material is not that he reported what people thought and said, but the spirit in which he reported it. An anthropologist today would quote the same kind of information without being of necessity unscientific.
The historians of the critical school believe that because Herodotos quotes mythical stories, versions of the events colored by emotional reactions, and picturesque anecdotes, he is not a scientific historian. His material has a poetic tone, and hence is not scientifically true. Niebuhr starts with the false epistemological assumption that imaginative constructions are of necessity unscientific. In fact, every step in the process of scientific generalization is of poetic or imaginative nature; what makes the generalizations scientific or not is their being verifiable and verified.
Niebuhr and the historians of the critical school would like to transfer to historical science the method of induction advocated for the natural sciences by positivist empiricists. According to these one must start with simple factual propositions that are accepted as true because they correspond to immediate sense experience. The elementary sense experiences should be accepted as being ultimate reality; since these sense experiences are solid and uncomposed, like the atoms of Demokritos, the task of the scientist would be simply that of collecting them and finding some principle of organization. This method is valuable in the routine work of the natural sciences, since this can be reduced to the gathering of data by established methods of observation. However, positivist empiricism cannot account for the real important advances in scientific knowledge which consist in the introduction of new forms of observation which are results of changes in epistemological assumptions and by which completely new sets of sense experiences are revealed.
Whatever may be the value of positivist empiricism in the natural sciences; this method cannot be used in historical research except in terms of vague analogy. The historian does not deal with elementary sense experiences (assumed to be independent of mental processes), but with human opinions that have been extensively elaborated by all kinds of mental processes. Hence, the positivist historian splits the information provided by witnesses or documents into elementary propositions which he considers so simple that they may be considered as self-evident. But usually even the most reliable witnesses can be accurate in the general description of the events and quite inaccurate in the reporting of details. Furthermore the principle of self-evidence applied to historical data is completely different from that used in the natural sciences; the critical historian accepts as self-evident those pieces of evidence that conform to his routine experience or that seem psychologically convincing because they conform to his own way of acting. As a result, everything that is unusual is eliminated from the data; but the historical events with which we are most concerned are the extraordinary ones that had extraordinary consequences.
According to the assumptions of the critical historians, one should eliminate from historical sciences the fact that Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God, died on the cross or, which is equivalent as far as historical consequences are concerned, that at a given point of time people began to believe that this had happened. Critical historians look with jaundiced eyes at the tradition of the foundation of Rome and prefer to explain away the origin of Rome in terms of a series of slow accretions to an originally insignificant village; but it is a fact that at a given point of history Rome emerges as having an unusual power within her territory, so that it is quite possible that this city was established from the very beginning with unusual characteristics. If the story of the flight of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette which ended at Varennes had been told by an ancient historian, critical historians would have rejected it entirely as a tale. The fact that the departure of the coach was delayed for a long time in order to load a large trunk containing the Queen's toilet set, would be dismissed as nonsense, whereas it is a significant piece of information about the mentality of the monarchs and about the general system of values and practices of the ancient regime.
For those who defend the critical approach, a historian should be concerned only with facts -- meaning by facts data that exclude all subjective elements -- even though, when they proceed to interpret and organize the facts they rely on personal introspective and insight. They have not understood that Herodotos takes a behavioristic attitude towards psychic phenomena. History deals with human actions and hence what people felt or thought, whether right or wrong, is its proper object. Ideas, beliefs, images, conceptions, and misconceptions are relevant as far as they determined actions. Eyebrows have been raised because Herodotos quotes oracles and considers whether they were fulfilled or not; but if he had omitted them from his narrative, he would certainly have given us a distorted picture of ancient culture. He has been criticized specifically for relating the religious ideas and practices of the Egyptians with a deliberate effort not to express any negative judgment; it would seem that, if he had evaluated them in terms of an assumed superior religious persuasion, he would have been a better historian. Herodotos likes to quote anecdotes and it may well be granted that all anecdotes are likely to be spurious; but this does not imply that he indulges in mentioning facts that are recognizably false. An anecdote is a method for conveying a synthetic interpretation of events; it can be quoted aptly or not, but in principle it is not more true or false than a sociological explanation.
In the century following Niebuhr scholars have emphasized more and more the role of imaginative material in Herodotos' narrative. (12)
It has been assumed that the use of such material is per se evidence of lack of a scientific attitude. But recently a Soviet scholar, Aristid Ivanovich Dovatur, has better understood the problem by observing that Herodotos combines the style of Ionian scientific prose with folkloristic narratives. In Narrative and Scientific Style of Herodotos, Dovatur concludes that what is original in this historian is that he tries to preserve the original tone of the popular narrative material while inserting it into a frame written in a scientific style. (13)
Dovatur has handled an epistemological problem in terms of literary form.
