Herodotus and the Histories – Part One

“Bust of Herodotus” by Bradley N. Weber is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Having finally fulfilled a previous and somewhat rash promise to write about Thucydides and his account of the Peloponnesian War, I thought it about time I write about his forerunner, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who is generally accepted to have been the first historian.  Halicarnassus was a Dorian Greek colony city on the southwestern shore of Asia Minor, now Bodrum in Turkey.  Herodotus wrote what is regarded as the first known history book about the Graeco-Persian Wars, at least the first phase of them, which ended in the total defeat of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480/79 BC.  The war included some of the most famous battles in history – Thermopylae, Salamis, Marathon and Plataea as well as some less well known including Artemisium and Mycale.

Herodotus certainly saw the significance of the events of the first two decades of the 5th century BC, by which time the Persian Empire had grown in just over half a century to the be the largest ever seen until that point, encompassing the entire Middle East, much of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and parts of Libya, Northern Greece and Bulgaria.

In conquering Asia Minor and Cyprus, it had taken control of a large number of Greek colony cities scattered along the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Sea coastlines, and even in Egypt (Naucratis) and Libya (Cyrene).  It was just a matter of time before the empire decided to bring into subjection those Greek cities beyond its territory in the Aegean and on the mainland itself, and the trigger was a revolt by the Greek cities of Asia Minor in 499 BC, led by the largest, Miletus.  Although doomed to failure two mainland Greek cities – Athens and Eretria – sent aid to help their Ionian Greek kinsmen in the revolt and ensured that Persia felt it had unsettled business with the ‘free’ Greek states.

Herodotus – A Life

We know little of Herodotus’ life other than snippets from some much later writers which may or may not be accurate, although tradition agrees he was born about 484 BC. Herodotus tells us surprisingly little about himself other than his home city and patronymic.  Some things we can glean from his The Histories because of his own talkative style.  He clearly travelled a lot and was probably a merchant trading around the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts, and it seems he travelled to Egypt at least once and probably twice after the Egyptian revolt against the Persians, through Syria, and also visited Babylon and Babylonia, and likewise up the coast of Asia Minor and among the cities of the Black Sea.  In all these places there were well established Greek trading settlements and although he seems to have been only monolingual, he clearly had an inquisitive mind and was able to speak through translators with local nobles, priests as well as traders about their own histories and countries.

We also know he spent some years in exile on the island of Samos just off the coast of Asia Minor and was clearly very knowledgeable about the island and its history, especially its colourful former tyrant Polykrates.  Samos was one of the more powerful island states and had extensive international trading interests.  His exile had been caused by his involvement in a coup against the Persian sponsored tyrant of Halicarnassus, and he eventually moved to Athens at its very peak of power under Pericles where he started to publish his Histories, probably in instalments, by public readings.

New laws meant as a non-Athenian he could not get Athenian citizenship, so he seems to have been involved in the Athenian sponsored new colony of Thurii in Southern Italy in the 440s BC where he lived for a time, but it’s clear from references in his text that he was back in Athens at the start of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC and at the start of the Great Plague in 430/29 BC.  Thereafter he disappears and it has been speculated that he was a victim of the plague, although later Thuriian tradition records his burial there.  He was less than 60 at his death after a life of adventure and wide travel, but it’s for his Histories that he is so well remembered and read today two and a half millennia later.

Was Herodotus the First Historian?

Firstly, I wish to address the question was he the first historian?  He’s generally accepted by modern scholars to be so and we have no surviving fragments of any earlier writers who might gainsay the claim.  We know there were some earlier Greek writers, eg Hecataeus of Miletus (a statesman  involved in the Ionian Revolt of 499-94 BC) and Charon of Lampsacus, but what they wrote or whether it was of any significance is not known as nothing has survived of them.  Charon’s work is thought to have been a brief local history at most while Hecataeus’ work was most likely a travelogue recording what he found in his extensive travels in parts of Asia – Herodotus mentions him in this context as well as his political activities, and it is likely that Herodotus used some of Hecataeus’ material for his ethnographic and geographical passages.

So, Herodotus was the first major Greek historian.  The only other possible known rival to his claim to the first in history at all are some of the Books of the Old Testament, notably the four historical books of Kings and Chronicles, which are thought to be derived from Judaean Royal Court records compiled into their current form during the Babylonian Exile in the years before 550 BC.  Being in a primarily theological work most secular historians won’t even consider this claim although on the same basis it could be argued to exclude Herodotus because of the metaphysical and supernatural assumptions and narratives encoded in his work – something Thucydides was derisive about later.

Perhaps the difference between Herodotus and these historical Books of the Old Testament is not the theological or metaphysical content and reasoning, but the fact that the latter have no authorial content or analysis of the events but are rather event narratives without any discussion of their sources or causes.  So, depending how purist you want to be as to what makes a historian or book of history, one might provisionally say that he was the first as a modern reader might understand them.

Structure and Content of the Histories

Herodotus’ work is divided into Nine Books, a posthumous division caused by the number of papyri scrolls it was written on, and occupies 583 pages of text in the modern Penguin Classic translation (I’d recommend this as the version to buy if you are interested in reading him).  A synopsis of each Book is as follows:

Book 1 – Herodotus’ brief introduction, the first mythological quarrels between Asia and Greece, Cyrus the Great and the rise of the Persian Empire until the death of Cyrus the Great.

Book2 – Cyrus’ son and successor Cambyses and his conquest of Egypt, the rise and fall of Polykrates, tyrant of Samos, the death of Cambyses.

Book 3 -Court intrigues and civil war over the succession of the Persian crown, Darius’ seizure of power and battles to subdue an empire beset with revolts.

