On Herodotus

Herodotus’s Histories, or “Inquiries”, traces the conflicts that emerged between the Greeks and the Persians (the Achaemenid Empire), culminating in the great battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, Platea, and Mycale.

Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, or modern day Bodrum in western Turkey. Much of his life was spent in Exile, living in Samos, Athens, and apparently ending up in Thurii, an Athenian Panhellenic colony in south Italy (in the 4th century, Aristotle knew him as Herodotus of Thurii). He traveled widely like Odysseus, and this allowed him to learn about the changing and unchanging things in different nations. For example, he saw that laws may be unique and distinct from one another in Persia and Egypt, but fire still burns the same everywhere. He came to learn what we moderns call ‘laws of nature’ and ‘laws of man.’ Physis and Nomoi are contrasted in his work, that is custom and culture, and the  quest for the limits of human knowledge is central to his exploration. Like Aristotle, Herodotus is interested in oikumene, the inhabited world.

The comparison to the Homeric epics is apt in several ways. There are clear Homeric moments, from both the Iliad and the Odyssey, in Herodotus’s great work. For example, like Agamemnon, Xerxes receives a dream that is ill-fated from the gods and misguided. Both men are deceived by the gods and left ruined in battle. However, there are distinctions, as well. Ancient writers began to write in prose, rather than verse, and began to distance themselves from the dominant poetic tradition established by Homer. Unlike the Homeric project, Herodotus’s travels and experiences are his own, his autopsy. His inquiry is unique, he does not seek for the answers from the gods, but rather, he seeks a new human-based inquiry that analyzes great deeds universally and seeks to establish causes for the events of the war.

He wrote approximately a generation or two after the battles of the Greco-Persian Wars many modern historians estimate. At the outset, the Greeks were triumphant over the Persians (Achaemenid Empire) in the initial invasion of 490 BC at the battle of Marathon, then the second invasion of 480/479 BC with the battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, Platea, and finally Mycale in Asia Minor was more of struggle. These battles were the stuff of legend in the ancient world -the narrative was often one of good versus evil, slavery versus freedom.

The war had lasting effects on the polis of Athens -solidifying the Athenian distrust of Monarchy and Tyranny as personified in the Persian Empire. Their naval successes led to the creation of the Athenian Empire, which began as the anti-Persian League. The growth of the Athenian Empire, and its radical democracy, caused conflict between neighboring states such as Corinth, Sparta, and Persia (including a disastrous expedition into Egypt). Thucydides would later note that Athens had become a “tyrant” city, as stated by members of Corinth. Freedom, a core tenant found throughout Herodotus’s Histories, is central to the unfolding conflict during the time in which he was writing, that is, during the rise of the Peloponnesian War. The degree to which we should interpret his Inquiries as a work of propaganda is yet unclear.

Plutarch later found offense in Herodotus’s criticism of the cowardly actions of cities, like Corinth and Thebes, while writing several centuries later in the first century CE in “On the Malice of Herodotus”. Herodotus was mocked by Aristophanes in The Archanians.

The Ionian Revolt (499-494 BC) takes place in Books 5-6, and the two Persian invasions of the mainland (490-480 BC) take place in Books (6-9). Book 9 leaves the Anti-Persian League alone as Athens takes on more aggressive actions against the Persians in the Hellespont in Asia Minor. As World War II is the great war for our generation, so the war against Persia was for ancient Greeks.

In contrasting Thucydides and Herodotus, Thucydides claims to give an account of one war, while Herodotus is more expansive in his quest to not forget the great deeds of the Greeks and Barbarians in the Persian Wars. Thucydides claims the war he writes about was greatest, including over and against Homer’s songs and the Inquiries, while Herodotus seeks to establish memorable and universal causes so that future men may learn from the past. Yet who today reads Herodotus?

In his history Herodotus does not attempt to present a linear timeline, but rather wonders and myths are worthy of Herodotus’s consideration. This is unlike Thucydides’s more narrow conception of history as an explanation of things past.

Did Herodotus seek the truth or travelers tales? Some have claimed the latter. It has been said of Herodotus (“the father of history, the father of lies” -later conferred by Cicero) that he did not invent sources, but rather he discovered the problem of sources. Rumors and travelers tales cannot be bound by causes. It has been said that Herodotus’s project was to correct the record among widely held stories and untruths, however a closer reading of his Inquiries might reveal a more philosophic undertaking.

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