Please ask any questions about: Herodotus, his Histories, the world they describe, Herodotus’ reception and study in later periods, and the lessons of his Histories for the contemporary world.
Questions and answers
What languages did Herodotus understand?
Tom Harrison writes: This is a question that I once worried about a lot! The short answer is that there is no clear evidence that he understood or spoke any language other than Greek. People have tried to argue that he must have spoken Aramaic, on the basis that it was used widely for administration in the Persian empire, and so he must have known it… but there simply isn’t any positive evidence of this. A better case can be made that he would have spoken Carian. Halicarnassus was a mixed Carian-Greek city. Herodotus’ father had a Carian name, Lyxes. And there have been a number of inscriptions written in Carian found in Halicarnassus. So it’s been argued, very reasonably, that growing up in this environment he would have mingled with and understood Carian speakers. But whether he spoke Carian or not probably doesn’t have a big impact on how we understand his work. He only refers to the Carian language three times, perhaps because he just took it for granted.
Herodotus does show more excitement about other foreign languages! He includes lots of foreign words (especially Egyptian and Persian) in his Histories, and he seems to prize them. But most of the foreign words that he uses can also be found in other Greek authors such as Aeschylus, so it’s perhaps likely that he learnt them indirectly. He also at one point seems to give away the fact that he didn’t know Persian. He says that all Persian names end in the letter sigma (that’s in the Persian ethnography at 1.139), which probably reveals that he only knew them in their Greek forms. (Not everyone thinks that Herodotus was wrong, in fact: some would point out that there’s an important distinction between how Persian names were written and how they were pronounced, and Herodotus might have known more than we do.) He also seems to have a quite unrealistic idea of how interpreters might work (by comparison with Xenophon in his Anabasis, for example): would Darius really have been able to find interpreters who could handle both Greek and Callatian Indian, which is what Herodotus seems to imagine in a famous scene in Book 3 (3.38)?
So, it’s a very difficult question to give a straightforward answer to… Perhaps more interesting in the end than which languages he spoke is the question of how he understood foreign languages in a wider sense. How did he understand the relationship between languages? Was there a first language from which others were descended? If you want to know more about any of this, one first step would be to look at an article I wrote ages ago for the online journal Histos. If you have access to a University library, I’d also recommend an important book by Rosaria Munson: Black Doves Speak. Herodotus and the Languages of Barbarians (Cambridge, MA 2005). And (again, not accessible to everyone) I’ve recently discovered a really clever piece on Herodotus’ understanding of language by David Chamberlain (Arethusa 32.3 (1999) 263-312).
Why is Herodotus so important?
Jan Haywood writes: This is a big question, which probably deserves its own lecture course! I will include here what, I think, are just a few particularly salient points. First of all, Herodotus’ Histories are a key narrative source for a major set of conflicts between the Achaemenid Empire and various Greek poleis (city-states), known as the Greco-Persian Wars (490-479 BCE); these conflicts proved to be a significant series of events, shaping relations between Persia and Greece long afterwards! Of course, Herodotus was far from the only author in antiquity to write about the Greco-Persian Wars. Others who did so include Diodorus, the Sicilian historian of the first century BCE (who seems to have been influenced by Herodotus’ work), as well as Plutarch, the biographer and historian from the first-second centuries CE, who famously criticised Herodotus’ account of the Greco-Persian Wars in his de malignitate Herodoti (On the Malice of Herodotus).
But Herodotus’ work is an incredibly rich one, and its importance extends far beyond what it can tell readers about the military conflict between Greece and Persia. Herodotus displays a keen interest in the customs, geography and culture of various peoples, not least the Egyptians, to whom he devotes an entire book (i.e. Book 2). (The Histories are conventionally divided into 9 books, though Herodotus is not responsible for these divisions.) His work is also rich in information concerning the religious history of the ancient Greek world, and it tells readers a great deal about non-Greek religions too. (Various recent publications have further enriched our understanding of this topic, for example, Andreas Schwab, Fremde Religion in Herodots Historien, Stuttgart 2020).
I don’t have the space to go into much detail here, but many readers have also derived great joy from numerous of Herodotus’ celebrated stories concerning particular individuals. For example, his account in Book 1 on the rise and fall of the Lydian king Croesus, as well as his account in Book 3 on Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos from the 540s – 522 BCE.
Finally, I will add that Herodotus has been hugely influential since antiquity in several ways. Not only does he stand as a key figure in the development of history-writing, but he also stands at the forefront of other fields of study, such as geography, ethnography, travel-writing, etc. The academic study of Herodotus’ impact in later periods and the reception of his work is now a burgeoning field, which continues to improve and refine our understanding of why Herodotus has been so important since classical antiquity. If you are interested in finding out more about this aspect of Herodotean research, a good place to start is Jessica Priestley and Vasiliki Zali’s excellent collection, Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Herodotus in Antiquity and Beyond, Leiden and Boston 2016.
Was Herodotus the ‘Father of History’?
Robert Fowler writes: The short answer is ‘yes’ but it depends on what you mean by ‘history’, and whether you think he was the first to write it. He had the title of ‘Father of History’ already in antiquity: Cicero in On Laws (1.5) calls him pater historiae but adds that, even if he is father of history, there are lots of fabulous stories in his work. Most readers have thought that Thucydides has Herodotus in mind when he says (1.21) that his work will not include such matter. On this showing Herodotus is just a gullible purveyor of nice stories. Some people, then and now, went further and accused Herodotus not only of revelling in tales of wonders and miracles but of outright lying about the facts. The prime ancient example is Plutarch in his treatise On the Malice of Herodotus.
Nineteenth century readers enthroned Thucydides as the very model of scientific, objective history, and on that definition Thucydides ousts Herodotus as father of history. Herodotus was a necessary first step but he hadn’t really won through to the essence of history. But already in 1913 Felix Jacoby, in a book-length article in the German Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft (not translated into English so far as I know) that marked an epoch in Herodotean studies (and indeed the beginning of the modern study of ancient historiography), stressed that one can hardly ignore Herodotus’ preface, where he states as his aim not only the desire to preserve the memory of great deeds but to explain the reason why the Persians and the Greeks fought each other—topics most people would consider to be the very stuff of history. In recent decades the whole idea of purely objective history has been debunked, Thucydides’ own methods have been deconstructed and his biases exposed, and we have found different, more sympathetic ways of understanding Herodotus’ apparent flights of fancy.
But was he the first? Here we are hampered by the virtual disappearance of all other possible contenders, who are known to us now only through fragmentary quotations in later writers. Many of these quotations and paraphrases are very meagre and extremely unhelpful in trying to gain a sense of the character of these lost works. Jacoby argued that the only predecessors Herodotus knew were the recorders of legendary genealogies (‘mythographers’) and authors of ethnographical works, Hecataeus of Miletus at the head of the list, whom Herodotus criticises overtly and covertly in his own work (for example, at 2.143, where Hecataeus’ claims of being descended from a god are dismissed by the Egyptian priests at Thebes).
Local histories of the cities, which were later turned out in their hundreds, did not in Jacoby’s view exist when Herodotus set out on his travels. He believed that Herodotus set out to write ethnography about Egypt but that during his travels he realised that a bigger book was waiting to be written, and so excogitated the idea of his History, and history. This somewhat Romantic picture of the isolated genius, and the tidy scheme of evolutionary development, have unsurprisingly been challenged. His dating of some of the local historians is also questionable.
History means simply ‘inquiry’ in Greek, and lots of people were inquiring into lots of subjects; research has highlighted the many points of contact between Herodotus and other intellectuals of the fifth century (philosophers, scientists, doctors; see in particular Rosalind Thomas, Herodotus in Context, Cambridge 2000). His many pugnacious statements in the History must be directed at somebody, and he was clearly an eager participant in contemporary debates. Moreover, the Greeks had always had a sense of history, and made efforts to understand it; Homer’s Iliad can be looked at that way (remember that what we call heroic myth was for the Greeks history: Achilles really existed).
