In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus changed how we think about ourselves. He wrote The Persian Wars, and our modern understanding of history—that of a unified narrative characterized by cause and effect—was born.
Herodotus: father of history
The Persian Wars examines not only the Greco-Persian Wars, but also the rise and rule of the Persian Empire and the history and cultural background of Scythia and Egypt. These volumes, Herodotus’ only works, have had such a vast influence that Cicero called Herodotus the “father of history.” For George H. Chase, writing in vol. 51 of the Harvard Classics, “what distinguishes [Herodotus] from his predecessors and gives him a unique place in the history of literature is the fact that he was the first writer to undertake the narration of a series of events of world-wide importance upon a comprehensive plan and to trace in those events the relations of cause and effect” (emphasis added). Herodotus was also among the first writers to assess historical stories for truthfulness, though not without certain oversights.1 He wrote in a clear, simple style—“a wonderful achievement,” notes Chase, “when one considers that this is the first literary prose that was written in Europe.”
Reginald Macan argues that “There is, indeed, no ancient historian, whether upon his own ground or on general grounds, with whom Herodotus need fear comparison. He was more comprehensive than Thucydides; he was more candid than Xenophon; he was more brilliant than Polybios. . . . in the larger view of history, which embraces every experience of humanity [and] treats no aspect of human life as common or unclean . . . Herodotus keeps his rank as the premier historian of antiquity.”
5 reasons you should study Herodotus:
- The Persian Wars is hugely influential, cited by 2,500 years’ worth of historians. Some argue, in fact, that it influenced the Old Testament’s Primary History (Genesis–2 Kings). John Van Seters’ In Search of History notes the parallels between Joshua–2 Kings and The Persian Wars; Sara Mendall and David Noel Freedman point out many more parallels, suggesting that Herodotus may have been aware of the work of Ezra; Jan-Wim Wesselius argues that the Primary History makes extensive use of The Persian Wars and can be understood only in that context. These are provocative claims, and to agree or disagree, you should know your Herodotus.
- It’s wonderfully entertaining, filled with chatty asides and storytelling. Herodotus imbues his Xerxes with a nuanced inner life straight out of literature: the Persian king looks at his amassed armies and weeps; when asked why, he explains, “I was moved to compassion when I consider the shortness of all human life, since of all this multitude of men not one will be alive a hundred years from now.”
- It’s a rare window into ancient Greek culture. Though Herodotus is at times biased or credulous, even his biases shed light on his time. Macan notes that in Herodotus’ shortcomings, he “all the more fully represents the popular mind of his age and people, and so becomes, in a fresh application, historical in our eyes.”
- It narrates some of Western history’s most important events. According to Chase, “the struggle between the Persians and the Greeks . . . more than any other single event, determined the later history of Europe.”
- It’s an astonishing value. The Persian Wars is on Community Pricing, and the current bid is just $4. For the price of a mocha, you can examine the very origins of history.
Get the best price: bid on Herodotus’ The Persian Wars while it’s still on Community Pricing!
- His fact checking, though a major step forward, overlooks some delightful fables: Herodotus famously describes “ants, not as big as dogs but bigger than foxes,” and notes that “the sand which they carry from [their] holes is full of gold.” These gold-digging ants chase down and kill camels. [↩]