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Back to index   Herodotus, Father of History, or Father of Lies?  

Herodotus, The Father Of History, Or The Father Of Lies?
Amir Arsalan

nnasseri@cox.net


Darius the Great

Almost all of what is currently accepted regarding the struggles of the Persians and that of the Greeks, deemed "The Persian Wars" is based on the writings of one man: Herodotus. Are "The Histories" of Herodotus true historical accounts, or are they mythology?

Furthermore, almost all that is known about Herodotus comes from his own writing. There is not a substantial alternative body of evidence to either corroborate or refute his accounts; at least none that has survived in history. One is therefore left to simply analyze his works in order to render judgement. Common sense and logic, as well as a basic understanding of the world at that time period are at the present the main tools used to scrutinize Herodotus' works.

I. A Greek storyteller presenting Greek valor to a Greek audience:

Herodotus was a native of Helicarnassus, in present day Western Turkey. Although Helicarnassus was a part of the Persian Empire at the time, the ethnicity of the region was Greek. The people of the region accepted themselves as subjects of the Persian Empire, but identified themselves as having Greek heritage. The same applies to Herodotus. He identified himself as Greek. Interestingly, Herodotus was an exile of his homeland, which was a large reason for his travels. The reason for his exile remains dubious.

He initially presented his work in oral prose, to an audience of Greeks in Greece. It is important to note that at the time, all storytelling in Greece was performed within the style of theatrical presentation. The people were not interested in getting simple facts handed to them. They wanted entertainment. Storytellers were entertainers, and they were more than anyone else aware of this fact. A storyteller had to keep his audience captivated and on the edge of their seats, or risk orating to an empty hall. Herodotus made tours of Greek cities during festivals, and gave personal performances to captive Greek audiences in return for payment. This must be remembered above all else.

II. Homeric comparisons:

Prior to Herodotus, Homer was the start-all and end-all of all Greek storytellers. He was the gold standard against which all other works would be compared. Surely, Herodotus was aware of this, and incorporated Homeric homage and narrative. Here are a few examples:

1. His books are divided and named after 9 Muses, which are mythological creatures. This was not Herodotus's doing, but that of subsequent editors. It does, however, show that intentional parallels were drawn to Homer by himself as well as his subsequent followers. Homer's Iliad begins with the words "Sing, O Muse, of the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus…"

2. "To me it seems that the cold may likewise be the cause which prevents the oxen in Scythia from having horns. There is a line of Homer's in the Odyssey which gives a support to my opinion." -Herodotus, Histories, Book IV.

3. Book I of Histories attempts to explain the original feud between the Persians and Greeks. Surprise, surprise, it happens to be the same reason for honor and retribution as that behind the Trojan War: wife stealing. In Book I, Herodotus explains that it was the Phoenicians that first carried off a Greek woman to Asia and then to Egypt. Subsequently, the Greeks retaliated by carrying off a woman from Colchis. Then, Alexander the son of Priam (aka Paris) retaliated by carrying off Helen to Troy, prompting the Trojan War. Not only is Herodotus paralleling himself to Homer's story, but he is in fact starting his story where Homer left off: with the Trojan War.

"In the next generation afterwards, according to the same authorities, Alexander the son of Priam, bearing these events in mind, resolved to procure himself a wife out of Greece by violence, fully persuaded, that as the Greeks had not given satisfaction for their outrages, so neither would he be forced to make any for his. Accordingly he made prize of Helen; upon which the Greeks decided that, before resorting to other measures, they would send envoys to reclaim the princess and require reparation of the wrong. Their demands were met by a reference to the violence which had been offered to Medea, and they were asked with what face they could now require satisfaction, when they had formerly rejected all demands for either reparation or restitution addressed to them."
Herodotus, Histories, Book I.

Right off the bat, the opening of Herodotus' Histories points to it being driven by mythology rather than fact. It is a continuation of the Iliad.

