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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a section of
published in Vol. I
of the Loeb Classical Library edition,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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(Vol. I) Herodotus

 p. vii  General Introduction


It is impossible to give certain and undisputed dates for the lifetime of Herodotus. But if we are to believe Aulus Gellius, he was born in 484 B.C.;a and the internal evidence of his History proves that he was alive during some part of the Peloponnesian war, as he alludes to incidents which occurred in its earlier years. He may therefore be safely said to have been a contemporary of the two great wars which respectively founded and ended the brief and brilliant pre‑eminence of Athens in Hellas. He belongs in the fullest sense to the "great" period of Greek history.

Herodotus was (it is agreed on all hands) a native of Halicarnassus in Caria; and if his birth fell in 484, he was born a subject of the Great King. His early life was spent, apparently, in his native town, or possibly in the island of Samos, of which he shows an intimate knowledge. Tradition asserts that after a visit to Samos he "returned to Halicarnassus and expelled the tyrant" (Lygdamis); "but when later he saw himself disliked by his countrymen, he went as a volunteer to Thurium, when it was being colonised p. viiiby the Athenians. There he died and lies buried in the market-place."1 This is supported by good evidence, and there seems to be no reason for doubting it. It is also stated that he visited Athens and there recited some part of his history; this may have happened, as alleged, about the year 445. It is evident from his constant allusions to Athens that he knew it well, and must have lived there.

So much may be reasonably taken as certain. Beyond it we know very little; there is a large field for conjecture, and scholars have not hesitated to expatiate in it. If Herodotus was banished from Halicarnassus for political reasons, it is probable that he was a man of some standing in his birth-place. The unquestioned fact that he travelled far makes it likely that he was well-to‑do. But his history, full as it is to the brim of evidences of travel, is never (except in an occasional phrase, "I have myself seen," and the like) autobiographical; and we know nothing, from any actual statement of the historian's own, of the date of his various visits to the countries which he describes. Probably they were spread over a considerable part of his life. All that can be said is that he must have visited Egypt after 460 B.C., and may have been before that date in Scythia. Nothing else can be asserted; we only know that at some time or other Herodotus travelled not only in Greece and the Aegean, of which he obviously has personal knowledge, but also in a large part of what we call p. ixthe Near East. He saw with his own eyes much of Asia Minor; Egypt, as far south as Assuan; Cyrene and the country round it; Syria, and eastern lands perhaps as far as Mesopotamia; and the northern coast of the Black Sea. Within these limits, πολλῶν ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω. But as the dates of his travels are unknown, so is their intention. Did he travel to collect materials for his history, its scheme being already formed? or was that history the outcome of the traveller's experiences? We only know that Herodotus' wanderings and the nine books of his narrative are mutually interwoven.

His professed object is, as he states it in the first sentence of his first book, to write the history of the Graeco-Persian war. But in order to do this he must first describe the rise of the Persian empire, to which the chapters on Lydia and the story of Croesus are introductory. When he comes in due time to relate the Persian invasion of Egypt, this is the cue for a description and history of the Nile valley, occupying the whole of the second book; and the story of Darius' subsequent expedition against Scythia leads naturally to a long digression on the geography and customs of that country. The narrative in the later books, dealing with the actual Persian invasion of Greece, is naturally less broken; but till then at least it is interrupted by constant episodes and digression, here a chapter, there a whole book; it is the historian's practice, as he himself says, to introduce προσθήκας, additions, whenever anything even p. xremotely connected with the matter in hand occurs to him as likely to interest the reader. The net result is really a history of the Near East, and a good deal besides; a summary of popular knowledge or belief respecting recent events and the world as known more or less to the Greeks; which eventually, after branching out into countless digressions and divagations, centres in the crowning narrative of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea. Tortuously, but never tediously, Herodotus' history moves to this goal. For all his discursiveness, he does not lack unity. "He is the first," it has been said, "to construct a long and elaborate narrative in which many parts are combined in due subordination and arrangement to make one great whole."2º

That a narrative so comprehensive in its nature — dealing with so great a variety of subjects, and drawn from sources so miscellaneous — should contain much which cannot be regarded as serious history, is only to be expected. It is impossible to generalise where popular belief and ascertained fact, hearsay and ocular evidence are blended, "the historical value of the matter found in Herodotus' work varies not merely from volume to volume, or from book to book, but from paragraph to paragraph, from sentence to sentence, from line to line. Every separate story, every individual statement is to be tried on its own merits."3 Many critics have not taken the trouble p. xito exercise this discrimination; it was for a long time the fashion to dismiss the Father of History as a garrulous raconteur, hoping to deceive his readers as easily as he himself was deceived by his informants. This "parcel of lies" type of criticism may now, fortunately, be considered extinct. Modern research, which began by discrediting Herodotus, has with fuller knowledge come to far different conclusions. It should be now (says Dr. Macan) "universally recognised that the most stringent application of historical and critical methods to the text of Herodotus leaves the work irremovably and irreplaceably at the head of European prose literature, whether in its scientific or in its artistic character." He has been blamed for a "garrulity" which gives currency to much which is alleged to be beneath the dignity of history. But most scholars must now agree that even from the historical standpoint the world would have lost much of infinite value had Herodotus been more reticent; his "garrulity" is often proved to point the way to right conclusions.

