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Bust of Herodotus
|Born||c. 484 BC|
Halicarnassus, Caria, Asia Minor
|Died||c. 425 BC (aged approximately 60)|
Thurii, Calabria or Pella, Macedon
Bust of Herodotus
|Born||c. 484 BC|
Halicarnassus, Caria, Asia Minor
|Died||c. 425 BC (aged approximately 60)|
Thurii, Calabria or Pella, Macedon
Herodotus ( //; Ancient Greek: Ἡρόδοτος Hēródotos) was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria (modern day Bodrum, Turkey) and lived in the fifth century BC (c.484 – 425 BC). He has been called the "Father of History", and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative. The Histories—his masterpiece and the only work he is known to have produced—is a record of his "inquiry" (or ἱστορία historía, a word that passed into Latin and acquired its modern meaning of "history"), being an investigation of the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars and including a wealth of geographical and ethnographical information. Although some of his stories were fanciful, he claimed he was reporting only what had been told to him. Little is known of his personal history.
The Histories, otherwise known as The Researches or The Inquiries, were divided by later Alexandrian editors into nine books, named after the nine Muses: the "Muse of History", Clio, representing the first book, then Euterpe, Thaleia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Ourania and Calliope for books 2 to 9, respectively. At its simplest and broadest level of meaning, The Histories is structured as a dynastic history of four Persian kings:
Within this basic structure, the author traces the way the Persians developed a custom of conquest and shows how their habits of thinking about the world finally brought about their downfall in Greece. Some commentators have argued the story of the first three kings must have been originally planned as a history of Persia and the story of Xerxes, later added to it instead is a history of the Persian Wars. Whatever the original plan might have been, the larger, historical account is often merely a background to a broad range of inquiries and, as Herodotus himself observes, "Digressions are part of my plan." (Book 4, 30)
The digressions can be understood to cover two themes: an account of the history of the entire known world as governed by the principle of reciprocity (or what today might be more commonly called an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and one good turn deserves another); and an account of the many astonishing reports and sights gained by the author during his extensive travels. The reader is therefore presented with a diversity of human experiences and settings within the context of an overarching historical order. The narrative structure allows for this diversity through simple stylistic devices such as the principle of ring composition, familiar since the time of Homer, in which the introduction and conclusion of a story or sub-plot is signalled by the repetition of some formulaic statement, facilitating the reader's comprehension of stories within stories in a kind of 'Chinese-box technique'—a structure that has no resemblance to the nine books artificially created by Alexandrian scholars. Herodotus's method of enquiry presents a world where everything is potentially important—this at a time when philosophers increasingly sought to understand the world according to basic principles. The work in fact was something of an anachronism. Yet those who did not appreciate it as model of history could still admire the style of writing—as Dionysius of Halicarnassus praises its sweetness and charm (De Thuc. 23). Herodotus employs a deceptively simple narrative style, in which the original Greek is Ionian in dialect, including some Homeric and other forms.
Herodotus announced the size and scope of his work at the beginning of his Researches or Histories:
Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε, ὡς μήτε τὰ γενόμενα ἐξ ἀνθρώπων τῷ χρόνῳ ἐξίτηλα γένηται, μήτε ἔργα μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά, τὰ μὲν Ἕλλησι, τὰ δὲ βαρβάροισι ἀποδεχθέντα, ἀκλεᾶ γένηται, τὰ τε ἄλλα καὶ δι' ἣν αἰτίην ἐπολέμησαν ἀλλήλοισι.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus, his Researches are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples; and more particularly, to show how they came into conflict.
His record of the achievements of others was an achievement in itself, though the extent of it has been debated. His place in history and his significance may be understood according to the traditions within which he worked. His work is the earliest Greek prose to have survived intact. However, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a literary critic of Augustan Rome, listed seven predecessors of Herodotus, describing their works as simple, unadorned accounts of their own and other cities and people, Greek or foreign, including popular legends, sometimes melodramatic and naive, often charming - all traits that can be found in the work of Herodotus himself. Modern historians regard the chronology as uncertain but, according to the ancient account, these predecessors included for example Dionysius of Miletus, Charon of Lampsacus, Hellanicus of Lesbos, Xanthus of Lydia and, the best attested of them all, Hecataeus of Miletus. Only fragments of the latter's work survive (and the authenticity of these is debatable) yet they allow us glimpses into the kind of tradition within which Herodotus wrote his own Histories, as for example in the introduction to Hecataeus's work, Genealogies:
Hecataeus the Milesian speaks thus: I write these things as they seem true to me; for the stories told by the Greeks are various and in my opinion absurd.