Since Niebuhr is the founder of the critical school of ancient history, it is important to define exactly the method followed by him in destroying the authority of Herodotos.
In his Bonn lectures of 1829-1830 Niebuhr launched a sweeping attack against the credibility of Herodotos' account of the Persian campaign for the conquest of Greece in 480 and 479 B.C. From the fact that in Herodotos' narrative there are elements that are of anecdotal nature and some details that could be called mythical, Niebuhr concludes that the entire account is of poetic nature, and totally "untenable." It is assumed by Niebuhr that poetic accounts have very little connection with reality. "No reliance, therefore, can be placed upon this whole portion of the narrative of Herodotos." (14)
Much of it is nothing but poetic imagination and of most doubtful nature. The proof of the poetic nature of the account is the very importance and magnitude of the events narrated: according to Herodotos and other Greek authors, this campaign was one of the turning points in the history of humanity: The Greek mainland was invaded by all the forces that the Persian Empire could muster, but the Athenians, the Spartans, and other Greeks were able to resist with such success that the Persians had to withdraw in disaster.
Since the events were marvellous and extraordinary, if one begins with the assumption that the ancients could not achieve any great deed except in their imagination, the events become of necessity incredible. For this reason Niebuhr in his Bonn lectures of 1829-1830 described them as the product of poetic imagination. Niebuhr asserted that Herodotos' account of the Persian campaign is based upon an epic poem of Choirilos of Samos which built a grandiose and picturesque legend around rather modest events. The other Greek sources are equally unreliable. All that can be accepted as certain is that there took place a naval battle at Salamis and a land battle at Plataia, and that the Persians finally had to withdraw from Greece; the sequence of the events, including the dates of these battles, and all the details, cannot be established with any certainty. We should rest assured, however, that rather modest events were magnified beyond all proportion by the mythical imagination of the Greeks.
When this sweeping criticism of Herodotos was first presented by Niebuhr, it was considered extreme, and was not accepted in his time; but it set a sort of an ideal for following historians, so that by a process of gradual erosion of Herodotos' authority, by the end of the last century and the beginning of this century it became almost completely accepted. By clipping a piece here and a piece there in Herodotos' account, in about a century there was attained the result that some major historians could find wide approval when they repeated Niebuhr's conclusion.
When Niebuhr was writing, a most dissonant voice was expressed by August Boeckh who was a Kantian rationalist and interpreted ancient civilizations as the forerunners of quantitative science. Boeckh's conceptions remained most influential up to the death of Theodor Mommsen and Julius Oppert in the first years of this century. The theory of Niebuhr began to produce more generous fruits in the field of ancient studies when Arthur de Gobineau set it within an expressedly formulated frame that rejected ab ovo the rationalistic, humanitarian, and egalitarian views of the Enlightenment. In this way he made possible the triumph of the romantic reactionary views within ancient studies in the last years of the nineteenth century. Scholars of the Enlightenment, following in the steps of the Renaissance, had presented the Greeks as trying to take over and advance the scientific culture developed in the great empires of Egypt and the Near East and, as a result, had conceived of rational and scientific thought as being an attribute of man from the earliest known beginnings of history. In order to attack the rationalistic, humanitarian, and egalitarian ideals of the Enlightenment, Gobineau built a complete theory according to which pre-Greek civilizations and early Greek civilization, Herodotos included, would be the expression of a praeter-rational mystical insight, clearly opposed to quantitative science. (15)
In his history of Persia, Gobineau uses the Skythian campaign to justify this general proposition:
Nothing is less consonant to the Asiatic spirit, including in it specifically the Greek spirit, than to pursue reasonable calculations. In this respect Herodotos is at fault just as much, not more and not less, than is the general of those who today inhabit the area where he lived. A long experience has taught me to remain totally indifferent to any numerical statement the author of which is a Persian, an Arab, a Turk, or an Hellene. I am often willing to believe in their good faith, but never in their exactness, because nature has refused them any instinct for truth in matters of this sort. (16)
The book of Gobineau opened the floodgates for massive attacks on Herodotos. Within a brief period there appeared the critical edition of Herodotos' text by Heinrich Stein, (17) the analysis of the internal structure of the entire work by Alfred von Gutschmid, and the history of the Persian wars by Amedee Hauvette, (18) all equally destructive. The last mentioned work was a pedestrian enlargement of the ideas of Gobineau, but it had the advantage of having a form more acceptable to the academe, because it lacks the wit and clear elegance of Gobineau and because it flattens his insights which, although all based on a distorted angle of vision, have the merit of bringing into focus vital questions. The opus of Hauvette was laureated with an important academic prize, and has been extensively quoted, since it was not proper to refer to Gobineau.
