Casting Through Ancient Greece

36. Herodotus: The Father of History

August 13, 2021 Mark Selleck Season 1 Episode 36
Casting Through Ancient Greece
36. Herodotus: The Father of History
Show Notes Transcript

“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time. May the great and wonderful deeds – some brought forth by the Hellenes, others by the barbarians – not go unsung; as well as the causes that led them to make war on each other.”

Herodotus, Proem

These are the opening lines from the oldest surviving work of history in the western world and would open so much more than just an account of the Greek and Persian wars.

In this first episode on Herodotus, we will look at who Herodotus was, as much as the known information lets us. We will also turn to looking at what his ambitious work, the Histories would cover. There is so much more than just a historical account, with geography, anthropology, ethnography, folklore and even hints of Philosophy.

His work would be broken up into nine books into the medieval period, each book denoting a scroll that the Histories was originally written on. Within these books would be many digressions that Herodotus would become well known for and where we see many of the elements that would make this so much more than a history come into play.

We also look at the potential sources Herodotus would have used, from written accounts, his enquires and his own observations. We take for granted the process of gathering sources today, but back 2500 years ago there would have been a number of hurdles for someone seeking reason for events in the past.   

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Episode 36

Herodotus: The Father of History

“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time. May the great and wonderful deeds – some brought forth by the Hellenes, others by the barbarians – not go unsung; as well as the causes that led them to make war on each other.”[1]

Hello I’m Mark Selleck and welcome back to Casting Through Ancient Greece, Episode 36, Herodotus, the father of history.


The lines that opened this episode would be the opening paragraph or lines spoken, in Herodotus’s time, in a work that is currently one of the oldest surviving works of history in the western world. What would set this account of the past apart from those that had proceeded it, was the fact that it was not simply recounting events, it was interested in trying to understand those events as well. It would be an investigation or an inquiry into events of the past, resulting in what the Greeks termed a Historia, a learning or knowledge by inquiry. Hence where we now get our word History. This would be quite different to the poems, text and inscriptions of the past that had simply laid out events, stories or proclamation that were to be accepted. Questions were now being asked about the past and these inquires would see that questions would continue to be asked.

In our look at Herodotus, we are going to spend a couple of episodes looking at him and his work, the Histories. As you should all be well aware of now, he was our main primary source for the Greek and Persian wars, as this was his primary focus and was at the core of his goal for writing his work “…the causes that led them to make war on each other”. We are now going to attempt to understand the man behind this influential work and why and how he presents this work.

We will begin by looking at the man behind the work, who Herodotus was. Having some context of the man will go a long way into understanding why he presents certain aspects as he did. His work becomes so much richer when it can be placed in the context of his own times. Ignoring this can lead to some pretty basic misconceptions about his value as a historian. We need to remember a lot of advances and our understanding of the word history has changed quite a lot over the past 2,500 years.

Herodotus, is often cited as the father of history, but to think of him being the first to have invented the concept of inquiring into the past would be a little irresponsible. Humans are curious by nature and would have been questioning events around them for millennia, though writing was a relatively new development outside of official documents. In Herodotus we see the oldest surviving account of this process in action, though we can see where he may have drawn his inspiration from when embarking on his histories which we will also look at in more detail in this episode. 

In our modern times we have an idea of what the study of history should be and how it should be presented. In Herodotus we find elements of this but we also find much more that would not be considered “history”, we have had the benefit of time, some 2500 years for it to develop into a recognised discipline with accepted conventions. Though, these other elements, which we will look at, are what also add to the richness of The Histories. So, let us now try and get acquainted with Herodotus and his times.


Who was Herodotus: the Suda

So, who was Herodotus? This is a question that is difficult to answer with great detail as his writings do not focus on himself as a person but what he learnt on his travels around the Mediterranean and what he learnt from others. But we will try and draw out a profile of the man and where this information comes from.

Thanks to Herodotus himself we are aware of where he is from, since these are the opening words of his work; “Herodotus of Halicarnassus”. Halicarnassus was in Asia Minor, in the region of Caria, south of Ionia. Halicarnassus had also begun as a Greek colony being founded by Dorians from the Greek mainland. Today the ruins of Halicarnassus are located at the town of Bodrum in Western Turkey. This was also the site of one of the ancient wonders of the world, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. But this was built around 350 BC, some 70 years after Herodotus had died. 