Obviously, the condition of human beliefs and opinions falls within the field of history. Where Herodotus plainly and demonstrably errs, he is often of supreme interest as indicating contemporary thought, which he not only summarises but criticises as well. His geography and his meteorology are representative of a stage of thought. He has not arrived at truth (naturally!) but he is consistent with a current opinion which is nearer to truth than earlier conceptions p. xiiof the world. It is true that the sun's course is not affected, as Herodotus believes it to be, by the wind. It is also true that the Danube does not rise in the Pyrenees, and that the course of the upper Nile is not from west to east.4 But no one in his time knew better. He reflects and discusses contemporary opinion; he rejects earlier and more primitive ideas. It may be counted to him for righteousness that if he knows much less than Strabo, at least he knows a great deal more than Homer.

Always and everywhere, Herodotus gives us the best that is accessible to him; and it is one of his great merits as a historian that he does not give it uncritically. Scanty justice, till lately, has been done him in this matter; in reality, his manner of retailing what has been told him shows anything but credulity. Definite acceptance is much rarer than plain expressions of disbelief in what he has heard; "they say, but I do not believe it" is a very frequent introduction. This attitude is shown by the grammatical construction of the narrative — a construction which translation cannot always reproduce without awkwardness, and which is sometimes therefore overlooked altogether; the fact remains that much of the story is cast in the mould of reported speech, showing that the writer is not stating that so‑and‑so is a fact but only that it has been told him; and the oratio obliqua is maintained throughout the narrative. p. xiiiHerodotus deliberately professes that this is his method; ἐγὼ ὀφείλω λέγειν τὰ λεγόμενα, πείθεσθαί γε μὴν παντάπασιν οὐκ ὀφείλω (Bk. VII); τοῖσι μέν νυν ὑπ’ Αἰγυπτίων λεγομένοισι χράσθω ὅτεῳ τὰ τοιαῦτα πιθανά ἐστι· ἐμοὶ δὲ παρὰ πάντα τὸν λόγον ὑποκέεται ὅτι τὰ λεγόμενα ὑπ’ ἑκάστων ἀκοῇ γράφω (II.123); "I know not what the truth may be, I tell the tale as 'twas told to me." In view of these plain statements, to attack Herodotus for foolish credulity is nothing less than disingenuous.

Some harm, moreover, has been done to Herodotus' reputation by the tendency of modern languages to alter the meaning of derived words. Herodotus repeats μῦθοι. Now a μῦθος is simply a tale, with no implication of falsity; it may just as well be true as not. But when we say that Herodotus repeats myths, that is an altogether different matter; myth and mythical carry the implication of falsehood; and Herodotus is branded as a dupe or a liar, who cannot be taken seriously as an authority for anything.

Herodotus' reputation for untrustworthiness arises, in fact, from his professed method of giving a hearing to every opinion. This has been of great service to those who early and late have accused him of deliberate and perhaps interested falsification of historical fact. These attacks began with Plutarch; they have been more than once renewed in modern times by critics desirous of a name for originality and independence. None of them can be regarded as of any serious importance. They leave Herodotus' credit p. xivuntouched, for the simple reason that they are hardly ever based on solid evidence. Plutarch's treatise on Herodotus' "malignity" only establishes his own.b Modern critics, who maintain that Herodotus' praise and blame is unjustly distributed, have seldom any witness to appeal to save the historian himself; and failing necessary support ab extra, they can only assert the a priori improbability that an historian who is inaccurate in one narrative should be accurate in another. It is quite possible that the heroes of the history were not heroic and the villains not so villainous as the historian paints them; but we have no evidence as to the private life of Cyrus or Cambyses beyond what the historian himself has given us. Nor is there any justification for depreciating the services of Athens to Greece because the eulogist of Athens happened to believe that the Danube rises in the Pyrenees, and that the sun's course is affected by the wind.

