Herodotus was born in the year of 484 B.C. as the son of Lyxes and Rhœo, or Dryo, and lived at Halicarnassus, an originally Doric colony in southwestern Asia Minor, at that time ruled by a Queen Artemisia under the sway of the Persians. Herodotus was thus by birth a subject of Persia. His uncle, Panyasis, was an epic poet; it was perhaps through him that Herodotus acquired the comprehensive acquaintance with early Greek literature—prose and poetry both, but especially poetry—which is so conspicuous in his writings. His family was a prominent one. His uncle Panyasis was put to death about the year 457 for conspiring against the tyrant Lygdamis. Herodotus went into exile and is said to have made his temporary home in the island of Samos, an ally of Athens and member of the Confederacy of Delos or the Athenian Empire.
Between 467 and 464 he is believed to have traveled extensively on the shores of the Black Sea, in Thrace, Scythia, Asia Minor, and the Persian Empire, including Egypt. The precise extent, direction, and starting points of his travels are matters of inference from his writings and of controversy among scholars. He saw in Egypt the skulls lying on the field of a battle fought in 460. He visited Scythia before 454. His travels in Greece, and possibly in southern Italy, fall much later. By these travels Herodotus gained first-hand knowledge of practically all the regions of which he wrote in his history. When Halicarnassus rose against Lygdamis and joined the Athenian Empire, Herodotus, according to one tradition a leader in the uprising, returned and resumed his citizenship. He was, however, soon attracted to Athens, then, about 447, at the height of the age of Pericles, the centre and focus of Hellenic culture. There he gave “author’s readings” from his unfinished histories and won the admiration of the greatest minds of Greece, the personal friendship of the poet Sophocles, and, so the story goes, the more substantial reward of 10 talents voted by the people.
A well-invented story, discredited, however, on chronological grounds, relates that the boy Thucydides, present at one of these readings, burst into tears from stress of emulous emotion, and that the historian complimented the boy’s father on this indication of a generous nature. In the year 444 Herodotus, with many other brilliant men, joined the colony which Pericles was founding at Thurii in southern Italy and became a citizen there. His subsequent life is a blank. It was probably devoted to the completion and the final publication of his history. Tradition placed his death and funeral in 425 B.C.
Herodotus was called by Cicero the father of history. This means, if anything, that he was the first to compose an artistic and dramatically unified history, although there were historians before him, the so-called logographers, or story-tellers, who continued in prose the work of the garrulous later epic. The only one explicitly named by Herodotus is Hecatæus, of Miletus, who traveled in Egypt, is mentioned as a prominent adviser of the Ionians during the Ionic revolt, and is thought by some critics to have been the source of much matter that Herodotus gives out as his own. But Herodotus was the first to grasp firmly a great central international theme and to work up, in due and artistic subordination to it, a vast mass of legendary, local, antiquarian, geographical, and ethnological lore, derived partly from predecessors, but widely supplemented by his own travels and inquiry (the original meaning of history).
This theme, covered by books vii–ix of the history, was the invasion of Greece by Xerxes, of which his boyhood had perhaps caught the last echoes in the tales told by his townsfolk of the wondrous exploits of Artemisia at Salamis. He apprehended it as the culmination of the eternal conflict between the East and the West which he conceived as beginning with the Trojan War, and of which we have not yet seen the end. It shaped itself to his imagination in a large, dramatic, and religiously edifying way. Its prologue is the evolution of the free states of Greece, and, in antithesis to them, the history and panorama of the barbarian world of ancient monarchies and outlying peoples (books i–vi). Its dramatic culmination is the overthrow of the myriads of Xerxes by the few thousand Greeks at Salamis, Platæa, and Mycale. Its moral is the lesson of the nemesis that waits upon hybris —upon the insolence of those who, drunk with power, forget the limits of mortality. “For God abases the mighty ones of earth and suffers none to think proud thoughts save Himself.”
There are many theories (none of them verifiable) of the order of composition of the different parts of the history, of the digressions in which it abounds, and of the retouches by which its allusions were brought down to date. But in the final result the general design is so clear, both to Herodotus and to the reader, that, despite the bewildering prodigality of anecdote, digression, retrospect, and description, we never lose our sense of a majestic architectural unity, or fail to feel that we are progressing steadily towards a predetermined goal. The nine books, named after the muses, into which later grammarians aptly divided the work, fall into natural groups of symmetry or antithesis when viewed in connection with the whole. The first three books deal with centuries of time and the vast barbarian world, thus: (i) The overthrow of the Lydian kingdom of Crœsus, and, in retrospect, the establishment of the Persian monarchy as the heir of the immemorial empires of the East. (ii) Egypt in retrospect and description in connection with the Persian Conquest. (iii) The consolidation of the Persian Empire under Cambyses and Darius.
The last three books are concerned with 10, or, more strictly, three years of conflict on Greek soil: books vii, viii, and ix, marked respectively by the battles of Thermopylæ, Salamis, and Platæa. The three intervening books at once link and divide the extremes and trace the progress of Persia and the interlacing of Greek and Persian interests to the point where the struggle became inevitable. Their themes are as follows: (iv) The campaigns of Persia, in Scythia and Libya, with vast geographical and ethnological digressions. (v) The subjugation of the north coast of the Ægean—Thrace and Macedon. The beginnings of revolt among the Ionic cities, with anecdotal digressions on Athens and Sparta that prepare us for the rôle to be assumed by those cities. (vi) The revolt of the Ionians aided by Athens and Eretria; its suppression; the avenging mission of Mardonius against Eretria and Athens; his defeat at Marathon. Books i–vi form thus, in effect, an introduction to the main theme of the history.
Herodotus, though an artistic, is not a critical historian. A critical history was possible in that age only to a Thucydides describing on the testimony of documents and eyewitnesses a contemporary war between Greeks. The Greeks of the generation of the Persian wars were too busy making history to write it, and the tradition of the great struggle was already transfigured by legend and local patriotism when Herodotus took it up. Nor could he deal scientifically with the dim legends and inextricably crossed traditions of the East which he gathered on the frontiers of the Greek and barbarian worlds. Fortunately he did not make the attempt.
Ignorant of the languages, unable to decipher the records, if he had applied to the tales told him by dragomans, minor priests, commercial travelers, and Greek mercenaries either his own standards of credibility or ours, he would have deprived us not only of many a delightful story, but of much invaluable information. “It is my business to relate what is told me,” he declares, “but I am under no obligation to believe it.” He does not believe that the Phœnicians got the noonday sun on their right hand in circumnavigating Africa, but he tells us the story; and, wasting no time on vain critical discussions or pretentious philosophies of history, he contrives to tell us more fascinating stories and more interesting facts to the page than any other writer in the world. In view of this and his evident good faith, genial simplicity, and earnest piety, we may disregard the critics who impugn his honesty because his account of a crocodile would amuse a naturalist, and his description of Babylon would not satisfy a Baedeker.