History of Literature







Greek historian

born 484 bc?, Halicarnassus, Asia Minor [now Bodrum, Tur.]?
died 430–420

Greek author of the first great narrative history produced in the ancient world, the History of the Greco-Persian Wars.

It is believed that Herodotus was born at Halicarnassus, a Greek city in southwest Asia Minor that was then under Persian rule. The precise dates of his birth and death are alike uncertain. He is thought to have resided in Athens and to have met Sophocles and then to have left for Thurii, a new colony in southern Italy sponsored by Athens. The latest event alluded to in his History belongs to 430, but how soon after or where he died is not known. There is good reason to believe that he was in Athens, or at least in central Greece, during the early years of the Peloponnesian War, from 431, and that his work was published and known there before 425.

Herodotus was a wide traveler. His longer wandering covered a large part of the Persian Empire: he went to Egypt, at least as far south as Elephantine (Aswān), and he also visited Libya, Syria, Babylonia, Susa in Elam, Lydia, and Phrygia. He journeyed up the Hellespont to Byzantium, went to Thrace and Macedonia, and traveled northward to beyond the Danube and to Scythia eastward along the northern shores of the Black Sea as far as the Don River and some way inland. These travels would have taken many years.

Structure and scope of the History
Herodotus’ subject in his History is the wars between Greece and Persia (499–479 bc) and their preliminaries. As it has survived, the History is divided into nine books (the division is not Herodotus’ own): Books I–V describe the background to the Greco-Persian Wars; Books VI–IX contain the history of the wars, culminating in an account of the Persian king Xerxes’ invasion of Greece (Book VII) and the great Greek victories at Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale in 480–479 bc There are two parts in the History, one being the systematic narrative of the war of 480–479 with its preliminaries from 499 onward (including the Ionic revolt and the Battle of Marathon in Book VI), the other being the story of the growth and organization of the Persian Empire and a description of its geography, social structure, and history.

There has been much debate among modern scholars whether Herodotus from the first had this arrangement in mind or had begun with a scheme for only one part, either a description of Persia or a history of the war, and if so, with which. One likely opinion is that Herodotus began with a plan for the history of the war and that later he decided on a description of the Persian Empire itself. For a man like Herodotus was bound to ask himself what the Persian-led invasion force meant. Herodotus was deeply impressed not only by the great size of the Persian Empire but also by the varied and polyglot nature of its army, which was yet united in a single command, in complete contrast to the Greek forces with their political divisions and disputatious commanders, although the Greeks shared a common language, religion, and way of thought and the same feeling about what they were fighting for. This difference had to be explained to his readers, and to this end he describes the empire.

A logical link between the two main sections is to be found in the account in Book VII of the westward march of Xerxes’ immense army from Sardis to the Hellespont on the way to the crossing by the bridge of boats into Greece proper. First comes a story of Xerxes’ arrogance and petulance, followed by another of his savage and autocratic cruelty, and then comes a long, detailed description of the separate military contingents of the army marching as if on parade, followed by a detailed enumeration of all the national and racial elements in the huge invasion force.

Herodotus describes the history and constituent parts of the Persian Empire in Books I–IV. His method in the account of the empire is to describe each division of it not in a geographical order but as each was conquered by Persia—by the successive Persian kings Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius. (The one exception to this arrangement is Lydia, which is treated at the very beginning of the history not because it was first conquered but because it was the first foreign country to attack and overcome the Greek cities of Asia Minor.)

The first section of Book I, the history and description of Lydia and its conquest by the Persians, is followed by the story of Cyrus himself, his defeat of the Medes and a description of Persia proper, his attack on the Massagetae (in the northeast, toward the Caspian), and his death. Book II contains the succession of Cambyses, Cyrus’ son, his plan to attack Egypt, and an immensely long account of that unique land and its history. Book III describes the Persians’ conquest of Egypt, the failure of their invasions to the south (Ethiopia) and west; the madness and death of Cambyses; the struggles over the succession in Persia, ending with the choice of Darius as the new king; the organization of the vast new empire by him, with some account of the most distant provinces as far east as Bactria and northwest India; and the internal revolts suppressed by Darius. Book IV begins with the description and history of the Scythian peoples, from the Danube to the Don, whom Darius proposed to attack by crossing the Bosporus, and of their land and of the Black Sea.

