Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010


Herodotus (ca. 484-ca. 425 B.c.) Greek historian

During the Golden Age of Greece (ca. 500-300 B.c.), Herodotus, often referred to as the Father of History, was an appealing storyteller, ethnographer, and historian. The American mythographer Edith Hamilton dubbed him the “first sightseer” (Hamilton 1962, 98). He based his great work The Histories (440 B.c.) on the international conflicts of his time and recorded eyewitness commentary on the Persian Empire and the Greco-Persian Wars of 490-479 B.c.

Born to Lyxes and Rhaeo of Caria in the cosmopolitan coastal town of Halicarnassus, Ionia (present-day Bodrum, Turkey), Herodotus and his brother Theodore belonged to a well-educated, privileged class that could afford leisure and extensive travel. Because of Herodotus’s soldierly perspective in his writing, he may have served as a hoplite, a volunteer militiaman who paid for his own spear, shield, helmet, and gear. He spent much of his adult life traveling the Mediterranean world. This was perhaps after the execution of his cousin, the epic poet Panyassis, in 454 B.c. for alleged treason under the tyrant Lygdamis. In his travels, Herodotus ventured as far west as Sicily, north to the Ukraine, south to the Nile River, and east to the Black Sea rim as far as the Dnieper River in southwestern Russia. He apparently spoke only Greek and relied on interpreters. Though he viewed the world from a Greek perspective, he took an interest in foreign customs and terms—for example, that cinnamon was a valuable trade item imported from China as a spice, pharmaceutical, and fragrance.

During his lengthy wanderings from 464 to 447 B.c., Herodotus established a reputation for impartial interviews, data collection, candid narratives, and pictorial episodes. Throughout his residency on the island of Samos off the coast of southern Turkey, he made lengthy voyages about the Mediterranean. En route, he perfected the rudiments of Western historical research, which covered social geography, trade, topography, and comparative politics. Unlike Homer's epic romanticism, Herodotus's innovative style derived from Ionian skepticism and a demand for hard data. The logic of his vigorous, scenic writings introduced the Western world to scholarly history.

In 444 B.c., while earning money for public readings of his entertaining episodes at the Olympic Games in Athens, Herodotus impressed the tyrant Pericles and the philosopher Sophocles; he also influenced the budding second-generation historian THUCYDIDES, who wept at the performance. Herodotus and the popular orator Lysias volunteered for a signal honor: to pioneer the Greek colony of Thurii in a part of southern Italy that the Romans called Magna Graecia. It was here, on the Tarentine Gulf, that Herodotus began compiling a chronicle on Assyria. He assembled his observations along with hearsay, anecdotes, myths, dreams and omens, and wonder tales into the irregular, absorbing narrative called The Histories. Before his death in his late 50s or early 60s, he divided his work into nine books, each named for one of the nine muses, beginning with Clio, the muse of history, and continuing through Euterpe (lyricism and music), Thalia (comedy and pastoral verse), Melpomene (tragedy), Terpsichore (dance), Erato (love poetry), Polyhymnia (hymns and oratory), Urania (astronomy), and Calliope (epic poetry).

The Histories

Paying little attention to the empire building of Carthage, Etruria, and Phoenicia, Herodotus's writings focus on a history of fifth-century B.c. Athens and the imperial ambitions of Persia, resulting in the Greco-Persian Wars. For style, he relied on Ges periodos (World travels, ca. 500 B.c.), a geography text by Hecataeus of Miletus, another famous traveler during the first half-century of the Persian rise to glory.

The Histories survey the crucial international disputes that had dominated the previous decades. As explained in his opening line, Herodotus hoped to preserve knowledge of the past and to show cause for the clash of dissimilar cultures. He describes the legendary origin of Troy and the subsequent antagonism between the Greeks and the Persians, whose great empire flourished from 550 to 330 B.c. In entertaining asides, he surmised a cause for the annual flooding of the Nile River, described the extent of Phoenician exploration of Africa, and discussed the behavior of Gelo, ruler of Syracusa, Sicily, who refused to take sides in the Greco- Persian conflict. For accuracy, the text introduces Persian expansionism with the rise of Cyrus II, or Cyrus the Great (ca. 585-529 B.c.), who brought the Medes and Persians together and converted to Zoroastrianism. The text covers the rise of Babylon (1:141-216) and the career of Croesus of Lydia (595-ca. 546 B.c.), the kingdom that stood between Greece and the advancing Persians.

