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We Can Thank Herodotus, the ‘Father of History,’ for Our Knowledge of the Ancient World

There are two means to glimpse at the question of who invented historical past. The 1st, of course, is that no 1 invented it Record is simply just the outcome of the gradual unfurling of time and the actions of those who have lived and died within just its murky eddies. But the review of those actions, which we also contact historical past, has a additional definite beginning. For lots of of us in the Western environment now, it started with a gentleman named Herodotus.

Referred to as “the father of history” by the Roman statesman Cicero, Herodotus is the author of the 1st authoritative historical textual content of any size. The Histories is a multi-volume account of the Greco-Persian wars, stuffed with informative digressions that span from Egypt to the around East. (It also gave us extremely the term historical past, which intended inquiry in the primary Greek). To this working day, Herodotus is usually cited by scholars as a resource of data on the lands and civilizations of his time.

Of course, Herodotus wasn’t rather a historian as we may assume of now. His account, which relied largely on oral resources and second-individual retellings, is replete with instances of fantasy. His inclination toward credulousness also attained him the somewhat less flattering appellation, “father of lies,” based on the many critiques of his work that started soon just after The Histories was released.

Herodotus was not the 1st to publish down historical past. Greeks in advance of him, notably Hecataeus of Miletus, had also penned down their accounts of historical events. But no 1 in advance of Herodotus had tried to compile the form of thorough file of a significant historical occurrences that The Histories signifies. By it, Herodotus tries to clearly show not just what occurred, but why, scholars say.

The Initial Historian

Of Herodotus the gentleman, little is recognised. He was born in the town of Helicarnassus, in modern-day-working day Turkey, and which was then portion of the Persian empire. He traveled extensively, even as a relatively young gentleman, venturing to Egypt, and then shifting to Athens. Herodotus reportedly visited sections of the Middle East, which includes Babylon and present-working day Palestine and Syria, as effectively as Macedonia and jap Europe, reaching the Black Sea and the Danube River.

A theater in the Halicarnassus, the place Herodotus was born. (Credit: Carole Raddato/Wikimedia Commons)

Alongside the way, he collected interviews from locals, amassing their accounts of their individual histories and of the additional much-flung persons they encountered. Herodotus was a curious gentleman: He writes of his tries to demonstrate the seasonal flooding of the Nile, and to trace the lineage of the Greek gods back to historical Egypt, between other matters. He also possibly gave oral performances of parts of his historical writings to general public audiences in Greece, a prevalent apply at the time.

Herodotus’ apply was usually simply just to publish down anything he was told, and at periods qualifying the accounts with his individual observations. This practice might be portion of the cause Herodotus has usually been criticized of outright confabulation. We listen to of headless adult males with eyes in their chests in Libya and gold-digging ants in India that are greater than a fox (now believed to be marmots). It is unclear whether or not Herodotus intended to portray these stories as truth of the matter, or if he simply just intended to catalogue what he had been told by different persons as he traveled.

For these factors and some others, Herodotus’ writings drew hefty criticism in historical Greece. The historian Thucydides, who probable drew considerably inspiration from The Histories, took pains to contact Herodotus out for what he perceived as inaccuracies and biases. And the Greek thinker Plutarch, producing some a few hundreds of years later on, mounts an even greater assault, arguing that Herodotus’ work was biased in favor of non-Greeks, and questioning the historian’s judgement. These days, scholars take a additional well balanced see of Herodotus the historian. Though his tales may not constantly be truthful, there is considerably that Herodotus got ideal — and his insights into the Greek environment and past at the time are nearly unparalleled.

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A Himalayan marmot. (Credit: ©Christopher J. Fynn / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA three. & GFDL)

Occasional fantasies apart, Herodotus also documented on considerably that was genuine. Together with the headless creatures, he writes of impalas, gazelles and elands in Africa, and of Ethiopians wrapped in lion skins with extended bows made of palmwood. Environmental science and biology clearly show up as effectively. Herodotus documented on the annual flooding of the Nile, and speculates on what triggered it. He notes the astonishing development of crocodiles: “No mortal creature of all which we know grows from so smaller a beginning to this kind of greatness for its eggs are not considerably greater than goose eggs, and the young crocodile is of a proportional size, but it grows to a size of twenty-8 toes and additional.”

A (Generally) True Account

Herodotus took it on himself to suitable what he noticed as the inaccuracies of writers in advance of him. He delivers a conflicting account of the events relayed by the epic poet Homer that started the now-legendary Trojan War. The war is intended to have been instigated when a Trojan kidnapped Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. But Herodotus, based on analysis all through his time in Egypt, dismisses this as mere myth Helen was basically in Egypt the entire time, he counters, blown off course all through a sea journey.

The Histories also is made up of what is probable the additional accurate model of the legendary tale of a lone runner delivering the news of the Greeks’ victory at the Struggle of Marathon to Athens, in advance of perishing of exhaustion. But Herodotus’ account in its place entails a runner being sent from Athens to Sparta in advance of the struggle (a considerably greater length of about 150 miles) to request for support, and then the total Athenian army marching back to Athens just after the struggle to confront a Persian fleet bearing down on the town.

But additional modern-day historians have mentioned inconsistencies throughout Herodotus’ writings, that they say suggest he might never ever have visited some of the places he claims. For case in point, he never ever the moment mentions the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, 1 of the seven wonders of the historical environment, despite acquiring allegedly traveled there.

But Herodotus has been vindicated in other means. For case in point, a boat lately unearthed in the Nile delta matches almost exactly his description of a curious form of barge-like watercraft utilized there.

And his account of the Greco-Persian war, the principal issue of The Histories, is also held to be largely genuine. To lay out the whole tale of the war, Herodotus starts considerably further back, describing the historical past of Persia, as effectively as Athens and Sparta, and the feats and follies of many royal people together the way. Alongside with the geography and infrastructure of places he visits, Herodotus imparts many observations on the persons and customs he encounters, or which he is told about together the way.

In this meandering way, Herodotus finally comes to a lengthy description of the different army engagements of the war alone, a many years-extended conflict that would outline the course of historical past all through his life time and for many years afterward. That tale by yourself would qualify his work as a important piece of historical producing — but it is the lots of and various digressions he embarks on that outline the genuine value of The Histories now.

Herodotus presents us with insights into the historical civilizations of Egypt, Persia, Assyria, Scythia and additional. Specified his is 1 of the oldest functions of prose in existence, The Histories is usually scholars’ finest resource for accounts of these cultures, even 2,500 a long time just after Herodotus’ loss of life. And past that, as lots of historians position out, it is also just a definitely enjoyment examine.