Herodotus and History

This week I am reading the work of Herodotus. Herodotus was, if not the world’s first true historian, then the first who’s work has come down to us. Because of this, any discussion of Herodotus must begin with the deceptively simple question, “What is history?”.

Earlier in my Great Books project I wrote about Homer’s Iliad which is a history, in a sense, of final year the Trojan War. I also wrote about the Deuteronomistic History, the seven books of the Hebrew Bible which tell the national story of the Hebrews from the time they arrived in Canaan to their conquest by Babylon. However, neither of these works are histories in the purest sense. Both were written to advance cultural and theological agendas, so their was no attempt, or even concept of, objectivity. More importantly, neither makes any attempt to explain why events happened as they did, which is the fundamental question of history. The self evident answer was that things happened because God, or the gods willed it.

We don’t know much about Herodotus’ life. It seems that he was a relatively affluent merchant from the Greek city of Halicarnassus, which was part of the Persian empire. Herodotus became fascinated with the Persian-Greek war, and event about as far removed in time for him as World War II is for us. Because his business dealings often took him to Athens and other Greek cities he had plenty of chances to listen to oral accounts of the war and interview survivors from the period. Using these sources he wrote a book which not only describes the events, as he understood them, but tried to give the context and reasons they occurred.

A Reproduction of a Persian-War Trireme [public domain via wikimedia]

Reproduction of a Persian-War Trireme [public domain via Wikimedia]

Many encyclopedia articles and other writings about Herodotus are critical of his methods. They say that he lacked objectivity and took too many accounts at face value without cross checking them, or that he failed to develop a coherent theory of the causes of the war. These criticisms would be more valid if we here talking about someone’s modern PhD History dissertation. When applied to Herodotus they fail to give him enough credit. He was not a trained historian because there were no previous historians who could have trained him. The sources he had were a mixture of hearsay and recollections by old people who would have been quite young during the war. Despite these limitations he managed to write a book which is still read, as a history text, almost sixteen centuries later.

I am particularly impressed because I am currently writing a book which includes quite a bit of history from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Thanks to the Internet I have access to many newspaper clippings, court records, and government documents from the era–none of which would have been available to Herodotus. Even so, there are gaping holes in my understanding of some of the events. Like Herodotus, I have been interviewing people who lived during that time, or even their children and grandchildren if I can find them. I find that even when the witnesses memories seem clear, they often didn’t pay attention to or never knew about things which seem critical to me. From these sources I must develop hypotheses about causes and effects and present my findings in a readable form, yet avoid opening myself to criticism for lack of objectivity or failure to meet a burden of proof. Even with all my modern technology and training as a researcher, I’m not sure I’ll be able to do as fine a job as Herodotus. Hopefully, though, studying him and the other historians on my Great Books list will inspire me to succeed.

A Note About Editions:

Herodotus only wrote one work, The History, which is made up of nine books. A fairly good English translation is available from Project Gutenberg. The first four books contain background on the Persian Empire, Egypt, and other areas of the known world. The parts which deal with Egypt, while interesting, are not considered to be very accurate. There is some question whether Herodotus ever actually went there himself. Books five through nine are the actual history of the Persian War. For college courses books five through nine are often bound together in an edition called Herodotus: The Persian War which is very readable and includes explanatory comments, but omits some passages that are not directly related to the war. I have both, and have found myself flipping back and forth as I read.


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