Herodotus c.484 B.C-c.429/425 B.C.
Called the "father of history" by the Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, Herodotus is best known for his long and compelling prose account of life in Greece, Asia Minor, and Egypt which focuses on the causes and events of the Greco-Persian Wars. For Herodotus, history (historiai) meant "inquiry," and his attentions in the History are devoted not just to epic moments in the past, but also to geography, ethnology, and myth. Herodotus combines religious belief with secular knowledge; he took seriously the pronouncements of oracles but also travelled to see distant places for himself and to gather eyewitness accounts from others. While critics have rejected his work as too often anecdotal, accusing Herodotus of naive credulity, his informal style and omnivorous appetite for interesting and sometimes fantastic historical narratives have made the History an enduring fixture in the classical literary canon.
Herodotus reveals little in the History about his own life and many of its details remain obscure or disputed. He was born in Helicarnassus (now Bodrum) in Caria, Asia Minor, the son of Lyxes and Dryo, and the nephew of the epic poet Panyassis. With the advent of civil war in 461 B.C, Herodotus was exiled to the island of Samos, where he began to write his History in the literary Ionic language. He subsequently returned to Helicarnassus and was instrumental in the downfall of the tyrant Lydgamis, who had been responsible for the death of Panyassis. From 454 B.C. to 443 B.C. Herodotus travelled widely, observing and interviewing informants for the History. His long itinerary included India, Babylon, Scythia, Egypt, Thrace, and Magna Graecia, and he noted both the physical geography and the customs and myths of each region. Much of Herodotus's information on the Persian Wars was collected toward the close of this period from 444 B.C. to 443 B.C. Herodotus then returned to Athens, where his pro-Athenian stance was popular and where his skill as a public speaker was recognized and financially rewarded. He was not permitted to become a citizen of Athens, so he joined the colony of Thurii (now Taranto) in southern Italy, where he continued to work on the History until his death. Scholars have suggested that the growing civil strife accompanying the Peleponnesian War provided special motivation for Herodotus to tell his story of former Greek unity. Herodotus died at age sixty and was probably buried in Thurii, although other accounts suggest burial in Athens or at Pella, in Macedonia.
Although Herodotus makes reference to a projected history of Assyria, his only known work is the History. This early prose work combines personal inquiry into the geography, ethnology, and myths of Asia Minor with an attempt, in Herodotus's own words, to record "those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians" and to find the cause of the Greco-Persian struggle. Much of the geographical and ethnographical description in the History is the result of Herodotus's own travels; but he also draws extensively and trustingly on the fabulous accounts of storytellers. Divided into nine books, the History is written in an open, anecdotal style with many entertaining digressions. In Book I Herodotus begins his search for the causes of the Persian Wars: the Persian conquest of Lydia, the story of Croesus and Cyrus, and the wars between Cyrus and the Assyrians and Massagetae. Book II is devoted to Egypt; in part one Herodotus provides a detailed description of the Nile valley, and in part two a history of the Egyptian kings. In Book III he describes the Persian King Cambyses and the Persian invasion of Egypt. Book IV, while very digressive, focuses on Scythian and Libyan geography and history, including an account of the Persian King Darius's military expeditions to Thrace, Scythia and Libya. In Book V Herodotus describes numerous military campaigns in the Ionian Revolt against Darius, and Book VI incorporates an account of the Athenian victory over the Persians in the battle of Marathon. The last three books are less digressive, focusing more fully on the course and conclusion of the Persian Wars. In Book VII Herodotus deals with the accession of Xerxes I, his preparations for war and his invasion of Greece in 480 B.C. Here Herodotus narrates the capture of Persian ships at Artemisium, the land battle at Thermopylae, and the death of Leonidas. In Book VIII Herodotus describes further naval warfare between the Greeks and the Persians, including the Greek victory in the battle of Salamis, and the return of Xerxes to Persia. Book IX recounts the battle of Plataea and the defeat of the Persian commander Mardonius, including the destruction of the Persian naval force at Mycale and the liberation of the Hellespont. Despite the military conclusion and the invocation of Cyrus in the epilogue, many scholars believe that the History remained unfinished at Herodotus's death.
