Herodotus: Life, Major Facts & Achievements
World History Edu presents a comprehensive introduction to the life, contributions and major accomplishments of Herodotus, the revered 5th-century BC Greek geographer, philosopher, and most importantly, historian. We also dive into the major philosophical themes that underpinned his most notable work, The Histories.
Birth and early life
As it is common with historical figures from the BC era, very little is known about Herodotus’ early life other than the fact that he was born around 485 BC in the Greek city of Halicarnassus (modern day Bodrum, Turkey), which was then under the control of the Persian Empire.
According to the Suda, a 10th-century encyclopedia made by Byzantine scholars about the history of the ancient Mediterranean world, Herodotus’ parents were Dryo and Lyxes. He had a brother called Theodorus. The Suda also claims that Herodotus was related to Panyassis of Halicarnassus, a 5th-century BC scholar and poet.
Herodotus was well-educated, learning how to read and write Ionian Greek at a very young age. He was also very well-read, which in turn augured well for him when he took to writing.
It’s said that right from his early years, he was a very curious about the world around him. He would feed this curiosity by embarking on a number of journeys within ancient Greece and abroad. He must have hailed from a wealthy home with a lot of important connections. Otherwise how else could he have funded those journeys of his?
Herodotus invested his time and resources traveling wide and far, especially around eastern Mediterranean. From his birthplace Halicarnassus he travelled eastward towards Persia. He would also visit Egypt and Scythia.
The sheer number of stories he told about many places along the Mediterranean also implies that he did not stay too long in one place. This enabled him acquire a great deal of information about different cultures.
Herodotus had a knack of getting some of the most interesting stories in the region. It’s obvious he was interested in wowing his audience with beyond-the-imagination tales. At times, he was not particularly keen on making sure that the stories he heard were factual or not, as that would have involved a tremendous amount of time. And because he was always on the move, time to him was a very scarce commodity. This is one of the reasons why the scholars and historians that came after him had serious doubts about his stories.
Since Halicarnassus, although dominated by Greek inhabitants, was under the control of Persia at the time of Herodotus’ birth and early life, we can say that the historian was a Persian subject.
Years in exile on the island of Samos
The Histories by Herodotus was written in Ionian Greek. So how come did he become fluent in Ionian Greek even though he was born in Halicarnassus, a Dorian-speaking settlement? According to the Suda, Herodotus spent some of his early years on the island of Samos, a predominantly Ionian-speaking city. It’s said that his family had gone into exile because they were being persecuted by Lygdamis, a powerful tyrant of Halicarnassus. Herodotus and his family likely tried to remove Lygdamis from power, but failed.
He did however get a second bite at the cherry. According to the Suda, Herodotus banded with some leading figures in Halicarnassus to successfully overthrow Lygdamis.
Herodotus’ The Histories is one of the most famous works in history
In the world of history books, very few can hold a candle to The Histories by Herodotus. Albeit criticisms against the book, the book is still one of the most credible sources for many events that happened in the ancient world. For example, without Herodotus’ The Histories, how else would we have known about the Greeks’ effort during the Persian Wars?
His admirers praise him for providing a chronological sequence of the events that took place during the Greco-Persian Wars (499 BC – 449 BC). Herodotus presented his findings on famous battles of the wars, including Marathon, Artemisium, Themopylae, and Salamis. He also made sure that his works infused some bit of cultural, geographical and philosophical background. This approach to writing of history largely did not exist prior to the coming of Herodotus.
Places that Herodotus travelled to
It’s known that Herodotus journeyed to many places along the Mediterranean, the coast of North Africa and even Persia. He visited Egypt, and most likely would have been awestruck by the Nile River. Prior to his visit to Egypt, he must have toured places in Asia Minor, what is now present-day Turkey and Syria. All throughout those journeys, he kept record of his experiences as well as the things that he witnessed and heard from the locals in those regions.
Herodotus and the use of literary effects in his writings
Likely borne out of the desire to create very compelling stories, Herodotus describes the city of Babylon as a very massive city, calling it greater than any city in Greece. His critics are not so perturbed by those assertions he makes. Instead it’s his claim of Babylon having hundred huge gates made of bronze that draws a lot of criticism. First of all, the city of Babylon did not have gates close to the number Herodotus gave.
It’s likely some of the things Herodotus wrote down were stories narrated to him by locals in those region. Thus, he himself never witnessed some the things that he implies to have seen. This is one of the reason why ancient scholars had serious doubt about the accuracy of his stories.
But that shouldn’t take anything away from just how brilliantly Herodotus penned his stories. He usually added his own opinions to the story, which in turn further enhanced the appeal of the stories.
Notable achievements of Herodotus
- He had this insatiable curiosity about civilizations that existed in regions far and beyond ancient Greece. He was also interested in knowing more about the famous kings that ruled over those territories. In the course of conducting extensive research about the famed battles that took place in Asia Minor and the east of the Mediterranean, Herodotus was also able to advance the study of geography of the region.
- Marcus Tullius Cicero – a Roman writer and orator – described Herodotus as the “father of history”. Cicero is not the only scholar who praised Herodotus for the manner in which he presented his in-depth historical research. Other scholars that came after Herodotus were full of praise of him. He was probably the first to present history in a chronological sequence.
- He was also the first-known author to get “real history” published. Before Herodotus, historical events were blended with mythological stories that had no strong foundation in enhancing the accuracy of the events.
- It’s also been noted how Herodotus’ works had a lot of philosophical underpinnings. His works in a way contrasted the cultures of the West and East. This is evident in the way he describes the famous Battle of Marathon that saw Greeks lock horns with the Persians. Another very important theme we see in his work is his description of the rise and fall of empires.
