Herodotus life and biography

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Herodotus biography

Date of birth : -
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Halicarnassus, Caria
Nationality : Greek
Category : Historian personalities
Last modified : 2011-06-07
Credited as : Historian, Father of History,

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In the lifetime of Herodotus the writing of history, and indeed of prose of any sort, was still something of a novelty. The earliest writings in prose had been the work of a group of Greek intellectuals from the Ionian cities of Asia Minor who, from about 550 B.C. onward, wrote works on science and philosophy or on historical subjects. However, at this early date there were as yet few clear-cut distinctions between the various disciplines, and historical writing included much that today would be regarded rather as the concern of the geographer, the anthropologist, or the economist. Herodotus was heir to this tradition, and he was greatly influenced by his few predecessors, and especially by the ablest of them, Hecataeus of Miletus.

Little is known of Herodotus's life beyond what can be deduced from his writings. He was born in 484 B.C., or perhaps a few years earlier, in Halicarnassus, a small Greek city on the coast of Asia Minor. His family was wealthy and perhaps aristocratic, but while he was still quite young they were driven from the city by a tyrant named Lygdamis. Herodotus lived for several years on the island of Samos and at a later date, is said to have returned to Halicarnassus to take part in the overthrow of the tyrant, but he did not remain there.

Herodotus spent several years of his early manhood in unusually extensive traveling. One early trip was to the Black Sea, where he appears to have sailed along both the south and west coasts. Later he went by sea to the coast of Syria, then overland to the ancient city of Babylon, and on his way back he may have traveled through Palestine to Egypt. He certainly visited Egypt at least once, probably after 455 B.C. It is possible that he went on his travels primarily as a trader, for in his writings he shows great interest in the products and methods of transport of the countries he describes, and few Greeks of his generation could have afforded to make such lengthy journeys purely for pleasure. He made excellent use of his opportunities, inquiring everywhere about the customs and traditions of the lands through which he passed and amassing a great store of information of all kinds.

About 450 B.C. Herodotus went to live for a time in Athens. During his stay there he is said to have become a close friend of the poet Sophocles. Another tradition, that he also became intimate with the great Athenian statesman Pericles, is much less reliable. After a time, however, Herodotus migrated to the Athenian colony of Thurii in southern Italy, which remained his home for the rest of his life. The date of his death is uncertain; the latest events he mentions in his writings took place in 430 B.C., and it is usually supposed that he died not long afterward.

The writing of Herodotus's great work, the Histories (the name is simply a transliteration of a Greek word that means primarily "inquiries" or "research"), must have occupied a considerable portion of his later life, but we do not know when, where, or in what order it was written. In its final form it could not have been completed until the last years of his life, but parts were undoubtedly written much earlier, as we are told that he gave public readings from it while he was living in Athens.

It is possible that he originally conceived his subject as being limited to the Persian attack on Greece made in 480, an event of his own boyhood, but in the end it expanded to embrace the whole history of the relations between the Greek world and Persia and the other kingdoms of Asia. The narrative of the Histories starts with the accession of Croesus, the last king of Lydia, and gives an account of his reign, including his conquest of the Asiatic Greeks and his overthrow by the Persian King Cyrus. These events take up the first half of Book I. (The division of the work into nine books is not Herodotus's own but was carried out later by Alexandrian scholars.) In the rest of Book I and the three following books the basic theme is the expansion of the Persian kingdom from the accession of Cyrus to about 500 B.C., but there are also several long digressions on the habits of the Persians and their subjects—the whole of Book II is one enormous digression on the customs and early history of Egypt. There are also several sections devoted to the history of some of the Greek states, and in particular, in a series of digressions, Herodotus gives us what is virtually a continuous history of Athens from 560 B.C. onward.

Books V and VI cover primarily the lonian Revolt (499-494 B.C.) and the subsequent Persian expedition that was defeated by the Athenians at Marathon (490 B.C.), but again there are many digressions on contemporary events in the Greek states. In the last three books the story is rounded off by a detailed account, comparatively free from digressions, of the expedition of Xerxes (480-479 B.C.) and of its wholly unexpected defeat by the Greeks.

In compiling the materials for his Histories Herodotus depended mainly on his own observations, the accounts of eyewitnesses on both sides, and, for earlier events, oral tradition. There was very little in the way of official records available to him, and few written accounts. The results of modern archeological investigations show that he was a remarkably accurate reporter of what he saw himself. But when he depended on others for information, he was not always critical enough in deciding what was reliable and what was not and in making due allowances for the bias of his informants.

Herodotus was particularly uncritical in dealing with military operations, since he had no personal experience of warfare and therefore could not always assess accurately the military plausibility of the stories he heard. At the same time it is clear that he did not always believe what he was told and sometimes related stories of doubtful reliability because it was all he had, or because they were such good stories that he could not resist them. It is also sometimes said that he did not take enough care over matters of chronology, but it was very difficult indeed for anyone to work out and present a detailed and accurate chronological scheme in an age when every little Greek city-state had its own way of counting years and, often, its own calendar of months and days.

Herodotus's chief weakness, however, lies in his often naive analysis of causes, which frequently ascribes events to the personal ambitions or weaknesses of leading men when, as his own narrative makes clear, there were wider political or economic factors at work.

Herodotus wrote, in the Ionic dialect, a fascinating narrative in an attractively simple and easy-flowing style, and he had a remarkable gift for telling a story clearly and dramatically, often with a dry ironic sense of humor; the best of his stories have delighted, and will continue to delight, generations of readers.

But Herodotus was much more than a mere storyteller. He was the first writer successfully to put together a long and involved historical narrative in which the main thread is never completely lost, however far and often he may wander from it. Moreover, he did this with a remarkable degree of detachment, showing hardly any of the Greeks' usual bias against the hereditary enemy, Persia, or of their contempt for barbarian peoples. And if he does not often achieve the depth of understanding of his great successor, Thucydides, his range of interests is much wider, embracing not only politics and warfare but also economics, geography, and the many strange and wonderful ways of mankind. He was the first great European historian, and the skill and honesty with which he built up his complex and generally reliable account and the great literary merit of his writing fully justify the title that has been bestowed on him: "Father of History."

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