Herodotus Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

0111205859-Herodotus.jpg Herodotus (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Greek historian{$I[g]Greece;Herodotus}{$I[g]Asia Minor;Herodotus} Herodotus is commonly called “the father of history” for having written the first work of history, a narrative that covered his world, from the age of myth to his own time.

Early Life

Herodotus (hih-RAHD-uh-tuhs) was born about 484 b.c.e. into a notable family of Halicarnassus, near the modern city of Bodrum, Turkey. He received the customary education available to well-born Greek men of his day. An intellectual and creative ferment was sweeping the Greek world, and Miletus, a major center of this enlightenment, was only about 40 miles (65 kilometers) from Halicarnassus. Such philosopher-scientists as Anaximander and Thales and the geographer Hecataeus influenced Herodotus. He read Hesiod, Sappho, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Pindar, and also learned from the Sophists. The writings of Homer, in particular, shaped his worldview. If the intellectual atmosphere of the Greek world encouraged Herodotus to study the affairs of humans, it was probably Homer’s masterpiece on the Trojan War, the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611), that caused Herodotus to recognize that the Persian invasion of Greece, which had occurred when he was a child, was the great drama of his own age.

His early surroundings also educated Herodotus. The rich diversity of cultures in Asia Minor provided the foundation for the remarkable cosmopolitan scope and tone of his writing. Travel further shaped his mind. According to tradition, he went into a brief exile to Samos after taking part in Halicarnassian political upheavals and later left his home city permanently. His travels took him to Athens, where intellectual and artistic life was flourishing in the age of Pericles. Around 443, Herodotus joined a Greek colony at Thurii, in Italy. From there, he probably continued the travels that provided the foundation for his history. He later said that he had interviewed people from forty Greek states and thirty foreign nations. No physical descriptions of Herodotus exist, but his travels in the ancient world testify to his physical vigor and strength and to his insatiable curiosity.

Life’s Work

As Homer had preserved the stories of the Trojan War by rendering them into poetry, Herodotus came to realize that during his childhood another historic confrontation had occurred between the East and the West. The Persian War embodied all the drama and tragedy of human life, and its effects reverberated through his lifetime. He captured this human drama in one of the world’s first great prose works and pioneered a new form of intellectual endeavor, history.

Herodotus states his intentions in the first sentence of Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709):

I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, 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.

He intended to transmit to future generations the record of men and women’s deeds in this dramatic era, and in so doing explore the tragedy of human existence. In Herodotus’s worldview, people were subject to a cosmic order working by rules that they did not understand, an order in which fate or destiny destroyed those who aspired to excessive achievements. He would show that rationalism, a growing force in his age, could not protect against the contingencies of existence. Nevertheless, though humans could not change the cosmic order, Herodotus could combat the ravages of time by preserving the memory of their deeds. Herodotus was interested in people and in all of their diverse ways of living and acting. He used his history to contrast East and West, detailing the diversity of the peoples of the known world but finding common humanity beneath the differences.

Herodotus wrote a narrative history of his world, from the age of myth to his own time. He did not have available to him the kinds of written records on which modern historians rely but based his history on oral accounts. He placed most trust in his own experience and others’ eyewitness accounts but used hearsay when he deemed it proper to do so. Regarding the latter, he wrote: “I must tell what is said, but I am not at all bound to believe it, and this comment of mine holds about my whole History.” He sometimes recorded stories that he found dubious because he realized that just as time changed the fortunes of all people, it changed truth also. At times, he recorded material that seemed significant despite its questionable validity, because its meaning might become clear in the future. He was aware that there was a mythical element in much that people told him,...

(The entire section is 2008 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Further Reading:

Bakker, Egbert J., Irene J. F. De Jong, and Hans Van Wees, eds. Brill’s Companion to Herodotus. Boston: Brill, 2002. Includes essays on Athens, oral strategies in the language of Herodotus, epic heritage and mythical patterns, the intellectual trends of Herodotus’s time, the Persian invasions, and more.

De Sélincourt, Aubrey. The World of Herodotus. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982. This work retraces Herodotus’s literary journal based on twentieth century knowledge of his world. De Sélincourt translated The History for the Penguin Classics series.

Evans, J. A. Herodotus. Boston: Twayne, 1982. This biography covers the known facts of Herodotus’s life and clearly explains the various scholarly controversies surrounding him.

Flory, Stewart. The Archaic Smile of Herodotus. Detroit:Wayne State University Press, 1987. An analysis of literary motifs in The History, showing the tightness of its structure and the larger purposes Herodotus had in mind, beyond chronicling the Persian War.

Harrison, Thomas. Divinity and History: The Religion of Herodotus. New York: Clarendon Press, 2000. A study of Herodotus’s religious beliefs in divine retribution, in oracles and divination, and in miracles or in fate,...

(The entire section is 488 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Only from references in his own works and occasional mention by encyclopedists such as the tenth century Suidas can details of the life of Herodotus (hih-RAHD-uh-tuhs) be obtained. Herodotus relates that his parents were Lyxes and Dryo, wealthy people of the upper class, and that his birthplace, Halicarnassus, was part of the Persian Empire until he was thirty years old. His many quotations and references to dozens of authors show the scope and quantity of his reading, and his apparent familiarity with non-Greek cultures indicates how widely he traveled in Egypt, Scythia, Asia Minor, and various Greek states. Although he tried to test the validity of his sources, the interest rather than the veracity of many of the related...

(The entire section is 436 words.)