The Histories

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The Histories

by Herodotus


A historical narrative tn nine books written in Greek and published c, 430–425 bce


Herodotus recounts the Persian Wars (490 and 480–79 bce), in which the small, disunited Greek city-states under Athenian leadership twice replied invading Persian armies.

Events in History at the Time of the Narrative

The Narrative in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Was Written

For More Information

As the first writer to investigate past events and attempt to explain them rationally, Herodotus (c. 485-c. 425 bce) is often called “the Father of History.” Little is known for certain about his life, but according to tradition he was born in the year 484 bce in Halicarnassus, a Greek city on the southern coast of Asia Minor (now Bodrum, Turkey). It is thought that his mother was Carian (the Carians were a non-Greek people from the interior of Asia Minor), which may have contributed to his lively curiosity about other cultures. This interest shows itself repeatedly in the Histories, which includes detailed descriptions of a wide range of non-Greek peoples. Many of these often lengthy digressions seem based on personal experience. In light of them, modern scholars have concluded that Herodotus traveled widely while assembling the material that ultimately became the Histories, which is his only surviving written work. Tradition also has Herodotus, late in life, joining the new Athenian colony of Thurii on the island of Sicily. It is thought that he died there sometime after 430 bce, the approximate date of the latest events alluded to in the Histories. Scholars believe that before leaving for Thurii, Herodotus probably lived in Athens. He certainly celebrates the city in the Histories, portraying it as Greece’s savior against the mighty Persian Empire.

Events in History at the Time of the Narrative

Archaic Greece

Between the eighth century bce and Herodotus’ lifetime in the fifth century bce, ancient Greece entered an age of vigorous expansion. This growth occurred in a number of realms, embracing political change, energetic trade and settlement in new areas of the Mediterranean coastline, and cultural and intellectual innovation. Herodotus covers developments in all these areas, often providing information in the form of vivid anecdotes. While other evidence—in particular, archaeological discoveries—have helped throw light on this crucial period, Herodotus remains by far the most valuable single source. In many cases, the Histories provides our only detailed account of important events.

From a political standpoint, the most important development in Archaic Greece was the rise of the independent Greek city-state, the polis. (In fact the Greek word polis [plural poleis] gives us English words like “political” and “politics.”) Throughout Greece, groups of scattered villages coalesced into unitary states centered around a powerful urban hub, a process that the Greeks called synoikismos or “collective living.” Sparta grew into a military power, emerging as the leading polis before the Persian wars; other important poleis included Corinth, Argos, Megara, Thebes, Sicyon, and Athens.

In the early Archaic period, the poleis were dominated by coalitions of powerful aristocratic families. By the seventh century bce, in many poleis, these often unpopular ruling coalitions were being overthrown and replaced by popular leaders called tyrannoi or tyrants. (In this original sense, the Greek word lacked the negative connotation it has in English today.) When the tyrants attempted to found dynasties, however, their heirs frequently proved less popular than the original founder, and so most tyrannies did not last beyond a few generations. The major exception was the century-long dynasty (c. 665–565 bce) founded by Orthagoras, tyrant of Sicyon. Herodotus twice recounts stories about this dynasty’s most famous ruler, Cleisthenes (ruled c. 600–570 bce). Herodotus also discusses the reigns of a number of other tyrants and their dynasties, most notably Cypselus, tyrant of Corinth (ruled c. 657–625 bce) and his son Periander, and Peisistratus, tyrant of Athens (ruled c. 561–527 bce), and his sons Hippias and Hipparchus.

Closely related to the rise of the polis were the growth of trade and the foundation of new settlements aimed at securing commercial bene-fits for the founding polis or metropolis (“mother city”). Indeed, just as modern historians often call the late Archaic period the “age of tyrants,” they frequently refer to the entire period as the “age of colonization.” From dry and rugged mainland Greece, where good farming land was always scarce, the seafaring Greeks sent out colonizing expeditions in all directions accessible from the Aegean Sea: west, to Sicily and southern Italy; south, to the Mediterranean coast of Africa; northeast, as far as the southern coast of the Black Sea; and east, to the western and southern coasts of Asia Minor.

Halicarnassus, Herodotus’ birthplace, was among the earliest of such settlements in Asia Minor, originally founded around the beginning of the ninth century bce. An even earlier Greek presence was established in the important city of Miletus a few days’ voyage to the north. Originally a Carian town said to have been taken over by settlers from Athens around the eleventhcentury bce, Miletus by the eighth century had itself begun founding colonies and soon became the region’s major metropolis. The Greek cities of the central coast of Asia Minor are collectively known as Ionia, after the linguistic group to which the original Athenian settlers of Miletus had belonged. (Aside from Ionic, other Greek dialects represented on the coast of Asia Minor included Doric, which was spoken in Herodotus’ home city of Halicarnassus, and Aeolic.) Led by powerful Miletus, which plays a central role in the Histories, the Greek cities of Ionia, prosperous and proud, comprised a little realm of their own within the larger Greek world.