Herodotus is thought to have written much of the History during the later years of his life while resident in Thurii. The division of the History into nine books and the naming of the books after the Muses was carried out by a scholar in Alexandria, long after Herodotus's death. Five key manuscript collections form the basis of textual scholarship on the History: a tenth-century Codex Florentinus or Mediceus in the Laurentian Library at Florence, an eleventh-century Codex Florentinus, and a Codex Romanus, also dating from the eleventh century. Two other important manuscripts are the thirteenth-century Codex Parsinus and a fourteenth-century Codex Romanus. The History was translated into Latin by Laurentius Valla in 1474, and the first Greek edition was published by Aldus Manutius at Venice in 1502. The first English translation (of Books I and II only) was published in 1584 and has been attributed to Barnaby Rich. There have been many more translations into English, notable among them Isaac Littlebury's of 1709, George Rawlinson's of 1858-60, A.D. Godley's 1920-25 Loeb Classical Library translation, Aubrey de Sélincourt's popular Penguin edition of 1954, and David Grene's of 1987.
Herodotus made his living from lecturing, and his entertaining and vivid readings from the History found receptive audiences, especially at Athens. Plutarch has suggested that Herodotus's appeal for the Athenians lay only in his flattering accounts of Athenian exploits, but ever since Aristotle's favorable comment in the Rhetoric, Herodotus's disarming literary style, his personal charm, and his ear for a good story have made the History both popular and instructive. Among Herodotus's early detractors, Thucydides was scornful of his method, making veiled references to the superficial and momentary attractions of Herodotus's storytelling but claiming greater longevity for his own historical writing. Without mentioning Herodotus by name, Thucydides criticized his predecessor's unreliability, pointedly correcting Herodotus's facts in his own work and insisting that history must rely on autopsy, not hearsay. The entertaining and literary qualities of the History have long battled such demands for historical truth. Herodotus's account of the Egyptian kings, for example, was refuted by the Egyptian priest Manetho of Sebennytus, who in the third century B.C. provided a list of Egyptian kings wholly at variance with that of Herodotus. Plutarch's notorious attack on Herodotus, accusing him of deliberate falsehood, was widely condemned by critics as an exercise in polemic not worthy of its author. However, Herodotus's reputation as a liar does not end with Plutarch; many subsequent critics have accused Herodotus of passing on to his readers as history the fantastic inventions of his informants. Despite such criticism, the broad scope of the History, its epic literary power, and its evenhanded treatment of the Persian Wars have won it fresh generations of readers. New editions of the History appeared frequently throughout the Renaissance, and in the eighteenth century, François Marie Arouet Voltaire, echoing Cicero, devoted a chapter of his Le Pyrrhonisme en histoire (1768) to Herodotus, calling him "the model of historians." Archaeological excavations carried out in the nineteenth century only enhanced Herodotus's reputation, confirming many of his ethnological and geographical claims. Twentieth-century critics have continued to praise Herodotus as a prose stylist and raconteur, while nonetheless refuting as literary embellishment many of his historical claims.
Principal English Translations
The famous hystory of Herodotus (Books I and II)(translation attributed to Barnaby Rich) 1584
The history of Herodotus (translated by Isaac Littlebury) 1709
The history of Herodotus (translated by W. Beloe) 1791
Herodotus (translated by Isaac Taylor) 1829
Herodotus, a new and literal version from the text of Baehr (translated by Henry Cary, absed on the 1830 edition of J. C. E. Bähr) 1847
The History of Herodotus (translated by George Rawlinson) 1858-60
The History of Herodotus (translated by G.C. Macaulay) 1890
Herodotus (translated by A.D. Godley) 1920-25
The History of Herodotus (translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt) 1954
The History (translated by David Grene) 1987
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SOURCE: "Is Herodotus Malicious?" in Greek Historical Thought: From Homer to the Age of Heraclitus, translated by Arnold J. Toynbee, The Beacon Press, 1950, pp. 229-36.
