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Herodotus

Herodotus

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 484-c. 420 BcE) in Caria (currently Bodrum on the Aegean coast of Turkey) was one of the earliest known historians and is most renowned for his chronicling of the Greco-Persian Wars. His approach to the writing of history set a precedent for later historians’ concern with estab­lishing causal links between past and current events.

At the time of Herodotus’ birth, Halicarnassus was a Greek city located on the fringes of the Persian Empire and thus subject to their monar­chal control. Herodotus examined the root of the great conflicts between the Greeks and non­Greeks; from its origins in the Lydian kingdom, to the failed revenge of the Persian King Darius at Marathon, to the final unsuccessful efforts of his son King Xerxes at the Battle of Thermopylae and the famous naval battle at the Straits of Salamis off the coast of Attica. Very little is known of the author’s life except that he never claims to be an eyewitness to the events he describes, although he often makes mention of conversations with those who were present, as if he were there. It is thought that many of these conversations might have come secondhand via the exiled grandson of the Persian Zopyrus.

Herodotus’ Histories is composed of nine books starting in Book 1 with the story of the Lydian king Croesus in the mid-6th century BCE and ending with the founding of the Athenian empire following the second Persian War in approximately 480 BCE. The books of Herodotus’ Histories cover a significant period of time in which the author attempts to uncover how the enmity between Greeks and Persians began. In doing so, Herodotus’ main narrative is composed of many smaller narratives in great detail. These narratives focus on a set of chronological events surrounding the reason for the conflict between Greeks and non-Greeks. Often these narratives temporarily move backwards or sideways to describe circumstances or details that Herodotus feels shed light upon the main thrust of the story. Herodotus’ historical method not only is one of enquiry into his narrative but also integrates a line of questioning of his sources, not all of which he trusted. Often he writes that while he is under a moral obligation to report what was said to him, he is under no obligation to believe it, and this inability to decide is cited. While Herodotus never disguises the fact that the Greek-speaking world is the geographic and cultural center of his percep­tions, he is often very open-minded when describ­ing the cultural details of foreign societies, although he inevitably must compare them to his own, by relating what he views as a rationale for diverging modes of life and religion.

For Herodotus and his historical reasoning, actions are the result of a prior cause or reciproc­ity. A wrong inflicted in the past will be returned in equal measure in the future; this is especially the case in regard to kinship relations. And this is why Herodotus’ work extends to the distant past to find the answer to the events that caused Greeks and non-Greeks to go to war. In addition, the historian does not focus his energies upon the logical explanation of events and human actions, as they often seem random or too easily assigned to fate or the intervention of divine will, and to some readers this will lend to a sense of storytell­ing. Although some accounts by Herodotus have been charged with straining the reader’s credulity, one should not discount all he records. It is believed that Herodotus died sometime in the 420s while living in the Athenian colony at Thurii in Southern Italy.

Garrick Loveria

See also Greeks, Ancient; Homer; Peloponnesian War

Further Readings

Kapuscinski, R. (2007). Travels with Herodotus.

New York: Knopf.

Strassler, R. B. (Ed.). (2007). The landmark Herodotus: The histories (A. L. Purvis, Trans.). New York: Pantheon.

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