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

There are two approaches to appear at the query of who invented historical past. The 1st, of class, is that no a person invented it Background is only the outcome of the sluggish unfurling of time and the actions of these who have lived and died in its murky eddies. But the research of these actions, which we also get in touch with historical past, has a a lot more definite beginning. For lots of of us in the Western globe nowadays, it began with a person named Herodotus.

Referred to as “the father of history” by the Roman statesman Cicero, Herodotus is the author of the 1st authoritative historic textual content of any size. The Histories is a multi-quantity account of the Greco-Persian wars, stuffed with enlightening digressions that span from Egypt to the near East. (It also gave us pretty the word historical past, which meant inquiry in the initial Greek). To this day, Herodotus is often cited by students as a source of details on the lands and civilizations of his time.

Of class, Herodotus was not quite a historian as we could think of nowadays. His account, which relied mostly on oral resources and next-particular person retellings, is replete with cases of fantasy. His tendency toward credulousness also acquired him the fairly considerably less flattering appellation, “father of lies,” based mostly on the a lot of critiques of his function that began shortly soon after The Histories was published.

Herodotus was not the 1st to generate down historical past. Greeks in advance of him, notably Hecataeus of Miletus, experienced also published down their accounts of historic events. But no a person in advance of Herodotus experienced attempted to compile the sort of thorough record of a important historic occurrences that The Histories signifies. By way of it, Herodotus attempts to demonstrate not just what transpired, but why, students say.

The Initially Historian

Of Herodotus the person, minimal is recognised. He was born in the metropolis of Helicarnassus, in modern-day Turkey, and which was then part of the Persian empire. He traveled widely, even as a somewhat young person, venturing to Egypt, and then going to Athens. Herodotus reportedly visited pieces of the Center East, including Babylon and existing-day Palestine and Syria, as nicely as Macedonia and eastern Europe, reaching the Black Sea and the Danube River.

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

Alongside the way, he gathered interviews from locals, accumulating their accounts of their have histories and of the a lot more much-flung people today they encountered. Herodotus was a curious person: He writes of his attempts to make clear the seasonal flooding of the Nile, and to trace the lineage of the Greek gods back to historical Egypt, amid other items. He also most likely gave oral performances of parts of his historic writings to general public audiences in Greece, a frequent apply at the time.

Herodotus’ apply was often only to generate down every thing he was told, and at periods qualifying the accounts with his have observations. This practice may well be part of the motive Herodotus has often been criticized of outright confabulation. We hear of headless guys with eyes in their chests in Libya and gold-digging ants in India that are greater than a fox (now thought to be marmots). It’s unclear regardless of whether Herodotus meant to portray these tales as truth of the matter, or if he only intended to catalogue what he experienced been told by several people today as he traveled.

For these motives and other individuals, Herodotus’ writings drew heavy criticism in historical Greece. The historian Thucydides, who probably drew a lot inspiration from The Histories, took pains to get in touch with Herodotus out for what he perceived as inaccuracies and biases. And the Greek philosopher Plutarch, writing some 3 centuries afterwards, mounts an even bigger assault, arguing that Herodotus’ function was biased in favor of non-Greeks, and questioning the historian’s judgement. Now, students just take a a lot more balanced perspective of Herodotus the historian. However his tales could not generally be truthful, there is a lot that Herodotus obtained appropriate — and his insights into the Greek globe and past at the time are just about unparalleled.

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

Occasional fantasies apart, Herodotus also documented on a lot that was accurate. Alongside the headless creatures, he writes of impalas, gazelles and elands in Africa, and of Ethiopians wrapped in lion skins with extensive bows made of palmwood. Environmental science and biology demonstrate up as nicely. Herodotus documented on the annual flooding of the Nile, and speculates on what prompted it. He notes the astonishing progress of crocodiles: “No mortal creature of all which we know grows from so tiny a beginning to these kinds of greatness for its eggs are not a lot more substantial than goose eggs, and the young crocodile is of a proportional size, but it grows to a size of twenty-8 ft and a lot more.”

A (Generally) True Account

Herodotus took it upon himself to proper what he noticed as the inaccuracies of writers in advance of him. He provides a conflicting account of the events relayed by the epic poet Homer that began the now-legendary Trojan War. The war is supposed to have been instigated when a Trojan kidnapped Helen, spouse of the Spartan king Menelaus. But Herodotus, based mostly on investigate in the course of his time in Egypt, dismisses this as mere fantasy Helen was essentially in Egypt the total time, he counters, blown off class in the course of a sea journey.

The Histories also contains what is probably the a lot more correct version of the legendary tale of a lone runner offering the news of the Greeks’ victory at the Battle of Marathon to Athens, in advance of perishing of exhaustion. But Herodotus’ account alternatively will involve a runner currently being despatched from Athens to Sparta in advance of the battle (a a lot greater distance of about 150 miles) to inquire for assist, and then the overall Athenian army marching back to Athens soon after the battle to confront a Persian fleet bearing down on the metropolis.

But a lot more modern historians have noted inconsistencies all over Herodotus’ writings, that they say point out he may well never have visited some of the areas he claims. For case in point, he never after mentions the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a person of the seven miracles of the historical globe, in spite of acquiring allegedly traveled there.

But Herodotus has been vindicated in other approaches. For case in point, a boat just lately unearthed in the Nile delta matches almost precisely his description of a curious sort of barge-like watercraft made use of there.

And his account of the Greco-Persian war, the key topic of The Histories, is also held to be mostly accurate. To lay out the entire tale of the war, Herodotus commences a lot further back, describing the historical past of Persia, as nicely as Athens and Sparta, and the feats and follies of a lot of royal people along the way. Alongside with the geography and infrastructure of areas he visits, Herodotus imparts a lot of observations on the people today and customs he encounters, or which he is told about along the way.

In this meandering way, Herodotus ultimately will come to a prolonged description of the several military services engagements of the war by itself, a many years-extensive conflict that would define the class of historical past in the course of his life time and for many years afterward. That tale by itself would qualify his function as a valuable piece of historic writing — but it is the lots of and different digressions he embarks upon that define the accurate benefit of The Histories nowadays.

Herodotus gifts us with insights into the historical civilizations of Egypt, Persia, Assyria, Scythia and a lot more. Specified his is a person of the oldest operates of prose in existence, The Histories is often scholars’ most effective source for accounts of these cultures, even two,500 several years soon after Herodotus’ demise. And past that, as lots of historians stage out, it is also just a truly pleasurable browse.