Herodotus was a Greek from the city of Halicarnassus, an Aegean port in Asia Minor, part of the Persian empire. He published his Histories between 426 and 415 B.C. The objective was to explain the unexpected Greek victory in the Wars against the Persians (500 to 449 B.C.) He was the first writer of importance to use prose literature, a departure from the traditional verse formats. He produced a panoramic vision of the geographic areas referred to and the customs of the peoples there.
Unlike Homer Herodotus does not claim an inspiration from the Muses. (Editors divided his Histories into nine books – each one being named after one of the nine Muses but posthumously). He contradicts Homer asserting that Helen was never in Troy but landed in Egypt due to stormy weather. He believes that Homer changed the story to make it fit epic poetry. This is a warning that Herodotus' account would not be written in the same vein as a Homeric epic. However, he opens his work with a tribute to the world of the Homeric hero and his effort to achieve glory (kleos). After all, both authors were reporters of the great Greek events and preserved them for posterity. Herodotus also combined the two major themes of the Homeric epic: travel in the ethnographic sections and war in the historic parts. He uses the history of the Persian imperial expansion to delve into the cultures of the colonizers and colonized in the century that preceded the wars. History and culture intermingle in his story.
Although his way of exploring the world is proto-scientific, what distinguishes Herodotus' historical research is his approach. The 'why' is a constant in his work. Why did the war between Greece and the barbarians start? Why are there floods on the Nile? The search for origins is another major thread in the Histories. He explains the disparate references presenting them as part of a Cosmos, an ordered and comprehensible world. Herodotus' story makes sense because it is a story that shapes a logical universe. (Contemporaries such as Hesiod made sense of the world of the gods by presenting their genealogy in The Theogony and Thales and his pre-socratic contemporaries were trying to make logical sense of the physical world through their proto-science.)
Despite its debt to the Greek tradition of Homer and Hesiod, Herodotus' Histories represent the transition from a mythical and archaic vision to a new perception that manifests itself as a way of investigating how the world works. In comparison to The Iliad it is notable that in Histories there are no divine interventions, though some transcendental influence is acknowledged. This is a sign that the Histories formed part of a contemporary transition from the emphasis on a vertical/divine reference to one also on a horizontal/human world view.
Book 1: Herodotus announces that the aim of his work is to write down for future memory the past conflicts of his Greek ancestors with their Persian neighbours :
"This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvellous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory, including among others what was the cause of their waging war on each other." (Histories Book 1/1)
Croesus conquered the Greek settlements scattered around the western coast of Anatolia and built the Lydian empire. With the pretext of mistreatment of the king of Media by Cyrus the Great, Croesus gathered the support of Sparta and Athens to invade Persia. Croesus was defeated and Herodotus chronicles the life of Cyrus who liberated Persia from the Medes and went on to expand his territory into the Persian empire until his death fighting the Massagetae.
Book 2 : Egypt's geography, culture and history are described.
Book 3 : Recounts how Egypt was conquered by Cambyses, the emperor of Persia who succeeded Cyrus. After Cambyses' death Darius became Persian emperor. The empire continued to expand under Darius who put down a Babylonian revolt and invaded Samos. Herodotus narrates the life of Polycrates a tyrant in Samos and ruler of the Aegean.
Book 4 : Describes the invasion of Scythia by Darius and the geography and customs of its peoples. The Scythians fought off the Persian army but they conquered the Greek towns on the Hellespont. Next the Persians attacked Cyrene, a Greek city in Libya and this country's customs and geography are described.
Book 5 : Tells the story of how the Ionian city-states, led by the tyrants of Miletus, revolted against Persia. As Athens supported the rebellion there is an account of the founding of democracy there when the tyrant Hippias is thrown out of the city. The Persians put a rapid end to the Ionian revolt.
Book 6 : is an account of Darius' attack on Greece provoked by their support of the Ionian revolt. The battle of Marathon resulted in an Athenian victory.
Book 7 : Darius' son Xerxes succeeds his father as emperor of Persia. He launches an invasion with the aim of expanding the empire to Greece. However a small army of Spartans defend the invading Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae but the Persians massacre them.
Book 8 : Narrates the naval battles at Salamis and Artemisium and the fire at Athens. Themistocles leads the Athenian forces at Salamis and defeats the Persian fleet. Xerxes flees Greece.
Book 9 : The Persian general, Mardonius, tries to ally with Greece but they refuse. At Plataea they confront each other again and the Hellenic allies are victorious. Mardonius is killed and the Greek fleet also destroys their Persian opponents at Mycale liberating the Ionian city-states. Athenian ships then sail to the Hellespont to free the Greek cities there from the Persians.