Herodotus's anecdotes incorporate the social and economic value of women during the era. He maligned misogyny in the Babylonian custom of auctioning marriageable girls and of using the sums raised to subsidize poor men's weddings to ugly girls and cripples (1:196). He satirized the Lydian king Croesus's gifts in 547 B.c. to the Pythia, the cryptic priestess of Apollo at Delphi, to whom he gave cups made of precious metals, dyed garments, ingots, utensils, casks, ritual sprinklers, weapons, a statue of a female baker, and his own wife's necklaces and belts. The bribery failed to secure for Croesus a propitious forecast. The oracular consultation survives in history as a model of Pythian ambiguity: If Croesus should proceed against Cyrus, a great empire would fall. Misled by the oracle, Croesus interpreted his destiny as victor rather than victim (1:55-58). He failed to foresee that Cyrus would capture Sardis and add Lydia to the Persian Empire (546 B.c.). Later, while tied to a stake in anticipation of execution, the resigned Croesus expressed his agreement with the lawgiver Solon's belief that no man could be called lucky so long as he still lived (1:86). The text honors Croesus as “a good man whom the gods loved” (Herodotus 1961, 89), one of Herodotus's frequent lapses into subjectivity and moralizing.

Herodotus used this dramatic episode to compose an exemplum on the vagaries of fate and power. Cyrus, too, discovered too late the bitterness of defeat when the Massagetae of Iran destroy the Persian army. Herodotus blames the debacle on the weakening effect of empire on the loyalty of fighters. After the Massagetae queen Tomyris dishonored Cyrus's remains, she dropped his head in a sackful of gore with the cry, “You have your fill of blood” (100). As Herodotus predicted, following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.c., Lydia continued its downward spiral as a subject nation, passing through Seleucid and Attalid control before becoming a part of the Roman Empire in 133 B.c.

Like many Greeks, Herodotus was curious about Eastern customs and proclivities. His rambling discourse incorporated details of Massagetae cannibalism, the holy prostitution of Babylonian temple women, swineherds as social pariahs, the correspondence between the Greek deities Zeus and Dionysus and the Egyptian gods Amon and Osiris, and the bizarre burial of the Babylonian Queen Nitocris over a city entrance. In the historian's second book, digressions describe the topography of Egypt (2:1-34) and its customs, with emphasis on the hippopotamus and crocodile, the elevation of the hero Hercules, the royal genealogy from King Sesostris to King Amasis, and state funerals and monuments. The historian satisfied a controversy of his day by outlining the methods of Egyptian mummification for different classes of corpses (2:35-99). From his scientific details, readers learned the importance of cassia, gum, myrrh, natrum (a carbonate salt) and syrmaea (a mixture of cinnamon and senna) to corpse preservation, including the remains of crocodiles.

The Aim of Empire

Returning to his main theme in books 3-6, Herodotus continued exploring the resistance of Greeks, Ionians, and Scythians to Persian imperialism as a prelude to the warfare between the Easterners and mainland Greeks. In book 3, he accounted for the loss of Egypt to Cambyses II (d. 522 B.c.), Cyrus's son and successor, whom the Egyptian royal family cheated of marrying King Amasis's daughter Nitetis by sending another girl in her place. After summarizing Cambyses's excesses, the history returns to curiosities with tales of lions and flying snakes in Arabia and the ends of the earth beyond Ethiopia, a land of gold, ebony, and elephants. Book 4 reports on the unwise infiltration of the Persian king Darius I (550-486 B.c.) into Scythia (present-day southern Russia) and possibly as far as outer Mongolia. Following a side commentary on the Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa, the historian focuses on power mongering in the rise of Darius, who subjugated parts of Russia and Libya. In describing the Scythian strategy of living on horseback, Herodotus proposed a historian's summation of nomadism: “No one who invades their country can escape destruction, and … cannot by any possibility come to grips with them” (257).

Abandoning his campaign against the Scythians and taking a new interest in Greece, Darius began pushing into Ionia on his way toward Athens, the prize. Book 5 follows the Persians to victory in Thrace (present-day Bulgaria and the European side of Turkey), where Darius enriches his nation with the sale of prisoners of war. Herodotus warns that the sailing of the Greek fleet “was the beginning of trouble not only for Greece, but for the rest of the world as well” (350). He recounts the Persian route up the coast of Asia Minor to the Hellespont and Thrace, west to Samos and Icaria, and through the Aegean Islands to Naxos and Delos, a sacred isle in the Cyclades and clearinghouse for the Greek slave market. Ahead lies a major victory for Miltiades, commander of the Athenians at the battle of Marathon in 490 B.c., the beginning of the Persian reverses in Greece. One of Herodotus's most appealing secondary characters is the Athenian Pheidippides, the famed runner of Marathon. He raced to Sparta to request aid for the faltering Athenians, who risked the worst of destinies—being “crushed and enslaved by a foreign invader” (398). At the battle's finale, Herodotus records losses at 192 for Athens and 6,400 for the invaders.

