1902 Encyclopedia > Herodotus

Greek historian
(c. 485-425 BC)

HERODOTUS, according to the best authorities, was born in or about the year 484 B. C. He was a native of Halicarnassus, a city which belonged originally to the Doric Hexapolis, situated towards the south-western corner of Asia Minor, but which from a date considerably anterior to the birth of Herodotus had been excluded from the confederacy, and was an isolated Greek town, dependent upon the Persians. Herodotus was thus born a Persian subject, and such he continued until he was thirty or five and-thirty years of age. At the time of his birth, Halicarnassus was under the rule of a queen called Artemisia, who had been allowed by the Persians to succeed to the sovereignty of her husband, and was mistress, not only of Halicarnassus, but also of Cos, Nisyrus, and Calydna. The year of her death is unknown ; but she left her crown to her son Pisindelis (born about 498 B. C), who succeeded upon the throne by his son Lygdamis about the time that Herodotus grew to manhood. The family of Herodotus belonged to the upper rank of the citizens. His father was named Lyxes, and his mother Rhaeo, or Dryo. He Panyasis, who was an epic poet, and a personage of so much importance that the tyrant Lygdamis, suspecting him of treasonable projects, put him death. It is likely that Herodotus derived from this near relative that love of letter which led him at an early age to the careful study of the existing Greek literature, and determined him ultimately to engage in the composition of his great work. It is probable also that he shared his relative’s political opinions, and was either exiled from Halicarnassus, or quitted it voluntarily, at the time of his execution.

Herodotus image

(Bust in the Museum of the Ancient Agora in Athens)

Of the education of Herodotus no more can be said than that it was thoroughly Greek, and embraced no doubt the three subjects essential to a Greek liberal education -- grammar, gymnastic training, and music. There is no reason to suppose that he went beyond the walls of his native city for instruction in this, the ordinary, curriculum or that he enjoyed any special advantages in respect of these early studies. They would be regarded as completed when he attained the age of eighteen, and took rank among the "ephebi" or "eirenes" of his native city. Under ordinary circumstances a Greek of this age began at once his duties as a citizen, and found the excitement of political life sufficient employment for growing energies. But when a city was ruled by a despot or tyrant, this outlet was wanting; no political worthy of the same existed; and youths of spirit, more especially those of superior abilities, had to cast about for some other field in which to distinguish themselves. Herodotus may thus have had his thoughts turned to literature as furnishing a not unsatisfactory career, and may well have been encouraged in his choice by the example of Panyasis, who, whether his cousin or his uncle, was certainly his elder, and had already gained a reputation by his writings when Herodotus was still an infant. At any rate is it clear from the extant work of Herodotus that he must have devoted himself early to the literary life, and commenced that extensive course of reading which renders him one of the most instructive as well as one of the most charming of ancient writers. The poetical literature of Greece was in his time already large; the prose literature was more extensive than is generally supposed; yet Herodotus shows an intimate acquaintance with the whole of it. He has drunk at the Homeric cistern till his entire being is impregnated with the influence thence derived. The Iliad and the Odyssey are as familiar to him as Shakespeare to the most highly educated of modern Englishmen. He is acquainted with the poems of the epic cycle, The Cypria, the Epigoni, &c. He quotes or otherwise shows familiarity with the writings of Hesiod, Olen, Musaeus, Bacis, Lysistratus, Archilochus of parus, Alcaeus, Sappho, Phyrynichus, Aeschylus, and Pindar. He quotes and criticizes Hecataeus, the best of the prose writers who has preceded him, and makes numerous allusions to other authors of the same class. It may be questioned whether there was any single work of importance in the whole range of extant Greek literature with the contents of which Herodotus had not made himself acquainted by the time that he undertook the composition of his "History".

