Herodotus: Father of History?

Also see: the corresponding PowerPoint presentation

In classical antiquity the record of history was dominated by superstition, philosophy and myth up until the fifth century BCE. Records were manufactured by royal scribes in adherence to doctrine and regal command and used as propaganda to inspire or oppress the people, singing songs of nationalistic pride and glory against ancient and vile enemies. Invoking the divine, the scribes and their kingly patrons recorded history as would best serve their designs and failed to meet the expectations of what we define as being history today: a dispassionate account of the past with rigorous evidence to secure arguments and claims. This trend continued up until the writings of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, an Ionian Greek of the fifth century BCE (c. 484 BC-c. 425 BC). Herodotus came to fundamentally change the nature of keeping records and for all intents and purposes forged the discipline we know today as being history. While the warm and seemingly fantastical nature of Herodotus’ writings inspired his contemporaries to suspect his annals as being fairytales, modern scholarship has verified them as being mostly accurate as a testament to his rigorous research methodology.  Herodotus was the first to systematically quest for the truth by collecting evidence in weaving a coherent and indifferent narrative in order to create an accurate depiction of the past state of affairs. Crucially, Herodotus introduced the notions of a thesis and citation, laying the foundation for all further history study to come, not content to lazily invoke the gods or his own imagination in creating his picture of the past, delineating between myth and fact.

Herodotus was born into a world of strife and seemingly endless war, the Persian yoke having for a century loomed over the heads of the war weary Greeks. In particular the cities of Ionia, from where Herodotus was most familiar, had been brutally reduced in the revolts of the early fifth century BCE and what independence had been granted to them as autonomous provinces of the Lydian Kingdom, was finally snuffed out by Persian satraps. Following the final conquest of the Ionian city states the Persian general Mardonius went on the offensive into Thrace and Macedonia in 492, bringing the extent of the Persian Empire to the doors of Greece proper. When Artaphernes and Datis waged an overwhelming naval campaign two years later and succeeded in subjugating most of the Aegean island states it was only inevitable that a grand invasion of Greece would follow in 480, bringing the Hellenes to their knees, capable of only finally resisting the Persian onslaught after a series of dramatic and cunning reversals at Thermopylae, Plataea and Salamis. While the Persians had been delayed by a combined alliance of much of the free Greek city states and decisively bloodied in the latter years of the Xerxes campaign, the invaders still controlled Thrace, Ionia and much of Macedonia and the Aegean islands, all the while constantly scheming, massing and interloping into Greek affairs. The Persians brought with them tyrannical administration, corruption and “barbarian” customs which were an affront to the freedom loving and proudly cultured Greeks. The Histories of Herodotus was written four decades after the last major Persian invasion, the author having been exiled from occupied Halicarnassus for having refused the corruption of the Persian satrapy through the puppet tyrant Lygdamis, having found new homes abroad at Samos and later Athens.

It was this environment of war weariness and looming disaster which inspired the author to write The Histories, succinctly stated in the famous opening lines (1.1):

Herodotus of Halicarnassus hereby publishes the results of his inquiries, hoping to do two things: to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of the Greek and the non-Greek peoples; and more particularly, to show how the two races came into conflict.

The primary area of inquiry for Herodotus was in attempting to understand why devastating wars happen, how races come to be eternal enemies and to discover what chain of events inspired the first hostilities. The old rationales and reasons for war posed by Homer and the Sumerians, the meddling of mischievous and bored gods as a means of entertainment or intrigue[i], and by the Assyrians, Persians and Egyptians as being the product of the evil compulsions of wicked enemies, only defeated by the divine grace and majesty of the king, failed to satisfy the acute reason of Herodotus. In rejecting these causes the author of The Histories would combine the evidence of empirical ethnography and topography to argue that was instead a complex state of affairs including a chain of political events, underlying circumstances and tribal differences which result in war. This argument was a revolutionary notion that contrasted sharply with the traditional Greek perceptions of conflict and cause, as argued for instance in the Iliad as to why the Greek and Trojan people waged total war:

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another. And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel?[ii]

It is important to contrast the Histories with Homer because the Iliad and Odyssey were for all intents and purposes the only historical record the great majority of Greeks had access to and represents the known “history” before Herodotus, forming the basis of a liberal education and pedagogy. In understanding the composition and style of the works of the man from Halicarnassus we can better understand how he transformed the study of record and myth into rigorous history writing.

