Herodotus (ca. 484 B.C.-ca. 425 B.C.) was the first Greek writer who succeeded in writing a large-scale historical narrative that has survived the passage of time.
In the lifetime of Herodotus the writing of history, and indeed of prose of any sort, was still something of a novelty. The earliest writings in prose had been the work of a group of Greek intellectuals from the Ionian cities of Asia Minor who, from about 550 B.C. onward, wrote works on science and philosophy or on historical subjects. However, at this early date there were as yet few clear-cut distinctions between the various disciplines, and historical writing included much that today would be regarded rather as the concern of the geographer, the anthropologist, or the economist. Herodotus was heir to this tradition, and he was greatly influenced by his few predecessors, and especially by the ablest of them, Hecataeus of Miletus.
Little is known of Herodotus's life beyond what can be deduced from his writings. He was born in 484 B.C., or perhaps a few years earlier, in Halicarnassus, a small Greek city on the coast of Asia Minor. His family was wealthy and perhaps aristocratic, but while he was still quite young they were driven from the city by a tyrant named Lygdamis. Herodotus lived for several years on the island of Samos and at a later date, is said to have returned to Halicarnassus to take part in the overthrow of the tyrant, but he did not remain there.
Herodotus spent several years of his early manhood in unusually extensive traveling. One early trip was to the Black Sea, where he appears to have sailed along both the south and west coasts. Later he went by sea to the coast of Syria, then overland to the ancient city of Babylon, and on his way back he may have traveled through Palestine to Egypt. He certainly visited Egypt at least once, probably after 455 B.C. It is possible that he went on his travels primarily as a trader, for in his writings he shows great interest in the products and methods of transport of the countries he describes, and few Greeks of his generation could have afforded to make such lengthy journeys purely for pleasure. He made excellent use of his opportunities, inquiring everywhere about the customs and traditions of the lands through which he passed and amassing a great store of information of all kinds.
About 450 B.C. Herodotus went to live for a time in Athens. During his stay there he is said to have become a close friend of the poet Sophocles. Another tradition, that he also became intimate with the great Athenian statesman Pericles, is much less reliable. After a time, however, Herodotus migrated to the Athenian colony of Thurii in southern Italy, which remained his home for the rest of his life. The date of his death is uncertain; the latest events he mentions in his writings took place in 430 B.C., and it is usually supposed that he died not long afterward.
The writing of Herodotus's great work, the Histories (the name is simply a transliteration of a Greek word that means primarily "inquiries" or "research"), must have occupied a considerable portion of his later life, but we do not know when, where, or in what order it was written. In its final form it could not have been completed until the last years of his life, but parts were undoubtedly written much earlier, as we are told that he gave public readings from it while he was living in Athens.
It is possible that he originally conceived his subject as being limited to the Persian attack on Greece made in 480, an event of his own boyhood, but in the end it expanded to embrace the whole history of the relations between the Greek world and Persia and the other kingdoms of Asia. The narrative of the Histories starts with the accession of Croesus, the last king of Lydia, and gives an account of his reign, including his conquest of the Asiatic Greeks and his overthrow by the Persian King Cyrus. These events take up the first half of Book I. (The division of the work into nine books is not Herodotus's own but was carried out later by Alexandrian scholars.) In the rest of Book I and the three following books the basic theme is the expansion of the Persian kingdom from the accession of Cyrus to about 500 B.C., but there are also several long digressions on the habits of the Persians and their subjects—the whole of Book II is one enormous digression on the customs and early history of Egypt. There are also several sections devoted to the history of some of the Greek states, and in particular, in a series of digressions, Herodotus gives us what is virtually a continuous history of Athens from 560 B.C. onward.
Books V and VI cover primarily the lonian Revolt (499-494 B.C.) and the subsequent Persian expedition that was defeated by the Athenians at Marathon (490 B.C.), but again there are many digressions on contemporary events in the Greek states. In the last three books the story is rounded off by a detailed account, comparatively free from digressions, of the expedition of Xerxes (480-479 B.C.) and of its wholly unexpected defeat by the Greeks.
In compiling the materials for his Histories Herodotus depended mainly on his own observations, the accounts of eyewitnesses on both sides, and, for earlier events, oral tradition. There was very little in the way of official records available to him, and few written accounts. The results of modern archeological investigations show that he was a remarkably accurate reporter of what he saw himself. But when he depended on others for information, he was not always critical enough in deciding what was reliable and what was not and in making due allowances for the bias of his informants.
