Casting Through Ancient Greece

37: Herodotus, The Father of Lies

August 27, 2021 Mark Selleck Season 1 Episode 37
Casting Through Ancient Greece
37: Herodotus, The Father of Lies
Show Notes Transcript

Herodotus; The Father of Lies.

“Because it is simple and lacking in effort and easily runs over events, has thoroughly deceived many people” (Plutarch, on the Malice of Herodotus)

Plutarch would be but one historian to level criticisms at Herodotus from the ancient past all the way through to our times. Often, we see the common title given to Herodotus, the Father of History turned on its head to, Herodotus, the Father of Lies, due to his willingness to include strange and wonderful tales. 

We will look at a number of aspects that have been used to criticise Herodotus over the ages, with us beginning with the sources he used, were they to be trusted in themselves. As we will discover there is no easy answer to this since Herodotus’ sources would be wide ranging.

Next, we will then turn to the reliability of Herodotus’ reporting of his sources and other various means of collecting information. Once again, we will explore some examples and see the challenge before him with such a diverse range of sources to make sense of subjects.  

Herodotus would also be the target of click bait articles and online forums in our time. Though, we will see often these arguments misrepresent him and miss what Herodotus even tells us in his accounts. We will look at examples involving gold digging ants, Cyclopes’ stealing gold from griffins and the millions of Persians at Thermopylae. 

One thing I tell people to keep in mind when reading Herodotus, Herodotus wasn’t attempting to invent history. This was a title later ascribed to him because of the novel way he was presenting information in his time. Herodotus may well be the father of history, but like a child history would grow and mature over time, becoming what it is today. 

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Todays book recommendation is A Commentary on Herodotus: Vol 1 & Vol 2

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Episode 37

Herodotus: The Father of Lies?

“The style of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, my dear Alexander, because it is simple and lacking in effort and easily runs over events, has thoroughly deceived many people. And more people have experienced this with his character. For not only is it, as Plato says, the greatest injustice to appear just when one is not, it is also an act of the greatest malice to mimic a good nature and simplicity in a way that is hard to detect”.[1] 

The opening of Plutarch’s, On the Malice of Herodotus


Hello I’m Mark Selleck and welcome back to Casting Through Ancient Greece, episode 37, Herodotus, The Father of Lies?

Last episode we turned to Herodotus and looked at who he was, even though there is very little reliable information on him. As we saw he was more interested in talking about people, places and events rather than himself. Forming a biography of him was left to others, who have looked in his work to draw out a profile of who he was. Some information from doing this is forming assumptions while others seem a little more certain. It was difficult to tell if what we know about him was invented from things within his histories such as his exile on Samos, due to him seeming to have a good knowledge of the island and being quite partial to the place. Or had his real-life experience and exile shaped his opinion of the Island. But never the less we were able to get a basic picture of the man who would offer us one of the earliest histories in the western world.  

We also looked at what his work the Histories encompassed. Often, we are told that he presents the history of the Greek and Persian Wars. but he presents a whole lot more, which has helped us understand the early history of some Greek city states, such as Athens and Sparta. While he sets out on his mission to understand why war occurred between the Greeks and Persians. Along the way we are also presented many peoples, that the Greeks saw as barbarians, were we are told of their interesting customs and traditions. These usually coming up in Herodotus’ frequent digressions. We then finished off looking at the various sources Herodotus was making use of as he researched his Histories, whether it be existing written accounts, prose or poetic, enquiries with local populations or authorities, and his preferred method his own observations.

For this episode we are going to turn to questions surrounding Herodotus’ reliability. As we saw last time he had various source methods to make use of, but how reliable was the information he was receiving. Also, another question was, how reliable was his interpretation of the information. We will also look at the criticisms that have been levelled at him over the ages, which seemed to have started with his successor in the field of history Thucydides. These criticisms would often be summed up in the alternative title given to him, the father of lies. This would mostly come out of his inclusion of legends and fanciful accounts, though as we will see some not as fanciful as they may appear on the surface. As we will also see, he would often be misrepresented on these tales that he would report. 

While looking at his critics we will take a look at one of the harshest criticisms written about Herodotus and his work, On the malice of Herodotus written by the biographer Plutarch. This work looks at accusing Herodotus of all sorts of prejudices and misrepresentations. But we will also look at how seriously we can take Plutarch’s arguments. But let us now continue on with this episode where will be looking at the challenges to the authority of Herodotus and his credibility.

