Herodotus

Herodotus was a Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria and lived in the fifth century BC. His place in history and his significance may be understood according to the traditions within which he worked. His work is the earliest Greek prose to have survived intact.

 

However, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a literary critic of Augustan Rome, listed seven predecessors of Herodotus, describing their works as simple, unadorned accounts of their own and other cities and people, Greek or foreign, including popular legends, sometimes melodramatic and naive, often charming all traits that can be found in the work of Herodotus himself.

 

Herodotus mentions Hecataeus in his Histories, on one occasion mocking him for his naive genealogy and, on another occasion, quoting Athenian complaints against his handling of their national history.

 

It is possible that Herodotus borrowed much material from Hecataeus, as stated by Porphyry in a quote recorded by Eusebius. Just as Homer drew extensively on a tradition of oral poetry, sung by wandering minstrels, so Herodotus appears to have drawn on an Ionian tradition of story-telling, collecting and interpreting the oral histories he chanced upon in his travels.

 

These oral histories often contained folk-tale motifs and demonstrated a moral, yet they also contained substantial facts relating to geography, anthropology and history, all compiled by Herodotus in an entertaining style and format. It is on account of the many strange stories and the folk-tales he reported that his critics in early modern times branded him ‘The Father of Lies’.

 

Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus and that at some point was banished from his birthplace by the tyrant Lygdamis to the island of Samos.  He returned to Halicarnassus to participate in the overthrowing of the tyrant but was not in the favor of the citizens and therefore left for Thurii, a colony in Southern Italy that was Athenian-led. This is where he perhaps died although there is speculation that he may have perished in Macedonia at Pella.

 

Herodotus wrote his Histories in the Ionian dialect yet he was born in Halicarnassus, originally a Dorian settlement. According to the Suda, Herodotus learned the Ionian dialect as a boy living on the island of Samos, whither he had fled with his family from the oppressions of Lygdamis, tyrant of Halicarnassus and grandson of Artemisia I of Caria.

 

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The Suda also informs us that Herodotus later returned home to lead the revolt that eventually overthrew the tyrant. However, thanks to recent discoveries of some inscriptions on Halicarnassus, dated to about that time, we now know that the Ionic dialect was used there even in official documents, so there was no need to assume like the Suda that he must have learned the dialect elsewhere.

 

Herodotus provides much information about the nature of the world and the status of science during his lifetime, often engaging in private speculation.

 

For example, he reports that the annual flooding of the Nile was said to be the result of melting snows far to the south, and he comments that he cannot understand how there can be snow in Africa, the hottest part of the known world, offering an elaborate explanation based on the way that desert winds affect the passage of the Sun over this part of the world.

 

He also passes on dismissive reports from Phoenician sailors that, while circumnavigating Africa, they “saw the sun on the right side while sailing westwards”.