[Plutarch was a Greek biographer and essayist on morals whose works achieved their greatest influence during the Renaissance. Here, he takes strong exception to Herodotus, warning his readers to be wary of the superficial appeal and "charm" of Herodotus' historical writing, which, Plutarch claims, is rife with malicious "slanders " and "grotesquely false ideas. " This essay is believed to have been written between the years 105 and 115.]
Many readers of Herodotus are taken in by his plain, unlaboured, flowing style, and still more by his character. If Plato is right in saying that the last refinement of immorality is the false appearance of probity, it is equally true that the consummate achievement of malice is the assumption of such good-nature and simplicity as to defy detection. The malice of Herodotus is mostly directed (though he spares nobody) against the Boeotians and Corinthians, and I therefore feel called upon to defend truth and my ancestors in the same breath by exposing this part of his work in particular. If a critic were to deal with all his falsehoods and fictions, he might fill many volumes. However, to quote Sophocles, "Persuasion hath a cunning countenance," and especially when she resides in writings so full of charm...
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SOURCE: "Philosophy of Herodotus," in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. LI, No. CCCXV, January, 1842, pp. 1-21.
[An English critic and essayist, De Quincey used his own life as the subject of his best-known work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822), in which he chronicled his addiction to opium. He contributed reviews to a number of London journals and earned a reputation as an insightful if occasionally longwinded literary critic. At the time of De Quincey's death, his critical expertise was underestimated, though his talent as a prose writer had long been acknowledged. In the twentieth century, some critics still disdain the digressive qualities of De Quincey's writing, yet others find that his essays display an acute psychological awareness. In the following excerpt, De Quincey tries to rectify what he sees as a false and narrow view of Herodotus. He argues that Herodotus is much more than a historian and compares him to the French Encyclopedists, calling Herodotus "the first great parent of discovery. "]
Few, even amongst literary people, are aware of the true place occupied by Herodotus in universal literature; secondly, scarce here and there a scholar up and down a century is led to reflect upon the multiplicity of his relations to the whole range of civilization. We endeavour in these words to catch, as in a net, the gross prominent faults of his appreciation; on which...
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SOURCE: "Herodotus," in A History of Greek Literature: From the Earliest Period to the Death of Demosthenes, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1900, pp. 306-27.
[In the following essay, Jevons provides a general introduction to the History, addressing Herodotus's rhetorical methods and beliefs and considering his credibility as a travel narrator.]
Halicarnassus, the birthplace of Herodotus, was situated on the south-west coast of Asia Minor, and was originally occupied by Carians. Dorian emigrants from Troezene then settled there, and for some time the place belonged to a confederation consisting of six Dorian cities, but eventually was excluded or withdrew from the alliance. Like the other Greek colonies on the coast of Asia Minor, Halicarnassus became subject first to the Lydian power, and then, when Cyrus conquered the Lydian kingdom, to the Persian empire. In pursuance of the policy which they employed elsewhere, the Persians did not directly govern Halicarnassus, but established or confirmed the rule of a native Tyrant, who was a vassal of the great king, and was responsible for the payment to the local satrap of a fixed tribute, and for raising troops when required. During the boyhood of Herodotus, Halicarnassus was ruled by a queen, Artemisia, who took, as Herodotus tells us with evident pride, high position for her courage and sagacity in the counsels and esteem of Xerxes during the second Persian...
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SOURCE: "The Story and the Book," in Herodotus, University of California Press, 1924, pp. 37-75.
[In the following essay, Glover provides an overview of the History, discussing the development of Herodotus 's methods, his goals as an historian, and his use of written and oral sources.]
