Herodotus, the Greek historian known as “The Father of History,” passed on detailed knowledge of the world, or at least as much as was known by ancient Greeks, allowing for the creation of a map containing peoples, lands and geographical features which he himself had written about so long ago.
With Greece at the center of this universe, as per Herodotus’ perspective, we gain a deeper understanding of how the Ancient Greeks viewed the world and their position within it. This applies especially to the Golden Age of Athens when Athens was at the peak of its 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 borders of the contemporary Greek world.
Calling it the “Oikoumene,” or the inhabited world, we can see details of parts of the world well-known to Greeks of the time in contrast to shadowy lands and peoples known only as a result of travelers’ stories. Still, one gains a clear understanding of how Greeks viewed their civilization and others’ lack of civilization, as well.
Layer of reason added to rote recitation of past events, legends
Herodotus’ place in history and his significance is best understood by studying his creation of the methodology of history writing; not only is his work the earliest Greek prose to have survived intact but also contains popular legends of times that were far removed from experience.
These popular legends, which were sometimes melodramatic and naïve, were often charming. At times, they were, in fact, 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. However, a layer of reason, or “gnome” was added to the mix in an effort to explain the intricacies of events. This set Herodotus apart from his predecessors.
Interplay of civilizations important for Herodotus
Herodotus 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 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. These would then all be synthesized with the use of Herodotus’ own gnome, or reason.
Sadly, Herodotus did not create any maps from his personal travels, but 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 more advanced parts of the world as was known at the time, Herodotus devoted much of his “Histories” to the recording of the cataclysmic events of the Greco-Persian Wars, which in the end granted power to Athens thus causing the center of the world to shift 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 only 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 actually were. This would account for Herodotus’ claim that 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 along with the Athenians. He may have come with an Athenian force to help out in revolts against the Persians in 454 BC.
Herodotus then proceeded to the great city of Tyre and down the Euphrates River to the historic city of Babylon. These were, of course, parts of the “civilized” world of the time, but what about those parts and peoples who were on the periphery and whose stories were yet to be told by any historian?
Herodotus was careful to record as much information as possible on those peoples, as well, despite an inability to travel to those areas to verify accuracy.
Herodotus chronicled peoples known as the Androphagi, Agathyrsi, Massagetae, Arippaeans
As seen in the map above, Herodotus recorded the existence of known peoples including Ethiopians, Indians, and the far-flung Celts who lived in what is known today as France. He referred to those peoples as 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 what is now Russia.
The historian noted 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 other races. They neither observe justice nor are governed by any laws. They are nomads, and their dress is Scythian. Further, their language is specific to them. Unlike other nations in these parts, they are cannibals.”
— Histories, Book 4 (Melpomene)
Herodotus has much kinder words for the Agathyrsi (Greek: Ἀγάθυρσοι) who lived 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, produced in 450 BC, Herodotus claims 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,” he writes.
Herodotus also referenced a Pontic Greek myth claiming 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 occurred between 516 and 513 BC. Darius I of Persia reigned between 522and 486 BC against the Scythians in the North Pontic region.
Herodotus writes that “the Scythians, meanwhile, having considered 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 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 referring to the Mongolians based on accounts of their physical description and 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 with the T’ien Shan on the other side just before an impenetrable barrier of mountains called the Eremos.
Herodotus notes, much like Mongolian nomads 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 yurts with thick mats placed over frames that are used by such peoples even to this day.
The “Issedones,” likewise 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 place 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’ work by Athenians showed debt of gratitude
Herodotus recorded what he knew of these various peoples however different their cultures may have been from that of the known world at the time. The ancient Greeks could then make sense of events they may in some way have been affected by and perhaps understand or predict potential external threats.
However, Herodotus also recorded river and mountain range locations with astounding accuracy considering his only sources were verbal accounts. He was undoubtedly responsible for creating a geographical map containing much greater detail and depth of the known world than had ever previously been available.
The later conquests of Alexander the Great and the great scientific discoveries of the Hellenistic Period, with Eratosthenes and others taking great pains to further geographical knowledge, would expand on contemporary knowledge of the world.
Herodotus’ efforts did not go unrewarded or unappreciated even by ancient peoples. In 445 B.C., he was awarded with the equivalent of approximately $200,000 in today’s currency for his 10 talents. It was a way to honor him for contributions to Athen’s intellectual realm.
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. This is the area later known as “Magna Graecia.” Although his days of recording historical events and stories of far-flung peoples were over, his sense of adventure had clearly not waned.
In the end, Herodotus had certainly contributed greatly to knowledge of the world by the simple act of putting information into writing. Indeed, not all his theories could withstand scientific scrutiny, but his significant role in the circulation of knowledge pertaining to ancient peoples, places, and customs, is highly indisputable.