If you’ve ever studied ancient Greek history — or any ancient history at all, for that matter — odds are you’ve stumbled on the name Herodotus. You might be thinking… Now, that’s a name I’ve not heard for a long time. But put on your thinking caps. We’re going to discuss the historical significance of Herodotus — how he thought about history, and what it means for history and for us today.
Who was Herodotus, and when did he live and write?
All right, time for a crash course in ancient Greek history, because I’m sure those first two paragraphs left some of you cold. Hero — who? Thucy — how do you pronounce that?
First of all, Herodotus came first, and he wrote history first. That’s right, I just characterized Herodotus as a historian. You know where my allegiance lies.
Others have dubbed him “the father of history.” But his critics, across the centuries, have come up with a much less appealing moniker for him — “the father of lies.” For many of them, Thucydides, who wrote a dense history of the Peloponnesian Wars, is the true father of history. But I would argue that without the precedent Herodotus set, Thucydides may have been unable to write or even conceive of his landmark work.
Herodotus lived from c. 484 B.C. to c. 425 B.C. (B.C. equals B.C.E. I use B.C. because I was part of the last generation that was taught B.C. in school, and I don’t necessarily mind that we date according to the coming of Christ. It’s just a dating system, which means it’s arbitrary.) Anyway, that’s a pretty long time ago — about 2500 years before present day.
The origins of writing
To give you some perspective, historians know that writing was independently developed in four different ancient civilizations. That means that these four civilizations (at least) each separately developed writing at different times during history, without having any contact with each other. This would suggest that writing is a fairly universal human impulse.
The first writing developed out of Mesopotamia, from the civilization we call Sumeria. The Sumerians developed a proto-cuneiform, which formed the basis of later writing systems, around 3400 B.C. That’s about three thousand years before Herodotus lived!
By the time Herodotus wrote, ancient Greeks had been writing for about three hundred years. Herodotus wrote at a time when the Greek world was transitioning between an oral culture — orality — and a written one — literacy. For a great book on this subject, read The Muse Learns to Write by Eric A. Havelock.
Since Herodotus wrote in this transitional period, his great work, The Histories, still contains traces of orality. Let’s dig into the historical significance of Herodotus through what we can find in his writing.
Ring structure in Herodotus’s work and more
In much of his work, Herodotus uses a structure called “ring structure.”
When you’re writing in ring structure, you start at point A. Point A makes you think of point B, so you travel and discuss point B, which leads you to point C — and then you tie point C back to point A. You come full circle. This is common in Herodotus’s work. He’ll start with a story — say the founding of Athens. Then, in order to relate that story fully, he needs to bring in a couple other stories. But eventually, he brings everything back to the founding of Athens.
This makes Herodotus’s work seem like storytelling — oral storytelling. In fact, ring composition is a hallmark of oral tradition. In oral storytelling, ring composition helps the storyteller recall what comes next.
The ring sequences in Herodotus’s work are likely remnants of much earlier sequences forged by oral poets and storytellers before Herodotus’s time. In his day, he probably knew that the story of the foundation of Athens was tied with two other stories — so when he wrote his story, he tied all three together. In this way, his work has a basis in the work of Greeks before him.
If you’ve read Homer, you’ve probably noticed ring sequence there, too. Homer, who almost certainly composed his epics orally, used other techniques that would have helped him recite them from memory. These include the use of epithets and stock images, which are largely missing from Herodotus’s writing.
In the first few books of his Histories, Herodotus tells a lot of stories. He was operating, in part, out of a tradition called logography. Roughly speaking, logography was the collection and compilation of various pieces of information — social, ethnic, cultural, geographical, and more. Earlier logographers had operated in Ionia, a part of Greece corresponding to modern-day western Turkey. Herodotus was also from Ionia.
How Herodotus thought about history
Here is the famous first paragraph of Herodotus’s Histories. It’s important to note that the word historia in ancient Greek translates not to history, but to “enquiry.” So Herodotus’s Histories could be called Herodotus’s Enquiries.
Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks.Herodotus, The Histories. Book 1, introductory paragraph.
In these brief two sentences, Herodotus lays out several important details. First, he views himself as a historian — one who has conducted an enquiry into a specific subject. Second, he sets out a very specific purpose for his work: “to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greek and non-Greeks…”
By non-Greeks, Herodotus chiefly means Persians. One of the main subjects of his Histories is the conflict between the Greeks and the Persians, which culminated in the Persian emperor Xerxes’ failed invasion of Greece in 480 B.C. (The well-known movie 300 inaccurately depicts some of the events of this invasion.)
The mid-work evolution of The Histories
Herodotus begins his Histories by laying out some of the results of his enquiry into this matter. He gives a probable cause for the increase in tension between Greeks and Persians: the fall of the kingdom of Lydia, which had previously acted as a buffer state between Persia and Ionian Greece. The king of Lydia, Gyges, lost his kingdom to the Persians through a series of missteps involving several oracles.
I lay out the opening part of The Histories simply enough, but they’re not quite that simple. They’re ridden with stories that seem extraneous to the main narrative. To this day, scholars haven’t decided whether these stories have a hidden meaning to them, or whether Herodotus felt compelled to include every fact he stumbled across in his writing. After all, he wrote The Histories with entertainment in mind, and some stories are too good to pass up. Herodotus might not be “the father of history” to all, but he may be “the master of digression”!
But at their core, The Histories are histories, and Herodotus deserves the title “the father of history.” He brought the idea of cause and effect into historical Greek writing for the first time by discerning the cause of the increase in tensions between Greece and Persia. Today, historians still number the fall of Lydia among the main factors that led to the hostilities of the 480s and 470s B.C.
And, by the time Books Eight and Nine of The Histories roll around, Herodotus is taking a much more historical tone. His view of history and historical writing has changed mid-work. He relates battles, numbers of men who fought, numbers of men who died, and many more of the details modern works of history usually include.
I’d argue, however, that the true historical significance of Herodotus lies in the multi-faceted nature of his work.
The historical significance of Herodotus, on today’s terms
Today, people recognize the need to tie history to sociology, anthropology, and culture into any historical undertaking. And the best historical works written today often come in the form of narrative nonfiction, which ties stories to history. We again recognize the importance of storytelling, in conjunction with historical investigation. And if we’re looking for the forefather of this kind of work, we should look to Herodotus — the dorky, unusual, and often misunderstood but ultimately lovable “father of history.”
At the same time, we should take care not to oversimplify, as Herodotus sometimes did, lest we appear as naive in the eyes of future historians as he does in ours. Analysis is key in history. There is no one true story. There are infinite. Every person’s view of the past is a valid history. When we seek to bring as many voices as possible together to tell an overarching story, we create the best histories of all.
Did you enjoy this article on the historical significance of Herodotus?
This is the first article of this nature I’ve published here on Voyage of the Mind, but I will do more! If you love all things about ancient Greece, check out my review of Mary Renault’s novel Fire From Heaven. That’s a novel about Alexander the Great.
You can also check out my article on Michael Jackson if you’re interested in reading about a very small slice of history, through an objective, journalistic lens.
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My goal in a historical article like this one is to bring you history, in layman’s terms. Not that many dates, place names, or complications. Have I succeeded? Tell me in the comments! Or tell me what you think of Herodotus. Is he “the father of history” or “the father of lies”?