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. After Miltiades’ death, considerable influence was gained by Themistocles (another of the ten strategists1.The Cleisthenes’ territorial administrative reform took place in 508 BC and divided the territory of Greece into 30 administrative units or trittyes (sing. trittys). The three trittyes (one of the city, one inland and one of the coast) form the highest administrative unit, the phylè. There were therefore ten phylai and Greece did not constitute a single territorial unit. The Greek army was assembled from these phylai and each phylè was led by the strategos, the commanders. at Marathon). Themistocles pushed through a proposal in the People’s Assembly that the profits from the silver mines in Lavrion should no longer be redistributed to the citizens but be used for establishing a navy of 200 ships. The Athens fleet that was duly created played a very important role during the defence of the second Persian attack.
The Greek army under the command of Spartan King Leonidas took a strategical position at the Thermopylae Pass (in central Greece) and the Greek fleet sailed to Cape Artemisium.2.Northern cape of the isle of Euboea. The Persians defeated the Greek army at the Battle of Thermopylae and continued into central Greece, setting fire to the cities of Thespies and Plataea in Boeotia. They also invaded Attica and plundered Athens. The decisive naval battle took place at Salamis in September 480 BC. The Greeks won, the Persians suffering heavy losses. The Persian King Xerxes returned to Asia with the rest of his ships.
The Persian ground forces wintered in Thessaly and in the spring of 479 BC were defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Plataea. At the same time, the Greek fleet destroyed the remains of the Persian fleet at Cape Mycale (off the coast of Ionian Asia). After these events, the Greeks founded the Delian League in 478 or 477 BC, to ensure they had driven the Persians out of the Aegean Sea once and for all. An annual membership fee (foros) was paid to the Federal Treasury, located on the island of Del and later transferred to Athens. In turn, Athens ensured the protection and safe navigation by sea to its members.
Athenian naval power was closely linked to the deepening of Greek democracy. Athenian democracy flourished in the time of the statesman Pericles, taking its classical form: it was a direct democracy (as opposed to the representative systems of our modern days) and people had direct power by decision and expressing their will. The most important component was the People’s Assembly, convened 40 times a year. This event was opened to all Athenian citizens – that is, men aged over 20 years of age. As well as being closed to women, other excluded groups were metoikos (officially free people with particular privileges, but not completely free because they were foreigners in Athens) and slaves. Under Pericles, Athens experienced 15 years of peace and extensive construction; this is when the Parthenon was built on the Acropolis. Athens had become an important centre of Greek culture.
Culture of the Greek Classical Period
The culture of the classical period in Ancient Greece is generally considered as the peak of Greek culture. Writing their great theatrical works at this time were Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. Athens had also become home to many significant philosophers, such as Anaxagoras, Sophist Protagoras and Socrates. The foundations of historiography were laid by Herodotus, Thucydides, and medicine by Hippocrates. The ‘Hippocratic Oath’ is taken by doctors to this day. Greek sculptors sought to capture the best of male figure, but remarkable achievements were also made in painting.
However, the tension between Athens and the city of Sparta heightened in the early part of the 5th century BC. In 431 BC Sparta declared war on Athens. The Peloponnesian War that followed was one of the largest and bloodiest conflicts in Ancient Greek history. In this period, Athens was weakened by a disease epidemic, which was fatal for Pericles and in 429 BC he died. The decisive moment in the Peloponnesian War took place in 405 BC during the Battle of Aegospotami. The Athenian fleet was destroyed and Athenians surrendered. Because of these circumstances, the Delian League ceased and Athenians were captured by Spartan crews.
The life of Herodotus
The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus came from Halicarnassus in Caria (on the southwestern coast of Asia Minor). It is not possible to determine the exact date of his birth but it is generally considered to be the year 485 BC. The settlement where Herodotus was born was Dorian in origin but over time it became Ionic. His family belonged to the Halicarnassian nobility. Herodotus’s mother was Greek and his father was Carian, i.e. non-Greek origin, so he was therefore a ‘Barbarian’3.The word ‘barbarian’ in the Ancient Greek meant person of non-Greek origin, a person who spoke a different dialect, a stranger, especially a Persian or a member of a Persian subjugated nation, and later even an ignorant, savage or brutal individual.. However, his family was greatly influenced by Greek culture. The poet Panyassis (whose name does not appear to be Greek), who wrote an epic poem about Heracles, appears to have been related to Herodotus.
