Herodotus, the Greek historian who is known as “The Father of History,” gave the world such detailed knowledge of the world as it was known to the ancient Greeks that we can create a map showing all the peoples, the lands and the geographical features that he wrote about so long ago.
With Greece as the center of this universe, according to his worldview, we can get a better understanding of how the ancient Greeks viewed the world and their place in it, especially during the Golden Age of Athens, at the time of its greatest power.
Born into a family in Halicarnassus, in Asia Minor, at a time when the Persian Empire ruled the land, Herodotus had connections to the East that enabled him to travel to the boundaries of the Greek world at that time.
Calling it the “Oikoumene,” or the inhabited world, we can see details of the parts of the world that were known very well to the Greeks of the time — and those shadowy lands and peoples which were known only as a result of travelers’ stories. Still, they paint a vivid picture of how the Greeks saw their civilization – and perhaps viewed the lack of civilization of others at the time.
Layer of reason added to rote recitation of past events, legends
Herodotus’ place in history and his significance may be understood by realizing how he created the methodology of writing history; not only is his work the earliest Greek prose to have survived intact, but it contains popular legends of times that were far removed from experience.
These popular legends, which were sometimes melodramatic and naïve, were often charming. Sometimes they were complete fabrications of peoples who were seen as living beyond the boundaries of the civilized world.
These can also can be found in the work of Herodotus himself — but he added a layer of reason, or “gnome,” to the mix, in an effort to explain the whys and wherefores of events. This was what set Herodotus apart from this predecessors.
Interplay of civilizations important for Herodotus
He used several different techniques in presenting history as it played out, as embodied in the concept called “autopsy,” or seeing for oneself. He was the first to examine the past by combining the different types of evidence he collected. The first element of that technique was relating eyewitness accounts of events, or “opsis.” Next he would use “akoe,” or hearsay, added to “talegomena,” legends and traditions; but would then synthesize all of these with the use of his own gnome, or reason.
Although, sadly, Herodotus did not make any maps from his own travels, as far as we know, his efforts built upon the histories that had been compiled earlier by Anaximander and Hecataeus. Through his seminal work, known as “The Histories,” the world was given the most comprehensive understanding of all the known events, peoples and places of the world at the time.
Beginning in the more advanced parts of the world as it was known at the time, Herodotus spent much of his Histories recording the cataclysmic events of the Greco-Persian Wars, which in the end gave power to Athens, making the center of the world tilt ever westward.
King Darius I of Persia founded the ceremonial city of Persepolis in about 515 BC, turning the focus of antique civilization toward Persia for some time.
The stability he fostered in his Empire would be shattered in the year 499 BC as the Ionian Greeks revolted against his rule. Eventually, the great fighting forces of Persia defeated the Greeks; but that wasn’t the end of their troubles.
Remembering how the Athenians had supported the revolt, he ordered an invasion of the Greek mainland to punish the upstart city. After the Persian Army was vanquished at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC, the emperor’s son Xerxes took over the campaign against the Greeks, invading Greece in 479 BC — when Herodotus was six years old.
Many believe that the great historian saw the assembled armies and naval forces as they embarked on their campaign in his native city of Halicarnassus, causing him to remember the numbers of men as perhaps even larger than they were — which would account for the fact that Herodotus said there were “six million” men in Xerxes’ invasion force.
Herodotus’ journeys begin with Egyptian revolt
Eventually, after successfully repulsing the Persians, Athens would emerge as one of the greatest of all Greek cities, becoming the nexus of a great naval empire of its own.
In chronicling the events and peoples of the world after the Wars concluded, Herodotus appears to have traveled to Egypt first, together with the Athenians. He may have come with an Athenian force going there to help out in a revolt against the Persians in 454 BC.
Herodotus then went to the great city of Tyre and down the Euphrates River to the historic city of Babylon. These were, of course, part of the “civilized” world of the time; what about those parts and peoples who were on the periphery, whose stories were yet to be told by any historian?
Herodotus made careful note to record whatever he heard about them as well, even if he had no way of traveling quite that far afield to verify their veracity.
Herodotus chronicled peoples known as the Androphagi, Agathyrsi, Massagetae, Arippaeans
As we can see from the map above, he recorded the existence of already-known peoples including the Ethiopians, and Indians but also far-flung peoples such as the Celts, who lived in what is now France, and those he called the Androphagi (Ancient Greek: Ἀνδροφάγοι, cannibals, literally “man-eaters”).
These apparently fearsome individuals lived some distance north of Scythia in an area later believed to be the forests between the upper waters of the Dnepr and the Don rivers, in wha tis now Russia.
The historian wrote that when King Darius the Great led a Persian invasion into Scythian territory in what is now Southern Russia, the Androphagi fled when the warring armies passed through their territory.
“The manners of the Androphagi are more savage than those of any other race. They neither observe justice, nor are governed, by any laws. They are nomads, and their dress is Scythian; but the language which they speak is peculiar to themselves. Unlike any other nation in these parts, they are cannibals.”
