Monday, 9 March 2015


“If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.” - Aristotle

For our Literary Tuesday today, I am looking at Herodotus (484 BC – ca.425 BC), who is often described as the “Father of History”. We know little about this ancient Greek author, most information about his life being given by the Suda Encyclopaedia. This is an encyclopaedia written in the Byzantine period. The following text, is the encyclopaedia’s entry on Herodotus:

“Herodotus, son of Lyxus and Dryo, of Halicarnassus, from a prominent family, who had a brother Theodorus. He migrated to Samos because of Lygdamis, who was the third tyrant of Halicarnassus after Artemisia: Pisindelis was the son of Artemisia, and Lygdamis the son of Pisindelis. In Samos he practised the Ionian dialect and wrote a history in nine books, beginning with Cyrus the Persian and Candaules the king of the Lydians. He went back to Halicarnassus and drove out the tyrant; but later, when he saw that the citizens were jealous of him, he went of his own will to Thurii, which was colonized by the Athenians, and after he died there, was buried in the agora. But some say that he died in Pella. His Books are inscribed to the Muses.”

Herodotus is largely known by his nine-book work, the “Histories”. Herodotus did not actually give his work a title, nor did he divide it into nine books (something probably done in Roman times). The “histories” is a later title given to the book, probably because of the Greek word “historia” in the opening sentence of the works. The translation of the title to history is misleading, as Herodotus's work is not confined to historical details. It is full of mythology, storytelling, amusing anecdotes (some tall stories!), botany and sociology. This is the reason why Herodotus’ works have always been popular with readers over the centuries. His style is easy and polished and he reveals a shrewd and keen eye, his observations on the major part accurate and his reportage relatively unbiased. He is surprisingly free of hostility or contempt towards foreigners of whatever level of civilisation, but at the same time, one must remember that he was Greek and writing for a Greek audience.

Herodotus spells out his intentions at the start of his work as an attempt “to recall the heroic deeds of Greeks and barbarians alike” that they may not be forgotten with time. This is only a modest portion of what Herodotus actually achieved as he also covers ethnology and geography on large scale. Seeing that he lived in Halicarnassus, a cosmopolitan city of a mixed population and also because he travelled widely, it is not surprising he has a tolerant world-view.

People who have read Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient” may have first been introduced to Herodotus there, as the only possession that the Patient came with was a copy of Herodotus' histories that he carried through the fire that injured him. He has annotated these histories and, in a way, has identified himself with parts of them. There are quotations of Herodotus in this novel, and some readers may have been inspired to go and read the whole text of the “Histories” (and I personally believe the “Histories” are a far better read, as “The English Patient is a novel I loathe).

I remember first reading parts of Herodotus’ work in High School and then the whole of the text at University. It makes for interesting reading, as the style is highly readable and the episodes and anecdotes with which he peppers his narrative, often provide interesting digressions and pleasant respites. I was reminded a little of “The Odyssey” of Homer, and I think that Herodotus to a certain extent is mindful of the epic and sets about to construct a rather similar piece of literature, at least in construction and style.  I enjoyed reading Herodotus as it gave a vibrant and vivacious view of history, quite different to the staid history-book accounts.

The full text of Herodotus Histories is available online at Project Gutenberg: (Volume 1) (Volume 2)

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