One of the trenchancies about Herodotus, the “father of history,” is that his own history is largely unknown.
Scholars believe that Herodotus was born in the city of Halicarnassus around 480 B.C.E., but that’s pretty much where the thread elucidates. Somehow, he had the means to travel all around the ancient world conducting research and collecting stories for his ambitious magnum opus, “The Histories.”
But how? Did Herodotus inherit a bunch of money from his family? Was he a successful merchant or traveling lecturer? Herodotus doesn’t say. Experts believe that he must have come from a wealthy family given the breadth of his travels and the fact that his writing style was so polished, which implies that he was highly educated.
“The Histories,” written sometime in the later fifth century B.C.E., is a sprawling record of the growth of the Persian Empire over about a century, leading to the defeat of the huge Persian army and navy in Greece in 480-79 B.C.E., in what is called by the Greeks the “Persian Wars.” Herodotus takes long and meandering detours describing among other things the amazing city of Babylon, the course of Egyptian history, and even the habits of the nomad Scythians north of the Black Sea.
Herodotus himself might remain a mystery, but his voice on the page is personal, engaging, and playful, that of a natural-born storyteller with a seemingly endless curiosity to better understand the world around him, past and present.
Scholars haven’t always been kind to Herodotus. Until recently, people prized him less as a “serious” historian than as a skilled raconteur who valued the entertainment impact of a juicy tale from the past rather than asking whether it actually happened. But a new generation of historians is rescuing Herodotus’s reputation as the true “father of history,” a man who traveled to the edges of the known world and interviewed everyone from Egyptian priests to Babylonian farmers, collected stories of powerful queens and Median shepherd girls, in order to make sense of the complex course of human events, both great and small.
What did History mean to Herodotus?
That’s how Herodotus opens “The Histories,” not by invoking the gods or muses like his predecessor Homer, but by stating his intent, to record the “great and marvelous deeds” of humanity for future generations. Herodotus didn’t name his text “The Histories.” The title came later and was pulled from the Greek word for “inquiry” that Herodotus would have used in that opening line: historíē.
“Historíē was an Ionian Greek word that didn’t mean history, it meant ‘investigation,'” says Carolyn Dewald, a Professor Emerita of classical studies at Bard College in New York and co-editor of “The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus.” “To Herodotus, historíē meant some kind of fact-based exploration.”
The challenge for an investigator of the past working in the fifth century B.C.E. was that almost nothing was written down. Herodotus couldn’t walk into the Athens library and check out a scroll or two on Egyptian history. He had to go out and collect logoi, the “stories” told by people who either witnessed an event firsthand or had received knowledge passed down through strong oral traditions. That was the best historical data Herodotus could get his hands on.
“What I admire very much about Herodotus is that he stays very close to his sources,” says Dewald. “He introduces each new account as ‘The Persians say…’ or ‘The Lydians say…’ He’s truly exercising historíē in that he’s getting as close as he can to the actual record of what happened, recognizing that it always depends on the point of view of the person telling the story.”
Herodotus sometimes interjects his first-person voice into the narrative to weigh in on differing accounts of the same event, or to admit that he doesn’t know the full truth.
“I am obliged to record the things I am told, but am certainly not required to believe them,” Herodotus writes in one chapter of “The Histories,” and again in a later chapter: “Anyone who finds such things credible can make of these Egyptian stories what he wishes. My job, throughout this account, is simply to record whatever I am told by each of my sources.”
What cements Herodotus as the “father of history” for scholars like Dewald is that “The Histories,” even with its reliance on third-person accounts, attempts to explain the course of human events through causal consequences — this set of decisions by people led to a certain action, which brought on another reaction, and so on. Herodotus wasn’t satisfied with knowing the who, what, and when of history, but also the why. Why did the Persians hate the Greeks so much in the first place? Why did mighty Egypt, the crown jewel of antiquity, fall to the Persians? Why did one powerful leader after another fall victim to pride, revenge, or greed?
Herodotus “invented” history as we know it, Dewald says, because he was the first to see these myriad stories from the past as small parts of one much bigger story — the story of the known human world.
“That sounds obvious to us now, but it wasn’t at all obvious when Herodotus was writing in the 440s B.C.E.,” says Dewald. “The idea that he would take everybody’s viewpoint — including that of hundreds of women — and make sure that the points of view of all the human actors are accounted for, was revolutionary.”
A Crazy Time to Be Alive
Although we know very little about Herodotus the man, we know a lot about the time in which he lived. Herodotus would have been at most a small child when a loose confederation of poor Greek city-states defeated the mighty Persians in the Persian Wars. By the time he was a young man, he would have been a participant in creating fifth-century Greek civilization — an intellectual, philosophical, and political revolution that shaped the course of Western culture.
Herodotus, living in a time of such an immense cultural shift, was trying to make sense of it all. This may have been why he chose the Persian Wars as the foundational narrative of “The Histories.” The Persian Empire had been the biggest and most powerful empire the world had ever seen, stretching from Libya to India, and its rulers and military were highly competent and well-organized. Why did the Greeks win?
“The big question for Herodotus’ generation was how on Earth did these 30 or so poor, independent, squabbling Greek cities (a) get together and agree to do something in unison, and (b) how did they manage to defeat this enormous and very well-planned Persian attempt to defeat them?” says Dewald. “Who knows, we might all be speaking a form of Persian today if they hadn’t done that. It’s really a significant moment in world history that Herodotus is talking about.”
The Reliability and Legacy of Herodotus
Cicero, the Roman statesman, called Herodotus the “father of history.” Plutarch, a Greek philosopher who lived more than a century later than Cicero (first to second century C.E.), had another title for Herodotus: the “father of lies.” (Plutarch was peeved that Herodotus made it clear that Plutarch’s own people, the Boeotians, had supported the wrong side in the war, the Persians.)
Herodotus has always been plagued by reliability issues. His description of Ancient Babylon stands out as a particularly egregious example of an attempt to piece together details about a place that had been defeated twice by the Persians, with a lot of destruction, by Herodotus’s time.
Dewald admits that Herodotus’s descriptions of mud-brick walls rising up to the height of a very tall office building are “preposterous,” even if he was relying on hand-me-down reports about walls no longer standing. Other critics of Herodotus pointed to his fanciful accounts of giant ants in India that dig up gold, flying snakes in Arabia, and long-tailed sheep whose tails are supported behind them on wheeled carts. But modern scholars like Dewald come to Herodotus’ defense.
“What I object to is people who say that Herodotus wasn’t interested in accuracy,” says Dewald. “It’s clear to me that he spends an incredible amount of time trying to get things right. I think his critics badly misunderstood where he was coming from. Given the immensity of the job he had to collect and assess all of that data, almost all scholars now admit it was very impressive.”
The reality is that Herodotus, whether you choose to believe him or not, created the starting point from which every modern historian has begun their own historíē or inquiry into the life and times of the Mediterranean world and its environs in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. “A great deal of what we know about the archaic and early classical period in Greece we owe to Herodotus,” says Dewald.