The History of Herodotus

by Herodotus
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Last Updated on September 20, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

Herodotus of Halicarnassus was a Greek historian born in the early fifth century BCE. Often known as the “Father of History,” Herodotus is remembered for his Histories, an extended retelling of the Greco-Persian War that highlights its historical causes and regional effects in the historian’s characteristic, often fantastic storytelling style. As one of, if not the first, to approach the practice of recording history, Herodotus’s historiographical style is marred by his allegiance to his predecessors; contemporary writers wrote in prose, telling incredible stories of mythology and tragedy. The Histories carries on this tradition, employing classical Greek literary conventions in a text intended as a work of historical non-fiction. Despite certain inaccuracies and factual liberties, the Histories is the most accurate compendium of sixth- to fifth-century BCE Greek, West Asian, and North African history available to scholars and remains a critical part of the Western literary canon. 

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Unlike many histories of ancient Greece, Herodotus’s Histories was written shortly after the events it recounts occurred. It is a collection of stories compiled from the author’s many travels throughout Greece, Asia Minor, and many other regions of the ancient world. The account follows Herodotus’s “inquiry” style of historiography, basing his claims on his education, interactions with primary sources, and observations of his world and environs. Modern historians divide his text into nine books which simultaneously tell the stories of the Persian Empire’s growth and the Greco-Persian War while integrating conversational off-shoots on regional history, mythology, hearsay, and gossip. His presence pervades the narrative and many aspects of the war's history are told entirely through his eyes. 

Broadly, books one through five explain the circumstances that led up to the conflict between Greece and Persia and describe the circumstances that led Persia to become a regional superpower, including its history, geography, linguistic and cultural diversity, and social structure. Herodotus details the lineage of four Persian kings and describes the events and expansion projects of Kings Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, and Xerxes. These tellings are intercut with other loosely connected histories; the Persian kings spent much time in Egypt, Ethiopia, India, and many Greek cities. Their contact with the tertiary edges of the Greco-Persian world led Herodotus to derail the narrative and build an interconnected image of the world as it once existed.

 From this extensive background, books six through nine turn to the war itself, beginning with the Ionians’ revolt against their Persian rulers, following King Xerxes of Persia’s invasion of Greece, and ending with the Greeks' defeat of the Persians at the Battles of Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale. The Histories provides an in-depth analysis of the war, from the Ionian revolt of 499 BCE and ending with the surprising defeat of the Persian army in 479 BCE, but the work also offers insight into the complex and deeply interwoven multiculturalism of the region in question, discussing centuries of nuanced background that led up to the war.

As Herodotus explains in the later chapters, the Hellenistic world was left reeling by the events of the early fifth century, shattered by a war that they seemed unlikely to win. Their victory over the seemingly invincible Persian army was costly, and the loss of a major regional influence left a power vacuum ready to be filled. As such, the ramifications of this twenty-year conflict were felt well into Herodotus’s time, aftershocks that he looked to history to explain. 


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1314

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 Cambyses marched against Amasis. The Egyptian king having died in the meantime, the mercenary army of his son was no match for the Persian, who then gave an indication of his incipient insanity by dishonoring his slain enemies.

Book 4 introduces Darius, cousin of and successor to Cambyses, who let the barbarous Scythians outwit him into making peace with them. The next volume begins with a plan that failed. Two Paeonian nobles, wishing to be named rulers over their people, brought their beautiful sister to Sardis, where Darius saw her, carrying water on her head, leading a horse, and spinning. Eager to spread such industry throughout his empire, he had the Paeonians sent throughout Asia Minor. The book deals largely with the revolt in Ionia, the growth of Athens, and its expedition, encouraged by Aristagoras, against Sardis. Although the capital was captured and burned, Darius rallied and defeated the invaders at Salamis, in Cyprus.

Book 4 tells of a battle fought between 353 Ionian triremes (galleys) and 600 Babylonian ships. By dissension among the enemy rather than by his strength, Darius defeated them and went on to besiege and conquer Miletus. Again Greek bickering helped him during his march to Athens, but the Athenians, rallying and with a few Plataeans, successfully engaged the forces of Darius at Marathon, on September 14, 450 b.c.e. The Persians were driven back with a loss of 6,400 dead. The Athenians lost only 192 in the battle.

Book 7 tells in considerable detail how Darius prepared to avenge his defeat. Fate delayed him, rebellious Egypt sidetracked him, and death ended his plans. The uncertain Xerxes, succeeding his father to the throne, undertook the Egyptian campaign. After a quick victory, at the head of twenty thousand soldiers, he marched on Athens. It took seven days for his army to cross the Hellespont bridge, erected by his engineers, and he, reviewing them, lamented that none would be alive a hundred years hence.

Many Greek cities were quick to surrender. Only Athens, as Herodotus boasts, dared confront the host of Xerxes. Themistocles interpreted the oracle’s counsel to defend the city with “wooden walls” as advice to use the two hundred warships originally built for an attack on Egypt. Nature, however, provided a better defense in an east wind that wrecked four hundred Persian galleys along with uncounted transports and provision carriers. Neither armed forces nor natural obstacles, however, halted Xerxes’ army until it reached the Pass of Thermopylae. There, for a day, the Athenians and Spartans checked the Persian host until a traitor revealed another path to the invader. The next day the Persians were again on the march, leaving all the defenders and many thousands of their own troops dead behind them.

In book 8, there is an account of Xerxes’ march into Athens and setting fire to the Acropolis. The “wooden walls” of the Athenian fleet, however, were victorious at Salamis on September 20, 480 b.c.e. Winner of the greatest glory was the Persian queen Artemis, who used the confusion of battle to get revenge on another Persian by ramming and sinking his ship. Xerxes thought she was attacking an enemy and the Athenians believed she had changed loyalties, so both sides lauded her.

Fearing that the Greeks might sail on to destroy his bridge, Xerxes ordered a retreat. From the Asian mainland he sent demands for a peace treaty, promptly refused by both Athens and Sparta.

Book 9 tells how Mardonios renewed the attack against the Greeks in the hope of sending word of victory back to Xerxes in Sardis. Although temporarily checked by the Thebans, he again entered Athens, whose citizens had fled to Salamis to assemble their allies. When they marched back, Mardonios burned what was left of Athens and retreated.

Except for cavalry skirmishes, neither side wanted to engage in battle until the sacrifices were propitious, but Mardonios’s patience broke first, and he fell into a trap at Plataea, where he was killed and his army routed; there were twenty thousand Persian and Boeotian casualties against ninety-one Spartans and fifty-two Athenians killed.

At Thermopylae, Leonidas, the Spartan king, had been crucified and beheaded by the Persians. Certain Greeks wanted to dishonor Mardonios in the same way, but they were told that dishonoring a dead enemy was worthy only of barbarians. Some of the fleeing Persians were pursued and killed at Mycale. Their defeat ended Xerxes’ ambitious plan to crush the Hellenes.

Modern historians have honored Herodotus by translating his history into English. Littlebury’s version (1709) is outstanding in style but reveals the writer’s imperfect knowledge of Greek. George Rawlinson translated the work in 1858. The most satisfactory translation is the two-volume work published by G. C. Macaulay in 1890.

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