III. Is History based on prophesy?

Prophesy is a tool that adds literary flare to any entertaining story, especially within Greek tragedies. Prophetic references are abundant in Herodotus' work. Here are a few examples:

1. According to Herodotus, in the Mysian Olympus there was a huge boar that terrorized the countryside. The people asked their king, Croesus, to help by sending his son and other warriors to fend off the beast. Croesus refused to send his son, but his son insisted on going. This is the reason why the king did not want his son to undertake the hunting expedition:

"Then Croesus answered, 'My son, it is not because I have seen in thee either cowardice or aught else which has displeased me that I keep thee back; but because a vision which came before me in a dream as I slept, warned me that thou wert doomed to die young, pierced by an iron weapon…'
Herodotus, Histories, Book I.

His son, however, convinces the father that a boar cannot wield an iron weapon and so the dream did not apply to this expedition. Convinced, Croesus lets him go. Shortly thereafter…

"Thus assured, Croesus let them depart, accompanied by a band of picked youths, and well provided with dogs of chase. When they reached Olympus, they scattered in quest of the animal; he was soon found, and the hunters, drawing round him in a circle, hurled their weapons at him. Then the stranger, the man who had been purified of blood, whose name was Adrastus, he also hurled his spear at the boar, but missed his aim, and struck Atys. Thus was the son of Croesus slain by the point of an iron weapon, and the warning of the vision was fulfilled."
Herodotus, Histories, Book I.

2. "Cambyses no sooner heard the name of Smerdis than he was struck with the truth of Prexaspes' words, and the fulfilment of his own dream- the dream, I mean, which he had in former days, when one appeared to him in his sleep and told him that Smerdis sate upon the royal throne, and with his head touched the heavens."
Herodotus, Histories, Book III.

3. "As he made his spring, the button of his sword-sheath fell off, and the bared point entered his thigh, wounding him exactly where he had himself once wounded the Egyptian god Apis. Then Cambyses, feeling that he had got his death-wound, inquired the name of the place where he was, and was answered, "Agbatana." Now before this it had been told him by the oracle at Buto that he should end his days at Agbatana. He, however, had understood the Median Agbatana, where all his treasures were, and had thought that he should die there in a good old age; but the oracle meant Agbatana in Syria. So when Cambyses heard the name of the place, the double shock that he had received, from the revolt of the Magus and from his wound, brought him back to his senses. And he understood now the true meaning of the oracle, and said, 'Here then Cambyses, son of Cyrus, is doomed to die.'"
Herodotus, Histories, Book IV.

4. "At last, however, in the midst of these many difficulties, the barbarians made discovery of an access. For verily the oracle had spoken truth; and it was fated that the whole mainland of Attica should fall beneath the sway of the Persians."
Herodotus, Histories, Book VIII.

5. "For if things turn out as I anticipate, and we beat them by sea, then we shall have kept your Isthmus free from the barbarians, and they will have advanced no further than Attica, but from thence have fled back in disorder; and we shall, moreover, have saved Megara, Egina, and Salamis itself, where an oracle has said that we are to overcome our enemies."
Herodotus, Histories, Book VIII.

6. "When the whole army had crossed, and the troops were now upon their march, a strange prodigy appeared to them, whereof the king made no account, though its meaning was not difficult to conjecture. Now the prodigy was this:- a mare brought forth a hare. Hereby it was shown plainly enough, that Xerxes would lead forth his host against Greece with mighty pomp and splendor, but, in order to reach again the spot from which he set out, would have to run for his life. There had also been another portent, while Xerxes was still at Sardis- a mule dropped a foal, neither male nor female; but this likewise was disregarded.

So Xerxes, despising the omens, marched forwards; and his land army accompanied him."
Herodotus, Histories, Book VII.

7. "The Euboeans, until now, had made light of the oracle of Bacis, as though it had been void of all significance, and had neither removed their goods from the island, nor yet taken them into their strong places; as they would most certainly have done if they had believed that war was approaching. By this neglect they had brought their affairs into the very greatest danger. Now the oracle of which I speak ran as follows:

When o'er the main shall be thrown a byblus yoke by a stranger,
Be thou ware, and drive from Euboea the goats' loud-bleating. So, as the Euboeans had paid no regard to this oracle when the evils approached and impended, now that they had arrived, the worst was likely to befall them."