For much of the rest of the information relating to Herodotus background we are at the mercy of the information that was compiled and presented in the Suda. We have referred to this lexicon in the series before, it was an encyclopaedia of the ancient Mediterranean world complied in the Byzantine Empire from many ancient sources that are now lost to us today. It dates to the 10th century AD and has some 30,000 entries making up its contents. This is where much of the personal information comes from relating to Herodotus, though we are not certain of all the sources and how reliable the information is. The Suda dates to nearly 1500 years after Herodotus, we are closer in time to the Suda than the times of Herodotus are to it. But it’s still is worth looking at since the information is taken from ancient sources, many of them lost to us today.

What we find here in the Suda, many historians have found no reason to disbelieve for the most part, and some of it seems to even fit in with what we can learn of him through his own writing. So, let have a look at basically what the Suda tells us of Herodotus.

We are told that Herodotus was part of the nobility within Halicarnassus, born to parents Lyxus and Dryo. He also had a brother named Theodorus and was either a cousin, or nephew of Panyassis, an epic poet from Halicarnassus, ranked just behind Homer.[2] We hear that his family were forced to flee to Samos, an island just north of Halicarnassus. This due to being on unfavourable terms with the current tyrant, Lygdamis, who was the grandson of Artemisia, who had been the first tyrant of Halicarnassus. We met Artemisia in our episodes around the battle of Salamis. We also hear he learnt the Ionian dialect on Samos, which is what the Histories would be written in, remembering here Halicarnassus used the Dorian dialect, since being founded by Dorians. Herodotus then returns to Halicarnassus where he assists in expelling the tyrant, Lygdamis, though it would appear there were other political elements at play, as Herodotus would end up going into exile due to being disliked by the people of Halicarnassus. He would be a part of the foundation of the Pan-Hellenic colony led by the Athenians of Thurii in southern Italy. The Suda then ends with Herodotus either dying in Thurri or perhaps in Pella in Macedonia. [3]  

Like I said it is hard to match much of this against hard evidence but some elements have been linked to what he has written in his histories, either showing how later authors took inferences from what he says and how he presents things in the Histories. Or how these are presented reflect his lived past. John Marincola in his introduction of the Penguin Classics edition of the Histories, points out that Herodotus throughout the histories generally presents tyrants in a negative light. Also, Herodotus seems to have a very good knowledge of the island Samos and its monuments, while also seeming to have a favourable bias towards the Samians. But again, are these used to create a biography of him or are they reflecting his past experiences.[4]  

What else we know about Herodotus:

Ok, so that is what we can find in the Suda that gives us some background to Herodotus, but what we potentially know of him doesn’t end there. Much has also been drawn out of his Histories to give us a picture of his life. 

On the point of when he was born, ancient tradition places this around the time of the Greek and Persian Wars, with a common date given being 484BC. Most modern historians haven’t seen any reason to dispute this. It is then thought he died somewhere around the 420’s BC since his histories makes reference to events early in the Peloponnesian War, beginning in 431. It is also assumed that the Histories would have been his life’s work, so much of his adult life devoted to travelling and compiling his research. 

We can also see in his accounts the evidence that he had travelled very widely around the Mediterranean, one would think not a common practice outside of being involved in the business of trade. He would have visited areas in Asia Minor, Phoenicia, Egypt and North Africa. It is also possible he may have gone to areas of the black sea, but this is a bit hard to say for certain.

So here we have bit of a background on the man Herodotus, it isn’t comprehensive by any means. Herodotus himself was not interested in talking about himself but rather the places and people he visited, their traditions and the stories they reported to him. And again at the beginning of his work he states his intended goal. 

“…so that human events do not fade with time. May the great and wonderful deeds – some brought forth by the Hellenes, others by the barbarians – not go unsung; as well as the causes that led them to make war on each other.”[5]   

What does the Histories cover?