Herodotus was particularly uncritical in dealing with military operations, since he had no personal experience of warfare and therefore could not always assess accurately the military plausibility of the stories he heard. At the same time it is clear that he did not always believe what he was told and sometimes related stories of doubtful reliability because it was all he had, or because they were such good stories that he could not resist them. It is also sometimes said that he did not take enough care over matters of chronology, but it was very difficult indeed for anyone to work out and present a detailed and accurate chronological scheme in an age when every little Greek city-state had its own way of counting years and, often, its own calendar of months and days.
Herodotus's chief weakness, however, lies in his often naive analysis of causes, which frequently ascribes events to the personal ambitions or weaknesses of leading men when, as his own narrative makes clear, there were wider political or economic factors at work.
Herodotus wrote, in the Ionic dialect, a fascinating narrative in an attractively simple and easy-flowing style, and he had a remarkable gift for telling a story clearly and dramatically, often with a dry ironic sense of humor; the best of his stories have delighted, and will continue to delight, generations of readers.
But Herodotus was much more than a mere storyteller. He was the first writer successfully to put together a long and involved historical narrative in which the main thread is never completely lost, however far and often he may wander from it. Moreover, he did this with a remarkable degree of detachment, showing hardly any of the Greeks' usual bias against the hereditary enemy, Persia, or of their contempt for barbarian peoples. And if he does not often achieve the depth of understanding of his great successor, Thucydides, his range of interests is much wider, embracing not only politics and warfare but also economics, geography, and the many strange and wonderful ways of mankind. He was the first great European historian, and the skill and honesty with which he built up his complex and generally reliable account and the great literary merit of his writing fully justify the title that has been bestowed on him: "Father of History."
The best short account of Herodotus's life is the one in the "Introduction" to vol. 1 of W. W. How and J. Wells, A Commentary on Herodotus (2 vols., 1912; rev. ed. 1928). Recommended longer accounts are Terrot R. Glover, Herodotus (1924), and the first half of John Linton Myres, Herodotus: Father of History (1953). More specialized is Henry R. Immerwahr, Form and Thought in Herodotus (1967). There is an excellent analysis of some of Herodotus's material in James A. K. Thomson, The Art of the Logos (1935). There are a number of works that deal with the developing art of historiography. Good but rather technical accounts of Herodotus's predecessors are in Lionel Pearson, Early Ionian Historians (1939). Chester G. Starr, The Awakening of the Greek Historical Spirit (1968), gives an interesting account of the early development of Greek historiography. There are useful comments in Arnold W. Gomme, The Greek Attitude to Poetry and History (1954). Herodotus is discussed in studies of classical historiography such as Stephen Usher, The Historians of Greece and Rome (1969), and Michael Grant, The Ancient Historians (1970). For background Aubrey de Selincourt, The World of Herodotus (1962), is lively but lacks depth. Good modern accounts of the period of history that Herodotus covered are in A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire: Achaemenid Period (1948), and A. R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks: The Defence of the West (1962).
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Glover, T. R. (Terrot Reaveley), Herodotus, Freeport, N.Y., Books for Libraries Press, 1969; New York, AMS Press 1969.
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Vandiver, Elizabeth, Heroes in Herodotus: the interaction of myth and history, Frankfurt am Main; New York: P. Lang, 1991.
Waters, Kenneth H., Herodotos on tyrants and despots; a study in objectivity, Wiesbaden, F. Steiner, 1971.
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HERODOTUS. Known as the "Father of History," Herodotus (c. 484–424 B.C.E.) was born on the southwest coast of Asia Minor in Halicarnassus, which was at that time a Greek-speaking city ruled by Artemisia, queen of Caria, under the overlordship of the Persian Empire. Herodotus traveled widely in that empire and in Greece. Eventually, exiled from Halicarnassus, and having spent some years in Athens (where he gave regular readings of his work), he joined the new colony of Thurii in southern Italy, where he died.
Herodotus is the author of the earliest surviving work of history and one of the masterpieces of Greek literature. It is owing to him that the word "history" came to mean what it does: he introduces his book as "the inquiries (historiai ) of Herodotus of Halicarnassus." The usual title in English translations is The Histories. His purpose was to explore the interaction, peaceful and warlike, between Europe (particularly Greece) and Asia (particularly the Persian Empire). Some of his best stories are of kings, but he takes just as much interest in the adventures of differently privileged people—physicians, athletes, merchants, priests, and cooks.