It must not, however, be supposed that the great Halicarnassian was at any time a mere recluse that the great halicarnassian was at any time a mere recluse student. There inquiring disposition led him to engage in travels, both in Greece and in foreign countries, which must have been continued year after year for a considerable period, and which made him as familiar with men as with books. He traversed Asia Manor and European Greece in all directions, probably more than once; he visited all the most important islands of the Archipelago,--Rhodes, Cyprus, Delos, Paros, Thasos, Samothrace, Crete, Samos, Cythera, and Aegina. He undertook the long and perilous journey fro Sardis to the Persian capital Susa, passed some considerable time at Babylon, and went a voyage to Colchis, and another along the western shores of the Black Sea as far as the estuary of the Dnieper; he traveled in Scythia and in Thrace, visited Zante and Magna Graecia, explored the antiquities of Tyre, coasted along the shores of Palestine, saw Gaza, and made a long stay in Egypt. At the most moderate estimate, his travels covered a space of thirty-one degrees of longitude, or 1700 miles, and twenty-four of latitude, or nearly the same distance. Nor was he content, like the modern tourist, with hasty glimpses of the countries which he visited. At all the more interesting sites he took up his abode for a time; he examined, he inquired, he made measurements, he accumulated materials. Having in his mind the scheme of his great work, he gave ample time to the elaboration of all its parts, and took care to obtain by personal observation a full knowledge of all the various countries which were to form the scene of his narrative.

The travels of Herodotus seem to have been chiefly accomplished between his twentieth and his thirty-seventh year (464-447 B.C.). It was probably in his early manhood that a Persian subject he visited Susa and Babylon, taking advantage of the Persian system of posts which he describes in his fifth book. His residence in Egypt must, on the other hand, have been subsequent to 460 B.C, since he saw the skull of the Persians slain Inarus in that year. Skulls are rarely visible on a battlefield for more than two or three seasons after the fight, and we may therefore presume that it was during the reign of Inarus (460-454 B.C.), when the Athenians had great authority in Egypt, that he visited the country, making himself known as a learned Greek, and therefore receiving favour and attention on the part of the Egyptians, who were so much beholden to his countrymen. On his return from Egypt, as he proceeded along the Syrian shore, he seems to have landed at Tyre, and from thence to have gone to Thasos, which lay off the coast of Thrace. His Scythian travels are thought to have taken place prior to 450 B.C.

It is a question of some interest from what centre or centres these various expeditions are made. Up to the time of the execution of Panyasis, which is placed by chronologists in or about the year 457 B.C., there is every reason to believe that Halicarnassus was the historians’s home; and thus we may assume that, for some seven or eight years, that city was the point from which he started and to which he returned. His travels in Asia Manor, in European Greece, and among the islands of the Aegean probably belong to this period, as does also his journey to Susa and Babylon. We are told that when he quitted Halicarnassus on account of the tyranny of Lygdamis, in or about the year 457 B.C., he took up his abode in Samos. That island was an important member of the Athenian confederacy, and in making it his home Herodotus would have put himself under the protection of Athens. The fact that Egypt was then largely under Athenian influence may have induced to proceed, un 457 or 456 B.C., to that country. The complete knowledge that he has of the whole of Egypt indicates a stay there of some years, and it was perhaps not till 454 B.C that he returned to the Samian home. The stories that he had heard in Egypt of Sesostris may they have stimulated him to make voyages from Samos to Colchis, Scythia, and Thrace. When he had seen these countries, he had made acquaintances with almost all the regions which were to be the scene of his projected history, and could apply himself to the task of its composition with the comfortable feeling that he possessed all the local knowledge requisite for graphic and telling description.

