Herodotus (Greek: Ἡρόδοτος, Hērodotos) is one of Greece’s first historians. His major work was the Histories, which chronicled the rise of the Persian Empire and its subsequent clash with Greece during the Graeco-Persian Wars of the fifth century BCE.
Much about Herodotus’ life is uncertain. He was likely born between 490 and 480 BCE in Halicarnassus.
The Suda provides a few biographical details:
Son of Lyxus and Dryo; of Halicarnassus; one of the distinguished citizens; and he had a brother named Theodorus. He migrated to Samos because of Lygdamis, who was the third tyrant of Halicarnassus after Artemisia: Pisindelis was the son of Artemisia, and Lygdamis the son of Pisindelis. In Samos he practised the Ionian dialect and wrote a history in nine books, beginning with Cyrus the Persian and Candaules the king of the Lydians. He went back to Halicarnassus and drove out the tyrant; but later, when he saw that he he was the object of spite on the citizens’ part, he voluntarily went to Thurii which was being colonized by Athenians, and after he died there he was buried in the agora. But some say that he died in Pella.
Other ancient writers only add anecdotes to this picture. Lucian claims that Herodotus read out his Histories to “all the Greeks” at once at the Olympic games to great applause. Some have even claimed that a young Thucydides witnessed it there, and was moved—either by affection for inquiry or disgust at lack of rigor—to write his own historical works. Herodotus himself, in his Histories, also relates some of his extensive travels—especially to Egypt—where he often conversed with local priests on the subject of their histories and customs.
Herodotus’ final resting place is more probably Thurii and not Pella. Aristotle confirms his move to Thurii and mentions a manuscript of the Histories that begin with “Herodotus of Thurii” instead of “Herodotus of Halicarnassus,” as they all do today. Since Aristotle lived in Pella and was tutor to the young Alexander the Great, he would have known if Herodotus had spent the remainder of his days there.
It is unknown when he died, though some scholars have seen certain references in his Histories as allusions to events that took place in the 420s.
Herodotus’ single work was the Histories, a history in nine books that covers the bulk of the Graeco-Persian Wars down to 479 with the retreat of the Persian army. The title, Historiai (Ἱστορίαι) in Greek, derive from the Greek work histor (ἵστωρ, ‘one who knows, witness’), and means something approximating “observation,” “inquiry,” or “account.” Herodotus at least purports to have compiled his work from either witnesses or oral traditions and tales passed on in communities about the Persian Wars.
The Histories chief aims are to understand the cause and to preserve the memory of what Herodotus thought was the greatest war ever. As such, he actually begins far before the Persians, and traces the very origin of the war to a series of bride kidnappings perpetrated by the ‘Easterners’ (Phoenicians, Trojans) and the Greeks in return. Herodotus’ focus on causality highlights how sometimes trivial actions have the gravest of consequences.
The Histories are especially noteworthy for being the first of its kind in Greek. Chronicles date back millennia, and recollections of past events in poetry and prose alike abound, but Herodotus set about to systematically compile the details of the Persian War and provide a hypothesis as to why it happened and why it resolved in the way it did. Unlike some other narrative texts before it, this was not an account of the great heroes or gods, nor was the focus limited to only the Greek and Persian interactions. Herodotus had an eye for the entire Mediterranean and West Asian world. A whopping forty percent of the text is actually an explanation of ethnic divisions and customs of various groups, from the Ethiopians in the south to the Scythians in the north, from the “opposite land” of the Egyptians to the people-eating Callatiae in India. Herodotus painted a portrait of a whole world in flux and interacting with each other; and actions reverberate through many generations.
Herodotus left an outsized impact on the ancient and modern world. He was early on dubbed the “father of history,” but for his inclusion of far-fetched materials he was also called by some the “father of lies.” Some, like Lucian, are effusive in their praise:
I devoutly wish that Herodotus’s other characteristics were imitable; not all of them, of course—that is past praying for—but any one of them: the agreeable style, the constructive skill, the native charm of his Ionic, the sententious wealth, or any of a thousand beauties which he combined into one whole, to the despair of imitators.
Others were less than pleased. Already in antiquity Herodotus’ inclusion of outlandish tales—gold-mining giants ants, man-eating tribes, dog-headed people, a pro-Persian Delphic prophecy—was cause for scorn. Perhaps the most spiteful toward him was Plutarch, who wrote a whole treatise against him for his treatment of Boeotians. Apparently, Herodotus was too unkind toward Plutarch’s kindred countrymen, and too deferential to the Persians and other non-Greeks, that Plutarch gave him the appellation philobarbaros, “foreigner-loving,” which in ancient Greece was not as pejorative as it gets.
Topics on Herodotus
Sacred-Texts (Eng. trans. Macaulay, 1890)