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Not Knowing what happened before one was
born is always to be a child.
The Greek writer Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) has been called the "father of history." He is the first important figure for students interested in the study of history. In Herodotus' Histories we find compilation of books that introduce readers to the world as it was known to the Greeks in the fifth century B.C.
Herodotus was a first-rate storyteller, a geographer and ethnologist. His accuracy is sometimes doubtful, yet his overall presentation brings a lost world to life. For the modern reader, unacquainted with the ancients, The Histories read like a novel and serve as a wonderful introduction. Here the reader finds imaginative stories and narratives that cover such topics as the building of the pyramids, the sources of the Nile, the differences between European (Greek) and Asiatic society. Herodotus wrote in depth of the conflict between Asia and Europe, between oriental absolutism and Western aristocratic and mixed government. Although Herodotus needs to be taken with a grain of salt, his work is foundational. His charm and his overall worldview has influenced Western writers for 2,500 years. If you want to know history, if you want to begin at the beginning of European thought, Herodotus is required reading.
After Herodotus there came a man who later historians considered unsurpassable. The Peloponnesian War begins as follows: "Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the war of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians as they fought against each other, beginning to write as soon as the war was on foot." Thucydides' idea was to compose an accurate history that would serve to educate mankind. Thucydides realized that history (in his own time) was largely unknown because major events had never been accurately set down before. The greatness of Thucydides is found in his honesty, clarity of style and penetrating vision. His book records the history of a war that bears the character of all wars. It is also a road map that shows the main stopping points in civil strife and political intrigue. The Thomas Hobbes translation is recommended for advanced English readers, as it resembles the original Greek more closely than others. (The Penguin Classics translation is also good, as the book is available in paperback and affordable.)
After Thucydides the reader may turn to the history of Titus Livius (59 B.C. to A.D. 17). His works are packaged in paperbacks by Penguin under various titles. A good companion book is the Penguin Dictionary of Ancient History. Referring to his own time as decadent, Livy hoped to revive the noble sentiments and strict morals of Rome's past. At the beginning of Book One he stated his purpose in the following terms: "I invite the reader's attention to the much more serious consideration of the kind of lives our ancestors lived, of who were the men, and what the means both in politics and war by which Rome's power was first acquired and subsequently expanded; I would then have him trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them. The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid."
Ancient history comes to us without the ideological baggage we now carry. Antiquity was not as polluted in its ideas as modernity. It was politically more practical and instinctual (far from today's intellectually poisonous utopianism and rationalism). In ancient history our vision sees the larger objects -- the keys to human action -- as the scales of ideology fall from our eyes. We are left with what is eternal in man, the good and the bad together.
In terms of what is eternal, consider the case of corruption by power -- the corruption of the Caesars. Tacitus's Annals of Imperial Rome and The Histories record the final result of moral decadence in Rome's once free society: sexual perversion, predation, vicious dictatorship, superstition and civil war.
To have a grounding in the ancients is to understand the beginnings of modernity. Without reading these histories it is impossible to fully understand the works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jonathan Swift, David Hume, Adam Smith or the American Founding Fathers. American civilization is partly based on Greek and Roman political and literary models. If we lose touch with these ancient sources, our own past will begin to appear incomprehensible, even alien.
Article by J.R. Nyquist