Herodotus (c. 484–425 bce) was the first Greek to write a history of the world as he knew it. The central topic in his nine-book-long Histories examined conflict and war among Greeks and Persians. He gathered information by traveling, asking questions, and comparing the stories he was told; although he sought the truth, he often repeated what he heard, warning his readers that he did not personally believe it.
Herodotus was the founder of the Greek historiographic (relating to the writing of history) tradition. Although earlier writers may have written books dealing with historical topics, Herodotus was the first to write in Greek a long prose work that had the purpose of narrating and explaining a complex historical event. The tradition of historical writing that began with the publication of Herodotus’s work during the late fifth century bce extended to the end of antiquity and provides the principal source of information for the history of the Mediterranean Sea basin from the sixth century bce to the seventh century ce.
No ancient biography of Herodotus survives. The only sources for his life are his work and an article in a tenth-century ce Byzantine encyclopedia entitled the Suda. These sources suggest that he was born in the southwest Anatolian city of Halicarnassus (in modern Turkey) and died in the south Italian city of Thurii. The presence of both Greek and Carian (relating to a region of Anatolia) names in his family indicates that he was probably of mixed Greek and Carian ancestry. Except for his being exiled after an unsuccessful attempt to oust the tyrant of Halicarnassus and his death at Thurii, the only known events of Herodotus’s life are the travels he mentions in his work. These were extensive and included visits to Athens, Egypt, North Africa, southern Italy, and the Black Sea.
Herodotus is known to have written only one book: the Histories. When it was published in the 420s bce, it was probably one of the longest, if not the longest, and most complex prose works that had been written in Greek to that time. Herodotus stated his purpose in the first sentence of the Histories: to preserve the memory of the great deeds of the Greeks and barbarians and to explain the reason they fought with each other.
Herodotus achieved his purpose by tracing in the first four books of the Histories the rise of the Persian Empire from its foundation in the mid-sixth century bce to the outbreak of the Ionian Revolt in 499 bce. Accounts of the history and culture of the various peoples conquered by the Persians interspersed throughout the narrative provided a panoramic view of the world known to the Greeks. In the final five books he then narrated in detail the conflict between the Greeks and Persians from the Ionian Revolt to the failure of the Persian king Xerxes’s great invasion of Greece in 480–479 bce. Uniting his account was the idea that the conflict represented a struggle between Europe and Asia and freedom and slavery as represented by the leading peoples of each continent: the Greeks and the Persians.
The only good is knowledge, and the only evil is ignorance.Herodotus (484?–430/420 BCE)
Herodotus’s work immediately became the standard Greek account of the Persian Wars. Thucydides and other Greek historians continued his work, but none tried to redo it. Already in antiquity, however, Herodotus’s status as a historian was controversial, as evidenced by the tendency to refer to him not only as the “Father of History” but also as the “Father of Lies” because of the numerous fantastic stories in his work. The rehabilitation of Herodotus’s reputation as a historian began during the Age of Discovery with the recognition of numerous parallels between his work and European explorers’ accounts of the Americas. Further evidence of his reliability was provided by archaeological discoveries confirming the accuracy of many of his descriptions of non-Greek monuments and burial practices. Finally, recent scholarship has demonstrated close parallels between Herodotus’s methods as described in the Histories and traditional oral historians in Africa and elsewhere, thereby vindicating his claim that his work was primarily based on two sources: his personal observations and critical evaluation of what people told him during his travels.
Herodotus’s position as the founder of the Greek historiographic tradition is secure, as is his contribution to world history. That contribution was threefold. He was the first to use the criterion of reliable evidence to distinguish historical time. He also introduced the idea of the succession of empires that provided the basic framework for European world histories until the nineteenth century ce. Most important, however, he recognized that all peoples have their own independent histories and established the principle that historians should rely on native sources to write the history of any people. Although Herodotus’s practice was not always equal to his principles, and although his most important successor, Thucydides, narrowed the scope of mainstream Greek historiography to contemporary war and politics, the Histories continued to provide a model and fundamental source for world histories throughout antiquity.
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