Histories | Study Guide


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Histories | Context


History in the Ancient World

Herodotus is considered the first Western historian. Histories is an entertaining mixture of many genres:

  • chronicle: record of past events
  • historical narrative: ethnography, or the study of peoples
  • travelogue: records of travel
  • geography: the study of landscape and resources
  • fable: stories intended to transmit a moral lesson

These fields of study made their way into Herodotus's "inquiries" because he found them interesting and because they seemed, to him, to tell the story he wanted to tell. Nevertheless, the work is recognized as history because it set out to answer a question about the past, and it rested on the gathering and reasoned assessment of evidence to do so. Moreover, he did this for many places, stitching together his evidence into a narrative that tells the story of a whole region, not a single person or state.

In Herodotus's time, this kind of wide-ranging "history" writing was novel. More common was the chronicle. A chronicle is simply a record of events presented in chronological sequence—in the order they happened. The chronicle was the primary means by which people recorded the things that had happened in the past. Herodotus's own research included the consultation of chronicles. Although chroniclers sometimes sought to inject lessons and interpretation in their records, this is not the primary purpose of the chronicle. Where a chronicle records, history interprets.

Another major type of historical literature common at the time was historical fiction. The great epic poems, like epic poet Homer's (c. 750 BCE) Iliad and Odyssey, were based on oral performances of poems based on events that occurred in the mythic past. The myths were often centuries old. The Iliad tells the tale of the legendary war between the Greeks and the Trojans, ending in the fall of the city of Troy. Although these epics are not histories and contain many fanciful details (in particular, gods appear as characters), Greek and later audiences considered them to be historical. Herodotus himself accepts the story of Helen of Troy in his Histories.

The theater was another place where historical events were explored and communicated. Like the works of Homer, many of these plays concerned events in the distant past. One exception was Greek dramatist Aeschylus (525–455 BCE), who wrote of the Greco-Persian Wars in his play, Persians, first performed in 472 BCE, at a time when many of those who had taken part were still alive. The primary purpose of these historical dramas and epics was to entertain and impart moral instruction.

Herodotus blazed a trail that others were soon to follow. Thucydides (460–04 BCE), an Athenian, wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War (431–04 BCE) between Athens and Sparta. He wrote his history as an attempt to record events that were occurring at the time. Like Herodotus, Thucydides attempted to gather and assess evidence impartially and record events as he saw them. Xenophon (c. 430–c. 350 BCE) was another historian to follow in Herodotus's footsteps. His great work, Anabasis, details his own adventures as part of a retreating army of Greek mercenaries after a failed attempt to place Cyrus the Younger (423–01 BCE) on the Persian throne. Xenophon also wrote an account of the great Greek philosopher Socrates's (470–399 BCE) trial, which was in 399 BCE. Beyond these contemporary examples, Herodotus set a standard of history writing in the West that was followed by many others.

The Persian Empire

Arguably the main focus in Histories is the rise of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenid dynasty (550–330 BCE). The Persians were one of several groups of Iranians, including the Medes, who settled east of the Zagros mountains in Eurasia between the 11th and 6th centuries BCE. In the mid-6th century BCE, Cyrus II, or Cyrus the Great (c. 590–29 BCE), of the Achaemenid house, united the tribes of Persia. This new unity was used to challenge the Median kings for dominance, a struggle Cyrus and the Persians won. Cyrus's expansion continued after this success, adding the lands of Babylonia and Lydia, among others. Cyrus ruled this large empire by pursuing a policy of religious tolerance. He won over the Babylonians by showing respect for their gods and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem from their Babylonian exile. Cyrus even granted the Jews a gift of money to rebuild their Jerusalem temple.

Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses II (r. 529–22 BCE), who conquered Egypt in 525 BCE. After a period of chaos at the end of Cambyses's rule, Darius I (550–486 BCE) came to the throne. Darius suppressed revolts and instituted a reorganization of the empire into a system of satrapies (provinces), which were governed and taxed according to established and codified rules. Darius launched an impressive series of military campaigns. In the east he captured parts of the Indus Valley, which were a source of great wealth to the empire. In the west he became involved in a costly war against the Greeks. The conflict began as a war of punishment. The citizens of Athens had sent help to rebels against Persian rule in Ionia. Darius crushed the rebels and hoped to do the same to Athens, but his armies were defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE.

