Herodotus wrote only one book, known today as the Histories. The Greek word that forms its title, historiai, from which our word “history” derives, means inquiries—and so a more accurate title might be the Inquiries of Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The first great work of literary prose to be written outside of the Biblical tradition, the Histories is not only the forerunner of all discursive writing in the Western canon, but it is also the most complete surviving document of Pre-Socratic thought, the writings of the other Pre-Socratic thinkers being fragmentary.
Overall, the Histories narrates the events culminating in the great Persian Wars between the city-states of Greece and the empire of Achaemenid Persia. In the earlier portions of the work, the historical (or mythical) account is interspersed with descriptions of the customs and beliefs of various peoples, including the Persians, the Greeks, the Scythians, the Egyptians, and others, focusing particularly on their distinctive piety and its relationship to politics and war. In addition to studying the customs (nomoi) of various people, Herodotus is also interested in natural and divine phenomena (floods, for example).
For Herodotus’ unremitting focus on the mythological or wondrous, Thucydides roundly criticizes him. In Thucydides’ prefatory pages, commonly known as the Archaeology, Thucydides even identifies several Herodotean “errors,” although he never mentions Herodotus by name. Although Herodotus’ stories may be false in certain particulars, however, they may also reveal the horizon of the peoples that he was studying, and so accurately record the internal view of their beliefs. Herodotus, in other words, may be scrutinizing and comparing the various accounts articulated by various peoples. Indeed, Herodotus’ focus is not so much on difference as on the common human nature that generates so many interesting variations, and which can be explored thoroughly only through its many manifestations.
The Persian Wars and the Structure of the Histories
Herodotus’ Histories famously begins with the following sentence: “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 each other.”
This sentence is programmatic for the work as a whole, which can be divided roughly into two major parts—an account of the wonders and peoples of the world, barbarian and Greek, which occupies the first half of the Histories, and then the relations between Greece and Persia leading up to and through the Persian Wars, which dominates Books Five through Nine. The primary narrative arc traces eighty years. It begins with Cyrus’ (and Croesus’) rise to power. Cyrus was the first Achaemenid king and founder of the Persian empire, while Croesus was the Lydian king whose march against Cyrus, according to Herodotus, caused the Achaemenids to turn their attention to Ionia and to the Greek mainland. It concludes with the battle of Mycale, which, along with the battle of Plataea, ended the second Persian invasion of Greece, with the Greeks victorious.
Structured around the first four Achaemenid kings—Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, and Xerxes— and their military campaigns against various peoples, the Histories contains a multitude of ethnographic digressions, which make up many of the most striking and memorable parts of the text. There is a clear overlap between these two parts of the Histories: the wonders and peoples that Herodotus describes are those encountered by the expanding Persian empire, an expansionism that ultimately led to the Persian Wars. The two themes, however, do not always appear to be integrated, which is sometimes considered a reason to think our text is not in the final form intended by Herodotus.
Another possibility, however, is that Herodotus intends his readers to think through these connections. Seen in this light, the perplexities would represent not inconsistencies but rather stimuli to the education of the attentive reader. It is also important to note that there is sometimes little correlation between the length of digressions on particular countries and the importance of those countries in the Persian Wars. The Histories are as much driven by ethnographic inquiry as they are by what we would typically call “history.” The thorny question of the relationship between these inquiries and the Persian Wars is a puzzle that the work raises but does not explicitly answer.
Modern editions of Herodotus follow the medieval manuscript tradition in dividing the Histories into nine books. These divisions, and the ascription of each book to one of the nine muses, can be attributed to the librarians of Alexandria and is first attested in the first century BCE. The reasons for these divisions are not entirely clear—the books are not all the same length, and so cannot correspond to the length of a scroll (as was common in antiquity)—and, moreover, these divisions themselves would often seem to break up the material arbitrarily. Herodotus himself clearly considered his narrative to contain a number of different logoi, or accounts. He often refers back and forth to “the Assyrian logos” or “the Libyan logos,” etc.
