Tweeting Herodotus, or recasting The History for the digital age

Guest post by Debra Hamel

Herodotus’s History of the Persian Wars tells the story of the expansion of Persia under four kings: Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, and Xerxes. The Empire’s armies began rolling west in the mid-sixth century B.C., absorbing numerous civilizations as they did so, headed toward a seemingly inevitable collision with the tiny city-states of Greece. The Persians invaded the Greek peninsula twice in the first decades of the fifth century, and twice—to the astonishment, surely, of both sides—they were defeated.

Although Persia’s military advances form the framework of his History, Herodotus by no means confines himself to a dry recitation of battles waged and won. He writes about the nations the Persians encountered as their Empire expanded—the customs and countryside, myths and marvels of the Lydians and Egyptians and Assyrians and Scythians, for example. His magnum opus is a mixture of folktales, geography, ethnography, propaganda, and what we would call legitimate history. It’s a great read. It’s also a long read—five or six or seven hundred pages, depending on the translation you grab—and for that reason, I suspect, the casual reader is unlikely to pick up a copy on a whim.

Enter Twitter.

In case you’ve somehow missed the social media bandwagon, Twitter is a platform that allows users to post, or “tweet,” brief messages that can be viewed immediately by anyone in the world with a cell phone or access to the internet. The uses to which Twitter can be put are infinite, from broadcasting breaking news to live tweeting academic conferences to publicly chronicling the misanthropy of one’s cat. Twitter democratizes the dissemination of information, and as such it’s an undeniably powerful tool. But what makes Twitter really interesting is the constraints it imposes. Each tweet can be no longer than 140 characters. While it’s possible to spread a message across multiple posts, so that in effect it can be as long as you’d like it to be, it is more challenging, and more elegant, to confine yourself to the space of a single tweet.

A few years ago, while I was busy working on a book on Herodotus, I decided to tweet the History. I thought it would be a good way to introduce the historian to a new audience. The ground rules I established were simple: one tweet per day, one section of the History per tweet. There are 1,535 sections in Herodotus’ tome. (These chunks of text are usually paragraph-sized but can be much longer.) At one section a day, the project would take me more than four years to complete. “Herodotus” (@iHerodotus on Twitter) began tweeting his History on October 29, 2010. The project will be completed in January of 2015.

The most obvious difficulty in tweeting the History lies in fitting a section’s worth of information into a 140-character tweet. Clearly, a lot of material has to be ruthlessly jettisoned in the process. But the Herodotean tweeter also needs to know at all times where the author is headed. Herodotus can throw a lot of disparate information into a single section, but only some of the things he mentions will prove to be important later in his story. In tweeting Herodotus, then, you have to be brief while at the same time being sure to mention those nuggets of information that will advance the author’s storyline. You also have to be willing to use imaginative spelling and punctuation on occasion.

Below is a taste of Herodotus in tweet form. Near the beginning of his History, Herodotus tells the story of Croesus, the king of Lydia (in modern Turkey), who would ultimately lose his kingdom to Persia. Croesus’ family had won the Lydian throne four generations earlier, when his ancestor Gyges usurped the kingship from the then king Candaules. The story of Gyges and Candaules takes up about three pages in English translation (book one, sections 7-12). The Twitter version of the story, needless to say, is considerably shorter:

1.7 The Lydian kingship passed from the Heraclidae to the Mermnadae, Croesus’ family, as I’ll explain. The last Heraclid king was Candaules.

1.8 Candaules fell in love w/his own wife & praised her beauty to his bodyguard Gyges, whom he bid view the queen naked. Gyges begged off.

1.9 But Candaules insisted and told his plan: Gyges would hide behind the door and watch her undress before bed, then he’d slip out unseen.

1.10 Gyges reluctantly obeyed. He hid, watched & left, but she saw him. At once she knew what Candaules had done & she contemplated revenge.

1.11 The next day she gave Gyges an ultimatum: kill the king and take his place or be killed himself. Unwilling again, he chose the former.

1.12 That night he hid behind the same door, then killed Candaules in his sleep. Thus Gyges gained both the queen and the kingship of Lydia.

As I write, about 70% of the History has been tweeted. The Persians have already been defeated by the Athenians in the Marathon plain, but the great battles of the Second Persian War—Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea, Mycale—await @iHerodotus’s treatment. I would invite anyone who’s interested in ancient history to follow Herodotus’ Twitter stream. It’s a painless way to learn a little something about a seminal work of western literature. If you don’t want to jump into the story midstream, you can catch up on any tweets you’ve missed at The Twitter Herodotus.

HamelDebra Hamel is the author of Reading Herodotus: A Guided Tour through the Wild Boars, Dancing Suitors, and Crazy Tyrants of The History. She is tweeting Herodotus’s History at http://www.twitter.com/iherodotus.

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2 responses to “Tweeting Herodotus, or recasting The History for the digital age

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