At that time Caria was a Persian province, administrated by a domestic royal family with considerable autonomy. Following the reign of King Mausolus, who had built a magnificent tomb in Halicarnassus for himself and his family, his widow Artemisia II controlled the region Caria and it was this woman who later contributed to Xerxes’ war mission against Greece. Soon after Artemisia’s death, the people of Halicarnassus fought against her successors, who were considered tyrants, and held the city with Persian support.
It is not entirely clear if Herodotus was actively involved in the overthrow of the tyrant Lygdamis II, son and another successor of Artemisia. During the fight against Lygdamis II, Panyassis died. There is not an exact date for these events, but it is reported that they happened before 454 BC. These circumstances strongly shaped Herodotus’s personality, and also the island of Samos, where he had lived during his youth. The island left a strong impression on him and is the place that features the most in his writing. From Herodotus’s work, we can reconstruct his extensive travels, which took place in the then known world of the Greeks and which became a fundamental element of his writings. For example, he visited the centre of ancient culture in Egypt (which was then a Persian province) and travelled to the furthest corner of the Persian empire – to the island of Elephantine in the Nile. It is likely that he visited the Phoenician coast and the city of Tyre.
Herodotus travelled around the Ancient Near East, visited Babylon, but apparently did not reach the tribal territory of the Persians and their capital city of Susa. He got to know the Black Sea coast from south to north, and visited Thracia, Macedonia, African Cyrene (today in Libya) and southern Italy, where he spent the last days of his life.
It is unclear when the historian made his travels but it is probable that most of his voyages were made before he visited Athens. There can be no doubt about his stay in Athens. Herodotus met Sophocles, Pericles and other prominent Athenian figures. The recent Greco–Persian Wars had made him an admirer of democratic Athens, which played an important role in these wars. This historic conflict also gave a unifying idea to his extensive work. Herodotus saw the connections between Greek history and world history. In 444 BC the Greeks founded a new settlement, Thuria in southern Italy at the place of the remains of Sybaris (nowadays an archaeological site in Calabria). Herodotus went there and later became a Thurian citizen. From there he travelled to Sicily. The following events in his life can only be guessed at. Before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War he probably stayed in Athens. Herodotus’s Histories were published not later than 425 BC and shortly afterwards he died in Athens or in Thuria. Herodotus worked on the final version of Histories right up to his death.
Herodotus divided his Histories into nine books. The first part, which includes four books, was devoted to the Eastern nations and described events up to 500 BC. The second part of Histories contains five books and depicts the Greco-Persian War until 479 BC. In the introductory sentence Herodotus describes his work as a statement of enquiry (literally historiés apodexis) and thus demonstrates the result of his research
The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by Greeks and non-Greeks.4.Herodotus, Histories (translating by Waterfield, R.). Oxford University Press, New York, 1998, p. 3.
Herodotus sees the conflict between the Greeks and the barbarians as an ancient struggle, dating back to the ancient days. However, he did not dedicate a lot of his work to these mythical times. Herodotus’s first book begins by portraying the rise and fall of the Lydian Empire, with attention given to King Croesus, who was the first invader of the Greek settlements in Asia Minor. He analyses the historical personality of King Croesus in the style of Sophocles’ tragic works, where human destinies are dominated by the world of powerful gods. Herodotus also uses Aeschylus’ concept of dichotomy in our world, based on achieving a balance; anyone who has sinned against the supernatural order, for example through an act of arrogance, is punished by the deity. This concept is discussed in many places in Histories. For instance, the conversation between Athenian statesman Solon and Croesus is described using this concept and later Herodotus demonstrates human fates in the powerful world of the gods in other parts of his work.
Herodotus’s interpretation of the origin of nations or historical disputes typically displayed ‘barbaric’ concepts of myths and their histories, as well as description of Greek historical events. He presented his opinion on facticity, which is seen to be reasonably acceptable for historians. Often he proposed entirely new ideas and thoughts about a particular nation.
After Croesus’s tragic fate, we learn about the Persian King Cyrus, the rise of the Persian Empire and the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus. This first book ends with the wars against Massagetaes (a nomadic tribe in today’s Iran) and Cyrus’s death.
On the whole, the first part of Histories appears to be a very well-written historical book, but in places this is not the case. For example, Herodotus claimed that the Babylonians did not have doctors, while he described the Babylonian way of “curing” diseases. We now know that not to be true, as Mesopotamian medical texts prove the opposite. It seems that the historian simply did not recognise the Babylonians’ methods as advanced as Greek or Egyptian medicine, which took a completely different form.