It cannot be denied that Herodotus invites criticism. Plainly enough, a great deal of the evidence on which he relies must be more substantial than simple hearsay. He has undoubtedly learnt much from documents engraved or written. To take one instance, the long and detailed catalogue of nations included in the Persian empire and the amounts of tribute paid by each must rest on some documentary authority. But he will not support his credit by producing his proofs — at least, he does so seldom; for the most part, his fontes are included p. xvunder "what he has heard"; he may have seen this, he may have read that, but it is all set down as hearsay and no more. There could be no better way of opening the door to suspicious critics. Further, some of the qualities which constitute the charm of his narrative make him suspect to those who ask only from history that it should be a plain statement of what did actually happen. Herodotus is pre‑eminently biographical; personal passion and desire is the guiding motive of events; they are attributed to individual action more than to the force of circumstance. Debatable situations are described in terms of an actual debate between named champions of this or that policy, — as in Euripides, nay, as even in the comparatively matter-of‑fact narrative of Thucydides. Nor is it only the human individual will which decides; it is the superhuman above all. The fortunes of individuals and communities are presented to us as they appear to a Greek who sees in human life "a sphere for the realisation of Divine Judgments."5 Τὸ θεῖον is always working; whether as "Nemesis" to balance good and evil fortune, and correct overweening pride and excessive prosperity by corresponding calamity, or as eternal justice to punish actual wrongdoing. Such beliefs, common to all ages, find especial prominence in the history of Herodotus, as they do in Greek tragedy. The stories of Croesus, Polycrates, Cambyses, the fall of Troy — all are illustrations of a p. xvidivine ordering of human affairs; indeed the central subject of the story — the débâcle of the vast Persian expedition against Hellas — exemplifies the maxim that ὕβρις εἰ πολλῶν ὑπερπλησθῇ μάταν | ἀκρότατον εἰσαναβᾶσ’ | ἀπότομον ὤρουσεν εἰς ἀνάγκαν.6 History thus written is a means to moral edification; and Herodotus may not be above the suspicion of twisting the record of events so as to inculcate a moral lesson. Such predispositions make history more dramatic and more interesting; but those may be excused who hold that they militate against strict accuracy.

The dialect in which Herodotus writes is Ionic, the oldest literary dialect of Greece; but he also makes use of many words and forms which are commonly associated with the literature of Attica. When therefore Dionysius of Halicarnassus calls him τῆς Ἰάδος ἄριστος κανών,c this must refer rather to his pre‑eminence as an Ionian stylist than to the "purity" of his dialect; which in fact is rightly described as μεμιγμένη and ποικίλη.7 Perhaps Herodotus' language was affected by his residence at Athens. But Ionic and "Old Attic" appear to have been so nearly akin that it is difficult to draw a clear line of division between them. From whatever sources drawn, his diction is pervaded by an indefinable but unmistakably archaic quality which constitutes not the least of a translator's difficulties.

p. xvii B

Among comparatively recent books the following will be of especial value to the reader of Herodotus: J. W. Blakesley's edition (text and notes); H. Stein (text and German notes); G. Rawlinson's History of Herodotus (translation, notes, and copious appendix); R. W. Macan's Herodotus IV‑VI and VII‑IX (text and notes); W. W. How and J. Wells' Commentary on Herodotus (notes and appendix); Hude's Clarendon Press edition (text and apparatus criticus); Grote's and Bury's Histories of Greece.

The text of Herodotus rests mainly on the authority of nine MSS., of which a "Laurentianus" and a "Romanus" of the tenth and eleventh centuries respectively are considered the best. The merits of all the nine MSS. and the problems which they present to an editor are fully discussed in Hude's preface to the Clarendon Press edition. The text which I have followed is that of Stein; in the few passages of any importance where I have thought fit to follow any other authority, the fact is noted. In the spelling of names I have not attempted to be consistent. I use the familiar transliteration of κ and ο, and write "Croesus" and "Cyrus," not "Kroisos" and "Kuros," only retaining terminations in os where they are familiar and traditional. Where place-names have a well-known English form, not widely different from the Greek, I have kept to that; for instance, "Athens" and "Thebes," not p. xviii"Athenae" and "Thebae"; but I write "Carchedon" and "Taras," not "Carthage" and "Tarentum." This is (I trust) a reasonable, though undeniably an inconsistent, method. The scheme of the present series does not contemplate a commentary; only the briefest notes, therefore, have been added to this translation, and only where the "general reader" may be supposed to stand in urgent need of a word of explanation.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Suidas.

2 How and Wells' Commentary on Herodotus.

3 R. W. Macan, Herodotus IV‑VI.

4 But the Bahr al Ghazal, a large branch of the Nile, does flow approximately W. to E.; and he may have meant this.

5 Macan, op. cit.

6 Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, 374‑7.

7 Hermogenes, περὶ ἰδεῶν.

Thayer's Notes:

a An inference from Gellius' statement (XV.23.2) that Herodotus was fifty-three years old when the Peloponnesian war broke out.

b The uncharacteristically acerbic work may not be by Plutarch. It is online as a photocopy at Archive.Org.

c Letter to Pompeius Geminus, 3.16.3.

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