About Herodotus Ἡρόδοτος
Herodotus "Father of History"
Herodotus (Greek: Ἡρόδοτος Hēródotos) was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria (modern day Bodrum, Turkey) and lived in the 5th century BC (c. 484 BC – c. 425 BC). He has been called the "Father of History" since he was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative. The Histories — his masterpiece and the only work he is known to have produced — is a record of his "inquiry" (or ἱστορία historía, a word that passed into Latin and took on its modern meaning of history), being an investigation of the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars and including a wealth of geographical and ethnographical information. Although some of his stories were not completely accurate, he claimed that he was reporting only what had been told to him. Little is known of his personal history since ancient records are scanty, contradictory and often fanciful.
The Histories (Herodotus)
The Histories, otherwise known as The Researches or The Inquiries, were divided by Alexandrian editors into nine books, named after the nine Muses - the "Muse of History," Clio, representing the first book, followed by Euterpe, Thaleia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Ourania and Calliope for books 2-9 respectively. At its simplest and broadest level of meaning, The Histories is structured as a dynastic history of four Persian kings:
- Cyrus, 557-530 BCE: Book 1;
- Cambyses, 530-522 BCE: Book 2 and part of Book 3;
- Darius, 521-486 BCE: the rest of Book 3 then Books 4,5,6;0
- Xerxes, 486-479 BCE: Books 7, 8, 9.
Within this basic structure, the author traces the way the Persians developed a custom of conquest and shows how their habits of thinking about the world finally brought about their downfall in Greece. Some commentators have argued that the story of the first three kings must have been originally planned as a history of Persia and that the story of Xerxes, later added to it, is instead a history of the Persian Wars. Whatever the original plan might have been, the larger, historical account is often merely a background to a broad range of inquiries and, as Herodotus himself observes, "Digressions are part of my plan." (Book 4, 30) The digressions can be understood to cover two themes: an account of the history of the entire, known world as governed by the principle of reciprocity (or what today might be more commonly called an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and one good turn deserves another); and an account of the many astonishing reports and sights gained by the author during his extensive travels. The reader is thus presented with a diversity of human experiences and settings within the context of an over-arching historical order. The narrative structure allows for this diversity through simple stylistic devices such as the principle of ring composition, familiar since the time of Homer, in which the introduction and conclusion of a story or sub-plot is signalled by the repetition of some formulaic statement, facilitating the reader's comprehension of stories within stories in a kind of 'Chinese-box technique' - a structure that has no resemblance to the nine books artificially created by Alexandrian scholars. Herodotus's method of enquiry in fact presents a world where everything is potentially important - this at a time when philosophers increasingly sought to understand the world according to basic principles. The work in fact was something of an anachronism. Yet those who didn't appreciate it as model of history could still admire the style of writing - thus Dionysius of Halicarnassus praises its sweetness and charm (De Thuc. 23). Herodotus employs a deceptively simple, narrative style, in which the original Greek is Ionian in dialect, including however some Homeric and other forms.
His place in history
His statue in Bodrum, ancient Halicarnassus. He has been called "The Father of History" (first conferred by Cicero) and "The Father of Lies". As these epithets imply, there has long been a debate—at least from the time of Cicero's On the Laws (Book 1, paragraph 5)—concerning the veracity of his tales and, more importantly, the extent to which he knew himself to be creating fabrications.
Herodotus announced the size and scope of his work at the very beginning of his Researches or Histories:
Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε, ὡς μήτε τὰ γενόμενα ἐξ ἀνθρώπων τῷ χρόνῳ ἐξίτηλα γένηται, μήτε ἔργα μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά, τὰ μὲν Ἕλλησι, τὰ δὲ βαρβάροισι ἀποδεχθέντα, ἀκλεᾶ γένηται, τὰ τε ἄλλα καὶ δι' ἣν αἰτίην ἐπολέμησαν ἀλλήλοισι.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus, his Researches are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples; and more particularly, to show how they came into conflict.
The extent of his own achievement has been debated ever since. His place in history and his significance may be understood according to the traditions within which he worked. His work is the earliest Greek prose to have survived intact. However, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a literary critic of Augustan Rome, listed seven predecessors of Herodotus, describing their works as simple, unadorned accounts of their own and other cities and people, Greek or foreign, including popular legends, sometimes melodramatic and naive, often charming - all traits that can be found in the work of Herodotus himself. Modern historians regard the chronology as uncertain but, according to the ancient account, these predecessors included for example Dionysius of Miletus, Charon of Lampsacus, Hellanicus of Lesbos, Xanthus of Lydia and, the best attested of them all, Hecataeus of Miletus. Only fragments of the latter's work survive (and the authenticity of these is debatable) yet they allow us glimpses into the kind of tradition within which Herodotus wrote his own Histories, as for example in the introduction to Hecataeus's work, Genealogies:
Hecataeus the Milesian speaks thus: I write these things as they seem true to me; for the stories told by the Greeks are various and in my opinion absurd.
