Sometime around the year 425 B.C., the writer and geographer Herodotus published his magnum opus: a long account of the Greco-Persian Wars that he called The Histories. (The Greek word “historie” means “inquiry.”) Before Herodotus, no writer had ever made such a systematic, thorough study of the past or tried to explain the cause-and-effect of its events. After Herodotus, historical analysis became an indispensable part of intellectual and political life. Scholars have been following in Herodotus’ footsteps for 2,500 years.
The Early Life of Herodotus
Herodotus was born in about 485 B.C. in the Greek city of Halicarnassus, a lively commercial center on the southwestern coast of Asia Minor. He came from a wealthy and cosmopolitan Greek-Carian merchant family. (The Carians, of Minoan descent, had arrived in that part of Asia Minor before the Greeks had.) In the middle of the 6th century B.C., Halicarnassus became a satrapy, or province, of the Persian Empire and was ruled by the tyrant Lygdamis. Herodotus’ family opposed Lygdamis’ rule and was sent into exile on the island of Samos. When he was a young man, Herodotus returned briefly to Halicarnassus to take part in an abortive anti-Persian rebellion. After that, however, the writer never returned to his home city again.
Origins of the Histories
Instead of settling in one place, Herodotus spent his life traveling from one Persian territory to another. He crossed the Mediterranean to Egypt and traveled through Palestine to Syria and Babylon. He headed to Macedonia and visited all the islands of the Greek Archipelago: Rhodes, Cyprus, Delos, Paros, Thasos, Samothrace, Crete, Samos, Cythera and Aegina. He sailed through the Hellespont to the Black Sea and kept going until he hit the Danube River. While he traveled, Herodotus collected what he called “autopsies,” or “personal inquiries”: He listened to myths and legends, recorded oral histories and made notes of the places and things that he saw.
When Herodotus was not traveling, he returned to Athens; there, he became something of a celebrity. He gave readings in public places and collected fees from officials for his appearances. In 445 B.C., the people of Athens voted to give him a prize of 10 talents–almost $200,000 in today’s money–to honor him for his contributions to the city’s intellectual life. The Histories
Herodotus spent his entire life working on just one project: an account of the origins and execution of the Greco-Persian Wars (499–479 B.C.) that he called The Histories. (It is from Herodotus’ work that we get the modern meaning of the word “history.”) In part, The Histories was a straightforward account of the wars. “Here is the account,” the work begins, “of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus in order that the deeds of men not be erased by time, and that the great and miraculous works–both of the Greeks and the barbarians–not go unrecorded.” It was also an attempt to explain the conflict–“to show what caused them to fight one another,” Herodotus said–by explaining the Persians’ imperial worldview. The Histories also incorporated observations and stories, both factual and fictional, from Herodotus’ travels.
Earlier writers had produced what Herodotus called “logographies”: These were what we might call travelogues, disconnected tales about places and people that did not cohere into a narrative whole. By contrast, Herodotus used all of his “autopsies” to build a complete story that explained the why and the how of the Persian Wars.
After Herodotus died, editors divided his Histories into nine books. (Each was named after one of the Muses.) The first five books look into the past to try to explain the rise and fall of the Persian Empire. They describe the geography of each state the Persians conquered and tell about their people and customs. The next four books tell the story of the war itself, from the invasions of Greece by Persian emperors Darius and Xerxes to the Greek triumphs at Salamis, Plataea and Mycale in 480 and 479 B.C.
Herodotus’ encyclopedic method did not leave much room for analysis. He treats every piece of his narrative, from the main themes to the digressions and from the facts to the fictions, with equal importance. He shows how Persian hubris led to the downfall of a great empire, but he also places a great deal of stock in gossipy tales of personal shortcomings and moral lessons.
The Legacy of the Histories
Rival historian Thucydides, who relied only on “factual” evidence to provide a less subjective account of “what had been done,” frequently criticized Herodotus for inserting “fables” into his narrative just to make it more “delightful” and pleasant to read. Indeed, there are people who call Thucydides “the first historian” and Herodotus “the first liar.” But no matter how one judges his reporting, Herodotus will likely get credit for taking a dry political story and turning it into literature.