Classic Lectures

Herodotus and the Invention of History

By Raymond Kierstead

“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not be forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds—some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians—may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other.”

To the historian, these opening lines of Herodotus’ Histories represent something akin to a sacred text, the beginning, it is sometimes argued, of the practice of history, or at least of history as a critical mode of inquiry into the past. Like many claims of origins and intellectual paternity, the venerable cliché that Herodotus was the “father of history” may be a bit suspect. Perhaps he had Greek predecessors who deserve the name historian, such as Hecataeus of Miletus. Perhaps there are other traditions of historical writing that ought to take precedence when we consider the formation of the historical imagination over time; the Biblical history of the Jews comes immediately to mind in this case. Yet there is an argument to be made that Herodotus, in weaving together the stories of his and other cultures, in taking the conventions of Greek religion and Greek epic and making those conventions meaningful to contemporary or near-contemporary events, in constructing a dense narrative of those events, and, finally, in his prodigious questioning of his world about its memories of the past, “invented” history. And this is the case I’ll try to make today.

Herodotus’ history of the war between Greeks and Persians dates from roughly the mid-fifth century. By this point, we are in a period when Greek culture had been quite thoroughly penetrated by critical modes of thinking, first in the realm of philosophy as part of the intellectual legacy of the Ionian Greeks. In the case of Herodotus, who, to some degree at least, shared in the so-called Ionian enlightenment, critical intelligence was directed to human affairs in time. With Herodotus we encounter the beginning of the historian’s attempt to wrestle with the concept of time: to give shape to time and to memory and to impose a certain order upon the seeming chaos of human actions over time. In his opening lines, Herodotus not only evokes the idea of war narrative in an epic mode, not only an interest in the totality of human experience, but perhaps above all he evokes the idea of explanation, “why the two peoples fought one another.” In so doing he established history at its very “birth” as an explanatory enterprise, an interpretive discipline. However good the stories that are the heart and soul of his work and however compelling his narrative, Herodotus was no mere storyteller. His “invention” was designed not only to entertain, but also to compare, to explain, and to interpret.

This “invention” has not always been admired. Near-contemporaries such as Thucydides and later classical historians such as Plutarch were contemptuous of Herodotus’ work. Even in later antiquity we uncover the great insult to Herodotus’ work: “The Father of History; The Father of Lies.”  Stories of naked queens and children served up as pies were thought by later practitioners of the historical art to demean history as a serious intellectual enterprise. This mélange of conventional stories and conventional wisdom, improbable events and equally improbable conversations, gossip and hearsay, condemned Histories as hopelessly unreliable and unscholarly. However, and fortunately for us, we stand at the far side of that 2,000-year divide and are part of a historical culture within which Herodotus’ reputation is secure. Indeed, strange to say, we inhabit an intellectual and cultural world where Herodotus may be considered something of a hot subject: an important figure in debates over diversity and Eurocentrism, and even a bit player in the Academy Award–winning film The English Patient. I am afraid that my subject is somewhat less trendy. I want to try to measure Herodotus’ achievement from the perspective of a modern historian and to search out certain affinities between his strangeness and our strangeness.

We can begin to measure Herodotus’ achievement by brief consideration of the intellectual traditions that he inherited. He was located in a culture that was shaped by myth and epic, and there are some good reasons, as we shall see later, to regard Herodotus as standing squarely in that dual tradition. Thus Werner Jaeger in his classic, Paideia, wrote: “His work was the resurrection of the epic tradition . . . or rather it was new growth from the epic root.” But the very word “invention” that I have chosen to use in analyzing Herodotus’ achievement argues for innovation more than resurrection. For the idea that human societies require history, that it is an inevitable part of cultural baggage, is anthropologically false. Although one may argue plausibly that all societies depend to one degree or another on tradition—i.e., the need to relate past and present—myth and poetry may serve this purpose well enough. Historical inquiry ought not to be understood as simply the inevitable evolutionary outgrowth of other modes of thought, let alone as part of a broader evolution from primitive to more advanced culture.

There were possible influences on Herodotus, influences conventionally attributed to his Ionian background. Thus Charles Fornara takes us a step beyond Jaeger when he writes that, “Herodotus perhaps united epic theme with Ionian method.” Historiographer Herbert Butterfield argued that the very geographic situation of the Ionians between cultural worlds, at a crossroads of trade, on the fringe of a great empire—“the meeting place of Mediterranean civilizations”—impelled an interest in other peoples and thus the origins of a kind of historical inquiry. It is in this ethnographic context of an attempt to understand neighboring peoples that one best observes Herodotus’ remarkable capacity to describe other cultures and their differences (they pee that way; we pee this way). Herodotus, with his keen observation of cultural detail, was a master at drawing cultural boundaries between Greek and barbarian, democracy and despotism, West and East, Persian and Scythian. But, in assessing his ethnographic method, it is equally important to note that Herodotus understood that those boundaries were permeable. Egyptian civilization could, for example, be a source of Greek civilization. At a more general level, Herodotus had the capaciousness of mind to transcend ethnography and recognize that there could be, at certain moments in time, similar elements of greatness and of baseness in very different civilizations. That meant that the known world could not simply be divided antithetically between Greek and barbarian. There was great value in, but, also limits to, the ethnographic analysis of difference that is so conspicuous a part of Herodotus’ achievement.

Herodotus also stood heir to the tradition of Ionian critical thinking or rational inquiry. He openly recognized the influence of the late sixth- and very early fifth-century “historian,” Hecataeus of Miletus. Hecataeus was a questioner of traditions who sought to purify and rationalize the legendary inheritance of the Greeks and to purge some of the miraculous from the received tradition. For example, a King Aegyptus was said by tradition to have had 50 sons and a certain Danaos 50 daughters. Hecataeus concluded that each had 20. His attempts to sort out legends and stories and to establish the most likely and most commonsensical solution clearly shaped Herodotus’ method of inquiry and generated a tradition of separating fact from fancy, what some would see as the very essence of historical practice. This is evident in Herodotus’ skeptical treatment of ancient stories about the origins of the wars between Greeks and barbarians. Herodotus’ keen analysis of the differences between Eastern despotism and Greek liberty may well have derived in some fashion from speculative tradition among Ionian thinkers on the responsibility of climate for the character of states. In short, we can place Herodotus in a broad intellectual setting, as long as we understand that none of the Ionian traditions comprised history as such. For better or worse, as is inevitably quoted in lectures such as this, “there was no Herodotus before Herodotus.”

Herodotus’ unique invention, history, may be understood in several ways. He told an epic story of war and great deeds that was at bottom a human story. In the tradition of Hecataeus, Herodotus sought to separate fact from myth, to query his sources, to get the story right. In so doing, Herodotus established what would be the fundamental framework and subject matter of this new form of inquiry. History would deal with near-contemporary and contemporary events. As in epic, war and the causes of war and the clashes of cultures at war would be the essential subject matter of history. It would examine political life. In a certain sense, history would be polis literature, that is, a serious reflection on political cultures from the perspective of Greek political experience in the fifth century.