Then follows the story of the Persian invasion of Scythia, which carried with it the submission of more Greek cities, such as Byzantium; of the Persians’ simultaneous attack from Egypt on Libya, which had been colonized by Greeks; and the description of that country and its colonization. Book V describes further Persian advances into Greece proper from the Hellespont and the submission of Thrace and Macedonia and many more Greek cities to Persian might, then the beginning of the revolt of the Greek cities of Ionia against Persia in 499, and so to the main subject of the whole work.

Method of narration
This brief account of the first half of Herodotus’ History not only conceals its infinite variety but is positively misleading insofar as it suggests a straightforward geographical, sociological, and historical description of a varied empire. The History’s structure is more complex than that, and so is Herodotus’ method of narration. For example, Herodotus had no need to explain Greek geography, customs, or political systems to his Greek readers, but he did wish to describe the political situation at the relevant times of the many Greek cities later involved in the war. This he achieved by means of digressions skillfully worked into his main narrative. He thus describes the actions of Croesus, the king of Lydia, who conquered the Greeks of mainland Ionia but who was in turn subjugated by the Persians, and this account leads Herodotus into a digression on the past history of the Ionians and Dorians and the division between the two most powerful Greek cities, the Ionian Athens and the Doric Sparta. Athens’ complex political development in the 6th century bc is touched upon, as is the conservative character of the Spartans. All of this, and much besides, some of it only included because of Herodotus’ personal interest, helps to explain the positions of these Greek states in 490, the year of the Battle of Marathon, and in 480, the year in which Xerxes invaded Greece.

One important and, indeed, remarkable feature of Herodotus’ History is his love of and gift for narrating history in the storyteller’s manner (which is not unlike Homer’s). In this regard he inserts not only amusing short stories but also dialogue and even speeches by the leading historical figures into his narrative, thus beginning a practice that would persist throughout the course of historiography in the classical world.


Outlook on life
The story of Croesus in Book I gives Herodotus the occasion to foreshadow, as it were, in Croesus’ talk with Solon the general meaning of the story of the Greco-Persian Wars, and so of his whole History—that great prosperity is “a slippery thing” and may lead to a fall, more particularly if it is accompanied by arrogance and folly as it was in Xerxes. The story of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece is a clear illustration of the moral viewpoint here; a war that by all human reasoning should have been won was irretrievably lost. To Herodotus, the old moral “pride comes before a fall” was a matter of common observation and had been proved true by the greatest historical event of his time. Herodotus believes in divine retribution as a punishment of human impiety, arrogance, and cruelty, but his emphasis is always on the actions and character of men, rather than on the interventions of the gods, in his descriptions of historical events. This fundamentally rationalistic approach was an epochal innovation in Western historiography.

Qualities as a historian
Herodotus was a great traveler with an eye for detail, a good geographer, a man with an indefatigable interest in the customs and past history of his fellowmen, and a man of the widest tolerance, with no bias for the Greeks and against the barbarians. He was neither naive nor easily credulous. It is this which makes the first half of his work not only so readable but of such historical importance. In the second half he is largely, but by no means only, writing military history, and it is evident that he knew little of military matters. Yet he understood at least one essential of the strategy of Xerxes’ invasion, the Persians’ dependence on their fleet though they came by land, and therefore Herodotus understood the decisive importance of the naval battle at Salamis. Similarly, in his political summaries he is commonly content with explaining events on the basis of trivial personal motives, yet here again he understood certain essentials: that the political meaning of the struggle between the great territorial empire of Persia and the small Greek states was not one of Greek independence only but the rule of law as the Greeks understood it; and that the political importance of the Battle of Marathon for the Greek world was that it foreshadowed the rise of Athens (confirmed by Salamis) to a position of equality and rivalry with Sparta and the end of the long-accepted primacy of the latter. He knew that war was not only a question of victory or defeat, glorious as the Greek victory was, but brought its own consequences in its train, including the internal quarrels and rivalry between the leading Greek city-states, quarreling that was to later culminate in the devastating internecine strife of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 bc).