Biographies of Empire Builders

Herodotus’s final three books survey the end to Persian imperialism and closes with events preceding 479 B.c. He summarizes the megalomania of Xerxes I (519-465 B.c.), Darius’s son and the grandson of Cyrus the Great, whom the Greek playwright Aeschylus had pitied in the drama Persae (Persians, 472 B.c.). During a two-decade reign from 485 B.c. to his death, Xerxes used a take- no-prisoners approach to quell revolt and tighten Persian control of Babylon and Egypt. Because of the threat to Greece, the mainland Greek citystates allied to protect their race, language, shrines, and the customs that set them apart from the barbaric Easterners. The chronicle exalts the Greek military and solidarity and impugns the Persian love of luxury and Xerxes’s overreaching and barbarity.

To explain the supernatural power that overturned the Persian raid on the temple at Delphi, Herodotus reverts to Greek superstition. He explains that Apollo guarded the sacred precinct while the Delphians hid women and children on Mount Parnassus. At the burst of thunderbolts from the sky and the collapse of two rocky outcrops, the Persian army panicked and fled, with Delphians and two mysterious giant warriors slaughtering the stragglers. The historian damns the insurgents for subsequent sacrilege against Athena, goddess of wisdom and war. Let loose on Athens, the invaders climbed an escarpment and overran the Acropolis: “The Persians made straight for the temple gates, flung them open and butchered every man who had hoped to find a refuge there” (515). Nemesis is swift. The stirring text summarizes how a Greek coalition, led by the archon (chief magistrate) Themistocles, overwhelmed the Persian navy of 1,200 ships at the battle of Salamis on September 29, 480 B.c., and trounced the enemy infantry and cavalry months later in southern Greece at Plataea and Mycale.

The history concludes with the rise of the Athenian empire after years of threat from the East. In his summation of the grab for more territory, Herodotus quotes Artembares, grandfather of the crucified Persian commander Artayctes: “It is the natural thing for a sovereign people to do, and when will there be a better opportunity than now, when we are masters of many nations and all Asia?” (599).

Critical Views

Literary opinion diverges on the validity of Herodotus’s concept of history. From Cicero, Dionysius, Longinus, and Quintilian, Herodotus earns kudos for his harmonious language, urbane wit and polish, copious details, and Homeric grandeur honoring Greek decorum. Of particular pleasure to young Romans was the story of Arion and the dolphin in book 2, one of Herodotus’s most charming nature fables. Less positive critiques charged the historian with naivete, moralizing, and interpolating fictitious oratory, such as the speech of Periander before the ghost of Melissa in book 5 and, in book 6, the betrothal of Cleisthenes of Sicyon’s daughter Agarista, whose great-grandson was Pericles.

More than five centuries after writing his Histories, Herodotus received his most serious censure. Around A.D. 110, PLUTARCH, a biographer from Chaeronea, Boeotia, charged the historian with bias, error, and misleading commentary. The Assyrian rhetorician Lucian of Samosata (ca. A.D. 125-ca. 180) tweaked Herodotus for gullibility and for including wonder tales of India’s giant gold- digging ants among serious chronicles of Greek warfare. However, he received a signal honor in Einhard’s Vita Caroli (The Life of Charlemagne, A.D. 830), a biography of CHARLEMAGNE that emulates superstitious elements from Herodotus’s Histories foretelling the triumphs, defeats, and deaths of kings.

An example of the historian’s impact on the late 20th century is the Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje’s World War II novel The English Patient (1992), a winner of the Canadian Governor General’s Award and a Booker Prize. The text recounts Hungarian cartographer Laszlo de Almasy’s obsession with The Histories. At the initiation of Almasy’s affair with a married woman, Katherine Clifton, she recounts Herodotus’s anecdote in book 1 of the disrobing of Candaules’s wife before the security guard Gyges. The event reveals a point in history marking the elevation of women from possessions to persons with their own individuality and self-respect. The film version in 1996 featured the tattered copy of Herodotus’s Histories as an ongoing study of hubris, imperialism, and violence as Almasy adds drawings, photos, and marginalia in his attempts to conceal his identity from the German Afrika Korps—a striking tribute to a historian of 2,000 years earlier.


Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. New York: Mentor Books, 1962.

Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1961.

Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Thompson, Norma. Herodotus and the Origins of the Political Community: Arion’s Leap. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.