ca. 484-ca. 420 B.C.
Herodotus wrote nine books about the wars between the Greeks and the Persian Empire that earned him the title “the father of history.” This work, known as the Histories, was the first major Greek work in prose*. Herodotus’s colorful descriptions of events and the use of speeches by historical figures owed much to the epic* poems of Homer. Although some later Greek historians modeled their work on the Histories, Herodotus was criticized by others, such as the historian Thucydides.
Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus in the southwestern corner of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). Located on the border between Greece and the Persian Empire, Halicarnassus was under Persian control at that time. Herodotus and one of his relatives, the poet Panyassis, opposed the rule of the Persian-dominated tyrant* Lygdamis. This opposition led to the execution of Panyassis and the banishment of Herodotus from the city. Herodotus spent the first part of his exile on the island of Samos. He then traveled widely in Greece, Egypt, eastern Europe, Phoenicia, Babylon, and other places in Asia. After staying in Athens for a time, Herodotus eventually settled in the Athenian colony of Thurii in southern Italy, where he is believed to have died. Herodotus collected numerous stories during his extensive travels, many of which he included in his Histories.
* tyrant absolute ruler
Histories. Herodotus’s Histories is his account of the Persian Wars between Greece and Persia and the events that led up to them. Herodotus believed that the events that caused the Persian Wars began during the reign of Croesus, king of Lydia. After Croesus annexed* the Greek cities on the coast of the Aegean Sea into his kingdom, he attacked Persia and was defeated. The Greek cites of Asia Minor, including Halicarnassus, then came under Persian rule. The story of the further expansion of the Persian Empire, which brought it into conflict with mainland Greece, forms the framework for the Histories. In addition, Herodotus includes interesting stories about different peoples and their customs, emphasizing the variety and unity of humanity.
Books 1 through 5 of the Histories examine the expansion of the Persian Empire. Book 1 describes how the ill-advised attack of Croesus on the Persians and his defeat by Cyrus, the Persian king, led to Persian control of Lydia and the Greeks of Asia Minor. This book tells how the Persian Empire was established and expanded under Cyrus until the king’s death in 530 B.C. Book 2 is a long account of the history, customs, and geography of Egypt, a land conquered by Cambyses, Cyrus’s son and successor. Book 3 continues the reign of Cambyses to his death in 522 B.C. and then describes the governmental crisis in Persia that led to the emergence of Darius I as the new Persian king. Darius’s organization of the Persian Empire enabled Herodotus to describe in detail the size and wealth of the empire and its division into provinces.
Book 4 covers Darius’s attempt to subdue the nomadic* Scythian tribes during an expedition north and east of the Danube River and across southern Russia. This expedition ended in failure, but during Darius’s reign the Persians did conquer Libya on the North African coast. Herodotus described the Scythian and Libyan peoples in great detail. Book 5 begins with the aftermath of the Scythian expedition and the further Persian expansion into northern Greece and the Balkan Peninsula. Herodotus then related the history of the Ionian revolt, in which Greek communities that were under Persian rule tried unsuccessfully to free themselves. That uprising, and the support that Athens gave to the revolt, provoked Darius to invade Greece in 490 B.C., thus beginning the Persian Wars.
Herodotus followed a strict chronological order in the last four books of the Histories, which form a continuous narrative of the Persian Wars. The Persians, determined to punish Athens for its support of the Ionian revolt and its interference in the empire’s affairs, attacked mainland Greece. The Greeks defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. The last three books examine the expedition against Greece by Xerxes, Darius’s son and successor, in 480-479 B.C. Each book describes one great battle of the war with Xerxes. Book 7 relates the opening battles on land, at Thermopylae, and at sea, off the coast of Artemisium. The last two books describe the final battles of the war, at Salamis and Plataea, that forced Persia to withdraw. The Histories ends with the final sea battle of the war off the coast of Asia Minor.
* annex to add a territory to an existing state
* nomadic referring to people who wander from place to place to find food and pasture
* prose writing without meter or rhyme, as distinguished from poetry
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
Herodotus considered customs foreign to Greece neither better nor worse, just different. For example, he wrote this about everyday life in Egypt: There the women go to market; the men stay at home and weave. Other people weave by pushing the weft up, the Egyptians push it down. Men carry burdens on their heads, women on their shoulders. Women urinate standing up, men sitting. They knead dough with their feet and gather mud and dung with their hands.... The Greeks write from left to right, the Egyptians from right to left.
Throughout the work, Herodotus told the stories of various Greek communities, such as Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Samos, alongside the history of the expansion of the Persian Empire. He wove together all of these stories in the final three books.
Sources and Techniques, in addition to his own observations, Herodotus collected much of his information from the stories that people told him during his travels. He included in his history eyewitness accounts of events, as well as family stories, temple traditions, and urban legends. His willingness to record everything that his informants told him filled his history with a vast collection of material about events, lands, and peoples remote from the subject matter of his main story— the Persian Wars.
Despite his wealth of information, Herodotus’s work is very well organized. Although he sometimes includes past events when he is describing something, he always keeps the narrative flowing forward. Herodotus’s careful use of cross-references and transitions keeps the readers of the Histories from becoming lost in the story.
Herodotus was fair when writing about Greeks and non-Greeks. While he preferred Greek political freedom to the despotism* of the Persians, he gave credit to admirable achievements whatever their source. While his work was popular in his own day, modern scholars also value Herodotus as a great source of information about many places in the ancient world. (See also Greece, History of; Ionians; Wars and Warfare, Greek.)
* despotism unlimited authority