After Herodotus had resided for some seven or eight years in Samos, events occurred in his native city which induced him to return thither. The tyranny of Lygdamis had gone on from bad to worse, and at last the citizens rose in rebellion against him, and he was expelled. According to Suidas, Herodotus was himself an actor, and indeed the chief actor, in the enterprise; but no other author confirms this statement, which is intrinsically improbable. It is certain, however, that a revolt broke out, that Lygdamis was dethroned, and that Halicarnassus became a voluntary member of the Athenian confederacy, to which it continued thenceforth attached. Herodotus was now naturally return to his native city, and enter upon the enjyment of those of free citizenship on which every Greek set a high value. He would also, if he had by this time composed his history, or any considerable portion of it, begin to make it known by recitation among his friends and acquaintance. There is no reason to believe that these first attempts to push himself into notice were not received with much favour,--the prophet did not obtain honour in his own country,--his countrymen had ridiculed the work which they had been expected to admire; and the disappointment author, chagrined at his failure, precipitately withdrew from his native town, and sought a refuge in Greece proper (about 447 B.C.).

A writer of late date (125-200 A.D.) and low credit, Lucian of Samosata, in one of his rhetorical pieces, declares that on quitting Halicarnassus Herodotus proceeded straight to Olympia, and finding the quadriennial, festival in progress recited his work to the assembled multitudes, who were highly delighted with it, and freely expressed their admiration. The statement, however, is improbable, and is rejected by most critics, who point out with reason the unsuitability of the work for recitation before an assemblage of persons from all parts of Greece, and call attention to the suspicious circumstance that the story is first told 600 years after the time of its supposed occurrence. From earlier and better writers we learn that Athens was the place to which the disappointed author bettok himself, and that he appealed from the verdict of his countrymen to Athenian taste and judgment. By recitations held in that city he made his work known to the best Grecian intellects, and won such approval that in the year 445 B.C., on the proposition of a certain Anthus, he was voted a sum of ten talents (_2400) by decree of the people. At one of the recitations Thucydides was present with his father, Olorus, and was so moved that he burst into tears, whereupon Herodotus remarked to the father -- "Olorus, your son has a natural enthusiasm for letters."

Athens was at this time the centre of intellectual life, and could boast a galaxy of talent such as has rarely been gathered together either before or since. The stately Pericles, his clever rival Thucydides the son of Melesias, the fascinating Aspasia, the eloquent Anthiphon, the scientific musician Damon, the divine Phidias, Protagoras the subtle disputant, Zeno the inventor of logic, the jovial yet bitter Cratinus, the gay Crates, Euripides the master of pathos, Sophocles the most classic even of the ancients, formed a combination of which even Athens might be proud, and which must have charmed the literacy aspirant. Accepted into his brilliant society, on familiar terms with all probably, as he certainly was with Olorus, Thucydides, and Sophocles, he cannot but have found his Attic sojourn delightful, and have been tempted, like many another foreigner, to make Athens his permanent home. It is to his credit that he did not yield to his temptation. At Athens he must have been a dilettante, an idler, without political rights or duties, a mere literary man. As much as he would have soon ceased to be respected in a society where literature was not recognized as a separate profession, where a Socrates served in the infantry, and a Sophocles commanded fleets, and Thucydides was general of an army, and an Antiphon was for a time at the head of the state. Men were not men according to Greek notions unless they were citizens; and Herodotus, aware of this, probably sharing in the feeling, was anxious, having lost his political status at Halicarnassus, to obtain such status elsewhere. At Athens the franchise, jealously guarded at this period, was not to be attained without great expense and difficulty. According, in the year 444 B.C., on the scheme of sending a colony to Thurii in Italy being broached by Pericles, Herodotus was among those who gave in their names; and in the spring of the following year he sailed from Athens to Italy with the other colonists, and became a citizen of the new town.