Reliability of Sources:

An area that seems to gather a fair bit of attention when it comes to Herodotus’ reliability is the sources he used or lack thereof. We also need to try not to fall into the trap of imposing our time period onto Herodotus. It would have been much more difficult to obtain certain sources, while he would also need to travel hundreds of kilometres to places to make his own observations and enquire with the population. Today, for us most of this information is at the tip of our finger tips, on our phones and computers. Last episode we looked at the various sources that Herodotus had used and some that he would have had access to, to compile his histories. These sources generally covered three areas and had involved written works, both prose and poetic, his own observations and his enquires with local populations or authorities. So, lets break these down into the three groups and look at the question of reliability concerning each. 

1.      Written (Prose & Poetic)

When it comes to written sources, we can break these into two parts, Prose and Poetic. As we saw last episode it is even hard for us to say with any certainty what accounts Herodotus had made use of. When it comes to prose, we don’t even have the originals of what may have existed when Herodotus was writing, this making it impossible for us to judge their reliability. Though, with prose writers emerging around this period, having access to works where writers were actively trying to understand the world around them would have been a step in the right direction. For the most part they would have been trying to present their understanding of the world, not trying to deceive. But ultimately due to use not having access to their works we are not able to assess the reliability of what they reported.

When it comes to poetic works, again we are unsure how much Herodotus made use of them but last episode we saw he, at least was aware of them. By their nature they are not interested in trying to be factual but instead are looking to celebrate people or an event. Most of these works would have been commissioned by someone of wealth or a city state. For this reason, we can see that a bias is going to develop to favour the interest of the patron. Or in some cases the poet or play write would present their work in favour of a party they were seeking to gain favour from. What these works can be helpful in though, is getting across the themes and sentiments of what can be found in the poem. When these works looked at their subject, they were on the zoomed-out scale somewhat factual. For example, Aesculus’ play, Persians, looked at the Greek victory at Salamis, though told through the Persian eyes. The Greeks did in fact win a victory at Salamis but many of the details in the play are inserted for dramatic purposes, for example Darius’ ghost talking with the Queen, Atossa.[2] Aesculus’ was present at the battle of Salamis so was able to inject some of atmosphere he experienced, but he would not have been aware of everything going on during the battle and especially not what was taking place back in the Persian royal court. 

We also find something similar when looking at Simonides, his works were written to celebrate the Greek victories in a number of battles during the war. Again, what is important from the historian’s perspective is not the details but the sentiments and how the victor saw their achievements. Using the details within to draw out a historical account would be very much at the historian’s peril. When it comes to his epitaphs, these are once again celebrating a city states victory or sacrifice. At Thermopylae, its reported that Simonides was commissioned by the Spartans to honour their dead at the site. He would write an epitaph that was carved into a stone tablet that would have been visable to those travelling near the site. The original stone has been long gone from the site but a replacement was erected in 1955, Herodotus reports the original saying. “O stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here, obedient to their words”.”[3] So, this shows us that the Spartans were responsible for what was said, but the idea that is presented, is that who ever was passing by would need to report to the Spartans the sacrifice their men had made fulfilling their laws as no one was left to bring the news. This is to highlight the Spartans devotion to the laws of their society and their reputation for self-sacrifice for Sparta. Though, from Herodotus we are aware of at least two Spartans who had survived the battle at Thermopylae, Aristodemus and Pantites.[4]  Again, the purpose of the epitaph was to honour the Spartan dead, they had in fact fallen in defence of Sparta, but we are aware that word of the defeat could be taken back to Sparta.

Another epitaph Simonides is credited with it that of the one erected at Marathon on the tomb of the Athenians. This read “Fighting at the forefront of the Greeks, the Athenians laid low the gilded Medes”. This would have also been commissioned by the victors, the Athenians, but it does ignore that the polis of Plataea had also fought against the Persians. Though, the point with most poetic works is not to tell the a factual account but to honour a city or people in their role in a historic event.


