The Histories of Herodotus are the best known historiographical work from Antiquity. Other Greek and Roman historians have written longer and more accurate histories, but none of them has become as popular. The Histories were copied over and over again for nearly 2500 years and have survived almost intact. Why do the Histories of Herodotus fascinate us so much?
The Father of History
Herodotus was the first one to write about the past in a systematic way, which earned him the title ‘father of history’. In his quest to find the ultimate cause of the Graeco-Persian Wars, Herodotus basically invented a new science. He needed to interview many people from across the known world, to determine the reliability of his informers and to balance conflicting accounts. He did not only try to reconstruct past events, but he also wrote about the cultural practices of the peoples and the geographical features of the lands that he discussed. For this reason, Herodotus could be considered not only as the father of history, but also as the father of anthropology and geography.
Herodotus as a storyteller
Another reason why Herodotus is so popular, is that he speaks in an engaging way. I say ‘speaks’, because Herodotus’s work originally consisted of public lectures. He often directly addresses his audience and includes anecdotes and fun facts in his speeches. Herodotus is also notorious for his lengthy digressions. Whether or not that is a good thing is up to you. Personally I love these digressions, but I know people who loathe Herodotus for this reason. He often stops mid-story to talk about the most minute details for pages on end. When he resumes his story, the reader has often lost track of the original story. Despite the numerous digressions, Herodotus’s Histories do have a solid storyline. The work traces the conflict between Greeks and barbarians chronologically from the moment that the Lydian king Croesus subdued the Ionian city states (before 546 BC) up to the Battle of Mycale (479 BC), although he also refers to earlier periods in his digressions.
Speaking of digressions, part of this is likely due to the fact that Herodotus himself did not edit his own books. These were compiled in Alexandria during the Ptolemaic period (323-30 BC), where scholars put Herodotus’s speeches in a chronological order. The speeches were spread out over nine books that were named after the nine Muses:
- Book 1 (Clio) focuses on the origin of the conflict between Greeks and barbarians. Herodotus blames the Lydian king Croesus, the first one to subdue the independent Greek city states on the Ionian coast. Croesus, however, is quickly defeated by the Persian king Cyrus, who takes over the Ionian city states. The story then focuses on Cyrus, his rise to power and the conquests by which he created the Persian Empire. Herodotus gives specific attention to the conquest of Babylon and talks about the geography, history and culture of the land. Book 1 ends with Cyrus’s death at the hands of the Massagetae.
- Book 2 (Euterpe) starts with Cambyses, Cyrus’s son, preparing to conquer Egypt. Herodotus soon shifts the attention to the geography, customs and history of Egypt. This digression encompasses all of book 2 and contains a lot of interesting yet dubious information. The book is an excellent example of how 5th century BC Greek intellectuals viewed Egypt; a country that they admired for its antiquity.
- Book 3 (Thalia) deals with Cambyses’s conquest of Egypt and his subsequent madness, which led to his early death. After Cambyses’s death, a magos (priest) pretending to be Cambyses’s late brother Smerdis usurps the throne, but seven Persian nobles discover this plot and kill the usurper. Darius, the leader of the seven, then takes over the Persian throne. Towards the end, book 3 contains many digressions about the affairs on the Greek island Samos and about the geography and culture of India and Arabia.
- Book 4 (Melpomene) deals with Darius’s wars in Scythia and Libya. The book contains lengthy digressions about the geography of these lands and about the cultural practices of both the Scythians and their neighbors and the peoples of Africa. This book can tell us a lot about how the ancient Greeks viewed those whom they considered ‘less civilized’. This book also describes the geography of the known world. The map below is based on his information.
- Book 5 (Terpsichore) deals with the Persian conquest of Thrace and the Ionian Revolt that lay at the origin of the Graeco-Persian Wars.
- Book 6 (Erato) deals with Darius’s campaign against Athens, known as the first Graeco-Persian War, and includes a description of the famous battle of Marathon.
- Book 7 (Polymnia) deals with Xerxes’s campaign against Athens and Sparta, known as the second Graeco-Persian War. It also contains many digressions about other deeds of Xerxes. Towards the end of book 7 we find a description of the famous battle of Thermopylae.
- Book 8 (Urania) deals with the sea battles at Artemisium and Salamis between the Athenian fleet and the allied Persian and Phoenician fleets.
- Book 9 (Calliope) deals with the battle of Plataea and the sea battle of Mycale. The book ends rather abruptly, which indicates that Herodotus did not finish his work the way he originally intended.
Because of his long-lasting popularity, Herodotus has been the main authority on the history of the ancient world for centuries. The fact that Herodotus has long been our only source of information on these civilizations has also contributed to this. Until the 19th century we did not have any contemporary oriental sources and archaeology was still underdeveloped. Nowadays, however, archaeological research and oriental sources like cuneiform clay tablets, hieroglyphs and papyri have given us more accurate information about these peoples. Many pieces of information from the Histories have since been proven wrong, like parts of Herodotus’s description of Egypt, the city plan of Babylon and many statements about the distant past. Other pieces of information have been confirmed, like Darius’s coup against the magos who pretended to be Cambyses’s brother Smerdis, many of the barbaric customs of the Scythians, and the ‘huge, furry, gold digging ants’ of the Himalayas, who apparently were marmots. Overall, Herodotus knowledge of the ancient world in a time when a historian only had oral traditions at his disposal is certainly impressive. Herodotus is also quite objective in his research. Although he shows a slight bias towards the Greeks, he is less ethnocentric than most of his contemporaries and often shares his own doubts with his audience. Furthermore, thanks to his engaging tone people of all times and all places can relate to him. Reading his work gives us an insight not only into the outer appearance of the ancient world, but also into the mind of a curious 5th century BC Greek intellectual.
Numerous translations of the Histories of Herodotus exist. The most widely used ones – those of Rawlinson (1860) and Godley (1920) – are written in highbrow Cambridge English. This adds a certain prestige, but it makes Herodotus look like a Cambridge professor, which of course he was not. He was a passionate storyteller speaking to a vast audience. Modern translations capture this aspect of the Histories better and often include up-to-date prefaces and commentaries. Good examples of modern, annotated translations are those edited by Marincola (1996) and by Strassler (2007).