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Herodotus of Halicarnassus: The Father of History and Lies

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

Originally published at 300spartanwarriors.com

Originally published at 300spartanwarriors.com

Who Is Herodotus of Halicarnassus?

Herodotus of Halicarnassus was not your average ancient Greek storyteller from the 5th century BC. He wasn’t concerned with gods, myths or the supernatural. His focus was on actual events and how they occurred. Unlike most writers of his time, he didn’t rely solely on imagination; he incorporated research and interviews to tell the story of the rise and fall of empires.

His work proved to be groundbreaking. It laid the foundation for historical writing and thinking. However, it was not without controversy. Ironically, he had been criticized for embellishing the facts in order to ensure they followed the direction of his narrative style.

Today, Herodotus is known as the father of history. It’s a title the Roman writer Marcus Tullius Cicero gave him the distinction nearly 500 years after his death.

However, Herodotus had another distinction, and it has plagued his reputation for eons. He was called “The Father of Lies" by several ancient and modern scholars.

The Father of History

Historical writers had existed long before Herodotus was born. However, many of them wrote about events that occurred long before their own births and usually wrote them in the form of epic poems or prose, which often amounted to celebrating the gods and or heroes rather than giving a definitive depiction of what happened.

In many respects, early attempts at history, especially during ancient Greek times, were not meant to get to a truth. This was something that Cicero attempted to point out when discussing the difference between poets and historians in his influential writings known as Laws.

Cicero realized that poetry and history served different purposes. History, he explained, was about "truth." As an example, he chose the work of Herodotus as an example of that truth.

The evidence was that Herodotus wrote about the era he lived in. The would-be historian was born in the year, 484 BC in the Greek Dorian city of Halicarnassus. This city was located off the coast of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey).

The World according to Herodotus

The World according to Herodotus

Shortly before his birth, the expanding Persian Empire took over Halicarnassus and then attacked Athens and Sparta in mainland Greece. The powerful Persians were defeated by the two Greek-state confederations. This war would eventually change the fortunes of the Greeks, as well as lead to the slow and eventual decline of the Persians.

Many in Halicarnassus thanked the gods for this victory. However, Herodotus wanted to know how the Greeks accomplished this task.

Another event in his hometown indirectly led him to find the answers he searched for. He was accused of taking part in an uprising against the Lygdamis, a tyrant who ruled Halicarnassus. As a result, he was exiled to the island of Samos.

Many in Halicarnassus thanked the gods for this victory. However, Herodotus wanted to know how the Greeks accomplished this task.

He didn’t stay long on the island. He began his travels. He went throughout the known world to such places as Egypt, Scythia (along the Black Sea), and various Greek states. In addition, but unconfirmed, it was believed he made it as far east at Babylon in modern day Iraq.

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Through it all, it was reported that he listened and recorded to those who were involved in the Greek-Persian wars of his youth. In many respects, this was groundbreaking; it appeared he was collecting data from eyewitnesses in order to better understand a moment in time.

To this day, gathering evidence or documentation, including interviews, is a hallmark of the historical process or examining history.

The Histories

It’s not known when or where Herodotus began his life work. What is known was that the first one appeared, circa 420 BC. Much of his works were about the Persian wars which had occurred 60 years before the publication.

According to the website, historyforkids.net, Herodotus’ intent was to explain how the Greeks triumphed over the Persians. In many respects, he pointed out that Persians were ruled by kings with serious god-complexes.

The Histories of Herodotus (or commonly known as The Histories), as the volume of work came to be known, was written in Ionic dialect of classical Greece and would eventually be divided into nine volumes. Besides recording the Greco-Persian Wars, it covered such subjects as:

  • ancient traditions,
  • politics,
  • geography, and
  • cultural clashes within the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asian regions.
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The volumes in the collection are as follows:

  • Book I, Clio: it documents the rise of the Persian Empire and explains its culture.
  • Book II, Euterpe: history, geography, and politics of Egypt.
  • Book III, Thalia: Persian takeover of Egypt, inner struggles and revolts in the Persian Empire, and the cultures of Arabia and India. Also, it details the rise of Syloson, the governor of Samos.
  • Book IV, Melpomene: history, geography and people of the Scythians; Persian king Darius futile attack on Scythia; the martyred kings of the Greek colony of Cyrene (in present-day Libya).
  • Book V, Tersichore: The start of the Greco-Persian conflicts. Also, it records the history of Athens, Sparta, and the Ionian revolt.
  • Book VI, Erato: The taking of Eretria by the Persians, and the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon.
  • Book VII, Polymnia: The rise and conflicts of Xerxes I of Persia; the construction of the bridge across the Hellespont (the waterway which separates Asia from Europe). The Battle of Thermopylae between Sparta’s legendary 300 men and the superior Persian Army.
  • Book VIII, Urania: Athens is evacuated, and the Greeks win in the Battle of Salamis. Also recorded is the ancestry of Alexander I of Macedon.
  • Book IX, Calliope: The rise of Alexander and the defeat and fall of the Persian Empire.

The Father of Lies

The nine volumes of The Histories are considered some of the most significant literary works of the Western Hemisphere. Still, that doesn't mean they're not flawed. Many modern historians believed Herodotus was attempting to write a fact-based prose rather than a strict historical account.

Others point to its frequent description of mythic incidents or events that don’t match with current knowledge of how something happened. Also, Herodotus was prone to exaggerate the wealth of the Persian kings.

Another major critique of Herodotus was his tendency for favoritism. His descriptions of the Greeks and Persian were black and white; The Greeks were the saviors of civilization while the Persians were portrayed as villains.

Ironically, the father of history who championed the concept of documentation, died at an unknown time. It is believed to be circa, 425 BC.

Cicero may have used Herodotus as a shining example of a historian as a seeker of truth. However, in his own writing he seemingly contradicts himself. In his writing entitled De Divinantione, he accused Cicero or inventing a few of the events.

He wasn't the only one to accuse him of this. A few generations after Herodotus's passing, several scholars accused him of the same act. How Cicero did not know of this beforehand is unknown. In fact, even after his accusation, he still hailed him as the father of history based on his own beliefs.

Later, during the Renaissance, a philosopher pointed out Cicero’s contradiction and affirmed Plutarch’s proclamation. Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca not only pointed out Cicero’s contradiction about Herodotus, he also claimed that a pivotal reference in the historian’s writing was most likely fabricated.

The reference in question pertains to the leader, Croesus of Lydia consulting the oracle of Amphlarus and the god Apollo at Delphi before going to war with King Cyrus of the Persian Empire.

The oracle stated that Croesus chooses to fight Cyrus, an empire will fall. The omen came true, but not in Croesus’s favor. His mighty empire fell to Cyrus.

Legacy

According to Roman writer and historian Lucian, Herodotus presented Histories at popular festivals. He did so through speeches and readings of his work to an audience This put him on the road again, as he had done so before writing his masterpiece. He went from Asia Minor to the Olympic Games. Where ever he went to present his work, he was met with adulation.

After years on the road to promote his work, he went on to help start the Greek colony of Thurii (located in present-day Italy), and spend his remaining years there. Ironically, the father of history who championed the concept of documentation, died at an unknown time. It is believed to be circa, 425 BC.

Despite their flaws, Herodotus's work has survived the test of time. Modern historian hail it for its description and insight into the Greek-Persian wars. Also, his approach has been imitated and honed by numerous historical writers and thinkers.

Interviewing actual participants, documentation, and research have become paramount in the academic discipline. In fact, many other forms of social sciences such as cultural anthropology, sociology, political science, and archeology, owe its existence to this man who merely saw the world around him differently and recorded it for all to read.

Still, the accusations of fabrication cannot be ignored. He isn't the first nor the last noted historian to be accused of this. But, being called the father of history, as well as the father of lies, doesn't bode well for the academic discipline he is credited for its evolution.

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Work Cited

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Dean Traylor

Comments

Anne Harrison from Australia on November 13, 2014:

A great hub - thank you. I've just started readung his Histories, they're absolutely fascinating. Voted up

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