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Herodotus, a Clazomenian

Herodotus (2), an Ionian envoy

Herodotus (3), of Halicarnassus


Birth of Herodotus at Halicarnassus c. 484

Death of Herodotus at Thurii c. 425

The History of Herodotus begins with the seemingly unambiguous declaration that “this is the exposition of the researches by Herodotus of Halicarnassus,” a town in Asia Minor. But already in the first century A.D., the author Plutarch reports (On Exile 13.604F) that many scholars change Halicarnassos to Thurii, an Athenian colony in Southern Italy, since Herodotus settled there later on in life. This confusion, though minor (there is no doubt as to which Herodotus is described, and all agree that he did in fact move to Thurii), touches on a major theme in Herodotus’ own life, his ambiguous and in some ways marginal status within the Greek world. Herodotus never belonged to the ancient Greek homeland, and his own work offers eloquent testimony to the rivalry between the old, established states of the mainland and the more recently constituted colonies (see, for example, the debate between Gelon of Sicily, and representatives of Sparta and Athens at Hdt. 7.157-163). Halikarnassos and Thurii are alike in that they are located at the ends of the Greek world, the west coast of Turkey and South Italy.

evidence for the length of Herodotus’ Career

Many scholars assume that Herodotus ended his days in Thurii and was buried there. A late source records the text of a four-line epitaph, which was supposedly inscribed on his tomb in the agora of Thurii. The source for this is the Roman author, Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 15.23). Herodotus mentions events that took place at the opening of the Peloponnesian War: e.g., the Theban attack against Plataia led by Eurymachos (431: Hdt. 7.233.2), the expulsion of the Aeginetans at the conclusion (end of 431: Hdt. 6.91.1), the Spartans’ sparing of Dekeleia in their invasion of Attika (431 or 430: Hdt. 9.73.3), execution of Aristeas’ and the Lakedaimonian envoys (430: Hdt. 7.137.3). On the other hand, Herodotus’ describes at Hdt. 6.91 how the Spartans settled the Aeginetans who had been driven from their homes in the territory of Thyrea, but he does not mention the fact that the Athenians wiped out the Aeginetans in Thyrea, an event which took place in 424 (Thuc. 4.57). Most scholars assume that he was alive sometime after 430 but died before 424.


Herodotus seems to have travelled extensively throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. He specifically tells us that he visited Elephantine, a city on the Nile in the southern portion of Egypt (Hdt. 2.29.1), the Arabian frontier on the East of Egypt (Hdt. 2.75.1), and Tyre in Phoenicia (Hdt. 2.44.1). He strongly implies that he also visited Babylon (Hdt. 1.193.4 and Hdt. 1.183.3) in Mesopotamia and Exampaios, a stream in Skythia which he locates between the Borysthenis (Dnieper) and Hypanis (Bug) rivers in South Russia (Hdt. 4.81.1). Whatever the details, Herodotus clearly travelled through vast sections of the world known to the Greeks. He was a very cosmopolitan individual.

Herodotus: Dorian, Barbarian and Greek

Born in Halikarnassos, a city then under Persian rule, Herodotus belonged to the most international segment of the Greek world, for the colonies in Asia Minor were planted on the outermost edge of the vast and ancient continental Near East. Halikarnassos was a Dorian Greek colony, and Herodotus expresses an open disdain for the Ionian Greek colonies of Asia Minor (e.g., the pathetic Ionian behavior at Hdt. 6.12) and for Ionians in general (for the general low repute of the Ionians, Hdt. 1.143.2-3). Nevertheless, Herodotus also scoffs at the idea of “ethnic purity.” The Ionians in Asia Minor comprised many different ethnic groups from Greece (Hdt. 1.146.1), and even those who came directly from the city center at Athens and who boasted that they were the best bred did not bring wives with them, but by force married Carian women native to Asia Minor, after killing their other family members (Hdt. 1.146.2). Greek culture is, for Herodotus, explicitly a matter of language and implicitly the culture which the Greek language defines: the Greeks themselves multiplied by joining with many different “barbarian” groups (Hdt. 1.58). Late sources tell us that Herodotus’ father was named Lyxos and that he was related to a late epic poet, Panyassis. Both the names Lyxos and Panyassis are generally thought to be Carian (the native population on the coast of Turkey where Halikarnassos was founded), and Herodotus himself may have belonged to family which considered itself ethnically to be Carian as well as Greek.

