Statue of Herodotus

(484 BC - c 425 BC)

Greek Historian ("The Father of History")


The Life of Herodotus

Herodotos Halikarnasseus was a Dorian Greek who is universally known by the Latin version of his first name, Herodotus. He was born in 484 BC in Halicarnassus (the modern Bodrum in what is now Turkey). This was under Persian control but was culturally part of the Greek world. After an (unproven) involvement in a coup attempt against the rulers, he left his home city for the island Samos, never to return.

During his exile, he travelled extensively around the countries of the Mediterranean (including Egypt, Italy, Sicily and Phoenicia), Eastern Europe (including the Crimean Peninsula in modern Ukraine) and Mesopotamia (Babylon and the Persian capital Susa). He also lived in several places in Greece including Athens (then at its peak) and Sparta.

After his travels he wrote a book called Historia. The Greek word and the concept (History) have come into the English language via Latin. He is known as "The Father of History". The book was written between 430 BC and 424 BC and is now divided into nine books. Modern scholarship credits him with for the ethnography and anthroplogy in his writings as he describes customs and cultures without prejudice. His historical accounts are carefully collected and generally unbiased.

His accounts describe battles (especially between Athens and Sparta and between Greece and Persia), stories about foreign lands and cultures, natural phenomena, geographical explorations, customs, monuments (like the Egyptian pyramids), sporting events (like the Olympics), religious festivals and political events. Much of our detailed knowledge of the ancient Greek, Egyptian and Persian world is derived from his writings.

One of the more interesting stories he wrote about was that the Phonoecians had circumnavigated Africa. He was skeptical of the accounts as they described the Sun being visible in the North at noon, something which never occurs in the known world of the Greeks. Modern historians accept the story because this is exactly how the Sun is viewed from south of the Equator.

Another story tells of the annual flooding of the Nile in Egypt being caused by melting snowfall. Again Herodotus was skeptical that Africa, the hottest continent, could have snow. Modern geographers know that snow capped mountains are one of the sources of this inportant river.

His accounts of battles include Salamis, Thermopylae and Marathon, three of the most important in European history. He is unique in the ancient world for offering accounts of the period from different viewpoints. Many of his sources were interviews with people who had lived through and participated in the events he was writing about.

His biographical accounts of the monarchs of the era included the idea of hubris - if the king boasted and annoyed the gods he would often be punished. This was a common idea at the time.

He is said to have died in Thurii, a town in southern Italy around 425 BC.

The Histories of Herodotus

From Book 1 (Lydians and Medes and an Eclipse)

"Afterwards, on the refusal of Alyattes to give up his suppliants when Cyaxares sent to demand them of him, war broke out between the Lydians and the Medes, and continued for five years, with various success. In the course of it the Medes gained many victories over the Lydians, and the Lydians also gained many victories over the Medes. Among their other battles there was one night engagement. As, however, the balance had not inclined in favour of either nation, another combat took place in the sixth year, in the course of which, just as the battle was growing warm, day was on a sudden changed into night. This event had been foretold by Thales, the Milesian, who forewarned the Ionians of it, fixing for it the very year in which it actually took place. The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change, ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed on. Syennesis of Cilicia, and Labynetus of Babylon, were the persons who mediated between the parties, who hastened the taking of the oaths, and brought about the exchange of espousals. It was they who advised that Alyattes should give his daughter Aryenis in marriage to Astyages, the son of Cyaxares, knowing, as they did, that without some sure bond of strong necessity, there is wont to be but little security in men's covenants.

Oaths are taken by these people in the same way as by the Greeks, except that they make a slight flesh wound in their arms, from which each sucks a portion of the other's blood."

From Book 2 (Egyptian Astronomy and Religion)

"Now with regard to mere human matters, the accounts which they gave, and in which all agreed, were the following. The Egyptians, they said, were the first to discover the solar year, and to portion out its course into twelve parts. They obtained this knowledge from the stars. (To my mind they contrive their year much more cleverly than the Greeks, for these last every other year intercalate a whole month, but the Egyptians, dividing the year into twelve months of thirty days each, add every year a space of five days besides, whereby the circuit of the seasons is made to return with uniformity.)