Book 2 of Herodotus's Histories focuses on Egypt (then subject to Persia) and North Africa. Books 1 and 3 include much information on Babylonia, Lydia, and other Persian provinces. Book 4 includes a survey of the peoples of Scythia (the Russian steppes).
One of the means by which Herodotus characterizes peoples is through their food behavior. His descriptions of the Egyptians, Persians, and other highly civilized peoples among whom he had lived are far more nuanced than those of "barbarian" peoples, most of whom he knew only by hearsay. The underlying message to his audience is different in the two cases. He was rightly impressed by the long history of civilization in Egypt and Babylonia and by the efficiency of the Persians: he seems to encourage the reflection that the lifestyle of these peoples is logical in its own terms, sometimes more logical than that of the Greeks, and may have been instrumental in their successes. Barbarian tribes, by contrast, are shown as making stranger and stranger food choices as they recede farther and farther towards the edge of the world, from agriculturalists to pastoral nomads to cannibals.
A structural anthropologist before the term was invented, Herodotus is not one to waste a promising structure. He asserts, and it is likely enough, that if the Persians took a decision while drunk, they made a rule to reconsider it when sober. Few authors between Herodotus and Lévi-Strauss would have dared to add, as Herodotus does, that if the Persians took a decision while sober, they made a rule to reconsider it when they were drunk (Histories, book 1, section 133).
Herodotus is preeminent as a historian of the conflict of cultures. Throughout his work, food behavior is often the focus for sensitive and striking portrayals of culture clash. When Persian ambassadors visited the king of Macedonia, their stupidity in demanding the company of women at dinner, in conflict with local custom, was justly rewarded: the "women" who entered the dining hall were young men in disguise, armed with daggers, and the ambassadors were never heard of again (Histories, book 5, sections 18–20).
See also Africa: North Africa; Greece, Ancient .
Hartog, François. The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. Baltimore and Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954.
Thomas, Rosalind. Herodotus in Context: Ethnography, Science, and the Art of Persuasion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Circa 484-Circa 420 b.c.e .
Acute Observer. Regarded as the “Father of History,” Herodotus wrote the first surviving work of history, a sprawling work essentially on the conflicts between Greeks and Persians, but containing a great deal of discursive material as well. Born in the cosmopolitan city of Halicarnassus on the Carian coast of what is now Turkey, Herodotus left for Samos due to political trouble and may not have returned. He was an inveterate traveller, visiting Egypt, Babylon and Thrace, and was always interested in recording foreign customs and beliefs. He visited Athens and seems to have been well received there: Sophocles wrote a poem for him, and his work left its impact on contemporary drama, both tragic and comic. He was one of the settlers of the panhellenic colony of Thurii in southern Italy (444/443 b.c.e.): events from 430 b.c.e., recorded in his history, give a terminus post quem for his death.
Inquiry. The Greek word historie, with which Herodotus described his work, means “inquiry” rather than “record of past events.” Motivated though he be by an almost Homeric desire to record the great deeds of the Greeks and barbarians, there is no hint of divine inspiration as the source of his History of the Persian Wars (circa late fifth century b.c.e.): the information is hard won, the result of relentless questioning and listening. Often he will not give his opinion on a question, but will record what accounts different sources give: in this respect he differs markedly from his successor Thucydides, but precisely for this reason his writing can be a more useful and transparent source for further investigation than that of the more scientific historian. The digressionary style of the narrative, which is constantly interrupted by entertaining anecdotes, is shown at its most extreme in his long discussion of Egypt in book 2, most of which is at best of tangential relevance to its supposed motivation, the Persian invasion of that country. Furthermore, although he delights in telling of military stratagems, he took no part in the battles he describes and shows no real understanding of warfare—again a contrast with Thucydides. Yet, the comparison, although inevitable, is not really fair: the political and military focus of so much historical writing, starting with the later historian, was clearly not Herodotus’ main interest, and his ethnographical approach, his delight in the diversity and unity of humankind, does simply not allow such a narrow focus. Never afraid to step out of his own field of expertise, he seems to have been occasionally taken in by his guides and informants, and the impression of naivete this leaves is reinforced by a faith in religious phenomena, such as clearly manipulated oracles, which often seems to modern readers (and must have seemed to some of his contemporaries) simple-minded. However, his achievement is impressive when one sees his religious views woven into the whole of his narrative, as for instance when the defeat of the Persian forces is presented as part of a coherent pattern of divine punishment for arrogance.
J. Gould, Herodotus (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989).
J. Redfield, “Herodotus the Tourist,” Classical Philology, 80 (1985): 97-118.