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Herodotus: The Father of History

Updated on February 1, 2015
Source
Preface of 1494 edition of The Histories
Preface of 1494 edition of The Histories | Source

Who was Herodotus?

Herodotus (484-425 BC) is widely considered the Father of History. His major (and only) work, The Histories, was the first serious attempt to document human history. What made his work so extraordinary was that not only did he document history, but he also wrestled with his sources to determine their veracity and establish what he considered facts. His purpose was to write the history of the world “so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarian – may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other” (I). His work was quite impressive and ambitious for a man living centuries before the birth of Christ.

Herodotus The Histories

The Ancient World
The Ancient World | Source

Herodotus’ Source Material

A major challenge for someone writing during this time period was access to source material. Herodotus overcame that by travelling to many of the places he writes about. He also visited many monuments in those foreign lands and obtained information from cultural myths (oral sources) and inscriptions.

Herodotus presented his history in the form of an epic story. His main story was the wars between Greece and Persia and how they came to be. Yet his insatiable curiosity led to many regressions from the main story line. For example, in the process of developing the story, Herodotus explored many different cultures, including the Egyptian and Persian.

Herodotus’ greatest strength was developing the historical context in which the conflict between the Greeks and the Persians originated. From his writing, one comes to the realization that the ancient world was not a series of isolated civilizations but on the contrary, a world of interactions with other civilizations.

Herodotus' Approach to History

At the beginning of his history, Herodotus made a point not to pass value judgments and to focus on all men, “great” and “small” (I.5). Yet during the course of the history, he focused mostly on great men and passed a number of value judgments. In his examination of an event, Herodotus analyzed the actions of the people involved and suggested their motives for taking a certain course of action. Also, he cross-examined his sources to determine the truth or falsehood of an account. Through the use of reason, Herodotus believed that he could penetrate beneath the facts in an effort to arrive at a full understanding of the event in question and the people involved. In the course of his inquiry, Herodotus attempted to dispel myths and establish facts based on reason.

Often his application of reason in explaining the behavior of certain men led him to rely heavily on the culture in which the men in question lived. For example, in relating a story about Anacharsis, a Scythian, who was murdered by his own people, Herodotus attempted to set the record straight and dispel false accounts as to the reasons for his death. Herodotus stated: “the Scythians are dead-set against foreign ways” (IV.76). Anacharsis visited Greece and upon his return to Scythia he was seen practicing a Greek ceremony and was murdered (IV.76). In checking a false story (the Greek account), Herodotus stated that it was “a frivolous Greek invention” and that the “plain truth is that Anacharsis was killed in the way I have described” (IV.77). Herodotus evidently believed that culture had an enormous influence on people. As a historian, an understanding of culture was particularly important because it could be used to test different accounts to gauge their truth or falsity. An interesting point is to be made by Herodotus’ work in that he did not favor one culture over another, and subjected all of them to close scrutiny. In that sense he attempted to be impartial.

Elsewhere, Herodotus’ use of reason in examining sources and accounts took the form of common sense. For example, when Scyllias, a diver who apparently served with the Persian naval force off Greece, defected to the Greeks, the account was that he swam ad distance of 10 miles underwater. After stating the obviously inflated account, Herodotus stated that “there are other somewhat tall stories,” other than the one related and his “personal opinion is that he came to Artemisium in a boat” (VIII. 8)

Major Themes of Herodotus’ Work

There were many important themes that ran through The Histories. One of the most important ones was culture. For Herodotus, an understanding of culture was one of the keys to understanding humans and their societies. Another particularly important key was human nature. Pride, honour, courage, disgrace, fate religion, morality and war were other themes. The two themes that stood out the most though were Life and Death. Indeed, for Herodotus, history is human experience and therefore life itself. Although Herodotus’ history was very much about humans, it should be mentioned that while history played out in the human arena, for him it was the gods who determined the outcome and direction of human actions.

Tomb of Xerxes
Tomb of Xerxes | Source

The Persian War

In the preface of his history, Herodotus made mention that he wanted to document the great human achievements. Perhaps the greatest human achievement that Herodotus alluded to was the defeat of the Persians by the Greeks that preserved the Greek form of freedom and democracy, which subsequently formed the cornerstone of Western civilization. In the last 3 books of the history, there was a constant stress on freedom and its importance (see for example VIII 135).

There were other important achievements too, most notably the defeat of Xerxes and the Persian army. Of course, Herodotus was not impervious to exaggeration in his account either. He claimed the Persian army was 3-5 million strong which was a deliberate exaggeration to stress the great victory for the Greeks.

Although Herodotus seemed for the most part to be a careful historian, there were some instances when he did not test his sources for inconsistencies. An example, of this was to be found in the looming battle between the Greeks and Mardonius (IX 46). Before the battle, Herodotus alleged that the Spartans, who were facing the Persians opposite them in the line of formation, wanted to change places with the Athenians who were faced off with the Boeotians. This seemed unlikely given the fact that Spartans were warriors who never retreated and fought to the death no matter who the enemy was. Perhaps a reason for casting the Spartans in a bad light was the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC.

The Role of Fate in Ancient Greek History

Another dominant theme was fate – and that humans are incapable of altering it. This seemed to be the one area where there was universal consensus across the many cultures of the ancient world. For example, before his death, Cambyses said “it is not in human power to avert what is destined to be” (III 65). Humans were clearly not in control of their fate. Things must happen no matter how hard humans attempt to prevent them from happening.

Running through his entire history was the belief that all great men must fall or encounter some crushing misfortune because of their pride. Xerxes and Darius were both defeated by the Greeks, Cambyses was killed by his own sword, Croesus lost his son etc. Herodotus at many points throughout his history asserted that it was the pride of the great man that made the gods jealous (VIII 109).

For Herodotus, fate had to do with a combination of the will of the gods and human nature. Men like Xerxes, Darius and Cambyses have a natural predisposition to follow certain courses of action and because of that, the outcome becomes inevitable. For instance, Xerxes, upon reaching the Hellespont and finding the crossing destroyed could have cancelled the entire invasion of Greece. Instead, he built a new crossing and kept his army moving. There were 3 important factors that led Xerxes to push forward with his campaign to conquer Greece. First, at the individual level it was his pride and honour that drove him. Secondly, the Persian culture required that an injustice be made right again. Finally, at the cosmological level, it was the gods who put in place all of these forces and who could intervene to see that their will was carried out.

Conclusion

Herodotus’ legacy has been the establishment of history as a discipline. He sought to make historical analysis more rigorous by examining sources and testing their reliability. Though his method was by no means perfect, it was far better than the myths and tales that preceded it.

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