The Greek researcher and storyteller Herodotus of Halicarnassus(fifth century BCE) was the world’s first historian. In The Histories, he describes the expansion of the Achaemenid empire under its kingsCyrus the Great, Cambyses and Darius I the Great, culminating in kingXerxes’ expedition in 480 BCE against the Greeks, which met with disaster in the naval engagement at Salamis and the battles at Plataeaand Mycale. Herodotus’ remarkable book also contains excellent ethnographic descriptions of the peoples that the Persians have conquered, fairy tales, gossip, legends, and a very humanitarian morale. (A summary with some historical comments can be found here.)
This is the first part of an article in eight pieces.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus hereby publishes the results of his inquiries, hoping to do two things: to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of the Greek and the non-Greek peoples; and more particularly, to show how the two races came into conflict.
These are the confident opening lines of Herodotus’ Histories, and the Greeks who heard them must have been surprised. Preserving the memory of the past by putting on record certain astonishing achievements was not unusual, but the bards who had been singing legendary tales had been less pretentious. Even the great poet Homerhad started his Iliad in a more modest way:
Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles, that brought endless harm upon the Greeks. Many brave men did it send down to the Underworld, and many heroes did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures. In this way, the counsels of Zeus were fulfilled, from the day on which Agamemnon -king of men- and great Achilles first fell out with one another. And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel?
The similarity between these two prologues is obvious: we are about to hear a tale about a terrible conflict and the speaker wants us to understand how the two sides came into conflict. The difference is striking, too: Homer invites a goddess to relate the story; Herodotus does not need divine aid. Who was this man, who so proudly gave his personal opinion about the past?
Not much is known about Herodotus’ life. The only reliable source we have is the book he wrote, known as The Histories, and this remarkable text gives us some clues that enable us to sketch the outlines of its writer’s life. As its prologue shows, Herodotus was born in a town called Halicarnassus: modern Bodrum in southwestern Turkey. Not far from Herodotus’ native city is the island Samos, which figures so prominently in The Histories, that it has been argued that Herodotus spent several years on it. The same argument applies to Athens: Herodotus may have spent some time in the leading Greek city of his age.
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The theater and acropolis of Halicarnassus. Photo Marco Prins.
Halicarnassus / Bodrum
It is unknown when or why he left his home town. Two or three centuries after Herodotus’ death, scholars from Alexandria assumed that the historian was banished because he had been involved in an abortive coup attempt. Unfortunately, there are many ancient historians who were forced to spend part of their lives abroad after a political failure (e.g., Thucydides, Theopompus of Chios, Timaeus, and Polybius of Megalopolis). Probably, it is safer to ignore this piece of scholarly speculation.
The famous Macedonian philosopher Aristotle of Stagira (384-322 BCE) must have heard or read The Histories. In his book on Rhetorics, he quotes its first line:
Herodotus of Thurii hereby publishes the results of his inquiries…
An easy way to explain this variant reading of Herodotus’ opening line is that Aristotle was simply mistaken. However, the philosopher’s infallibility has been axiomatic for centuries, and many scholars -ancient and modern- have tended to believe that Herodotus was one of the settlers in the South-Italian city Thurii, which was founded in 444 BCE. A medieval dictionary, the Suda, mentions Herodotus’ tomb on the market of Thurii (Suda H536); this was a high honor, only attributed to the (often legendary) founders of new cities. Of course it is possible that Herodotus was the founder of Thurii, but probably we are better advised to take the Suda’s statement with a grain of salt, especially since Athens and Pella (in Macedonia) also claimed his tomb. It is imaginable that the Thurians have invented theirs after reading Aristotle.
The year of Herodotus’ death is unknown, but we have two clues. In section 137 of Book Seven of The Histories the execution of two Spartans in Athens is mentioned. From another source, The history of the Peloponnesian War by the Athenian historian Thucydides (2.67), it is known that the two were killed in the winter of 430/429 BCE. Therefore, Herodotus was still alive and writing in 429. Since it is also known that in the summer of 429 many Athenians were killed by the plague, it may be conjectured that Herodotus was one of the victims of this disease. However this may be, he must have died before 413, because he tells (Book Nine, section 73) that a certain village in the neighborhood of Athens, Decelea, was never plundered by the Spartans, something that did in fact happen in 413, as Thucydides tells us (6.93)
Assuming that Herodotus died between 429 and 413, it is reasonable to infer that he was born between 500 and 470. Perhaps we can be a little bit more precise: nowhere in The Histories does he claim to have witnessed the great Persian War (480-479 BC) that he is describing. Therefore, his date of birth can be estimated in the eighties of the fifth century BC.
The author of The Histories seems to have been a real globetrotter. If we are to believe him, he was no stranger in Babylon, where he interviewed the priests; he claims to have gone north to the Crimea and south along the Nile; he visited Sicily and knows the details of North-African topography. However, some doubts are possible: e.g., his description of Babylon is contradicted by archaeological evidence (see below). On the other hand, in his description of the Crimea, he mentions a king known to have lived around 460, which makes it likely that he really visited that part of the world.
That he was able to write, is a fact easily ignored. However, it tells us that his parents could afford a teacher and were well to do. Herodotus must have been a rich man, possibly a member of the old aristocracy. We may speculate that he fought as a heavy armored infantryman (a hoplite), like all Greek men of his class and age. This would explain why his descriptions of battles are always from a soldier’s point of view and sometimes confused. He was a soldier, not a general.
This is all we know about the Father of History: frustratingly little. Yet, there are only a few ancient writers that we know as well as Herodotus. Other authors wrote longer texts, were greater historians, or reached greater intellectual heights, but none of them is able to convey the same feeling of intimate friendship that we experience when we read Herodotus. We meet him when he is in a dark mood, share his surprise, know his religious opinions, hear him chattering, joking and babbling. There is no ancient author whose character we know so well as the man about whose life we know so little. The solution to this paradox lies in The Histories.