Book 4 – Darius’ failure to conquer Scythia, the tribes of Southern Russia and Ukraine, combined with an extensive ethnography and geography of the lands and peoples of the Asiatic Empire.

Book 5 – Persian expansion into Europe, a description of the peoples and lands of the Balkans, the Ionian Greek Revolt and its suppression 500-494 BC.

Book 6 – Persian advances into Greece and diplomatic contacts with the Greek states, the attack of 490 BC on Athens and Eretria and its defeat at Marathon, political history of Athens leading up to the emergence of the democracy.

Book 7 – Death of Darius and succession of Xerxes, Egyptian revolt and its suppression, Persian preparations for the invasion of Greece and diplomatic manoeuvrings, Xerxes’ immense army and navy cross into Europe and conquer Greece as far as Thessaly, the Carthaginian assault on Greek Sicily in alliance with Persia.

Book 8 – The battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium, evacuation of Athens, battle of Salamis, Xerxes departs Greece leaving Mardonius with a large army to attack the Peloponnese the following year.

Book 9 – the decisive battle of Plataea and death of Mardonius, defeat of the Persians at the amphibious battle of Mycale, renewed Ionian revolt, Greek expedition to expel the remaining Persian forces from Europe.

Herodotus’ Intentions in Writing

As you can see, it is a broad reaching work including huge amounts of background material describing the histories, legends, customs and beliefs of the peoples involved.  It’s far more than just a history as we understand it, it’s a travelogue, ethnography and history. Some of the material it contains seems frankly outlandish, tall tales from far foreign lands it might be said, such that Herodotus gained the epithet in ancient times from his detractors as the ‘Father of Lies’.  This is unfair because he possesses a charming candour in saying that some of his material is second or third hand and he has not been able to verify it but records it anyway.  A number of times he recounts conflicting accounts from different sources and suggests the reader decide for themselves what to believe.  He even says at one point he ‘made a heap’ of all that he learned.

One has to remember that he was recording what others told him, often many times handed down from far foreign lands through translators.  Thank Heavens he did – Thucydides wouldn’t have bothered – and our knowledge of large parts of the ancient world would be that much poorer as a result. For this reason, above all others, I like Herodotus, his honesty, his endeavour, his diligence.  He has a charm that Thucydides in all his certainty doesn’t.  Furthermore, as Western anthropologists and archaeologists got to work from the 19th century in previously inaccessible areas of Asia and Africa, many of Herodotus’ tall tales started to be found to contain a germ of truth if not more, just ones distorted or misunderstood by a process of Chinese whispers, Scythian burial customs for example.

Herodotus was fundamentally honest and not arrogant.  He was even open about his political biases – his preference for Athens over Sparta, his belief that Salamis was a greater victory than Plataea etc.  One can disagree with him, but at least he gives you the chance rather than burying evidence against his view.

So what prompted him to attempt what no one had done before, to establish a new genre of literature?  Firstly, he doesn’t seem to have conceived of writing a history in the way we might say today – he describes his book as ‘The Researches/Enquiries’ – but a much broader look into why Asia had gone to war with Europe in what he believed to be the greatest and most important war in history.  He saw it as a clash of civilisations far greater than one of just politics or military strategies, but of world views, systems of belief, cultures, and more deeply a metaphysical struggle (something I will address in Part 2).  He thought it illustrated the human condition.

Beyond that we don’t know what inspired him to set about doing something truly immense and radical, but who understands original genius?  To invent a new genre of literature, and arguably political and military commentary or analysis, how many people have done something like that, even conceived of it?  He doesn’t come across as arrogant, quite the contrary.  Knowing him from his own work, if we were to ask him, he would most probably have put it down to a god or goddess.

So, why did he do it?  He doesn’t tell us directly, but through two mythological anecdotes, one almost certainly he invented, at the very start and very end of his book.  He opens telling the myth of the abduction of Io, daughter of the king of Argos, by some Phoenician merchants (a sea faring people from what is today Lebanon).  And so began a series of tit-for-tat abductions of women by both Asiatics and Greeks, culminating in that of Helen of Sparta which caused the Trojan War.

Herodotus calls the conflict between the Greeks and the Asiatics, led by Persia, ‘astonishing’ and it seems he saw the war as the Trojan War of his era, only in reverse, so perhaps he hoped to become the prose Homer of his time.  Given that we are still studying him two and half millennia later one might say he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

Herodotus also had something to say about what the overriding lesson the Persian War should teach us.  At the very end of Book 9, after the final rout of the Persian presence in Europe, he does so in his highly idiosyncratic way, by telling an apocryphal story about his first hero of The Histories, Cyrus the Great: after Cyrus had conquered the empire of the Medes his senior advisers discussed whether the Persians as a whole should migrate to a much more conducive land away from the barren, hot and mountainous Persis of Southern Iran.

Cyrus rejected the idea, saying ‘Soft lands breed soft men’ and that soft men will be the subjects of others, rather than their rulers.  The Persians accepted Cyrus’ view and opted to remain in harsh Persis and build the great empire of their day.  Herodotus does not spell out the final conclusion, but the reader cannot help but conclude that after the wealth of 80 years of ruling Asia, the Persians had grown soft and attacked a much poorer, harder people – the Greeks – and lost.

One is reminded of the comment of the great Dutch Admiral Tromp who presided over the era of Dutch naval supremacy in the 17th century, when the Dutch Republic went to war with the new English Republic at the end of the 1640s, that the Dutch were going to war against a ‘mountain of iron’ while the English were attacking a ‘mountain of gold’.  The Dutch lost, heavily.  There are lessons for our day in Herodotus’ wisdom, and it’s a cracking good read too.

© JD de Pavilly 2022