Ionia lay closer than the rest of Greece to the older civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, whose traditions included ancient mathematical and astronomical wisdom like that of the Babylonians. Ionia’s exposure to such foreign ways of thinking, it has been suggested, helped spark the intellectual revolution that began in Miletus in the early sixth century bce and rapidly transformed the Greek world. In fact, it was in Miletus that the first systematic attempts were made to explain the natural world in rational, rather than religious, terms. This innovation in thought eventu-ally came to be known as philosophy (Greek philosophia, “love of wisdom”) and its practitioner was the philosophos or philosopher. Herodotus does not employ these terms, however, since they did not come into wide use until after his death.


Throughout the Histories, Herodotus frequently refers to famous events and people from Greece’s past. Modern historians divide early Greek history into the following periods:

The Bronze Ag (c. 3000–c.1OOO bce) The Bronze Age is further divided into Early, Middle, and Late, During the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000-c. 1500 bce) the non-Greek Minoan civilization arose on the island of Crete. Named for its legendary King Minos, whom Herodotus mentions several times, Minoan civilization may have been wiped out by the massive volcanic explosion on the nearby island of Thera (Santorini) in c, 1 620 bce, In its wake, Late Bronze Age settlers on the mainland founded the first Greek civil ization, called Mycenaean after its political center at Mycenae. Mycenaean civilization declined starting around 1200 bce, probably as a result of internal warfare.

The Dark Agf (c. 1 100-c, 800 bce) Population decrease and cultural backwardness characterized the next several hundred years. Trade stagnated in the Greek world, arid writing was lost. However, oral culture carried on, and it was during this period that the Uiad and the Oifyssey, the epic poems ascribed to Homer, first took shape as oral narratives (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Considered the foundation of later Greek culture and the beginning of Western literature, these poems celebrate the heroic deeds of legendary Mycenaean warrior-kings such as Agamemnon (king of Mycenae}, Achilles, and Odysseus. The epics con-cern the Trojan War, a fabled conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans that Herodotus mentions. At the beginning of the Histories, he notes that, according to the Persians, the Greek siege of Troy marked the start of trouble between the Greeks and Asians (Troy lay on the northern coast of Asia Minor).

The Archaic Perio (c, 800-c. 460 bce) In the Histories, events from this age of renewal and expansion comprise the background to the Persian Wars, as Herodotus sets the stage for Persia’s invasions of Greece-Modern historians generally see the second of these invasions, in 460 bce, as marking the end of Greece’s Archaic Period.

The Classical Perio (c. 480–323 bce) Greek culture has now reached what most observers regard as its high point, especially in the literary, intellectual, and artistic achievements of Athens, the democratic city-state that rose to leadership of the Greek world in the decades after the Persian Wars. Herodotus, historians believe, lived and worked in Athens during at least part of this time, where tradition has him meeting the great Athenian tragic playwright Sophocles. Herodotus7 sympathetic portrait of Athens in the Histories suggests affection and respect for the city and its democratic institutions.

The first philosopher, Thales of Miletus (c. 636-c. 546 bce), taught that water is the fundamental material for all existence. Other lonians (including Thales’ students Anaximander and Anaximenes) took up such speculative theorizing, proposing and defending their own ideas about nature and existence. Herodotus mentions the celebrated Thales several times in connection with events concerning Miletus. In a more general way, Herodotus’ rationalistic outlook can be seen as reflecting his upbringing in Ionia’s innovative intellectual climate, which remained vibrant into his own day.

The rise of Persia

Even as the lonians inaugurated the Western tradition of rational inquiry, developments were taking place that soon brought Ionia and then the rest of Greece under the dark clouds of invasion, occupation, and war. First, around the middle of the sixth century, the Greek cities of Ionia were taken over by nearby Lydia’s King Croesus (ruled c. 560–546 bce), whose capital, Sardis, lay in the interior of Asia Minor, inland from Ionia. Only a few years later, in 546 bce, Croesus’ relatively benign rule ended when Lydia itself was conquered by a new power from much farther to the east, the rising empire of Persia, led by Cyrus the Great (c. 590–530 bce). In Book 1 of the Histories, Herodotus devotes much space to portraits of Croesus and Cyrus, regaling his audience with dramatic tales that clearly reflect folk legends.