In this revised picture, in what sense was Herodotus the first to write history? It remains probable, if not provable, that he was the first to paint on so grand a canvas and think so profoundly about the question ‘why’ in relation to the past (on which see Christopher Pelling, Herodotus and the Question Why, Austin 2019). In my view just as important, and more verifiable, is the way he foregrounds the very process of research: gathering data, the nature of sources, how to evaluate conflicting views, the kinds of explanations, the role of the researcher. There is nothing like this in previous writings about the past, whether in prose or verse. An updated version of a piece I wrote on this can be found in Rosaria Munson’s edited collection, Oxford Readings in Classical Studies, Herodotus: Volume 1 (Oxford 2013). I recommend also Thomas Harrison and Elizabeth Irwin’s edited volume, Interpreting Herodotus (Oxford 2018).
What lessons can we learn from Herodotus in our daily lives?
Joel Schlosser writes: On a summer evening at Point Reyes, California, a fellow wedding guest asked me what I did in the Bay Area. After a sip of my margarita, I replied that I was a graduate student studying ancient Greek at Berkeley – reading Herodotus, in fact. His face lit up. Herodotus!? He exclaimed. I love him. I’ll never forget one story in particular, he continued. Rhampsinitus, I think his name was, and the thief. I nodded. He retold this delightful story, which hinges on the thief’s father, who designs a treasury for King Rhampsinitus with a secret entrance. On his deathbed, he tells his sons about this secret and they plot and succeed – with twists both humorous and tragic – in robbing the king. I’m an architect, my interlocutor told me. Herodotus understood one of the great delights of my profession – those secret yet visible details unknown to everybody but you.
This story came to mind when I read and pondered the question of what lessons we can learn from Herodotus in our daily lives because it illustrates how there’s something in Herodotus for almost everyone. This architect found resonance in Herodotus’ attention to design and building. A doctor might have recounted Herodotus’ appreciation of Babylonian medical practices. An ecologist could marvel at his sensitivity toward different environments and their inhabitants. There’s something in Herodotus for everyone at the level of what Americans call “relatability,” lessons teach attention and appreciation toward the ten thousand details of daily life.
But alongside Herodotus’ wide-angle and wide-ranging lens also comes a set of ethical and political insights. To take one example, Herodotus illustrates the dangers of self-certainty, of believing that you completely understand a situation. Stories like that of Croesus, whose overly confident misinterpretation of an oracle leads to his demise, instruct readers about humility, carefulness, and the need to reflect on their assumptions and judgments. Solon’s famous advice to Croesus to count no man happy until he is dead underscores the lesson that life is not just unpredictable but complex beyond comprehension. Those in positions of power are especially prone to err because the pressures both of reputation and of leadership hasten ill-considered judgments. (As I have argued in the Research Bulletin of the Center for Hellenic Studies, Herodotus seems to favor democratic institutions that allow for equal participation of affected parties in decision making.)
Herodotus’ lessons come with yet one more level of complexity. The journalist Robert Kaplan published a wonderful essay in The Atlantic a decade ago that praised Herodotus as “a historian for our time” because of his appreciation of the complexities of culture and politics. Herodotus’ lessons emerge from specific places and times that must chasten our desire to generalize. Much like Plato’s dialogues, Herodotus does not speak directly but through illustrative stories, oracles, and historical figures whom he richly characterizes but remain at a distance from the author himself. Unlike Thucydides, Herodotus does not pretend to offer a “possession for all time” in his history. Instead, he presents his work as a demonstration of his inquiry.
Inquiry, then, may be the most important lesson of Herodotus. (Historia in Greek means inquiry.) This lesson applies both to how to inquire as well as what to inquire about. To inquire well, you must learn to look for yourself, in person if at all possible; to question the received wisdom; to ask those who know and then confirm with others. Yet inquiry is not just a method but an orientation toward the world, and Herodotus’ curiosity about not just human but nonhuman – plant, animal, terrestrial, and divine – phenomena illustrates where inquiry must be directed. If you confine yourself to one domain or discipline, you’ll fail to comprehend the complex interdependence of things – which could lead to your downfall. What’s more, if you restrict your inquiry to what you consider important or knowable, you’re much less likely to discover the delights and wonders around you. Who knows – there may be treasure awaiting just behind that otherwise ordinary looking stone.
For further reading, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus gives a delightful example of bringing Herodotus into daily life. I explore Herodotus’s lessons for the 21st century in Herodotus in the Anthropocene. And on the richness of Herodotus’s stories, I find Walter Benjamin’s reflections in “The Storyteller” (collected in his book of essays Illuminations but available around the internet) endlessly fruitful.
How reliable is Herodotus’ account of the Persian Wars?
Paul Cartledge writes: Herodotus was not just any old historian but the founder of an entire intellectual discipline and practice, or craft, the one that I am honoured to try my hand at myself. Opinions differ today, as they always have done, on what exactly a historian’s chief task or aim should be, but Herodotus made a pretty good stab at adumbrating it in the famous Prooimion or Preface to his Histories (‘Researches’, ‘Enquiries’): he wished both to record for posterity and to celebrate ‘great and wonderful deeds or achievements (erga)’ and – above all, N.B. – to explain them. In his particular case what he wished to explain above all was why and how and thanks to whose responsibility Greeks and non-Greeks (principally Persians) had come to fight each other.
He had in mind as his subject what we today call the ‘Persian Wars’ or (more accurately) Helleno-Persian Wars, as those were fought out by land and sea on either side of the Aegean at the far eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea between 490 (Battle of Marathon) and 479 BC/BCE – or from 499 to 479, if one includes also the essential preliminary ‘Ionian Revolt’ (499-4), since this was the first occasion on which Greeks, then many of them subjects of the mighty Persian empire, had engaged in warfare with their ‘barbarian’ (non-Greek) masters in pursuit of the ideal of political freedom. That (unsuccessful) revolt gave Herodotus, himself an Eastern Greek from Asia Minor (Halicarnassus) and born c. 485 a Persian subject into a mixed Greek-barbarian family, his own dominant theme.
It was always clear to Herodotus where his linear chronological narrative would end – 479, with the final victory for those (few) Greek cities led by Sparta and Athens who had dared to resist the intended Persian conquest of all mainland Greece led by Emperor Xerxes. But where to begin? Herodotus boldly chose what we call the mid-6th century or c. 550 BCE for his starting point, but how could he possibly claim to know or at any rate confidently believe anything at all about events and processes ongoing some 70 years or two to three generations before his own birth? Given that he seems not to have been able to speak or read any language other than his own Greek (he wrote in the Ionic dialect but spoke in Doric), and given that the Hellenic world of the mid-6th century was not a world either of extensive official public documentation or of extensive prose-writing of a descriptive, factual nature, he had no choice but to become not only the world’s first historian but also the world’s first oral historian. That is to say, the chief type of evidence – not quite the only, since he does quote some documents and cite some physical monuments– that he gathered from about 450 to 430 was the oral testimony of either face-to-face or second-hand informants. Those informants moreover were either native Hellenophones or non-Greeks with a sufficient command of Greek.
It is hugely to his credit that Herodotus evolved a sophisticated hierarchy of value in interpreting such oral testimony, a hierarchy according to reliability. Top of the table was what he called opsis, or autopsy, meaning first-hand testimony whether of his own or of those of his informants who had actually viewed or participated in the events related, including evidence of physical monuments (another meaning of erga). After that, some way after, came what he called akoê or hearsay evidence, evidence that might reliably go back ultimately as far as two to three generations (but no farther) before his own time. Both types of evidence however were then further subjected to the reliability test: were his informants to be trusted – or might there perhaps be reasons why they would provide him knowingly or unknowingly (‘false memory syndrome’) with false testimony both as to facts and as to their interpretation?
At this point it’s necessary to state unequivocally that Herodotus was in no way an official historian, indeed his work has been characterised as the very denial of official history – that is, of the sort of records – or propaganda sheets – put out by middle eastern rulers or priestly castes. But even if he was not compiling and composing in the interests of any particular state or power-group, does that mean he was always himself disinterested either in what he chose to relate or in how he chose to relate it? Here Herodotus is vulnerable to two kinds of negative critique: first, that in interpreting the deeds of humans he nevertheless was too quick to invoke the notion of supernatural or divine intervention as an explanatory mode, that he was in short too theological; second, that he did not always sufficiently perceive the bias of his informants, whether they were members of an aristocratic Athenian family or members of a hereditary Egyptian priesthood. Both those critiques seem to me to have some force. And Herodotus himself was clearly very aware of the second: in response he claimed, somewhat speciously, that it was his job to ‘relate what he was told’ and that it shouldn’t be assumed he necessarily believed it. (I should probably here add that I do not myself believe the hyper-criticisms that have been levelled at Herodotus since antiquity, to the effect that he just made things up, or that, for example, he didn’t in fact view the monuments and cities abroad such as Babylon that he claimed or implied he had seen.)
