Herodotus (-484? to -425?), a Greek historian, wrote a history of the world as he knew it. It covers the years -716 to -479. Cicero called him the Father of History. Plutarch called him the Father of Lies.
At the heart of his book is the Persian War, where the Greeks amazingly defeated the Persian Empire: Marathon, Salamis, Thermopylae (“This is Sparta!”), all of that. He is big on the value of courage and freedom, of empire as a form of slavery.
In his 20s and 30s, Herodotus travelled the world, from Italy to Persia (Iran), from Egypt to Scythia (Ukraine). He knew about what we call France, West Africa and India, but not about China, Java or even Britain. Everywhere he went he asked questions and gathered stories.
He wrote down what he had seen and heard in the form of a story about the world as he knew it that went back hundreds of years. We now call that sort of thing “history”, from the name of his book: “Historia”, which in Greek means “Researches”.
By age 39 he was giving public readings, which at Athens won him a prize of ten talents of silver (8,700 crowns), equal to about $3 million (in 2014 US cost-of-living terms). A boy who was moved to tears by his readings would later become the other great Greek historian: Thucydides.
How to write history:
I must tell what is said, but I am not at all bound to believe it, and this comment of mine holds about my whole History. (Herodotus, 7.152)
His duty was to pass on what he had seen and heard. He expresses his doubts, but lets readers come to their own conclusions. And a good thing too, because his idea of what is improbable is not the same as ours: he thought a horse could give birth to a rabbit, for example, but did not think Phoenicians had sailed round Africa – even though we can tell from his own account that most likely they did!
Thucydides, on the other hand, threw out anything he thought uncertain or improbable. He saw Herodotus as adding fables to win prize money.
Ethnocentrism: Herodotus did think the Greeks were better than anyone else, but he had seen enough of the world to know that everyone thinks that way about their own people. That makes him far less ethnocentric than most Western historians, who are quick to look down on people who are different.
Racism: Herodotus did not divide the world by race, into “white” people and “black” people and so on. Nor did he assume that lighter-skinned people were better than darker-skinned ones. He saw the Egyptians as having black skin and woolly hair.
What he read: It seems he read Hesiod, Hecataeus, Sappho, Solon, Aesop, Simonides of Cos, Aeschylus, Pindar and, above all, Homer. He modelled his Greek on Homer, but wrote in prose instead of verse, and wrote of the Persian War instead of the Trojan War. Like Hecataeus, he wrote a description of the world and its peoples.
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