Cyrus had founded his empire by overthrowing the Medes, who had been the Persians’ overlords when Cyrus ascended to the Persian throne in 559 bce. From their base in Fars or Persis (now southern Iran), as Herodotus relates, the Persians under Cyrus then expanded their domains to the east and west. Cyrus’ dynasty is called Achaemenid, after one of his royal ancestors. By Cyrus’ death in 530 bce, when his son Cambyses (r. 530–522 bce) assumed the throne, the territories under Achaemenid rule stretched from India to Ionia, where the Greek cities had all been subdued.

The Ionian revolt

By 500 bce, after nearly half a century of Persian rule, the Ionian Greeks had begun to chafe under foreign occupation. As Herodotus relates, the first indications of organized revolt came from Miletus. There the tyrant Histiaeus and his lieutenant Aristagoras, both earlier installed by the Persians, became embroiled in controversy with their Persian overlords. In 499 bce many (though not all) of the Ionian cities joined Miletus in rising against the Persians. Aristagoras meanwhile traveled to mainland Greece, where he tried to win support for the revolt. Sparta, the most powerful of all Greek cities and the acknowledged leader, refused, but Athens agreed, reluctantly, to aid the rebels.

Athens accordingly dispatched a fleet of 20 warships to the Ionian coast. “These ships,” Herodotus observes, “were the beginning of evil for Greeks and barbarians” (Herodotus, The His-tories, Book 5, chapter 97). After initial Greek military successes, the Persians took the offensive, and in 494 bce they crushed the combined Ionian and Athenian fleet at the Battle of Lade. Later that year the Persians besieged and captured Miletus, plundering the city, killing many, and removing the rest of the population to be re-settled deep within Persian territory. Back in Athens, Herodotus reports, people were so saddened by the Milesians’ fate that when a tragic playwright presented a play about the city’s capture “the audience in the theatre burst into tears” and the playwright “was fined a thousand drachmas [approximately $100,000] for reminding them of their own evils” (Histories, 6.21).

The Persian Wars

The Persian king who sup-pressed the Ionian revolt, Darius I (r. 522–486 bce), was not satisfied with merely reestablishing his rule over Ionia. Angered by Athens’ support for the rebels, he was determined to exact revenge on the mainland Greeks as well, and especially on Athens itself. In 490 bce invading Persians crossed the Aegean Sea to the large island of Euboea, which lay just north of the territory around Athens known as Attica. The Persian force occupied the city of Eretria, and then made the short crossing from Euboea to Attica. Landing at Marathon, they were met by a far smaller Athenian force. It consisted of hoplites (armored footsoldiers with heavy shields and long spears who fought in a tight group or phalanx), aided by a group of soldiers from the nearby town of Plataea. Under the command of the Athenian general Miltiades, the Greeks boldly attacked, routing the surprised Persians in a day’s hard fighting. Herodotus estimates Persian losses at some 6,400 dead, while the Greeks, he says, lost only 192 (Histories, 6.117). The Persians retreated back across the Aegean, and Athens celebrated its stunning victory.

Enraged, Darius again vowed revenge, but he died in 486 bce, before he could make good on the vow. It fell to his son and heir Xerxes (r. 486–465 bce) to do so, and immediately upon ascending the throne Xerxes began preparing a much larger invasion force. Darius had aimed merely to punish the Greeks, whereas Xerxes set out to occupy mainland Greece itself. But the Athenians, too, were readying themselves. At the urging of their statesman Themistocles, whose wisdom Herodotus praises, Athens took advantage of rich silver deposits at nearby Laurium to fund the construction of a fleet of 200 triremes, or warships.

Athens had a longstanding dispute with Aegina, a large island off the coast of Attica. Ancient animosities similarly entangled relations among Sparta, Corinth, Argos, Thebes, and the other cities. Yet the Greeks resolved to put aside their differences and make common cause against the Persian threat. Sparta, which had not sent soldiers to Marathon (but praised the Athenian victory afterward), agreed to assume leadership of the military alliance.

Rather than crossing the Aegean as the earlier invasion force had done, Xerxes’ much larger expedition traveled in an arc along the northern Aegean coast, setting out early in 480 bce. Also, in contrast to Darius who had remained in Persia, Xerxes accompanied his great army and navy, forces he had gathered from throughout his vast empire. The main question for the Greeks, as they conferred at Corinth in the spring of 480 bce, was where to make their initial stand as the Persian armada drew closer. They decided on


Perhaps the best-known passages in the Histories are those recounting the fate of the wealthy and potent Croesus, king of Lydia, and the even mightier king who shattered his power, Cyrus the Great of Persia. Modern commentators have seen the story of Croesus as illustrating one of Herodotus’ central messages, which is that the gods inevitably punish those who become too proud and ambitious. The Greeks called this combination of pride and ambition hubris, and it is a central theme in much Greek literature—especially the tragic drama that arose in Athens in the years after the Persian Wars, when Herodotus was composing the Histories. Croesus is thus portrayed as hubristic.

Herodotus also Portrays the Persian king Xerxes as hubristic and describes how his hubris provokes the gods’ wrath, leading to the failure of the second Persian expedition. In the following passage, Herodotus shows Xerxes ignoring a couple of “omens,” which the Greeks would have considered to be messages indicating the will of the gods:

After the whole army had reached the Eunapean shore and the forward march had begun, a great portent occurred—a mare gave birth to a hare. Xerxes paid no attention to this omen, though the significance of it was easy enough to understand Clearly it meant that he was to lead an army against Greece with the greatest pomp and circumstance, and then to come running for his life back to the place he started from. There had previously been another porlent in Sardis, when a mule dropped a foal with a double set of sexual organs, male and female—the former uppermost Xerxes, however, ignored both omens and continued his march at the head of the army.

(Histories, 7.58)

While Herodotus adopted a generally rationalistic approach to the past—explaining historical events in human terms rather than religious ones—he also followed tradition in keeping a place for the gods when it came to broader dimensions of those events.

Thermopylae in northern Greece, a narrow mountain pass through which the Persian army would have to march, and where Persian numerical superiority would count for less in a face-to-face battle.

There, having dismissed most of the other Greek forces, the Spartan king Leonidas and 300 elite warriors called spartiatai stopped the Per-sian advance for three days, until a local native showed the Persians a hidden trail which they used to get around the Spartans and attack from the rear. Leonidas and his celebrated 300 Spartiates fought to the death, passing immediately into glory as national heroes and giving the other Greeks time to fall back and prepare further defenses. The Greek naval fleet fought a similar holding action at Artemision, withdrawing after three days of heavy fighting.

The Persian army marched on, occupying Attica, which the Athenians had abandoned. Led by Themistocles, Athens had pinned its hopes on its navy, the backbone of the Greek fleet. Tricking the Persian naval commander with a false message, Themistocles lured the Persians into the narrow strait of Salamis, near Megara. There, in 480 bce, the Persian fleet was defeated with heavy losses. Xerxes and the remnants of his once proud expedition retreated in confusion. A Per-sian army that remained in Greece was also defeated at Plataea in 479 bce. Seemingly against all odds, Greece had again been saved.

The Narrative in Focus

Contents summary

In the broadest terms, the Histories can be divided in two roughly equal halves, one describing the rise of the Persian Empire and the other narrating its two invasions of mainland Greece. In the first half, Herodotus describes the various peoples conquered by the Persians in the decades leading up to the invasions. Here he freely incorporates colorful folk-tales and legends (for example, those about Croesus and Cyrus). In the second part, this mythic element takes a back seat to more straightforward historical narrative, as Herodotus leaves the distant past and arrives in the firmer territory of living memory.

As Herodotus recounts the Persian wars, he invokes a highly discursive style that defies condensation. Herodotus typically expands on a subject as it arises in the course of his narrative, filling in the background before resuming the larger narrative where he left off. Thus, for ex-ample, his account of Aristagoras’ journey to Athens to enlist aid for the Ionian revolt enfolds a lengthy digression about recent Athenian his-tory and the democratic reforms that followed the expulsion from Athens of Pisistratus’ sons Hippias and Hipparchus. Having brought his audience up to date, he then continues with Aristagoras’ arrival and the Athenian decision to send a fleet to Ionia. This technique can be confusing to the modern reader, but it characterizes Herodotus’ basic approach throughout the Histories. Even his digressions often have digressions.

Neither the title the Histories nor the division of the work into nine books originated with Herodotus. Yet, put in place by later scholars and interpreters (who named each book after one of the nine muses of Greek lore), the book divisions follow the inherent structure of the work and so prove useful in outlining its contents.

