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Herodotus - Biography

Herodotus (484 BCE – c. 425 BCE) was a Greek Historian as well as known as the Father of Lies.  These two titles were commonly held hand in hand as the early recorders of history were attempting to record an objective recounting of events while taking their stories from first-hand, second-hand, third-hand, etc accounts instead of recording a direct experience.  Also entwined in the pejorative label of “Father of Lies” is that Herodotus was susceptible to subjective inclusion or exclusion of histories based on his personal involvement with peoples.  Thebans and Corinthians who both denied him funds for his work  subsequently suffered not the prettiest of pictures when recounted in Herodotus' work.  Athenians gave him a fortune, thus perhaps securing a favorable telling of their exploits.  Regardless, Herodotus was one of the first writers to bring together historical accounts (whether tweaked by the tellers or himself or not) and the only one to have survived in the form of The Histories.  Therefore, the moniker of Father of History sticks.

What is known about Herodotus's life is suspect, not unlike any ancient figure subject to the development of accurately written records.  What is most often referred to is an eleventh-century Byzantine lexicon, the Suda.  According to this document, Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus and that at some point was banished from his birthplace by the tyrant Lygdamis to the island of Samos.  He returned to Halicarnassus to participate in the overthrowing of the tyrant but was not in the favor of the citizens and therefore left for Thurii, a colony in Southern Italy that was Athenian-led.  This is where he perhaps died although there is speculation that he may have perished in Macedonia at Pella.  He wrote in the Ionian dialect of Greek which differed from the Dorian community of Halicarnassus although the public documents were written in Ionian.  It is also possible that Herodotus picked up the usage of Ionian while on Samos; due to the repeated aggressions of his birthplace upon himself (first the tyrant, then citizens) this may have inspired Herodotus to discard the Dorian dialect.  The tradition of exiling historians did not stop with Herodotus, and in truth it may that it is merely assumed that he was exiled twice, it was rather common for following historians to be exiled from their homelands as well.  And for Herodotus, this does seem to ring true for it can be seen as the condition to inspire his wide travels.  

Another aspect that may play a role in allowing Herodotus to find the wherewithal to travel and experience widely with an open mind towards peoples and places outside of Greece was the friendliness of the city Halicarnassus to the Carians, subject to Persia.  The city also helped to develop Greek trade with Egypt and maintained an international feel.  Herodotus himself is said to have traveled to the islands of the Archipelago, the Persian capital Susa, Babylon, Colchis, Scythia, Thrace; he saw the shores of not only the Black Sea as far as Dnieper, but those of Palestine as well, seeing Gaza.  This is a mere slice of the destinations that Herodotus undertook in his search for 'human achievements' and 'to say what it said'.  History did not necessarily begin as an attempt to frame events objectively as it came to be known.  The original Greek, historia was used to describe investigation and inquiry and by traveling, seeing what he could see and hearing what he could hear, Herodotus set out to inquire upon human achievements.  The point that Herodotus was out to recount specifically 'human' achievement' set him apart from epic poets who tell tales of gods and humans.  Upon visiting a place that he was out to understand, Herodotus would take in everything he could see from monuments to customs to architecture to climate.  Herodotus would also talk to many people and would recount the different accounts before choosing to promote the one that he found most probable.  This is probably what garnered him the moniker of Father of Lies for within his history exist some pretty tall tales.

What Herodotus did with what he had learned is very well-known as The Histories, but this chunk of prose published all at once was not what he would have been known for until later in his life.  It is speculated that The Histories must have been around 415 BCE.  Before that, Herodotus's craft would have looked very much like Homer's.  The culture around the Mediterranean was oral and not written and just as Herodotus gained his knowledge from oral storytelling, he passed on much of it in this way as well.  Herodotus would travel not only to gather information and histories, but to expel some of his gained wisdom and tales at larger festivals that would gather large diverse crowds, or within smaller gatherings not unlike the description of such a get together in Plato's Symposium.  When reading The Histories it is possible to see how the different books may be broken down into smaller chunks that were individual performance pieces.  

When The Histories were collected, they were broken into nine parts, each named after the nine Muses with Clio, the Muse of History taking claim over the first book.  The rest of the book follows what can be seen as a loose history of four Persian kings.  The history of Cyrus takes up the first book, Cambyses takes up Book 2 and some of three which leads into the dynastic history of Darius whose reign fills up the books up to 6, and finally Xerxes caps of The Histories in Books 7 and 8.  This is perhaps the most broad way to get an overview of the crafting of The Histories although Herodotus learned, perhaps from Homer, that this method is excellent for storing great variety and movement of many narratives.  The Persian-Greek Wars provided some time-line thematic structure (even though Herodotus would weave backwards and forwards in time at point), but other thematic structure is to be found as well throughout The Histories.  One such theme was Herodotus's view of the interaction of human action and its influence on historical causation, that of retribution and vengeance and that those who wrong others will see their payment coming to them.  Another such theme is Herodotus's commonly held Greek belief that pride goes before the inevitable fall.  This hubris is often seen in Herodotus's histories as the expansion of empires.

Herodotus was incredibly popular in his time and following, but along with this popularity came great derision on the part of some critics, mostly due to the inconsistency of his stories with the truth.  But even those fantastical tales, like the one about Pakistan with its fox-sized furry ants that dig gold up from the ground have been found to be true as more and more we still come to understand the world.  (The ants are actually marmots who burrow in gold dust rich sand, as found by French ethnologist, Michel Peissel.)  More important than the truth of Herodotus's stories, however, is what they accomplished.  By telling stories of many different peoples in light of Greek culture, he was able to build a sense of place in and amongst the world for not only a Greek audience but others who could see the human achievements available anywhere with human failings being as easily found as well.  As John Marincola remarks in his introduction to The Histories in connection to the terrible criticism of this Father of History:
If, however, we eliminate these preconceptions and expectations, we may be better able to see Herodotus as a complex writer, who viewed the past not exclusively through the narrow prism of wars and politics, but in the variety and richness of what human beings had sought to achieve […]  For he did nothing less than attempt to fashion for his contemporaries (and in a different way, for those who still read him) a portrait of themselves and of others, and of the vast world, both physical and metaphysical, within which their actions take place.”

Herodotus was a Greek Historian. (484 BCE – c. 425 BCE).