Picking Apart the Words of Herodotus: Was He a Father of Histories or Lies?
“I owe it to tell what is being told, but I by no means owe it to believe it”.
Herodotus, [Book 7.153-2]
Herodotus was an ancient Greek writer who lived during the 5th century BC. He was born in what is today Turkey. The only piece of work known to have been produced by Herodotus is The Histories. Nevertheless, this was a revolutionary text, and as a result, it earned Herodotus his place in history. For some, The Histories marks the beginning of historical writing, and hence the title ‘Father of History’ was conferred on Herodotus. Others, however, argue that Herodotus was the ‘Father of Lies’.
A Few Known Details on Herodotus’ Life
Herodotus was born around 484 BC to a privileged family in Halicarnassus, which is today a Turkish city called Bodrum. During Herodotus’ time, this city was part of the mighty Achaemenid Empire. As a former Greek colony and a major trading post with Egypt, it is likely that Halicarnassus was a city that allowed Herodotus to learn about people from other regions.
Statue of Herodotus in his hometown of Halicarnassus, modern Bodrum, Turkey. (Public Domain)
It is known that he lived in exile at least once, possibly on the island of Samos, and some researchers like to think the writer later led an uprising against Lygdamis for his oppression. Apart from that, there are few other details about Herodotus’ life. We only have information contained within Herodotus’ own writings and some other details about him from later sources such as the Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world. thus, there is not much known today about this ancient writer.
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Herodotus Writes about History
Herodotus is remembered by history because of The Histories. Prior to Herodotus, no writer is known to have written about the past through an investigative lens, or attempted to frame it as a series of cause and effect. Therefore, it may be said that Herodotus invented the genre of history writing. It may be because of this that Herodotus was referred to as the ‘Father of History’ by the Roman writer and orator, Cicero.
Fragment from Herodotus' Histories, Book VIII on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2099, dated to early 2nd century AD. (Public Domain)
In fact, his work was rather well-known, and seemingly accepted for the most part in his lifetime. The satirist and rhetorician Lucian suggests it was performed at the Olympic Games, the tragedian Sophocles provides a nod to The Histories in Antigone, and the comic playwright Aristophanes saw Herodotus sufficiently well-known to make fun of him in The Acharnians. Such famous names as Plutarch, Strabo, and Aristotle all seemed to recognize, though not always agree with, Herodotus’ work as well.
In The Histories, Herodotus gives an account of the Greco-Persian Wars, which lasted from 499 to 479 BC. In the preface of his work, Herodotus states that his work is meant to be an “inquiry”, especially into the causes of the war between the Greeks and the Persians. Herodotus then provides a narration about the rise of the Achaemenids until their conflict with the Greek city states. In between, he also provides ethnographic information about various cultures, including the Persians, the Egyptians, and the Scythians. Based on Herodotus’ eye-witness accounts of life in Egypt, Greece, Tyre, Babylon, and Italy, it has been assumed that the writer traveled to these distant lands in order to collect the material he wrote on.
Dedication page for a 1494 version of the ‘Historiae’ by the Greek historian Herodotus, translated into Latin by Lorenzo Valla and edited by Antonio Mancinelli. (Public Domain)
Accusations and Criticisms Launched Against Herodotus
Whilst Herodotus was held in high esteem by many, others (often modern analysts of his work) have been more dismissive of him. For some, Herodotus is regarded as the ‘Father of Lies’, as The Histories is said to contain a great amount of tales and fables. One of these, for example, is the story about ants the size of foxes in Persia that spread gold dust when digging their mounds. This, amongst other stories, has been dismissed as a tall tale by generations.
In 1984, however, Michel Peissel, a French author and explorer, reported that there is a type of fox-sized marmot in the Himalayas that spread gold dust when digging. The villagers in the area had a long history of collecting this dust, proving that this was already known in antiquity. Peissel further speculated that as the Persian word for ‘mountain ant’ was very close to their word for ‘marmot’, it is entirely plausible that Herodotus, who did not speak Persian himself and relied on translators, ended up with an error in translation.
A Himalayan marmot. (Christopher J. Fynn/CC BY SA 3.0) It is entirely plausible that Herodotus, who relied on translators, ended up with an error in translation and mistook ‘mountain ant’ for ‘marmot,’
Others have levelled criticisms on Herodotus for more personal reasons. Plutarch, for example, attacks Herodotus in a piece of work entitled Of the Malice of Herodotus. In it, Plutarch claims that “… he [Herodotus] principally exerts his malice against the Boeotians and Corinthians,…” Plutarch was a native of Chaeronea, in Boeotia, and hence felt that he was “… obliged to defend our ancestors and the truth against this part of his writings,…” Therefore, for Plutarch, Herodotus was not the ‘Father of History’, but a malicious writer who slandered many of the figures in his work.
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As Herodotus himself nowhere claims to have been an eyewitness to the events he describes, is it fair to call him a liar? On the other hand, is his content on how Greeks and non-Greeks came to strife enough to make him a historian? Perhaps it would be better to view Herodotus as a travel writer, a chronicler, or a journalist with a keen interest in other cultures and history.
So, Herodotus, ‘Father of History’ or ‘Father of Lies’?
A statue of Herodotus at the Austrian Parliament Building in Vienna, Austria. (Public Domain)
Top image: Detail of a relief of Herodotus by Jean-Guillaume Moitte, 1806. Cour Carrée in the Louvre Palace, Paris, France. Source: CC BY 3.0
By Wu Mingren
Herodotus, The Histories
[Waterfield, R. (trans.), 1998. Herodotus’ The Histories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.]
Lendering, J., 2016. Herodotus. [Online]
Available at: http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herodotus/?
Pipes, D., 1998. Herodotus: Father of History, Father of Lies. [Online]
Available at: http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1998-9/Pipes.htm
Plutarch, Of the Malice of Herodotus [Online]
[Thomson, J. (trans.), 1878. Plutarch’s Of the Malice of Herodotus.]
Available at: http://www.bostonleadershipbuilders.com/plutarch/moralia/malice_of_herodotus.htm
Potter, B., 2013. Herodotus: Father of History or Father of Lies?. [Online]
Available at: http://classicalwisdom.com/herodotus-father-of-history/
www.history.com, 2017. Hrodotus. [Online]
Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/herodotus
“The Histories” opens up with this line: “According to the Persians best informed in history, the Phœnicians began to quarrel.” The Persians, as we know, were invaders of the ancient Greek lands, and thus would have had reason to tell their story (their his-story) with a bias or rosy self-sentiment as is typical of written history in general. But what would have been the story of the Phoenicians, who were invaded by the Persians? Maybe the Persians came with a ruthless divide/conquer military strategy that confused and caught the Phoenicians off guard? Probably! Maybe once the Persians had some degree of control of the lands, the ancient Phoenician texts and tablets were destroyed, leaving no other history behind? Would fit a pattern!
Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.
I tend to agree with you Todd, Much the same as Giraldus Cambrensis, some of whose writings are what we consider utter tripe - but it was just things he had been TOLD - and there is a lot of useful stuff in his writings as well
Herodotus was not a liar. There are things that he wrote about that were probably lost in translation so to speak but I don't believe that he intentionally lied about anything.
Herodotus himself explains that even he is sceptical of some things he was told. When told that the origin of the Nile was snowmelt from far away mountains he dismissed this as folly.
He wasn't always right, but I think he tried hard to verify most sources.