So, what dose Herodotus cover in the Histories? As I pointed out earlier we need the keep in mind, although Herodotus is credited with one of the first works of History, this is quite different to what we would expect of a history today. Back in Herodotus’s times clear disciplines in knowledge based pursuits were not as clearly defined as they are today. So, trying to view his work as simply a history by our modern definitions is to overlook many other elements within the Histories.

At the core of his work he was trying to understand what led to the Greeks and the barbarians, the Persian’s in this case, to make war on each other and to recognise the achievements by both. His use of the word barbarian wasn’t a derogatory term that it would be seen today to represent but basically referred to non-Greeks. As you may remember from earlier in the series, it grew out of the fact Greeks would refer to people they couldn’t understand as saying Bar-Bar-Bar in much the same way we would use the term Blah-Blah-Blah. This would then see the Greeks refer to peoples who could not speak Greek as Barborious.

Anyway, to highlight these two main themes in his works he would focus on the Greek and Persian Wars that would encompass the generation that came before him, covering the period from around 500 BC to 479 BC. So far in the series the majority of the episodes have covered the period Herodotus deals with, plus we made use of his works as he delved into the backgrounds of the Spartans, Athenians and Persians. Even into his own time when he would write his histories, the experiences of the Persian wars were still having a great impact politically and diplomatically throughout Greece especially in Athens. Throughout this account though, we would see other element as part of his work, which today would be recognised as geography, anthropology, ethnology, zoology, as well as fables and folk law. Many of these elements would come up as digressions from his main narrative within the histories, as Herodotus moved through his account, he would often move away from the narrative to give background on a particular place or person as they were brought up. 

We see many of these other forms within the histories occurring when he was working to full fill his goal of recounting the many and great deeds brought forward by barbarians. The Greek view point would form the normal view of the world in his work, so as he encountered places and people who appeared different from this point of view, he would spend more time focused on this task, describing what a Greek audience would find fascinating. We have two very notable examples of this occurring, firstly he would spend an entire book on the subject of Egypt.[6] This digression would come out of his account of Cambyses’ campaign against Egypt after succeeding Cyrus the Great of Persia. Herodotus would move through many aspects around Egypt, from the description of the Nile, their customs and society, religion and descriptions of animals local to the area. The Greek fascination with Egypt was far older than Herodotus, with its wealth, monuments, geography and the age of it civilisation compared to the Greeks, all contributing to this.

His second longest digression would concern the region of Scythia; to the Greeks they were on the fringes of the known world. Again we see Herodotus describe their lands, people, practices and tales associated with them. Herodotus’ description of them would represent them in complete contrast to what was considered normal behaviour and practices in the Greek world. So, an account of an almost alien people to the ordinary Greek, as well as their seemingly bizarre ways would have intrigued a Greek audience.[7] 

What Herodotus would produce was what seems to be an original take on a number of different methods for recording knowledge. There would be a clear focus on giving an account of the Persian Wars, but woven in we would see these many other elements to help highlight his desire in not letting deeds go unsung and his search for reasons behind hostilities between east and west. In our times the entire account is presented over nine books, but in his time they were recorded on scrolls. It is clear his work was intended for a Greek audience, it had been recorded in Greek, the Greek world is presented as the norm when comparing foreign lands. While he also carries on the theme of recording great deeds and the conflicts of east verse west found in epic poetry popular to the Greeks, such as Homers the Iliad. What was different this time and novel though, he wasn’t applying this to a distant past based off stories that had been told down through the ages from an oral tradition. He was applying the same themes to people and events that could be remembered by those living and close enough to give a firsthand account in some cases. So, with this basic understanding of what Herodotus was trying to present let’s now have a brief survey of the structural outline of his nine books of the Histories.


Outline of the Histories: 

               Book 1

With book 1 of the histories we see Herodotus giving us his goals in producing his works, before then beginning work on one of his core goals, the causes that led them to make war on each other, that being the Hellenes and barbarians. He looks at the mythic past and the conflicts that exist but also acknowledges that these are but myths when he says;

 “I myself have no intention of affirming that these events occurred thus or otherwise”.[8] 

He then transitions to talking about where he believes inquiring would be more helpful in realising his aim. This sees him turn to describing the history of the Lydian Empire and focusing on its last king Croesus. This he follows through up to Persia’s victory over the Lydian Empire and incorporation into the Persian Empire. During the account of Lydia we also see Herodotus take the opportunity to digress as he talks of Croesus looking for allies from Greece. He gives us the early background on the Athenians in relation to their rule by Peisistratos, and then turns to the situation and events taking place in Sparta at this time. He then returns to the Lydian’s defeat, which then sees the narrative move into the life of the founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great.

