(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.