This points forward to the 'folksy' yet 'international' outlook typical of Herodotus. Yet, one modern scholar, reading between the lines, has described the work of Hecataeus as "a curious false start to history" because, despite its critical spirit, it failed to liberate history from myth. Herodotus actually mentions Hecataeus in his Histories, on one occasion mocking him for his naive genealogy and, on another occasion, quoting Athenian complaints against his handling of their national history. It is possible that Herodotus borrowed much material from Hecataeus, as stated by Porphyry in a quote recorded by Eusebius. In particular, it is possible that he copied descriptions of the crocodile, hippopotamus and phoenix from Hecataeus's 'Circumnavigation of the Known World' (Periegesis/Periodos ges), even mis-representing the source as 'Heliopolitans' (Histories 2.73). But unlike Herodotus, Hecataeus did not record events that had occurred in living memory, nor did he include the oral traditions of Greek history within the larger framework of oriental history. There is no proof that Herodotus derived the ambitious scope of his own work, with its grand theme of civilizations in conflict, from any predecessor, despite much scholarly speculation about this in modern times. Herodotus claims to be better informed than his predecessors, relying on empirical observation to correct their excessive schematism. For example, he argues for continental asymmetry as opposed to the older theory of a perfectly circular earth with Europe and Asia/Africa equal in size (Hist. 4.36 and 4.42). Yet, he retains idealising tendencies, as in his symmetrical notions of the Danube and Nile.
His debt to previous authors of prose 'histories' might be questionable but there is no doubt that he owed much to the example and inspiration of poets and story-tellers. For example, Athenian tragic poets provided him with a world-view of a balance between conflicting forces, upset by the hubris of kings, and they provided his narrative with a model of episodic structure. His familiarity with Athenian tragedy is demonstrated, for example, in a number of passages echoing Aeschylus's Persae, including the epigrammatic observation that the defeat of the Persian navy at Salamis caused the defeat of the land army (Hist. 8.68 ~ Persae 728). The debt may have been repaid by Sophocles because there appear to be echoes of The Histories in his plays, especially a passage in Antigone that resembles Herodotus's account of the death of Intaphernes (Histories 3.119 ~ Antigone 904-20) - this however is one of the most contentious issues in modern scholarship.
Homer was another inspirational source.
"In the scheme and plan of his work, in the arrangement and order of its parts, in the tone and character of the thoughts, in ten thousand little expressions and words, the Homeric student appears." - George Rawlinson
Just as Homer drew extensively on a tradition of oral poetry, sung by wandering minstrels, so Herodotus appears to have drawn on an Ionian tradition of story-telling, collecting and interpreting the oral histories he chanced upon in his travels. These oral histories often contained folk-tale motifs and demonstrated a moral, yet they also contained substantial facts relating to geography, anthropology and history, all compiled by Herodotus in an entertaining style and format. It is on account of the many strange stories and the folk-tales he reported that his critics in early modern times branded him 'The Father of Lies'. Even his own contemporaries found reason to scoff at his achievement. In fact one modern scholar has wondered if Herodotus left his home in Asiatic Greece, migrating westwards to Athens and beyond, because his own countrymen had ridiculed his work, a circumstance possibly hinted at in an epitaph said to have been dedicated to Herodotus at Thuria (one of his three supposed resting places):
Yet it was in Athens where his most formidable contemporary critics could be found. In 425 BC, which is about the time that Herodotus is thought by many scholars to have died, the Athenian comic dramatist, Aristophanes, created The Acharnians, in which he blames The Peloponnesian War on the abduction of some prostitutes - a mocking reference to Herodotus, who reported the Persians' account of their wars with Greece, beginning with the rapes of the mythical heroines Io, Europa, Medea and Helen. Similarly, the Athenian historian Thucydides dismissed Herodotus as a 'logos-writer' or story-teller. Thucydides, who had been trained in rhetoric, became the model for subsequent prose-writers as an author who seeks to appear firmly in control of his material, whereas Herodotus with his frequent digressions appeared to minimize (or possibly disguise) his auctorial control. Moreover, Thucydides developed a historical topic more in keeping with the Greek lifestyle - the polis or city-state - whereas the interplay of civilizations was more relevant to Asiatic Greeks (such as Herodotus himself), for whom life under foreign rule was a recent memory.