The Egyptians, they went on to affirm, first brought into use the names of the twelve gods, which the Greeks adopted from them; and first erected altars, images, and temples to the gods; and also first engraved upon stone the figures of animals. In most of these cases they proved to me that what they said was true. And they told me that the first man who ruled over Egypt was Min, and that in his time all Egypt, except the Thebaic canton, was a marsh, none of the land below Lake Moeris then showing itself above the surface of the water. This is a distance of seven days' sail from the sea up the river."

From Book 3 (Cambyses and Darius - Persian Kings)

"Thus it appears certain to me, by a great variety of proofs, that Cambyses was raving mad; he would not else have set himself to make a mock of holy rites and long-established usages. For if one were to offer men to choose out of all the customs in the world such as seemed to them the best, they would examine the whole number, and end by preferring their own; so convinced are they that their own usages far surpass those of all others. Unless, therefore, a man was mad, it is not likely that he would make sport of such matters. That people have this feeling about their laws may be seen by very many proofs: among others, by the following.

Darius, after he had got the kingdom, called into his presence certain Greeks who were at hand, and asked - "What he should pay them to eat the bodies of their fathers when they died?" To which they answered, that there was no sum that would tempt them to do such a thing. He then sent for certain Indians, of the race called Callatians, men who eat their fathers, and asked them, while the Greeks stood by, and knew by the help of an interpreter all that was said - "What he should give them to burn the bodies of their fathers at their decease?" The Indians exclaimed aloud, and bade him forbear such language. Such is men's wont herein; and Pindar was right, in my judgment, when he said, "Law is the king o'er all."

From Book 4 (The Disappearance of the Poet, Aristeas)

"The birthplace of Aristeas, the poet who sung of these things, I have already mentioned. I will now relate a tale which I heard concerning him both at Proconnesus and at Cyzicus. Aristeas, they said, who belonged to one of the noblest families in the island, had entered one day into a fuller's shop, when he suddenly dropt down dead. Hereupon the fuller shut up his shop, and went to tell Aristeas' kindred what had happened. The report of the death had just spread through the town, when a certain Cyzicenian, lately arrived from Artaca, contradicted the rumour, affirming that he had met Aristeas on his road to Cyzicus, and had spoken with him. This man, therefore, strenuously denied the rumour; the relations, however, proceeded to the fuller's shop with all things necessary for the funeral, intending to carry the body away. But on the shop being opened, no Aristeas was found, either dead or alive. Seven years afterwards he reappeared, they told me, in Proconnesus, and wrote the poem called by the Greeks The Arimaspeia, after which he disappeared a second time. This is the tale current in the two cities above-mentioned."

From Book 5 (The Road from Asia Minor to Persia)

"Royal stations exist along its whole length, and excellent caravanserais; and throughout, it traverses an inhabited tract, and is free from danger. In Lydia and Phrygia there are twenty stations within a distance Of 94 1/2 parasangs. On leaving Phrygia the Halys has to be crossed; and here are gates through which you must needs pass ere you can traverse the stream. A strong force guards this post. When you have made the passage, and are come into Cappadocia, 28 stations and 104 parasangs bring you to the borders of Cilicia, where the road passes through two sets of gates, at each of which there is a guard posted. Leaving these behind, you go on through Cilicia, where you find three stations in a distance of 15 1/2 parasangs.

The boundary between Cilicia and Armenia is the river Euphrates, which it is necessary to cross in boats. In Armenia the resting-places are 15 in number, and the distance is 56 1/2 parasangs. There is one place where a guard is posted. Four large streams intersect this district, all of which have to be crossed by means of boats. The first of these is the Tigris; the second and the third have both of them the same name, though they are not only different rivers, but do not even run from the same place.

For the one which I have called the first of the two has its source in Armenia, while the other flows afterwards out of the country of the Matienians. The fourth of the streams is called the Gyndes, and this is the river which Cyrus dispersed by digging for it three hundred and sixty channels.

Leaving Armenia and entering the Matienian country, you have four stations; these passed you find yourself in Cissia, where eleven stations and 42 1/2 parasangs bring you to another navigable stream, the Choaspes, on the banks of which the city of Susa is built. Thus the entire number of the stations is raised to one hundred and eleven; and so many are in fact the resting-places that one finds between Sardis and Susa."

From Book 6 (Greek Customs)

"Such are their privileges in war; in peace their rights are as follows. When a citizen makes a public sacrifice the kings are given the first seats at the banquet; they are served before any of the other guests, and have a double portion of everything; they take the lead in the libations; and the hides of the sacrificed beasts belong to them.