The Histories is divided into nine “books” (scrolls), each named after one of the classical muses, the first book being named after the muse of history named Clio, which are further divided into three “logoi” each[iii]. Each logos was probably a four hour lecture[iv] to be publically recited in the traditional bardic fashion, based around a particular topic such as Scythian customs, Egyptian geography and Persian diplomacy to name a few. All such lectures were centered around the central topic of the expansion of the Persian Empire and how it rose to dominate the Levant. Herodotus thus created a compelling and focused narrative while reserving the rightful luxury to digress into detailing relevant subtopics, leading logical rigor and substantiation to his central claims and arguments. In book two for instance Herodotus introduces the conquest of Egypt by Cambyses of Persia and spends the rest of the book detailing the land, customs, people and economy of that region, in turn also creating the discipline of anthropology. By book three Herodotus returns to Cambyses to discuss the actual campaign against Egypt, and the consequences thereof. In this manner the historian borrowed from Homer and adopted the poet’s stylistic circular composition in which the main storyline is diverted to supplementary vignettes.

While Homer diverted the reader’s attention for dramatic purposes, in telling the tale of how the shield of Achilles was forged by Hephaestus through the scheming of Thetis for example, the diversions of Herodotus were designed to lead credence to his inquiries by informing the reader as to what evidence his arguments are based upon. Such vignettes include anecdotes from the travels of the historian himself, detailing some aspect of his own observations, interviews with survivors of past battles and professed expert authorities in the fields of religion and philosophy, etymological and linguistic deconstruction, and mythological analysis, all weighed against the need for evidence and a chain of cogent reasoning[v]. Other elements borrowed from Homer included stylistic impartial narration, in which the figures spoken of are not slandered or judged by the author’s moral and cultural standards[vi] (neither the Trojans or Persians appear as evil people, but are simply reported on) and epic characterization[vii]. In this latter quality we observe Herodotus in book seven portraying the Spartans and Persians dramatically fighting for the body of the Lacedemonian King Leonidas at end of the battle of Thermopylae in an epic tug-of-war just as the Trojans and Greeks fought for the body of fallen Patroclus before the walls of Troy in Homer, prospects technically impossible due to the hoplite warfare of the day. Epic characterization is perhaps the only dramatic license Herodotus adopts, and these elements sneak into his composition as bits of flavor needed for public recitation of his logoi rather than as cornerstones of the study.

But it would be foolhardy to linger in comparing Herodotus to Homer too indulgently, as the former was surely not the latter, and wrote in a fundamentally different fashion. It is these fundamental differences which define Herodotus as a historian and which we value today as the foundations of good history writing. Herodotus, unlike Homer and the other ancient sources, wrote in prose rather than meter and ignored compromises of style in constructing his narrative; rather than manipulating his writings to fit a stylistic rubric or particular sound Herodotus wrote naturally and in the common tongue, speaking frankly and honestly, free of an imposed structure.

Most importantly Herodotus rejected the notion that the meddling of pernicious and capricious gods determined the cause of events and attributed war and the causes of suffering to human agents, utilizing an empirical research method to refute the former claim. Herodotus, as is relayed to us by the author in the Histories, traveled to the places he had determined to study and directly investigated the circumstances of the past. Herodotus sought out survivors of past events or the sons of survivors and interviewed them, basing his study on mutually corroborated evidence rather than his own supposing, weighing accounts against one another to come to a reasoned conclusion. Where Herodotus determined that accounts contradicted or did not corroborate his own investigations he made it known to the reader (1.5):

So much for what the Persians and Phoenicians say; and I have no intention of passing judgment on its truth or falsity. I prefer to rely on my own knowledge, and to point out who it was in actual fact that first injured the Greeks.

In this fashion Herodotus delineated the truth by deciphering claims and most importantly judging their merit on the basis of evidence. Herodotus did not claim to be inspired by the muses, as Homer did in the famous opening lines of the Iliad, nor claim to be the privileged messenger of a king granted divine insights and majesty, as with the other ancient people, but rather simply claimed to exercise his own reason. Where his own reason and inquiries could not supply an answer, Herodotus admitted ignorance, refraining from claiming knowledge of to which he was uninformed and ultimately concerned himself chiefly with the truth or falsity of his statements, compiling the past into narrative by the best of his ability and supposing nothing more.

Skeptical of traditional explanations of events, Herodotus demanded evidence and challenged false claims[viii]. Rather than studying an ancient and unknowable past, as Homer did with the Trojan War, Herodotus focused on the immediate knowable past, namely the fifth and sixth centuries, and avoided creating a national foundation myth, detailing the ambitions of men rather than the intrigues of the counsels of Zeus. For Herodotus history writing was an end in itself and not a tool for demagogues and sophists to hatch ambitious conquests. The Ionian historian argued that the discipline rather served as an indifferent record of what once was, in order to grasp the true state of affairs. Through this method Herodotus created history, a science.