Although The Histories were often criticized in antiquity for bias, inaccuracy and plagiarism—Lucian of Samosata attacked Herodotus as a liar in Verae Historiae and went as far as to deny him a place among the famous on the Island of the Blessed—modern historians and philosophers take a more positive view of Herodotus's methodology, especially those searching for a paradigm of objective historical writing. A few modern scholars have argued that Herodotus exaggerated the extent of his travels and invented his sources yet his reputation continues largely intact: "The Father of History is also the father of comparative anthropology", "the father of ethnography", and he is "more modern than any other ancient historian in his approach to the ideal of total history".
"Before the Persian crisis history had been represented among the Greeks only by local or family traditions. The Wars of Liberation had given to Herodotus the first genuinely historical inspiration felt by a Greek. These wars showed him that there was a corporate life, higher than that of the city, of which the story might be told; and they offered to him as a subject the drama of the collision between East and West. With him, the spirit of history was born into Greece; and his work, called after the nine Muses, was indeed the first utterance of Clio."—Richard Claverhouse Jebb.
As mentioned earlier, Herodotus has sometimes been labeled "The Father of Lies" because of his tendency to report fanciful information. Much of the information that others subsequently reported about him is just as fanciful and some of it is vindictive or blatantly absurd, yet it is interesting and therefore worth reporting. Herodotus himself reported dubious information if it was interesting, sometimes adding his own opinion about its reliability.
Some "calumnious fictions" were written about Herodotus in a work titled On the Malice of Herodotus, by Plutarch, a Theban by birth, (or it might have been a Pseudo-Plutarch, in this case "a great collector of slanders"), including the allegation that the historian was prejudiced against Thebes because the authorities there had denied him permission to set up a school. Similarly, in a Corinthian Oration, Dio Chrysostom (or yet another pseudonymous author) accused the historian of prejudice against Corinth, sourcing it in personal bitterness over financial disappointments - an account also given by Marcellinus in his Life of Thucydides. In fact Herodotus was in the habit of seeking out information from empowered sources within communities, such as aristocrats and priests, and this also occurred at an international level, with Periclean Athens becoming his principal source of information about events in Greece. As a result, his reports about Greek events are often coloured by Athenian bias against rival states - Thebes and Corinth in particular. Thus the allegations promoted by 'Plutarch' and 'Chrysostom' may be regarded as 'pay-back'.
Herodotus wrote his Histories in the Ionian dialect yet he was born in Halicarnassus, originally a Dorian settlement. According to the Suda (an 11th-century encyclopaedia of Byzantium which likely took its information from traditional accounts), Herodotus learned the Ionian dialect as a boy living on the island of Samos, whither he had fled with his family from the oppressions of Lygdamis, tyrant of Halicarnassus and grandson of Artemisia I of Caria. The Suda also informs us that Herodotus later returned home to lead the revolt that eventually overthrew the tyrant. However, thanks to recent discoveries of some inscriptions on Halicarnassus, dated to about that time, we now know that the Ionic dialect was used there even in official documents, so there was no need to assume like the Suda that he must have learned the dialect elsewhere. Moreover, the fact that the Suda is the only source we have for the heroic role played by Herodotus, as liberator of his birthplace, is itself a good reason to doubt such a romantic account.
