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Herodotus, Sima Qian, and Daily Life Across Cultures
One of the few things most Greeks agreed upon was the substantial difference between historical narrative and epic poetry. Within those categories the jockeying was more than occasionally harsh and tumultuous, but no one was likely to confuse The Iliad and The History of the Peloponnesian War. The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 BCE) thought widely and deeply about how people lived and worked in times before his own. For this he has been roundly criticized by more literalistic historians from Thucydides and his contemporaries down to the present. More nimble interpreters such as his best English translator, David Grene, have seen things far differently.
His is a kind of universal history; that is, it is the record of all the logical
possibilities, political and human, that coexist in the human world. The
kleos is the tale that makes one understand and admire this; that obtrudes
itself between one’s inner single moral certainty of man’s nature; that
harmonizes what one knows is true of man, because he is oneself writ large,
and the excitement of the vision of men and events greater than anyone,
without Herodotus’ aid, could easily conceive of.
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In a sense, Herodotus was doing something very similar to Hesiod, but in a distinctly different genre. He juxtaposed historical characters and situations in such a way as to create an episodic narrative merging practical details—things historians would write down in notebooks and today’s anthropologist would scratch onto their fieldnotes—with a larger framework that implied an integrated world we cannot always understand. If we are to make use of his detailed descriptions of people’s lives, then we must understand something of Herodotus’s narrative impulse.
Herodotus collected stories and cultural details. He leaves it to his readers to posit their interpretations, but not without shaping the message himself through the arrangement of materials and, occasionally, outright commentary. Here, we see a very different approach from Hesiod’s to collecting information about everyday life.
195. …For clothes, the people wear a linen tunic reaching to their feet and,
over that, another one of wool, and they wrap themselves up in a small white
cloak; and they wear shoes of their country, very like Boetian sandals. They
let their hair grow long and they wear a kind of peaked cap or turban. They
saturate their whole body with myrrh…
196. Such is the equipment of the body. Among their established customs
there is one that in my opinion is the very wisest... In every village, once a
year, the people did the following: as the girls in the village became ripe for
marriage, they gathered and brought together all such to one place. There
was a great throng of men surrounding it, and the auctioneer put the girls up,
one by one, for sale….They were all sold to live with their men…but no man
might give away his daughters to whom he pleased, nor might any man take
any girl by buying her without a guarantor; he must produce his guarantor
for a solemn promise to live with her in his home and only so be allowed to
take her away…
This rather startling combination of list-making, comparison, and marriage-exchange detail must be read in the context of Herodotus’s narrative. He does not describe what he calls the “Babylonian country” for its own sake, but rather in the larger context of regional conflicts laid out in Book I of his History. This dynamic can also be seen with a somewhat later historian half a world away. Sima Qian (c.145-90 BCE), one of the great early historians of China, wrote of “the world beyond China” in ways that both underlined difference from the world of his readers and more than occasionally presented narratives that were to be understood as simply being of another place, another way of living. This complex rhetoric of “not like us, a little like us, and just plain different” links Herodotus and Sima Qian as historians and interpreters of culture beyone their own societies. Sima Qian writes here of a place called Dayuan.
The regions around Dayuan make wine out of grapes, the wealthier inhabitants
keeping as much as 10,000 or more piculs stored away. It can be kept for as
long as twenty or thirty years without spoiling. The people love their wine and
the horses love their alfalfa…Although the states from Dayuan west to Anxi
speak rather different languages, their customs are generally similar and their
languages mutually intelligible. The men all have deep-set eyes and profuse
beards and whiskers. They are skillful at commerce and will haggle over a
fraction of a cent. Women are held in great respect, and the men make
decisions on the advice of their women. No silk or lacquer is produced
anywhere in the region, and the casting of coins and vessels was
Herodotus and Sima Qian tell us as much about themselves and their visions of what is “normal,” “typical,” and even “correct” as about the groups they purport to explain. The skill required in reading their texts lies in knowing that we learn as much, or more, from the implied comparison (us/not-us) as the description itself. Clearly, both Herodotus and Sima Qian make detailed assumptions about consumption of certain products, the nature of domestic life, and the patterning of everyday life and ritual, all of the way down to hairstyles and bodily adornment.
Just as in Hesiod’s writings, we must learn to understand the relationship between genre, text, and detail.
The wheat and the chaff must stay together on the stalk.
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 David Grene, The History of Herodotus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 21.
 Grene, Herodotus, 122-123.
 Burton Watson, The Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty I (Revised Edition) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 244-245.
—Grene, David. The History of Herodotus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
—Watson, Burton. The Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty I (Revised Edition). New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.