His invention earned him the title "The Father of History" and the word he used for his achievement, historie, which previously had meant simply "research", took on its modern connotation of "history".
Conversely, however, many historians and philosophers who take a more sceptical view of Herodotus' accounts and narratives have a different name for him, dubbing him "The Father of Lies." Recent archaeology has begun to prove his Histories were largely accurate. In many cases, Herodotus, unsure of the exact history, would give the most prominent, competing historical accounts of a particular event or region, and then express his opinion as to which he believed was accurate, with an explanation of why.
The Histories was often attacked in the ancient world for bias, inaccuracy, and plagiarism. Similar attacks have been made by a few modern scholars, who argue that Herodotus exaggerated the extent of his travels and fabricated sources. Respect for his accuracy has increased in the last half century, however, and he is now recognized not only as a pioneer in history but in ethnography and anthropology as well.
Published between 430 and 424 B.C., the Histories was divided by later editors into nine books, named after the Muses. The first six books deal with the growth of the Persian Empire. They begin with an account of the first Asian monarch to conquer Greek city-states and exact tribute, Croesus of Lydia. Croesus lost his kingdom to Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire. The first six books end with the defeat of the Persians in 490 B.C. at the Battle of Marathon, which was the first setback to their imperial progress. The last three books of the Histories describe the attempt of the Persian king Xerxes ten years later to avenge the Persian defeat at Marathon and absorb Greece into the Persian Empire. The Histories ends with the year 479 B.C., when the Persian invaders were wiped out at the Battle of Plataea and the frontier of the Persian Empire receded to the Aegean coastline of Asia Minor.
As to Herodotus's life, we know that he was exiled from Halicarnassus after his involvement in an unsuccessful putsch against the ruling dynasty, and he withdrew to the island of Samos. He seems never to have returned to Halicarnassus, though in his Histories he appears to be proud of his native city and its queen, Artemisia. It must have been during his exile that he undertook the journeys that he describes in the Histories. These journeys took him to Egypt, as far south as the first cataract of the Nile, to Babylon, to Ukraine, and to Italy and Sicily. Herodotus mentions an interview with an informant in Sparta, and almost certainly he lived for a period in Athens. In Athens, he tapped the oral traditions of the prominent families, in particular the Alkmaeonidai, to which Pericles belonged on his maternal side. But the Athenians did not accept foreigners as citizens, and when Athens sponsored the colony of Thurii in the instep of Italy in 444 BC, Herodotus became a colonist. Whether he died there or not is uncertain.
At some point he became a logios -- that is, a reciter of prose logoi or stories -- and his subject matter was tales of battles, other historical incidents, and the marvels of foreign lands. He made tours of the Greek cities and the major religious and athletic festivals, where he offered performances for which he expected payment. In 431 BC, the Peloponnesian War broke out between Athens and Sparta. It may have been that conflict, which divided the Greek world, that inspired him to collect his stories into a continuous narrative -- the Histories -- centered on the theme of Persia's imperial progress, which Athens and Sparta as allies had brought to a halt.
The quotation Neither rain, nor snow, nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds is attributed to Herodotus, describing the Persian "postal" system. The quotation is inscribed on the facade of the New York Post office building, and was also used as part of the lyric in Laurie Anderson's 1981 hit, O Superman.
For further reading
- Translations of the Histories are readily available in the Penguin Classics series, by A. de Selincourt, and in the Modern Library series, by G. Rawlinson.
- Evans, J. A. S., Herodotus. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
- ---. Herodotus, Explorer of the Past: Three Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.
- Flory, Stewart, The Archaic Smile of Herodotus. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987.
- Hartog, F., The Mirror of Herodotus. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.
- Lateiner, D., The Historical Method of Herodotus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.
- Pritchett, W. K., The Liar School of Herodotus. Amsterdam: Gieben, 1991.
An earlier version of this article by James Allan Evans was posted at Nupedia.
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