Who better to start off a blog on history than the so called “father of history.” Some have called Herodotus the first historian, but others have called him the first liar. Historians still debate the authenticity of his works, but, even so, he made a huge impact on the writing of history. He changed the tone of historical writing and began the idea of trying to find a purpose in history. This post will give a short background on Herodotus, an explanation of why he matters to modern people, and a few links to more in-depth sources.
Herodotus was born in 485 B.C. into a wealthy merchant family in the Greek city of Halicarnassus. However, after his family was forced out of the city due to political differences, Herodotus went on a journey to satisfy his wanderlust and learn more about different people groups. He wanted to hear the stories of other people, not to appreciate them better, but because he wanted to figure out why Greece is so much better than everyone else. This idea stemmed from a war called the “Greco-Persian war.” As the creative name implies, the war was between the Greek city states(not yet a unified Greece) and the mighty Persian empire.
The Persian empire was an incredibly large and powerful war machine. In fact, when the Greco-Persian war (499-479 B.C.) began, the Persian ruler, Darius, had not even heard of the people against whom he was waging war. According to Herodotus (who may have been a little biased), the Persians had an army of 2.5 million soldiers and the Greeks had mere thousands. After 20 years of warfare, the Greek states actually prevailed, and only 100 years later, Alexander the Great was able to wipe out the remaining Persian empire.
Herodotus was born during this conflict and spent his life trying to find out why the small Greek states were able to overcome their powerful enemy.
Herodotus traveled throughout the Middle East to places such as Egypt, Palestine, Babylon, Syria, and much of the Mediterranean. His conclusion shaped much of the modern ideas of the “East” and “West” divide. Greece (the West) had overcome Persia (the East), because of their ideas of Democracy. Although Sparta and many other Greek states had oligarchies or other forms of governments, Athens was the “superior” Greek state according to Herodotus, and they used a form of democracy. The conclusions he reached in his work “The Histories,” has been used throughout history all the way to the United States.
Snapshot of an Oligarchy: A small group of really powerful men rule the people.
So what? It’s fun and all to memorize names and dates and wars and governments (okay, maybe not), but the importance of Herodotus should be remembered by those who want a basic understanding of history.
Herodotus was not the first person to document the stories of a people group, but he was likely the first person to use history to explain outcomes. Previous writers such as Homer wrote fantastical stories to instill pride and entertain people. Seeing the incredible victory of the Greek states, Herodotus searched for basic answers most modern people take for granted: who, what, when, why, and how? He wanted to use the past to form the future. His ideas about history were revolutionary, and they changed the way historians write and talk about events.
Granted, Herodotus’ history is not infallible (for example, he believed one-eyed cyclops stole gold from griffins in northern Europe), but he started a trend of writing history that gave modern people incredible insights from the early world. Herodotus was not a famous warrior or king, but he changed how people looked at history. He began the writing of history, and this is his snapshot from history.