It is not often we are in a position to know how the impulse came to a great artist to produce what has proved to be his masterpiece. Probably, as a rule it comes after long preparation, which has been less conscious than instinctive. The subject drew him; he thought much upon it; then one day he saw it in a new way, and wondered, and then perhaps suddenly realized how intensely it suited him, how much of his work was done already; he would finish it. But in working it out, he found he had only begun his work, and it must all be done again; new views broke in upon him, he saw fresh implications, deeper significance; and his task grew under his hand. And then he had to re-learn how to handle it, to experiment with method and approach, to discover or to develop the one style in which he could make all tell—the "inevitable" style. One imagines that somehow so Herodotus came to write his masterpiece. We have seen already how much there was in his situation, his environment and life at Halicarnassus to lead him on to his great theme and to enable him to see it in its true setting of the...
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SOURCE: "The Greek Historians: Herodotus," in The English Epic and Its Background, Oxford University Press, 1954, pp. 41-51.
[Tillyard was a scholar of English literature best known for his work on Shakespeare and the English Renaissance. In the following essay, Tillyard provides a concise overview of the History, addressing the epic character of Herodotus's writing, and calling him "the authentic voice of the Greek world in its expansive phase. "]
For someone intending to treat history philosophically the study of Herodotus is sufficient. There he will find everything that has gone into the making of all subsequent world history: the activity, the foolishness, the suffering, and the fate of the human race. (Schopenhauer)
Herodotus was akin to Homer in more ways than one. He was a native of the Asia Minor coast, and, though citizen of a Dorian city, the vehicle of Ionian culture. Like Homer he used the Ionic dialect, and like him a form of it not tied to any one city but a conflation. Like him he used an early form of syntax, with many main verbs and few periods. But above all Herodotus, as a narrative writer, showed himself to be in the Homeric tradition. It could hardly have been otherwise. He was eminently an artist, and what writers of prose history had preceded him were list-makers; they could not help him. For a supporting...
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SOURCE: "The Composition of the History of Herodotus," in Classical Philology, Vol. LII, No. 1, January, 1958, pp. 9-19.
[In the following essay, Lattimore, a noted classicist, explores a series of textual and structural problems in the History. He provides a detailed analysis of Herodotus's compositional methods and considers the constraints on writing and historical research that Herodotus faced.]
The general problem. Concerning the composition of the History of Herodotus, one must choose between two general propositions. Either Herodotus wrote his book so that the parts always stood substantially in the order in which we now have them; or he did not. If we believe he did, we shall be more persuasive if we can show that this was, a priori, the more likely way for him to compose his work, and if we can present internal evidence in favor of a continuous forward process. If we believe that the parts of the work originally stood in an order different from what we now have, then we believe in transpositions of written material, or in insertions, or in deletions, or other or all sorts of revision; and we should be able to point to passages which we consider indicative of such processes, and show how they force us to believe in changes made by the author.
I believe that the text of Herodotus as we have it is a continuous piece of writing which Herodotus set...
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SOURCE: "Scepticism and Credulity in Herodotus," in The World of Herodotus, Little, Brown and Company, 1962, pp. 53-67.
[In the following essay, de Sélincourt provides a sketch of religious thought in the time of Herodotus and discusses the Greek concepts of fate, pride, and guilt. De Sélincourt notes Herodotus's religious credulity, but also detects in the History a sceptical intelligence.]
One way in which the artist differs from the rest of us is that he knows better than we do what to leave out. A sculptor, knowing which bits of stone are irrelevant to his purpose, chips them away. Knowledge of what to leave out makes the difference between a good talker or a successful raconteur and a bore; between a good book and a ragbag of information or gossip. A good book may deal with all sorts of peripheral matters, but the reader perceives, or comes in the end to perceive, that the line they follow is indeed a periphery—the circumference of a circle which, by the nature of things, has a centre.
The Greeks possessed this knowledge in a high degree. We commonly call it a sense of form, which is as good a term as any. It was the sense which led their first philosophers to seek a single principle underlying the bewildering multiplicity of the visible world; it was the cause of their delight in the beautiful shapeliness of mathematics—NO ONE ADMITTED, said the notice over the door...
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SOURCE: "Herodotus' Perspective," in Herodotus: An Interpretative Essay, Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 59-74.
