When it comes to written sources about the Persian Wars, the Histories of Herodotus* are one of our best (and basically only) sources. But despite their uniqueness, we have to read them with care. So in the following, I would like to present a complete guide to Herodotus and the Histories and also touch on the subject of why Herodotus as a source has to be taken with a grain of salt.
Herodotus wrote the Histories between 430 and 420 BC, two generations after the Greco-Persian Wars. According to himself, Herodotus wrote the Histories to prevent the great deeds of men from being forgotten and to find the cause of the Greco-Persian Wars. The trustworthiness of his reports is limited since Herodotus not only wrote the Histories two generations after the Greco-Persian Wars but also added dramatic elements and invented speeches for a better reading experience.
Let`s take a closer look at both the author and his book!
Herodotus of Halicarnassus – the Histories
Let`s first take a brief look at the author himself to get an idea of his background.
Herodotus was born between 490 and 480 BC in the Greek city of Halicarnassus in the Persian satrapy Caria (in Asia Minor) from where he had to flee to Samos in the 460s due to inner political reasons. Later he also lived in Athens where he held well-paid lectures. His exact date of death is unclear, but he probably died in the late 420s BC.
Speaking of the Greek city of Halicarnassus in the Persian satrapy of Caria. Do you want to find out more about Greek cities and why some of them were on Persian territory? Then you might want to check out my article here.
Herodotus claimed for himself that he was well traveled and had been in Babylon and Egypt, but also in the lands of the Scythians as well as in Thrace and Macedonia. Some historians doubt that and rather believe that Herodotus never left the Greek world. There are arguments for both opinions and it remains unclear which opinion is accurate.
But there is one more thing to remember about Herodotus aside from his origins in a Greek city in a Persian province. Herodotus held lectures in the cities of Athens, Thebes, and Corinth where he talked about his studies of history and geography as well as his travels. These lectures were extremely well paid, once Herodotus received 10 talents! Needless to say that a lecturer paid by Athenians might have been a little bit biased when talking and writing about Greek (and especially Athenian) history…
For more information on just how much money 10 talents were I would like to recommend you my article here.
When Did Herodotus Write the Histories?
The reason why Herodotus is known to this day is his book „Histories“*, more on its content later. Herodotus must have written the histories between 430 and 420 BC after the Peloponnesian War had already begun since parts of the Histories include allusions to events in the early years of the Peloponnesian War.
And there is another problem aside from the fact that the lectures of Herodotus in Athens were extremely well paid: Herodotus himself was born between 490 and 480 BC. These 10 years were exactly the years of the Persian Wars.
So Herodotus himself was at most 10 years old when the Persian Wars ended. But he only wrote about the Greco-Persian Wars between 430 and 420 BC, basically 2 generations after the wars had happened. And while Herodotus claims for himself that the Histories are the result of his studies, it still has to be remembered that the events Herodotus wrote about occurred more than 50 years before he wrote about them.
Ok, but why did Herodotus write about in the Histories?
Why Did Herodotus Write the Histories?
Fortunately for us we don`t have to guess why Herodotus wrote the Histories, he himself tells us in the first chapter why he wrote the Histories. Herodotus, according to his own words, wrote the Histories because he wanted to prevent the great deeds of men during the Greco-Persian Wars from eventually being forgotten. He also wanted to find the cause of the Persian Wars.
The Histories can be seen as a canonization process of stories that – until then – had been orally transmitted since Herodotus wrote them about 2 generations after the Persian Wars. But since the Histories were written during the early years of the Peloponnesian War they can also be seen as a warning against the impermanence of superpowers (like Athens).
Speaking of finding the cause of the Greco-Persian Wars: Herodotus states that the reason for the Persian Wars (and for the enmity between Greeks and Persians in general) goes back to the Trojan War and the destruction of Troy by a Greek army.
Now that might sound funny at first, but it is extremely important!
Herodotus as a writer saw himself in rivalry with Homer (who wrote the Ilias about the Trojan War). For Herodotus, the Trojan War was not a myth but a real war that happened just like Homer tells it. That will be important in a moment when we talk about the trustworthiness of the Histories.
But let`s first look at the content of the Histories!
The Content of the Histories
Not the entire content of Herodotus` Histories survived until this day. And the division into 9 books is also not original (that is the reason why the division into 9 books often doesn`t make sense content-wise).
Herodotus wrote the Histories between 430 and 420 BC as one continuous book. In the 2nd century BC, the Histories were then divided into 9 books.
Of these 9 books, only books 5 to 9 are relevant for the Persian Wars since book 5 starts with the Ionian Revolt. The Histories not only contain the history of the Persian Wars (exclusively from the Greek perspective), they also feature the history and the formation of both the Persian Empire as well as of the Greek city-states.