Reliability, finally, operates on several levels – from a particular detail of his account of say the finally decisive Battle of Plataea all the way up to the alleged motivation of Xerxes in planning and effecting his simply massive expedition (though not as massive as Herodotus believed – here he was certainly guilty of considerable factual inaccuracy). If we make due allowance for an excess of theology, for a weakness for large numbers, and for an occasional prejudice in favour of or against a particular key player (for Athens at the Battle of Salamis, for instance, or against King Cleomenes I of Sparta and Themistocles, or – as Plutarch vehemently protested – medizing Thebes), then I think we may confidently say that Herodotus’ historical judgement is remarkably reliable given the conditions in which it had to be exercised.
I have left to the end a bit of a ‘stinger’. Almost all that I have written above applies to Herodotus the historian of the Helleno-Persian Wars conceived pretty much as we would frame that still vitally important topic today. Herodotus, however, deployed and depicted a far broader and richer canvas, since besides being that historian he was also what we would call today a pioneer ethnographer and comparative social anthropologist, interested to discover and compare the nomoi – laws and customs – of a multiplicity of non-Greek peoples living adjacent to the Hellenes, above all others the Egyptians (book 2) and a variety of what he called ‘Scythians’ (book 4). In this area Herodotus’s vulnerability to deception, disinformation or sheer ignorance was far greater, and his reliability correspondingly far smaller.
Further Reading suggestions: With apologies for apparent self-promotion, I develop the above discussion at greater length in my introduction to Tom Holland’s bold new Penguin Classics translation (London 2014). See also my 2017 (Chalke Valley History Festival) History Hub blogpost. An inventive way of re-reading Herodotus is William Shepherd’s The Persian War in Herodotus and Other Ancient Voices (Oxford 2019). A particularly good ‘very short introduction’ to Herodotus is Jennifer T. Roberts’ Herodotus (Oxford 2011). Roberts is also the editor of the excellent Norton Critical Edition of the Histories as translated by Walter Blanco and accompanied with a wide variety of supporting essays by Blanco (London 2013).
Why is Plutarch so angry about Herodotus?
Bryant Kirkland writes: This is a good question, and I will scrape only the tip of the iceberg here in saying that Plutarch’s problems with Herodotus have a lot to do with Plutarch’s ideas about representation, both of one’s character and of historical events as represented in writing. From Plutarch’s perspective, Herodotus has gotten away with murdering the facts, as it were, and Plutarch wants to convict him not only of his intellectual crimes but also of the malicious intent that motivated them.
The relevant text for thinking about this question is Plutarch’s On the Malice of Herodotus (de malignitate Herodoti), likely written in Plutarch’s later years when he was preparing to write the Parallel Lives and reading a lot of Herodotus. Plutarch writes in the opening sections that he is setting out to defend ‘our ancestors and the truth’ from what he calls Herodotus’s ‘malice’. This word translates the Greek term kakoêtheia, whose component parts could be more literally translated as ‘bad character’ or ‘ill temperament’. That bit about the ancestors is important, too. As many scholars have noted, Plutarch has decidedly patriotic interests in the treatise and spends a good amount of time critiquing Herodotus’s presentation of Thebes, near Plutarch’s place of birth. If you’re familiar with the Iliad’s Catalogue of Ships or the so-called Serpent Column that memorialized the city-states that resisted Persia, you’ll know that ancient Greeks (though of course not just ancient Greeks) were serious about proper acknowledgment of various places’ efforts in larger causes. Plutarch was no exception, and his belief that Herodotus improperly represented certain places must have been one motivating factor for his treatise. But that’s not all.
Plutarch in that opening section foregrounds the issue the really underlies his diatribe: Herodotus’ character (êthos). Plutarch would have us believe that Herodotus is a kind of literary con artist. The signature flaw of Herodotus’ Histories – the flaw that undergirds all of its errors – is that Herodotus is not who he poses to be: he seems like a good person who wants to tell the truth, but he is not. His mistakes are not innocent errors of fact or the product of bad research, but are instead purposeful distortions. And only a person of churlish and mean-spirited character would purposefully distort the truth or cast needless aspersion on others. Herodotus’ alluring writerly qualities therefore make his falsehoods, fabrications, omissions, and subtle acts of slander hard to detect, but all the same he can’t help, like some thief in hasty flight, leaving ‘traces’ or ‘footprints’ that allow us to spot his deceit, Plutarch says.
An example: according to Plutarch, Herodotus shows his bad character in his choosing to distort the truth under the guise of offering something accurate or laudatory. Plutarch complains at one point about Herodotus’s report (Hdt. 6.106.3-107.1) that the Spartans arrived late to Marathon because of a religious obligation to wait for the full moon before setting off on military campaign. Plutarch claims that this is not always true, and that Spartans did on other occasions march out before the full moon. Regardless of the accuracy of Plutarch’s claim, the essential point for him is that Herodotus suppresses evidence about the Spartans, thereby betraying his bias against them. A little later in the treatise Plutarch contends that Herodotus’ praise of Athens (7.139) does not really count as genuine praise, but rather ‘he praises the Athenians that he may speak ill of all the rest’, including of course Sparta. For Plutarch, Herodotus only attempts to conceal his biases behind explanatory statements (such as that about Spartan religion) or statements of apparent praise (when in fact he is dissing the rest of Greece, not really lauding Athens – a city that Herodotus anyway depicts inconsistently, per Plutarch). So the very mechanics of Herodotus’s historical composition, however ‘accurate’ they look, both conceal and (if you’re reading carefully) reveal Herodotus’s skulking bad spirit.
Now, you might still ask: isn’t history (ideally) about telling the truth? Isn’t Plutarch strait-jacketing Herodotus into offering an uplifting, ‘patriotic’ version of history? (And don’t think these visions of history have gone away: witness the proposals to teach ‘patriotic history’ in certain parts of the United States over the past few years especially.) Here one might recall Plutarch’s philosophical tendencies. He did not think that things that consisted of a fundamentally good essence should be represented in a bad way. As a comparison, consider how Plato (or Socrates) is worried about Homer’s representation of the gods. If the gods are good and just, is it right for Homer to represent them as petty and wilful? Similarly, if the Persian Wars did what many Greeks of Plutarch’s time wanted to think they did – kept Greece ‘free’, and brought different groups together in an act of resistance – then Herodotus has just too many ambiguities and opaque patches to be considered an accurate witness. To be sure, there is some circular thinking here, but in the end, Plutarch can convict Herodotus of being something of a failed artist who has cruelly painted ugly moles and zits on what Plutarch takes to be a clean complexion.
I encourage you to read the treatise for yourself and see what you think. And if you have access to an academic library, I recommend these helpful pieces of scholarship: John Marincola’s 1994 essay ‘Plutarch’s Refutation of Herodotus’ (in Ancient World 25.2: 191-203); Christopher Pelling’s 2007 chapter ‘De Malignitate Plutarchi: Plutarch, Herodotus, and the Persian Wars’ (in E. Bridges, E. Hall, and P.J. Rhodes (eds.) Cultural Responses to the Persian Wars, 472 BCE – 2003 CE. Oxford: 145-64); pages 9-34 especially of Emily Baragwanath’s Motivation and Narrative in Herodotus (Oxford 2008); and Geert Roskam’s 2017 essay ‘Discussing the past: Moral virtue, truth, and benevolence in Plutarch’s On the Malice of Herodotus,’ (in A. Georgiadou and K. Oikonomopoulou (eds.) Space, Time and Language in Plutarch. Berlin: 161-74).
Is Herodotus racist?