Herodotus had his predecessors in prose writing, especially Hecataeus of Miletus, a great traveler whom Herodotus mentions more than once. But these predecessors, for all their charm, wrote either chronicles of local events, of one city or another, covering a great length of time, or comprehensive accounts of travel over a large part of the known world, none of them creating a unity, an organic whole. In the sense that he created a work that is an organic whole, Herodotus was the first of Greek, and so of European, historians. Herodotus’ work is not only an artistic masterpiece; for all his mistakes (and for all his fantasies and inaccuracies) he remains the leading source of original information not only for Greek history of the all-important period between 550 and 479 bc but also for much of that of western Asia and of Egypt at that time.



Type of work: History
Author: Herodotus (484-c. 425 B.C.)
Time: 500-479 B.C.
Locale: Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor
First transcribed: с 430 B.C.


Principal Personages

Croesus, king of Lydia
Solon, an Athenian statesman
Cyrus the Great, king of Persia
Darius, Cyrus' cousin
Xerxes, Darius' son and successor
Leonidas, king of Sparta


"Heredotus, beyng of the citye of Halicarnassus in Greece, wrote and compiled an History to the end that nether tract of time might overwhelme and bury in silence the actes of humayne kind; nor the worthye and renowed adventures of the Grecians and Barbarians (as well others as chiefly those that were done in warre) might want the due reward of immortale fame." So did the unknown "B.R." begin his translation of two of the nine books of Herodotus, "entitled with the names of the nine Muses."
As the first to use the word "history* Herodotus deserves Cicero's title, "Father of History." To be sure, this son of wealthy upper-class parents did not have the historian's critical attitude toward his sources. Interesting anecdotes of the wars between the Greeks and the Persians of the fifth century B.C. found their way into his pages whether he could verify them or not, but he does sometimes hedge and tag certain items as hearsay. From his quotations, he must have read widely. From the details in his descriptions and the comments like "this I saw," he must have visited most of the places he mentions. The true greatness of Herodotus lies in the fact that he was the first important writer to depart from the verse of Homer and others, to produce Europe's first prose literature. Some predecessors had chronicled the beginnings of their small communities or states, but the writings of Herodotus embrace a vaster panorama, not only Greece, but Egypt, Sardis, and Babylon as well. And he looked for the reasons back of the events. His aim was to trace the early rivalries between Greek and barbarian; in the process he recounted the story of many tribes, described the lands they inhabited, and reported many of their interesting customs. Those who want greater accuracy can consult Thucydides (c. 455-400 B.C.), who wrote a half-century later. His work is more objective, but it lacks the color of Herodotus' account.
The Persians maintained that the Phoenicians originally started the quarrel by kidnapping women from Argos. Later the Hellenes raided the port of Tyre and abducted Europa, the king's daughter. The wars actually started, however, when Croesus, whose magnificent court was visited by Solon, desired to enlarge his empire by conquering some of the Ionian cities of Asia Minor. When he consulted the oracles, he was persuaded at Delphi to gather his allies for an attack on the mainland. The invasion resulted in a stalemate, however, and Croesus returned to Lydia, where his capital, Sardis, was surprised and captured by the Persians. Only a rainstorm, sent by the gods, saved him as he was being burned to death. The same miracle persuaded Cyrus to free his captive after taking possession of some of his vassal states. With them, Cyrus went on to capture Babylon. However, the Mas-sagetae, under Queen Tomyris, were too strong in their resistance and strategy. Book 1, titled Clio, ends with the death of Cyrus.
Book 2, called Euterpe, tells how Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, became king and planned to march against Egypt. The rest of the book is a tourist's guide and history of Egypt from its beginnings to the coronation of Amasis.
Book 3, called Thalia, tells how Cambyses marched against Amasis. The Egyptian king having died in the meantime, the mercenary army of his son was no match for the Persian, who then betrayed his incipient insanity by dishonoring his slain enemies.