Today, The Histories are usually edited in one volume. In Antiquity, nine scrolls were needed to contain the entire text, and it is still usual to divide The Histories into nine ‘books’. As the Italian classicist Silvana Cagnazzi has pointed out, it is possible to subdivide every ‘book’ into three units, the logoi (overview). When a person reads one of these logoi to an audience, he or she needs about four hours, and it is likely that this is how Herodotus first ‘published’ the results of his inquiries: as a lecture. This idea corroborates an ancient story that he used to recite his work. (On one occasion, a boy started to cry: the future historian Thucydides, who was deeply moved by Herodotus’ narrative.)
It is likely that at one point Herodotus decided to collect his logoi in one continuous text. But now he faced a serious problem. His logoi were about very dissimilar subjects -e.g., a description of Egypt, a logos about Scythian customs, and a narrative about Persian diplomacy in the winter of 480/479- and it was likely that this collection of logoi would become a messy whole. Herodotus has recognized this problem, and decided to group everything around one single theme: the expansion of the Achaemenid (or Persian) empire between 550 and 479. Lectures on topography and ethnography now became integrated chapters of a historical chronicle.
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Homer. Glyptothek, M�nchen (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Homer (Glyptothek, Munich)
Stories about the past were something that the Greeks primarily knew from the beautiful epic poems of Homer, who had sung about the valiant deeds of past heroes in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Herodotus was heavily influenced by this example. Sometimes he quotes the legendary bard; or he uses words that any Greek would have recognized as homeric. The Iliad contains a catalogue of nations that took part in the Trojan War; in Book Three, Herodotus sums up all Persian provinces, and in Book Seven, he inserts a list of troops that took part in Xerxes’ expedition to Greece. Sometimes, Herodotus copies scenes from Homer. In his description of the Battle of Thermopylae, he tells how the Spartans and Persians fought about the body of Leonidas. This is impossible in a hoplite-battle (the type of warfare Herodotus is describes) but echoes a scene from the Iliad in which the Greeks and Trojans fight about the body of the hero Patroclus.
A very important borrowing from Homer is the circular composition. More than a hundred times, Herodotus interrupts his narrative to digress on a subject. The longest digression is Book Two: Herodotus announces that the Persian king Cambyses wanted to conquer Egypt, and then begins to talk about the geography, the customs and the history of the ancient country along the Nile. Finally, at the beginning of Book Three, Herodotus resumes his narrative and describes the Persian invasion.
The digressions belong to the most entertaining parts of the Histories. For example, we read an interview with an employee of an Egyptian mummy factory, an astonishing anecdote about the first circumnavigation of Africa, a hilarious tale about Indian goldmining, a report about the sources of the Nile and the Danube (see below), a reconstruction of the language of the prehistoric Greeks, a cautionary tale about deposits, and lots more.
Modern bust of Herodotus, Bodrum (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering.
Modern bust of Herodotus, near the Museum of Bodrum
A final point of similarity between Herodotus and Homer is the impartiality of the narrative: Homer’s heroes are the Greeks, but his Trojans are no villains, and in the same way Herodotus portrays his Greeks and Persians – he treats both parties without partiality or hatred, but with genuine sympathy. It is interesting to compare this with the historiographical texts from the oriental monarchies: the Persian shah -e.g., the Behistun inscription- and the Egyptian pharaoh leave no doubt about the wickedness of their opponents.
But Herodotus is more than just a pupil of Homer who added geographical and ethnographical bits and pieces to his unbiased epic tale. A first difference is that Homer was a poet using a complex meter, whereas Herodotus composed his logoi in prose. But the greatest difference is the fact that Herodotus was a real researcher, an empiricist. (In fifth century BC Greek, the word historia still meant ‘research’; it was Herodotus’ achievement that the meaning of the word changed.) He traveled a lot in order to investigate the cities and opinions of man. Where Homer claimed to be speaking the truth depended on his inspiration from the muses, Herodotus based his narrative on research. It is a tribute to the quality of Herodotus’ geographical descriptions that the works of his predecessors are now lost.
As a corollary of Herodotus’ empiricist method, he is interested in the recent past. Homer had told about distant, legendary antiquities; Herodotus was interested in events that were in living memory and could be verified. For example, he seems to have interviewed the survivors of the Battle of Marathon. Admittedly, interviews are an unreliable source, but it must be said that Herodotus did a remarkable job: when we can check The Histories, it often turns out to be trustworthy. Even though Herodotus makes some serious mistakes, he managed to give a pretty accurate description of the century before his birth.
As it turned out, Herodotus invented a new literary genre: history. He did so by integrating the results of empiricist ethnographic and topographic research into epic, and writing this in prose. This combination was revolutionary.
Thucydides. Mosaic from Jerash, now in the Altes Museum Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. Thucydides; mosaic from Jerash (Altes Museum, Berlin)
It is odd that he was hardly appreciated in Antiquity. People admired his entertaining way of telling stories, but they did not believe them. The first to criticize the Father of History was Thucydides, who rejected Herodotus’ religious explanation of what was happening (below). In later times, nobody dared to believe what Herodotus told about strange customs. For almost two thousand years, people considered him just a teller of (excellent) tales and thought that all these strange customs were merely inventions. His never ending stream of tall, short and winding tales earned him -as Salman Rushdie would say- not one but two nicknames: to some, he was the Father of History, but to others, he was the Father of Lies. Only when, after the discovery of the Americas, the Europeans learned to know the customs of hitherto unknown people, the reappreciation of Herodotus started. But even today, many of his claims are the subject of debate.