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The Histories of Herodotus

(click here to see detailed notes on Herodotus I:1 [p.5])


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Herodotus of Halicarnassus was probably writing around the same time as Euripides (that is, after the more conservative tragedians we'll be reading in the next two weeks), but there are sound reasons, based on genre, theme, and influence, for reading him before the tragedians. See how many such reasons you can identitfy, as you read him.

To give you some idea of his chronological relationship to our syllabus and to the events he narrates, here's a skeleton timeline:

  • 12th cent. B.C.E. -- Trojan War
  • 8th (?) c.  B.C.E. -- Homer
  • 6th   cent. B.C.E. -- Hymn to Demeter
  • 6th-5th c. B.C.E. -- Events described by Herodotus
    Rulers of Persia:
          ~559-529 = Cyrus, founder of Persian power
          ~529-521 = Cambyses, conqueror of Egypt
          ~521-486 = Darius; first wave of Persian War--Greek victory at Marathon 490 B.C.E.

          ~485-465 = Xerxes; second wave of Perwsian War--decisive Greek victories at
               Thermopylae and Salamis, 480 B.C.E.
  • ca. 484-420  B.C.E. -- Life of Herodotus (most likely, he was researching, writing and performing ca. 450-420).

As you might expect, little is known for sure about Herodotus's life and background. The following "facts" are known or conjectured: Herodotus was born and raised in Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (modern Bodrum, Turkey). In the 5th centruy, Halicarnassus was a city on many margins: of the Persian Empire, of Ionia (the dialect of Halicarnassus was Ionian, but the city was located on the northern edge of the Dorian region) and of the non-Greek hinterland. Some of Herodotus's cosmopolitanism and/or relativism may be attributed to his having grown up in proximity to a number of different cultures.

The Ionian civilization, to which Halicarnassians belonged, was noted for its strong scientific and philosophical tradition. It was the Ionians who first coined the word historia, meaning "inquiry" (of a scientific or systematic nature), which Herodotus uses to designate his project.

Other developments in Greek literature around the same time were also important. Herodotus's lifetime saw the establishment of Greek prose as a written mode, and a rising tradition of travel writings. The 5th century B.C.E. was the century of Attic (Athenian) tragedy as well as of wars and Herodotus, and its influence can also be also felt in Herodotus's thinking.

You can have fun trying to identify the traces of all these influences as you read. Think: having formed his worldview by picking and choosing from the modes of thought available to him, what does Herodotus end up with, in terms of (a) a workable mode of inquiry and (b) a theory about what governs the unfolding of events?

Why read Herodotus?
It is a beloved cliché in old-fashioned circles that Herodotus is "the Father of History"*: until his Histories, there is no record of any attempt to construct a reasoned and substantiated prose narrative of real events (something we now consider very common!). However, even in his own time he was simultaneously dubbed the "Father of Lies," at once the founder of the genre of History and its first polluter. Draw your own conclusions: as a graduate of the Homeric school of narrative, what strikes you as new, interesting, and valuable in Herodotus's work; and/or, what seems worthy of censure?

*(In post-modern circles, of course, it is recognised that History, fathers, and even Herodotus himself are figments of our imagination...)

Further information
I do not suggest that you read the Introduction to this volume, since the assignment itself is so long, but there is a Glossary on pp. xix-xxx that you may find useful.

It can be hard to get oriented in Herodotus's narrative if you don't know the basic outline of the events involved. Click here for a brief summary-for-kids of Greek history, 510-404 B.C.E., from www.historyforkids.com. If you want more information, click here for a more in-depth page on the Persian War only at Washington State University.

Study Questions
(you can respond to these in your ODC, or just think about them as you read)

  1. What are the Histories about?
  2. No, really, what are the Histories about?
  3. What is Herodotus's "project"--his purpose in writing them?
  4. Be sure to compare the first paragraph (I:1) with the openings of the Iliad and Odyssey. What can we learn from the comparison?
  5. Similarly, be sure to look especially closely at the following material, which we will discuss in class: "preliminaries" (I: 1-5), Croesus (I: 6-94), Egypt (II: 1-5 and 35-51), Helen (II: 112-120), Scythia (IV: 1-5 and 59-80). What common threads can you identify?
  6. What (according to the worldiew of the Histories) makes things happen? That is, what drives historical events?
  7. What holds the narrative together? What pulls it apart? What aspects of Herodotus's technique make his narrative difficult to read, and how are these justified and/or explained in the context of his project?
  8. Based on the Histories alone, what is "history"? What is it for?
  9. To what standards of quality does Herodotus hold his Histories? That is, what must his narrative do in order to be "good," and does it always live up to these standards?
  10. Whence does Herodotus derive the authority for his narrative? That is, what governs the inclusion or exclusion of particular details, and how do they cohere?
  11. Why does it make sense to read this book right after the Odyssey?


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