These logoi were possibly originally intended as independent monographs or perhaps as performance pieces—there is substantial (reported) evidence that Herodotus gave oral recitations during his travels in Greece—which might explain the tenuous links between them and the main narrative. Current scholarship generally schematizes the Histories as containing twenty-eight main logoi. These are not, however, the only digressions in the work. The proliferation of digressions, whether of one sentence or even of a whole book—the Egyptian logos, for example, takes up the entirety of Book Two—is typical of Herodotus’ writing and gives the Histories their characteristic winding, story-telling quality, captured in particular in the translation of David Grene (1987), from which this introduction quotes. Although the thread may sometimes be hard to follow through the wealth of details and anecdotes, the fundamental narrative of the conflict between the Greeks and the barbarians is consistently maintained and suggests an overarching authorial intention.
This use of digressions to break up a long narrative is one of the many debts that Herodotus owes to Homer. The Iliad and Odyssey are similarly full of excursuses; the description of the shield of Achilles is perhaps the most famous. Homeric qualities can indeed be found in major elements of Herodotus’ writing, including the introductory proem. Herodotus, however, unlike Homer, writes in prose, not poetry. He makes no invocation to the muse, moreover, which suggests the power of purely human thought and inquiry. An even more basic debt to Homer is his choice of subject matter. Homer’s theme of war between Greeks and barbarians is the direct precursor of Herodotus’ discussion, and signaled in the Histories by the work’s opening discussion of the retaliatory “abduction of women” between Greece and Asia, including of course Helen of Troy, over whom the Trojan War was (allegedly) fought.
The Histories ends abruptly with Cyrus the Great’s comment that “soft lands breed soft men” and the subsequent Persian decision to continue to live and rule from the mountains. Although this maxim of geographical determinism is not an inappropriate ending to Herodotus’ ethnographic observations, it is sometimes believed that the work remains unfinished. The main narrative ends in the previous chapter with the phrase “and nothing else happened that year” (IX, 121), leaving this short passage tacked on. It is probable, however, that Herodotus did intend to end with the events of 479. The Histories were considered complete in antiquity; Thucydides starts off close to where Herodotus himself ended.
Autopsy and Accuracy
If Herodotus owes a debt to Homer and the poets, he also clearly owes one to the fifth-century tradition of Ionian science. Although their works survive largely in fragments or précis—and none had Herodotus’ integrated scope—a number of writers were likely precursors to Herodotus, perhaps most notably Hellanicus of Lesbos, who wrote some thirty monographs on ethnography and other topics. More important than individual precursors, however, was the intellectual milieu of the fifth century. Herodotus’ emphasis on evidence and autopsy is shared with the early medical writers of the Hippocratic corpus, for example. And his combative rhetorical style is reminiscent of the Sophists. Indeed, some of the dialogues that Herodotus presents—for instance the famous discussion of the nature of the regime between Darius and his fellow conspirators (III 80–3)—remind one of the set piece rhetorical debates for which the Sophists were famous.
Herodotus presents his analytical method openly and candidly. He distinguishes between autopsy—“seeing for oneself,” or first-hand knowledge—and akoe—oral testimony, or things “heard by report.” He manifestly prefers the first to the second, although he accepts, and interrogates, the latter when he has no personal knowledge of a particular issue. As already mentioned, he sometimes reports what people say because it reveals what they actually think and not because he is somehow credulous. At times, he even tells the reader that he was unable to obtain certain information, and he occasionally presents and adjudicates between various sources and accounts. The overall impression is that of a careful and credible reporter, as well as someone who has an abiding curiosity about the world.
