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Herodotus

Greek Historian Herodotus

Herodotus, considered the ‘Father of History’, was born at Helicarnassus, Darian settlement in Asia minor, about 480 BCE. The period witnessed the ascendancy of Athens in Greece. Young Herodotus studies the poetry of the Greeks, especially the epics of Homer and learned the art of prose writing from works of Hecataeus. His curiosity to learn more about the world led him to long travel to Thrace, Scythia, Egypt and Babylon. He studied the political condition in several areas. Subsequently he settle at Thurii, an Athenian colony in Italy, where he died about 430 BCE.

Nature and content of his writings

Among the great writers of the Periclean age, Herodotus was one of the foremost. Despite the difficulties involved in gathering evidence, he ventured into a hold experiment in accomplishing this task and described historical events in his work history.  The central theme of history is the war between the Greek and the Persians. The work gives geographical accounts, chronicle of historical dates. Event by event with the Asiatic conquerors as the central figures finds description. Croesus, The king of Lydia was the first Asiatic rulers who attacked the Greek. Cyrus, another Asiatic ruler and king of Persia, subdued the Lydian.  Herodotus gives account of the reigns of Croesus to Xerxes of the developments in Greece and of the conflict with Persians. The condition in the Greek states, Lydia, Egypt, Babylon and Scythia has received adequate attention.

The history is divided into nine books. The first books tell the early conflicts between the East and the West and refer to the development in Greece. The sixth book describes the Ionian revolt and the campaign of Marathon. The last three books narrate the difficult battle between the Persians and Greeks. A glance at the details would give the impression that the work is not systematic. However, a closer reading makes it evident that it is not only systematic but also is organized according to a plan.  The entire work fall into three sections each consisting of three parts. The first section deals with reign of Cyrus and Cambyses and the accession of Darius, the second with rule of Xeroxes and third with the same great struggle between the Greeks and the Persians. The focus moves accordingly from west Asia to east Europe and to the Greek Land. Chronologically too, the same order is followed: it begins with the rise of Persia as an imperial power, moves war between the two powers and ends with victory of the Greeks. Herodotus was not directly concerned with Philosophy of history, yet he was guided by an idea that some kind of plan involved by supernatural forces was governing the course of events. His History is marked by something like a drama: of greatness, pride and fall. The language of the work, noted for unrivalled literary charm, is coherent and fascinating.

Contributions

The contributions made by Herodotus to historical writing are so significant that he is called the Father of History.  Dionysius, Arrain and Lucien admired the greatness of Herodotus. But for his immoral work, much of the ancient history of the Greeks and the Persians would have been lost in oblivion. Until the inscriptions were deciphered, his history was the only principle sources of information for some of the great empires of the past in the Mediterranean world.

 Besides, he also combined on his work the three fundamental elements of history: geographical description, chronicle of events and historical information. His work represents the transition of history from the nature of legend to that of a science.  Of course, customs, faith and instincts influenced historical writing during the pre-classical era; collection of data, analysis and criticism occupied their role in the subsequent period.

Herodotus explained that the function of history was not only to discover what man did but also to discover why they did so. Further, he rendered history humanistic. For so long it was mythical and theocratic, as it described how supernatural beings interfered in the work of human beings. Herodotus dealt with the deeds of human beings and considered that purpose of history was not to tell about the supernatural beings. Consequently, he was rightly called the father of history.

 Criticism

However, the work of Herodotus is not free from defects. While Cicero calls him both as father and as a liar, Aristotle considers him as a storyteller. An objective historian would have held a balance view between the Greek and the Persians. Herodotus did not ignore the greatness of Persian while dealing with history of that country, yet he was prejudiced in favor of Athens. He never missed an opportunity in glorifying what Athenians did for Greece.

Secondly, he depended upon his own observations, eyewitness accounts and oral traditions rather than on official records and written accounts. In consequence, he gives a confused chronology and accounts of doubtful validity.

Thirdly, his narrative is marked by serious interruptions.  Frequently, it carried to unconnected details, away from central themes. Historical figures are left in the middle, and the geographical features are taken up for description. As Thucydides felt, Herodotus attempted too much and left out important events for giving preference to minor details.

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