Xerxes I (c. 519–465 BCE), son and successor of Darius I, aimed to surpass his father by crushing the Greeks. However, he suffered a series of stinging defeats and squandered the vast, expensive army he had assembled. The defeats at Salamis and Plataea in 480 and 479 BCE, respectively, were the end of Xerxes's Western ambitions and, ultimately, the height of the Achaemenid era. Xerxes was assassinated in 465 BCE and succeeded by his son, Artaxerxes I (d. 425). The later Achaemenid kings preferred enjoying the benefits of their luxurious lifestyles and overseeing the construction of fabulous palaces to raising armies and ordering conquests of foreign nations. The assassination of Xerxes began a trend of palace intrigue and plotting that caused political instability. They also found it increasingly difficult to manage their large and occasionally unruly empire. The Achaemenid empire was finally overthrown by the campaigns of Alexander the Great (356–23 BCE). The final Achaemenid ruler, Darius III (d. 330 BCE), was murdered by one of his own subjects after Alexander's victory in the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE).

The Persian Empire was vast and wealthy. It was famed for its cultural achievements, notably the lavish tombs that rulers built for themselves, with construction beginning during the ruler's lifetime. At their height, during the reign of Darius I, the Achaemenids ruled more people than any other empire in history.

Ancient Greece

The "Classical Period" in ancient Greece began around 500 BCE. The Greeks were not a united people. They shared a language but spoke different regional dialects. They lived in city-states, called poleis, that were often fiercely independent, and possessed distinct local cultures, customs, and laws. A city-state consisted of a large urban area, with the city functioning as the center of politics, government, and culture. The city ruled surrounding lands. During the classical period, the greatest of the city-states were Athens and Sparta, but others, like Corinth, Thebes, Rhodes, and Syracuse, were also powerful and influential. These Greek city-states were not confined to the region of modern Greece but were scattered across the Mediterranean, from Sicily and Italy in the west, to the western coast of modern Turkey, which the Greeks knew as Asia Minor. As this pan-Mediterranean spread suggests, the Greeks were capable sailors, and a major part of their economic activity was overseas trade.

An important aspect of the Greek city-states was their practice of a democratic form of government. In Athens, the most democratic of all the city-states, male citizens could vote to elect the city's leaders. Other city-states, like Sparta, maintained a system of kingship with a dual monarchy in which two kings reigned at the same time, but they bound their kings by strict laws and customs. In addition to these advanced—for the time—styles of government, ancient Greece is also renowned as a place and time where science, the arts, and philosophy flourished. Philosophers Socrates (470–399 BCE) and Plato (c. 427–347 BCE) were essential to the development of Western philosophy while dramatists like Aeschylus (525–455 BCE), Sophocles (c. 496–06 BCE) and Aristophanes (c. 450–388 BCE) created some of the greatest theater of the ancient world. In the sphere of politics Athens produced a series of statesmen, such as Themistocles (c. 524–460 BCE) and Pericles (495–29 BCE), who set forth and defended democratic principles that would be influential for generations of later thinkers and politicians.

The political and cultural developments in Athens during this period were made possible, primarily, by the defeat of the Persians. To fight off the Persians, the Athenians expanded a port at Piraeus, and built a fearsome navy that had no equal in the region. Peace won through victory brought prosperity and the flourishing of culture. But it also caused a rivalry with Sparta to develop. In the ruinous Peloponnesian War (431–04 BCE), Sparta and Athens clashed for dominance of Greece. Although the Spartans were ultimately victorious, their victory ruined them. After these events, the Greek classical period began to decline. Like the Persian Empire, the Greek classical period was also ended by the campaigns of Alexander the Great (356–23 BCE). He united the Greek cities to conquer Persia and beyond in the mid-4th century BCE. The Greeks were conquered once more by the Romans in the middle of the 2nd century BCE. Despite their loss of independence, the reputation of Greece as a source of wisdom, culture, learning, and naval expertise persisted in the Roman era.

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