[In the following essay, Fornara contrasts Herodotus with Thucydides, suggesting that while Thucydides wrote for posterity, Herodotus's History addresses chiefly his own generation. Defending Herodotus against scholars who have found the History inconsistent and unscientific, Fornara calls him "essentially an artist" who mixes historical narrative with drama.]
Thucydides believed and claimed that he had written … a possession for all time. The boast may have struck his contemporaries as arrogant and rhetorical. To the modern world it is a truism. Our consciousness of the perfect justification of these words, however, deprives them of impact and robs them of all but superficial meaning. Yet their value is inestimable. They tell us, if we needed to be told, what stance he had adopted, what perspective he had taken, in writing his history. These words explain the principle of his selection and inclusion of material. Thinking of future generations more than of his immediate audience, his task as he defined it was to create a history of the Peloponnesian War that would be self-explanatory; no special knowledge beyond his own history would be required to secure perfect comprehension of the important and universally relevant issues. He neither played upon the knowledge of his...
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SOURCE: "Herodotus and Hellenistic Culture," in The Classical Quarterly, Vol. XXII, No. 2, November, 1972, pp. 200-13.
[In the following essay, Murray traces the influence of Herodotus on early Hellenistic historiography and ethnography, detecting evidence of familiarity with Herodotus in the works of Hecataeus of Abdera, Nearchus, and Megasthenes. Accepting that Herodotus's influence had declined by the late Hellenistic period, Murray nonetheless contends that the History had a broad and lasting impact on Hellenistic understanding of the world.]
Our understanding of the world is not static; it can both expand and contract, and it can also stagnate. In history the expansion of the known universe has come about from various causes, from scientific advance, the slow processes of trade and exploration, from colonization, and especially from conquest. Periods of expansion produce often a re-evaluation of the external world, both that which was already known and that which was previously unknown, or on the fringes of the known. But no one is wholly capable of a direct response to reality: reality as soon as it is experienced is perceived, organized: 'Die Weltist die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen nicht der Dinge' (the world is the totality of facts, not of things). To the understanding of experience, new as well as old, everyone comes with the preconceptions and prejudices of his own environment, and seeks...
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SOURCE: "The Sources: The Evidence for Written Sources," in his Herodotus, Twayne Publishers, 1982, pp. 142-53.
[Evans is professor of classics at the University of British Columbia, Canada. In the following excerpt, he finds little clear evidence that Herodotus relied on written sources. He describes Herodotus instead as an original researcher and interviewer whose History synthesizes the claims of a variety of mostly oral informants, including the guardians of official oral traditions, keepers of family genealogy, and individual storytellers.]
Some four centuries after Herodotus, another historian from Halicarnassus, Dionysius, briefly described the beginnings of historical research: "Before the Peloponnesian War [431-404 B.C.] there were many early historians in many places. Among them were Eugeon of Samos, Deiochus of Proconnesus, Eudemos of Paros, Democles of Phygele, Hecataeus of Miletus, Acusilaus of Argos, Charon of Lampsacus, and Amelesagoras of Chalcedon. A second group was born a little before the Peloponnesian War and were Thucydides' early contemporaries; these were Hellanicus of Lesbos, Damastes of Sigeum, Xenomedes of Ceos, Xanthus of Lydia, and many others." All of these wrote histories of individual tribes or cities, using records from temples or secular archives, and telling myths and folktales which, remarked Dionysius, who lived in the society that produced the emperor...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The History: Herodotus, translated by David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1987, pp.1-32.
[In the following essay, Grene focuses on the dramatic and literary artistry in the History. Contrasting Herodotus with Thucydides, he contends that Herodotus's genius lies in his imaginative interpretation of past events.]
