History, like poetry, began with war. In around 440 BC, some three centuries after Homer, singing the wrath of Achilles, composed the Iliad, a Greek by the name of Herodotus embarked upon a project no less epic. His goal was to explain what would now be termed “the clash of civilizations,” the inability of the peoples of East and West to live together in peace. Asiatics, so Herodotus reported, “believe that the Greeks will always be their enemies.” But why they should have come to this conclusion in the first place was, he acknowledged, a puzzle. Perhaps the kidnapping of a princess or two by Greek pirates had been to blame? Or the burning of Troy? “That, at any rate, is what many nations of Asia argue—but who can say for sure if they are right?” As Herodotus well knew, the world was an infinite place, and one man’s truth might easily be another man’s lie. Yet if the origins of the conflict between East and West appeared lost in myth, then not so its effects. These, at least, had been made all too recently and tragically clear. Difference had bred suspicion—and suspicion had bred war.
A war like no other. In 480 BC, some forty years before Herodotus began his history, Xerxes, the King of Persia, had led an invasion of Greece. Military adventures of this kind had long been a speciality of the Persian people. Victory—rapid, spectacular victory—had for decades seemed to be their birthright. As a result of his predecessors’ triumphs, Xerxes had ruled as the most powerful man on the planet. The resources at his disposal were so stupefying as to appear virtually limitless. Europe was not to witness another invasion force to rival his until World War II and the summer of D-Day.
Set against this unprecedented juggernaut, the Greeks were few in numbers and hopelessly divided. Even the two leading Greek powers, the nascent democracy of Athens and the sternly militarized state of Sparta, appeared ill-equipped to put up an effective resistance. With the Persian King resolved to pacify once and for all the fractious and peculiar people on the western margin of his great empire, the result seemed to most a foregone conclusion. And yet somehow, astonishingly, against the largest expeditionary force ever assembled, the Greeks held out. The invaders were turned back. Greece remained free.
The story of how they had taken on a superpower and, unbelievably, defeated it, appeared to the Greeks themselves the most astounding achievement of all time. How precisely had the victory been won? And why? And what might have caused the invasion to be launched in the first place? Not lacking in significance even four decades later, these questions prompted Herodotus into a momentously novel style of investigation. For the first time, a chronicler set out to trace the origins of a conflict—not to a past so remote as to be utterly fabulous, nor to the whims and wishes of some god, nor to a people’s claim to a manifest destiny, but rather to explanations that he could verify for himself. Herodotus’ term for the task he set himself was “inquiries”—historia. “And I set them down here,” he declared, in the first sentence of the first work of history ever written, “so that the record of human achievement may be spared the ravages of time, and so that everything significant and astounding, all those exploits by which Greeks and non-Greeks alike have made a mark, can be kept in the public eye—and additionally, and most importantly, so that I can trace the steps that led them into conflict.”