— Histories, Book 4 (Melpomene)
But he has much kinder words for the Agathyrsi (Greek: Ἀγάθυρσοι) who lived due north of Greece. These people were of Scythian, or mixed Dacian-Scythian origin. In the time of Herodotus, they occupied the plain of the Maris (Mureș), in the mountainous part of ancient Dacia now known as Transylvania in present-day Romania.
Their ruling class, however, seems to have been of Scythian origin.
In his writing, which took place in 450 BC, he says the Agathyrsi lived in Transylvania and the outer parts of Scythia, near the Neuri.
“From the country of the Agathyrsoi comes down another river, the Maris (Mureș), which empties itself into the same; and from the heights of Haemus descend with a northern course three mighty streams, the Atlas, the Auras, and the Tibisis, and pour their waters into it.”
Herodotus also recorded a Pontic Greek myth that the Agathyrsi were named after a legendary ancestor, Agathyrsus, the oldest son of Heracles and the monster Echidna.
The Agathyrsi also appear in Herodotus’ description of the historical expedition, which went on from 516–513 BC, of Darius I of Persia, who reigned from 522–486 BC, against the Scythians in the North Pontic region.
“The Scythians meanwhile, having considered with themselves that they were not able to repel the army of Dareios alone by a pitched battle, proceeded to send messengers to those who dwelt near them: and already the kings of these nations had come together and were taking counsel with one another, since so great an army was marching towards them. Now those who had come together were the kings of the Tauroi, Agathyrsoi, Neuroi, Androphagoi, Melanchlainoi, Gelonians, Budinoi and Sauromatai.”
Others, referred to as the Massagetae, were a mighty nomadic tribe thought to be Scythians already by Herodotus; they settled somewhere in the wide lowlands to the east of the Caspian Sea and the southeast of the Aral Sea.
Living on the Ust-Urt Plateau and the Kyzylkum Desert, most likely between the Oxus (Āmū Daryā) and Jaxartes (Syr Daryā) rivers, their existence was marked by the great historian as being on the bounds of the known world at the time.
Asian peoples lived in yurts made of “thick white felt”
The Argippaeans or Argippaei are another people mentioned by Herodotus in The Histories. Some scholars believe they were actually Mongolians, as they were said to be living north of the Scythians and much of the scholarship points to them being a tribe near the Ural Mountains. There are scholars who believe that Herodotus could be talking about the Mongolians based on their physical description as well as their culture.
Herodotus only relied on secondary sources for his account, drawing from descriptions of Greeks and Scythians. They were said to have settled in a land that is flat and deep-soiled. This was believed to be in the outliers of the Altai mountains while the T’ien Shan lies on the other side, just before an impenetrable barrier of mountains called the Eremos.
Herodotus notes, much like Mongolian nomads do even today, “Each of them dwells under a tree, and they cover the tree in winter with a cloth of thick white felt.” Of course, this brings to mind the yurts that are used by such peoples even now, with thick mats placed felt over frames.
The “Issedones,” likewise from what we call Asia today, are thought to have lived in Western Siberia or Chinese Turkestan. Some scholars speculate that they are the people described in Chinese sources as the Wusun while others places them further northeast, on the south-western slopes of the Altay mountains.
According to Herodotus, the Issedones practiced ritual cannibalism of their elderly males, followed by a ritual feast at which the deceased patriarch’s family ate his flesh, gilded his skull, and placed it in a position of honor much like a cult image.
Appreciation of Herodotus’ life’s work by Athenians showed debt of gratitude
Herodotus recorded what he knew of these peoples, however different their cultures may have been from that of the known world at the time, so that the ancient Greeks could make sense of what was going on around them and perhaps to understand any threats that they may have faced from them in the future.
But he also recorded the location of all known rivers and mountain ranges with astounding accuracy, considering he only had verbal descriptions to go by.
Herodotus was responsible for creating a geographical map of the known world through his stories, which represents far more detail than had been known prior to that time.
Later, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the dawning of the great scientific discoveries of the Hellenistic age, with Eratosthenes and others taking great pains to enlarge upon geographical knowledge, would of course make the known world a much larger place.
But his astounding efforts did not go unrewarded or unappreciated.
In 445 B.C., the people of Athens voted to give him a prize of 10 talents — equivalent to almost $200,000 today — as a way to honor him for his contributions to the city’s intellectual life.
Toward the very end of his incredible life, the great historian took part in a colonization effort of what is now southern Italy, in an Athenian-sponsored colony called Thurium, in the area which later came to be known as “Magna Graecia.” Although his days of writing down historical events and recording the stories of far-flung peoples was over, his sense of adventure clearly was not.
In the end, he indeed had contributed greatly to the knowledge of the world. Although surely not all his facts could stand up to scrutiny today, he shared what he had heard so that the knowledge of these ancient peoples, places and customs, would not vanish from the face of the Earth.