Guest Post by Justin Marozzi
Herodotus, the roving fifth-century BC Greek historian, collected wonders and marvels with the sort of passion and dedication that obsessive-compulsive travelers show today in filling their passports with foreign stamps and visas.
Why did he do it? I think there were two reasons. First, he knew it would fascinate his readers–it still does, 2,500 years after he died, so he was evidently onto something. Second, and just as important, he simply couldn’t resist it. This was a man whose insatiable curiosity for the weird and wonderful runs riot throughout the pages of the Histories, his masterpiece about the Persian Wars.
He announces his interest in the very first lines of the book. He is going to concentrate, he says, on “great and marvellous deeds,” and these marvels range way beyond the battlefields of the Persian Wars, from the stupendous temples of Egypt and Greece and bizarre human adventures to curious sexual practices and the workings of the Nile. Herodotus is awarding himself a licence to thrill–and be thrilled.
Hence the proliferation of curiosities he introduces us to, such as dog-headed men that live in the mountains, the gold-digging ants of India, bigger than a fox, smaller than a dog, and the fabulous flying snakes of Arabia.
He writes with gusto about the sexual habits of the Babylonians, who fumigate their genitals after intercourse and won’t touch any household utensils until they have performed this strange cleansing act. He details the free-ranging promiscuity of the Massagetae of the Caspian Sea region, where it’s a very male world: “If a man wants a woman, all he does is to hang his quiver in front of her wagon and then enjoy her without misgiving.”
He notes the Scythians’ fondness for hashish and the intoxicated howls of laughter the drug produces. In Egypt, he notes that the corpses of very beautiful women are not given to the embalmers right away due to instances of necrophilia among the more shameless practitioners of the art.
It’s all compelling reading, and that’s without even touching on his monumental history of the Persian Wars!