2.      Enquires

Last episode we saw that Herodotus inquired into many matters that he covers in his Histories. He did this when gathering his information on matters regarding Egyptian history and Persian history to name but a couple. When making these inquires, he would have been talking with perhaps a local contact or authority familiar with whatever subject he was looking into. As for how reliable the sources of his inquiries were is very difficult to say as they would have varied and surly he would have spoken to sources that would have been more credible than others. It also seems that he reports a general feeling of what a certain people thought on a particular subject. We see this at work when he uses his remarks such as, the Persians say or this is said by the Athenians. From this it is nearly impossible to work out who he actually spoke to, but it may be more of a collective view of the population that he had been inquiring into. Like in our times where nations hold certain ideas and beliefs supporting their own interests, but ignoring any contra evidence.

For example, when Herodotus talks of the reasons of possible animosity between Sparta and Samos he uses the phases “The Spartans say” and “the Samians say” to give the general view of each cities view point of events. This revolved around the theft of a large bronze bowl that Sparta has sent as a gift to Croesus in 548 BC. Apparently when their ship was off of the coast of Samos they were attacked and the bowl stolen according to what Herodotus reports the Spartans saying. While the Samians also had their take on events with Herodotus telling us what the Samains said. Their version has the Spartans arriving too late to deliver the gift to Croesus, the Persians having defeated the Lydian Empire. The Spartans then landed on Samos and sold the bowl there before sailing home and reporting it had been stolen. With both versions that Herodotus reports, it can be seen that they could both be possibly true. It also highlights Herodotus’ intent into inquiring into matters as he has been able to obtain two sides to the one story.[5]

Another example where he uses this collective notion when reporting on events, is when he talks about Cambyses behaviour in Egypt. Basically, Cambyses is seen to have committed atrocious acts against the Egyptians, which were religious in nature, such as the killing of the scared Apis calf.[6] From much of Herodotus’ reporting that includes what the Egyptians said, it seems to be coming from the priestly cast, as they seemed to have been his main official source. It is thought that with the Persian takeover of Egypt the Priestly cast had lost some influence which affected them socially and financially. This could have then led to them presenting their own versions of events to highlight someone they were hostile toward possibly clouding the reality around events.    

Also, we are unsure of how all of the information was collected on the Persian Empire by Herodotus, but it would be fairly safe to assume he would have had to have made many enquires to gain an understanding of a number of the administrative functions of the empire. For the most part, he gives a pretty good account of these many areas from the point of view of our times and understanding. Which indicates he may have had access to a good number of official sources. We also see the same occurring when he explains the mummification process in Egypt which still holds up well to our current understanding. This showing that amongst his many sources, we can confirm that Herodotus was able to connect with reliable contacts on various occasions. But was still at the mercy with those with an altera motive.

So, as we can see when it came to Herodotus’ direct inquiries, we find ourselves with probably somewhat of a mixed bag of reliable sources and some not so much. Though, we can also see him attempting to use multiple lines of inquiries on particular subjects which go some way into him seeking out a way to mitigate questionable accounts he received and for him to reach some sort of understanding on what he was presenting.   


Next, we have the reliability of his own observations. As we saw this was one of Herodotus preferred ways of gathering his information. During his travels he would observe different cultures, geography, monuments and animals. On the question of his reliably here, it really comes down to how he interpreted what he saw. When it came to cultural matters, he appears to be on much firmer ground the closer a culture was to the Greeks. After all he was a Greek and was apart of Greek culture, it would make sense that he would be looking at others through the prism of his own culture. Though he does seem to understand the concept that what appears normal to one group seems completely foreign to another. This he brings up when talking of Cambyses willingness to mock Egyptian customs as they seemed silly compared to his own. Herodotus then relates the following story to highlight the importance of customs to people while also seeming strange to others,

“During his reign, Darius summoned some Indians called Kallatiai, who do eat their dead parents. In the presence of the Hellenes, with an interpreter to inform them of what he said, he asked the Indians how much money they would accept to burn the bodies of their dead fathers. They responded with an outcry, ordering him to shut his mouth lest he offends the gods. Well then, that is how people think, and so it seems to me that Pindar was right when he said in his poetry that custom is king of all.”[7]