Herodotus' only slightly younger contemporary, Thucydides, rejects the historical account of remote events in very telling terms; he does so at about the date of Herodotus' probable death. Thucydides says that even such a careful (and barely sketched) account as he is forced to give of an earlier Greece, as background for his own times, is only moderately satisfactory. "For," he says, "most of the events of the past, through lapse of time, have fought their way, past credence, into the country of myth" (perhaps the Greek epi to muthōdes eknenikēkota in Thucydides 1.21.8 is fairly translated as this). Thucydides conceived of acts and even words and thoughts as existent at a given moment and ideally recapturable in that form. They will, if allowed to do so by the lapse of time, become transfigured and so be useless to history. The word eknikan—"fight its way through completely"—implies that there is a natural tendency in the event so to do, and the perfect participle looks at the finished product: "they have got to the country of myth and...
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SOURCE: "Deceptions and Delusions in Herodotus," Classical Antiquity, Vol. 9, No. 2, October, 1990, pp. 230-46.
[In the following excerpt, Lateiner focuses on the question of credulity and deception in the History. Lateiner notes Herodotus's admiration for ingenious trickery, but also considers, by appeal to the case of Salmoxis, his skeptical and cautious treatment of religious charlatanism.]
Not every self-interested charlatan is condemned in any society that values ingenuity. The Hellenes admired the lies of shrewd Odysseus, worshipped Hermes, patron of thieves and sharp entrepreneurs, and found admirable the hedgehog deceits and shams of Aristophanes' comic heroes.
Greek epic, tragedy, and comedy describe cheats and their dupes. After the development of history, philosophy, biography, and the later genres of the novel and hagiography at times would explore popular delusions and false prophets. History proper, from Herodotus on, supplies examples, large and small, of political, religious, and other entrepreneurs who hatch schemes at the expense of the credulous. Frauds require a knowing agent, usually one who works for his own profit or advance.
On another hand, we have unplanned delusions, as when groups share a belief in a natural or supernatural event without anyone's being the richer for it. Individual or mass delusions and panics enrich the fabric of...
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SOURCE: "The Imperialist Impulse," in Herodotus, Explorer of the Past: Three Essays, Princeton University Press, 1991, pp. 9-40.
[In the following essay, Evans discusses Herodotus 's treatment of the causes of the Persian invasion of Greece, focusing on the imperialist motives of Xerxes, the fall of Croesus, and the concepts of nomos, aitia and fate that colored Herodotus's account of the Persian Wars.]
Nine years after their defeat at Marathon, the Persians were ready once again to invade Greece. The Greeks owed a debt of gratitude to Egypt for the delay. For three years after the defeat, Darius had prepared a new assault to wipe out the disgrace, but then Egypt had risen in revolt, and in 486 b.c., Darius died; Xerxes succeeded him and the rebellion was not crushed until 484. Then Xerxes called a synod of the Persian magnates. It was a congress that Herodotus recreated with imaginative skill, but there may be a solid morsel of tradition behind it: in the romance of Esther, King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) summoned his nobles to a great festival in the third year of his reign, but in the Hebrew tradition these festivities were merely a backdrop for the fall of Vashti and the elevation of the Jewish heroine Esther in her place. For Herodotus, the feasting and the pageantry that must have accompanied a congress of this sort were of no importance: the synod is treated merely as a bit of theater for a...
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Bernardete, Seth. Herodotean Inquiries. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969, 213 p.
Addresses Herodotus's status as an historian, and provides an introductory overview of the History.
Drews, Robert. The Greek Accounts of Eastern History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973, 220 p.
General study of Greek historical accounts of the East. Includes a chapter on Herodotus's treatment of Lydia, Babylon, and Egypt.
Fehling, Detlev. Herodotus and His Sources: Citation, Invention, and Narrative Art. Translated by J.G.Howie. Leeds: Francis Cairns, 1989, 277 p.
Questions the veracity of Herodotus's sources and discusses his historical methods. This work was originally published as Die Quellengaben bei Herodot in 1971.
Flory, Stewart. "The Personality of Herodotus." Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 8, No. 1, (Spring, 1969): 99-109.
Notes the anecdotal character of the History and the appeal of Herodotus's personal "charm" as a storyteller.
Gomme, A. W. "Herodotos" and "Herodotos and Aeschylus." In The Greek Attitude to Poetry and History, pp. 73-94, 95-115. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954....
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