Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Herodotus wrote and compiled a history of the wars of the Grecians and Persians of the fifth century b.c.e. The famous first sentence of the work reads I, Herodotus of Helicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another.
As the first to use the word “history,” Herodotus deserves Cicero’s title, “father of history.” To be sure, this son of wealthy upper-class parents did not have the critical attitude toward his sources that would be the hallmark of the later historian. Interesting anecdotes of the wars between the Greeks and the Persians found their way into his pages whether he could verify them or not, but he does sometimes hedge and tag certain items as hearsay. Judging from his quotations, he must have read widely. From the details in his descriptions and the comments such as “this I saw,” he must have visited most of the places he mentions.
The true greatness of Herodotus lies in the fact that he was the first important writer to depart from the verse of Homer and others, to produce Europe’s first prose literature. Some predecessors chronicled the beginnings of their small communities or states, but the writings of Herodotus embrace a vaster panorama: not only Greece, but also Egypt, Sardis, and Babylon. He looked for the reasons for the events. His aim was to trace the early rivalries between Greek and barbarian; in the process he recounted the stories of many tribes, described the lands they inhabited, and reported many of their interesting customs. Those who want greater accuracy can consult Thucydides (c. 455-c. 400 b.c.e.), who wrote more than a generation later. His work is more objective, but it lacks the color of Herodotus’s account.
The Persians maintained that the Phoenicians originally started the quarrel by kidnapping women from Argos. Later the Hellenes raided the port of Tyre and abducted Europa, the king’s daughter. The wars actually started, however, when Croesus, whose magnificent court was visited by Solon, desired to enlarge his empire by conquering some of the Ionian cities of Asia Minor. When he consulted the oracles, he was persuaded at Delphi to gather his allies for an attack on the mainland. The invasion resulted in a stalemate, however, and Croesus returned to Lydia, where his capital, Sardis, was surprised and captured by the Persians. Only a rainstorm, sent by the gods, saved him as he was being burned to death. The same miracle persuaded Cyrus to free his captive after taking possession of some of his vassal states. With them, Cyrus went on to capture Babylon. However, the Massagetae, under Queen Tomyris, were too strong in their resistance and strategy. Book 1 ends with the death of Cyrus.
Book 2 tells how Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, became king and planned to march against Egypt. The rest of the book is a tourist’s guide and history of Egypt from its beginnings to the coronation of Amasis.
Book 3 tells how...
(The entire section is 1314 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Bakker, Egbert J., Irene J. F. de Jong, and Hans van Wees, eds. Brill’s Companion to Herodotus. Boston: Brill, 2002. Collection of essays examining how The History of Herodotus reflects the literary, religious, moral, and social influences of its time. Includes discussions about Herodotus’s use of language, organization of time, and short stories in the work, as well as Herodotus and tragedy, Herodotus and Athens, and his sources of information.
Baragwanath, Emily. Motivation and Narrative in Herodotus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Examines the narrative techniques Herodotus used in order to describe the human motivations that influenced the course of Greek history.
Dewald, Carolyn, and John Marincola, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Collection of essays examining The History of Herodotus. Some pieces analyze literary elements of the work, such as its prose predecessors, syntax, genre, speech, narrative, and humor; others examine Herodotus’s depiction of Greek religion, warfare, Persia, Italy, and other subjects.
Evans, J. A. S. Herodotus. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Includes a survey of Herodotus and his interest in the Persian Wars, the background for his work, and a chronology of the events covered in his account of those wars. Discusses the events and the accuracy of Herodotus’s accounts.
Hartog, François. The Mirror of Herodotus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Emphasizes how Herodotus’s work presents groups, such as the Egyptians and the Scythians, and analyzes the accuracy of this representation. Contains an excellent concluding chapter.
Lister, R. P. The Travels of Herodotus. London: Gordon and Cremonesi, 1979. An account of the travels in which Herodotus gathered the information used in his history. Discusses Herodotus’s technique of integrating fact and myth into his work. Includes maps and illustrations.
Myres, John. Herodotus, Father of History. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1953. Supports the claim that Herodotus is the father of history. Discusses the criticisms of Herodotus in the light of the lack of precedents for his writing. Contains excellent historical notes.
Ward, Ann. Herodotus and the Philosophy of Empire. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2008. Focuses on Herodotus as a political philosopher whose history examined various forms of government in the ancient world, including the problems of empire. Compares his ideas about empire to twentieth and twenty-first century philosophies of Paul Wolfowitz, Colin Powell, and other politicians.