When it came to his observations on the physical word he seems to be fairly reliable with his own observations except on a few occasions. This occurs with the example we have spoken about before on his observation of the hippopotamus and another where he talks about going to Elephantine on the Nile.[8] In both of these examples it would seem that he had not even observed the hippopotamus or had seen Elephantine for himself. It is very difficult to believe he had seen a hippopotamus for himself based on the description he gives.[9] As for travelling to Elephantine, he had just finished giving a bizarre account of the source of the Nile which involved the region. If he had actually travelled there he would have seen the account he gave on the source of the Nile to be untrue.[10] He had earlier said that he had been told of the sources of the Nile by an Egyptian scribe but if he had been their he would have been able to report the falsity of the information.[11]   

All in all, Herodotus himself seemed intent on trying to obtain what sources he could on particular subjects and then attempt to sort out what seemed plausible. We see on a number of occasions where he has judged the reliability of the sources he had obtained. Such as with Cyrus’ birth story where he says he will tell us the most believable account he had heard.[12] Again, source gathering in his day would have been much more of a challenge than today. When travelling to other lands he would have had to seek out what he could and would have probably been subjected to official lines of information, which in themselves were more interested in presenting a certain point of view rather than facts. His journey to Egypt and his time with the priests there potentially highlight this.[13] 

Reliability of Reporting:

So, we have looked at the question on the reliability of Herodotus’ sources, but what about what he reports. Some have suggested that he may have invented some of his stories or at least taken short cuts. This often being highlighted through his willingness to include folklore and tales, as well as getting facts completely wrong, such as some things he reports from Egypt that we have already covered. Though, what this tends to ignore is the number of things in his account that had long been thought false but have since been vindicated. 

Much of his reporting on the workings of the Persian Empire had been questioned on their accuracy but with the discovery in the 1930’s of what is called the Persian fortification tablets and the more recent efforts in publishing them, we were able to get a view from the Persian themselves on how they administered the Empire. These tablets refer to a 50-year period in Persian history, much of it during Herodotus time. What these texts have done, is shown that Herodotus actually had a pretty good understanding of the general workings of the empire. In hindsight it may not seem this to be too surprising, he was a Greek, though he was born and grew up in an environment under Persian control, putting him in a position to be more aware of the systems his city of Halicarnassus was a part of.

Another example of this was in a more recent discovery, this time on his observation of the building of Egyptian freight ships that were used on the Nile.[14] His description of the boats and construction had been questioned since no evidence of one had been found. I also get the impression many are willing to dismiss a lot of what Herodotus report when it can’t be confirmed against something else even when he goes into detail, due to his more fantastic tales that he is willing to report. The possibility of what he reports isn’t even entertained, in their eyes it is tarnished by everything else he says. Anyway, in the last 10 years a wreck discovered in the Nile delta of a ship dating to the time Herodotus reports on was uncovered that seem to match the same construction method given by him, previously unseen in any past discoveries. 

At the end of the day, within Herodotus there are elements that are not factual or have been embellished to some degree. After all he was presenting a work that was intended to stay memorable in a time where only a small fraction of the public was literate. His histories would have been presented orally to most. I think on the whole, Herodotus’ reliability in his reporting is shaped very much by the sources he collected. He intended to present what he found out on his subjects; we even find him saying he doesn’t believe some but he still tells us what they said. Though in some cases it would appear he was willing to take short cuts with some information, I keep going back to the Hippopotamus, but it really seems like he is just writing based on the description the name gives or has lifted his description from someone else work. Though, I think we would find just about all writers from all times in history have taken short cuts somewhere.

I Thought we could now continue with questions on his reliability but from the point of view of the main criticisms that have been levelled at Herodotus over time. We will also look a little deeper into some of the examples that perhaps might answer some of his critics.


Critics and Criticisms:

Throughout history Herodotus has had his critics these ranging from other ancient historians and writers, down to history buffs posting their opinions online in our times. Though I think much of the criticisms either misunderstand what Herodotus was trying to achieve, applying their own concept of history to what he reports. Or, they look at specific examples of what he says in isolation and let this influence their opinion on his entire work, a bit of the throwing the baby out with the bath water concept.