- He is most known for being a pioneer of systematic investigation of historical figures and events. Such an approach requires; first – careful observation and questioning of the research topic; second – the formulation of hypothesis; third – analysis of the data; and finally, the drawing of conclusions and presentation of findings.
How reliable are Herodotus’ stories?
Herodotus’ account of the famous Battle of Marathon – a battle in 490 BC that saw the Greeks defeat the Persians – caused a number of criticisms to come his way. It mainly had to do with Athenians expressing their displeasure over how miscued Herodotus’ explanation of the honors that Athenians received following the battle. Athenians felt that Herodotus did not give them the right amount of credit for their heroic efforts in the battle.
Then there were also some ancient scholars and historians that cast doubt over his journeys and things that he claimed to have seen. It’s indeed hard for people to take what he said serious considering the fact that he claimed that there existed fox-sized ants in Persia. He also stated that those creatures unearthed gold dust whenever they dug. However, recent archeological evidence shows that Herodotus might just have been right. Perhaps his choice of words, i.e. “foxed-sized ants”, caused people to doubt him. Herodotus was probably referring to the marmot creatures that some modern scholars say is found in the Himalayas.
Another related reason why some of his stories sound a bit far-fetched or like tall tales is because of the errors that occurred in translation. Modern scholars have stated how translations from the local languages to ancient Greek made his stories lose some bit of credibility.
However, there is no doubt whatsoever that Herodotus did indeed garnish his stories in order to make them more captivating to his audience and readers. It is likely he made some of the narrations he told look as if he had personally witnessed them.
Plutarch’s criticism of Herodotus’ stories
Herodotus’ stories were so captivating that Plutarch (c. 46 AD – c. 119 AD), a Greco-Roman author, philosopher and historian, concluded that the historian’s stories were rife with unbelievable elements.
Plutarch does, in some way, admits that Herodotus was definitely an amazing writer and a great storyteller for that matter. However, he levels what perhaps was the biggest criticism that was thrown Herodotus’ way. He called the Greek historian “the father of lies” for making things up.
How Herodotus left an audience intrigued and delighted with his famous recital
Reciting or performing one’s work to an attentive audience was not a new phenomenon during Herodotus’ era. Many artists and authors used this approach as an avenue to promote their works to a broader audience. Herodotus was no different. It’s said that he once read all his works to an audience. By the time he was done, the audience, who were so intrigued by his stories, simply could not wait to give him a thunderous applause.
In the audience was a young Thucydides – the famous Greek writer and historian – who was so moved by the Herodotus’ recital of The Histories that he began crying. It’s said that Thucydides had the pleasure of interacting with Herodotus, who told the young man that he was destined to be a great scholar.
Herodotus also recited some of his works at the Olympic Games. In his day, such performance pieces were one of the ways of “publishing” one’s works.
Meaning of the maxim “Like Herodotus and his shade”
The popular saying, “Like Herodotus and his shade”, has its roots in an alternative narration of the events that took place when Herodotus tried reading his book to an audience. In this account, Herodotus declined reading his work to the crowd at the festival of Olympia because there was not enough cloud cover to shield him from the direct sunlight.
Herodotus implored the audience to wait until there was some amount of shade over the stage. It turns out that audience got up and left before any shade could come over the stage. The Greek historian missed a great opportunity, i.e. the promotion of his work, because he was waiting for just the right conditions.
How did Herodotus die?
After a few disagreements with the leaders of Halicarnassus, Herodotus fled his hometown to Athens, where it was said that he had great admiration for the democratic institutions of the city. According to Plutarch, Athens, in turn, came to love his works and rewarded him with about 10 talents.
It is unclear as to the exact place and year in which Herodotus, the acclaimed Greek historian, died. The commonly accepted view is that he stayed in Thurii (also known as Thurium in modern-day southern Italy) for a while and then moved to Athens, where he most probably died. It is said that he had succumbed to a plague that was ravaging the Greek colony at the time. That same plague was the cause of death of Pericles (c. 495 BC – 429 BC), the famous Athenian statesman.
In regard to when Herodotus died, it’s said that he gave up the ghost sometime between 425 and 413 BC.
Thucydides and Herodotus had such a strong bond that the two scholars were interred in the same tomb in Athens, according to 6th century AD Marcellinus, the author of Life of Thucydides.
Did you know?
Much of what we know about the life and works of “The Father of History” comes from the famous Suda, a 10th-century compilation/encyclopedia made by Byzantine scholars about the history of the ancient Mediterranean world.
As young man, Thucydides may have been blown away by Herodotus’ historical narratives; however, the Athenian historian and general would later level a number of criticism against his mentor, calling out Herodotus’ stories for containing fanciful elements for the entertainment of the audience.
Even though Herodotus himself states in the prologue of The Histories that he was born in Halicarnassus, some scholars like Aristotle claimed that Herodotus was instead born in Thurii, a colony of Greece in modern-day Italy. It is likely that the historian spent some time living in Thurii, but there is no concrete evidence to show that he was born in Thurii.
The manner in which he narrates scenes of battles has made some scholars to propose that he most likely served in the army, perhaps as a hoplite.
The fact that he was born around the same time of the Persian Wars meant that he grew up listening accounts about the battles in the war.
Herodotus was the kind of scholar never short on confidence. Why would he? He was a scholar who had travelled to many places along the Mediterranean. He was a pioneer in a field of history, doing something that many scholars of the time didn’t have the resources or skill set to do. Furthermore, he does not make the claim that his stories were inspired by some divine spirit. His kind of history introduces the world to mythology-free accounts of historical events.