It was conventional in Herodotus's day for authors to 'publish' their works by reciting them at popular festivals. According to Lucian, Herodotus took his finished work straight from Asia Minor to the Olympic Games and read the entire Histories to the assembled spectators in one sitting, receiving rapturous applause at the end of it. According to a very different account by an ancient grammarian, Herodotus refused to begin reading his work at the festival of Olympia until some clouds offered him a bit of shade, by which time however the assembly had dispersed - thus the proverbial expression "Herodotus and his shade" to describe any man who misses his opportunity through delay. Herodotus's recitation at Olympia was a favourite theme among ancient writers and there is another interesting variation on the story to be found in the Suda, Photius and Tzetzes, in which a young Thucydides happened to be in the assembly with his father and burst into tears during the recital, whereupon Herodotus observed prophetically to the boy's father: "Thy son's soul yearns for knowledge."
Eventually, Thucydides and Herodotus became close enough for both to be interred in Thucydides' tomb in Athens. Such at least was the opinion of Marcellinus in his Life of Thucydides. According to the Suda, he was buried in Macedonian Pella and in the agora in Thurium.
Modern scholars generally turn to Herodotus's own writing for reliable information about his life, very carefully supplemented with other ancient yet much later sources, such as the Byzantine Suda:
"The data are so few - they rest upon such late and slight authority; they are so improbable or so contradictory, that to compile them into a biography is like building a house of cards, which the first breath of criticism will blow to the ground. Still, certain points may be approximately fixed..." - George Rawlinson.
Typically modern accounts of his life go something like this: Herodotus was born at Halicarnassus around 484 BC. There is no reason to disbelieve the Suda's information about his family, that it was influential and that he 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. The town was within the Persian empire at that time and maybe the young Herodotus heard local eye-witness accounts of events within the empire and of Persian preparations for the invasion of Greece, including the movements of the local fleet under the command of Artemisia. Inscriptions recently discovered at Halicarnassus indicate that her grandson Lygdamis negotiated with a local assembly to settle disputes over seized property, which is consistent with a tyrant under pressure, and his name is not mentioned later in the tribute list of the Athenian Delian League, indicating that there might well have been a successful uprising against him sometime before 454 BC. Herodotus reveals affection for the island of Samos (III, 39-60) and this is an indication that he might have lived there in his youth. So it is possible that his family was involved in an uprising against Lygdamis, leading to a period of exile on Samos and followed by some personal hand in the tyrant's eventual fall.
As Herodotus himself reveals, Halicarnassus, though a Dorian city, had ended its close relations with its Dorian neighbours after an unseemly quarrel (I, 144), and it had helped pioneer Greek trade with Egypt (II,178). It was therefore an outward-looking, international-minded port within the Persian Empire and the historian's family could well have had contacts in countries under Persian rule, facilitating his travels and his researches. His eye-witness accounts indicate that he travelled in Egypt probably sometime after 454 BC or possibly earlier in association with Athenians, after an Athenian fleet had assisted the uprising against Persian rule in 460-454 BC. He probably travelled to Tyre next and then down the Euphrates to Babylon. For some reason, probably associated with local politics, he subsequently found himself unpopular in Halicarnassus and, sometime around 447 BC, he migrated to Periclean Athens, a city for whose people and democratic institutions he declares his open admiration (V, 78) and where he came to know not just leading citizens such as the Alcmaeonids, a clan whose history features frequently in his writing, but also the local topography (VI, 137; VIII, 52-5). According to Eusebius and Plutarch, Herodotus was granted a financial reward by the Athenian assembly in recognition of his work and there may be some truth in this. It is possible that he applied for Athenian citizenship - a rare honour after 451 BC, requiring two separate votes by a well-attended assembly - but was unsuccessful. In 443 BC, or shortly afterwards, he migrated to Thurium as part of an Athenian-sponsored colony. Aristotle refers to a version of The Histories written by 'Herodotus of Thurium' and indeed some passages in the Histories have been interpreted as proof that he wrote about southern Italy from personal experience there (IV, 15, 99; VI 127). Intimate knowledge of some events in the first years of the Peloponnesian War (VI,91; VII,133,233; IX,73) indicate that he might have returned to Athens, in which case it is possible that he died there during an outbreak of the plague. Possibly he died in Macedonia instead after obtaining the patronage of the court there or else he died back in Thurium. Either way, there is nothing in the Histories that can be dated with any certainty later than 430 and it is generally assumed that he died not long afterwards, possibly before his sixtieth year.
