Philosophers and Religious Leaders

By Christian D. Von Dehsen | Go to book overview

Father of European History c. 484--c. 425 B.C.E.

Life and Work

Often called the father of history, Herodotus set the standards and focus of historical writing for centuries.

Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus, a Persian-controlled Greek city in what is now Turkey, around 484 B.C.E. Little is known of the specific events of his life, but it is believed that he was exiled in 457 because of his opposition to Persian rule. He then traveled widely in Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Middle East, gaining firsthand knowledge of the cultures of the Mediterranean world. Around 447 he settled in Athens, where he won the admiration of Athenian leaders, including the great statesman Pericles. In 443 he settled in Thuria, a Greek city in southern Italy, and devoted his life to writing his history of the Persian Wars.

Prior to Herodotus, writers such as Hecataeus (c. 500 B.C.E.) either wrote geographic treatises or presented the stories of the gods in mythical times. Herodotus abandoned these approaches and offered a largely secular, narrative history with a general theme. His History (Greek for "inquiry") was perhaps the first creative work written in prose. In a charming, anecdotal style, he traces the development of ancient civilizations to the inevitable clash between Greece, which he considers the center of Western culture, and Persia, the center of culture in the East. His account of the Persian Wars, which is the centerpiece of the work, is still used by modern historians to reconstruct the events of that conflict.

Herodotus's work draws heavily on the understanding of various civilizations he gained in his travels and on eyewitness accounts of recent events. He wrote history to show that the gods punish the evil and arrogant, but he assumed that fortune was so unstable that even the good might suffer. Herodotus emphasized the moral lessons to be learned from important events and viewed history as a means of political education.

Herodotus probably died in Thuria in c. 425 B.C.E.


Herodotus produced the world's first comprehensive secular history and in so doing set the course of historical writing and study for centuries. His focus, methodology, and standards dominated historical study until the Middle Ages and were revived during the Renaissance.

Like Herodotus, ancient Greek historians such as the Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C.E.) and Xenophon (c.430-355 B.C.E.) as well as Romans such as Cato the Elder ( 234-149 B.C.E.), focused on recent or near-recent political and military events; they left research into culture and society to philosophers. They stressed the importance of presenting history in elegant prose free from bias and had rigorous standards for truthfulness. All Greek and Roman historians attempted to draw moral lessons from important events.

Herodotus's focus on writing about secular events continued to dominate historical writing until the fourth century C.E., when Eusebius of Caesarea produced his Ecclesiastical History (c. 325) to present the history of the Christian church. In the following centuries most writers, including AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO ( 354-430) mixed religious and secular elements to present the relationship between God and humankind in history.

Herodotus emphasis on secular history was revived in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance by men such as Jean de Joinville, Jean Froissart, and Leonardo Bruni. His stress on literary style became less important as Enlightenment historians in the seventeenth and eighteenth century focused on basic research, amassing collections of documents. Historical focus also broadened during this period as VOLTAIRE ( 1694-1778) included all aspects of civilization in his Essay on Manners ( 1756).

Contemporary historians have expanded the scope of their discipline beyond politics and have used other disciplines such as sociology, psychology, and anthropology to interpret history. They no longer try to draw moral lessons from past events. Nevertheless, they look to Herodotus as the founder of their discipline and continue to pursue his goal of bringing the past to life.


For Further Reading.
Gould, John. Herodotus. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989.
Hart, John. Herodotus and Greek History New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Scholars cannot date the specific events in Herodotus's life with accuracy.


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