Herodotus, the first Greek and thereby the first Western historian, had bad press long before there was anything resembling a press. Aristotle referred to him as a “story-teller,” which was no honorific. What he meant was that Herodotus made things up, another word for which is “liar.” Thucydides had little good to say about Herodotus and thought his attempt to recapture the long-gone past foolhardy. History, for Thucydides, meant contemporary, or near-contemporary, history, with an emphasis on politics and warfare. In his Histories, Herodotus went well outside these bounds, writing about Egypt, Scythia, Persia, and other countries; he took up the study of customs and moeurs among them, as might a modern anthropologist.
More than 400 years later, the attacks on Herodotus’ reputation continued. In an essay titled “The Malice of Herodotus,” Plutarch criticized him for undue sympathy for the Persians and other barbarians, a want of respect for facts coupled with a lack of balanced judgment, and a partiality for Athens. Worse attacks were to come from other commentators over the succeeding centuries, some of whom held that Herodotus relied too heavily on oral evidence, others that he was plain dishonest.
Herodotus (ca. 484-425 b.c.) was a Carian, born in Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, in what would now be western Turkey. He was, in other words, from the periphery of the Greek world, and his book is the result of a sort of intellectual tourism. He traveled, collected stories, consulted documents where they existed, and wrote down his findings. No one knows for certain whether he visited all the countries he wrote about or how he came into his extensive knowledge. In the opening sentence of the Histories, he states his purpose:
Herodotus, from Halicarnassus, here displays his enquiries, that human achievement may be spared the ravages of time, and that everything great and astounding, and all the glory of those exploits which served to display Greeks and barbarians alike to such effect, be kept alive—and additionally, and most importantly, to give the reason they went to war.
Cicero called Herodotus the “father of history.” Yet Arnaldo Momigliano, the great 20th-century historiographer of the ancient world, ends his brilliant essay on Herodotus by noting, “It is a strange truth that Herodotus has really become the father of history only in modern times.” History, or, more precisely, historical methods, Momigliano explains, finally caught up with Herodotus. Ethnographic research brought a new respect for Herodotus’ own early interest in ethnography. Those who did archaeological exploration in Egypt and Mesopotamia found Herodotus’ writings on these subjects useful. His writings also became valuable to biblical scholars in their study of Oriental history. Oral history, on which he drew heavily, became a standard tool of modern social science and history. Herodotus was also the first serious historian to give due attention to women. In his Histories, he devotes several pages to Artemisia, the queen of Halicarnassus, who commanded the Asian Dorian fleet during Xerxes’ attack on Greece. As for his accuracy, Momigliano writes, “We have now collected enough evidence to be able to say that he can be trusted.”
About Herodotus’ style there has never been any doubt. “The power of his tragic vision of history,” wrote Hugh Lloyd-Jones, then-Regius professor of Greek at Oxford, “is enhanced by his possession of literary gifts of the highest order.” Lloyd-Jones holds that, apart from Plato and, on occasion, Demosthenes, no prose stylist among the Greeks compares to Herodotus: “His prose is clear, rapid, euphonious, marvelously varied according to variations of his subject matter; he can write in a plain and simple manner, with short sentences loosely strung together, but he can also build up elaborate periodic structures making effective use of many poetical words.” Charm and style, the two great preservatives for historical and every other kind of literature, Herodotus had in abundance.