From this point of his career, when he had reached the age of forty we lose sight of Herodotus almost wholly. He seems to have made but few journeys, one to Crotona, one to Metapontum, and one to Athens (about 430 B.C.) being all that his work indicates. No doubt he was employed mainly, as Pliny testifies, in retouching and elaborating his general history. He may also have composed at Thurii that special work on the history of Assyria to which he twice refers his first book, and which is quoted by Aritotle. It has been supposed by many that he lived to a great age, and argued that "the never-to-be-mistaken fundamental tone of his performance is the quite talkativeness of a highly cultivated, tolerant, intelligent, old man" (Dahlmann). But the indications derived from the later touches added to his work, which form the sole evidence on the subject, would rather lead to the conclusion that his life was not very prolonged. There is nothing in the nine books which may not have been written as early as 430 B.C.; there is no touch which, even probably, points to a later date than 424 B.C. As the author was evidently engaged in polishing up his work to the last, and even promises touches which he does not give, we may assume that he did not much outlive the date last mentioned, or in other words, that he died at about the age of sixty. The predominant voice of antiquity tells us that he died at Thurii, where his tomb was shown in later ages,

In estimating the great work of Herodotus, and his genius as its author, it is above all things necessary to conceive aright what that work was intended to be. It has been called "a universal history," "a history of the wars between the Greeks and the barbarians," and "a history of the struggle between Greece and Persia." But these titles are all of them too comprehensive. Herodotus, who omits wholly the histories of Phoenicia, Carthage, and Etruria, three of the most important among the states existing in his day, cannot have intended to compose a "universal history," the idea of which belongs to a later age. He speaks in places as if his object was to record the wars between the Greeks and the barbarians; but as he omits the Trojan war, in which he fully believes, the tradition of the Teucrians and Mysians against Thrace and Thessaly, the wars connected with the Ionian colonization of Asia Manor, and others, it is evident that he does not really aim at embracing in his narrative all the wars between Greeks and barbarians with which he was acquainted. Nor does it even seem to have been his object to give an account to the entire struggle between Greece and Persia. That struggle was not terminated by the battle of Mycale and the capture of Sestos in 479 B.C. It continued for thirty years longer, to the peace of Callias. The fact that Herodotus end his history where he does shows distinctly that his intention was, not to give an account of the entire long contest between the two countries, but to write the history of a particular war -- the great Persian war of invasion. His aim was as definite as that of Thucydides, or Schiller, or Napier, or any other writer who has made his subject a particular war; only he determined to treat it in a certain way. Every partial history requires an "introduction:" Herodotus, untrammeled by examples, resolved to give his history a magnificent introduction. Thucydides is content with a single introductory book, forming little more than one-eight of his work; Herodotus has six such books, forming two-thirds of the entire composition.

By this arrangement he is enabled to treat his subject in the grand way, which is so characteristic of him. Making it his main object in his "introduction" to set before his readers the previous history of the two nations who were the actors in the great war, he is able in tracing their history to bring into his narrative some account of almost all the nations of the known world, and has room to expatiate freely upon their geography, antiquities, manners and customs, and the like, thus giving his work the "universal" character which has been detected in it, and securing for it, without trenching upon unity, that variety, richness, and fullness which are a principal charm of the best histories, and of none more than his. In tracing the growth of Persia from a pretty subject kingdom to a vast dominant empire, he has occasion to set out the histories of Lydia, Media, Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Scythia, Thrace, and to describe the countries and the peoples inhabiting them, their natural productions, climate, geographical positions, monuments, &c.; while, in noting the contemporaneous changes in Greece, he is led to tell of the various migrations of the Greek race, their colonies, commerce, progress in the arts, revolutions, internal struggles, wars with one another, legislation, religious tenets, and the like. The greatest variety of episodical matter is thus introduced; but the propriety of the occasion and the mode of introduction are such that no complaint can be made -- the episodes never entangle, encumber, or even unpleasantly interrupt the main narrative.

