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Herodotus of Halicarnassus


Herodotus. Bust in the Agora Museum, Athens (Greece). Photo Marco Prins.
The Greek researcher and storyteller Herodotus of Halicarnassus (fifth century BCE) was the world's first historian. In The Histories, he describes the expansion of the Achaemenid empire under its kings Cyrus the Great, Cambyses and Darius I the Great, culminating in king Xerxes' expedition in 480 BCE against the Greeks, which met with disaster in the naval engagement at Salamis and the battles at Plataea and Mycale. Herodotus' remarkable book also contains excellent ethnographic descriptions of the peoples that the Persians have conquered, fairy tales, gossip, legends, and a very humanitarian morale. (A summary with some historical comments can be found here.)

This is the third part of an article in eight pieces.

Prologue
Herodotus' life
Herodotus' originality
Herodotus on causality
Herodotus' sources
Herodotus as a
topographer/ethnographer
Herodotus the moralist
Further reading

Contents of 
The Histories

The Aegean region in the fifth century BCE. Design Jona Lendering. 

Herodotus' originality

Today, The Histories are usually edited in one volume. In Antiquity, nine scrolls were needed to contain the entire text, and it is still usual to divide The Histories into nine 'books'. As the Italian classicist Silvana Cagnazzi has pointed out, it is possible to subdivide every 'book' into three units, the logoi (overview). When a person reads one of these logoi to an audience, he or she needs about four hours, and it is likely that this is how Herodotus first 'published' the results of his inquiries: as a lecture. This idea corroborates an ancient story that he used to recite his work. (On one occasion, a boy started to cry: the future historian Thucydides, who was deeply moved by Herodotus' narrative.)

It is likely that at one point Herodotus decided to collect his logoi in one continuous text. But now he faced a serious problem. His logoi were about very dissimilar subjects -e.g., a description of Egypt, a logos about Scythian customs, and a narrative about Persian diplomacy in the winter of 480/479- and it was likely that this collection of logoi would become a messy whole. Herodotus has recognized this problem, and decided to group everything around one single theme: the expansion of the Achaemenid (or Persian) empire between 550 and 479. Lectures on topography and ethnography now became integrated chapters of a historical chronicle.

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Homer. Glyptothek, München (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Homer (Glyptothek, Munich)

Stories about the past were something that the Greeks primarily knew from the beautiful epic poems of Homer, who had sung about the valiant deeds of past heroes in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Herodotus was heavily influenced by this example. Sometimes he quotes the legendary bard; or he uses words that any Greek would have recognized as homeric. The Iliad contains a catalogue of nations that took part in the Trojan War; in Book Three, Herodotus sums up all Persian provinces, and in Book Seven, he inserts a list of troops that took part in Xerxes' expedition to Greece. Sometimes, Herodotus copies scenes from Homer. In his description of the Battle of Thermopylae, he tells how the Spartans and Persians fought about the body of Leonidas. This is impossible in a hoplite-battle (the type of warfare Herodotus is describes) but echoes a scene from the Iliad in which the Greeks and Trojans fight about the body of the hero Patroclus.



A very important borrowing from Homer is the circular composition. More than a hundred times, Herodotus interrupts his narrative to digress on a subject. The longest digression is Book Two: Herodotus announces that the Persian king Cambyses wanted to conquer Egypt, and then begins to talk about the geography, the customs and the history of the ancient country along the Nile. Finally, at the beginning of Book Three, Herodotus resumes his narrative and describes the Persian invasion.

The digressions belong to the most entertaining parts of the Histories. For example, we read an interview with an employee of an Egyptian mummy factory, an astonishing anecdote about the first circumnavigation of Africa, a hilarious tale about Indian goldmining, a report about the sources of the Nile and the Danube (see below), a reconstruction of the language of the prehistoric Greeks, a cautionary tale about deposits, and lots more.



Modern bust of Herodotus, Bodrum (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering.
Modern bust of Herodotus, near the Museum of Bodrum

A final point of similarity between Herodotus and Homer is the impartiality of the narrative: Homer's heroes are the Greeks, but his Trojans are no villains, and in the same way Herodotus portrays his Greeks and Persians - he treats both parties without partiality or hatred, but with genuine sympathy. It is interesting to compare this with the historiographical texts from the oriental monarchies: the Persian shah -e.g., the Behistun inscription- and the Egyptian pharaoh leave no doubt about the wickedness of their opponents.

But Herodotus is more than just a pupil of Homer who added geographical and ethnographical bits and pieces to his unbiased epic tale. A first difference is that Homer was a poet using a complex meter, whereas Herodotus composed his logoi in prose. But the greatest difference is the fact that Herodotus was a real researcher, an empiricist. (In fifth century BC Greek, the word historia still meant 'research'; it was Herodotus' achievement that the meaning of the word changed.) He traveled a lot in order to investigate the cities and opinions of man. Where Homer claimed to be speaking the truth depended on his inspiration from the muses, Herodotus based his narrative on research. It is a tribute to the quality of Herodotus' geographical descriptions that the works of his predecessors are now lost.




As a corollary of Herodotus' empiricist method, he is interested in the recent past. Homer had told about distant, legendary antiquities; Herodotus was interested in events that were in living memory and could be verified. For example, he seems to have interviewed the survivors of the Battle of Marathon. Admittedly, interviews are an unreliable source, but it must be said that Herodotus did a remarkable job: when we can check The Histories, it often turns out to be trustworthy. Even though Herodotus makes some serious mistakes, he managed to give a pretty accurate description of the century before his birth.

As it turned out, Herodotus invented a new literary genre: history. He did so by integrating the results of empiricist ethnographic and topographic research into epic, and writing this in prose. This combination was revolutionary.


Thucydides. Mosaic from Jerash, now in the Altes Museum Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. Thucydides; mosaic from Jerash (Altes Museum, Berlin)
It is odd that he was hardly appreciated in Antiquity. People admired his entertaining way of telling stories, but they did not believe them. The first to criticize the Father of History was Thucydides, who rejected Herodotus' religious explanation of what was happening (below). In later times, nobody dared to believe what Herodotus told about strange customs. For almost two thousand years, people considered him just a teller of (excellent) tales and thought that all these strange customs were merely inventions. His never ending stream of tall, short and winding tales earned him -as Salman Rushdie would say- not one but two nicknames: to some, he was the Father of History, but to others, he was the Father of Lies. Only when, after the discovery of the Americas, the Europeans learned to know the customs of hitherto unknown people, the reappreciation of Herodotus started. But even today, many of his claims are the subject of debate.





Part four




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