The life and work of the first great historian
1. Herodotus has been called the ‘father of history’, as he pretty much invented the entire discipline. It was Cicero, the acclaimed Roman orator, who branded Herodotus the ‘father of history’, and sure enough it was Herodotus who first gave us the idea of the historian and ‘history’ as we now understand it. Part of what marked Herodotus out from previous chroniclers or writers on real events was his commitment to objectivity: he wished to follow the evidence and the facts, and to draw conclusions from them. One famous example is his commitment to depicting the Persians – enemy of the Greeks – in an honest and fair light (something which later writer Plutarch sniffily derided, branding Herodotus ‘friend to the barbarians’).
2. However, Herodotus was probably influenced by an important, though largely forgotten, earlier writer. The geographer Hecateus of Miletus was probably an important influence on Herodotus, though the historian liked to dismiss Hecateus’ work. Hecateus’ greatest work was the Periegesis, or Circuit of the World, written in around 500 BC. Only fragments of it remain.
3. Herodotus’ uncle was an epic poet who was often compared to the great epic poet Homer. Herodotus, an Asian Greek, was born in around 484 BC, just before the Persian war. His uncle Panyassis wrote an epic poem Heraclea, which was sadly lost, but which was compared favourably to Homer’s work. A tyrannical ruler of Halicarnassus, Lygdamis (who worked for the Persians), had Panyassis murderered, forcing Herodotus to flee to the island of Samos.
4. The great Greek comic playwright Aristophanes poked fun at Herodotus. In several of his plays, Aristophanes mocked the father of history, notably in The Acharnians and The Clouds (the latter of which also sends up the great philosopher Socrates). This shows how influential his ideas were when Aristophanes was writing: he could rank alongside Socrates as a towering intellectual figure of the age.
5. The great playwright Sophocles was a friend of Herodotus. Sophocles, author of Oedipus Rex and one of the greatest writers of Greek tragedy, even wrote a poem in his friend’s honour – at least, it is widely assumed that the Herodotus addressed in the poem is the Herodotus, rather than some other distinguished person with the same name.
A good translation of Herodotus’ Histories is available, with excellent notes and a helpful introduction, from Oxford University Press as The Histories (Oxford World’s Classics).
Image: Portrait of Herodotus (picture credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, 2009), Wikimedia Commons.