New York.- By Vicki J Yiannias
The timing of the release of the controversial new movie 300, about the Spartan stand against the Persians at Thermopylae, although it is the object of much discussion among the general public and some scholars, as well, and the March 29-30 conference, “Herodotus Now: The Personal and Political” at New York University, is entirely coincidental, Phillip Mitsis, A.S. Onassis Professor of Hellenic Culture and Civilization at New York University told The Greek News, “The motivation for the conference was very simple, and planning started long before any of us knew about 300.”
The idea for the conference took root when the Dean of the Steinhardt School of Education, Mary Brabeck and a group of college friends who have been meeting every year for many years to read important texts together, read Herodotus (the prime source for information about the Battle of Thermopylae) last year and were excited by a number of important themes in his histories–east vs west, democracy vs tyranny, freedom vs subjugation — relevant, they felt, to today’s political situation, said Mitsis. Dean Brabeck approached Matthew Santirocco, Dean of Undergraduate Study at NYU and Head of Ancient Studies, and proposed a Herodotus conference.
“At roughly the same time Paul Cartledge, Hellenic Parliament Global Distinguished Professor in the theory assumed the Hellenic Parliament Global Distinguished Professorship in the Theory and History of Democracy, and a number of us thought that he would be especially appropriate to organize such a conference,” Mitsis stated.
Mitsis offered to pitch in and approached the Hellenic Ministry of Culture for additional funding. Minister Voulgarakis kindly helped to sponsor the conference, said Mitsis. The conference, which was this yearʼs Ranieri Colloquium on Ancient Studies, was presented by New York University Center for Ancient Studies in conjunction with the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.
The goal to invite the most interesting and prominent scholars and writers in the world today who are examining Herodotus to assess the question of the personal in his writings and the nature of his political thinking, resulted in the participation of a highly distinguished roster of speakers. In addition to Paul Cartledge and Philip Mitsis, the speakers were Matthew S. Santirocco, Michael Flower, Joy Connolly, Tom Holland, Robert Strassler, Robin Waterfield, James Romm, Christopher Pelling, Elizabeth Irwin, Deborah Boederer, Carolyn Dewald, Rosaria Munson, Tom Harrison, David Konstan, Leslie Kurke, Nino Luragh, and Kurt Raaflaub.
In the keynote address Professor Paul Cartledge gave an account of his own person explorations of Herodotus and how they mapped onto the scholarship of the last forty years or so. “One of the goals of the conference was to explore the relevance of Herodotus today, but of course we first had to begin with the difficult problem or how it is possible to make translations of Herodotus’s text and how we can help modern readers into his world”, Cartledge explained to The Greek News.
In answer to the question of what is Herodotusʼs contemporary relevance, Professor Cartledge stated, “For me (an old, old criticism of Herodotus calls him the “Father of Lies”), his greatest relevance is, first, the openness and broadmindedness of his enquiry — in Greek history nothing human was alien to him — and second, his enlightened toleration of the customs of ‘others’, which extended even to toleration of funerary cannibalism.”
Cartledge felt that what the conference accomplished for scholars and the general public that attended was that it made them realize that there was another ancient Greek author “besides, shall we say, Homer, the tragedians, Plato and the dramatists — who deserves to be considered a ‘household’ name.”
The Greek News asked him why Herodotus had ever been referred to as the “Father of Lies”. “This is partly because to some ancient critics – e.g. Plutarch — see his On the Malignity of Herodotus — he seemed grossly biased . . . . even pro-Persian! . . . . but also partly because he described phenomena such as huge gold-digging ants and men with heads in their chests that seemed physically impossible and so incredible.”
There is a recent scholarly movement championed by W. Kendrick Pritchett of Berkeley, said Cartledge, which has sought to rescue Herodotus’s reputation by showing that actually in many cases of dispute, for instance, over his travels. or his account of battles like that of Thermopylae, Herodotus can be shown to have told the truth . . . . or I add, the truth as he saw it, allowing for inevitable but not vicious bias or lapse of memory to which we are all liable”.
The next day Herodotusʼs depiction of the Persians, his use of oracles, his analysis of the nature of empire, the notion that indigenous people are more closely attached to their countries, the nature of Herodotus’s methods of research and his relation to an essentially oral culture, among other topics were examined.
Carolyn Dewald of Bard College, chair of the second session on March 30, explained to The Greek News that a fascinating aspect about Tom Harrisonʼs (University of Liverpool) talk, Herodotus on Empire and imperialists” was his look at the empires and the would-be empires that Herodotus talks about. “One of the interesting points in his talk was that Herodotus doesnʼt just talk about the Persians or even crypto-Athenians. Heʼs talking about many peoples that have tyrannical ambitions, but also heʼs also trying to tease out a set of assumptions about empire, assumptions about why you would go the length of having an empire, that might be relevant today. As the first historian, Herodotus is also the first ethnographer, the first person who is interested in underlying motives for going to war against other people.”