Herodotus (484– 424 BCE)

Born in Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum on Turkey's Aegean coast), Herodotus (484– 424 BCE) has reasonably been dubbed the 'father of history'. Although the word (historie – "inquiry") was in use before his time, Herodotus turned it into an inquiry about events in time. 

It seems Herodotus was exiled after political struggles in Halicarnassus against the Persian-nominated tyrant Lygdamis. In the course of subsequent travels through Asia Minor, the Aegean Islands, Greece, Macedonia and Thrace, he accumulated a vast quantity of information about the Persian Wars. He eventually settled in the newly-founded Athenian colony of Thurii on Italy's Tarentine Gulf in 443 BCE. Subsequent travels took him around Sicily and lower Italy.

He writes of enquiries in the northern Aegean and around the shores of the Black Sea. In Egypt, he is known to have travelled as far up the Nile as Aswan. He refers to experiences in southern Russia, Babylon and Phoenician Tyre and conversations with Carthaginians and the inhabitants of Delphi.

While he was not an eyewitness or participant in the events that he describes, Herodotus includes conversations with those who were and with the grandsons of those involved in earlier events in his research.

Significantly, he builds the process of enquiry into his narrative. He describes agreements and disagreements among his sources, as well as his reactions to what he is told. While he feels obliged to report what was said to him, he is under no obligation to believe it.

While Herodotus may have had access to documentary sources, the overwhelming mass of his material must derive from oral tradition. Conceiving a narrative that draws on local traditions and connects them to span seventy years and incorporate much of the known world was Herodotus' most brilliant and original achievement.

The nine-volume result incorporated elements of mythology, geography, ethnology. It also included details of early Greek history and a survey of the known world, followed by an account of the Persian Wars. 

Although we do not know precisely when Herodotus completed the Histories, a version had reached Athens by 425 BCE. The dramatist Aristophanes parodied the opening chapters in one of his plays, so it appears that the work was reasonably well known. At one point in his travels, Herodotus had lived in Athens as a metic (a resident alien with some citizenship privileges).  

When the work appeared, it was more than a straightforward chronicle. Today, Histories represent the oldest surviving prose work of art in a European language. 


Chambers Biographical Dictionary

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (ed.) The Times Atlas of World Exploration

Simon Hornblower and Tony Spawforth (eds.) Who's Who in the Classical World

J.M. Roberts The Penguin History of the World

© Ian Hughes 2017