Herodotus, The Father of History

The National Herald Archive

Head of Herodotos; Greek inscription. Roman copy of the Imperial era (AD 2nd century) after a Greek bronze original of the first half of the 4th century BC. From Benha (ancient Athribis), Lower Egypt. (Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain)

The year 425 BC brought to the world the geographer and historian Herodotus. Little can be learned about his early life excepting what other writers mentioned, but, before him no other writer had studied the past or explained the cause-and-effect of all events. Because of him analysis became an indispensable part of political life that scholars have followed for 2,500 years.

He was born in about 485 BC in Halicarnassus, a lively city in Asia Minor. His parents were wealthy Greek, Carian merchants. (Carians were related to the Minoans and had arrived in Asia Minor before the Greeks.)  In the 6th Century, BC, Halicarnassus became a province of the Persian Empire, ruled by a nasty tyrant, Lygdamus. (Hence the word, Lygda, meaning dirt, filth.) Herodotus and his family were vocal protesters against Lygdamus’s rule and were exiled to the island of Samos. As a young man, Herodotus took part in an anti-Persian rebellion.

He spent most of his life traveling, writing about what he saw and called his writing, autopsies (autoyies) meaning personal inquires.

He traveled across the Mediterranean to Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Babylon. Then, he went to Macedonia, Rhodes, Cyprus, Delos, Paros, Thasos, Samothrace, Crete, Samos, Aegina, and Peloponnesos. He traveled to the Black Sea and followed the route north reaching the Danube River. He marveled at the region of Ephesus and the Nile’s magnificent monuments and the civilization there.  He listened to myths and legends from locals and always made oral history notes. It seemed that he always managed to find someone who spoke Hellenic words.

From time to time he’d add flavor to his writings by including strange facts he’d heard. It made for a more fascinating hearing. But, Thucydides, another historian of note, frequently criticized Herodotus, saying he inserted fables to make his narratives more exciting, thereby rating his writings as false and not worthy documentation.

Returning to Athens, he retold his adventures to those he was acquainted with and, quickly, became a celebrity, giving readings publically, collecting fees from officials and the public. In 445 BC the citizens of Athens, enthralled with his descriptive talks, gave him prize money for his ‘Histories’, of 10 talents (Almost $200,000 in today’s money.) The word Histories stems from the meaning ‘of account’, and is a word used today in the same context. Most of his accounts were of the Persian-Greco Wars (499-479 BC).

Another word Herodotus gave us is, ‘Logographies’ that became later ‘travelogues’. At one time he had joined a group of Athenians who set out to establish a colony in southern Italy, naming it, Thurii, near to Croton, where Pythagoras was born, a county that is now within Calabria. Another famous Greek born in the southern Italy area, (Sicily) was Archimedes. Sicily had to have been, originally, a Greek territory due to the definition of its name. Sicilia has no meaning in Latin. In Greek it meant, ‘land of Figs’. Although there are still towns there with Greek names, like Naples (Nea Polis), the one that no longer exists is Herculaneum, a resort close to Naples. It was a place with fine villas, a rich library, a theater, and a Basilica with murals and marble statues. Unfortunately, it was completely buried in an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

After his death, editors divided and named his nine books after the nine muses. The last book describes the Persian invaders whose arrogance and imperiousness led to the downfall of the great empire from Darius to Xerxes to the Greek triumphs at Salamis, Platea, and Mycali in 480 and 479 B.C. The value of the great historian’s works stems not from its accuracy but its scope and the rich diversity of information. It is said he had written about the supposed mythical island of Atlantis, describing the zoo, architecture, and art and claiming after he’d found people who had relatives that once inhabited that island. Even though Thucydides called him a fabricator, Herodotus will always be known as the Father of History.