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The Core Curriculum

Herodotus

484 BCE – 420 BCE
Dates are approximate

Ancient Agora Museum. Athens, Greece. Public Domain ImageHerodotus-Roman Copy: Ancient Agora Museum. Athens, Greece. Public Domain Image Historian of the Persian empire, the Greek city-states, and the conflict between the two. “Of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, this is the presentation of his inquiry, so that human events may not be effaced by time, and the great and marvelous deeds/accomplishments, both those displayed by the Greeks and by the barbarians, may not be without glory, including other things and especially the cause for which they went to war with one another.” With this sentence, beginning with his own name and claiming authorship, Herodotus opens his monumental prose narrative about the rise of the Persian empire and the resistance of Greeks and others to its impressive military power and cultural traditions. And with this statement of purpose and subject Herodotus also inaugurates, although without claiming to do so, the genre of history: the chronological and critical analysis of noteworthy human actions and achievements of the past. Reliable biographical details about Herodotus are few; his text itself suggests that although a native of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum on the Aegean coast of Turkey), he traveled widely throughout the Mediterranean world. In addition to his wider travels, he clearly spent time in Athens—where we are told that he received the enormous fee of ten talents for a live performance of his History—and came to know its politics and political families well. But most likely he ended his life in the Italian city of Thurii, probably in the 420s BCE, after migrating there when the city was founded by Athens in 444 BCE.  

Source: Adapted from Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome

Historical Contexts

The Histories

Herodotus and the Persian Wars

Herodotus leaves the most complete record of the Persian Wars, including an account of how the Athenians and Persians first came into conflict during the Ionian Revolt of 499-494 BCE. Herodotus attributed the revolt to the personal ambitions of the tyrant of Miletus. Several Ionian cities joined Miletus, while Athens and Eretria sent modest naval support. The bulk of the revolt was suppressed relatively quickly. For the Persians, rebellion was a sacrilege; it was the king's duty to restore order and punish the offenders, including the Athenians, who had aggressively sent ships into Persian territory and broken their treaty with Persia.

The first phase of the Persian Wars occurred in 490 BCE when a punitive Persian force was sent in response to Athenian and Eretrian involvement. The Persians successfully sacked Eretria, but were unexpectedly routed by a joint Athenian-Plataean force at Marathon. For the Athenians and other Greeks, the victory at Marathon was the stuff of legends and was memorialized in poetry, painting, and a monument at the site to the fallen Greeks.

The Gatehouse of Xerxes' Palace at Persepolis. 5th c BCE: ArtStore: UCSD Slide GalleryThe Gatehouse of Xerxes' Palace at Persepolis. 5th c BCE: ArtStore: UCSD Slide Gallery Phase two of the Greco-Persian Wars took place in 480/479 BCE . The defeat at Marathon had raised the stakes for the Persians. The Persian king Xerxes crossed the Hellespont with an army and navy of tremendous size, having already gained the alliance of many Greek states. The Persian strategy was to move the army south along the coast of Greece toward Athens and rely on the fleet for supplies and support. Control of the sea was thus crucial for the Persians’ numerical advantage on land. The successful Persian push allowed their capture of Athens. The strategy of the Greek coalition, however, paid off when they enticed the Persian fleet into battle at Salamis and crippled it badly enough to forestall further action at that time. Xerxes and the bulk of the Persian forces returned to the empire, leaving a portion in Greece. Persian strategy at this point aimed at weakening the Greek coalition by offering peace terms to the Athenians. The Athenian refusal led ultimately to a confrontation at Plataea ( 479 BCE ), in which the Persian commander was killed and the Persians routed.

Phase three of the wars saw the Greek coalition follow up its victories by moving aggressively into the eastern Aegean and making pinpoint attacks at strategic Persian bases, particulary Mycale, thus forcing the Persian Empire to relinquish control of Macedon, Thrace, and the Hellespont.

For the Persians, the stability of Xerxes’ reign and of the empire as a whole was not shaken by these events. The Persian kings thereafter adopted the strategy of playing the Greek cities against one another to distract them from interference in Persian affairs. For the Greeks, however, the wars conditioned the next hundred years of Hellenic history. Athens was able to use its prestige resulting from Salamis and its impressive navy to gain political hegemony throughout much of the Aegean for seventy years. The prestige from the Spartan role at Plataea as saviors of Greece allowed Sparta to end Athenian hegemony and substitute its own (with Persian help). More generally, the wars were crucial in shaping a positive Greek identity, constructed in opposition to a negative Persian “other,” as heroic, courageous, and noble in their defense of a common Greek good.

Source: Adapted from Oxford Encyclopedia or Ancient Greece and Rome

Herodotus and The Invention of History:

Although Herodotus has no true predecessors, his History engages and reflects familiarity with a variety of Greek literary traditions. Of these, Homer is the most important and the most immediately apparent. But the Homeric language and themes clearly audible at times should not mislead us into thinking that Herodotus is old-fashioned or archaic in his understanding of events. He may have seen his purpose as akin to the self-professed purpose of epic, namely to preserve the memory of great deeds. He seems to have understood the events of history to originate in the characters and actions of individual great men and saw an inexorable moral providence underpinning his whole history: the gods bring it about that overweening pride eventually ends in ruin; the gods intervene in human affairs; their oracles cannot be disregarded. But in addition to divinely operated cause and effect Herodotus recognized a different, non-moral level to history on which what might be called a scientific notion of cause and effect operated.

Herodotus’ presentation of human decisions and actions has much in common with the intellectual world of the Sophists and early prose writers. Sophists were itinerant professors of higher education. From its original senses of ‘sage’ and ‘expert’, the word sophist came to be applied in the 5th. cent. BCE to a number of individuals who traveled widely through the Greek world, giving popular lectures and specialized instruction in a wide range of topics. They were not a school, nor even a single movement, having neither a common set of doctrines nor any shared organization. Their activities included the popularization of Ionian natural philosophy, mathematics, and the ‘social sciences’ of history, geography, and speculative anthropology.

Herodotus’ engagement with his own fifth-century contemporaries is striking. The evidence for Herodotus’ familiarity with early Hippocratic (medical) writings is particularly persuasive, and a common interest in the interconnections of climate, geography, and culture links Herodotus with contemporary science and medicine even where a specific textual connection is unavailable or uncertain. Herodotus’ concern with custom (nomos) ties him to the Sophistic discussions of the fifth century. Finally, Herodotus’ political interests—his fascination with tyranny and empire and his insistence on the value of freedom—must have drawn him into discussions of the rise of Athenian democracy and empire following the end of the Persian Wars whose historian he was. Thus Herodotus can be seen as a writer who moves within and responds to a rich variety of literary and intellectual currents. His text, however, is a prose narrative like no other.

Source: Adapted from Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome