Histories | Study Guide

Herodotus

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Herodotus | Biography

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Early Life

Herodotus was born around 484 BCE in Halicarnassus, a city on the southwest coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Little is known of his life. The primary source for information on his life is his own work, Histories. He is also described in a much later source, the Suda, which was an encyclopedia composed in the Byzantine Empire (the remnant also called the Eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, that existed from 330–1453 CE) in the 10th century. This source was composed of earlier traditions and biographies of figures like Herodotus. It states that Herodotus was a cousin or nephew of Panyassis, a composer of epic poems on historical themes, and that he was exiled from Halicarnassus by the city's ruler, Lygdamis. Herodotus later returned to help overthrow Lygdamis, but he eventually left the city voluntarily in the face of popular criticism. These exploits of confronting and overthrowing despots are said to have informed Herodotus's love of democracy and hatred of tyranny. While the account in the Suda is the most complete biography of Herodotus that is not found in his own work, it was written around 1,500 years after his death. As a result, the extent to which these details can be trusted is unclear.

Travels and Personal Views

Much more reliable are the details that emerge from Herodotus's work, Histories. Herodotus was part of a Greek culture that spanned the coasts of Greece and Asia Minor and was in contact with various places around the Mediterranean. He wrote in the Ionic dialect of Greek and was a keen traveler, visiting many of the places he later wrote about in his history. He traveled widely in the Persian Empire. According to Histories, Herodotus visited places like Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Babylonia (in modern Iraq). He also visited Macedonia to the north of Greece, and even made his way to the northern coast of the Black Sea. The Suda records that Herodotus ended his days after traveling west, to Italy, as part of an effort to build a Greek colony in that land. Herodotus's travels, whether by ship or on land, spanned many years, some taking place during his period of exile.

Herodotus's travels were driven by his apparently boundless curiosity. Histories is a record of Herodotus's diligent work recording not only the histories of the places he visited but also their sights and sounds. One of Herodotus's notable qualities is his lack of judgment or condemnation of people his fellow Greeks thought of as "barbarians"—non-Greeks who came from cultures considered less civilized. He emerges from Histories as a person who was eager to see how other people lived. Herodotus did not only record curious things, however. His life's work—to explain the conflict between the Greeks and Persians—shows that he had an intense interest in the political affairs of his time.

Legacy

Herodotus is believed to have died between 430 and 420 BCE. Histories is his only surviving work. The Roman statesman and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE) referred to Herodotus as "The Father of History," a title that has persisted through the ages. Today, Herodotus is remembered both as the first true Western historian and as a writer of great humanity, wit, and curiosity, who documented a fascinating period of ancient history.
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