Herodotus begins by tracing the various causes put forward in his own time for the conflict between Greece and Persia. He then takes up the story of Croesus, king of Lydia, the first foreigner “so far as we know” to conquer and rule over Greeks (Histories, 1.6). In his attempts to defend himself against Persia by allying himself with mainland Greeks, Croesus provides an occasion for digressions on the early history of Sparta and Athens. Cyrus’ conquest of Lydia prompts Herodotus to discuss Persian expansion, including accounts of the earlier Assyrian, Babylonian, and Median empires whose lands have fallen under Persian rule. Book 1 concludes with Cyrus’ death while campaigning against the Massagetai near the Caspian Sea.

Soon after coming to power, Cyrus’ son and heir Cambyses attacks Egypt. Herodotus takes the opportunity to give a long disquisition on Egyptian history and customs, including religious practices and the building of the famous pyramids. In one well-known passage, he considers the Nile River, which mystified Greeks because, unlike other rivers they knew, it flowed north instead of south, and also because it flooded during the dry summer months:

About why the Nile behaves precisely as it does I could get no information from the priests or anyone else. What I particularly wished to know was why the water begins to rise at the summer solstice, continues to do so for a hundred days, and then falls again at the end of that period, so that it remains low throughout the winter.... Nobody in Egypt could give me any explanation of this, in spite of my constant attempts to find out what was the peculiar property which made the Nile behave in the opposite way to other rivers.…

(Histories, 2.19)


Herodotus devotes much attention to describing Persian expansion, offering expository digressions on the appearance, culture, history, religion, and folkways of many of the peoples conquered by Persia in the decades before the Persian invasions of Greece. The longest such digression amounts to an extended essay on Egypt, which takes up at! of Book 2 in modern editions of the Histories, As Herodotus makes clear, Egypt fascinated the Greeks because of its wealth, the strange behavior of its fabled Nile River (which floods during the summer, when other rivers tend to dry up), and above all the great antiquity of Egyptian civilization. Herodotus’ treatment of Egypt displays several of his strongest interests, including cultural curiosities, exotic locales, and both natural and manmade marvels.

Book 3 resumes the historical narrative with Cambyses’ invasion and occupation of Egypt, his failed attempt to conquer Ethiopia (as the Greeks called the lands south of Egypt), and his subsequent decline into madness and death. Herodotus gives particular attention to the Ionian island of Samos, where the tyrant Polycrates, an ally of Cambyses, survives a rebellion in which the Samian rebels are aided by an expedition from Sparta. Herodotus also describes Samos’ impressive man-made marvels, including a long tunnel, a huge pier, and a large religious temple. After a struggle over succession, the Persian nobles choose Darius, an Achaemenid relative of Cambyses, to be king. Suppressing numerous revolts, Darius reorganizes the empire.

Book 4 opens with Darius’ failed attempt to conquer the Scythians, which Herodotus fills out with detailed accounts of the Scythians and neighboring peoples (”Scythia” comprises the area north of the Black Sea, today’s southern Ukraine). The second half of Book 4 offers a complementary report on Persian operations at the other end of the empire, in Libya, as the Greeks called the lands along the North African coast west of Egypt. Herodotus treats his audience to a detailed account of the various Libyan peoples (later called Berbers), contrasting the hot, dry conditions in their region with the cold, wet conditions of life for the Scythians.

Book 5 concludes the extended description of the Persian Empire and its conquests that occu-pies the first half of Herodotus’ work. The book opens with the conquests of Darius’ general Megabazus in Thrace and Macedonia, the regions just north of mainland Greece. Herodotus then describes conditions in Ionia, which leads to his account of the Ionian revolt and the stories of Histiaeus and Aristagoras, the Milesian rulers who initiated it. The failure of the revolt and the destruction of Miletus are recounted early in Book 6, and the rest of this book is taken up with Darius’ preparations for the punitive invasion of Greece, the subsequent Greek victory at Marathon, and the return of the failed Persian expedition.

Book 7 begins with Darius’ plans for another invasion, which are interrupted by his death and then renewed by his son and heir Xerxes. “At this point,” Herodotus interrupts himself to declare,

I find myself compelled to express an opinion which I know most people will object to; nevertheless, as I believe it to be true, I will not suppress it. If the Athenians, through fear of the approaching danger, had abandoned their country, or if they had stayed there and submitted to Xerxes, there would have been no attempt to resist the Persians by sea; and, in the absence of a Greek fleet, it is easy to see what would have been the course of events on land.... In view of this, therefore, one is surely right in saying that Greece was saved by the Athenians. It was the Athenians… who, having chosen that Greece should live and preserve her freedom, roused to battle the other Greek states which had not yet submitted. It was the Athenians who—after the gods—drove back the Persian king.

(Histories, 7.139)

Herodotus then resumes the narrative with the second expedition’s long voyage along the northern shore of the Aegean, its progress into mainland Greece, and the battle of Thermopylae.