Whatever the truth of these particular details, Herodotus does seem to have been born, to have lived and to have died on the various edges of the Greek world. This outlook reveals itself in several ways. He is acutely conscious that not all of his readers are from the center of the Greek world. After comparing the Thracian Chersonnese to the coast of Attica, for example, Herodotus Hdt. 4.99.3 adds a comparison with the heel of Italy for anyone “who has not sailed along the coast of Attica” (Hdt. 4.99.5 : ὃς δὲ τῆς Ἀττικῆς ταῦτα μὴ παραπέπλωκε ). He clearly grasps that different cultures have their own, often contradictory, customs, and adheres to an often amused cultural relativism. At Hdt. 3.38, he argues that the Persian king Cambyses must have been mad, for no sane man would mock the customs of other people. This comment is surely ironic, since Greeks, like most peoples, frequently derided the customs of foreigners. He follows this judgment of Cambyses with a telling anecdote. The Persian king gathered some Greeks and some Callatiae, a particular group in India. He asked the Greeks for what price they would eat their parents’ dead bodies, and they denied that they would do so for any price. When he asked the Callatiae whether they could be induced to cremate their fathers’ bodies, they were equally scandalized, for they regularly ate those corpses. Proper burial was a very sensitive issue for Greeks (Sophocles, Antigone is based on the importance of proper burial), and Herodotus’ anecdote therefore cuts deep. The History itself, in which the Greeks eventually drive back the Persian invaders, concludes with an admiring anecdote about Kyros, the man who established the Persian empire (Hdt. 9.122). Herodotus was always “decentered” and could never view Greek culture in the insular manner of those who had spent their whole lives in the landlocked valleys of mainland Greece.

Surviving Works

Work begins on the History c. 450

Work finishes on the History c. 430

Herodotus clearly worked on his History as late as 430, but his work seems to have been well known even before this time, and it seems likely that he worked on it over a period of years. Soph.Ant. 905-912 seems to recall the story of Intaphernes in Herodotus (Hdt. 3.119, esp. section 6). The Sophoclean echo has struck many readers as so peculiar that they have argued that Sophocles could not have written this passage and that it must be a later interpolation, but this hypothesis is controversial at best. Other passages in which Sophocles and Herodotus resemble each other include: Hdt. 2.35.2 and Soph. OC 337-341 (the reversal of gender roles in Egypt); Hdt. 4.95.4 and Soph. El. 62-64 (Orestes’ describes his actions in a manner strongly reminiscent of the story of Salmoxis, a Thracian seer). We even have a poem in which Sophocles addresses someone named Herodotus, very possibly (though not necessarily) the Historian. Preserved at Plut. An Seni 3.785b this poem informs us that he was fifty five years old. This would place the poem just before 440-roughly the same period in which many have traditionally dated Sophocles’Antigone, with its striking allusion to the story of Intaphernes. Other indications associate Sophocles with Athens in the 440s: ancient tradition records that Herodotus read selections of his work aloud publicly in Athens in the 440s. While the sources for this are late, the correspondences with Sophocles and the detailed knowledge of Athens which Herodotus demonstrates suggest that he spent some time there.

importance and Influence of Herodotus

herodotus and Homer (3)

When he composed his history, Herodotus clearly had the monumental Homeric epics in mind. The opening section of his history (Hdt. 1) declares that this work belongs to Herodotus of Halikarnassos and its purpose is that the great and marvelous deeds, of Greeks and of non-Greeks alike, not be forgotten or lose their fame over time. This intention to memorialize in literary form the events of the past reflects the concerns of epic poetry. On the level of vocabulary, Herodotus uses a derivative of the epic term kleos, “fame,” to describe the renown which he wishes to preserve. Herodotus pointedly declines to say that he will confer this kleos on the events described. Rather, he takes a more subordinate role, expressing his hope that the history will prevent the events described from losing the kleos which they have already acquired. But if Herodotus has Homer generally in mind, his work differs from Homeric epic in at least two basic regards. First, Herodotus composes in prose form, not poetry, and second, Herodotus concentrates not on the mythical past but primarily on events within the last several hundred years and especially on the rise of Persia, culminating in Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, which had taken place within the preceding hundred years or so.