Thucydides would say in his work on the Peloponnesians war when outlining his objectives;

“The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time”.[15]

Now, Thucydides doesn’t refer to Herodotus directly in this passage but it is thought that it was the Histories that he had in mind when writing these words. He had seen what came before him as mere stories to capture people’s imagination. Perhaps to some degree he was right, Herodotus is not shy in recounting the strange stories he heard, which he would have surly known to capture people’s attention. Though, as we have seen through our time with Herodotus in the series so far, he is extremely valuable in our understanding of the Greek and Persian wars, as well as events leading up to them. It is obvious that both Herodotus’ and Thucydides’ approach to writing were quite different, but they seemed to have the same general objective in mind. Maybe Thucydides’ was well aware of this last point as he pretty much picks up events from where Herodotus left them. He makes references to the Persian wars, but is always presenting ways to show how they paled in comparison to his subject of the Peloponnesian war. Though, we see in one of the speeches he puts into the mouth of an Athenian envoy to Sparta, that the topic of the Greek and Persian wars has been covered well enough already, though in a dismissive tone; 

“But to the Persian wars and contempory history we must refer, although we are rather tired of continually bringing this subject forward”.[16]

Though ultimately, he seems to have misjudged the Histories, as Herodotus’ work would not just win the applause of the moments but it would become a possession for all time.


Over time many have been quick to dismiss what he says due to some of his accounts being to fantastical. Though, some areas that have been singled out have either had explanations to show Herodotus was reporting in good faith or his accounts have been vindicated closer to our times.

On the other spectrum we have Aristotle criticising Herodotus due to his moving away from poetics and framing the world and events around a logos. This Aristotle saw as inferior to making philosophical arguments and points, seeing poetry of more worth than history.[17] Though, his criticism can be seen as him defending the worth of poets such as Homer who Herodotus in the beginning of the histories dismisses in favour of perusing events that can be corroborated. We do see Herodotus delving into Philosophy, perhaps not in factual accounts, but using factual events and inserting dialogue between 2 historical figures such as his treatment of the notion of happiness where he has Solon and Croesus engaging in conversation during Solons travels.[18]  


When looking at Herodotus’ critics we can’t go past Plutarch and his essay titled the malice of Herodotus. When reading this essay, it is hard to tell if this is a serious attempt at discrediting Herodotus as it just jumps from one point to another with no rest. Plutarch seems to pick on just about everything Herodotus brings up and how he presents it. He accuses him of being slanderous, spiteful, malicious and being a lover of the barbarian. I think we will pick out a couple of points to look at, as there is so much within his essay. I think focusing on his work would make an excellent bonus episode down the track.

As we have brought up before Plutarch was writing some 600 years after Herodotus, and what this essay perhaps shows us, is that Herodotus was just as popular with his account in Plutarch’s time. We see the same in our time, Herodotus being the number one go to source on the Greek and Persian Wars, but many feel the need to discredit him. Also, often people’s opinions and reasons for finding faut come from their own biases and the conditions of the world around them. Plutarch was born in Boeotia, the same region the city state of Thebes was in. Herodotus had treated Thebes somewhat harshly in his histories, where we have pointed out some reasoning for their actions throughout the series. Though, Plutarch takes things to a whole new level where he almost argues Thebes can do no wrong. We also see this continue to many other city states when Herodotus would highlight the Persians achievements, Plutarch can’t seem to handle the Greek city states being shown in a lesser light. This is one area many have praised Herodotus, his ability to be less xenophobic than most other Greek writers. 

Throughout his essay, Plutarch will criticise Herodotus and then point to some other story to try and set the record straight. Though, on many of these attempts we still find ourselves with no good reason to take his view on an event. Often, he will use an account that no longer exists, is of a dubious nature or it isn’t even clear where he is drawing on. An example I found that seem to stick out was on his criticism of the final days fighting at Thermopylae. Herodotus and what seems to be the most accepted version of events, has the Greeks engaging the Persians outside of the pass, then falling back within, where they mount their last stand once surrounded. But Plutarch seems to go with a very similar account to that given by Justin and Diodorus Sicilus who was born just over a hundred years earlier than Plutarch; Plutarch writes;

“In his narrative of the battle Herodotus has obscured Leonidas’ great accomplishment, saying that all fell there in the narrows by the hill. But it happened otherwise. When they perceived during the night that the enemy was encircling them, they rose up and made for the camp and nearly reached the kings tent, intending to kill the king himself or die in the attempt. They slaughtered everyone whom they met as far as the tent and caused the rest to retreat as they went forward. But Xerxes was not found, and inasmuch as they were looking for him in a great and immense army and were wandering about, still it was only with great difficulty that the barbarians slew them when they had surrounded them from every side”.[19]  