Thomas Harrison writes: In a passage of his famous memoir, Travels with Herodotus, the journalist Ryszard Kapuściński speculates about how Herodotus might have treated his slaves. ‘I think that he was a kind-hearted man, and gave them little reason to complain overly much’. This response to Herodotus was clearly the product of Kapuściński’s particular formation in Communist-era Poland, but it is also perhaps representative of a wider response to Herodotus. We’d like to believe that he shared our perspectives on the darker side of ancient culture, that he supported women’s rights (after all, he gives as an example of the justice of the Issedones – a distant northern people – that their women had ‘equal power’ with the men), and that he was kind to his slaves.
The truth is probably less palatable. Herodotus cannot and should not be reduced just to being a typical representative of his time and place – something I’ll come back to – but, equally, he cannot be divorced from that wider context: if we judge ancient Greek culture racist, then Herodotus should probably be lumped in with that judgement. But can we apply the term ‘racist’ to the Greeks, in the first place? The usual response here is to say ‘no’. ‘Racism’, the argument goes, depends upon a pseudo-scientific ideology underpinning it, something which is the product of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Greeks may have expressed pejorative views of foreign peoples, but they did not (or, at least, they did not so consistently) focus, in doing so, on differences in skin colour or physiognomy – on immutable characteristics. Greek culture may have been ‘xenophobic’ or ‘chauvinist’, then, but not ‘racist’.
These are all reasonable arguments. But these kinds of distinctions might also make us uncomfortable. A lot is at stake, it seems, in keeping the Greeks safely incomparable. And terms like ‘chauvinism’ somehow reduce the force of negative Greek views of foreign peoples, suggesting that they were merely abstract, that there were no victims. The institution of slavery gives the lie to this, in my view. Even if Greeks also enslaved fellow-Greeks (and this seems to have become less common over time), there was a powerful association of slavery with foreign peoples. When comic playwrights looked for a name for a slave character, they typically used ‘ethnics’ like ‘Syrian’ or ‘Thracian’ or stereotypically foreign names.
Is there any evidence specifically to tie Herodotus to all of this? I’ve argued elsewhere that his ethnographies of foreign peoples reflect a wider Greek discourse on the differences between peoples rooted in the trade in slaves. The Thracians sell their own children, we are told, for example. The fact that life is so cheap amongst the Thracians seems, in effect, to exonerate the Greeks who then took them on as slaves. It is important to say, however, that this ‘message’ of ethnography is an implicit one, and not specifically Herodotus’ own. In general, Herodotus resists caricatured portraits of different foreign peoples, let alone any notion of the inferiority of ‘barbarians’ as a whole. Distant peoples like the Ethiopians are characterised in idealised form as exceptionally tall and beautiful, speaking truth to the power of the Persian King. Herodotus also highlights how foreign peoples themselves cast others as barbarians.
None of this, however, gets Herodotus or the Greeks off the hook. Positive, idealised representations of foreign peoples don’t simply negate, but work in parallel with, pejorative stereotypes. In the end, then, the question of whether Herodotus was ‘[a] racist’ is one to which it is very hard to give a definitive answer. And probably more important in the end than that narrow question is the job of really wrestling with his (and the Greeks’) portrait of non-Greek peoples in all its complexity.
The fullest account of the evidence for ancient racism is Benjamin Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (2004); he prefers the term ‘proto-racism’, in fact, although he regrets this a little in a later essay in an edited collection, The Origins of Racism in the West. A very well-made argument against the use of ‘racism’ is Christopher Tuplin’s, available freely online; and Erich Gruen’s influential book Rethinking the Other gives very strong emphasis to the positive portrayal of foreign peoples. You can read my counter-argument in this article on the Greek idea of the ‘barbarian’; a fuller defence of the use of the term ‘Greek racism’ is forthcoming in a volume, Identities in Antiquity, edited by V. Manolopoulou, J. Skinner and C. Tsouparopoulou.
There is a wealth of good material on Herodotus’ portrait of foreign peoples specifically. Particularly valuable, in so far as they focus on Herodotus’ underlying models (rather than just totting up positive and negative portrayals) are James Redfield’s essay ‘Herodotus the Tourist’ and Rosaria Munson’s Telling Wonders. (You can hear her talk about her book on the Helpline YouTube channel.)
What was Herodotus’ favourite food?
Jeremy McInerney writes: Well, I suppose the short answer is, we don’t know, because he never tells us. What we can say is that a lot of stories in his treatment of the Greeks and other people involve food. This is because he was interested in the customs that made different cultural groups distinctive, and food, as we know, is one of the most culturally specific markers there is (along with speech and dress).
A famous episode that reveals Herodotos’ interest in food is his account of the Egyptian king Psammetichos, who wanted to know what the original language of mankind was (2.2). He kept two children in isolation and the first word they uttered was “bread” in Phrygian, leading Psammetichos to conclude that Phrygian was the first language. That “bread” was their first word also suggests that for Herodotos bread was the most fundamental food known to humans, or at least the Greeks. He claims that the Ethiopians, nomadic herders who eat meat and drink milk have no familiarity with bread and dismiss it as dung (3.22 – 3.23): a good example of how food serves as an indicator of whether you are like the Greeks or not.
Often when he discusses food, he does so in order to show which crops grow best in particular places. For example, he has a long discussion of the irrigation system around Babylon that produces fantastic cereal crops, and explains that they manufacture sesame oil and grow palm trees whose fruit they use for food, wine and syrup (1.193). But he doesn’t express a preference for one food over another. The Greeks use olives, dates and figs for the same purposes as the Babylonians use palms, but he makes the comparison without expressing a preference. He even seems to describe the Skythians inhaling cannabis smoke and becoming intoxicated without passing judgement (4.75). Different strokes for different folks.
The two types of food that Herodotos refers to most frequently are meat and fish. His stories about them also reflect Greek values. For example, meat is connected to sacrifice, since most Greeks got their meat as the result of sacrifices made to the gods. Festivals, such as the Hekatombaia (“one hundred cattle”) at the Argive Heraion involved sacrifices on a massive scale that were followed by enormous feasts for the entire community. For Herodotos, meat eating in a festival/feast setting was absolutely normal. In fact, people’s approach to festivals, sacrifices and meat-eating is a measuring stick of what is either familiar (and Greek) or unfamiliar (and foreign) that recurs throughout his work. The Persians allow women to sit at their feasts (unlike the Greeks) (5.18). The Padaians in India eat tribe members who are sick so as to acquire immunity from the disease(!) while the Kallatiai eat their dead parents as a mark of honour (3.99 and 3.38). In each case the oddity or the abnormality of the practice (from the Greek point of view) just confirms Herodotos’ view that each people thinks its own customs are the right ones.
Because fish aren’t a part of this sacrifice/feast/meat cluster, they are treated differently by Herodotos. For example, he tells the story of Polykrates, the tyrant of Samos, who tries to avert misfortune by giving up something he cares about: he tosses his gold ring into the sea. But after Polykrates is a given a huge fish as a gift, the fish is cut open and he discovers the ring: he can’t avoid his fate (3.40-43). As usual, the story is not just about food, in this case a large, glorious, freshly caught fish, but about the lesson to be learned about fate. Most of Herodotos’ stories about fish, especially stories about people who eat a lot of fish, involve people who live beyond the Greek world, suggesting that for Herodotos fish hinted at something exotic. The basic Greek diet was fairly simple: bread, cheese, fruit and vegetables, and many Greeks were suspicious of rich food and drink: it just seemed foreign. When the Spartan king Pausanias wants to demonstrate the difference between Greeks and Persians he has a Persian banquet prepared and then sets it next to a Spartan meal (9.82). Since the most famous Spartan dish was black broth, made from blood and either mutton, goat, pig or horsemeat, the contrast was pretty clear. Whether Herodotos had a taste for Spartan cooking or not, we don’t know, but I suspect it was a bit much even for him.
Did Herodotus have friends?
Sheila Murnaghan writes: Herodotus makes himself vividly present in the Histories, proclaiming his authorship in its opening words, reporting his travels and his investigations, and offering his opinions on many topics. But he does not provide the kind of personal information that would allow us to answer that question in any straightforward way. The sparse and unreliable biographical information that has come down from other sources is not much help either. We do learn about some political alliances and intellectual connections of a kind that might slide over into forms of friendship. For example, in his early days in Halicarnassus, Herodotus seems to have been part of a political faction opposed to the local tyrant Lygdamis, and this reportedly led to a period of exile on the island of Samos before the group came to terms with the tyrant and returned.
