The ancient Greek historian Herodotus is one of the most significant historians in history. Commonly referred to as the ‘Father of History’, he is credited with being the first person to write a comprehensive and systematic account of human affairs.
His magnum opus, The Histories, was a detailed account of the Greco-Persian Wars that occurred in the early 5th century BC, and was the first time a writer had ever made such a systematic, thorough study of the past or attempted to try to explain the cause-and-effect of its events. After Herodotus, historical analysis became an indispensable part of intellectual and political life.
Herodotus’ pioneering works in the field of history have been studied for centuries and continue to be of interest to scholars today, both for their content and their legacy that continues to this day.
Here we explore more about this groundbreaking historian.
Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus, which is now modern-day Bodrum, Turkey, in 484 BC. Gathering from his own works and accounts of his travels, Herodotus was a member of a prominent, influential family and received an excellent education.
It is known (via the The Suda, a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world), that Herodotus was the son of Lyxes and Dryo, and the brother of Theodorus, and that he was also related to Panyassis – an epic poet of the time.
At the time, his hometown Halicarnassus was within the Persian Empire, and it is believed that Herodotus was exiled from there by the tyrant Lygdamis, then lived in the island of Samos (where he learnt the Ionian dialect) until returning to participate in the revolt that eventually overthrew Lygdamis.
Herodotus spent his life working on his masterpiece, The Histories – a detailed account of the Greco-Persian Wars that took place between 499 and 449 BC.
Much of Herodotus’ work is dedicated to events before these Wars, with a significant portion of The Histories focusing on events that occurred between 550 BC and the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The work also covers the lives of prominent kings and other famous battles such Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale. (For some of these battles such as the Battle of Marathon, most of what is known is from Herodotus.)
The Histories was written in the Ionic dialect of ancient Greek. After Herodotus died, editors divided The Histories into nine books, each containing a different theme including the origins of the conflict, the various battles, and the aftermath.
Whilst Herodotus was not the first person to write about the Greco-Persian Wars, he was the first to provide a comprehensive and systematic account of the events, making him widely considered to be the ‘Father of History’. This title was conferred on him by the ancient Roman orator Cicero, and it is from Herodotus’ work that the modern meaning of the word ‘history’ comes from.
Herodotus was the first historian who attempted to record a comprehensive and reliable account of the past, rather than just stories or legends, and is known for his use of a wide range of sources, including personal observations, interviews, and written records.
He is also credited with introducing the concept of ’cause and effect’ in historical writing, attempting to explain why events occurred rather than simply describing them. By doing this, Herodotus believed that his work would ensure that the events of the past would not be forgotten and would serve as a valuable lesson for future generations.
Inspiration from travels
Herodotus was also interested in geography and anthropology. He travelled extensively throughout the ancient world during his lifetime, visiting Egypt, Persia, and several Greek city-states amongst other places, collecting information and conducting research for his work.
He provided extensive, detailed and accurate descriptions of the various customs, cultures and beliefs of the peoples he encountered and experienced during his travels in The Histories. These provide valuable insights into the cultures and peoples of the ancient world, and have also led to Herodotus being referred to as the ‘Father of Anthropology’.
Herodotus believed that the best way to convey information was through engaging stories that would capture the reader’s attention. He included many anecdotes and personal details in his writing, which made his work more interesting and accessible to a wider audience.
However, Herodotus was not always taken seriously by his contemporaries. Rival historian Thucydides chose to rely only on ‘factual’ evidence which provided a less subjective account of events, and considered Herodotus’ work to be unreliable and full of exaggerations in order to make it more entertaining and pleasant to read.
Nevertheless, Herodotus provided explanations in his writing stating that he was not sure of the veracity of some supposed events and scenes he describes, but was only reporting what he ascertained from his travels from what he could see and was told.
Thus, undeterred by this criticism, Herodotus continued to write and travel throughout his life. Although his accounts may not have all been completely historically factual as a result, they do provide readers with a look into the various historical situations at the time. Herodotus is respected for his honesty, and a sizeable portion of The Histories has indeed since been confirmed by modern historians and archaeologists.
At the time, it was conventional for authors to ‘publish’ their works by reciting them at large festivals. According to Lucian (a Hellenised Syrian satirist), Herodotus took The Histories to the Olympic Games and read his entire work to the spectators in one sitting, receiving rapturous applause.
However, a very different account by an ancient grammarian says Herodotus refused to begin reading his work at the festival of Olympia until some clouds offered him a bit of shade, by which time the assembly had dispersed. Herodotus’ recitation at Olympia (and a subsequent parable about missing opportunities through delay) then became a favourite theme among ancient writers.
Herodotus was interested in human nature and relationships to the divine, believing that human beings were subject to the whims of the gods who controlled their destiny. He was also influenced by the works of other ancient authors, including Homer and Hesiod, believing their works provided valuable insights into the culture and values of the ancient Greeks.
Herodotus died in Thurii, a city in Southern Italy, sometime around 425 BC, aged approximately 60.
His work influenced countless other historians and writers over the centuries, and has also had a lasting impact on the field of history itself, with his method of objective, critical inquiry and analysis becoming an indispensable part of intellectual study for historians.