As an exercise in the method of Herodotus let us observe several claims in which the Historian was encountered with on his journeys. Of several seemingly incredulous claims[ix] Herodotus accepts because he had either observed instances of evidence himself or interviewed reliable witnesses such as in affirming the existence of gold digging ants in India (3.102), which later coincidentally turned out to be an accurate account[x]. Herodotus rejected other claims which to a modern reader would seem more likely factual because he lacked evidence of their existence, as none of his interviewees has observed them: long polar nights (4.25), a trade between what is now the British Isles (the “Tin Isles”) and the Carthaginian colonies (3.115), Phoenician navigation around the tip of Africa (4.42), or the claim by geographers that the Earth is round (4.36). According to Gray “[Herodotus’] normal inquiry (historia) involves akoe (what he heard), opsis (what he saw), and gnome (his judgment).[xi]” These three modes of collecting data about a topic, if fulfilled, would for the historian been judged reliable, and in absence, would have called for some manner of skepticism. In this manner Herodotus rejected claims which failed to be relayed to him by witnesses, his own research or through a chain of reasoning.  While Herodotus may have been inaccurate in a few of his judgments, the skeptical method of demanding evidence for claims still holds virtue for historians today.

Another important contribution of Herodotus to the study of history was the notion of placing things within a geopolitical, topographical and ethnographic context. Rather than refer to distant lands filled with mythical inhabitants and unreachable wilds on the fringe of the world Herodotus visited regions of the eastern Mediterranean directly and set out to describe the customs, economy (3.115), religion (eg. 5.86, 7.166) and culture (eg. 1.5.3, 2.120) of the peoples involved, without bias or judgment. In visiting these locations Herodotus sought to create a more accurate account of history, concerned with why cities formed where they had, taking into account available resources, the flow of rivers and the migration of ideas and what he perceived to be races. Herodotus for example examined the origination of rivers, contrasting the Danube with the Nile, and sought to explain weather patterns and the placement of geographical locations by natural causes.  In investigating the areas directly and interviewing officials of government, priests and geographers Herodotus conjectured the origination of the sciences and philosophy and developed a rudimentary history of an interconnected and cosmopolitan Levant, as was the case with his journey to the Nile River among the Egyptians (2.109):

The priests also told me that Sesostris divided the country among all the Egyptians, giving each man the same amount of land in the form of a square plot. This was a source of income for him, because he ordered them to pay an annual tax. If any of a person’s plot was lost to the river, he would present himself at the king’s court and tell him what had happened; then the king sent inspectors to measure how much land he had lost, so that in the future the man had to pay proportionately less of the fixed tax. It seems to me that this was how geometry as a land-surveying technique came to be discovered and then imported into Greece. But the Greeks learned about the sundial, its pointer, and the twelve divisions of the day from the Babylonians.

Through such extensive inquiries, surveying each of the lands influenced or in contact with Persian power, Herodotus came to the conclusion that the Greco-Persian wars were inevitable due to imperialism and the exchange of aggression and reprisal, originally initiated by the adventurism of King Croesus of Lydia. Croesus laid claim to much of Asia Minor by 547 BCE[xii] following a campaign of imperial expansion which included the conquest of the Ionian colonies. Lusting for more territory and riches the Lydian king, with the supposed affirmation of the oracle of Delphi (1.53), and supported by a new alliance formed with Sparta, Egypt and Babylonia (1.69-1.70), dared to attack and conquer the fledgling Persian Empire. Croseus’ initial movements were inconclusive and a Persian counterattack was decisive in ravaging the kingdom of Lydia, which had retired its army for the winter and did not expect a returned aggression. Unlike the liberal administration of Croesus, which granted a manner of autonomy and independence to conquered territories, the Persian satrapy which replaced that kingship exercised tyranny, autocratic rule and excessive taxation. This, according to Herodotus, in a chain of reaction and action, inspired the Ionian colonies to rebel, which required a reaction from the Persian authority, crushing the rebellion. As a subsequent reaction to the fall of the ravaging of the Ionian colonies Athens formed the Delian League, an alliance of Ionian and Aegean city states, which in turn demanded yet another response by the Persians, and laid the foundation for the wars to follow. At the heart of all of these movements was the real cause of imperialism[xiii], a concept invoked by Herodotus to explain the brutal savagery which afflicted the whole of the region.