Herodotus, Histories, Book VII.

8. "Mardonius accordingly went round the entire assemblage, beginning with the Sidonian monarch, and asked this question; to which all gave the same answer, advising to engage the Greeks, except only Artemisia, who spake as follows:

'Say to the king, Mardonius, that these are my words to him: I was not the least brave of those who fought at Euboea, nor were my achievements there among the meanest; it is my right, therefore, O my lord, to tell thee plainly what I think to be most for thy advantage now. This then is my advice. Spare thy ships, and do not risk a battle; for these people are as much superior to thy people in seamanship, as men to women. What so great need is there for thee to incur hazard at sea? Art thou not master of Athens, for which thou didst undertake thy expedition? Is not Greece subject to thee? Not a soul now resists thy advance. They who once resisted, were handled even as they deserved. Now learn how I expect that affairs will go with thy adversaries. If thou art not over-hasty to engage with them by sea, but wilt keep thy fleet near the land, then whether thou abidest as thou art, or marches forward towards the Peloponnese, thou wilt easily accomplish all for which thou art come hither. The Greeks cannot hold out against thee very long; thou wilt soon part them asunder, and scatter them to their several homes. In the island where they lie, I hear they have no food in store; nor is it likely, if thy land force begins its march towards the Peloponnese, that they will remain quietly where they are- at least such as come from that region. Of a surety they will not greatly trouble themselves to give battle on behalf of the Athenians. On the other hand, if thou art hasty to fight, I tremble lest the defeat of thy sea force bring harm likewise to thy land army. This, too, thou should remember, O king; good masters are apt to have bad servants, and bad masters good ones. Now, as thou art the best of men, thy servants must need be a sorry set. These Egyptians, Cyprians, Cilicians, and Pamphylians, who are counted in the number of thy subject-allies, of how little service are they to thee!'"
Herodotus, Histories, Book VIII.

Interesting that Artemisia should make such a prophetic revelation to Xerxes, only to be ignored. This type of motif is abundant in the writings of Homer, whereby an ordinary person reveals a prophesy to another, only to be ignored. In fact, it is Cassandra, the Trojan royal princess that keeps forewarning the disaster that is to befall Troy and herself, only to be repeatedly ignored. Hence, the term "Cassandra complex" that is in modern use.

Hector has a similar prophesy for Achilles' demise immediately prior to his death at the hands of Achilles. His wife, Andromache has a similar prophesy for her own fate at the hands of the Acheans, and so on.

These are just some examples of Herodotus' flare for prophesy. The Histories is littered with them.

IV. Griffins and Cyclops:

No piece of mythological story is complete without a few eccentric beasts. Griffins and Cyclops were quite popular at the time:

1. "But in the north of Europe there is by far the most gold. In this matter again I cannot say with assurance how the gold is produced, but it is said that one-eyed men called Arimaspoi steal it from Grypes. The most outlying lands, though, as they enclose and wholly surround all the rest of the world, are likely to have those things which we think the finest and the rarest."
Herodotus, Histories, Book III.

2. "There is also a story related in a poem by Aristeas son of Kaüstrobios, a man of Prokonnesos. This Aristeas, possessed by Phoibos [Apollon], visited the Issedones; beyond these (he said) live the one-eyed Arimaspoi, beyond whom are the Grypes (Griffins) that guard gold, and beyond these again the Hyperboreoi, whose territory reaches to the sea. Except for the Hyperboreoi, all these nations (and first the Arimaspoi) are always at war with their neighbors; the Issedones were pushed from their lands by the Arimaspoi, and the Skythians by the Issedones."
Herodotus, Histories, Book IV.

