Herodotus (or Ἡρόδοτος), born in Halicarnassus in 484 BC, was one of the most brilliant Greek thinkers of all time and is known worldwide as “The Father of History.”
He took it upon himself to record the history of the Greco-Persian Wars and other notable events of the time not as a dry, rote list of occurrences that were all caused by the gods—as had been done up until that time—but in a systematic way in which eyewitness accounts of those who were present were collated and analyzed using reason.
It seems beyond obvious today that that is the methodology and the goal—at least—of all historians.
However, it took one brilliant man with the foresight to create this mindset and the methodology that was to be used forevermore in the recording of the events of humankind.
Historian Barry S. Strauss writes, regarding on the legacy of Herodotus:
He is simply one of the greatest storytellers who ever wrote. A Greek who lived in the fifth century BC, Herodotus was a pathfinder. He traveled the eastern Mediterranean and beyond to do research into human affairs: from Greece to Persia, from the sands of Egypt to the Scythian steppes, and from the rivers of Lydia to the dry hills of Sparta.
The Greek for “research” is historia, where our word “history” comes from. His work holds up very well when judged by the yardstick of modern scholarship. But he is more than a historian.
He is a philosopher with three great themes: the struggle between East and West, the power of liberty, and the rise and fall of empires. Herodotus takes the reader from the rise of the Persian Empire to its crusade against Greek independence, and from the stirrings of Hellenic self-defense to the beginnings of the overreach that would turn Athens into a new empire of its own.
He goes from the cosmos to the atom, ranging between fate and the gods, on the one hand, and the ability of the individual to make a difference, on the other. And then there is the sheer narrative power of his writing…The old master keeps calling us back.
Cicero dubbed Herodotus “Father of History”
Born in the Greek city of Halicarnassus (present-day Bodrum, Turkey), which was then part of the Persian Empire, the great man has been referred to as “The Father of History” since ancient Roman orator Cicero conferred the title on him.
Before the Persian crisis, Greeks recorded history mostly as part of local or family traditions. The Greco-Persian Wars had afforded Herodotus the first genuinely historical inspiration felt by a Greek person. These conflicts showed him that there was a corporate life, higher than that of the city, of which the story might be told.
In the end, he portrayed the drama of the great collision between East and West. By his genius, the spirit of history was born into Greece.
The nine books of the Histories primarily cover the lives of prominent kings and famous battles which decided the fate of the West, such as Marathon, Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale. Perhaps most interestingly, however, his work departs significantly from the main topics to provide cultural, ethnographical, and geographical background that forms an essential part of the narrative.
While providing readers with a wellspring of additional information, these tales have sometimes caused scoffers to also call Herodotus “The Father of Lies,” when not all of his details meshed with later observation.
History as a systematic synthesis of events
Herodotus, however, did what no one else had even thought to do before in the history of the world—to systematically set down the progression of events as he knew them and to try to give reasons for them.
Herodotus has been criticized for his inclusion of “legends and fanciful accounts” in his work. The later historian Thucydides, who reportedly spoke to Herodotus as a youngster, later accused him of making up stories for entertainment.
In response, Herodotus explained that he reported what he “saw and (what was) told to him.” A sizable portion of the Histories has since been confirmed by modern historians and archaeologists.
The volumes are named after the Greek Muses: Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Urania, and Calliope.
“So that things done by man not be forgotten in time”
In the first paragraph of the first book (of nine volumes) of the Histories, Herodotus writes: “This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time and that great and marvelous deeds—some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians—not lose their glory.”
Modern scholars generally turn to Herodotus’ writings for reliable information about his life, supplemented with much later sources, such as the Byzantine Suda, an 11th-century encyclopedia which most likely took its information from traditional accounts.
The Suda notes that Herodotus’ family was an influential one and that he was the son of Lyxes and Dryo, and had a brother named Theodorus; he was also related to Panyassis, an epic poet of that time.
Since Herodotus was a Persian subject, it is possible that he heard local eyewitness accounts of events within the empire, including Persian preparations for the invasion of Greece—even perhaps the movements of the local fleet under the command of Artemisia I of Caria.
The epic poet Panyassis is reported to have taken part in a failed uprising against the Persians. Herodotus expresses affection for the island of Samos (Book III, 39–60); this is seen by some as an indication that he might have lived there in his youth.
Herodotus wrote his Histories in the Ionian dialect, yet he was born in Halicarnassus, which was a Dorian-speaking city. According to the Suda, Herodotus learned the Ionian dialect as a boy living on the island of Samos, to which he had fled with his family from the oppressions of Lygdamis, the tyrant of Halicarnassus and grandson of Artemisia.