This not only gives us the story of the rise to power of Cyrus but also the account of how Persia would become the dominate power in the Near East. We hear about the history of the Medes, who were in power. Then we see how Cyrus and Persia would turn the tables on this power dynamic. The Greek world’s first encounters with the Persians are then described with delegations sent from mainland Greece and Persia’s incorporation of the Ionian Greek cities into the Empire. The book then closes out with Cyrus’ campaigns of expanding his empire through Anatolia, Mesopotamia and into Scythian lands against a tribe known as the Massagetai, where he would be killed.[9]    


               Book 2

Book 2 then picks up from the death of Cyrus the great and the succession of Cambyses to the Persian throne. More plans for expanding the Empire are then described, originally planned by Cyrus, as preparations are made to campaign against Egypt.

With the mention of Egypt we now see a digression lasting for the rest of book 2 which will go into many aspects. To the Greeks the Egyptians were a fascinating culture, as their civilisation was so ancient. Herodotus then here has on display the many areas he would write about showing that he was not only writing history but goes into depth covering geographical aspects of the land and their agriculture. He also spends a fair bit of time on the Nile, such as its sources and why it floods. Then we are given descriptions of Egyptian religion, customs and descriptions of various animals found in Egypt.  Herodotus then spends a great deal of time, nearly half the book looking at Egyptian history from its earliest times up to just before Cambyses invasion.[10]


               Book 3

Book 3 sees us back on track with the narrative, describing Cambyses reign and conquest of Egypt, with descriptions of Ethiopia also entering the account as Cambyses plans to campaign in other areas of Africa. In the account of Cambyses we also see his downfall in progress and what would end up leading to a crisis in the Persian Empire. Before Herodotus continues with events in the Persian Empire, he turns to Sparta and a war they would wage against Samos around the same time of the events unfolding in Egypt. Here he also takes the opportunity to describe buildings constructed on Samos and their engineering feats. Then we get back into events in Persia and what would be known as the revolt of the Magi, the Persian priestly cast, with the death of Cambyses. This also gives us the rise to power of the next Persian king, Darius who would be part of the conspiracy that would see this crisis averted. With Darius’ accession to the throne we get some interesting discussions about the best forms of government inserted into the mouths of Darius and the conspirators by Herodotus. With Darius now on the throne we see how he brought order back to the empire and Herodotus gives us a survey of the various satraps that made up the Persian Empire. [11]

               Book 4

With book 4 we see a similar course taken as with book 2 which focused on Egypt. We hear of Darius launching an attack on Scythia, the same region Cyrus was killed in. This then sees Herodotus head off on another long digression where he engages in much of the folklore around the Scythians and their religious practices. He is also interested in the geography of the lands and pays special interest to the rivers in the area. The customs of the people are also highlighted and would have been a fascination to the Greeks, with a people on the edges of their known world with such contray behaviours.

We then hear of Darius campaign being launched where Herodotus continues with details on the geography they faced with a widened focused on all of the various tribes and groups that made up Scythia. We are then taken back to the campaign where particular focus is placed on the Greeks that assisted the Persians by guarding a bridge crucial to the Persians lines of communication. 

Herodotus then moves on to the closing of book 4 by looking at Libya, their geography and the campaign the Persians would conduct. Here we see particular focus placed on the city of Cyrene, originally started as a Greek colony. The city and regions around are then added to the Persian Empire.[12]

               Book 5 

Book 5 opens up with more expansionist moves made by the Persian Empire under Darius. This time attention is focused on the lands north of Greece, Trace and Macedonia. We also get some preliminary information about Miletus and its Tyrant which then helps setup the main subject of this book, the Ionian revolt. This is where we now see one of the main events that would be seen by Herodotus as being the reason for the war between the Greeks and Persians.