Every month, on the first day, and again on the seventh of the first decade, each king receives a beast without blemish at the public cost, which he offers up to Apollo; likewise a medimnus of meal, and of wine a Laconian quart. In the contests of the Games they have always the seat of honour; they appoint the citizens who have to entertain foreigners; they also nominate, each of them, two of the Pythians, officers whose business it is to consult the oracle at Delphi, who eat with the kings, and, like them, live at the public charge. If the kings do not come to the public supper, each of them must have two choenixes of meal and a cotyle of wine sent home to him at his house; if they come, they are given a double quantity of each, and the same when any private man invites them to his table. They have the custody of all the oracles which are pronounced; but the Pythians must likewise have knowledge of them. They have the whole decision of certain causes, which are these, and these only:- When a maiden is left the heiress of her father's estate, and has not been betrothed by him to any one, they decide who is to marry her; in all matters concerning the public highways they judge; and if a person wants to adopt a child, he must do it before the kings. They likewise have the right of sitting in council with the eight-and-twenty senators; and if they are not present, then the senators nearest of kin to them have their privileges, and give two votes as the royal proxies, besides a third vote, which is their own."

From Book 7 (The Battle of Marathon)

"The dress of the Phrygians closely resembled the Paphlagonian, only in a very few points differing from it. According to the Macedonian account, the Phrygians, during the time that they had their abode in Europe and dwelt with them in Macedonia, bore the name of Brigians; but on their removal to Asia they changed their designation at the same time with their dwelling-place.

The Armenians, who are Phrygian colonists, were armed in the Phrygian fashion. Both nations were under the command of Artochmes, who was married to one of the daughters of Darius.

The Lydians were armed very nearly in the Grecian manner. These Lydians in ancient times were called Maeonians, but changed their name, and took their present title from Lydus the son of Atys.

The Mysians wore upon their heads a helmet made after the fashion of their country, and carried a small buckler; they used as javelins staves with one end hardened in the fire. The Mysians are Lydian colonists, and from the mountain-chain of Olympus, are called Olympieni. Both the Lydians and the Mysians were under the command of Artaphernes, the son of that Artaphernes who, with Datis, made the landing at Marathon."

From Book 8 (The Battle of Thermopylae)

"The men belonging to the fleet of Xerxes, after they had seen the Spartan dead at Thermopylae, and crossed the channel from Trachis to Histiaea, waited there by the space of three days, and then sailing down through the Euripus, in three more came to Phalerum. In my judgment, the Persian forces both by land and sea when they invaded Attica were not less numerous than they had been on their arrival at Sepias and Thermopylae.

For against the Persian loss in the storm and at Thermopylae, and again in the sea-fights off Artemisium, I set the various nations which had since joined the king - as the Malians, the Dorians, the Locrians, and the Boeotians - each serving in full force in his army except the last, who did not number in their ranks either the Thespians or the Plataeans; and together with these, the Carystians, the Andrians, the Tenians, and the other people of the islands, who all fought on this side except the five states already mentioned. For as the Persians penetrated further into Greece, they were joined continually by fresh nations."

From Book 9 (Speech by Alexander The Great)

"Men of Athens, that which I am about to say I trust to your honour; and I charge you to keep it secret from all excepting Pausanias, if you would not bring me to destruction. Had I not greatly at heart the common welfare of Greece, I should not have come to tell you; but I am myself a Greek by descent, and I would not willingly see Greece exchange freedom for slavery. Know then that Mardonius and his army cannot obtain favourable omens; had it not been for this, they would have fought with you long ago. Now, however, they have determined to let the victims pass unheeded, and, as soon as day dawns, to engage in battle. Mardonius, I imagine, is afraid that, if he delays, you will increase in number. Make ready then to receive him. Should he however still defer the combat, do you abide where you are; for his provisions will not hold out many more days. If ye prosper in this war, forget not to do something for my freedom; consider the risk I have run, out of zeal for the Greek cause, to acquaint you with what Mardonius intends, and to save you from being surprised by the barbarians. I am Alexander of Macedon."

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Inventions from the period that includes this period of Greek culture.

These are words found in English from Greek, the language of Herodotud.

External Herodotus Links

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The Histories
The complete text of Herodotus' Histories (translated by George Rawlinson).

Persian Influence on Greece
Many of the innovations of the Persians influenced the Greeks.