Herodotus of Halicarnassus was a fifth-century BCE Hellenic traveler and thinker, a student of human beings in all our variety. He is commonly referred to as “the father of history,” an appellation given him by the Roman orator and politician Cicero.
Herodotus’ only book, known to posterity as the Histories, is the first complete, extant prose work from the great intellectual flourishing of fifth-century Greece; Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is the second. In broad terms, the Histories is a rich account of the causes and events of the Persian Wars, the great conflagration between Achaemenid Persia and the free city-states (poleis) of Classical Greece. The work is punctuated by many digressions on the customs (nomoi) of the peoples with whom the expanding Persian empire came into contact, particularly (but not limited to) these peoples’ conceptions of piety. In part, Herodotus traces the growth of the Persian empire itself as well as the history of the Greeks. He also has a strong interest in natural matters such as the characteristics of the Nile River.
Today, we might call Herodotus’ work the study of “culture,” or perhaps of comparative religion. It is important to note, however, that Herodotus was as interested in human nature generally as he was in convention or custom. He believed that we can understand “the human” through the careful study of particular human societies. He therefore takes pains to relay the stories and tales actually told by the peoples about whom he writes. But the Histories is far more than a mere catalogue. The arrangement of the work itself suggests Herodotus’ intention, and the reader is encouraged to think through the logic of the Histories’ many anecdotes and unfolding episodes.
Little is known about the events of Herodotus’ life. The most reliable evidence is contained in his Histories itself. The work’s first line declares the author to be from Halicarnassus, now Bodrum, on the western coast of modern Turkey, and in the fifth century BCE a Greek city under the rule of a Persian satrapy. Herodotus was, therefore, born within the Achaemenid empire about which he writes. By his own account he led a cosmopolitan existence—he clearly travelled widely for the purposes of his studies, although scholars dispute just how widely. He himself says that his travels included sojourns in Egypt, Arabia, and Tyre, where he gathered first-hand material, and he takes pains to distinguish hearsay evidence (which he often relays) from autopsy, or those things that he saw himself. He also suggests, in an account of his dealings with the priests at Thebes, that his own family was illustrious (Book II 143,1); the fact that he was literate also suggests a wealthy background.
Later sources add further details to this picture. The tenth-century CE Byzantine lexicon, the Suda, names his parents as Lyxes and Dryo, citizens of Halicarnassus, and says that he had one brother, Theodorus. The names of both these male relatives appear in contemporary inscriptions from the city. The Suda further states that Herodotus was sent into exile on the island of Samos by the tyrant Lygdamis, and that he subsequently returned and expelled the tyrant from the city, before leaving for the Athenian colony of Thurii in southern Italy. Such biographical details may or may not be accurate. Lygdamis is reliably attested as tyrant of Halicarnassus in an epigraphical source, and the numerous references to Samos in the Histories suggest that Herodotus did have a close connection with the island, lending some credence to this account. Indeed, it may have been on Samos that Herodotus learned the Ionian dialect, in which his Histories are written.
A variant textual tradition in antiquity, supported by Aristotle, among others, ascribes the work to “Herodotus of Thurii” rather than “Herodotus of Halicarnassus.” This may be the origin of the supposed Thurii connection. The internal evidence of the text of the Histories suggests that Herodotus at least visited southern Italy—he sometimes draws comparison with southern Italian examples to explain a point (e.g., IV 99,5)—and it is certainly possible that Herodotus joined the colony, as did other thinkers, such as the sophist Protagoras, who may have drafted its original constitution. It was popularly believed in much of antiquity that Herodotus spent part of his life in Thurii and possibly died there.
Other sources claim that Herodotus spent time in Athens. Eusebius states that Athenians rewarded him for his public recitations in the year 445/4 BCE; such performances were common in fifth-century Greece. Herodotus was also linked to the circle of Pericles, the great democratic statesman of fifth-century Athens, and may have been friendly with Sophocles, the tragic playwright. By his own account, he travelled extensively in the cities of mainland Greece, including Delphi, Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth. The Suda also claims that Herodotus spent time in the Macedonian court in Pella, where, supposedly, the young Thucydides, who was a member of the aristocracy in nearby Thrace, burst into tears after hearing a declamation of the Histories. This is no doubt apocryphal, but Thucydides himself does obliquely refer to certain Herodotean “errors” in his prefatory Archaeology, and so was aware of his predecessor.
The date of Herodotus’ death is unknown. The latest events mentioned in his book (VII 137,1–3) can be dated to the first two years of the Peloponnesian War (431/30 BCE). It is reasonable to suppose that he ceased writing the Histories shortly after this. Because many Athenians died in the plague of 429, it is sometimes conjectured that he was also its victim (as was Pericles), but this remains speculative. At any rate, he must have died before 413 BCE, because he states in the Histories (IX, 73) that the Spartans never occupied the town of Decelea in northern Attica. This they famously did, on Alcibiades’ advice, in 413 BCE.
Herodotus’ birth date is traditionally given as 484/3 BCE, based on the idea that his fortieth birthday was coincident with the foundation of Thurii. As such, this date is fictional; it may, however, be broadly accurate. Herodotus was probably a slightly older contemporary of Socrates and a much older contemporary of Thucydides. The internal evidence of the Histories shows that Herodotus himself had no personal memories of the Persian invasion of 480/79, and had to rely on the testimony of others.
For further biographical/introductory reading, see:
Jacqueline De Romilly, A Short History of Greek Literature, Chicago: 1995.