Herodotus now opens up the narrative on the events that would be the main focus of his Histories, the Greek and Persian wars. The Ionian revolt is the beginning of this period and Herodotus now looks at the events behind the revolt breaking out. With the narrative moving to the Ionians seeking help from mainland Greece we now get some more background to both Athens’ and Sparta’s recent history. Once Herodotus brings us back up to speed on the goings on with the city states of the mainland he brings us back to the breakout of the revolt. The opening campaign of the revolt that Athens would be involved in is then described all the way down to its failure. Then further operations of the revolt are continued with and the Persian reactions to bring the book to a close.[13]



Book 6

With book 6 we see Herodotus continue the narrative of the Ionian revolt, though with it in its closing stages. The major battle that would effectively see the defeat on the revolt is played out and then the Persians mopping up operations bringing control back in Anatolia. 

We then are told about the figure Miltiades in the Chersonese to help set up the narrative for the last half of the book, as well as hearing about the initial campaign of the first Persian invasion that went through this area as well as into Trace and Macedon. Though before getting there, we are taken back to Sparta where Herodotus tells us about the Spartan kingship and some current inactions within Greece. This then brings us to the Marathon campaign and the opening of operations against the Greek mainland. Miltiades is presented as the hero of the campaign, but we then hear about his fall from favour after the battle and his death to close out the book. [14]

               Book 7

Book 7 sees us continue with the narrative of the wars, though with us back in Persia where a renewed campaign is being arranged. Troubles in the empire see the campaign delayed as well as the death of Darius. The new king Xerxes comes to the throne and after the troubles in the empire are dealt with arrangements now continue for the second invasion of Greece. We are given a description of the size and scale of the invasion with the engineering feats constructed as well as the vast resources Xerxes had to call on. Herodotus then continues with the advance of the Persian army to the Hellespont where we are also given a detailed description of the various peoples that made up the forces.

Herodotus then takes us to Greece where the city states who would defend Greece come together to form a league. Here they make preparations to make ready for the Persians advance into their lands. With the preparations covered we now get to the Persians manoeuvres towards Artamesisum on sea and Thermopylae on land. The book then concludes with the battle at Thermopylae and the death of Leonidas. [15]

               Book 8

With the battle of Thermopylae fought and lost by the Greeks, Herodotus in book 8 turns to the events in the lead up to Artamesisum. This then heads into the narrative of the 3 days of fighting during the battle of Artamesisum before the Greeks then withdraw from the position.

Persian activities are then described after the battle before an account of the Persians advance through central Greece and onto Athens. We also hear of the evacuation of Athens to Salamis where the Greek fleet is also now stationed. Herodotus highlights the tenuous nature of the Hellenic league with disagreements on how they should proceed. This then takes us to the naval battle of Salamis and all the action that entails.

With the Persian defeat Herodotus moves into the discussions and decisions being made in the Persian camp, which would see Xerxes leave back to the Empire. Though, the Persians would remain with a picked force under the command of Mardonius. This then takes us into events as winter would come on seeing the close of the campaign season. Mardonius during this time would also turn to diplomacy to attempt to break up the unity of the Greek force.[16]

               Book 9

We now get to the last book of the Histories and the climax of the Greek and Persian Wars. Herodotus begins with the Persian reoccupation of Athens, with then diplomatic talks taking place between Athens and Sparta to try and confront the Persians once again. During these talks Herodotus abruptly transitions from a sense of uncertainty to the Greeks being on a war footing once again.

We are now taken to the manoeuvres of both sides as they would end up facing one another in Boeotia between the polies of Plataea and Thebes. Ten days of skirmishing and probing are described before then getting to the main action of the battle of Plataea. Once the battle is won Herodotus then talks about the direct aftermath before then turning to another battle fought the same day, at Mycale. He now moves back in the timeline to bring us back up to speed on developments within the Greek fleet. Once we are caught up, the final major battle of the Greco-Persian wars is described.

With the victories of 479 BC Herodotus now begins to wrap up his histories by talking about following on operations in the Aegean and Hellespont which will open up a whole new story, but it will be Thucydides that will take up the narrative from here.