Book 8 covers the operations that followed, including the important naval battles. First came Artemisium (where the Greeks staged a tactical withdrawal after three days of heavy fighting) and then Salamis (where the Persians suffered a decisive defeat at sea).

Book 9 relates both sides’ preparations for the decisive land battle at Plataea and goes on to de-scribe the battle itself. In recounting the Greek vic-tory there, Herodotus highlights the Athenians’ distinguished contribution. The work concludes with the Persians’ disorganized retreat, as another Greek naval victory at Mycale, near Miletus, touches off a second Ionian revolt against Persian rule.

The origins of history

As modern scholars have observed, the opening sentence of the Histories serves its author as the equivalent of a title page:

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds—some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians—may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other.

(Histories, 1.proem)

The word translated here as “researches” is the Greek historia, meaning “inquiry,” which has passed into English as “history.” The word translated as “other peoples” is the Greek barbaroi, literally “barbarians,” which for an ancient Greek merely meant “non-Greek.” While the context makes it clear that Herodotus is referring primarily to the Persians, the term also embraces the many subject peoples whom the Persians would compel to fight on their side (in Book 7, Herodotus gives a long list of the various nations represented in Xerxes’ army).

With these words, the study of history began. The words themselves reflect the two related impulses that have motivated historians ever since: first, to commemorate the past; and, second, to explain it rationally. In turn, these two impulses—clearly seen, for example, in Herodotus’ carefully reasoned arguments crediting Athens with having saved Greece—reflect two separate traditions in Greek civilization that first came together in the work of Herodotus. The first was the epic poetry of Homer, an old legacy that reached back to Greek civilization’s very origins and celebrated the deeds of its legendary heroes. The second was the much newer tradition of philosophy, which arose in Ionia in the sixth century and attempted to explain the world through rational inquiry.

Taken together, these two vibrant, influential traditions—epic poetry and rational philosophy—may be considered the two “parents” of history. Both played vital roles in shaping Herodotus’ thought and writing, and both are clearly reflected throughout the pages of the Histories, which celebrates specific individuals and deeds but also ties them together as a way of explaining a single phenomenon, the Persian Wars. In epic poetry, how-ever, all the action is sparked by the activities of the gods. This outlook reflects the religious explanations of both natural and human phenomena that were common to all cultures before the rise of the first secular, rationalistic philosophy in Ionia during the sixth century bce. Where philosophy applied reason to nature, Herodotus applied it to human events (such as war) that had previously been the province of epic.

Herodotus thus brought two seminal elements in Greek civilization to bear on the most significant event of his age. In doing so he created a new discipline, the study of history, that would ultimately take its place as a vital cultural tradition in its own right. One might say that Herodotus responded to history by inventing it. The historical attitude that he inaugurated has since become so fundamental to our outlook on the past that it is difficult to appreciate just how radical Herodotus’ innovation was in its day. Herodotus undoubtedly possessed one of the most startlingly original minds in history—a statement, of course, that would not be possible without the very idea of history itself.

Sources and literary context

Recent scholars stress that the Histories differs in important ways from what later centuries would see as “history.” They point out, for example, that the Histories contains long stretches of geographic and ethno-graphic description with little or no material that later scholars would consider “historical” in nature. Nor does Herodotus seem to have relied on official documentary sources in the same way that a modern historian would have. Though it has been suggested that he used some official Persian documents (in his lists of peoples subject to the Persians, for example), Herodotus seems to have relied primarily on oral sources or interviews with people for the information he presents.

For the main topic of his “inquiry,” the Per-sian Wars themselves, this oral information would have come from participants on both sides who were still alive when Herodotus was writing, about 50 years after the events took place. For other parts of his account, Herodotus sought out record keepers (such as religious authorities or prominent families) who for various reasons concerned themselves with preserving local traditions and developments. Gathering such information required extensive travel, and it is as a curious sojouner that Herodotus most often seems to present himself. Apart from Greece, he explicitly mentions gathering evidence in places from southern Italy to as far away as Babylon, and from Libya and Egypt to the Black Sea region, including Scythia (southern Ukraine).

Herodotus also mentions another Ionian au-thor, the celebrated travel writer Hecataeus of Miletus, whose dates are uncertain but who wrote around 500 bce. Hecataeus’ most famous work, the Periodos Ges or “Journey Around the World,” described his circumnavigation of the Mediterranean Sea, offering accounts of peoples and sights encountered along the way. Herodotus names Hecataeus several times, more than any other writer, and clearly emulated Hecataeus in his extensive descriptions of faraway places.

