Herodotus, or the Contagion of Foreignness

HERODOTUS, FIRST ORIENTALIST ?

Part 2.2.3

Finding the first Orientalist is a matter of importance. It is aiming at discovering the roots of what became later a major part of world history, one that determined world dynamics in the recent centuries and, according to Saïd, still does today as an after-effect of colonialism and in the surviving forms of Orientalism. Finding the origin of Orientalism may also permit to unveil the most specific features of this attitude, in order to further the attempt of disintegrating it totally in today’s society. Herodotus, for the very simple fact that he was the first historian, as per western references, and therefore the first to provide broadly factual accounts of visits to foreign countries and commentaries on foreign cultures, would logically receive the infamous title of the first Orientalist.

What is Saïd’s view on the question? Even though Orientalism does not directly address antiquity, the ambition of his study is so vast that Ancient Greeks are naturally mentioned at several occasions. As early as in the introduction of the book, Saïd asserts that the Orientalist “belongs to a part of the earth with a definite history of involvement in the Orient almost since the time of Homer” (Said 2003, 11). The reference to Homer is further explored as Saïd explains: “Every writer on the Orient (and this is true even of Homer) assumes some Oriental precedent, some previous knowledge of the Orient” (20). Mentioning Homer, Aeschylus and Euripides, Saïd contends that the West/East distinction was already clear in Ancient Greece:

Consider first the demarcation between Orient and West. It already seems bold by the time of the Iliad. Two of the most profoundly influential qualities associated with the East appear in Aeschylus’s The Persians, the earliest Athenian play extant, and in The Bacchae of Euripides, the very last one extant (56)

In other words, according to Saïd, awareness of the East was already there in Archaic Greece (800-510 bc), when Homer wrote, and perhaps even before. Naturally, the lack of records makes any confirmation of this hypothesis impossible. References to Herodotus arrive only later, when Saïd argues:

From at least the second century B.C. on, it was lost on no traveler or eastward-looking and ambitious Western potentate that Herodotus – historian, traveler, inexhaustibly curious chronicler – and Alexander – king warrior, scientific conqueror – had been in the Orient before. The Orient was therefore subdivided into realms previously known, visited, conquered, by Herodotus and Alexander as well as their epigones … (58)

In a later portion of the text, he acknowledges in passing that the (Muslim) owners of Egypt “so impressed Herodotus” (175).

Here, Saïd notes two important characters: Homer and Herodotus. But he is visibly not interested in the question of who the first Orientalist would be. He even does not go as far as calling them Orientalists. His words on Herodotus are even rather kind: he was an “inexhaustibly curious chronicler” and one who was “impressed” by the Egyptians he met. At best, these Greek authorities were already subjects of a certain ideology, before contributing in their turn to this ideological framework of a mythical dynamic between East and West – a frame which the whole of Western culture arguably followed, culminating in the actual Orientalism. Yang (2007) completes the brevity of Saïd by adding that in this process, Homer’s main achievement was that of setting the origins of the West-East relation to the soon-to-be mythical confrontation of the Trojan War. But the very one-sidedness of accounts after this event made of Troy the primordial silent other: “The Trojans had left no literary records about themselves or their adversaries. The ‘East’ had become the silent subject that was to be represented, written about and constructed” (Yang 2007, 119). There was clearly an ideological setting and mythological representation of this Asiatic Other, but does this suffice to make it a form of Orientalism?

It was certainly on the mind of Saïd that his analysis was historically very precisely set. Saïd perhaps believed that calling a group of Greek authorities Orientalists would confuse his readers and weaken his argument. In a sense, Herodotus, and even Homer before him, were not Orientalists, because their relation to the East was still very young, based on a few individual travels, with few or no proper political relation between powerful states outside of the ‘civilized zone’ that Herodotus established. Similarly, Herodotus’ visit in Egypt, among others, was not one taking place in a colonized land, or even in a land that was about to be colonized, as is the case with the modern Orientalists. Herodotus hardly matches this definition of the Orientalist.

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Herodotus defines the barbarians not exclusively by negation, simply as the non-Greeks, but as the generic term for any population’s Other. Egyptians have their barbarians inasmuch Greeks have their own.

