It could be however, that the citizen who guides us around the Parthenon is one of those young intellectuals who had studied with the new and trendy thinkers of the fifth century called sophists and who knew the latest thinking on religion and its stories. Where a traditional Athenian would happily tell you these stories as the history of the foundation of Athens, this more pushy intellectual guide might adopt a rather self-consciously critical line on these stories and dismiss them as ‘myths’ stories for the populace to follow, but not to be accepted at face value by educated men.
Once they start to become argued about, once they start not to be taken for granted, myths can become a battleground for how we think about the past. The fifth-century Greeks give us the tools for thinking about what happens when ‘myth’ stops being he stories which everyone knows and agrees to tell. These tool are the very ideas ‘myth’ and ‘history’.
‘Myth’ is a gift of the Greeks. It was in the classical city of Athens that ‘myth’ was first developed as an idea. The fifth century BC is often described as the ‘Greek Enlightenment’ or, in more Romantic days, as the ‘Greek miracle’. This period is unique because in a very short time, and primarily in a single city, so much of what the West prides itself on came into being. Athens invented a democratic constitution, and with it came the law courts with their juries of ordinary people. The theatre produces the tragic masterpieces of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the comic genius of Aristophanes.
But the fifth century is called the ‘Greek Enlightenment’ especially because it was in this period that science, philosophy, history and medicine came into being as disciplines. People have attempted to cure sickness or injury ever since humans have been sick or injured. But for the first time in the fifth century there were recognized experts, trained in a school, who engaged in self-conscious discussion of techniques and principle, and debated the physical causes of disease, and experimented, and tested their results, and published their findings. Some people have been political ever since there was a group to win power over. But for the first time in the fifth century there were political theorists who argued about the theories of different constitutions, and about the abstract nature of power and the city's institutions. This development of self-conscious, theoretical, abstract thought along with new institutions of education and regulation makes medicine and political philosophy disciplines for the first time. These new forms of intellectual activity began as radical innovations, and were immediately seen by more conservative forces as threatening. Each of these new disciplines, as they fought to become established, needed to distinguish their own authonity. One key rhetorical strategy for each discipline was to disparage or diminish its opponents by calling them purveyors of myth. ‘Myth’ becomes the name for what these new disciplines don’t do. ‘What I offer’, claims one physical scientist, ‘is a true picture of the world scientifically observed and described. I can tell you how the physical world works. Those old stories about how things came to be, they are just myths.’ Myth can no longer mean simply an inherited story of the old days, let alone an authoritative tale. Now ‘myth’ is opposed to true ‘history’. Or it is something to be dispelled by real ‘philosophy’. Or replaced by objective ‘science’. This negative colouring, which develops during the fifth-century Enlightenment, still tinges the concept of ‘myth’ today. We still say ‘mere myth’, ‘just a myth’. With final dismissiveness, myth has come to mean a silly or pernicious tale whose false enticements you should beware.
The Greek Enlightenment successfully set out to debunk old authorities, and the new discipline of ‘history’ in particular aimed to change how the Past is understood. Herodotus is ‘the father of History'. His great work, circulated in the 430s BC is the first to call Itself ‘history’ historie, or ‘investigation’ in Greek ’ and he has been taken as the founding father of history by ancients and moderns alike.
His topic is the Persian Wars. The Persian Empire was the greatest power in the Mediterranean and it wtwice invaded Greece in the middle of the fifth century in order to conquer it for the Great King's Empire. Twice the far out-numbered Greeks won and pushed back the Persians. It was a stunning and inspirational event for the Greeks. Indeed it was a defining moment for the Greek nation. Before the Persian Wars, there was little awareness of a shared cultural identity of ‘being Greek’. After the War» the Greeks, rather than being just a series of cities which shared the same language, became aware of a national identity.
Herodotus’ history investigates not just the famous battles by which the Persians were defeated and the invasions turned back Thermopylae, Marathon, Salamis and the like. He also travels the whole Mediterranean and beyond exploring the differences between different cultures. Tellingly, Herodotus too tells us about the Amazons, now to be found in Scythia, and discussed from an anthropological perspective as a still-existing tribe of women, who breed with nomads of the Steppes. He explains the defeat of the Persians by showing how the Greek culture of the West is superior to the Persian culture of the East. Xerxes, the Persian king, is forced to learn ‘what true men are’, and one concluding moral of the whole history is that ‘soft countries produce soft men’. Rugged Greece, by contrast, is ‘a fit nurse of men’. Herodotus is the founding father of the West’s view of the Orient as a dangerous, wealthy, degenerate, sly and threatening other which must be defeated. His image of the Orient still fuels modern Western politics. The conflict between West and East is the subject of the Iliad, the first surviving poem of the Western tradition. But it is Herodotus who gives this conflict the rhetorical slant familiar still in contemporary ideology. In its rhetorical opposition to the East, this is truly a history of where the modem West comes from.
Herodotus writes the history of the victory of Greece and the Victory of Greekness. But he is far more subtle than that gung-ho bias might suggest. Herodotus maps the variables of cultural difference, with a keen critical eye and critical investigation. Herodotus provides a guide which encourages the reader to place himself within a matrix of of social, moral and political markers- a map to find ourselves.