The Histories by Herodotus represents one of the most important works of ancient literature. It is remarkable how carefully Herodotus described the world of the Greeks and the events that shaped Greek history. The aim of this article is to introduce Ancient Greek culture and history, with a focus on the life of Herodotus and his view of the Eastern nations. It also draws attention to the attributes and deficiencies of Herodotus’s work, evaluating the extent to which The Histories provides a relevant source today for understanding the ancient world.
The biginnings of Greek history
The beginnings of Greek and European history are connected with the rise of the oldest ancient advanced civilisation in the Aegean region, on the island of Crete. The oldest Neolithic settlements date from 6,000 years BC in the place that was at the centre of Late Minoan culture – Knossos. The archaeological artefacts are dated to the second half of the third millennium BC. Minoan palaces dating from later, around 2,000 BC, are known to have existed in the Middle East, for example. These palaces served as economic and political centres of their surrounding areas. The golden age of Minoan civilisation is generally considered the 16th century BC. However, the northern part of Crete was affected by a natural disaster around the first half of the 15th century BC, caused by the eruption of the volcano on the island of Thera. The eruption was partly responsible for wiping out the Minoan civilisation, which was also adversely affected by the arrival of the Achaia people in around 1,450 BC on Crete. Neither the origin nor the ethnicity of the people of this advanced Cretan culture is known, and their language and written records have not yet been deciphered.
The beginning of the Mycenaean civilisation is thought to have been in the period after 1,600 BC. This civilisation is named after the famous palace at Mycenae, in the Peloponnese. There was a significant increase in the cultural level in this area. The Mycenaean civilisation reached its peak in the 13th century BC, but by the second half of the 12th century Mycenaean settlements had already disappeared. The cause is unknown, but researchers are generally inclined to the theory of an invasion by the so-called ‘marine peoples’, who may have contributed to the collapse of the Hittite empire (Asia Minor).
A new wave of tribes from the north – the Dorians – could also have played an important role. The famous Trojan War may have taken place at the end of the Mycenaean period too. Indeed, archaeological excavations show that the city of Troy was destroyed by the end of the 13th century BC. Again, it cannot be ruled out that the city was targeted by the invasion of the marine nations, but the Aya people may also have played a role. From later scripts of ancient writers we can learn a lot about the stratification of Greek dialects and we can more easily reconstruct the movement of these groups – for example, from a dialect of mountainous Arcadia in the centre of the Peloponnese, which was close to a dialect spoken on the island of Cyprus. We can deduce that the Aya people retreated inland and to the distant island of Cyprus by the newly penetrating Dorians people.
The period between 1,100 and 800 BC tends to be characterised as the dark ages of Ancient Greek history. There was a general decline in the degree of civilisation, scripture was not used anymore, and the number of settlements declined. The scale of social and ethnic change is also significant. The important sources describing the social life of this period are the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, which are traditionally ascribed to the poet Homer. From these poems also comes the name of the so-called Homeric society. The aristocratic families Homer called the basileus (kings) were at the top of the social hierarchy.
At the beginning of the Archaic period (8th–6th centuries BC) contact with the outside world was intensified, trade relations were established with the Syrians (for example with the settlement Al-Mina, in the southeastern part of today’s Turkey) and with the Phoenicians. The Greeks took the script of the Phoenicians and adjusted it for the needs of the Greek language. Knowledge of writing did not remain limited to the educated parts of society: craftsmen and soldiers were also able to write. A new form of state was emerging – the Greek polis (pl. poleis) – and the population of the polis increased rapidly during this period. This caused the so-called Great Greek colonisation and social tension over political power emerged. Until this time power was in the hands of the agricultural nobility. Craftsmen and merchants gained greater influence and started to use the coins (the oldest coins were minted by the Lydians of Anatolia during the turn of the 7th and 6th centuries BC). From the 6th century BC, the use of coins began to spread throughout Greece.
Social changes also occurred as a result of a change in war tactic – the aristocratic cavalry was replaced by heavily armed foot-soldiers (hoplites) fighting in a unit called a phalanx, and thus the size of the middle class increased. However, there were still autocrats, tyrans, in some poleis, who were mostly aristocratic in origin. Surprisingly, the rule of tyrannies carried a period of prosperity and the cities flourished, but the citizens viewed this form of government negatively and tried to overthrow these autocrats.
Of great importance for Greek civilisation was its contact with Egyptian culture. There were Greek mercenaries in Egyptian services and a trading station (emporia), Naucratis, was established in the Nile Delta.
In the Archaic period, the pantheon of gods was also being completed and their form was created. Homer’s poems had a great influence on the creation of the Greek gods as they gave the deities a distinctly anthropomorphic form and also united the ideas and beliefs of particular regional cults. An influential social layer of priest was not formed in Greece, unlike in other parts of ancient world. On the other hand, there were important fortune-teller oracles, such as Apollo’s at Delphi. The cults of particular gods were also associated with the musical of athletic competitions The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC. In this period, the most important states were Athens and Sparta.
Classical period and Greco-Persian Wars
The classical period of Greek history (5th–4th centuries BC) covered the entire Greek–Persian wars and ended with the conquest of Greece by the Macedonian King Philip II. The Greek–Persian conflict was one part of the changes that were taking place in the Near East. The fundamental change occurred when Cyrus II sat on the Persian throne as a vassal of the Median Empire. Cyrus II defeated the Median king Astyages. In 547 BC he conquered the Lydian empire after attacking the Lydian King Croesus. In October 539 BC Cyrus entered Babylon and conquered the New Babylonian empire (the last King of Babylon, Nabonid, was exiled in Karman, Iran), allowing the Jews to return to Judea. After returning the Jews from captivity, Cyrus contributed to rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. He then became the ruler of Iran, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine. Cyrus II died in 529 BC during the battle against a nomadic tribe, the Messagets from the northern Iranian territory. Subsequently his son, Cambyses II, ruled and in 525 BC conquered Egypt (this Persian domination lasted until 404 BC). Under his rule the Persian Empire reached its greatest influence. The next ruler was Darius I and in 513 or 512 BC he crossed the lower part of the river Danube and invaded the ancient nation of Scythes in southern Russia. Darius did not succeed in defeating the Scythians, but the area of Thrace (now Bulgaria) and Macedonia came under Persian rule, along with some Greek cities around the Mediterranean coast.
The Greek–Persian wars began in 499 BC with the uprising of the Greeks in Asia Minor against Persia under the protection of the Greek city Miletus. This rebellion was also supported by Greeks in Cyprus. Initially the Greeks succeeded in conquering the residence of the of Sardy, but in 494 BC the Persians were victorious and the city of Miletus was plundered and its inhabitants taken into captivity. The Greeks were supported only by a number of 20 Athenian and five Eretrian ships. Nevertheless, this uprising was used as an excuse to wage a huge war against the whole of Greece. In 490 BC the Persians conquered the Greek town of Eretria and seized most of the Cyclades Islands, then landed at Marathon in Attica. But the Athenians, under the commander of Miltiades, won the battle and the Persians left Greece. This victory greatly strengthened the confidence and prestige of Athens in Greece.