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There is also another way to refute the hypothesis that Herodotus was an Orientalist, and one that actually deals with the material left by him, and later about him. In the last pages of An Account of Egypt, Herodotus uses the term “barbarian,” but not in the context we would have expected of him: “Now Necos ceased in the midst of his digging, because the utterance of an Oracle impeded him, which was to the effect that he was working for the Barbarian: and the Egyptians call all men Barbarians who do not agree with them in speech” (Herodotus 2006, 40). In other words, Herodotus defines the barbarians not exclusively by negation, simply as the non-Greeks, but as the generic term for any population’s Other. Egyptians have their barbarians inasmuch Greeks have their own. There is no way one could interpret Saïd’s Orientalism to argue that just as Egyptians, Syrians and Indians were the Orientals of the Europeans, Europeans were the Orientals of the Egyptians, Syrians and Indians. Moreover, if Herodotus considers that the concept may apply to various cultures, this confirms that he was aware of a sense of equivalence in the way each society understands, and deals with its foreigners. This would go against the assumption that Herodotus followed the allegedly general sense of cultural supremacy upheld by the Greeks at that time.

We may also be reminded, at this point, of the aforementioned discourse of praise of Herodotus on the priority of Egyptian culture on numbers of Greek traits. This, too, seems to eulogize foreigners rather than denigrate them. Yang (2007) contends that “the construction of “otherness” does not necessarily mean downright derogation”, and that Herodotus was still creating the other as a radically different “human existence” (122). In the same vein, Yang mentions Cartledge (1993) for whom “polar opposition is what shapes Herodotus’ Egyptian logos throughout and yields the locus classicus of ‘reversed world’ othering” (58). These views should not be denied, and in this sense, indeed, Herodotus contributed to some extent to the larger pre-Orientalist worldview in which the Greco-Roman world would then dwell. But his works display too many signs of subtlety and of slightly more complex and respectful feelings towards foreigners, to label him right away as an Orientalist.

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In this light, Herodotus was not a spokesman for Greek imperial ideology, but a nation-less autodidact whose initial curiosity culminated in his first-person discovery of many faraway lands, where his sense of cultural supremacy – if it existed originally – certainly got drastically revised. When Herodotus returned to Athens, he probably prolonged the mindset of his long journeys, before realizing that these new foreigners around him were in fact his familiar Greeks.

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More than his recorded statements, it is the biography of Herodotus that is important with regards to our question. As recalled by Chase (1909-1914), Herodotus was almost destined to be a traveler, he who was exiled two times, surviving many years without citizenship and finding shelter, to end his life as a recluse, in the small colony of Thurii, in South Italy. Interestingly, exile is also a particularly redundant theme in Saïd’s personal writings. As pointed by Dirlik (2001), exile is a central part of Saïd’s identity, and according to Dirlik’s larger study of post-colonialism, exile is in fact an almost compulsory element in the construction of the post-colonial academic figure. It is, according to Dirlik, a proper “exilic self-consciousness” that Saïd enacted, before mentioning an interview of Saïd where he confessed “a perpetual sense of placelessness” (23). The same words would hardly be out of place for Herodotus. Of course, it is not my intention here to argue that, as a total reverse of situations, Herodotus was not the first Orientalist but actually the first critic of Orientalism, a sort of “proto-Saïd.” There was simply no established Orientalism around and before Herodotus, and his travel accounts do not even focus primarily on the way his people, the Greeks, had understood and conceptualized foreign populations. But this shared biographical trait may explain why Herodotus was somehow sympathetic with the foreign population he was encountering, to the point of being nicknamed the “Barbarophile” (Arora, 1999). We may also speculate that the instances of self-censorship mentioned earlier could have been a disguised critique of the political correctness that was expected of him back in Athens. He could have decided to skip these passages altogether, not even mentioning his censorship. But he decided to keep them, perhaps to discharge him, in a sense, of the responsibility of the occasional ideological tone of his pieces: if he was, at times, denigrating the foreign culture, it was perhaps because he was muzzled.

After having reconstructed his typology of Herodotus’ barbarians, Pericles Georges (1994) wonders whether Athenians were for Herodotus, also barbarians. He responds that “Yes and no … They exhibit the characteristics of Asiatic barbarism – luxury, atrocity, tributary empire – as well as Hellenism – sophia and victory over barbarism” (206). In this light, Herodotus was not a spokesman for Greek imperial ideology, but a nation-less autodidact whose initial curiosity culminated in his first-person discovery of many faraway lands, where his sense of cultural supremacy – if it existed originally – certainly got drastically revised. When Herodotus returned to Athens, he probably prolonged the mindset of his long journeys, before realizing that these new foreigners around him were in fact his familiar Greeks. More than the Orientalist package, it is the recorded experience of foreignness that Herodotus represented, and perhaps, premiered. Herodotus was not the first Orientalist, he was the first foreigner.

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References

Image courtesy: Wikiwand

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