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Herodotus of Halicarnassus: The Father of History

Updated on March 21, 2016
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

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Herodotus of Halicarnassus was not your average ancient Greek storyteller from the 5th century BC. He wasn’t concerned with gods , myths or the supernatural. His focus was on actual events and how they occurred. Unlike most writers of his time, he didn’t rely solely on imagination; he incorporated research and interviews to tell the story of the rise and falls of empires.

His work proved to be groundbreaking. It laid the foundation for historical writing and thinking. However, it was not without controversy. Ironically, he had been criticized for embellishing the facts in order for ensure it followed the direction of his narrative style.

Today, Herodotus is known as the father of history. It’s a title the Roman writer Marcus Tullius Cicero gave him nearly 500 years after his death. However, He is also known by another title: “The Father of Lies.

The World according to Herodotus
The World according to Herodotus | Source

Living Memory

Historical writers had existed long before Herodotus was born. However, many of them wrote about events that occurred long before their own births, and usually wrote them in the form of epic poems or prose. Also, many of these “historical” accounts were based on oral traditions passed down from one generation to the next and were steeped in the mythologies concerning the intervention of the gods. Homer’s Iliad is a prime example.

Herodotus, on the other hand, wrote about the era he lived in. The would-be historian was born in the year, 484 BC in the Dorian city of Halicarnassus of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). The city was Greek, religiously and verbally (ancientgreekbattles.com, 2011).

Shortly before his birth, the expanding Persian Empire took over Halicarnassus and then attacked Athens and Sparta in mainland Greece. The powerful Persians were defeated by the two Greek-state confederations. This war would eventually change the fortunes of the Greeks, as well as lead to the slow and eventual decline of the Persian.

Many in Halicarnassus thanked the gods for this victory. However, Herodotus wanted to know how the Greeks accomplished this task.

Another event in his hometown indirectly led him to finding the answers he searched for. He was accused of taking part in an uprising against the Lygdamis, a tyrant who ruled Halicarnassus. As a result, he was exiled to the island of Samos.

Many in Halicarnassus thanked the gods for this victory. However, Herodotus wanted to know how the Greeks accomplished this task.

His Journey

He didn’t stay long on the island. It is assumed that Herodotus began his travels (ancientgreekbattles.com 2011). He went to Egypt, Syria, parts of Thrace, the coastal regions of the Black Sea (Scythia), and (although not confirmed) Babylon before he eventually relocated to Athens.

In his journey, he listened to the stories of the locals, especially from those who participated or remembered the Greek-Persian Wars of his youth. He began to record these accounts.

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The Histories

It’s not known when or where Herodotus began his life work. What is known was that the first one appeared, circa 420 BC. Much of his works were about the Persian wars which had occurred 60 years before the publication.

According to the website, historyforkids.org, Herodotus’ intent was to explain how the Greeks triumphed over the Persians. In many respects, he pointed out that Persians were ruled by kings with serious god-complexes.

The Histories of Herodotus, as the volume of work came to be known, was written in Ionic dialect of classical Greece and would eventually be divided into nine volumes. Besides recording the Greco-Persian Wars, it covered such subjects as ancient traditions, politics, geography and cultural clashes within the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asian regions.

The volumes are:

Book I, Clio: it documents the rise of the Persian Empire and explains its culture.

Book II, Euterpe: history, geography, and politics of Egypt.

Book III, Thalia: Persian takeover of Egypt, inner struggles and revolts in the Persian Empire, and the cultures of Arabia and India. Also, it details the rise of Syloson, the governor of Samos.

Book IV, Melpomene: history, geography and people of the Scythians; Persian king Darius failed attack on Scythia; the martyred kings of the Greek colony of Cyrene (in present-day Libya).

Book V, Tersichore: The start of the Greco-Persian conflicts. Also, it records the history of Athens, Sparta, and the Ionian revolt.

Book VI, Erato: The taking of Eretria by the Persians, and the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon.

Book VII, Polymnia: The rise and conflicts of Xerxes I of Persia; the construction of the bridge across the Hellespont (the waterway which separates Asia from Europe). The Battle of Thermopylae between Sparta’s legendary 300 men and the superior Persian Army.

Book VIII, Urania: Athens is evacuated, and the Greeks win in the Battle of Salamis. Also recorded is the ancestry of Alexander I of Macedon.

Book IX, Calliope: The rise of Alexander and the defeat and fall of the Persian Empire.

Criticism

The nine volumes of The Histories are considered some of the most significant literary works of the Western Hemisphere. Still, that doesn't mean they're not flawed. Many modern historians believed Herodotus was attempting to write a fact-based prose rather than a strict historical account. Others point to its frequent description of mythic incidents or events that don’t match with current knowledge of how something happened. Also, Herodotus was prone to exaggerate the wealth of the Persian kings.

Another major critique of Herodotus was his tendency for favoritism. His descriptions of the Greeks and Persian were black and white; The Greeks were the saviors of civilization while the Persians were portrayed as villains.

Ironically, the father of history who championed the concept of documentation, died at an unknown time. It is believed to be circa, 425 BC.

Legacy

According to Roman writer and historian Lucian, Herodotus presented his finished work at popular festivals, where he recited them to an audience. He went from Asia Minor to the Olympic Games where he read his work and received the adoration of the audience.

After the years on the road to promote his work, he went on to help start the Greek colony of Thurii and spend his remaining years there. Ironically, the father of history who championed the concept of documentation, died at an unknown time. It is believed to be circa, 425 BC.

Despite their flaws, Herodotus's work has survived the test of time. Modern historian hail it for its description and insight into the Greek-Persian wars. Also, his approach as been imitated and honed by numerous historical writers and thinkers.

Interviewing actual participants, documentation, and research have become paramount in the academic discipline. In fact, many other forms of social sciences such as cultural anthropology, sociology, political science, and archeology, owe its existence to this man who merely saw the world around him differently and recorded it for all to read.

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© 2014 Dean Traylor

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    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      A great hub - thank you. I've just started readung his Histories, they're absolutely fascinating. Voted up

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