Here we can see Plutarch once again attempting to diminish the Persians at Thermopylae, even Herodotus was accused of this but in Plutarch’s eyes not enough. The sources he appears to have used both would have been fairly recent accounts in Plutarch’s time, so could well have been the popular telling of the period. Though, most modern historians tend to question Diodourus’ account of battles, with it not always apparent where he got them from. In this case it is thought he used an account by Ephorus born in 400 BC, though he has also been criticised on his accounts of battles. Polybius being one, commenting on his ignorance of the nature of land operations and that when attempting to provide detail rather than general descriptions the errors are apparent.[20]  

So, there we have a quick look at the Malice on Herodotus, like I said I feel like I will do something more on this essay in a bonus episode down the track where I can explore it further. It is also worth noting that it has been proposed that Plutarch’s essay was an exercise in playing devils advocate on such a popular work and seeing what he could get away with. He may not have believed all the points he makes, though it does come through that he is annoyed at Thebes relegation in Herodotus’ account. Anyway, I would encourage those of you who are interested to check out what Plutarch writes in his essay and see what you think. I will provide a link to where you can find the online version on the episode page on the website.       

General Criticisms 

So, there we have a few of the heavy hitters of ancient times that have levelled criticisms at Herodotus. Now, I want to turn to some more general criticism that are often brought up against Herodotus. These I see from time to time in blogs, articles in magazines and dotted throughout social media. Again one thing I have seen in common with these is that they focus on a tale that Herodotus reports and then from the perspective of that they dismiss the rest of Herodotus in passing. Imagine if we dismissed Herodotus, it would be like turning off the light switch on our understanding of the Greek and Persian wars as well as events around them.

What I want to do here is focus on three main examples that are usually picked to discredit Herodotus, which tend to focus around the idea, how could a serious historian be so willing to engage in fantastical tales.

The first focuses on a story Herodotus gives on giant ants that dig up gold. He says;

“…there are Indians of another tribe, who border on the city of Caspatyrus, and the country of Pactyica; these people dwell northward of all the rest of the Indians, and follow nearly the same mode of life as the Bactrians. They are more warlike than any of the other tribes, and from them the men are sent forth who go to procure the gold. For it is in this part of India that the sandy desert lies. Here, in this desert, there live amid the sand great ants, in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes. The Persian king has a number of them, which have been caught by the hunters in the land whereof we are speaking. Those ants make their dwellings underground, and like the Greek ants, which they very much resemble in shape, throw up sand heaps as they burrow.[21] 

He then continues after giving some strange characteristics of their camels.

“When the Indians reach the place where the gold is, they fill their bags with the sand, and ride away at their best speed: the ants, however, scenting them, as the Persians say, rush forth in pursuit. Now these animals are, they declare, so swift, that there is nothing in the world like them: if it were not, therefore, that the Indians get a start while the ants are mustering, not a single gold-gatherer could escape.”[22]

Ok, so on the surface of it, it looks like what Herodotus is reporting is a bit out there. Though, with a lot of tales and myth a kernel of truth can usually be found, Chinese whispers or misunderstanding can often distort the details. First of all we need to see from what Herodotus writes is that he dosnt say he witnessed these ants, his account makes it clear that he is reporting what he heard from the Persians. This is a key point overlooked when trying to paint Herodotus in a bad light. But, thanks to the explorer Michel Peissel we may have an explanation for the tale Herodotus recounts.

Peissel travelled to a region known as the Dansar Plain on the Pakistani side of the Pakistan – Indian boarder. He had heard stories that seem awfully close to what Herodotus describes, though he wanted to check them out for himself, a step further than Herodotus. The places Herodotus names are not known for sure, but are often thought to be in or near the Dansar region. What Peissel found, was that there were burrows throughout the region that the locals would go and collect gold dust from the mounds that had been dug out. Though, these weren’t ants that dug these burrows they were Marmots, large rodents about the size of a possum. The confusion with the ants Herodotus reports maybe in a misinterpretation of the ancient Persian word for a Marmot, remember these would have been new creatures to them also only learning of them when their empire reached this far east. The ancient Persian word roughly translates to “Mountain Mouse Ant”. I think this can help us understand the story Herodotus gives with the added knowledge he was reporting what was said to him. I think It is fairly safe to say he wasn’t completely inventing the story as some have claimed, the details had just become garbled.

