p u l p i t t om hol l a n d
Here Be Griffins
There is always a particular pleasure in being asked to review a book that you were planning to buy anyway. I was sent Stephanie Dalley’s The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon by this magazine a few months ago, but had been waiting to read it for much longer than that. The book’s argument – that the Hanging Garden supposedly built by Nebuchadnezzar had in fact been located further north, in the Assyrian city of Nineveh – was not new to me. A few years earlier, while researching a book of my own on the Persian Wars, I had come across an essay by Dalley intriguingly entitled ‘Why Did Herodotus not Mention the Hanging Gardens of Babylon?’ I read on with a feverish interest. Much was hanging for me (as it were) on the answer that the article gave.
The reason for this is that the absence of the Hanging Gardens from Herodotus’s Histories has all kinds of implications for anyone attempting to evaluate the character and reliability of the world’s first work of history. Babylon features prominently in it. Describing how the city fell to the Persians, Herodotus is prompted – not for the first time – to a digression. ‘It is not only sheer size that renders Babylon unique,’ he informs his readers, ‘but its design as well: the city is unlike any other.’ He then launches himself into a detailed survey of its manifold wonders. Archaeology has backed up the accuracy of much of what he reports. Missing from his account, though, is any mention of a hanging garden. From this it has generally been assumed that he could not have visited Babylon. Dalley’s thesis suggests an alternative possibility. The reason that Herodotus did not see the Hanging Garden when he visited Babylon is because it was never there in the first place.
This may seem recondite stuff. Why should it matter to anyone outside a tiny group of specialists whether a Greek writer in the fifth century BC paid a visit to Mesopotamia or not? There is a sense, though, in which it has implications for anyone interested in the nature of non-fiction. Herodotus is not just the ‘Father of History’. The Greek word from which we derive ‘history’, at the time when he used it to describe what he was attempting, meant not a study of the past, but simply ‘enquiry’ – and though there is certainly no lack of history in his great work, there is also plenty of geography, ethnography and zoology. It is, in effect, where the very notion of non-fiction begins. All of us who write it have a touch of Herodotus in our DNA.
But if he did not visit Babylon, what then? Clearly, it would put a serious question mark over the reliability of pretty much everything he has to say about the city. Not only that, but it would also raise the possibility that his reports on other places – Egypt, say, or Tyre – are similarly fantastical. Herodotus would be closer in character to Calvino’s Marco Polo, relating details of cities he had never visited to Kublai Khan, than to anything we would recognise as a writer of non-fiction. His researches, the German scholar Detlev Fehling has argued, were dependent on sources that Herodotus himself knew were thoroughly conjectural. That being so, ‘he was not bound to repeat his sources faithfully; he could always replace one conjecture by another or vary it ’. Herodotus was less the Father of History than the Heir of Homer.
Or perhaps he was both. Most scholars accept that Herodotus’s great work was indeed what he claimed it to be: an authentic enquiry. It has become widely accepted that it represented an attempt to push back the frontiers of knowledge, concurrent with the beginnings elsewhere in Greek intellectual circles of what we would now call ‘science’. The ‘liar school’, as Fehling and his followers are known, has not had many adherents. As for myself, and for what it is worth, I find Dalley’s relocation of the Hanging Garden to Nineveh convincing. I think, on balance, that Herodotus did visit Babylon. I wrote Persian Fire, my book on the Persian Wars, in the conviction that he can, in the main, be trusted. Nevertheless, we can never hope to know for certain the limits of Herodotus’s reliability – and it is in that dimension of doubt that his truest significance as the Father of History, and indeed non-fiction, lies.
My experience over the past five years of translating Herodotus while simultaneously writing history of my own has brought this very clearly into focus. What is it to question the truth of what he tells us, if not to adopt his own methodology? ‘I have drawn upon things that I myself witnessed, upon my own reasoning and upon my research.’ This reliance upon the scrupulous sifting and weighing of sources, which historians today take for granted, was something radical and pioneering when Herodotus adopted it. At the same time, though, he recognised its limitations. There were times when basic accuracy, let alone certainty, was impossible. This too is a part of Herodotus’s legacy to modern historians. The best non-fiction, it seems to me, never ceases to question received wisdom and to test the basis of what can be known – and yet, at the same time, to rest content, when absolutely necessary, with uncertainty. The most wondrous of the wonders in The Histories reflects precisely this paradox. The giant ants and griffins that occupy the distant margins of the world as Herodotus conceived it also occupy that indeterminate frontier between what can and cannot be known. All those who find themselves probing that boundary and exploring its limits are following in his footsteps. ‘Although it is incumbent on me to state what I am told,’ he wrote, ‘I am under no obligation to believe it entirely – something that is true for the whole of my narrative.’ Doubt as well as certainty is a part of Herodotus’s legacy to us all. ❒
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