Picking Apart the Words of Herodotus

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Herodotus was an ancient Greek writer who lived during the 5th century BC. He was born in what is today Turkey. The only piece of work known to have been produced by Herodotus is The Histories . Nevertheless, this was a revolutionary text, and as a result, it earned Herodotus his place in history. For some, The Histories marks the beginning of historical writing, and hence the title ‘Father of History’ was conferred on Herodotus. Others, however, argue that Herodotus was the ‘Father of Lies’.

Herodotus was born around 484 BC to a privileged family in Halicarnassus, which is today a Turkish city called Bodrum. During Herodotus’ time, this city was part of the mighty Achaemenid Empire. As a former Greek colony and a major trading post with Egypt, it is likely that Halicarnassus was a city that allowed Herodotus to learn about people from other regions.

Statue of Herodotus in his hometown of Halicarnassus, modern Bodrum, Turkey.

Statue of Herodotus in his hometown of Halicarnassus, modern Bodrum, Turkey. (Public Domain )

It is known that he lived in exile at least once, possibly on the island of Samos, and some researchers like to think the writer later led an uprising against Lygdamis for his oppression. Apart from that, there are few other details about Herodotus’ life. We only have information contained within Herodotus’ own writings and some other details about him from later sources such as the Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world. thus, there is not much known today about this ancient writer.

Herodotus is remembered by history because of The Histories . Prior to Herodotus, no writer is known to have written about the past through an investigative lens, or attempted to frame it as a series of cause and effect. Therefore, it may be said that Herodotus invented the genre of history writing. It may be because of this that Herodotus was referred to as the ‘Father of History’ by the Roman writer and orator, Cicero.

Fragment from Herodotus' Histories, Book VIII on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2099, dated to early 2nd century AD.

Fragment from Herodotus’ Histories, Book VIII on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2099, dated to early 2nd century AD. ( Public Domain )

In fact, his work was rather well-known, and seemingly accepted for the most part in his lifetime. The satirist and rhetorician Lucian suggests it was performed at the Olympic Games, the tragedian Sophocles provides a nod to The Histories  in Antigone, and the comic playwright Aristophanes saw Herodotus sufficiently well-known to make fun of him in  The Acharnians . Such famous names as Plutarch, Strabo, and Aristotle all seemed to recognize, though not always agree with, Herodotus’ work as well.

In The Histories , Herodotus gives an account of the Greco-Persian Wars, which lasted from 499 to 479 BC. In the preface of his work, Herodotus states that his work is meant to be an “inquiry”, especially into the causes of the war between the Greeks and the Persians. Herodotus then provides a narration about the rise of the Achaemenids until their conflict with the Greek city states. In between, he also provides ethnographic information about various cultures, including the Persians, the Egyptians, and the Scythians. Based on Herodotus’ eye-witness accounts of life in Egypt, Greece, Tyre, Babylon, and Italy, it has been assumed that the writer traveled to these distant lands in order to collect the material he wrote on.

Dedication page for a 1494 version of the ‘Historiae’ by the Greek historian Herodotus, translated into Latin by Lorenzo Valla and edited by Antonio Mancinelli.

Dedication page for a 1494 version of the ‘Historiae’ by the Greek historian Herodotus, translated into Latin by Lorenzo Valla and edited by Antonio Mancinelli. ( Public Domain )

Accusations and Criticisms Launched Against Herodotus

Whilst Herodotus was held in high esteem by many, others (often modern analysts of his work) have been more dismissive of him. For some, Herodotus is regarded as the ‘Father of Lies’, as The Histories is said to contain a great amount of tales and fables. One of these, for example, is the story about ants the size of foxes in Persia that spread gold dust when digging their mounds. This, amongst other stories, has been dismissed as a tall tale by generations.

In 1984, however, Michel Peissel, a French author and explorer, reported that there is a type of fox-sized marmot in the Himalayas that spread gold dust when digging. The villagers in the area had a long history of collecting this dust, proving that this was already known in antiquity. Peissel further speculated that as the Persian word for ‘mountain ant’ was very close to their word for ‘marmot’, it is entirely plausible that Herodotus, who did not speak Persian himself and relied on translators, ended up with an error in translation.

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