Most ancient and modern speculation about Herodotus’ possible friendships centers on the period he spent in Athens, where it is assumed that he would have mingled with the leading figures of the day. One tiny piece of much later evidence has underwritten a widely-held view that he and the tragic playwright Sophocles were particularly good friends. The first and second century CE writer Plutarch reports that Sophocles wrote a poem that began ‘Sophocles wrote a song for Herodotus/ when he was fifty-five . . .’ (Plutarch, Moralia 785c). This inference is reinforced by signs of mutual influence in the two writers’ works. Several passages in Sophocles’ plays appear to be directly influenced by the Histories or possibly by earlier versions performed in Athens (especially Antigone 908-15 and Oedipus at Colonus 337-45), and there are many affinities between Herodotus’ narrative and Athenian tragedy in general and Sophocles’ plays in particular. The assumption that Herodotus must also have been friendly with the brilliant Athenian politician Pericles is bolstered by the information that he joined a new colony founded in Thurii in southern Italy: this project involved participants from many Greek cities but was spearheaded by Pericles. The Histories contains a good deal of material about prominent Athenian families and their past activities, and it is easy to imagine that personal friendships played a role in Herodotus’ access to such information; similar conjectures might also be made about his investigations in other parts of the world.
Herodotus does present himself in the Histories as someone who would easily make friends: a curious, inquisitive, and empathetic person and a great storyteller. And the nature of friendship certainly falls within his extensive range of interests. He tells several stories that highlight the imperfect match between personal friendship and relations of political expediency. When the Egyptian king Amasis concludes that the Samian tyrant Polycrates is headed for a bad fall, he makes a calculated decision to break off their friendship, ‘so that when a great and dreadful misfortune overtook Polycrates, he himself would not feel the sharp grief he would for friend’ (3.43.2). When the Persian King Darius becomes alarmed that his Greek client Histiaeus is fortifying a possible power base in Thrace, he decides to neutralize him by resettling him in his own court. His excuse is that he wants Histiaeus close by as his advisor because, ‘I have come to recognize that the most valuable of all possessions is a friend who is both intelligent and loyal, and I have seen that you have both of these qualities and have applied them to furthering my affairs’ (5.24.3). Taken out of context, Darius’ words have entered the realm of uplifting sayings and appear in online quotation compendia in the simplified form, ‘Of all possessions a friend is the most precious’.
Finally, many modern readers have found in Herodotus’ work an intellectual companion with a distinct and endearing sensibility, who comes to seem like a lifelong friend. The impression that to read the Histories is also to make a friend is well described by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, who took Herodotus’s text with him on his own twentieth century travels:
“Even when I had not opened the Histories for years, I never forgot about Herodotus. He had been a living, breathing man once, then was forgotten for two millennia, and now, after many centuries lived anew – at least for me. I endowed him with the appearance and traits I wished him to have. He was now my Herodotus, near and dear to me, someone with whom I shared a common language and with whom I could communicate, or at least commune, almost without speaking” (Travels with Herodotus, 267).
Did Herodotus support Athens?
Giorgia Proietti writes: The first aspect to consider in approaching this question is the relationship between Herodotus and Athens, a polis which plays a crucial role in Herodotus’ biography, his research (historie in Greek), and the Histories.
One of the few certain topographical props in Herodotus’ biography is that he participated in the foundation of Thurii in Magna Graecia, promoted by Pericles in 444 B.C. Besides this, we know that Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus, likely around 485 B.C. He soon travelled around the Eastern Mediterranean, probably first set foot in Athens in the early 440s, residing there for some time. There are two contrasting literary traditions about Herodotus’ death, locating it alternatively in Thurii or Athens. At any rate, most commentators today agree that he spent the last part of his life back in Athens, where he witnessed the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, and possibly – according to a recent hypothesis – also Athens’ capitulation in 404.
One thing which is important to notice is that Herodotus never explicitly says that he has been to Athens (someone in fact even suggested he never visited it). However, he knows well the topography of Athens and Attica (see e.g., 4.99.4; 5.63.4; 6.116) and at times when providing topographical information he seems to have an Athenian audience in mind (1.98.5; 2.7; 5.77.3). Additionally, the literary sources point to Herodotus having personal connections with several leading figures in mid-5th century Athens (such as Pericles, Protagoras, and Sophocles), while the Athenian historian Diyllus (early 3rd century BC) records that the Athenians passed a decree granting Herodotus ten talents. A later tradition also has Herodotus reading his work in Athens and receiving honors for that.
Herodotus also displays a good knowledge of Athens’ history. In book I, Athens is introduced as the main Greek city along with Sparta (1.56.2), and the tyranny of the Peisistratids is narrated in detail (1.56-64). Books 2-4 are devoted to the regions of the Persian empire and Athens reappears in book 5, where Herodotus resumes his narration from the very point of Athenian history where he had stopped, namely the reversal of the Peisistratids and Cleisthenes’ reforms (5.55-78). In book 6 to 9 Athens is then omnipresent in the Histories as a protagonist in the Persian wars: first and alone among the Greeks, the Athenians defeated the Persians at Marathon; ten years later they won a quasi-success at the Artemisium; and they were the ones mainly responsible for the decisive Greek victory at Salamis. Herodotus himself states that, despite many Greeks might not have agreed, at Salamis the Athenians indeed saved the whole of Greece from Persian slavery (7.139).
To answer the question, most older scholarship considered Herodotus an admirer of contemporary Athens based on the author’s apparent benevolence towards the Athenians (and at times explicit praise of them) as well as on other indices such as his connections with Periclean Athens and his (allegedly Alcmaeonid-derived) knowledge of the city and its history. However, starting from the middle of the past century, some scholars (first Strasburger in 1955, then Fornara in 1971, and several others later on) demolished the view of Herodotus as simply pro-Athenian and showed instead how he, writing against the backdrop of the Peloponnesian War, evokes and criticizes the dark sides of Athenian imperialism.
Besides the question of Herodotus’ alleged political partisanship and his favour towards or criticism of Athens, one dimension of the Herodotus-Athens relationship which needs further consideration is the role of Athens as a prominent vantage point for Herodotus to observe, listen to, and make inquiries about how the Persian wars were remembered, narrated and commemorated during the central decades of the 5th century. The Marathon logos, for instance, is consistently based on an Athenian tradition, a stratified one, stretching along several decades of the 5th century. The narration of the panhellenic achievements at Artemisium and at Salamis is also mostly built on Athenian traditions, while the logos of Plataea contains clear traces of Athenian stories. The point here is that Herodotus not only relied on Athenian sources of information, as scholars have long acknowledged, but he also built the very skeleton of several parts of his narration on Athenian oral stories, which were developing in a multi-medial framework around inscriptions, monuments, rites, cults, festival and other non-historiographical media of memory, and circulating from the time of the so called ‘First Peloponnesian war’ to the ‘Peloponnesian war’ proper. Selected and reshaped by Herodotus, these stories were turned into factual history, and as such they have come down to us.
How accurate is Herodotus’ description of Egypt?
Typhaine Haziza writes: The question you ask is very interesting, but more complex than it might seem at first glance. It depends on what we mean by “accurate” and, what is more, the answer varies over time and depends on which expert you ask and how we understand Herodotus’ work. Your question also raises the further issues of reliability and the method of Herodotus’ own sources. For the sake of simplicity, let us say that Herodotus preferred to trust what he saw in order to compose his account (which does not rule out errors of judgment), though that is certainly not possible for all subjects. When this was not possible, he favoured what he heard (which presents the problem of the quality and reliability of his interlocutors), passing the information he gathered through the filter of critical judgment. If this method allows his account a certain rationality, it introduces equally Herodotus’ own point of view, subjective and marked by Greek culture.
