Herodotus of Halicarnassus

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Herodotus of Halicarnassus

(b. Halicarnassus, Caria, Asia Minor, fifth century b.c.; d. Thurii, near the site of Sybaris, southern Italy, 430–420 b.c.)


The word “history” (ιστορίη), which is the actual title of Herodotus’ book, means simply “inquiry.” We have it on Plato’s authority (Phaedo 96a8) that the typical work of pre-Socratic natural philosophers was called “Inquiry About Nature” (περì ϕύσεως ίστορία), and this is confirmed by its use by Heraclitus in discussing Pythagoras (fr. 129). Although Herodotus’ “inquiry” is mainly concerned with narrating and explaining the course of events (that is, with history in the modern sense), it offers much information subjects that would now be classified as geography, ethnography, and anthropology or folklore.

Very little is known about the life of Herodotus, except that he traveled extensively in the known Mediterranean world of his day and eventually settled in Thurii. Apart from Greece and Italy, he visited Scythia, the Bosporus, Egypt, the Euphrates valley, and Babylon. Although he had much to say about Persia, it is likely that he never went there. He collected information not only about events in the recent or early history of the various peoples, but also about their religion, government, economy, and way of life in general, as well as the physical features of their lands.

His work has as its single main theme the conflict between the Greeks and Asiatics, although this theme is interrupted by numerous and sometimes long digressions. He begins with the origins of the enmity between the Greeks and Persians in the kingdom of Lydia, turning then to events in Persia. His account of Persia is broken off several times to describe the countries which came under Persian rule, especially Egypt (book 2) and Scythia (book 4). The second half of his work is a more continuous narrative of the events leading up to the defeat of the Persians by the Greeks in 480–479 b.c.

Herodotus had some merits as a researcher. He knew the value of autopsy and of direct firsthand information, and he could recognize a biased witness. He frequently gives alternative versions of an incident and ostentatiously puts it to the reader to choose between them: “My business is to record what people say, but I am by no means bound to believe it” (A. de Selincourt trans., 7.152). He is skeptical of some of the more extravagant stories that he hears, and he is astonishingly free from antibarbarian prejudice.

But Herodotus” critical powers were limited. In foreign countries he was plainly dependent on interpreters, and he did not always choose his informants well. There are many instances where he failed to find the truth, although more diligent inquiries might have revealed it. His travels were fairly cautious and comfortable—he was no great explorer. He tells us little that is useful about contemporary science or technology, and his pyschological insight into character was elementary.

It is interesting that whereas Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Empedocles retained the Homeric epic verse form for their innovating “inquiries about nature,” Herodotus wrote a prose narrative to preserve “the great and marvellous things done among both Greeks and barbarians” (1.1), and, as Longinus said (13.3), remained close to Homer in spirit.


The text of Herodotus’ History is examined by C. Hude in Herodoti Historiae, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1927). Translations of the work include A. D. Godley, ed., Herodotus (London-Cambridge, 1921), with original text; G. Rawlinson, History of Herodotus (1858); and A. de Selincourt, Herodotus: The Histories (Harmondsworth, 1954). For an index of Greek words with their English translations, see J. Enoch Powell,A Lexicon to Herodotus (Cambridge, 1938).

A bibliographic survey is provided by P. MacKendrick, in Classical Weekly, 47 (1954). 145–152, and in Classical World, 56 (1963), 269–275.

David J. Furley