Next, I want to move onto another story which also revolves around the collection of gold. I have often seen it used as an example of completely dismissing Herodotus as a historian. I will share one comment I saw on social media a while ago that sums up the general feeling I see when criticising Herodotus. “How can we even take Herodotus seriously; he even believes in cyclopes, and them stealing gold from Griffins’”. This leads us into his account of lands beyond Scythia and where the tale of the Griffens guarding gold comes up.

Firstly, Herodotus brings up a poem that talks of having visited lands on the fringes of the known world beyond the Scythians. This he includes in stories that he says are told by both Hellenes and Barbarians.

“This Aristeas, possessed by Apollo, visited the Issedones; beyond these (he said) live the one-eyed Arimaspians, beyond whom are the griffins that guard gold, and beyond these again the Hyperboreans, whose territory reaches to the sea.”[23]

The Issedones are a people that are thought to have lived in central Asia at the end of the trade route heading east. He also notes that the account in the poem doesn’t always align with what the Scythians report of the lands to their north. As Herodotus continues on with other stories he heard coming from the Scythians he remains sceptical of what lay beyond these Issedones

“ … but what lies north of the bald men no one can say with exact knowledge; for high and impassable mountains bar the way, and no one crosses them. These bald men say (although I do not believe them) that the mountains are inhabited by men with goats' feet, and that beyond these are men who sleep for six months of the twelve. This I cannot accept as true at all.”[24] 

He then continues;

“It is amongst the Issedones themselves that the strange tales of the distant north originate – tales of the one-eyed men and griffins which guard the gold – and the Scythians have passed them on to the rest of us…”[25]

This brings us to another failure on the part of critics, often we find they present their argument without having actually read what Herodotus says himself and then presenting an uniformed opinion that ends up having no basis on what is in the original text. All through the passages Herodotus talks about the people of eastern Scythia, he remains sceptical on all that is presented and told to him regarding the peoples that lived beyond the known world in Greek eyes. As an interesting side note, the griffins that Herodotus brings up and that are found in a number of ancient sources, not only Greek. Have been likened to fossils of pterodactyls that seem to be prevalent in the mountains in the parts of the world they talk about. So, maybe the ancients seeing these remains connected them to the griffins that appear in mythology, though what would have come first is the question, the myth or the discovery of the pterodactyls fossils.

Anyway, let’s move on with our final example, this one we have covered a little when looking at the second Persian invasion. This has to do with the numbers Herodotus reports on the size of Xerxes army. Again, we see critics scoff at the size of the forces that Herodotus gives, but here they often cite numbers of known populations after Herodotus’ time to show how preposterous his reporting is. In many of the criticisms, once again there is no attempt to understand why he came to the numbers he did, they just dismiss what he has to say. Just about everyone agrees that the numbers given are far too high, but some have sort to understand why he reported what he did. Let’s remind ourselves on what he reports.

“The number of the infantry came to 1,700,000, and that of the cavalry amounted to 80,000. But let me add also to these the Arabians who drove the camels and the Libyan who drove the chariots; altogether, they added up to 20,000 men. And so now, the numbers from the fleet combined with the land army come to a total of 2,317,610. That then, was the number of armed forces that had set out from Asia.”[26]

Herodotus then goes on to describe the forces that would be added to this, marching towards Greece. These additional forces would come from the lands the Persians were marching through and had submitted. We are told this added another 300,000 troops to Xerxes invasion. To further blow this total figure out Herodotus tells us that he estimated the support personnel that would have accompanied the army would have been almost as many again arriving at a total figure of 5,283,220. As we can see this seems impossibly large, but lets have a look at what may have led to providing figures so large.

Probably one of the most simplistic explanations that has been put forward was that this was another way of saying the size of Xerxes army was larger than anyone in Greece had ever seen. This is a very common tool when trying to convey the immense size of something, without possibly knowing the true numbers. Most writers tend to focus on the enormity of their subject wanting to stress its importance to show how critical it was. Though, I’m not sold on this point being the only explanation, I think there was more to the figures Herodotus gives. 