Other literary genres were taking shape as Herodotus planned and executed his work, and they likely influenced him. Local chroniclers, such as Herodotus’ younger contemporary Hellanicus of Lesbos, were writing at around the same time, though their works appear to have been shorter and to have lacked the thematic unity, analytic quality, and large-scale perspective of Herodotus’ work. One should also keep in mind Herodotus’ general debt to the Iliad and the Odyssey, epic works whose two plots celebrate the deeds of the past and deal with war as well as exotic travel.

During this period, medical writers such as Hippocrates had begun applying the rationalistic attitude of the philosophers to areas outside philosophy. Herodotus displays wide knowledge of the new medical knowledge that resulted. In-deed, both philosophers and physicians used historia to describe their own inquiries; Herodotus echoes their term in characterizing his endeavor. One measure of the Histories’ impact is that his use of the term fixed it forever as the name of the discipline he invented.

Rationalistic analysis also featured prominently in the emerging art of rhetoric or persuasive speaking, which assumed a new prominence in public life with the evolution of Athenian democracy. Indeed, persuasive speaking was already central to Greek literature. In the Iliad, for example, major characters deliver closely reasoned speeches calculated to win listeners over to their points of view. Herodotus puts numerous speeches in the mouths of his characters, and a number of them suggest the influence of contemporary rhetorical practices. One of the best known of such passages features a discussion among Persian nobles just be-fore Darius accedes to the throne; they present rhetorically polished arguments for and against three forms of government: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy.

Tragic drama is also associated with Herodotus’ work. Athenian tragic playwrights generally drew on Greek myth for their subject matter, eschewing real-life events, but Greece’s conflict with Persia proved an exception. The battle of Salamis, for example, helped inspire a well-known tragic play, The Persians, produced in 472 bce by the leading Athenian tragedian Aeschylus. Such productions suggest that as a subject for literature, the Persian Wars rapidly acquired an appropriate gravity and solemnity, and this perception may well have influenced Herodotus’ choice of subject matter and his style. The Persians may also have inspired Herodotus’ remarkably impartial depiction of the enemy. His portrait of Xerxes, for example, clearly suggests the downfall of a “tragic” hero—a sympathetic treatment of the Persian king that had also been central to Aeschylus’ play.

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Was Written

The rise of the Athenian Empire

In the aftermath of the Persian defeat, Athens took the lead in pressing the Greek cause against the Persian threat in Ionia. Meanwhile, Sparta once again re-fused to become involved (according to the final pages of the Histories, the Spartans even suggested that the Greeks leave Ionia altogether). Other communities, however, joined Athens. Modern historians call the resulting anti-Persian alliance the Delian League, because its treasury was located on the island of Delos.

Over the 470s and 460s bce, Athens’ domi-nation of the League grew more authoritarian. The Delian League became an Athenian Empire, based on Athenian naval supremacy. The treasury was transferred from Delos to Athens, and Athens began suppressing dissent, refusing to let any of its “allies” withdraw from the “alliance,” even though Persia no longer posed a credible threat. By the middle of the century, Athens, whose sway had so far been limited to Ionia and the islands, was expanding Athenian power on the Greek mainland as well. The ambitious city soon encountered resistance, however; Athens’ aggressive push brought it into direct conflict first with Corinth, then with Sparta. Still the greatest power on the mainland, Sparta had ob-served the growth of the Athenian Empire with misgivings that soon turned into hostility.

War between Athens and Corinth broke out in 460 bce, and Sparta clashed militarily with Athens two years later. Modern historians call this conflict the First Peloponnesian War (460–446 bce). A tenuous peace ensued, with further hostilities breaking out in 431 bce. This second stage, the Peloponnesian War proper, lasted nearly three decades and resulted in Sparta’s de-feat of Athens (see Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War , also in Classical Literature and Its Times). By its outbreak, Athens’ aggression had made the city highly unpopular in much of the Greek world, which accounts for Herodotus’ pre-diction in Book 7 that “most people will object to” his portrait of Athens as the savior of Greece. The period of Athenian aggression that preceded the Peloponnesian War also saw unprecedented cultural vitality in Athens, as the city experienced a veritable explosion of literary, artistic, and intellectual innovation. Much of this took place under the political leadership of Pericles (c. 495–429 bce), whose mother was a member of the influential Alcmaeonid family, which dominated


Although Herodotus gives information about many Greek city-states in the Histories, he reserves his fullest attention for Sparta and Athens, which emerged as bitter rivals in the decades after the Persian Wars. As Herodotus makes clear, the rivalry had strong ideological overtones. Sparta was unusual in being ruled by two kings who were advised by a small council of elders called the gerousia. But Sparta’s defining characteristic was its iron rule over the Helots—the inhabitants of the neighboring community of Messenia, which had been conquered and enslaved by Sparta in the eighth century bce. Many of Sparta’s actions during and after the Persian Wars (its hesitancy to get involved in the Ionian revolt, for example) have been attributed to the fear of a revolt by the Helots, a permanent underclass who performed all of Sparta’s agricultural and other manual labor. A rigid, authoritarian system arose out of the need to control the Helots. Herodotus attributes this system to the reforms of the legendary Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus.

