Friday 28 April 2017

The Histories by Herodotus

"Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time."

Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus in 484 B.C., a city that is now Bodrum, Turkey.  Very little is known about the man or his life, but it is surmised that he was exiled by the tyrant, Lygdamis, and moved to the island of Samos. Later in life, he appears to have migrated to Thurii, Italy, but it is uncertain where he met his death.

Seen as the first historical writing showing cause and effect, The Histories was written by Herodotus in approximately 440 B.C.  The initial words of Herodotus set up the purpose of his narrative:

"Herodotus of Halicarnassus her presents his research so that human events do not fade with time.  May the great and wonderful deeds ---- some brought forth by the Hellenes, others by the barbarians --- not go unsung, as well as the causes that led them to make war on each other."

Known as the first "father of history", treating it as an investigation or "inquiry," Herodotus begins his account from the rise of the Persian Empire, following the leaders Cyrus the Great, Cambyses, his son, Darius the Great and Xerxes I which comprise books one to six of his narrative.  Books seven to nine account for the Greco-Persian wars in exacting detail, from Xerxes' initial aggression to the victory of the Hellenes.

Through Herodotus' lively accounts the reader becomes acquainted with the Lydians and Croesus, the Medes, the Persians, Egyptian customs and geography, Persian conquests, the tyrants vs. the democracy of Athens, the Ionian Revolt, the Battle of Marathon, the alliance of Athens and Sparta, the battle of Thermopylae, the battle at Artemesium, the victory at Salamis, the victory at Plataea and Mycale, and the end of the war, with Xerxes in an embarrassing retreat.

Clio, Euterpe and Thalia (1652-55)
Eustache Le Sueur
source Wikipedia

Reviewing book by book gave me an invaluable anchoring in these ancient times and a more concentrated view of these bygone adversaries and battles.  The links to the books, which are charmingly named after the Greek Muses, are as follows:

Book I - Clio ~ muse of history
Book II - Euterpe ~ muse of music, song & lyric poetry
Book III - Thalia ~ muse of comedy
Book IV - Melpomene ~ muse of tragedy
Book V - Terpsichore ~ muse of dance
Book VI - Erato ~ muse of love poetry
Book VII - Polymnia ~ muse of sacred hymns and poetry
Book VIII - Urania ~ muse of astronomy
Book IX - Calliope ~ muse of epic poetry

Apollo and the Nine Muses (1856)
Gustave Moreau
source Wikiart

Told with a lively and personal tone, Herodotus' stories range from the practical to the bizarre, causing scholars to disbelieve some of his tales, yet modern findings have tended to support his accounts.  For example, Herodotus recounted a story of fox-size ants that would spread gold while digging their mounds.  Sounds completely ridiculous, doesn't it?  Except for the fact that in 1984, a French explorer discovered the existence of a fox-sized marmot in the Himalayas that did indeed spread gold dust and of which there was a tradition of it that extended back into antiquity.  Not only that, but the Persian word for "mountain ant" is apparently close to their word for "marmot" so it may have been a translation error instead of a factual one.  Score one for Herodotus! Personally, as I read The Histories I could tangibly feel Herodotus' strong desire to recount his findings in an entirely truthful way, and if some of his veracity is in doubt, it would only be through honest error and not by intentional fanciful tales or deliberate deceit.

I'm so happy to have finally read The Histories and hope to revisit them again one day. Now on to Thucydides', The History of Peloponnesian War in which Thucydides follows up Herodotus' account of the Greco-Persian wars with his own account of the Peloponnesian War which occurred approximately 20 years later.  More wars but more fascinating Greeks.  What could be better?


  1. The fact that you haven't burned out on these Histories, even with such long posts needed, means you seem to have hit a good streak.
    I hope it keeps up for you!

    1. I know it sounds weird, but I had fun with them! Hopefully Thucydides will continue the streak but I can already tell that he's not as engaging as Herodotus.

  2. Ditto, Bookstooge.

    I'm thoroughly impressed, and again, I am really relieved that you enjoyed Herodotus this much. (I did sense Herodotus set out to be honest in his writing; he was unbiased.) Meanwhile, I'm dying over here reading Thucydides. It's not bad reading; it's just so boring. Constantly going to battle - it never, ever stops. However, the long speeches are excellent.

    I know you'll get more out of Thucydides [than me], but I wonder if Herodotus will always be your first love. Hmmmm...

    1. Ha ha! Yes, I believe that I'll like Herodotus more than Thucydides. I'm not far into his history, but I find the speeches very insightful, especially when one state is characterizing another. So far enjoyable but he's not Herodotus!

  3. You did such a great job with this one! I'm all impressed.

    1. Thanks, Jean. I'm exhausted but it's a good type of exhaustion!

  4. thoroughly enjoyed your posts and descriptions: clear and amusing at times... not to change the subject, but i noticed in the Le Sueur picture, the flute player is playing the instrument backwards, at least by current standards; makes me wonder if that was the way flutes were actually held in those days...

    1. Mudpuddle, you are so observant! That's awesome! You made me curious so I looked around ...... Take a look at this link: I haven't read it yet, but if you scroll down to the pictures of the ancient Greek vases, it looks like they are blowing into the thin end of the instrument. I'll have to read up on the history of the flute!

  5. Thanks for that bit about the ants/marmots...I wonder if there is a good annotated version out there that points out what is known to be true(ish) and what isn't...

    1. That's an excellent question! If not, someone should publish something because I think it would sell really well. I'd certainly like to know of all Herodotus observations that were at first disparaged but later turned out to be true.