Herodotus ends the Histories back in Persia after having described some intrigue back in the Persian court, he then turns back to Cyrus the Great and the advice he gives when having established his empire; “Soft places tend to produce soft men”.[17] 


Let’s now turn to how he went about collecting and putting together the topics found throughout these nine books of his histories.

Sources and Method:       

Today when collecting information, we have many avenues open to us for piecing together a historical narrative. We created institutions that collect various forms of knowledge in a central point to be accessed by the public, with libraries existing in just about every city and town. Our tradition of the library is often looked back to the creation of the library of Alexandria founded in the 3rd century BC. Not to mention the institution of schools and Universities that have formalised the use of information and its recording. From here we have access to a preponderance of sources that have been researched and written by authors from all around the world and going back some 2500 years. In our computer age this access of information has reached new heights with it being cheaper and faster to access all sorts of knowledge without even having to leave our homes. We can search and write on a topic being able to present a generally factual account without even having to have visited places or talked to people linked to it. The 2500 years that history has developed over, has provided us a reliable guide on how to ensure we recognise, collect and use credible information. 

In ancient times things were quite different, we having already touched on the fact that the writing of an enquiry into the past, or a history, was a relatively new way of recording knowledge. Due to this no formalised method had been developed to constitute what was an acceptable and creditable beyond the writers own judgement. 

In Herodotus’ days, the level of literacy would have been very low when compare to today, with mostly only citizens of a polis and predominately only the upper classes educated in the use of letters and numbers. Given this, the access to and ability to refer to written sources that we take for granted today would have been a luxury in Herodotus’ time. Even if you were lucky enough to have been educated your access to knowledge on particular topics would have been very limited.

Because to this level of literacy and access to written records, the past had been transmitted to the succeeding generations orally. These stories we now see as mythology, which recorded great events and exploits of individuals in the distant past. Since these tales were not written down but past on orally, they would need to remain memorable to ensure they would survive that passage of time. With each generation details within the stories would evolve making them more relevant to the new audience, therefor remaining memorable, though at the heart would be a remembered past to a time long ago. 

This then brings us to Herodotus and the sources he would use to present his histories; he was living in a period that was on the cusp of a shift in understanding of how the past was remembered and how information was presented. He would make use of the tradition of myth and folklore from many cultures, but he was also using other methods to collect his information.

Herodotus’ sources:   


In Herodotus’ time a new method for recording knowledge had begun to take shape which he would be able to have access to. Writers were now starting to use what was known as prose to record information rather than verse, which had been used to chronicle the times of the mythic past. This relatively new shift was an effort in attempting to understand the cosmos and the world around them in more direct terms. It isn’t thought that what had come earlier was anything like what Herodotus would produce but he may well have built upon the methods and even used some as source material for his research. Most of these early prose writers’ works only survive in fragments or we are only aware of them due to references from later writers. They also seem to have first emerged in the Greek cities of Asia Minor or the nearby islands. This we saw earlier in the series was where an intellectual revolution seems to have begun as the dark ages disappeared and the Archaic Age advanced on. It must also be noted that it isn’t entirely clear when some of these early writers lived, with some possibly coming after Herodotus. Though, one such early writer that we are almost certain influenced Herodotus was that of Hecataeus of Miletus. Hecataeus is thought to have been born around 560 BC and apart of the nobility within Miletus. Not much else is known about his life, but he would produce works looking at the customs of peoples around the Mediterranean and would look into the various hero genealogies in an attempt to bring order to them. We know Herodotus was well aware of him as he makes reference to him during his histories. He would have Hecataeus step forward on the eve of the Ionian revolt to warn against taking this action against Persia.[18] When Herodotus delves into the customs of various peoples, it is thought he was drawing on the example set by Hecataeus when surveying various peoples and may have even drawn upon his writings. 

