WHAT was life like thousands of years ago? What customs did people observe? Archaeology can provide some answers—but not all. To understand the thinking of ancient peoples, it would help to have the writings of a man who recorded the history of the known world of his day. Such a man lived some 2,400 years ago. His name was Herodotus, and he was a Greek historian of the fifth century B.C.E. The title of his work? The Histories.
Herodotus set out to document the causes of wars fought by the Greeks and particularly the causes of the Persian invasions of 490 and 480 B.C.E., the latter occurring while Herodotus was still a boy. To that basic theme, he added extensive digressions, recording all that he could find out about each nation touched by the Persian advance.
MORE THAN HISTORY
Herodotus was a gifted narrator. He was passionately thorough in his writings, including every detail he felt was needed to complete the story. Herodotus’ achievement is remarkable in that he could not base his work on official State records written to preserve a continuous history of events, for such records rarely existed.
Back then, few bothered to record history, unless it was to boast of glorious deeds in inscriptions on monuments. Herodotus had to rely on observation, traditional lore, and the testimony of others regarding the events he wished to document. To collect his information, Herodotus traveled widely. He grew up in the Greek colony of Halicarnassus (now Bodrum, southern Turkey) and visited much of Greece.
To collect his information, Herodotus traveled widely
He ventured north to the Black Sea and Scythia, in the area of present-day Ukraine, and south to Palestine and Upper Egypt. To the east, he seems to have reached Babylon, and he probably finished his days in the west, at a Greek colony in what is now southern Italy. Wherever he went, he observed and inquired and thereby collected information from those who seemed to him to be the most trustworthy sources.
How accurate is the information Herodotus recorded? Regarding the lands he visited and the things he saw with his own eyes, his knowledge is considered accurate. His descriptions of practices unknown in Greece—such as those used in Scythian royal burials or Egyptian mummification—correspond somewhat to what archaeologists have discovered. It has been said that the wealth of information he preserved concerning Egypt “surpasses in importance everything that was written in ancient times upon that country.”
Often, though, Herodotus had no choice but to rely upon doubtful testimony. Further, the people of his day fully believed in the intervention of pagan gods in human affairs. So not all that he wrote meets the standards of modern historians. Still, Herodotus did attempt to separate fact from legend. He sensibly declared that he did not believe all that he had been told. He arrived at his conclusions after sifting his sources and comparing them.
The Histories likely constitutes Herodotus’ life’s work. Given the resources he had at his disposal, it was an outstanding achievement.