3. "Of these too, then, we have knowledge; but as for what is north of them, it is from the Issedones that the tale comes of the one-eyed men [Arimaspoi] and the Grypes (Griffins) that guard gold; this is told by the Skythians, who have heard it from them; and we have taken it as true from the Skythians, and call these people by the Skythian name, Arimaspoi; for in the Skythian tongue 'arima' is one, and 'spou' is the eye."
Herodotus, Histories, Book IV.

V. Whatever happened to common sense?

We are asked to believe that an army of a few thousand Greeks devastated an army of about 2 million Persians. First, the numbers are obviously grossly exaggerated on the Persian side. No one believes that such an army could have been amassed at that time. Even in current times, the most powerful military in the world does not possess such a host, with a population of over 300 million. Back then, the total population of the Persians was about a tenth of that, in the tens of millions. To raise and support such an army would have been impossible.

We are asked to believe that repeatedly, a far superior Persian navy, outnumbering the Greeks anywhere from 5:1 to 10:1 was defeated over and over by the Greeks. Considering that they had similar ships and technology, why this should occur repeatedly is enigmatic. Supposedly, an element of surprise or better coordination can give one side a slight advantage over another, perhaps once. However, over and over? This seems highly suspect.

The Persians were the sole dominant empire at the time, and they did not lack in technology, engineering, metallurgy, any resource, or money. If they did not exceed the Greeks in all these respects, they at least did not drag behind them. It is unlikely that they were inept at achieving their goals or victory.

VI. Archaeology is notably silent:

According to Herodotus, hundreds of Persian ships were sunk at Salamis. Where are the remains of these shipwrecks? Of course, not all shipwrecks are always salvaged, either because the exact site is indeterminate, or because a single ship is being sought. The location that is given by Herodotus is a relatively precise location, and is not in a desolate or extremely deep part of an ocean. It is close to land, and not too deep. So what has been found at the site? Not much. Apart from an occasional shipwreck or two from the ancient world, the vast graveyard of triremes one expects to find there is notably absent, even with today's complex ship salvage technologies.

How about Thermopylae? What has been recovered there? Apart from some Persian arrowheads, not much else. Again, considering the very specific site of battle and mountainous terrain that allows for only a small strip of flat land, the search area is relatively small. Furthermore, it is unlikely that it would conceal the following from the prying eyes of modern archaeologists:

" It was while they were at this station that a herald reached them from Xerxes, whom he had sent after making the following dispositions with respect to the bodies of those who fell at Thermopylae. Of the twenty thousand who had been slain on the Persian side, he left one thousand upon the field while he buried the rest in trenches; and these he carefully filled up with earth, and hid with foliage, that the sailors might not see any signs of them."
Herodotus, The Histories, Book VIII.

Twenty thousand Persians died at Thermopylae, of which nineteen thousand were buried in mass graves at that very site by Xerxes, according to Herodotus. There are supposedly mass graves of 19,000 dead warriors there, somewhere in that narrow mountain pass. Archaeologists have been able to find a few arrowheads from that incident, but the colossal cemetery has somehow managed to elude discovery.

The conspicuous absence of hundreds of sunk Persian ships and the mass graves of 19,000 dead Persian warriors sheds serious doubt not just on the details of Herodotus' story, but upon its entire foundation.

VII. The Peloponnesian War:

Interestingly, The Histories of Herodotus was put into a continuous narrative around the time when the Peloponnesian War broke out between Athens and Sparta. This was a long and brutal war, and resulted in the eventual annihilation of both sides, even though Sparta was the final victor. It is entirely possible, indeed probable, that Herodotus presented this work to the Greek world in an effort to circumvent this self-destructive behavior. The Histories is fraught with feelings of Greek unity and comradery, especially between Sparta and Athens. The proud Greek Athenians and Spartans came together and united to repel the despotic Persians. This was the message that the Greek world needed to hear in the midst of a vain Peloponnesian War. Unfortunately, it did not have the intended impact.