As I said there are also a few other writers we are aware of who produced works of prose but we can’t be certain of when they were writing. Also, we really only have who they were and the titles of their works without knowing much else about what was within the works. But these can perhaps give us an indication what sort of written Greek sources Herodotus may have had access to. These writers would include; Dionysius of Miletus who wrote Persian Matters; Xanthus of Lydia who wrote Lydian matters; Charon of Lampsacus who wrote works on Ethiopia, Persia and the founding of various cities. Lastly we have Hellanicus of Lesbos who wrote a numbers of works with such subjects focusing on the local history of Athens, customs of the barbarians, The Lydians, the Egyptians and Persians. But again we have no indication how much Herodotus drew on these accounts, if at all. Though, we can see people were active in trying to understand the world around them and a number of topics Herodotus would cover may well have been written about before he embarked on his life’s work.   


So, far we have looked at written sources in the form of Prose, but there was also a very strong poetic tradition in Greece and what had been the dominate method for passing down information or at least the ideas and sentiments of past events. Herodotus may have drawn upon these to help gather information on the actual events or the feeling society held towards the events. When it comes to the main subject of his work, the Greek and Persian Wars, we have a few examples that were in existence before his writing of the Histories. 

Aeschylus, we have met before, he was a play write and wrote the play, Persians in 472BC, which told of events during the battle of Salamis through the Persian eyes. The setting of the play is at the Persian court where a messenger travelling back from Greece gives an account of the battle. 

Phrynichus was also an ancient play write who had written a work title, Fall of Miletus, which was in reference to the recapture of the city ending the Ionian revolt. In his works Herodotus directly makes reference to this play he says;

“…when Phrynichus produced his play, the capture of Miletus, the audience in the theatre burst into tears. The author was fined a thousand drachmas for reminding them of their own evils, and they forbade anybody ever to put the play on stage again”.[19]

The last possible poetic source I will mention that Herootus may have called on was that of Semonides who was credited with a number of epitaphs after the Greco-Persian wars. He also wrote some longer works that focused on the battles of Salamis, Artemisium and Plataea.

But, like I said we have very little idea of how much he drew upon these poets and play writes, but from his own writings we know he was well aware of them and their works since he doses talk about them. Though, his mentioning of them seems to be more around their own lives and what they were doing, rather than on what they presented within their works. 


Own experiences:

So, we have covered some of the written sources Herodotus would have had access to when compiling his research. We will look at another written source when I get to a specific example, when it came to Egypt. But let’s now turn to a method Herodotus seems to have preferred using and one that would yield a number of fantastic stories. This was drawing on his own experiences such as observations he made and enquiries he conducted. Then he would usually give us his opinions or judgments on what he reported.

Obviously, he would have used different methods of doing this depending on what he was dealing with at the time. He would not be able to witness for himself pass events. He would give firsthand accounts of what he saw when it came the geography, buildings, monuments and customs of places he had visited. Though when looking at past events he would rely on speaking with people who had possibly witnessed them or others who the story had been passed onto. It’s also likely the customs of people may have to some degree fallen under this method also. It’s also clear he had made attempts to speak with multiple people or authorities on particular subjects as we do find him presenting multiple accounts on an event or a figure, such as when he describes the outcome of Ephialtes after the battle of Thermopylae.[20] On the other hand Herodotus also tells us that he had heard multiple accounts but decides to tell us the one he found most believable, such as the rise of the Persian Empire and the early history of its founder Cyrus the Great.[21]

Not only would Herodotus give us his version of events but we also see him reporting what information is said by certain people or authorities, almost as if he is allowing particular places or people putting their own arguments forward on a topic. For example we often see him saying, The Persians report or the Egyptians report. To finish up I want to turn to an example where we can see all of his methods at work plus some overlap from some of them.

Sources in Egypt: 

One place Herodotus travelled to and spent time at, was that of Egypt. He devotes a large portion of his Histories to Egypt, with it encompassing all of book 2. From his writing it appears he was very enamoured with lands around the Nile and its people, though he would have been well aware that the Greeks who he was writing for had a huge fascination with this ancient culture also.