I will limit myself here to a single concrete example: the account of the pyramid – and the reign – of Cheops, for which Herodotus says he based his account on what he heard from “priests” and an “interpreter” who translated an Egyptian inscription for him (2.124-126). The description of the biggest pyramid of Giza occupies a large part of the section dedicated to Cheops by Herodotus, who is struck by the edifice’s imposing nature. If, in general, it offers a picture relatively true to reality in its detail, there are numerous inaccuracies: the number of workers (100,000 men) for the construction of the pyramid is certainly excessive; on the other hand, the assessment of the time the work took (twenty years for the pyramid itself and ten years to build the causeway and the underground rooms) seems reasonable. The cost of the “purchase of radishes, onions, and garlic for the laborers” (sixteen hundred talents of silver) comes from an incorrect translation of an inscription on the pyramid which might be a list of offerings made to the deceased king. Herodotus mentions certain adjoined buildings, of which his description is accurate, but certain details (in particular the question of rooms “built on an island”) are surprising. He seeks to give precise dimensions in order to show the enormity of the construction, but these are excessive. On the origin of the materials used for the construction, Herodotus mentions the stone quarries in the Arabian mountain range (Tura), which in fact provided for the pyramid’s casing material, but he does not distinguish the casing from the main structure, which comes from the quarries of the Giza plateau. As for construction techniques, his analysis of the different steps of construction proves accurate, but he errs in anachronistically bringing in Greek leveraging techniques. Herodotus well understood the funerary function of the pyramid, but he does not stop there. He emphasizes much more strongly the project’s size and staggering cost.
Herodotus’ description of Cheops’ pyramid is therefore not entirely accurate, but, through his report, the inquirer gives his Greek listeners or readers who do not know the building a good general idea of this extraordinary monument. In other words, if the pyramid had disappeared today, we could, thanks to Herodotus’ testimony, preserve a relatively accurate picture of its function and the feat of its construction. The situation is the same for many passages from Book 2 concerning monuments or natural wonders and even for the customs or ways of life that the historian was able to observe. But, in this last case, Herodotus’ description can be rendered inaccurate by a poor understanding of what he witnessed, or by his desire to make his account more accessible to his Greek public by translating the strangeness that he saw into more familiar terms.
It is more difficult to answer your question when it comes to the passages from Book 2 in which Herodotus addresses Egyptian history or beliefs, or even when he describes partly imaginary places. Many of Herodotus’ stories in fact seem fictionalized or even legendary. This quality has led to virulent critiques of the historian since antiquity. Today, we tend to consider these allegedly fanciful passages to be invaluable sources of local legends, either Greek (coming from the Greek community of Egypt, which was sizable at the time when Herodotus visited the region around 450 BCE), or Egyptian, whether Herodotus was informed by the priests or whether he was able to obtain stories that were circulating among the Egyptian population. There are in fact points of connection between the stories reported by the historian and certain fables found in Demotic literature (that is, Egyptian literature from the seventh century BCE onward). This is the case, for example, for the Herodotean story of the reign of Pheros (2.111), which is very close to a Demotic story identified recently.
To return to the example of Cheops’ pyramid, Herodotus accompanies his rational description with a final anecdote that we can consider to be completely fabulous. The historian reports that Cheops had forced his daughter to prostitute herself to finance a part of the colossal cost of the pyramid. (How big a part? “That is a point on which they did not inform me”, says Herodotus). She had asked each of her visitors to make her a gift of a stone in order to construct a small pyramid, displayed in front of her father’s. According to Joachim Friedrich Quack, this story might be explained by the evolution of the Egyptian language, since the word “small” was used more often in the Late Period to signify a prostitute. Stories would thus have arisen to explain the new sense of the expression “small pyramid”, understood henceforth as “the prostitute’s pyramid”. Herodotus’ fabulous anecdote can thus document how king Cheops, constructor of the largest pyramid, was perceived in this era. Herodotus presents for us a portrait that transmits both an undoubtedly negative Greek perception of a construction considered to be excessively large and an ancient Egyptian tradition already carrying a negative image of the sovereign.
As we can see, the interest Herodotus holds exceeds the simple question of the accuracy of his information, because even the most fabulous passages can be invaluable sources on another reality: that of imagination and illustration, a field of passionate study …
For further reading:
A. Grand-Clément, 1999, ‘Les pyramides de la IVe dynastie vues par les auteurs classiques. Le site de Gîza revisité’, Égypte, Afrique & Orient 15: 57-64.
T. Haziza, 2009, Le Kaléidoscope hérodotéen. Images, imaginaire et représentations de l’Égypte à travers le livre II d’Hérodote. Paris.
T. Haziza, 2012, ‘De l’Égypte d’Hérodote à celle de Diodore: étude comparée des règnes des trois bâtisseurs des pyramides du plateau de Gîza’, Kentron 28: 17-52.
A. Lloyd, 1975-1988, Herodotus Book II. Leiden.
L. Coulon et al. (eds.), 2013, Hérodote et l’Égypte. Regards croisés sur le Livre II de l’Enquête d’Hérodote. Lyon.
What does Herodotus say about free speech?
Sara Forsdyke writes: The short answer is that Herodotus says nothing explicitly about free speech in the modern sense of the word. In so far as free speech today primarily refers to freedom from government intervention in free expression, it is remote from ancient Greek understandings of freedom of speech. For the ancient Athenians, there was no separation between the government and the citizens and therefore no need to conceptualize freedom of speech as a protection from a potentially oppressive government. In Athens, the citizens were the government and for them freedom of speech (parrhesia) was necessary in order to hear all opinions and make the best decisions. As Arlene Saxonhouse puts it, for the ancient Athenians “freedom of speech was a tool of self-government, not a bulwark” (2006, 30).
A second important point is that there are two words relating to ancient Greek ideas of free speech. The first, mentioned above, is parrhesia, usually translated as “free or frank speech”. The second is isegoria, that is the “equal right to speak”. Isegoria was considered so central to democratic governance that it sometimes served as a byword for democracy itself. Most famously, Herodotus celebrates the value of isegoria/democracy by asserting that it was the cause of the Athenians’ victory over their enemies in 506 BCE. As free men under the democracy, Herodotus reasons, the Athenians had a stake in the outcome of the war and committed themselves fully to the joint effort. By contrast, under the previous tyrannical regime, the masses shirked their duty since they knew that the rewards of victory would go to their ruler (5.78).
Herodotus does not use the word parrhesia at all in his Histories. That said, several episodes emphasize the value of free speech through the depiction of the disastrous consequences of its absence in Persia. In one episode, the Persian King Xerxes summons an assembly of the Persians to discuss an invasion of Greece (7.8-11). Two advisors speak out – one flattering and the other, named Artabanus, speaking frankly in opposing Xerxes’ plan. Xerxes responds angrily to Artabanus and ignores what turns out to have been sound advice. Herodotus underscores the value of free speech in this episode by depicting Artabanus as explaining to the monarch the value of competing ideas: “O King, if no opposing opinions are given, it is impossible to select the better one. In such circumstances, it is necessary to use the [single] opinion that is expressed. By contrast, when opposing opinions are given, it is possible [to select the better one], just as we discover what is better gold, not by rubbing pure gold against itself, but by rubbing it against a lesser gold” (7.10a).
In a second episode, Xerxes confers with the exiled Spartan King Demaratus on the chances of his success against the Greeks (7.101-105). When Demaratus sees that the King wants to be praised for the size and strength of his army, he asks “Your majesty, shall I tell you the truth or shall I say what will please you?” When Xerxes, uncharacteristically, gives Demaratus leave to speak his mind, the Spartan king describes the martial superiority of the Greeks – and especially the Spartans – over the Persians.
Another episode dramatizing the absence of free speech in Persia features one of the most capable naval commanders in Xerxes’ army, the Greek woman Artemisia. Strikingly, this woman voices an opinion that is counter to the obsequious views of all the other (male) commanders (8.68-69). Herodotus makes note of the surprise of the others when Artemisia is not punished by Xerxes for speaking her mind. Needless to say, Xerxes does not follow Artemisia’s advice and suffers a defeat at Salamis.
For more reading on free speech in Herodotus and ancient Greece generally, see:
Forsdyke, Sara. 2001. “Athenian democratic ideology and Herodotus’ Histories”, AJP 122: 329-58.
Forsdyke, Sara. 2006. “Herodotus, political history and political thought”, in Carolyn Dewald and John Marincola eds. The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus. Cambridge. 224-241.
Saxonhouse, Arlene. 2006. Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens. Cambridge.
Sleuter, Ineke and Ralph Rosen. eds. 2004. Free Speech in Classical Antiquity. Leiden.
