We Can Thank Herodotus, the ‘Father of History,’ for Our Knowledge of the Ancient World

Maria J. Danford

There are two techniques to glimpse at the problem of who invented historical past. The first, of course, is that no one invented it Record is just the consequence of the slow unfurling of time and the steps of individuals who have lived and died inside its murky eddies. But the study of individuals steps, which we also connect with historical past, has a more definite starting. For numerous of us in the Western earth right now, it commenced with a gentleman named Herodotus.

Called “the father of history” by the Roman statesman Cicero, Herodotus is the writer of the first authoritative historical text of any duration. The Histories is a multi-quantity account of the Greco-Persian wars, filled with insightful digressions that span from Egypt to the in close proximity to East. (It also gave us incredibly the word historical past, which intended inquiry in the primary Greek). To this day, Herodotus is often cited by scholars as a source of information and facts on the lands and civilizations of his time.

Of course, Herodotus was not rather a historian as we might think of right now. His account, which relied mainly on oral resources and next-man or woman retellings, is replete with occasions of fantasy. His inclination toward credulousness also acquired him the fairly significantly less flattering appellation, “father of lies,” primarily based on the several critiques of his get the job done that commenced soon after The Histories was published.

Herodotus was not the first to write down historical past. Greeks before him, notably Hecataeus of Miletus, experienced also created down their accounts of historical events. But no one before Herodotus experienced tried to compile the type of comprehensive file of a important historical occurrences that The Histories represents. By means of it, Herodotus attempts to clearly show not just what happened, but why, scholars say.

The Initial Historian

Of Herodotus the gentleman, tiny is known. He was born in the town of Helicarnassus, in modern-day-day Turkey, and which was then component of the Persian empire. He traveled commonly, even as a reasonably youthful gentleman, venturing to Egypt, and then going to Athens. Herodotus reportedly frequented parts of the Middle East, such as Babylon and existing-day Palestine and Syria, as very well as Macedonia and jap Europe, achieving the Black Sea and the Danube River.

The theatre of ancient Halicarnassus, built in the 4th century BC during the reign of King Mausolos and enlarged in the 2nd century AD, the original capacity of the theatre was 10,000, Bodrum, Turkey (16456817694)

A theater in the Halicarnassus, where by Herodotus was born. (Credit rating: Carole Raddato/Wikimedia Commons)

Alongside the way, he gathered interviews from locals, amassing their accounts of their have histories and of the more much-flung individuals they encountered. Herodotus was a curious gentleman: He writes of his attempts to clarify the seasonal flooding of the Nile, and to trace the lineage of the Greek gods back to ancient Egypt, between other things. He also likely gave oral performances of portions of his historical writings to general public audiences in Greece, a widespread exercise at the time.

Herodotus’ exercise was often just to write down every thing he was explained to, and at times qualifying the accounts with his have observations. This behavior may perhaps be component of the purpose Herodotus has often been criticized of outright confabulation. We listen to of headless adult men with eyes in their chests in Libya and gold-digging ants in India that are more substantial than a fox (now imagined to be marmots). It’s unclear regardless of whether Herodotus intended to portray these stories as fact, or if he just meant to catalogue what he experienced been explained to by many individuals as he traveled.

For these explanations and other people, Herodotus’ writings drew large criticism in ancient Greece. The historian Thucydides, who probably drew a great deal inspiration from The Histories, took pains to connect with Herodotus out for what he perceived as inaccuracies and biases. And the Greek philosopher Plutarch, writing some 3 generations afterwards, mounts an even bigger assault, arguing that Herodotus’ get the job done was biased in favor of non-Greeks, and questioning the historian’s judgement. Nowadays, scholars get a more balanced view of Herodotus the historian. Even though his tales might not often be truthful, there is a great deal that Herodotus received correct — and his insights into the Greek earth and further than at the time are approximately unparalleled.

450px-Himalayan Marmot at Tshophu Lake Bhutan 091007 a

A Himalayan marmot. (Credit rating: ©Christopher J. Fynn / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3. & GFDL)

Occasional fantasies apart, Herodotus also documented on a great deal that was real. Together with the headless creatures, he writes of impalas, gazelles and elands in Africa, and of Ethiopians wrapped in lion skins with very long bows made of palmwood. Environmental science and biology clearly show up as very well. Herodotus documented on the annual flooding of the Nile, and speculates on what brought on it. He notes the astonishing growth of crocodiles: “No mortal creature of all which we know grows from so little a starting to such greatness for its eggs are not a great deal even larger than goose eggs, and the youthful crocodile is of a proportional size, but it grows to a duration of 20-eight ft and more.”

A (Primarily) Correct Account

Herodotus took it on himself to appropriate what he observed as the inaccuracies of writers before him. He features a conflicting account of the events relayed by the epic poet Homer that commenced the now-legendary Trojan War. The war is supposed to have been instigated when a Trojan kidnapped Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. But Herodotus, primarily based on study in the course of his time in Egypt, dismisses this as mere myth Helen was actually in Egypt the whole time, he counters, blown off course in the course of a sea journey.

The Histories also includes what is probably the more precise version of the legendary tale of a lone runner delivering the information of the Greeks’ victory at the Battle of Marathon to Athens, before perishing of exhaustion. But Herodotus’ account rather involves a runner getting sent from Athens to Sparta before the battle (a a great deal more substantial length of about 150 miles) to question for assist, and then the full Athenian army marching back to Athens after the battle to confront a Persian fleet bearing down on the town.

But more modern-day historians have pointed out inconsistencies through Herodotus’ writings, that they say show he may perhaps hardly ever have frequented some of the spots he statements. For instance, he hardly ever when mentions the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the 7 miracles of the ancient earth, in spite of acquiring allegedly traveled there.

But Herodotus has been vindicated in other techniques. For instance, a boat lately unearthed in the Nile delta matches pretty much exactly his description of a curious type of barge-like watercraft applied there.

And his account of the Greco-Persian war, the major subject of The Histories, is also held to be mainly real. To lay out the entire tale of the war, Herodotus starts a great deal even further back, describing the historical past of Persia, as very well as Athens and Sparta, and the feats and follies of several royal people alongside the way. Alongside with the geography and infrastructure of spots he visits, Herodotus imparts several observations on the individuals and customs he encounters, or which he is explained to about alongside the way.

In this meandering way, Herodotus finally arrives to a prolonged description of the many armed service engagements of the war by itself, a many years-very long conflict that would outline the course of historical past in the course of his life time and for many years afterward. That tale by yourself would qualify his get the job done as a beneficial piece of historical writing — but it is the numerous and various digressions he embarks on that outline the real worth of The Histories right now.

Herodotus gifts us with insights into the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Persia, Assyria, Scythia and more. Specified his is one of the oldest works of prose in existence, The Histories is often scholars’ finest source for accounts of these cultures, even 2,five hundred years after Herodotus’ dying. And further than that, as numerous historians position out, it is also just a truly enjoyment read.

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