chapter  1
The Persian Wars (Herodotus, ca. 484–ca. 424 B.C.)
Pages 6

We know he lived until 430 because events of that year are mentioned in his history. He died probably before 424 because significant events datable to that year are not mentioned. His book was finished by the 420s and scholars generally agree that he wrote it in the last few years of an active life that involved a prodigious amount of travel

and first-hand observation. Otherwise, little is known about the man’s life and character. He produced a work far in advance of genealogies, king lists,

chronicles, and the purely contemporary history later championed by Thucydides. He was the first to compose a work that unfolded a panoramic view of nearly a whole century. His narratives, descriptions, reports, and interpretations were supported by travel and oral traditions noted along the way. Openness to experience and exotic facts was a result in part of living in Halicarnassus in southern Asia Minor, a crossroads where Greek and Persian confronted one another in an atmosphere of commerce and philosophical speculation about the nature of the physical world. Herodotus plunges a reader at once into questions of what can be

known about the past and how it might be known. He was first to describe what he did as “history,” from a Greek word that means knowing by inquiry. The ideas of “knowing” and “inquiry” are what set his book apart from what came before. He assumed things worth knowing can be recovered from the past. His reputation in antiquity endured despite charges of dishonesty, but admirers were taken more with the book’s style and pleasure it gave than with its trustworthiness. Despite such reservations, recognition came in later times when the nine books were named after the nine Muses of Greek mythology, the first book being Clio, the muse of history. He was also first to write a work in extended prose, actually the first in any IndoEuropean language. Other long compositions of the ancient world like the Homeric Iliad and the Indian Ramayana are in verse. Needless to say, few historians since Herodotus have written in verse. The Roman orator and statesman Cicero named him “the father of

history” (De legibus 1.5) some 400 years after his death, but at the same time called him a great liar. Thucydides rejected his subject matter and methods and decided only contemporary political events can be examined and confirmed by oral evidence, which set the standard for historical writing in later antiquity. Plutarch (d. A.D. 120), biographer of notable Greeks and Romans, wrote an essay On the Malice of Herodotus that praises his style and faults his truthfulness.3

Attacks on his accuracy came at a time when hardly anyone believed it was possible to study a vanished past. No one understood how Herodotus could know so much about remote lands and peoples without knowledge of their languages. His reports of strange customs seemed far-fetched to people who traveled little. As for the Persian wars, skepticism greeted his attempt to make sense of events he never witnessed.