Hauvette's accomplishment was in giving to Gobineau's attacks a form more conventionally academic. Concerning the Skythian part of Herodotos, Hauvette introduced a method of interpretation that is now generally accepted: the human geography must be separated from the mathematical geography; whereas the former is acceptable, the latter is unacceptable because it is based on numerical data that are precise and hence must be impossible. The military operations consisting of marches and counter marches are absurd because they are related to the numerical form. Today it is widely agreed that every progress in the archaeological and anthropological study of the area described by Herodotos has provided startling confirmations of his account up to details that used to be dismissed outright as being too odd or picturesque. But one is left wondering how Herodotos could have accurate information about the physical and social anthropology not only of European Russia, but also of parts of Siberia, and in the same breath have presented a picture of the physical appearance of the area immediately north of the Black Sea that is not only erroneous, but such that it should have been rejected by any person of common sense.
The death blow to the reputation of Herodotos as a historian was not given by Gobineau, who proved moderate in relation to his epigones, and not by Hauvette, whose work was popular yet shallow, but by the Oxford scholar Reginald Walter Macan who proceeded to expose the faults of Herodotos point by point in five thick volumes, (the first of which appeared in the year following Hauvette's publication) (19) with the stubborn persistence and diligence of an inquisitor bent on forcing his innocent victim to confess. Every sentence is taken apart and used as evidence against its author. The treatise begins with a long analysis of the Skythian campaign, because in dealing with it Herodotos would have openly revealed his true colors. The analysis is summed up in these words:
Briefly stated the critique of the Herodotean story goes to show that the account of the Skythian campaign consists of a mixture of physical impossibilities, inconsistencies or inconsequences and of absurdities attributed to Dareios and to the Skythians, which render the whole affair doubtful to the highest degree . . . What standard of historic probability is exhibited by an author who commits himself to such a performance, in which satire and fun seem to run riot? (20)
Macan takes to task even scholars like Grote who had followed the interpretation of Gobineau and had accepted as credible the events that took place on this side of the Danube. (21)
In the Preface to his volumes, after announcing that "no previous commentary has applied so completely the methods of analytic and descriptive criticism to the work of Herodotos," Macan specifies that one great contribution of his is to have traced the sources of Herodotos' shortcomings, among which his ignorance of geography is paramount: "the composite and unsystematic quality of the Herodotean world has not been so distinctly presented as it is in this work."
There is one point on which I agree with Macan: if not only Herodotos, but all ancient writers in general, had the view of the physical world ascribed to them by our contemporary scholarship, it can be presumed that they were totally incapable of any objective judgment not only in science, but in any form of intellectual endeavor. If it is true that only in the age of Aristotle some Greek scholars conceived as a novel idea that the earth was a sphere and that the miserable computation of Eratosthenes was the highest peak of ancient mathematical geography, I am willing to believe not only that Herodotos did not belong to the species homo sapiens, but also that this kind of being had not yet been developed in his time.
Since contemporary scholars are bound to assume that Hellenistic science was technically superior to that of the preceding period, they arrive at the conclusion that Eratosthenes was the first to measure the circumference of the earth. In reality, all that Eratosthenes did was to make the ancient datum acceptable in terms of the scientific style by showing that it could be justified in the light of common sense experience.
Scholars have used the assumed naive view of the physical world in Herodotos to prove the extreme low state of Greek cosmology at the time. But they argue also that his conceptions were so preposterous that he would have modified them if he had just used his eyes in traveling. Hence there has been derived the further deduction that he was an unmitigated liar who never saw the great foreign cities he claims to have visited. Scholars who do not dare to call him an outright impostor have tried to prove, by interpreting the data about his biography, that "his travels occupied only a very short period of his life." The assumption is that if Herodotos had travelled more extensively, he could not have been, despite his lack of judgment, as grossly misinformed as he is supposed to be. Robert Cohen, in summing up the opinions about Herodotos' skill as an historian current in his time, believed to be giving a generous and benevolent interpretation when he stated that he was
also an enemy of great efforts of thought, but with some insight into everything. In conclusion he did all that was within his capacity in order to gain the favor of his contemporaries and of posterity. He was rather a facile writer than a learned one, more naturally gifted than willing to work. He did not prove to be a personality of the first order, he was not a great man. (22)
The words that I have underscored are culled by Cohen from the volume of evaluations written by Philippe-Ernest Legrand, (23) who concludes that Herodotos had some ability in gathering facts and evaluating evidence but could not construe any considerate explanation for historical developments. In the introductory volume to Les Belles Lettres edition of Herodotos' text Legrand believes to be breaking a spear in behalf of the historian by arguing that when he claims to have visited a specific location he must be granted credence, although his visits may have been quick and superficial.