Herodotus’ veracity or accuracy is perhaps the most disputed aspect of his writing. Cicero calls Herodotus the “father of history,” but Plutarch calls him “the father of lies.” Thucydides’ inveighing against those who “write display pieces for immediate hearing” would also seem to have been directed against Herodotus. Moreover, external sources reveal some startling inaccuracies in the Histories. For example, Herodotus mistakenly says the pass at Thermopylae runs north to south (VII 176, 3), while his account of Upper Egypt in Book II is so notorious for its many errors that some question whether he travelled to Egypt at all.
On the other hand, Herodotus is at times astonishingly accurate. Perhaps the most famous example comes when he recounts the report of Phoenicians who circumnavigated Africa and noted that at a certain point the sun started to appear on the right (IV, 42, 4). Herodotus himself comments: “Some may believe this, but I do not.” Modern exploration has, of course, confirmed that this is indeed the case in the southern hemisphere. More prosaically, six out of the seven names he gives for Darius’ conspirators are confirmed by Darius’ inscription at Bisutun, suggesting a reliable Persian informant (III 7, 1–3), and even one of his most outré accounts, that of the ants who dig for gold (III 102, 5), has been rescued by recent scientific speculations (that suggest the ants may, in fact, have been marmots).
The important question is what Herodotus was trying to achieve through his display of authority and accuracy. Plutarch’s view was that it was a rhetorical strategy, used to gain unjustified credibility for, essentially, mendacious testimony. Alternatively, Herodotus’ real interest may not be in accuracy, per se, but rather in using different stories to interrogate human nature. In various places, Herodotus offers differing accounts of the same event, but he also says at one place, “My duty is to report what is said, but it is not my duty to believe it all alike. May this rule govern my entire work” (VII 152, 3). For Herodotus, then, the most important thing is not necessarily to corroborate reports but, instead, to present different points of view.
Is Herodotus a Cultural Relativist?
If Herodotus suggests that “everywhere custom (nomoi) is king” (III, 38), does that make him a cultural relativist in the common sense of that term? Not necessarily, but it is a fair thesis to entertain. Custom may be king, but there may nevertheless be natural limits or natural currents running through the customs of various peoples, for human nature may not be infinitely plastic. Herodotus’ interest in Greeks and barbarians may even reflect a desire to shed light on the unexamined assumptions of Greekness itself, since his initial readership would naturally be Greek. His comparative project may therefore have a non-parochial intention: to liberate the Greeks themselves (or certain of his Greek readers, at least) from the shackles of unreflective custom.
Happiness, Morality, and Piety
One of Herodotus’ preoccupations is the character of happiness and good (or bad) fortune, whether of individuals or of cities. Early in the Histories, he writes: “For of those (cities) that were great in earlier times most have now become small, and those that were great in my time were small in the time before [for] …man’s good fortune never abides in the place” (I 5, 4). One question is then the source of good fortune.
In Herodotus’ so-called Lydian logos, the Athenian Solon (one of seven wise men of ancient Greece) offers a rumination on fortune, happiness, and the god to the wealthy Lydian king Croesus. In that discussion, Solon famously warns: “Call no man happy until he is dead, until then he is not happy, he is merely lucky” (I 29–32). Some have claimed that this is the Herodotean vision of human life itself, that happiness must be looked for only at the end of life, because fortune, fate, or the divine can always intervene to bring the ostensibly happy man to sadness and ruin. Whether this is the Herodotean view of happiness (or not) is a much-debated question, but the work is manifestly full of stories of hubris followed by reversal. Of course, this leads to the question of whether the reversal is a divine response to transgression, the natural result of purely human overreaching, or, indeed, purely chance.
Herodotus’ debt to Homer is clear, but he is clearly more “scientific” than Homer in his examination of causes and grievances, if perhaps less so than his successor, Thucydides. Herodotus is one of the first Western thinkers to consider deeply and comprehensively the wide range of human experience for good or ill, as well as the relationship between human beings to the divine. “This is the bitterest pain among men,” Herodotus writes in one of his final thoughts, “to have much knowledge but no power” (IX 16, 10).
For further reading, see:
Seth Benardete, Herodotean Inquires, South Bend: 2008.