Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 September 2009
Herodotus (c.484 – 425/413 BCE) was a writer who invented the field of study known today as `history’. He was called `The Father of History’ by the Roman writer and orator Cicero for his famous work The Histories but has also been called “The Father of Lies” by critics who claim these `histories’ are little more than tall tales. Criticism of Herodotus’ work seems to have originated among Athenians who took exception to his account of the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE) and, specifically, which families were due the most honor for the victory over the Persians. More serious criticism of his work has to do with the credibility of the accounts of his travels.
One example of this is his claim of fox-sized ants in Persia who spread gold dust when digging their mounds. This account has been rejected for centuries until, in 1984 CE, the French author and explorer Michel Peissel, confirmed that a fox-sized marmot in the Himalayas did indeed spread gold dust when digging and that accounts showed the animal had done so in antiquity as the villagers had a long history of gathering this dust. Peissel also explained that the Persian word for `mountain ant’ was very close to their word for `marmot’ and so it was established that Herodotus was not making up his giant ants but, since he did not speak Persian and had to rely on translators, was the victim of a misunderstanding in translation. While it is undeniable that Herodotus makes some mistakes in his work, his Histories are generally reliable and scholarly studies in all disciplines concerning his work (from archaeology to ethnology and more) have continued to substantiate all of his most important observations.
Herodotus identifies himself in the prologue to his work as a native of Halicarnassus (on the south-west coast of Asia Minor, modern Turkey) and this is accepted as his birth place even though Aristotle and the Suda claim his was a native of Thurii. This discrepancy is generally understood as a mistake made in an ancient source (possibly a translation of Herodotus’ work) as Herodotus may have lived on the island of Thurii but not been born there. He traveled widely in Egypt, Africa and Asia Minor and wrote down his experiences and observations, providing later generations with detailed accounts of important historical events (such as the Battles of Marathon and Peluseum) everyday life in Greece, in Egypt, in Asia Minor and on The Seven Wonders of the Ancient world. His description of The Walls of Babylon as among these wonders is an example of why his work has often been criticized. Herodotus writes:
Babylon lies in a great plain, and in size it is such that each face measures 22½ km, the shape of the whole being square; thus the circumference is 90 km. Such is the size of the city of Babylon, and it has magnificence greater than all other cities of which we have knowledge. First there runs round it a deep and broad trench, full of water; then a wall fifty meters in thickness and hundred meters in height [...]. At the top of the wall along the edges they built chambers of one story facing one another; and between the rows of chambers they left space to drive a four-horse chariot. In the circuit of the wall there are set a hundred gates made of bronze. (Histories, I.178-179)
Archaeological evidence, as well as other ancient descriptions, clearly indicates that Babylon was not as large as Herodotus describes and had nowhere near 100 gates (it had only eight). It has thus been determined that this account was based on hearsay, rather than a personal visit, even though Herodotus writes as though he visited the site himself. As he had a great appreciation for the works of Homer (he bases the arrangement of his Histories on Homer’s form) his passage on Babylon is thought to be emulating the earlier writer’s description of Egyptian Thebes.
His penchant for storytelling, and his obvious talent for it, have alarmed and annoyed critics since antiquity but this very quality in the Histories is also what has made the work so greatly admired. Herodotus is able to bring a reader into the events of the stories he relates by creating vivid scenes with interesting characters and, sometimes, even dialogue. He was hardly an impartial observer of the world he wrote about and often gives personal opinions at length on various people, customs, and events. While his admiration for Homer is always evident, he freely questioned the historical truth of The Iliad, asking why the Achaeans would wage so lengthy and costly a campaign as the Trojan War on behalf of one woman. This is only one of many examples of Herodotus’ personality displaying itself in his work.
That he held himself in quite high regard is apparent in the prologue to the Histories which begins, “These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds” (Histories, I.1). Unlike other ancient writers (such as Homer, earlier, or Virgil, later), Herodotus does not attribute his narrative to divine sources, nor call on such for assistance, but announces clearly that this is his work and no others. His high opinion of himself is also displayed in what is recorded as the first `publication’ of the Histories at the Olympic Games. Works at this time were `published’ by being read aloud and the Greek writer Lucian of Samosata (125-180 CE) claims that Herodotus read the entirety of his work to the audience in one sitting and received great applause. Another version of the publication of the work, however, claims that Herodotus refused to read his book to the crowd until there was ample cloud cover to shade him on the platform. While he waited, the audience left, and this event is what gave rise to the maxim, “Like Herodotus and his shade” (alluding to one who misses an opportunity by waiting for propitious circumstances). Whichever account is true, if either is, they both reflect the esteem Herodotus was known to hold himself in.
While little is known of the details of his life, it seems certain that he came from a wealthy, aristocratic family in Asia Minor who could afford to pay for his education. His skill in writing is thought to be evidence of a thorough course in the best schools of his day. He wrote in Ionian Greek and was clearly well read. His ability to travel, seemingly at will, also argues for a man of some means. It is thought he served in the army as a Hoplite in that his descriptions of battle are quite precise and always told from the point of view of a foot soldier. He came to live in the Greek Colony of Thurii, in Italy, where he edited and revised the Histories later in life. He had also lived in Athens and, at some point, it is thought he returned there. Scholars consider it likely that he died in Athens of the plague sometime between 425 and 413 BCE. His fame was so great that many different cities (Athens and Thurii among them) claimed to be the site of his funeral and grave and monuments were erected in his honor. The lasting significance of his work continues to be appreciated by millions of people today and he is considered a primary source for reliable information on the ancient world he observed and wrote about.
- Herodotus. The Histories by Herodotus. , 2006.
- Herodotus. The Landmark Herodotus. Pantheon, 2007.
- Michel Peissel. The Ant's Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas. Collins/Harvill, London, 1984.
- Will Durant. The Life of Greece. Simon & Schuster, 2011.