The most important quality of a historian is trustworthiness; for a professed history is of no value unless we can place reliance upon its truth. It has been questioned, both in ancient an in modern times, whether the history of Herodotus possesses this essential requisite. Several ancient writers call is veracity in question, accusing him of the crime of conscious and intentional untruthfulness. Moderns generally acquit him of his charge; but his severer critics still urge that, from the inherent defects of his character, his credulity, his love of affect, and his loose and inaccurate habits of though, he was unfitted for the historian’s office, and has produced a work of but small historical value. It is impossible, within the limits of an article such as the present, to enter fully uponeryta this controversy. Perhaps it may be sufficient to remark that the defects in question certainly exist, and detract to some extent from the authority of the work, more especially of those parts of it which deal with remoter periods, and were taken by Herodotus on trust from his informants, but that they only slightly affect the portions which treat of later times and form the especial subject of his history. In confirmation of this view, it may be noted that the authority of Herodotus for the circumstances of the great Persian war, and for all local and other details which come under his immediate notice, is accepted by even the most skeptical of modern historians, and forms the basis of their narratives.

Among the merits of Herodotus as an historian, the most prominent are the diligence with which he has collected the materials for his history, the candour and impartially with which he had placed his facts before the reader, the political dispassionateness which he displays into the judgments that he passes upon party leaders, the absence of the undue national vanity, and the breadth of his conception of the historian’s office, which makes his work a storehouse of diversified knowledge for which the student of antiquity can never e sufficiently grateful. On the other hand, he has no claim to rank as a critical historian; he has no conception of the philosophy of history, no insight into the real causes that underlie political changes, no power of penetrating below the surface, or even of grasping the real interconnexion of the events which he describes. He belongs distinctly to the romantic school; his forte is vivid and picturesque description, the lively presentation to the reader of scenes and actions, characters and states of society, not the subtle analysis of motives, or the power of detecting the undercurrents which sway events, or the generalizing faculty which draws lessons from history and makes the past illumine the darkness of the future.

But it is as a writer the merits of Herodotus are most conspicuous and most unquestioned. "O that I were in a condition," says Lucian, "to resemble Herodotus, if only in some measure! I by no means say in all his gifts, but only in some single point; as, for instance, the beauty of his language, or its harmony, or the natural and peculiar grace of the Ionic dialect, or his fullness of thought, or by whatever name those thousand beauties are called which to the despair of his imitator are united in him." Cicero calls his style "copious and polished;" Quintilian, "sweet, pure, and flowing;" Longinus says he was "the most Homeric of historians;" Dionysius, his countryman, prefers him to Thucydides, and regards him as combining in an extraordinary degree the excellencies of sublimity, beauty, and the true historical equally complimentary. "the style of Herodotus," says one, "is universally allowed to be remarkable for its harmony and sweetness." "The charm of his style," argues another, "has so dazzled men as to make them blind to his defects." Various attempts have been made to analyse the nature of the charm which is so universally felt; but it may be doubted whether any of them are very successful, whether the aroma of the flower does not evaporate in the critic’s alembic. All however, seem to Herodotus is to be admired are simplicity, freshness, naturalness, and harmony of rhythm. Master of a form of language peculiarly sweet and euphonical, and possessed of a delicate ear which instinctively suggested the most musical arrangement possible, he gives his sentenced, without art or effort, the most agreeable flow, is never abrupt, never too diffuse, much less prolix or wearisome, and being himself simple, fresh, naïf (if we may use the word), honest, and somewhat quaint, he delight us by combining with this melody of sound simple, clear, and fresh thoughts, perspicuously expressed, often accompanied by happy turns of phrase, and always manifestly the spontaneous growth of his own fresh and unsophisticated mind. Reminding us in some respects of the quaint mediaeval writers, Froissart and Phillipe de Comines, he greatly excels them, at once in the beauty of his language and the art with which he has combined his heterogeneous materials into a single perfect harmonious whole.