Herodotus: A Dorian writing in the Ionic Greek dialect (3)

Herodotus wrote his history in the Ionic dialect, which reflects the type of Greek spoken in the Ionian Greek cities of Asia Minor. Ionia had during the archaic period been the home of many of the most prominent thinkers. Thales, often referred to as the first Greek philosopher, lived in Miletus during the early sixth century. We can be confident of roughly when he lived, because he predicted an eclipse which took place on May 28, 585 (Hdt. 1.74, see also the help which Thales offers at Hdt. 1.75 and Hdt. 1.170). Anaximander, another philosopher from Miletus, composed the first philosophical prose work in the middle of the sixth century, a century before Herodotus. Writing in the Ionic dialect, he helped define it as the dialect for prose literary expression. Thus, although Herodotus came from a city in which Doric was spoken and although he expresses contempt for the Ionian Greeks (e.g. Hdt. 1.143.2-3 and Hdt. 6.12), he nevertheless chose Ionic as the dialect in which to frame his thoughts. Herodotus’ work was part of a growing prose literature in Ionic. Hippocrates (c. 469-399), often called the Father of Medicine, was a somewhat younger contemporary of Herodotus. A large number of medical treatises, composed in Hippocrates’ school during the period c. 440-340 survive. A number of other authors had, it seems, written about foreign peoples before Herodotus, and he thus had some precedents to follow in the “ethnographic” aspects of his work.

herodotus and Hekataios

The most important prose predecessor to Herodotus seems to have been Hekataios (like Thales and Anaximander, a citizen of Miletus). Herodotus presents Hekataios the λογοποιός (which might roughly be translated, “prose author” as still alive and advising the Ionian Greeks during their revolt against Persia (499-493, see Hdt. 5.36 and Hdt. 5.125). Elsewhere, Herodotus cites Hekataios’ story about Athenian dealings with the non-Greek Pelasgians (Hdt. 6.137). At Hdt. 2.143 he tells us that Hekataios traced his own genealogy sixteen generations back to descent from a god. When Hekataios visited Egypt, Herodotus tells us, the priests found it implausible that either mortals should be descended from gods or that a genealogy should be so short. They did not merely recite a genealogy, but showed to Hekataios statues of more than 340 generations of high priest, who had passed this position from father to son.

At Hdt. 2.143, Herodotus may portray Hekataios as both provincial and credulous, but he also implies that he is familiar with Hekataios’ “Circumnavigation of the Known World” (γῆς περίοδος). According to Porphyry, a late (3rd century AD) and not very reliable author, Herodotus borrowed from Hecataeus his descriptions of the crocodile (Hdt. 2.70), the hippopotamus (Hdt. 2.71), and the mythical phoenix (Hdt. 2.73). Herodotus certainly had Hekataios’ version of events in mind in many other passages as well.

herodotus as an Investigator (3)

Whatever Herodotus owes to other written sources, Herodotus distinguished himself an active and inquiring reporter. The extent of his travels has already been discussed. Herodotus travelled widely, and he acquired much of what appears in the History by listening to informants and by observing physical evidence, both contemporary and the archaeological remains of the past. The Greek term ἱστορίη, from which our word “history” is derived, means for Herodotus something like “first-hand research,” and Herodotus would surely have identified more closely with the anthropologist studying different cultures in the field or the journalist interrogating the actors of major events than he would with the scholar working primarily with archival materials. We should translate the opening phrase of Herodotus’ History as “this is the report of the researches (ἱστορίη) of Herodotus the Halicarnassian.” Herodotus uses his inquiries to assert an authoritative role in which he can assign both praise and blame to the participants in the events which he relates.