He himself related in the Histories that Halicarnassus had helped pioneer Greek trade with Egypt (Book II, 178). It was, therefore, an international-minded port within the Persian Empire, and the historian’s family may well have had contacts in other countries under Persian rule, facilitating his travels and his research, as well.
Halicarnassus a nexus of international trade, politics
Herodotus’ own eyewitness accounts show that he traveled around Egypt in association with Athenians, most likely sometime after 454 BC, after an Athenian fleet had aided the uprising against Persian rule in 460–454 BC. He traveled to Tyre next and then even went down the Euphrates to the ancient city of Babylon.
The historian became unpopular in Halicarnassus, possibly due to politics, and sometime around 447 BC, he migrated to Athens, under the rule of the great leader Pericles—a city whose people and democratic institutions he openly admired (Book V, 78).
In approximately 443 BC, he migrated to Thurium in modern-day Calabria as part of an Athenian-sponsored colony. Aristotle refers to a version of the Histories written by “Herodotus of Thurium,” and some passages in the Histories have been interpreted as proof that he wrote about southern Italy from personal experience there (Book IV, 15,99; VI, 127).
There is nothing in the Histories that can be dated to later than 430 BC with any certainty, and it is generally assumed that Herodotus died not long afterward, possibly before his sixtieth year of life.
Although it is difficult to imagine in our literate, text-driven world of today, Herodotus would have “published” his Histories through oral recitations of them before the public. Some researchers have indeed noticed that there are some portions of his book that appear to be “performance pieces.”
These parts of the Histories appear to be independent of the work as a whole, leading scholars to theorize that they might have been set aside by the author for the purposes of an oral performance.
During the 5th century BC, orations in which philosophers would dramatically recite such detachable pieces of their work were common occurrences. They were known to criticize previous arguments on a topic and emphatically and enthusiastically insert their own in order to win over the audience.
Proclaiming the Histories aloud to an audience
It was also common for even renowned writers to proclaim their works aloud at popular festivals. According to Lucian, Herodotus took his finished masterpiece straight from Anatolia to the Olympic Games, where he read the entire Histories to the fortunate assembled spectators—in one sitting—deservedly receiving rapturous applause at the end of it.
However, as always happens in the recording of history—and the envious jabs of those who may make up stories to denigrate those who have achieved prominence—stories began to circulate about Herodotus refusing to give such an oration at the festival of Olympia.
His reason for that supposedly was that he was too hot and he wanted to wait until some clouds could offer him a bit of shade. Unfortunately, as the story goes, by that time the assembly had dispersed.
Whether or not this is true, it gave birth to the expression “Herodotus and his shade,” which pokes fun at someone who misses an opportunity through delay.
The Suda states that, as recorded by Photius and Tzetzes, a young Thucydides happened to be in the assembly with his father, and he burst into tears during Herodotus’ recital of his brilliant work. Herodotus then observed prophetically to the boy’s father, “Your son’s soul yearns for knowledge.”
Layer of reason added to 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.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a literary critic of Augustan Rome, wrote about seven predecessors of Herodotus, describing their works as simple, unadorned accounts of their own and other cities and people.
These predecessors included Dionysius of Miletus, Charon of Lampsacus, Hellanicus of Lesbos, Xanthus of Lydia and, the best attested of them all, Hecataeus of Miletus. Of these, only fragments of Hecataeus’s works have survived, and the authenticity of these is debatable.
Dionysus stated that their works also included popular legends, which were sometimes melodramatic and naïve but were often charming.
Interplay of civilizations important for Herodotus
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.
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.
The inclusion of these strange stories and folk-tales in an effort to include all the known information about a culture unfortunately caused some of his contemporary critics to brand him “The Father of Lies.”
It was in Athens where his most formidable critics could be found during his lifetime. In 425 BC, which is about the time Herodotus is thought to have passed away, the Athenian comic dramatist Aristophanes wrote The Acharnians.
This work blames the Peloponnesian War on the abduction of some prostitutes in 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 cruelly dismissed Herodotus as a “logos-writer” (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.
Herodotus, with his frequent diversions into local legends, appeared to minimize (or possibly disguise) this authorial control.
Thucydides also wrote more in keeping with the Greek world-view, with a focus on the context of the polis or city-state. However, it may be due to his birth in Asia Minor that allowed the great historian to include the legends of far-flung ancient peoples that seem a bit fanciful today.
The interplay of civilizations was more relevant to the Greeks who lived in Anatolia, for whom dealing with a foreign civilization was a daily occurrence. They knew there was a world far beyond the tightly-walled city-states of Greece, and believed their stories were worth recording.
It is he, however—not the others who scoffed at his inclusion of these legends—who is remembered even today, almost 2,500 years later, as “The Father of History.”
Herodotus died in 425 BC at the approximate age of sixty; according to the Suda, he was buried in Pella, Macedonia.