As might have been expected from its excellence, the history of Herodotus has been translated by many persons and into many languages. About 1450, at the time of the revival of learning a Latin version was made and published by Laurentius Valla. This was revised in 1537 by Heusbach, and accompanies the Greek text of Herodotus in many editions. The first complete translation into a modern language was the English one of Littlebury, published in 1737. The was followed in 1786 by the French translation of Larcher, a valuable work, accompanied by copious notes and essays. Beloe, the second English translator, based his work on that of Larcher. His first edition, in 1791, was confessedly very defective; the second, in 1806, still left much to be desired. A good German translation, but without note or comment, was brought out by Friedrich Lange at Berlin in 1811. Andrea Mustoxidi, a native of Corfu In 1822 published an Italian version in 1820. in 1822 Auguste Miot endeavoured to improve on Larcher; and in 1828-32 Dr Adolf Schöll brought out a German translation with a copious notes (new ed., 1855), which has to some extent superseded the work of Lange. About the same time a new English version was made by Mr Isaac Taylor (London, 1829). Finally, in 1858-60, the history of Herodotus was translated by Canon Rawlinson, assited in the copious notes and appendices accompanying the work by Sir Gardner Wilkinson and Sir Henry Rawlinson.

More recently we have translations in German by B_hr (Stuttgart, 1867) and Stein (Oldenburg, 1875); in French by Giguet (1857) and Talbot (1864); and in Italian by Ricci (Turin, 1871-76), Grandi (Asti, 1873), and Bertini (Naples, 1871-2). A Swedish translation by Fg. Carlstadt was published at Stockholm in 1871.

The best recent editions of the Greek text Herodotus are the following:-- Herodoti Historiae, ed. Schweighäuser, 5 Vols. 8vo, Strasburg, 1816; Herodoti Halicarnassei Historiarum libri IX., ded Gaisford, Oxford, 1840; Herodotus with a Commentary, by J. W. Blakesley, B.D., 2 vols. 8vo, London, 1854; herodoti Musae, ed. Bähr, 4 vols. 8vo, Leipsic, 1856-61, 2d ed.; Herodoti Historiae, ed. Abicht, 2 vols. 8vo, Leipsic, 1869; and Herodoti Historae, ed. H. Stein, 2 vols., 1869-71. Among works of value illustrative of Herodotus may be mentioned Bouhier, Recherches sur Hérodote, Dijon, 1746; Rennell, Geography of Herodotus, London, 1800; Niebuhr, Geography of Herodotus and Scythia, Eng. Trans., Oxford, 1830; Dahlmann, Herodot, aus seinem Buchesein Leben, Altona, 1823; Eltz, Quaestiones Herodoteae, Leipsic, 1841; Kenrick, Egypt of Herodotus. London, 1841; Mure, Literature of Greece, vol. iv., London, 1852; Abicht, Uebersicht über den Herodoteischen Dialect (Leipsic, 1869, 3d ed. 1874), and De codicum Herodoti fide ac autoritate (Naumburg, 1869); Melander, De anancoluthis Herodoteis (Lund, 1869); Matzat, "Ueber die Glaubenswürdigkeit der geograph. Angaben Herodotus über Asien," in Hermes, vi. ; Büdinger, Zur egyptischen Forschung Herodots (Vienna, 1873, reprinted from the Sitzungsber. of the Vienna Acad); Merzdorf, Quaestiones grammaticae de dialecto Herodotca (Leipsic, 1875); A Kirchhoff, Ueber die Entschungszcit des Herodotischen Geschichtswerk (Berlin, 1878); and Adolf Bauer, Herodots Biographie (Vienna, 1878). For notices of current literature see Bursian’s Jahresbericht. Students of the original may also consult with advantage the lexicons of Aemilius Portus (Oxford, 1817) and of Schweighäuser (London, 1824). (G. R.)

The above article was written by the Rev. Canon George Rawlinson, M.A., Professor of Ancient History; Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, 1840; Tutor, 1842; Sub-Rector, 1845; author of History of Herodotus: a New Translation, with Notes and Appendices, The Origin of Nations, The Five Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World, and The Sixth and Seventh Great Monarchies.

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