Another point we can perhaps be seen to explain things lays within another account he gives in the histories. He talks of spies being sent to Sardis to gather information on the Persian army. Though, during their mission they were discovered and brought before Xerxes who prevented their execution. He then ordered they be taken on a tour of all of the forces assembled to attack Greece, before releasing them.[27] If this account has some truth to it, it could be possible that an official report existed somewhere in Athens or other city states. Obviously, Xerxes motivates here would have been to show the sheer helplessness of the Greeks position before he launched his invasion. So, the numbers that the Greeks took back with them may have been a combination of their observations along with what the Persians wanted them to take back. Again, not a factual record of what was deployed, but what Xerxes wanted the Greek to believe that was coming. 

The final point I will bring up again could relate to these reports or another source Herodotus might have used when getting his figures. This time a misunderstanding in translation or mixing up titles may explain the blow out in numbers. The Persians broke their units up into commands based on a decimal system. It is then thought either Herodotus or another Greek authority mixed up two of these command structures, that of the 1000 strong chiliad command as being the 10,000 strong Myriad command. This would then therefore multiply the actual figures by ten. If this was the case this would see Herodotus’ figure of 1.7 million infantry turn into 170,000. Many have argued that even this sees the Persian army being to large, as if we look at the rest of the figures, we end up with a total force including support troops of 500,000. Though, this doesn’t have to be the only explanation, it could also be working in with the report the spies brough home. Maybe the figure we end up with here was the inflated numbers Xerxes wanted to present, the Greeks had just misinterpreted them even further. We are also left with the fact that the Greeks may have also embellished the figures to show the scale of their victory. At the end of the day, I don’t think Herodotus knowingly misrepresented the figures on such a grand level, he may have stressed the importance of the defence of Greece to a degree. But I think the main explanation of reporting such enormous figures comes from reporting the embellished, one way or another, figures that he had access to.  


We have now looked at Herodotus in his own right, we have followed along with him through our look into the Greek and Persian Wars. Looking at what he reports and what may have been behind what he says. We have now looked at who he was, what he was presenting and some of the themes around his work. We then were able to look at criticisms levelled at him and questions around his reliability. Even though I have pointed out theories and explanations around some of these points, the truth is that we are still left to our best guesses on some of these points. I think though what time has taught us with Herodotus and what he reports, is that we need to stay opened minded to what he says, he has been vindicated a number of times on things he reports that had long been though made up.

I think one of the major elements in wanting to find fault with Herodotus is based on concepts of history after Herodotus’ time all the way up to our idea of it today. We need to remember; Herodotus wasn’t working with a formed concept of what the discipline of history was. We look back to his work and see his mission into making an inquiry into the past, of a Historia, something that appears to be new in the realm of prose and logos. So, in some degree we are judging his work on ideas and concepts that would be developed over the next 2500 years after his histories. I think our biggest take away here should be that without Herodotus our knowledge of the Greek and Persian Wars and even earlier events would be severely lacking. Remember Herodotus is labelled the father of history, he is seen to have given birth to the concept. But like a child history would grow and mature as it touched on the ages that would pass by, arriving at the discipline it represents today.  

[1] Plutarch, On the malice of Herodotus, 854
[2] Aeschylus, Persians 680-840
[4] Herodotus 7.229-232
[5] Herodotus 1.70
[6] Herodotus 3.27-28
[7] Herodotus 3.38
[8] Herodotus 2.29
[9] Herodotus 2.71
[10] Herodotus 2.10 / 2.28
[11] Herodotus 2.28
[12] Herodotus 1.95
[13] Herodotus 2.99
[14] Herodotus 2.96
[15] Thucydides 1.22
[16] Thucydides 1.74
[17] Aristotle, Poetics 9
[18] Herodotus 1.29 - 33
[19] Plutarch, On the malice of Herodotus, 866A
[20] Polybius, XII, 25
[21] Herodotus 3.102
[22] Herodotus 3.105
[23] Herodotus 4.13
[24] Herodotus 4.25
[25] Herodotus 4.27
[26] Herodotus 7.184
[27] Herodotus 7.146