Circumstances rule men; men do not rule circumstances.—Herodotus, Histories 7.49
Herodotus provides much intriguing information about the nature of the world and the status of science during his lifetime, often engaging in private speculation.
For example, he reports that the annual flooding of the Nile was said to be the result of melting snows far to the south, and he comments that he cannot understand how there can be snow in Africa, the hottest part of the known world, offering an elaborate explanation based on the way that desert winds affect the passage of the Sun over this part of the world (2:18ff). He also passes on dismissive reports from Phoenician sailors that, while circumnavigating Africa, they "saw the sun on the right side while sailing westwards". Owing to this brief mention, which is included almost as an afterthought, it has been argued that Africa was indeed circumnavigated by ancient seafarers, for this is precisely where the sun ought to have been. His accounts of India are among the oldest records of Indian civilization by an outsider.
Discoveries made since the end of the 19th century have both added to and detracted from his credibility. His description of Gelonus, located in Scythia, as a city thousands of times larger than Troy was widely disbelieved until it was rediscovered in 1975. The archaeological study of the now-submerged ancient Egyptian city of Heracleion and the recovery of the so-called "Naucratis stela" give extensive credibility to Herodotus's previously unsupported claim that Heracleion was founded during the Egyptian New Kingdom.
Other claims he made are inconsistent with archeological and cuneiform document evidence. For instance, his account of the Medes appears to accord poorly with Assyrian and Babylonian records and with archeological evidence.
One of the most recent developments in Herodotus scholarship was made by the French ethnologist Michel Peissel. On his journeys to India and Pakistan, Peissel claims to have discovered an animal species that may finally illuminate one of the most bizarre passages in Herodotus's Histories. In Book 3, passages 102 to 105, Herodotus reports that a species of fox-sized, furry "ants" lives in one of the far eastern, Indian provinces of the Persian Empire. This region, he reports, is a sandy desert, and the sand there contains a wealth of fine gold dust. These giant ants, according to Herodotus, would often unearth the gold dust when digging their mounds and tunnels, and the people living in this province would then collect the precious dust. Now, Peissel says that in an isolated region of northern Pakistan, on the Deosai Plateau in Gilgit–Baltistan province, there exists a species of marmot, (the Himalayan marmot), (a type of burrowing squirrel) that may have been what Herodotus called giant "ants". Much like the province that Herodotus describes, the ground of the Deosai Plateau is rich in gold dust. According to Peissel, he interviewed the Minaro tribal people who live in the Deosai Plateau, and they have confirmed that they have, for generations, been collecting the gold dust that the marmots bring to the surface when they are digging their underground burrows. The story seems to have been widespread in the ancient world, because later authors like Pliny the Elder mentioned it in his gold mining section of the Naturalis Historia.
Even more tantalizing, in his book, The Ants' Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas, Peissel offers the theory that Herodotus may have become confused because the old Persian word for "marmot" was quite similar to that for "mountain ant". Because research suggests that Herodotus probably did not know any Persian (or any other language except his native Greek), he was forced to rely on a multitude of local translators when travelling in the vast multilingual Persian Empire. Therefore, he may have been the unwitting victim of a simple misunderstanding in translation. As Herodotus never claims to have himself seen these "ant/marmot" creatures, it is likely that he was simply reporting what other travellers were telling him, no matter how bizarre or unlikely he personally may have found it to be. In the age when most of the world was still mysterious and unknown and before the modern science of biology, the existence of a giant ant may not have seemed so far-fetched. The suggestion that he completely made up the tale may continue to be thrown into doubt as more research is conducted.
With that said, Herodotus did follow up in passage 105 of Book 3, with the claim that the "ants/marmots" are said to chase and devour full-grown camels; again, this could simply be dutiful reporting of what was in reality a tall tale or legend told by the local tribes to frighten foreigners from seeking this relatively easy access to gold dust. On the other hand, the details of the "ants" seem somewhat similar to the description of the camel spider (Solifugae), which are said to chase camels, have lots of hair bristles, and could quite easily be mistaken for ants. On account of the fear of encountering one, there have been "many myths and exaggerations about their size". Images of camel spiders could give the impression that this could be mistaken for a giant ant, but certainly not the size of a fox.
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