Herodotus in Translation
What is the history of translation of Herodotus in Hebrew?
Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz writes: The history of Hebrew translations of Herodotus’ Histories or parts thereof is very short. The first translation appeared in 1930, as Volume 39, The Stories of Herodotus, in a series of texts intended for schools, “Scrolls for Schools”. The translator, I.L. Baruch (a poet and writer who also translated, among others, von Goethe, Heinrich Heine, and Jules Verne), published in four tracts parts of Books 1 and 2: Tract A, “Croesus and Solon” (1.26-92); Tract B, “Cyrus” (1.95-216); Tract C, “The Egyptians” (2.2, 4, 35-41, 47, 59-63, 65-71, 73, 76-77, 80-81, 84-90, 93, 97, 121, 124-125, 127, 147-148, 151-152, 154, 158-159); Tract D, “The Babylonians and the Persians” (1.131-140, 178-191, 193-200). The front page says “written [i.e., the text of Herodotus] in Hebrew”, so it is not certain that this was a translation from the Greek.
The second Hebrew translation was made in 1935-1936 by Alexander Schorr (an educator and historian). Schorr, who studied history and classical languages at the university of Vienna, translated the whole of Herodotus’ Histories from the Greek. This translation (published in two volumes by Reuven Mass Publisher, Jerusalem) was the only complete one, used by students, scholars and the wide readership. Schorr’s translation went out of stock (until digitized by the Ben-Yehuda Project).
In 1998, a new translation from the Greek was published by Benjamin Shimron and Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz (Tel Aviv: Papyrus-Dyonon). A paperback edition was published in 2013 (Jerusalem: Carmel). Being written in a more accessible Hebrew, this translation to a large degree replaced the older one.
Two Hebrew translations of the political debate in Book 3, chapters 82-83 were made by Gabriel Herman (appearing in a special issue of the journal Prosa (vol. 63, 1983, p. 14) and by Aaron Shabtai (appended to his Hebrew translation of Sophocles’ Antigone, Tel Aviv: Schoken 1990, pp. 153-155).
What is the history of translation of Herodotus in Finnish?
Antti Lampinen writes: Somewhat surprisingly, Herodotus has been translated into Finnish only once. Edvard Rein’s complete translation of the Histories appeared as Herodotoksen historia-teos in three volumes (1907, 1908 and 1910), published by Werner Söderström Oy (Porvoo). The first edition was printed by the K. J. Gummerus Oy in Jyväskylä. This translation has since gone through several non-revised reprints. In 1964 it was published by WSOY in two volumes, and in 1997, the fourth imprint appeared as a single-volume paperback in the ‘Ancient Classics’ series of WSOY.
Edvard Rein (1873-1940) was born in Helsinki to well-connected parents: his father was the Professor and State Councillor Karl Gabriel Thiodolf Rein and his mother the social activist and philanthropist Hedvig Maria Sofia Florin, who was related to the Adlercreutz noble family. Rein studied at the Normal Lyceum of Helsinki (1891), and went on to gain his Master’s degree (1896) and doctorate (1907) from Helsinki University. He first worked as the lecturer in Latin (1904-25), then as the professor extraordinarius in Ancient Greek and Byzantine Philology (1925-30) and finally as the professor ordinarius in Greek Literature (1930-40), a chair that he had also held as a locum tenens in 1910-11, 1920-22 and 1926-29. His publication record was fairly modest, but included studies on the mythology and genealogy of Aeacus, several studies on Byzantine manuscripts and literature, and the first popular account of Byzantine history in the Finnish language. His translations into Finnish included a selection of essays by the important 18th-century humanist Henrik Gabriel Porthan (1904), the story of Amor and Psyche from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (1907), and Herodotoksen historia-teos (1907-10), for which he is best known today.
There are a number of current translation projects underway in Finland that seek to produce a new translation of the Histories, but to my knowledge none of these are very close to completion. Talks are also underway of the several translators to join forces in order to produce a collaborative translation-commentary that would not only update Rein’s dated diction – which also often adopts a rather high style, as was typical in his original context – but would also offer the Finnish reading public, for the first time, a full commentary of Herodotus’ rich work. In this, the groundwork has already been laid by a 2021 publication of Christa Steinby’s general guide to Herodotus and his world, Herodotos. Historiankirjoituksen isä ja hänen maailmansa (Otava, Helsinki).
What is the history of translation of Herodotus in Irish?
Olaf Almqvist writes: Irish translations of Latin literature begin as early as the 10th century when versions of Virgil’s Aeneid, Lucan’s Pharsallia, and more eclectic texts such as The Destruction of Troy were playfully and often quite freely adapted into the Irish language. Despite this early start, it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries and a very different literary and cultural climate that Irish editions of classical Greek literature appear. Far from the land of saints and scholars, translations of authors like Sophocles, Homer, and Plutarch were initiated as a small part of the Irish language revival, a movement beginning in the 19th century attempting to preserve an Irish culture and language stunted by centuries of British colonial rule. It is somewhat ironic in this respect that the task of translating Herodotus fell to an Englishman, George Derwent Thomson (1903-1987).
George Thomson or Seoirse Mac Tomáis to use the Gaelicised version of his name was born in London to an English father and Irish mother. Although Thomson is chiefly remembered as a Classicist and avid Marxist, the Irish language occupied no small part of his literary output and education. Indeed, his love of Irish coincided with his learning of Greek when a thirteen-year-old Thomson attended Irish lessons at the Gaelic League in London. This enthusiasm never dimmed and at the age of twenty, Thomson first set foot on the remote and often romanticised Blasket Islands off the coast of County Kerry. Thomson later noted that listening to the speech of the islanders was ‘as though Homer had come alive. Its vitality was inexhaustible, yet it was rhythmical, alliterative, formal, artificial, always on the point of bursting into poetry’ (1949: 540).
Thomson’s contribution to the Irish language was as formidable as it was diverse. Alongside encouraging and editing Muiris Ó Súilleabháin’s classic autobiographical work Fiche Bliain ag Fás (Twenty Years a Growing), Thomson lectured in the Irish language at University College, Galway (1931-34), and translated a wide range of Greek works including editions of Plato’s early dialogues, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, and a now lost translation of the Odyssey which, the story goes, was last seen in the hands of a local schoolteacher. While Thomson never attempted to translate the entire Histories, under the Gaelicised version of his mother’s maiden name, Mac Laghmainn, he tackled a selection of Herodotean stories. These tales appeared in a bi-monthly column of the newspaper An Phoblact (The Republican) and include the story of Gyges and Candaules, Arion and the Dolphin, and Adrastus and the Boar.
Although we might pine for more, what Thomson offers is a rare gem – a Blasket inspired Herodotus ‘always on the point of bursting into poetry’. For example, where Herodotus describes Candaules’ wife through the three-word phrase ‘πασέων γυναικῶν καλλίστην’ (the most beautiful of all women), Thomson offers the more ornate and considerably longer ‘an bhean is fearr dealbh agus déanamh de mhná na cruinne go hiomlán.’ Literally this translates as ‘the woman fairest in features and form of all the women in the whole world’. Despite the considerable poetic licence taken by the translator in this instance, Thomson’s Herodotus never feels forced. Rather Thomson accentuates Herodotus’ charm as a master storyteller – a reminder perhaps, that though Thomson may offer the first and to this date only Irish translation of the Histories, the Herodotean spirit has always been very much alive in the Irish language.
Alexiou, M. 2000. ‘George Thomson: The Greek Dimension’, in ed. Máire Ní Chéilleachair, Ceiliúradh an Bhlascaoid 4 Seoirse Mac Tomáis 1903 – 1987. Coiscéim.
Ó Lúing, S. 1996. ‘George Thomson’, Classics Ireland 3: 141-162.
Thomson, G. 1949. Studies in Ancient Greek Society I: the Prehistoric Aegean. Lawrence and Wishart.
What is the history of translation of Herodotus in German?
You can download a pdf copy of this response here.
Christine Ley-Hutton writes: The history of Herodotean translations in German is quite a long story. There are a great number of German translations–16 of the complete works of Herodotus, not counting translations of parts. This long story begins early in the 16th century, when Hieronymus Boner published Von den Persier und vielen anderen Kriegen, aus dem Lateinischen übersetzt von Hieronymus Boner (Augsburg 1535), drawing on the famous and widely known Latin translation of Lorenzo Valla, first printed in 1474. Boner’s translation of Herodotus is not easy to read or understand, being written (and spelled) in 16th century German. It is, however, quite an aesthetic pleasure to scroll through the digital online version.
