Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Herodotus; Roving Reporter of the Ancient World

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Herodotus; Roving Reporter of the Ancient World

Article excerpt

HERODOTUS of Halicarnassus, his Researches are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples... that the great deeds of men may not be forgotten... whether Greeks or foreigners: and especially, the causes of the war between them."*

In this introduction to his Histories, Herodotus (c. 490-425 BC) provides us with perhaps the earliest definition of the historian's aims and concerns. Some sixty years earlier, his precursor Hecataeus of Miletus, who had sought to inquire rationally into the mythical legends of the Greeks, explained his intentions in the following terms: "Thus speaks Hecataeus of Miletus: I write these things inasmuch as I consider them to be truthful; in fact, the legends of the Greeks are numerous and, to my mind, ridiculous." In this tetchy assertion of the author's role we can already see the two requirements of historiography in the Hellenic world: it must be written and it must be truthful.

With Herodotus the tone changes. He does not seek to give his own personal interpretation of what he relates, and usually he compares the different versions of stories he has collected. He wants to talk about his researches, tell of his inquiries. History as he understands it is at once the gathering of information and the recounting of a story. He thus inaugurated the two main trends in Greek historiography for centuries to come. Sometimes one would be given prominence, sometimes the other, but the prime imperative was always truthfulness, even in the case of historians who attached very great importance to narrative.

The art of storytelling When Herodotus describes his work as an "exposition of his researches, the narration of an inquiry these ambivalent terms must be taken to mean both the oral transmission of a story and its written formulation. The blending of oral and written styles in the Histories can be explained by the fact that Herodotus would give public readings of the various stories(flogoi) making up his work. This is confirmed by the allusions in the text to audience reaction, and by the circular structure of the writing.

This practice had a marked effect on the composition of the work, which may seem to be something of a patchwork, with its countless digressions that sometimes fit into one another like Chinese boxes or Russian dolls. More a painter than a sculptor, Herodotus excels in the art of storytelling and possesses the gift of enthralling his audience, whether listener or reader, by his descriptions of a detail, an episode or an individual.

He often tells a story which he has heard at second or third hand. For example, after describing he victory of the Athenians over the Persians at Marathon, he tells what happened to the Athenian soldier Epizelos, who lost his sight while fighting in the battle, though nothing had hit him: "I am told that in speaking about what happened to him he used to say that he fancied he was opposed by a man of great stature in heavy armour, whose beard overshadowed his shield; but the phantom passed him by, and killed the man at his side." It would be a mistake to see this as Herodotus directly reporting what he has heard, but rather as an example of the mirror play that is a common feature of the Histories. Epizelos tells his story, others repeat it, Herodotus hears it and tells it in his turn.

This is not simply a taste for the fantastic or the marvellous, for which Herodotus is so often criticized, but a delight in intriguing and surprising his audience. He is able to arouse people's curiosity because his own is so great. He is interested in all kinds of out-of-the-way details, the customs of each people and all the wonders of the world, whether events, inventions or monuments like the pyramids of Egypt, the labyrinth above Lake Moeris and the walls of Babylon. In his quest for knowledge, Herodotus would travel and make inquiries of those who might have information ut the countries visited-scholars, priests or people whose names are not recorded: "I learn by inquiry. …

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