A digressive, witty blend of travel writing and popular history.
When your subject is a classical author and his account of a war that ended some 2,500 years ago, it takes a good deal of enthusiasm and a keen sense of storytelling to keep a reader interested as you follow in his footsteps. Recounting his passionate pursuit of Herodotus and the modern vestiges of ancient Greco-Persian geography, journalist Marozzi (Tamerlane, 2007, etc.) does not shy away from bold statements or prurient details. He casts Herodotus as the world’s first historian, first foreign correspondent, first anthropologist, first travel writer and first investigative journalist, as well as the man who “invented the West.” Traveling along the great historian’s route, Marozzi encountered evidence of a good deal of fellatio, sodomy, sacred prostitution, necrophilia, bestiality and phallic worship—most of it, thankfully, at a historical distance. The sex is rarely very sexy, however, and Marozzi’s deft handling of history’s strange congruities and incongruities is far more interesting. In Turkey, he tracked Herodotus to his hometown in Halicarnassus (now Bodrum); he describes the excavation of the town’s Mausoleum (one of the seven wonders of the classical world) and the archaeological exploration of an ancient shipwreck that contained the world’s oldest book. In 2004, he made a harrowing entry into Baghdad and a visit to the ancient site of Babylon, now “Camp Babylon” and under military control. Moving on to Egypt, Marozzi evokes Cairo in a lush, epic catalogue that is characteristic of his sly engagement with the kind of historical reporting Herodotus invented. In Greece, Marozzi’s attention flitted from the wine of Samos to an enviable lunchtime sojourn at the table of one of the last century’s great travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor.
“History rumbles on like an insatiable omnivore, devouring everything before it,” writes Marozzi. It’s a good thumbnail description of the approach that gives his clever, occasionally oversexed travel narrative much of its charm.