The Authority of Herodotus

Whatever Herodotus’ claim to authority, much of what he reports cannot possibly be true. There are plenty of ethnographic tall tales, but Herodotus repeatedly reminds us that he can often do no more than repeat what he himself has heard. Thus, when he describes one-eyed Arismaspians, a fabled people who live in the far north and who steal gold from griffins, he says that this is what people say (Hdt. 3.116: λέγεται) and then adds that he himself does not believe that people, otherwise normal, could be born with one eye. Herodotus records plenty of fanciful tales, not always with such a careful disclaimer. More significant are gross exaggerations. It is, for example, almost inconceivable that Xerxes could have brought 1,700,000 men with him across the Hellespont (Hdt. 7.60.1). Worst for the modern historian are episodes which appear to be clear fabrications. At one point (Hdt. 3.80-82), three Persians engage in a completely Greek debate as to which mode of government, democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy, was superior. When he introduces this story, Herodotus demurely remarks (Hdt. 3.80.1) that the discussions which he will relate will probably seem incredible to most Greeks, but Herodotus will relate them anyway. In this passage he does not distance himself from the report, claiming that he has heard an account of these speeches, but states outright “these utterances were spoken,” ἐλέχθησαν λόγοι. More important, Herodotus will include what appears to be a fabricated meeting without any such warning to the reader. At Hdt. 1.29-33, Herodotus describes a meeting between the Athenian statesman Solon and the Lydian king Kroisos. This meeting (to which we will return) is a central episode in this first book and sets the moral tone for the rest of the history. Its importance for the narrative can hardly be overstated. Nevertheless, Solon almost certainly visited Asia Minor a generation before Kroisos came to power in Lydia. The meeting between the two never could never have taken place. Herodotus includes it because it follows a popular genre of stories about Greek wisemen, and because it allows him to make particular points about fate and human beings. To many modern historians, Herodotus is an enormously frustrating source, for they can never feel sure how far they can trust his word.

herodotus as Critic and Representative of his Time (3)

Intellectually, Herodotus is one of the most important writers who survives from the classical period. He captures better than any other author a comprehensive and reasonably functional moral outlook. When Solon meets Kroisos, he remains utterly unimpressed with the immense wealth which Kroisos has accumulated. Divine forces, Solon observes, are jealous and harsh (Hdt. 1.32.1: τὸ θεῖον πᾶν ἐὸν φθονερόν τε καὶ ταραχῶδες). Wealthy mortals (Hdt. 1.32.5) should be considered “lucky,” εὐτυχής “fortunate,” ὄλβιος until they have completed their lives, for any moment can bring a disastrous change in fortune. A few chapters later (Hdt. 1.86-87), Kroisos, having lost his empire to the Persian emperor Kyros, recalls Solon's words just as he is about to be burnt alive. Realizing that Solon had been right all along, he calls out the Athenian wise man's name. Ultimately, Kroisos conveys his new view of life to Kyros, who chooses to spare Kroisos. With some possibly divine intervention, Kroisos is rescued from the already burning pyre and lives on as a kind of official sage at the Persian court. The remainder of the history focuses on the reigns of four Persian kings, Kyros, Kambyses, Dareios and Xerxes, each of whom undergoes a rise and fall that illustrates the same cyclical view of fate.

herodotus and Sophocles (3)

Connections between particular passages in Herodotus and Sophocles were mentioned in a previous section. Sophocles surely knew of Herodotus’ work and the two men may well have known each other personally. More generally, the two authors approach similar problems but with very different perspectives, and Sophocles in particular may have had Herodotus in mind when he composed many of his plays. It is worth comparing Kroisos’ revelation at Hdt. 1.86 with those of Ajax at Soph. Aj. 646-692 and of Oedipus Soph. OT 1076-1085. Sophocles’ heroes, like Kroisos, gain insight into the limitations of their mortal conditions, but they hardly turn into sages such as the Herodotean Solon or Kroisos. They become, if anything, more self-assertive, and acknowledge their limits by killing themselves (Ajax) or gouging out their eyes (Oedipus). There are of course many ways to interpret Herodotus and Sophocles, but the figures who appear in these two authors should be closely compared.

On Herodotus’ life, see [Lesky, 1966] 306-9, [Easterling, 1985] 426-442, 783-784, [How, 1912] 1-9. For a discussion of Herodotus’ language and prose, see [Palmer, 1980] 142-152.

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Gregory Crane
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