The second book is the most comprehensive and describes the history of Ancient Egypt from mythical times and the legendary pharaohs, and the historian’s discoveries from his travels. In addition to historical description, Herodotus focuses on geographical description, especially on topographic data, and also on ethnographical subjects, such as customs and traditions or individual ethnic groups (which is characteristic of the whole of Histories). It is clear that Herodotus was a big admirer of Egyptian culture. Moreover, this book shows us that Herodotus seemed to believe that Greek culture evolved under the influence of the Egyptian civilisation.
The third book is dedicated to Cambyses II’s military campaign in Egypt and against the Ethiopians, Cambyses II’s madness and his death. The fact that Herodotus thought Cambyses was insane is worth noting. Unlike Hippocrates or Xénofont, the historian considered the state of lunacy partly as a physical state and partly the intervention of divine act of gods. The book further describes Darius coming to the Persian throne, the structure of the Empire and the consolidation of power. This part also includes mention of the lost army of the Cambyses II. Italian archaeologists discovered this ‘lost’ Persian army in 2009, led by Professor Dario Del Bufalo from the University of Lecce. This raises the question of how we should re-evaluate the information left by ancient writers and to what extent we should critically assess their writings from the point of view of contemporary science.
The fourth book describes Scythia and its inhabitants, Darius’s military campaign against them, a history and description of Libya and the war against the city of Barca. The oldest reference to a nation of Slavs can probably be attributed to Herodotus, where he describes Skythia and its tribes including the Neurians and Budinians; these were very likely Slavic tribes living in what is today southern Russia.
The fifth to ninth books include historic materials and events dedicated to: the Greco–Persian wars, the conquest of Ionian cities; the first Persian war campaign against Greece under the leadership of Mardonius; the second Persian war campaign against Greece; the Greek victory at Marathon; Xerxes’ third war campaign; the Battle of Thermopylae; the Battle of Artemisium; the Battle of Salamis; Mardonius’s invasion of Attica; the Battle of Plataea; and the Battle of Mycale. Herodotus’s description of the Greco–Persian wars ends with the siege of Sestus (479–478 BC), which leads some to question if Herodotus had completed his work.
The overall structure of Herodotus’s Histories is close to the style of an epic, where many partial stories complement the main subject and theme. It should be noted that Herodotus was a contemporary of great Greek tragedians and he was influenced in many ways by this particular cultural period. The composition of Histories is characterised by some features of narrative folk style with its richness and extensiveness, but also by objectivity, serenity and simplicity. The numbers of pointing particles and pronouns, and the way he repeats expressions across the narration, indicate that the work was intended to be read aloud.
As mentioned earlier, the supernatural world of the gods also makes an appearance in the Histories. Herodotus often voiced his doubts over particular issues or used the traditional expressions of ancient peoples. However, as an observer he was very accurate. Overall, we can consider the content of Histories, which is purely based on Herodotus’s description in his role as an historian, as factual and a very careful account. Besides, much of what we know about the ‘barbaric’ tribes we can glean only from Herodotus’s work. Without his detailed reports we would have very little information about what would otherwise be long-forgotten nations.
Herodotus laid the foundations of Greek historiography and was rightfully described by Cicero as the father of history. Herodotus’s writing was an important precursor to the work of his younger contemporary Thucydides. Herodotus did not know any other languages, including of the nations and regions he described and explored, so he could not have verified his work using other sources; he usually used the services of an interpreter during his travels. But how many modern historians and ethnographers have precise knowledge of the languages of their subject areas and peoples? Nor was Herodotus schooled by sophists, as it appears Thucydides was.
Leaving aside these mild criticisms, Herodotus can be considered as one of the most important historical sources of historiography and his dedication to the study of ancient ethnography and the Greco–Persian wars is simply remarkable. The recent archaeological excavation of the legendary lost Persian army by Italian archaeologists clearly demonstrates the importance and precision of Herodotus’s work and his Histories.
|↑1||The Cleisthenes’ territorial administrative reform took place in 508 BC and divided the territory of Greece into 30 administrative units or trittyes (sing. trittys). The three trittyes (one of the city, one inland and one of the coast) form the highest administrative unit, the phylè. There were therefore ten phylai and Greece did not constitute a single territorial unit. The Greek army was assembled from these phylai and each phylè was led by the strategos, the commanders.|
|↑2||Northern cape of the isle of Euboea.|
|↑3||The word ‘barbarian’ in the Ancient Greek meant person of non-Greek origin, a person who spoke a different dialect, a stranger, especially a Persian or a member of a Persian subjugated nation, and later even an ignorant, savage or brutal individual.|
|↑4||Herodotus, Histories (translating by Waterfield, R.). Oxford University Press, New York, 1998, p. 3.|