Herodotus ends with the reminder that Cyrus the Great had warned that soft countries create soft men and poverty makes for independence and the force to defend it. (Book IX, 122)
- The Histories serve multiple purposes. One is to offer a record of the historical events during the Greco-Persian wars. This is Herodotus' first intention according to his introduction. The book also provides an ethnographic description of various peoples and countries, which may be drawn from personal travels. The narration follows a traditional pattern used in Ionia where Herodotus was born. This format is called 'logography' and is composed of a collection of social, ethnic, cultural, geographic items.
The leaf format for written texts was probably not usual before the early second century A.D. when it was used extensively by the Church. However previous to that texts were unrolled from scrolls in the same way as we often read on a smartphone today. The scroll offers a symmetrical view of the written words and leads the eye to the centre of the unfolding papyrus. It was thus natural for writers to format their content to fit in with this natural centring in a chiasmic structure, so called because it took on the form of the Greek letter chi which resembles a modern X. Formally the text states the first topic then the second and so on until it comes to the middle concept when it repeats the topics in reverse order. Chiasmus is essentially a binary literary technique which creates only two sides of an argument for the listeners to consider, and then leads them to favour one side of the argument.
Middle eastern texts followed this formatting:
Longer and more complex texts using chiasma are called ring compositions. Homer and Herodotus used these to structure their texts. For example the entire text of The Iliad is framed in this way. The last chapters recall the end of Achilles "rage", announced in the first line, thus completing a thematic circle.
The Histories are narrated following this ring format to underline specific ideas such as introducing something new, reflecting a historical reality, highlighting a moral lesson on behaviour as in Book 8 where you 'reap what you sow'. This format of composition is also of practical help to the oral narrators since it is an aid to memory.
The battle for freedom
Perhaps the most important role of ring composition in Histories is, as in The Iliad, to frame the entire work and so offer us a vital clue to its meaning. The beginning in 1:1 is "... the reason why they fought one another." The end the final book in 9:122 is "... rather than... to be slaves to others." These two very separated sentences can be read as one and they play on the difference between "one another" and "others". This constitutes a primary theme of the whole book which is embedded within the ideal that it is better to fight for internal freedom than to be enslaved by an external power.
Pride before a fall
The story in the Histories is a three piece drama. The introduction sets out the conflict and sounds the motif > aspiration to greatness is a challenge to the envy of the gods and so is attacked by divine wrath. Hybris meets Nemesis. Then comes the rise of Persian power. The ending is Persia's failure. The presumption of Croesus announced in Book 1 is met by a rebuke from the Athenian Solon. Then the Persian empire which was founded on the ruins of Croesus' power showed its pride in Xerxes' army and was defeated in the last Book by the Athenian state. The final chapter in Book 9 also presents Cyrus at the height of his power as ruler of Asia and also refers to Book 1 where Cyrus is named as the one who led the Persians to be lords of Asia :
"Thus born and bred Cyrus became king; and after this he subdued Croesus, who was the first to begin the quarrel, as I have before said; and having subdued him he then became ruler of all Asia." Book 9/130
Herodotus places the idea of an inevitable fall of the empire at the end of the narrative. This can be interpreted as the author's underlining of the Greek and Barbarian successes and failures in a world guided and balanced by divine forces.
Fantasy and reality
There is a marked stylistic contrast, as is to be expected in a ring composition, between the first three and the last three books. In the first trilogy the listener hears of the barbarian history of Lydia, Egypt and Mesopotamia. There are rich, colourful tales of a fanciful East. In the last three books there is a clear historical account akin to fact >the battles of Thermopylae, the naval battles at Salamis and Artemisium and the fire at Athens then Themistocles leading the Athenian forces at Salamis and defeating the Persian fleet, the Greek victory at Plataea and the liberation of the Ionian city-states and the freeing of the Hellespont city states from the Persians.
Neither Occident nor Orient
Books 4, 5 and 6 are in the middle and they belong to neither the East not the West geographically. Book 4 spans the far north and the far south. Book 5 is about Thrace and Ionia. Book 6 reaches out to Attica. Chronologically they also bridge the start and the finish. If the first trilogy deal with centuries, the second trilogy are centred on the thirty years prior to the battle of Marathon and the final trilogy is about the ten years after that battle. Perhaps the classification of his material lay in the different attitudes to life and in the battle of Salamis where two extremes entered into conflict.
Herodotus had a deep religious conviction > history was providence. Humans are ruled by the gods whose will is shown through signs and oracles. History is explained in terms of the will of the gods and it contains folklore and theology. Epic, fables, history and theology are all one but fact is coming to the fore. It is still a history for contemporaries of Herodotus, not as we understand it.