Athens, by contrast, developed along more democratic lines, in particular after the reforms of the Athenian statesman Cleisthenes, who lived in the late sixth century and (as Herodotus reports) was the grandson and namesake of Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon. The Athenian Cleisthenes was also a member of the influential Alcmaeonid family. His democratic reforms would be expanded upon by his successor Ephialtes, and then by Ephialtes’ protégé, Cleisthenes’ Alcmaeonid relative Pericles, Herodotus perhaps reflects the bias of his Alcmaeonid sources when he endorses democracy as helping promote the Athenians’ remarkable military performance: “so long as they were held down by authority,” he writes, “they deliberately shirked their duty in the field [of battle], as slaves shirk working for their masters; but when freedom was won, then every man amongst them was interested in his own cause” (Histories, p. 369). Modern historians might qualify such enthusiasm by observing that participation in Athens’s democracy was limited to its adult male citizens, and that its prosperity, like Sparta’s and Greece’s generally, relied in large part on the labor of slaves.

Athenian politics from the 460s. Herodotus mentions Pericles by name in his discussion of the Alcmaeonids, and modern scholars believe that the historian relied heavily on Alcmaeonid sources for material pertaining to Athens. If, as they further believe, Herodotus lived in Athens during its golden “Periclean” age, he is likely to have enjoyed the support of Pericles himself, and may even have left Athens in part because of Pericles’ death in 429.

Publication and impact

Many modern historians have concluded that Herodotus composed the Histories specifically for an Athenian audience. The word “audience” is more appropriate in this regard than “readership,” since it is also thought that the work was first “published” not in written form but by being publicly read aloud, in the first instance probably by Herodotus him-self. It is important to recall that Greece in the fifth century bce was still undergoing the transition from an oral culture to a written one, and that a public “readership” still lay at least several decades in the future.

Herodotus’ invention of history was rapidly taken up by the younger Thucydides (c. 455–400 bce), and then by other historians. These subsequent historians followed Herodotus’ example in many respects, perhaps most notably in incorporating full-blown speeches by historical figures into their works, as Herodotus does on many occasions. The accuracy of speeches in ancient historical works has been a subject of debate. Certainly many of them were to some extent made up, as Herodotus’ must also have been.

Ancient historians reacted against what seemed invented, questioning Herodotus’ accuracy and truthfulness. The Greek author Plutarch (c. 50-c. 120 ce) went so far as to call Herodotus “Father of Lies” rather than “Father of History.” Many of Herodotus’ statements and conclusions may be justifiably rejected. According to modern scholars, for example, his estimates of Persian numbers in both invasion forces must have been highly exaggerated. However, recent research—especially in the field of archaeology—has demonstrated that in other cases Herodotus was remarkably accurate.

In contrast with their ancient counterparts, most modern historians have found little reason to question Herodotus’ honesty; they instead tend to praise his candor and diligence. Nevertheless, historians have preferred to follow the model of Thucydides, who disparaged the storytelling in Herodotus’ work and presented himself as more interested in fact than entertainment. Indeed, Thucydides’ “scientific” approach dominated the writing of history until very recently, when historians once again began to acknowledge the validity of the historian’s role as storyteller. This development has substantially enhanced Herodotus’ reputation among modern historians.

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Boardman, John, et al. Greece and ike Hellenistic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Burn, A. R. Persia and the Greeks. 2nd ed. London: Duckworth, 1984.

Fornara, Charles. Herodotus: An Interpretative Essay .Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Gould, John. Herodotus. New York: St. Martin’s, 1989.

Herodotus. The Histories. Trans. Aubrey de Selincourt. Rev. J. Marincola. London: Penguin, 2003.

Lang, Mabel. Herodotean Narrative and Discourse .Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Murray, Oswyn. Early Greece. Glasgow: Fontana Press, 1980.

Thomas, Rosalind. Herodotus in Context: Ethnography, Science and the Art of Persuasion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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