c. 484 – c. 425 B.C.E.
Exploration Ranking 23rd of 26
Greek stamp from 2019
Herodotus’ account of his travels (contained in his Histories) was a valuable source for the history and culture of the many areas he visited, including the following modern countries: Egypt, Libya, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the Ukraine and Russia. Herodotus’ work is not only an artistic masterpiece; for all his mistakes (and for all his fantasies and inaccuracies) he remains the leading source of original information not only between 550 and 479 B.C.E. but also for much of that of western Asia and of Egypt at that time.(1)
His book has been widely read over two millennium. He is considered the first historian in Western civilization, and according to Cicero, the father of geography and ethnography (the scientific description of races and cultures of humankind).
Herodotus’s mammoth work, The Histories, was the world’s first great narrative history book. His general purpose for the book was to recount the great past acts of Greeks and non-Greeks, and more specifically, to explain the causes and course of the recent Greco-Persian Wars (492-449 B.C.E.).(2) This conflict had an enormous impact on Herodotus’ own life, and a desire to understand how it unfolded lies behind his great historical project.(3) It was this endeavor that ultimately earned him the moniker “father of history.”
Beginning around 454 B.C.E., he embarked on his extensive travels from one Persian territory to another: Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Babylonia and Macedonia. He sailed to the islands of the Greek archipelago, traveled to the Black Sea, and even reached the Danube River. At each place he visited, Herodotus took note of what he called “inquiries” (the Greek word historie means “inquiry” and gives us our word “history”) by recording myths, folklore, oral histories and descriptions of the people and places he encountered. One important and, indeed, remarkable feature of Herodotus’ History is his love of and gift for narrating history in the storyteller’s manner (which is not unlike Homer’s). In this respect he inserts not only amusing short stories but also dialogue and even speeches by the leading historical figures into his narrative, thus beginning a practice that would persist throughout the course of historiography in the classical world.(4)
Herodotus believes in divine retribution as a punishment of human impiety, arrogance, and cruelty, but his emphasis is always on the actions and character of men, rather than on the interventions of the gods, in his descriptions of historical events. This fundamentally rationalistic approach was an epochal innovation in Western historiography.(5)
To craft his magnum opus, Herodotus pieced together different testimonies he collected during his journeys and experiences. They are based not on other people’s written or primary sources but on what he saw and heard. His tone ranges from chatty and anecdotal to that of the breathless reporter, venturing into strange and dangerous lands.
Originally one massive tome, Alexandrian scholars by the third century B.C.E divided Herodotus’s Histories into nine books. Each book was named after one of the nine Greek muses. The early volumes cover more anthropological topics, while the later ones directly tackle the war that brought about Greece’s freedom, with specific reference to democracy in Athens.
The first five books examine the rise and fall of the Persian Empire by exploring different territories conquered by Persia. Herodotus wrote of their lands and geography, their customs and their beliefs. Book One of The Histories opens with a mix of myth and history, starting with the legend of Troy, a colorful account of the Kingdom of Lydia and the extravagantly rich King Croesus, followed by the conquest of Lydia by the Persian King Cyrus.
The second book details Herodotus’s travels in Egypt and the marvels he saw there, including the pyramids. The third book begins with the conquest of the river Nile by the Persian king Cambyses and then returns to the history of Persia. Book Four deals with his travels in Scythia–a region in Central Asia–and Libya in Africa.
Herodotus writes about the lands he visited in vivid detail. Writing on Egypt, for example, he gives an account of the Persian occupation of the land of the pharaohs, and he also describes what he learned of its present situation, carefully recording distances, and scientifically noting the state of the soil and what the priests told him as to the levels of the Nile in flood. He also provides rich accounts of daily life, including the striking detail that Egyptians shaved off their eyebrows to mourn the death of a beloved cat.
The last four books focus on the epoch-shaping clash between the Greeks and the Persians. Book Five focuses on the Persians in Macedonia and conflicts in the Greek cities, and presents detailed insights into the politics of Sparta and Athens.
The sixth and seventh books are accounts of the Greco-Persian Wars themselves. They cover the expedition of King Darius, which concluded with the Greek victory at Marathon, and a dramatic telling of the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae. Book Eight describes the crushing and surprise defeat of King Xerxes I’s Persian fleet at Salamis. The last book continues with another bloody and decisive defeat for the Persians at Plataea in 479 B.C.E., which put an end to the Persian threat and left the Greeks victors.
(1) Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, Volume 5, 1993, 15th Edition, p. 882.
(2) National Geographic History, “Herodotus: The Father of History,” by Carlos García Gual, March/April 2018, p. 42.
(3) Ibid., p. 42.
(4) Encyclopaedia Britannica, p. 882.
(5) Ibid., p. 882.
1. Herodotus – The Histories, Books I-IX, c. 440 B.C.E., originally in Greek. A full English text of The Histories is the translation by George Rawlinson published in Great Books of the Western World, v. 6, 1952 (total 350 pages).
2. Another more recent translation by Andrea L. Purvis is in The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories edited by Robert B. Strassler, 2007. It contains illustrations, side notes next to the text that provide short summaries, footnotes, 127 maps, a very helpful introduction, an encyclopedic index (100 pages) and twenty-one appendices written by top scholars in their fields (total 1,007 pages).