In investigating the neighborly regions of Greece proper, in Thrace, Macedonia, Egypt, Asia Minor, Scythia and Libya, Herodotus observed the people falling under the yoke of Persian influence or oppression and argued that Greece was inevitably next.  Here we can observe clearly the purpose of the circular composition of the author’s writings: they served not as meaningless diversions but as crucial elements in detailing the central topic of the rise and expansion of the Persian Empire and in critical support of the thesis that imperialism was the force responsible for inspiring the actions of the conquerors. This study is in stark contrast to the pre-existing chronicles, from Homer, with which we have already examined, in which the Gods meddle in causing war and strife, and against the Assyrian, Persian and Egyptian accounts, which differ perhaps more startlingly:

In the Persian account we are lead to believe that the king waged war against a rebelling province because he had been sent on a divine mission by the god Ahuramazda, who also by some way legitimized his rule[xiv]:

(13) King Darius says: There was no man, either Persian or Mede or of our own dynasty, who took the kingdom from Gaumâta, the Magian. The people feared him exceedingly, for he slew many who had known the real Smerdis. For this reason did he slay them, ‘that they may not know that I am not Smerdis, the son of Cyrus.’ There was none who dared to act against Gaumâta, the Magian, until I came. Then I prayed to Ahuramazda; Ahuramazda brought me help. On the tenth day of the month BâgayâdiÅ¡ [29 September 522] I, with a few men, slew that Gaumâta, the Magian, and the chief men who were his followers. At the stronghold called SikayauvatiÅ¡, in the district called Nisaia in Media, I slew him; I dispossessed him of the kingdom. By the grace of Ahuramazda I became king; Ahuramazda granted me this kingdom.

The Assyrians who preceded the Persians adopted a similar propaganda style, and went beyond to actually claim that the king was a god himself by the name of Assur. When the city of Ashkelon rebuffed the king’s demands to surrender to the Assyrian yoke in submitting tribute of precious vessels and treasure, the king, by virtue of his divine will and in the spirit of justice, must have conquered the offender[xv]:

Sennacherib, the great king, the mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters, the wise shepherd, favorite of the great gods, guardian of right, lover of justice, who lends support, who comes to the aid of the destitute, who performs pious acts, perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the powerful one who consumes the insubmissive, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt[xvi]; the god Assur, …, he has brought the black-headed people in submission at my feet; … But Sidka, the king of Ashkelon, who had not submitted to my yoke…, I tore away and brought to Assyria. Sharru-lu-dari, son of Rukibti, their former king, I set over the people of Ashkelon, and I imposed upon him the payment of tribute: presents to my majesty. He accepted my yoke. In the course of my campaign [cities which] had not speedily bowed in submission at my feet, I besieged, I conquered, I carried off their spoil.

Lastly in an Egyptian account of the battle of Megiddo (1482 BCE) we are introduced to an absurd description of how the King besieged the city, followed by a moral condemnation of the enemy, implying that “the other” was conquered because of his evil and immoral nature[xvii]:

It was walled about with its thick wall. Its name was made: “Menkheperre Thutmose III-is-the-Surrounder-of-the-Asiatics.” People were stationed to watch over the tent of his majesty; to whom it was said: “Steady of heart! Watch.” His majesty commanded, saying: “Let not one among them come forth outside, beyond this wall, except to come out in order to knock at the other door of their fortification.”

Now, all that his majesty did to this city, to that wretched foe and his wretched army, was recorded on each day by its the day’s name. Then it was recorded upon a roll of leather in the temple of Amon this day.

To a modern reader these excerpts may clearly be interpreted as propaganda bordering on mythology but to Herodotus they were posed as frustrating status quo language for describing the actions of governments. For Herodotus changes of fortune in battles and the movements of armies are the result of the decisions of generals and kings (9. 49) and their locations were selected due to tactical considerations (9.28). While gods and transcendent moral forces manipulate the worlds of Homer, Menkheperre, Sennacherib and Darius, Herodotus challenged this traditional claim with evidence of human “fanatical greed” [xviii] and ambition, manifest most potently in imperialism. It was in this fashion that Herodotus challenged notions of causality that Thucydides would altogether reject as foolish superstition with atheistic fervor in his writings; adopting the former’s doctrine that man is the force of change. Today a historian invoking the muses or the guidance of gods in his writings would be immediately dispelled from academia, while in the times prior to Herodotus, such claims were commonplace and institutional, greatly muddling the understanding of the past.

It is worth noting that Herodotus did not completely discard the influence of gods, perhaps as a nod to the Homeric tradition, claiming that while choice was ultimately within the domain of man, and that while man was the mover behind change, the gods could intervene in matters of justice, although in unforeseen and subtle ways. For example when Persian King Cambyses slew the sacred Apis bull after conquering Egypt (3.27) his bloodlust and drunkenness caused him to lose control over his body and he impaled himself on his own sword (3.64):

[Cambyses] leapt upon his horse, meaning to march at speed to his capital and attack the disloyal magos. But as he was springing into the saddle, the cap fell off the sheath of his sword, exposing the blade, which pierced his thigh – just in the spot where he had previously struck Apis the sacred Egyptian bull.

In this way the gods tempt powerful men to overextend their power and in doing so are destroyed. As with Croesus attempting to conquer Persia, Cambyses was not content to simply conquer Egypt but was tempted to violate it, and rather than exercise prudence and wield his power wisely with restraint, was instead destroyed by it through the subtle influence of gods.

Dubbed “Father of History” by Cicero, Herodotus was by some of his contemporaries suspected as being either an embellisher or a liar, falling under especial scrutiny during the medieval and early modern European period[xix]. Petrarch levied a particularly scathing criticism of Herodotus in rerum memorandum,[xx] implying that his works were nothing but mere fabrication intended to further his own fortunes. To the reader some of Herodotus’ claims do indeed seem farfetched, from gold digging ants to Indians who eat their parents (3.38), to a symmetrical world as reflections of the Danube and Nile rivers, to descriptions of strange customs and exotic peoples, or to the claim that the Earth is tens of thousands of years old (2.11), a notion which startled traditional Christian models of cosmology. Much of the suspicions following these claims have been debunked by modern archaeology and anthropology, which have mostly validated the claims of historian. Where direct modern evidence has not shed light on the claims of the Histories the exploration of the New World did, by illuminating that the assumptions of the European critics in rebuffing the existence of vastly different cultures to be misguided, as the Americas revealed a great host of indigenous people with alien customs. And while Herodotus does report strange claims by the peoples he is studying, such as the fact that the Theuri claimed to be able to turn into werewolves, he does so as to document the culture indifferently rather than judge truth or falsity of beliefs[xxi], in the tradition of good academic anthropology.

[i] Joseph Roisman, “Greek Perspectives on the Justness and Merits of the Trojan War”

College Literature, 35.4 (Fall 2008): 98-99.

[ii] The Iliad by Homer. The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/iliad.1.i.html

[iii] P.H. Larcher, Larcher’s Notes on Herodotus (London: A.J Valpy, 1829), 526.

[iv] Silvana Cagnazzi, “Tavola dei 28 Logoi di Erodoto,” Hermes 103 (1975).

[v] See The Histories: 1.5, 1.123, 2.109, 2.147 etc

[vi]Herodotus is capable of describing the war crimes of the Persians without decrying their offenses, while also bringing to light the racism of Greeks: Susan O. Shapiro, “Proverbial Wisdom in Herodotus” Transactions of the American Philological Association 130 (2000):106-108.

[vii] cf. steinger 1957; huber 1965, 29-52; huxley 1989; boedeker 2002.

[viii] In 1.123 of The Histories Herodotus argues that it was the Egyptians rather than the Greeks who first argued for immortality of the soul.

[ix] Donald Lateiner, The Historical Method of Herodotus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989), 96.

[x] Michel Peissel. The Ants’ Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas (London : Harvill, 1984).

[xi] Vivienne Gray, “Herodotus’ Literary and Historical Method: Arion’s Story” American Journal of Philology, 122.1 (Spring 2001): 11-28.

[xii] J.A.S. Evans, “What Happened to Croesus?” The Classical Journal 74.1 (October 1978):34-40.

[xiii] Ryan Krieger Balot, Greed and Injustice in Classical Athens (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 114-116.

[xiv] L.W. King and R.C. Thompson. The sculptures and inscription of Darius the Great on the rock of Behistûn in Persia (London: British Museum, 1907).

[xv] Daniel David Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia. Vol. 2: Historical Records of Assyria from Sargon to the End (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927), 23-27.

[xvi] Here Sennacherib is justifying his conquests by arguing that he is restoring just order to an evil people.

[xvii] James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1906), Part II §§ 407ff.

[xviii] Ballot, 128.

[xix] J.A.S. Evans, “Father of History or Father of Lies; The Reputation of Herodotus?” The Classical Journal 64.1 (October 1968):11-17.

[xx] 4.26

[xxi] Siep Stuurman, “Herodotus and Sima Qian: History and the Anthropological Turn in Ancient Greece and Han China” Journal of World History 19.1 (March 2008):1-40.