This clearly points forward to the 'folksy' yet 'international' outlook typical of Herodotus and yet one modern scholar, reading between the lines, has described the work of Hecataeus as "a curious false start to history" because, in spite of its critical spirit, it still failed to liberate history from myth. Herodotus actually mentions Hecataeus in his Histories, on one occasion mocking him for his naive genealogy and, on another occasion, quoting Athenian complaints against his handling of their national history. It is possible that Herodotus borrowed a lot of material from Hecataeus, as stated by Porphyry in a quote recorded by Eusebius - in particular, it is possible that he copied descriptions of the crocodile, hippopotamus and phoenix from Hecataeus's 'Circumnavigation of the Known World' (Periegesis/Periodos ges), even mis-representing the source as 'Heliopolitans' (Histories 2.73). Unlike Herodotus, however, Hecataeus did not record events that had occurred within living memory, nor did he include the oral traditions of Greek history within the larger framework of oriental history. There is in fact no proof that Herodotus derived the ambitious scope of his own work, with its grand theme of civilizations in conflict, from any predecessor, known or unknown, despite a lot of scholarly speculation about this in modern times. Herodotus claims to be better informed than his predecessors, relying on empirical observation to correct their excessive schematism - thus for instance, he argues for continental asymmetry as opposed to the older theory of a perfectly circular earth with Europe and Asia/Africa equal in size (Hist. 4.36 and 4.42). However, he himself retains idealising tendencies, as in his symmetrical notions of the Danube and Nile.
His debt to previous authors of prose 'histories' might be questionable but there is no doubt that he owed much to the example and inspiration of poets and story-tellers. Athenian tragic poets for example provided him with a world-view of a balance between conflicting forces, upset by the hubris of kings, and they provided his narrative with a model of episodic structure. His familiarity with Athenian tragedy is demonstrated, for example, in a number of passages echoing Aeschylus's Persae, including the epigramatic observation that the defeat of the Persian navy at Salamis caused the defeat of the land army (Hist. 8.68 ~ Persae 728). The debt may have been repaid by Sophocles since there appear to be echoes of The Histories in his plays, especially a passage in Antigone that resembles Herodotus's account of the death of Intaphernes (Histories 3.119 ~ Antigone 904-20) - this however is one of the most contentious issues in modern scholarship.
Homer was another inspirational source.
"In the scheme and plan of his work, in the arrangement and order of its parts, in the tone and character of the thoughts, in ten thousand little expressions and words, the Homeric student appears." - George Rawlinson
Just as Homer drew extensively on a tradition of oral poetry, sung by wandering minstrels, so Herodotus appears to have drawn on an Ionian tradition of story-telling, collecting and interpreting the oral histories he chanced upon in his travels. These oral histories often contained folk-tale motifs and demonstrated a moral, yet they also contained substantial facts relating to geography, anthropology and history, all compiled by Herodotus in an entertaining style and format. It is on account of the many strange stories and the folk-tales he reported that his critics in early modern times branded him 'The Father of Lies'. Even his own contemporaries found reason to scoff at his achievement. In fact one modern scholar has wondered if Herodotus left his home in Asiatic Greece, migrating westwards to Athens and beyond, because his own countrymen had ridiculed his work, a circumstance possibly hinted at in an epitaph said to have been dedicated to Herodotus at Thuria (one of his three supposed resting places):
Herodotus the son of Lyxes here Lies; in Ionic history without peer; A Dorian born, who fled from Slander's brand And made in Thuria his new native land.
Yet it was in Athens where his most formidable contemporary critics could be found. In 425 BC, which is about the time that Herodotus is thought by many scholars to have died, the Athenian comic dramatist, Aristophanes, produced The Acharnians, in which he blames The Peloponnesian War on the abduction of some prostitutes - a mocking reference to Herodotus, who reported the Persians' account of their wars with Greece, beginning with the rapes of the mythical heroines Io, Europa, Medea and Helen. Similarly, the Athenian historian Thucydides dismissed Herodotus as a 'logos-writer' or story-teller. Thucydides, who had been trained in rhetoric, became the model for subsequent prose-writers as an author who seeks to appear firmly in control of his material, whereas Herodotus with his frequent digressions appeared to minimize (or possibly disguise) his authorial control. Moreover, Thucydides developed a historical topic more in keeping with the Greek lifestyle - the polis or city-state - whereas the interplay of civilizations was more relevant to Asiatic Greeks (such as Herodotus himself), for whom life under foreign rule was a recent memory.
Although The Histories were often criticized in antiquity for bias, inaccuracy and plagiarism — Lucian of Samosata attacked Herodotus as a liar in Verae Historiae and went as far as to deny him a place among the famous on the Island of the Blessed — modern historians and philosophers take a more positive view of Herodotus's methodology, especially those searching for a paradigm of objective historical writing. A few modern scholars have argued that Herodotus exaggerated the extent of his travels and invented his sources yet his reputation continues largely intact: "The Father of History is also the father of comparative anthropology", "the father of ethnography" and he is "more modern than any other ancient historian in his approach to the ideal of total history."