Do you want to find out more about why there were more than 1,000 Greek city-states and how big these city-states were on average? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
But let`s now look at the content of the individual books of the Histories* (remember, the division into 9 books was not done by Herodotus, so the beginning and the end of some books might seem quite odd).
The Content of the Histories:
|Book 1||The origin story of the Persians The subjugation of the Lydian king Croesus by the Persian king Cyrus the Great|
|Book 2 + first 1/3 of book 3||On Egypt The conquest of Egypt by the Persian king Cambyses II|
|Last 2/3 of book 3||The rule of the Persian king Darius the Great|
|Book 4||Darius` campaign against the Scythians|
|Book 5||The Persian conquest of the northern Aegean The Ionian Revolt and its Aftereffects (499 – 490 BC)|
|Book 6||The Athenian victory over the Persian army in the Battle of Marathon|
|Book 7||The war of Xerxes against the Greeks|
|Book 8||The Greek victory in the naval Battle of Salamis (480 BC)|
|Book 9||The Greek victories in the Battles of Plataea and Mycale (479 BC)|
Do you want to find out more about the major battles of the Greco-Persian Wars (The Battle of Marathon, the simultaneous Battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium, the Battle of Salamis and the Battle of Plataea)? Then please check out my article here.
So: The Histories is a pretty comprehensive book. But how trustworthy are Herodotus and the Histories?
How Trustworthy Is Herodotus?
While the Histories are one of the only written sources for the Greco-Persian Wars, they are also extremely unreliable (especially when it comes to the description of battles and the size of armies)
The trustworthiness of the Histories is highly questionable, not only because it reports about the Persian Wars exclusively through the Greek point of view, but also because Herodotus himself is not overly trustworthy as a source. As mentioned, Herodotus writes the Histories about 2 generations after the Persian Wars. And while Herodotus claims that the Histories are the result of his research, most contemporary witnesses who were old enough to witness the Persian Wars were already dead when Herodotus wrote the Histories. So Herodotus had to rely on tales.
And let`s face it, if we would have to tell an author something about an event that our parents experienced 50 years ago, the trustworthiness of our testimony would be shaky at best.
Additionally, Herodotus saw himself also in a rivalry with Homer (who wrote about the Trojan War) who reported about the bigger and more important war. And since Herodotus saw the Trojan War as a real event, he had to massage a few numbers (for example the size of the Persian army) to compare more gracefully to Homer and his report on the Trojan War.
Here you can find out more about the number of Persian soldiers according to Herodotus and the number of Persian soldiers that Historians find reasonable.
But when we talk about the trustworthiness of Herodotus and the Histories, we also have to acknowledge the influence of Athens on Herodotus. Herodotus not only lived in Athens for several years but he also held extremely well-paid public lectures in Athens. And since the role in the Persian Wars was used by Athens (and Sparta) to legitimize its own claim as leader of all Greeks, it seems likely that the rich pay that Herodotus received in Athens might have influenced his writing.
Additionally, we also have to acknowledge that Herodotus tried to increase the reading pleasure of his audience by adding invented speeches and other dramatizing effects to his book.
Although Herodotus claims that the „Histories“ is the result of his own research, their trustworthiness is limited and both Herodotus and the Histories have to be taken with a grain of salt. Herodotus (who was Greek) not only writes exclusively from the Greek perspective, but his book is also a consciously shaped, Athens-friendly depiction of the Greco-Persian Was that is enriched with dramatizing elements (like invented speeches) that can also be found in ancient Greek theatre. It is not a neutral report on the Persian Wars!
Yet despite all of that, Herodotus is still nicknamed the father of history.
Why Is Herodotus Called the Father of History?
The nickname „Father of History“ goes back to Roman times to Marcus Tullius Cicero. Speaking of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Have you ever asked yourself why Roman names got get so long and what the individual parts mean? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
The Roman Marcus Tullius Cicero gave Herodotus the nickname pater historiae (father of history) in his philosophical book „De Legibus“ because Herodotus was the first to not only tell a story but to claim that he reported the results of his research. So Herodotus not only wrote a universal history that reports about events. Instead, he also searched for the reason why the events (like the Persian Wars) happened.
Do you want to read more about the ideas of one of the brightest and most influential politicians of the Late Roman Republic in his own words? Then I can highly recommend you the translated version of Ciceros` „De Legibus“*.
And if you want to find out more about Greek history in general I would like to recommend you my article here where you can find a timeline of ancient Greece.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War.*
Wolfgang Will: Herodot und Thukydides: Die Geburt der Geschichte.*
Jenifer Neils: The Cambridge companion to ancient Athens.*
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