When in Egypt we can see from his works that a range of methods were used to gather information on the various subjects he would report on. When it came to the geography and matters of the Nile he had used his own observations and perhaps some other accounts. His description of the flow of the Nile is not accurate and seems to be bourn out of his own judgements rather than the Egyptians themselves, as one would think they would have been well aware of the characteristics of the Nile since their civilisation was born out of it and their prosperity depended on knowing it intimately. There is also one strange example when commenting on the animals of Egypt where it looks as though he had not seen the animal for himself, but rather made a description of it based off of the Greek name for it as well as some vague descriptions he may have heard. This is on the Hippopotamus, which basically translates to “river horse”. Herodotus describes it as such;

“…it has four feet with cloven hooves like an Ox, a blunt snout, a mane like a horse, conspicuous tusks, and a horse’s tail. It neighs. It is the size of the largest Ox, and its hide is so thick that once it is dried, spear shafts are crafted from it”.[22]

With other examples it is clear he is reporting from his enquires as he also describes animals that he wouldn’t have seen since they are mythical, such as the phoenix and flying snakes. Though he dose tell us pretty much everything to do with the geography, customs and animals he reports has been as a result of his own observations, judgments and research. What research is meant to mean we arnt too sure but I feel there was enquiring with the Egyptians themselves involved.

 It’s also likely he used both his own observations and enquiries with Egyptian authorities when it came to Egyptian customs, he would have seen for himself how these unfolded, though this would have only been a snap shot of it visit and would have been lacking much context. Though, his enquires would have revealed perhaps a deeper understanding, though, with what he reports he seems to mix both of these methods of source gathering to arrive at what would be told in the Histories. Some elements he seems to have noticed similarities to Greek culture and assumed this is the origin of certain aspects of the Greeks culture, such as religion and pantheon of gods. Other aspects he reports as being completely back to front compared to the normal or Greek way, these I think is us seeing his own observations at work. Observing the society and culture without having an understanding of the context, he only gets a superficial glimpse during his time there. 

As for the authorities he enquired with when in Egypt, he makes it clear that this was the priestly cast. We will look at aspects around this when it comes to looking at his reliability in our next episode. But for now, we can see two methods for gathering his information in respects to enquiring with them. This takes part in the last half of book two where he reports the history of Egypt, he tells us he is going to report the words of the Egyptians as he heard them, though he will also add some of his own observations in too.[23] We are aware that the Egyptians kept records on papyrus as well as on monuments, which were referred to when giving Herodotus information on their early histories. So here we can see written records at play but Herodotus having to enquire into them through the Egyptian priests. We have no evidence that he knew any other language other than that of Greek, so an interpreter would have been needed to make use of the written records. Herodotus left to accept what he was told to be a genuine account of what they said.

Anyway I didn’t want to get to deep into the Egyptian account just yet, as next episode we will be exploring it some more when looking at questions behind Herodotus reliability and critisms laid at him. Here I wanted to mostly highlight that types of methods and sources he had access to when collecting his information.


Now that we have a basic understanding of who Herodotus was, what his aims were in compiling his histories, the topics and areas his histories would cover and how he set about collecting his sources. We will move on looking at some themes around his work next episode. Like I said I want to look at areas that question him as being a reliable historian and the popular notion that flips the Farther of History title on its head, the father of lies. I’m also going to look at one of the fiercest work of criticisms against him in the form of Plutarch’s work, the Malice of Herodotus. But I think ultimately I’m going to show how Herodotus still remains extremely important to us today and our development of history. He was doing something quite different for his times, even though there were writers who had written on areas we could class as geography or ethnography. Herodotus seems to be the first to have woven all these elements as well as myth and folklore into an enquiry of the past with the aim of understanding it.   

[1] Herodotus, Proem
[4] Herodotus, The Histories, Penguin Classics, John Marincola, introduction.
[5] Herodotus, Proem
[6] Herodotus, Book 3
[7] Herodotus, Book 4.1 - 82
[8] Herodotus 1.5
[9] Herodotus 1.1 – 1.216
[10] Herodotus 2.1 – 2.185
[11] Herodotus 3.1 – 3.160
[12] Herodotus 4.1 – 4.205
[13] Herodotus 5.1 - 126
[14] Herodotus 6.1 – 6.140
[15] Herodotus 7.1 – 7.239
[16] Herodotus 8.1 – 8.144
[17] Herodotus 9.1 – 9.122
[18] Herodotus 5.36
[19] Herodotus 6.21
[20] Herodotus 7.213-214
[21] Herodotus 1.95
[22] Herodotus 2.71
[23] Herodotus 2.99