The war continued, and killed far more than any other war up to that time, and for centuries afterwards. Far more Greeks were killed at the hands of other Greeks than at the hands of the Persians. Even so, that particular war had the Persians as the greatest victors. The Persians could not have hoped for a better outcome even if they had invaded Greece themselves. The Persians played both cities against each other, supplying each with money and ships as necessary to meet their own ends.

VIII. Concluding Thoughts:

That there were wars between Persia and Greece is true. There are accounts for the existence of this conflict independent from Herodotus. That there was a Persian invasion of Greece by Xerxes, which culminated in the eventual sack and destruction of Athens is also certain, and this is evident by the archaeological evidence for Athens' destruction.

No doubt, a conflict was present, the Persians did invade Greece (with a much smaller force than is described), there were battles at Salamis and Thermopylae (evidenced by arrowheads) as well as elsewhere. What are dubious are the details of those skirmishes or battles, which are described by Herodotus. On more than one occasion, and from various different angles of thought, his descriptions are seen as not an actual recount of events, but a sophisticated fabrication of glorious and heroic deeds of his countrymen.

The people were real. The places were real. The skirmishes were real. The events of those skirmishes, and the behavior of the characters, however, were most likely not real. This motivation for propagation of glory, is given away by Herodotus himself in the opening lines of "Histories:"

"These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory."
Herodotus, Histories, Book I.

This article is not meant to demean the value of The Histories, or the important role that Herodotus played for the subject of history. Prior to his time, all such accounts were handed down in the form of poems or epics. He was the first to present his story in the form of a narrative, and at least show an attempt at information gathering. For that, he must be commended.

The problem is that historians have given him and his narration more historical credit than it is due. Although his technique was pioneering, it is a far cry from an acceptable historical account.

As this article has shown, his work parallels mythology, and at numerous times gives mythological accounts. Mythology, of course, is a story that has some basis on truth and reality along with many concepts that are inventions and imaginations. Much of Herodotus' writing is easily identified as mythological. What about the rest? How much of what is accepted at face value is indeed also an exaggeration, manipulation, and invention, and how much is factual history?

The question cannot be adequately answered. However, one must remember that when truth is mixed with lies, the sum result is a lie. When historical accounts are mixed with mythology, the end result yields mythology, since it becomes impossible to separate fiction from fact.

The Histories is a magnificent work of ancient literature. Then again, so are the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Shahnameh. All must be appreciated as important literary works, but none revered as historical documents.

Recent historians have begun a debate regarding this figure. Most call him the Father of History, while others call him the Father of Lies.

Many have heralded Herodotus as the Father of History. There may be some accuracy to that, in that the methodology that he tampered with was a primitive method of history. Be that as it may, his personal work is not historical. Certainly, it is not as defined by the modern meaning of the word.

Others have called him the Father of Lies. That he told lies, and that those lies expanded to become the basis of the world's understanding of ancient history is irrefutable.

Most individuals that accept ancient history as is currently accounted, based almost entirely on Herodotus, do so without having read this work or without completely understanding it.

For the above reasons, the author believes that Herodotus is both the Father of History as well as the Father of Lies. The reader is invited to consider these words, and make up his or her own judgement.

This recount of Herodotus is presented concurrent to the release of the movie "300" to an audience that is just as keen on fantasy and mythology as the audience that Herodotus kept captive in Athens 2400 years ago. Many have been outraged that the current movie is a false exaggeration of history, and go so far as cite Herodotus for what is accepted history. It is most interesting that this movie is such a fantastic exaggeration that the defenders of Persia gladly present Herodotus' work in order to get an anchor on reality. It is interesting, because a more moderate lie is used to partly refute the more exaggerated lie. One can only take pause before realizing that one mythological lie has become the basis for an even more fantastically outrageous lie.

The world would do well to combat all lies, present and past, which have on occasion become the foundation of accepted beliefs of events from long ago. May this world be protected from lies:

"King Dariush says: You who shall be king hereafter, protect yourself vigorously from lies; punish the liars well, if thus you shall think, 'May my country be secure.'"
Dariush the Great, Behistun Inscription, Column 4, Line 55.


Darius The Great

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