Herodotus Essay - Critical Essays



Herodotus c.484 B.C-c.429/425 B.C.

Greek historian.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Textual History

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.

Critical Reception

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


Plutarch (essay date c.105-c.115)

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,...

(The entire section is 2315 words.)

Thomas De Quincey (essay date 1842)

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,...

(The entire section is 5486 words.)

Frank Byron Jevons (essay date 1900)

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...

(The entire section is 8096 words.)

T.R. Glover (essay date 1924)

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...

(The entire section is 10750 words.)

E. M. W. Tillyard (essay date 1954)

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...

(The entire section is 4946 words.)

Richmond Lattimore (essay date 1958)

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...

(The entire section is 6603 words.)

Aubrey de Sélincourt (essay date 1962)

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...

(The entire section is 6090 words.)

Charles W. Fornara (essay date 1971)

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...

(The entire section is 4914 words.)

Oswyn Murray (essay date 1972)

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 entire section is 6205 words.)

J.A.S. Evans (essay date 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 4346 words.)

David Grene (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 13450 words.)

Donald Lateiner (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 4940 words.)

J. A. S. Evans (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 13458 words.)

Further Reading

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,...

(The entire section is 639 words.)