Herodotus - the father of history
'(Herodotus) The man that invented history'.
The Roman writer Marcus Tullius Cicero 106 B.C. to 43 B.C.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus was an ancient historian who lived in the 5th century BC. He is famous for his writings, called 'The Histories of Herodotus published between 430 BC and 424 BC, on the conflict between Greece and Persia, as well as the descriptions he wrote of different places and people he met on his travels.
As opposed to history known of before his work, which dealt with gods and myths outside the realms of human experiences, Herodotus took a the new approach and wrote on known events of the past and attempts to explain the causes of those events. He did this by interviewing eyewitness, and family members of those that were there, scrutinising documents, and dealing with government officials. This might seem to us logical and nothing new, but in Herodotus' time this was a revolutionary way of recording history. Some events he wrote in his works are the only historical source that exists today. An example of this is in his work he says that the Persian king Daris ordered that a canal be cut through Mt Athos. It was thought for over a thousand years that Herodotus was fanciful in his writings and that he was mistaken in this account and that those works had never been done, as the scale of work needed to accomplish this feat was enormous. It was only with the aid of satellite imaging of the 20th century that in the Mt Athos region the remnants of a canal cut into the landscape still remain, that Herodotus' account was vindicated and judged to be infact true.
Herodotus' native city was Halicarnassus, a Dorian city in south-west Asia Minor, the city was culturally Greek, religiously and verbally and he identifying himself as a Hellene. Ancient tradition, which was written centuries after his death, tells us that he was born c484 BC and probably died sometime in the c420's BC, but we don't have exact dates on his birth or his death.
He was exiled at one point to the island of Samos, probably for taking part in an uprising against the Halicarnassus tyrant Lygdamis. It is assumed that this is the reason why Herodotus began his travels, as he says in his work that 'he travelled widely'. It is thought that through these travels he sourced the information that he used to write his works.
His extensive travels took him to Egypt, Syria, probably Babylon, parts of Thrace and the coasts of the Black Sea. He spent some time in Samos and he undertook journey in European Greece, where he probably made Athens his base.
At some point it is quite clear that he lived and worked in Athens for some period of time. His descriptions of Athens in the 'Histories' are so detailed they are clearly descriptions of somebody that knows the city of Athens intimately. There is a ancient tradition as well that in Athens he knew the playwright Sophocles, but this can not be confirmed.
He moved to the Greek colony of Thurii and died there. If he moved there as one of the founders of the colony then that gives us the time period of between 444 - 443 BC. But we can't be sure even of that. Some of the manuscripts that survive from his work begin with 'Herodotus of Thurii' as compared to most of the manuscripts that say 'Herodotus of Halicarnassus'.
Herodotus' book probably appeared somewhere in the c420 B.C. His main topic was the Persian wars and indeed he tries to establish Greek identity through the repulsion of the Persian invasions, writing about events that had occurred some 60 years before hand. That means he recorded events that still remained in living history, but only just. If he had waited another 20 or 30 years there would have been little possibility of talking to living survivors of the Persian wars, even though at that stage there would have been very few to interview anyway.
He seems to have begun his literary activity by compiling accounts of the nations he visited outside Greece. In this he followed the tradition begun late in the sixth century by writers who are commonly called 'the Ionian logographers'. They collected and wrote down geographical and historical information about places which they knew or visited. But later, perhaps during his stay in Athens, Herodotus conceived the novel idea of writing a connected account of a single historical event, namely the warfare between the Greeks and Persians.
To set the background of his main topic of the Persian wars he gives description of various events, peoples and cultures, stretching out around the Mediterranean world and far back in time. Going in detail of describing geographically and about cultures that include, Babylon, Egypt and Scythia. He tries to trace the origins of the enmity between Persia and Greece, East and West, Asia and Europe and goes back as far in antiquity as he can trace it.
In his book he extensively speaks well of the Halicarnassus' Queen Artemisia, who seems to always give great advise to the king and fights bravely for him. Though he also notes that she sank one of Xerxes ships to be able to get away herself from the Battle of Salamis, a fact that Xerxes missed on the day. Xerxes had famously said at the battle 'my men fight like women and my women like men' referring to Queen Artemisia's bravery. Scholars have passed over her history as bias by Herodotus' part, being from the same city. That is until a discovery at the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), where a jar was found with the inscription 'The great king Xerxes'. The jar was found in the burial chambers of a later king of Halicarnassus (some 700 years later) who's queen was also named Artemisia. This is believed to be a gift from Xerxes to Queen Artemisia, who past down generation to generation until buried with a later queen with the same name.
Contraversy and Legacy
The 'Histories' were often attacked in the ancient (and modern) world for bias, inaccuracy, and plagiarism, they argue that Herodotus exaggerated the extent of his travels and fabricated sources. Respect for his accuracy has increased in the last half century, however, and he is now recognised not only as a pioneer in history but in ethnography and anthropology as well.
Herodotus has passed to us information current in his own day: he reports that the annual flooding of the Nile was said to be the result of melting snows far to the south, and comments that he cannot understand how there can be snow in the hottest part of the world. He also passes on reports from Phoenician sailors from Egypt that while circumnavigating Africa they saw the sun on their right while sailing westwards. Thanks to this passing on of information which he himself did not believe, he has shown us something of the extent of contemporary geographical information.
His style of writing has provided a wealth of information about contemporary issues to the modern historian. As aposed to Thucydides who wrote the Peloponnesian War, who was probably much more accurate and analytical, but he also strikes us as being much more cold, sceptical and didactic. Herodotus is inquisitive, tolerant, good-humoured, imaginative; the ideal companion to take with you on holiday, he not only gives the account but his sources and his opinion, allowing modern analytical arguments about his points. This is stark contrast to later historians who we have to take at face value as they give little dept of the story and mention only what they believe to be the facts, without mentioning sources.
With Herodotus' opening line of his inquiry
he tells us the purpose of his work:
"These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrace of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the foreigners from losing their due need of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feud."
Literally, in English, the actual word Herodotus used for the title of his work is 'stories' (as apossed to work on Gods called 'myths'), commonly it is believed back in his day that word to his generation meant 'researches' and over time it has come to mean 'history'. The word 'history' did not have todays meaning when Herodotus wrote his work. It is because he used this word in his opening line that the word 'history' has its meaning today, but in his time the word signifies 'research' or as some suggest 'enquiry'. That being the case the real title should be 'Researches by Herodotus' but we use today's meaning and use the title 'The Histories of Herodotus'.
Historians suggest that his work also has a secondary purpose. For the Greek city-states to reconicle their differences and emerge as one unified Greek nation. He mentions in his work that 'Sparta and Athens are at war', which suggest that the Peloponnesian War had already began. Yet even though Herodotus' clearly holds Athenian sympathies, in his work he does not hold Sparta or other Greek city-states in a bad light, on the contrary, many of the stories Herodotus tells gives the contemparary enemies of Athens as Greek champions. So, it is throught in his work he is trying to reconicle the city-states of Greece to unify.