Herodotus and the Purposes of History

Written by on June 18th, 2014. Subject: History. Filed in Ancient History, about Herodotus Greek Persian

|||Herodotus. The Histories. trans Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.|||

Relief of Herodotus Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between the Greeks and non-Greeks. p. 3.

Herodotus is famously known by the dual moniker, “Father of History, Father of Lies”. Whether or not he deserves the latter epithet is perhaps up for debate. He is sometimes criticized as unserious for his many cultural digressions and travelog sidebars. It would, however, take a truly obtuse and narrow-minded critic to deny him the former title. History as a thing separate from record-keeping and chronicling begins with Herodotus. In and among his entertaining and diverting rabbit trails is some of the best and most important history ever written. He shows those who would do history after him what they were to strive for. It is in the opening lines of the Histories where Herodotus establishes the scope and purpose of history, and in doing so establishes its role in man’s attempt to understand his world.

The lines which begin the Histories are a model of clarity and simplicity. There is no excess rhetoric, no flowery overstatement. Herodotus states succinctly in the above passage the purpose for his account. His “enquiries” (ἱστορία) were made to serve memory and understanding—memory in preserving the deeds of men, understanding in examining how the circumstances of those actions came about.

Herodotus’ treatment of memory in this passage is more than just a simple remembrance. He is doing more than just recording a how, where, and when. The preservation of memory here is active, even aggressive, as if time were attempting to destroy the things of man, and history is a brandished weapon holding it at bay.

Almost as an afterthought, Herodotus appends onto his paean to memory a secondary goal. Among the matters covered will be “…the cause of the conflict between the Greeks and non-Greeks.” This is just casually thrown in as if to remind you to look for it along the way. Here Herodotus is understating his purpose, and by playing down this item, he shows its importance. The discovery of the causes of action, and why men have acted as they have, is the heart of the study of history.

So what is the cause of the conflict between the Greeks and the non-Greeks? What was the spark that began the fire that led the largest army in antiquity to cross from Asia to Europe in order to subdue the cities of Attica and the Peloponnese? Herodotus’ examination of this is more subtle than some will give him credit for, and is composed of one part scholarly guile, and one part showmanship. He will look at the opinions of the Asians and the Greeks, and then settle on the pattern that will lead him through his entire enquiry.

“According to learned Persians, it was the Phoenicians who caused the conflict....”1 So begins Herodotus’ examination of the causes of the great conflict. Right away, he is already showing historians their business - he is sourcing his work. He is telling you whose opinion he is working with. As he proceeds, he relates the Persians’ story of Phoenicians going to Argos and abducting Io. In a turnabout, some Greeks go to Tyre and abduct Europa, while some others go to Colchis and abduct Princess Medea (there is some confusion amongst the Persians as to whether the former group were properly Greek, or Cretan). All of the second round of abductors justify their actions by pointing to Io’s earlier capture.

Finally, the son of the Trojan king, Alexander (Paris), abducts Helen from her home in Sparta. At this point, according to the Persians, the Greeks gain culpability, for “…so far it had only been a matter of abducting women from one another, but the Greeks…took the initiative and launched a military strike against Persia.”2

While it is true that the Persians viewed this kind of rapacious activity to be illegal, they found the Greek reaction to Helen’s abduction odd because, “…it is stupid to get worked up about it....“ They viewed the Greek reaction to be unjust and “…date the origin of their hostility towards the Greece from the fall of Illium.” 3

After sourcing these opinions, and running through them, Herodotus gives his own opinion: forget the abductions; they are not the issue.

So this is what the Persians and Phoenicians say. I am not going to come down in favor of this or that account of events, but I will talk about the man who, to my certain knowledge, first undertook criminal acts of aggression against the Greeks. I will show who it was who did this, and then proceed with the rest of the account....Croesus was Lydian by birth. 4

Now in this small passage there is much to consider. First, there is his deft handling of his concerns over the veracity and relevance of the Persian accounts. He is going to leave myth to the shrouded past. His basis is going to be the man he knows committed these acts—acts he can verify, and then confirm with more evidence. He places history into a position of trying to know, not just to guess.

It should also be noted that he doesn’t quite say directly that Croesus the Lydian is the cause. He lets it hang, and in so doing opens up the possibility of reflection by the reader. He will go on to place the actions of many men before the eyes of his audience, and any combination of them can be considered as causes. He presents his tales as parts of a larger whole, and that whole is not just a few flimsy fables to paper over bad behavior, like the stories of the Persians. This whole shows real causes of human actions and events, and participate in the truth. So much for the “Father of Lies”.

About Kenneth Scagel

Kenneth Scagel is the dean at The Roper School, and online classical school based in Fort Worth, Texas. Mr. Scagel is a native of New Hampshire, but after 20+ years he believes himself to be a naturalized Texan. The Texans generally think him to be somewhat tolerable, for a yankee.

Do you enjoy Netcrit Articles?

Use the affiliate link below to buy a book from Amazon. You’ll receive the gift of knowledge, and we will get a portion of the proceeds.

  1. Herodotus, Robin Waterfield, and Carolyn Dewald. The Histories. Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 3. 

  2. Ibid, p. 4. 

  3. Ibid

  4. Ibid, p. 5.