Book 4, called Melpomene, introduces Darius, cousin of and successor to Cambyses, who let the barbarous Scythians outwit him into making peace with them.
The next volume, whose Muse is Terpsichore, begins with a plan that failed. Two Paeonian nobles, wishing to be named rulers over their people, brought their beautiful sister to Sardis, where Darius saw her, carrying water on her head, leading a horse, and spinning. Anxious to spread such industry throughout his empire, he had the Paeonians sent throughout Asia Minor. But the book deals largely with the revolt in Ionia, the growth of Athens, and its expedition, encouraged by Aristagoras, against Sardis. Although the capital was captured and burned, Darius rallied and defeated the invaders at Salamis, in Cyprus.
Erato is the Muse of book 6, which tells of a battle fought between 353 Ionian triremes and six hundred Babylonian ships. By dissension among the enemy rather than by his strength Darius defeated them and went on to besiege and conquer Miletus. Again Greek bickering helped him during his march to Athens, but the Athenians, rallying and with a few Plataeans, successfully engaged the forces of Darius at Marathon, on September 14, 450 B.C. The Persians were driven back with a loss of 6,400 dead. The Athenians lost only 192 in the battle.
Book 7, named after Polymnia, Muse of the Sublime Hymn, tells in considerable detail how Darius prepared to revenge his defeat. Fate delayed him; rebellious Egypt sidetracked him, and death ended all his plans. The uncertain Xerxes, succeeding his father to the throne, undertook the Egyptian campaign. After a quick victory, at the head of twenty thousand soldiers he marched on Athens. It took seven days for Xerxes' army to cross the Hellespont bridge, erected by his engineers, and Xerxes, reviewing them, lamented that none would be alive a hundred years hence.
Many Greek cities were quick to surrender. Only Athens, as Herodotus boasts, dared confront the host of Xerxes. Themistocles interpreted the oracle's counsel to defend the city with "wooden walls" as advice to use the two hundred warships originally built for an attack on Egypt. Nature, however, provided a better defense in an east wind that wrecked four hundred Persian galleys along with uncounted transports and provision carriers. However, neither armed forces nor natural obstacles halted Xerxes' army until it reached the Pass of Thermopylae. There, for a day, the Athenians and Spartans checked the Persian host until a traitor revealed another path to the invader. The next day the Persians were again on the march, leaving all the defenders and twenty thousand of their own troops dead behind them.
In book 8, titled Urania, there is an account of Xerxes' march into Athens and the firing of the Acropolis. But the "wooden walls" of the Athenian fleet were victorious at Salamis on September 20, 480 B.C. Winner of the greatest glory was the Persian queen Artemis, who used the confusion of battle to get revenge on another Persian by ramming and sinking his ship. Because Xerxes thought she was attacking an enemy and the Athenians believed she had changed loyalties, everybody lauded her.
Fearing that the Greeks might sail on to destroy his bridge, Xerxes ordered a retreat. From the Asian mainland he sent demands for a peace treaty, promptly refused by both Athens and Sparta.
Calliope is the Muse presiding over book 9. Here the account tells how Mardonios renewed the attack against the Greeks in the hope of sending word of victory back to Xerxes in Sardis. Though temporarily checked by the Thebans, he again entered Athens, whose citizens had fled to Salamis to assemble their allies. When they marched back, Mardonios burned what was left of Athens and retreated.
Except for cavalry skirmishes, neither side wanted to engage in battle until the sacrifices were propitious, but Mardonios' patience broke first, and he fell into a trap at Plataea, where he was killed and his army routed; there were twenty thousand Persian and Boeotian casualties against ninety-one Spartans and fifty-two Athenians killed.
At Thermopylae, Leonidas, the Spartan king, had been crucified and beheaded by the Persians. Certain Greeks wanted to dishonor Mardonios in the same way, but they were told that dishonoring a dead enemy was worthy only of barbarians. Some of the fleeing Persians were pursued and killed at Mycale. Their defeat ended Xerxes' ambitious plan to crush the Hellenes.



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