There is poor logic in this castle of deductions built on a flimsy starting point: Herodotos shared the naive cosmology of his age, but he would have modified it if he had used his eyes in travelling as far as Thebes and Babylon. The construction presumes that all the other inhabitants of the ancient world were in a mental state even more schizoid than that of Herodotos.
The gist of the trend of thought initiated in 1811 by Niebuhr was well enucleated in 1921 by Godley in his introduction to the Loeb edition of Herodotos' text. Herodotos' geography represents "a stage of thought" and was "consistent with a current opinion which is nearer to truth than earlier conceptions of the world." (24)
This reveals the basic assumption that the mental capacity of man has undergone a uniform process of growth, so that, although Herodotos' was low, his predecessors were one step closer to the primates. In documenting by an example Herodotos' low mental level Godley asserts: "It is also true that the Danube does not rise in the Pyrenees, and that the course of the Upper Nile is not from west to east." (25)
These are pieces of evidence that beg the question, because they are based on forced interpretations of the texts justified by the assumed mental primitiveness of their author.
A notable exception is Arnaldo Momigliano, whose perceptive study of Herodotos' reputation from antiquity to the seventeenth century, "The Place of Herodotus in the History of Historiography," History 43 (1958), pp. 1-13. could be read as a preamble to the present study.
According to historians of the critical school, one should limit oneself to the bare facts that could not have been the object of personal interpretation by the contemporaries; the interpretation should be provided by the historian. Herodotos, on the contrary, operated on the principle of Ionian historia, of a naturalistic attitude. The opinions of those who lived the events are data that are accepted as such; but there must be found a method to discriminate in an objective way among the several opinions. Since Herodotos developed the art of historical research from geography, he followed quantitative analysis as a principle of discrimination. In geography one is bound to rely on the impressions of travelers or on one's travel experiences, but a net of discriminating principles is provided by mathematical geography.
Vortraege ueber alte Geschichte, Vol. I (Berlin, 1847), p. 190.
Ibid., p. 414.
Today we know that social reality is so complex and varied that it cannot be explained in terms of simple schemes or even less in terms of simple theories of causation, particularly of a mechanistic type. Our awareness of the complexity of social life is such that today there are some political conservatives who take the agnostic position that a scientific study of social life is totally impossible. This is absurd because if we could not make generalizations about social life, our daily existence would not be possible. The truth is that the complexity of social life can be grasped by broad intuitive generalizations, something similar to what the ancients called mythos but we have found a method to control the validity of intuitive generalizations through the use of quantitative techniques, what pre-Aristotelian thinkers called logos.
Cf. Momigliano, op. cit., p. 13.
Misura Universale (Krakow, 1697).
Isaac Newton, A Dissertation upon the Sacred Cubit of the Jews and the Cubits of several Nations: in which from the Dimensions of the Greatest Pyramid as taken by Mr. John Greaves, the ancient Cubit of Memphis is Determined.
It must be kept in mind that in the age of Herodotos writing in prose was a novelty in Greece and that the first examples of prose were those of Ionian scientific writings, particularly medical texts.
"Ueber die Geographie Herodots," lecture presented in 1812, published in Kleine historische und philologische Schriften (Bonn, 1828), p. 134.
Typical is the book of Wolf Aly, Volksmaerchen, Sage, und Novelle bei Herodot (Goettingen, 1929).
Povestvovatelnyj i nauchnyj stil Gerodota (Leningrad, 1957), p. 165.
B. G. Niebuhr, "Die Perserkriege. Griechenland bis auf die Zeit des Perikles," Vortraege ueber alte Geschichte (Berlin, 1847), p. 388.
Essai sur l'inegalite des races humaines, 4 vols. (Paris, 1853-55).
Histoire des Perses, (Paris, 1866), vol. II, p. 111. Gobineau's interpretation, except for the detail that the King himself was not in command, (ibid., p. 107), is accepted by several major figures of scholarship, among which are Gaetano de Sanctis, Julius Beloch, and G. B. Grundy.
Herodotus erklaert (1893-1908).
A. Hauvette, Herodote, Historien des guerres mediques, (Paris, 1894).