Herodotus: The First Historian

Herodotus is known as the first true historian. His books, today usually collected in one volume, are called The Histories. They are largely a chronicle of four great Persian Kings as well as their relations with the Greek city states prior to about 430 BC. Horodotus researched using primary resources as much as possible. Although his works are by no means unbiased, they are thought to be as factually accurate as he understood the concept.

Halicarnassus, a Greek city state, situated on what would now be the south-west coast of Turkey, was his birthplace. In the time of his youth it had been part of the Persian Empire ruled by a female admiral under Xerxes, Artemisia. He was from an influential family that included an epic poet, Panyassis. He may have spent some of his youth on the island of Samos.

He is thought to have travelled around much of the ancient civilized world in the course of his research. He probably visited Egypt, Athens, Tyre, and Babylon among other places. Around 447 BC he moved to Athens, a state he much admired. He became friends with influential figures there. Later, about 443 BC, he became part of an Athenian colony sent to the Italian Peninsula. It was called Thurium. The date of his death is uncertain, but was probably about the year 430 BC.

Herodotus on Egyptian Geography

Herodotus on the Culture of Ancient Egypt

Herodotus's Description of Embalming in Ancient Egypt

Like all great historians, he owed a debt to previous writers. History had been written before Herodotus. Yet these histories largely mixed myth and fact. The Iliad for example, was very likely based on actual events. Yet the actions of the Greek Gods are hardly credible to a modern reader. Unlike most previous works, The Histories were a highly ambitious project, a work that consumed the entire life of the great historian.

Much of what we understand about the period before 400 BC is due to the work of Herodotus. He is especially noted for his chronical of the Greco-Persian wars which encompassed heroic battles such as Thermopylae and the Naval Battle of Salamis. In the times near to his own, Herodotus took the time to interview actual participants in historical events. He visited the scenes of battles to get an understanding of the geography.

If Herodotus had a fault it was in putting perhaps too much credence in the reports and stories he gathered. Like his many wanderings in the ancient world, his works also rambled, with some digressions. Even so, his grand theme of a conflict between civilizations, East and West, is one which has been taken up again and again by writers ever since. We see its echoes even to the 1800s when Rudyard Kipling could write, "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." Herodotus is still widely read, studied, and debated by historians.

Learn about the debate concerning great figures of history.


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