More than half a century later Georgius Schwartzkopff undertook the first translation directly from ancient Greek: Herodoti des Aller Fürnembsten und ältesten Geschichtsschreibers Historia … auß der Griechischen Spraach in die Teutsche gebracht (Frankfurt am Main 1593). As can be guessed from the title, the spelling and the 16th century German make the translation difficult to read.
When more than 150 years later, Johann Eustachius Goldhagen translated Herodotus–there seems to be a long gap with no German translations in the 17th century–he made it obvious in his preface that he did not think much of Schwartzkopff’s translation. He thought that it was rather obscure, and that Schwartzkopff had apparently used the Latin translation of Valla rather than–as claimed in the title–the original text. Goldhagen‘s translation Des Herodotus neun Bücher der Geschichte; aus dem Griechischen übersetzt und mit einem Register, in welchem einige nöthige Erläuterungen mit eingeschaltet sind, versehen (Lemgo 1756) was revised and republished in 1911 in two volumes by Heinrich Conrad and Hanns Floerke–both translators of literature, working for the publisher Georg Müller in Munich (Floerke was director of the publisher A. Langen/G. Müller).
Towards the end of the 18th century, two translations were published within a few years. One was by Johann Friedrich Degen, a classical scholar and teacher at a Gymnasium in Ansbach: Herodots Geschichte. Aus dem Griechischen übersetzt von Johann Friedrich Degen (Frankfurt am Main 1783-1791). The second was by someone who was not even a classicist, but a well-known medical person of the time, Carl Wigand Maximilian Jacobi. He is said to have translated Herodotus, Thucydides and Plato in order to earn money for his medical career!
The 19th century saw some important translations, which remained quite influential in the 20th century. In 1810-1813, the translation of Friedrich Heinrich Wilhelm Lange, teacher of classics and school-administrator in Berlin and Koblenz, written in a rather archaising style, was published in Breslau in two volumes: Die Geschichten des Herodotus, übersetzt von Friedrich Lange (Breslau 1810-1813, J. Max u. Co). A second edition was published in 1824. In 1885 (Leipzig Reclam) this translation was edited by Otto Güthling, a classical scholar well known for his dictionaries, and it was again edited and revised by Güthling in 1930. The language of Lange’s translation is rather antiquated and in many parts imitates the German of the Luther Bible. The intention may be to convey the influence of Homeric language on the style of Herodotus. The translator Marg (see below), who regards Lange’s translation as one of the best translations of any Greek literature, points out, however, that Herodotus’ language did not sound archaic to his contemporaries. J.M. Thesz sees the archaising translation as a reflection of Lange’s nationalist sentiments, and the choice of the text itself as an allegory for the political conflict between Germany and France (see Matthias Widmer’s review on the contribution of Thesz in: Josefine Kitzbichler, Ulrike C. A. Stephan, Studien zur Praxis der Übersetzung antiker Literatur: Geschichte – Analysen – Kritik. Transformationen der Antike, 35. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016). As Lange follows strictly the original word order, the translation sometimes appears clumsy and difficult to understand. Another noticeable feature is the frequent use of the German past participle instead of the full verb form. Sounding concise and powerful, this may be another attempt to convey the Herodotean style. Lange’s translation was soon followed by that of Adolf Schöll: Griechische Prosaiker in neuen Übersetzungen, übersetzt von Adolf Schöll (Stuttgart 1828-1832), revised in 1853. Schöll, who had given up his study of theology in Tübingen to pursue his interest in Greek literature and mythology, was acquainted with some of the most famous authors and poets of his time such as Gustav Schwab, Eduard Mörike and Joseph von Eichendorff. He became director of the art collection in Weimar and later director of the grand ducal library.
Shortly afterwards, in the years 1859–1864, there appeared the translation of Johann Christian Bähr: Die Musen. Herodotus von Halikarnass, übersetzt von J.Chr.F.Bähr (Stuttgart 1859). Bähr was a classical scholar and director of the university library in Heidelberg. He had previously edited the Greek text and used his own edition as the basis of his translation. The translation was reprinted several times, for instance in 21861 (revised), 1868, 1898 and 1930. A revised and corrected version was published in Mainz, 2011. L. M. Hoffmann praises the reliability of Bähr’s translation and its clear and sophisticated style. Another later translator of Herodotus, Eberhard Richtsteig, Herodotos. Forschungen, übers. von E.Richtsteig (Limburg/Lahn 1954), makes special mention in his preface of Bähr’s translation, which he found very helpful when writing his notes.
Only a few years after Bährs’s first publication, there appeared a new translation by Heinrich Stein: Die Geschichten des Herodot (Oldenburg 1875). Heinrich Stein, a philologist and teacher at a Gymnasium in Berlin and later director of a Gymnasium in Oldenburg, had also previously edited the Greek text with a thorough commentary (1856). According to the later translator Marg (see below), who consulted Stein’s translation when working on his own, Stein’s text is very correct and exact, but lacks rhythm and tightness, the sentence structure is often stiff and awkward. More than a century later his translation was revised, supplemented and published by W.Stammler, Essen 1984.
There are even more translations of Herodotus in the 20th century – five altogether, some of which appeared in several editions. The first is that of August Horneffer, published in 1910: Herodotos Historien. Deutsch von August Horneffer (Leipzig 1910). Horneffer was well known not only for his translations (he also translated Thucydides), but also for his books on freemasonry, being a freemason himself. A new edition of his translation was made in 1955 by H.W. Haussig: Herodotos Historien. Deutsche Gesamtausgabe, übersetzt von A. Horneffer; neu herausgegeben und erläutert von H.W. Haussig, mit einer Einleitung von W. Ott (Stuttgart 1955). According to Günther Nesselrath (see below) Horneffer’s translation is unreliable and his language antiquated.
Quite readable is the next translation in the series, that of Theodor Braun: Das Geschichtswerk des Herodot von Halikarnassos aus dem Griechischen von Theodor Braun (Leipzig 1927). However, this is a rather free rendering of the original Greek text. It is fluent and pleasant to read, but does not allow an exact understanding of the structure and wording of the Greek original text, nor does it try to convey Herodotus’ style. Theodor Braun (1877-1946) was probably not a classical philologist at all, but a historian. He is listed as such in the ‘Österreichisches Biographisches Lexikon’, where his translation of Herodotus is not mentioned in the article. Several later editions appeared in 1931, 1956, 1958 and 1964. In 2001 it was issued as a paperback (Inselverlag). As there is a reference to The English Patient on the back cover, it might not be a coincidence that the book was published four years after the film was first shown in Germany in 1997.
Two decades after Braun’s first edition another translation appeared, that of Eberhard Richtsteig, a philologist and teacher in Breslau: Herodotos Forschungen, übersetzt von E. Richtsteig (Limburg/Lahn 1953, in 6 volumes). It is a very reliable, exact translation close to the Greek original text. This was reprinted in 1961 (Munich, Goldmann Verlag paperback). The translator Feix (see below), who consulted various translations when working on his own, refers explicitly to his former teacher Richtberg’s translation and thanks him for his support and help. Marg (see below) also describes Richtsteig’s translation as very close to the Greek text and as keeping the original word order. While he criticizes it as not sounding German and sometimes failing to convey a clear meaning, he nevertheless credits it with drawing attention to the characteristics of Herodotus’ style. Marg too consulted Richtberg’s translation and in spite of what he had said before, found it useful, when trying to understand Herodotus’ meaning.
The most widespread and most frequently cited translation is that of Josef Feix, published in 1963 and also containing the Greek text: Herodot Historien, griechisch-deutsch, 2 Bde (München 1963, Heimeranverlag). Feix had studied and taught in Breslau before fleeing to West Germany after the Second World War. There are again various editions. In 2004 it was issued in one volume containing only the German translation. There is also a digitized version of the Greek with German translation. Despite its popularity, Feix’s translation was criticized as not consistently following the style of Herodotus and as altering the original structure of sentences, thus causing problems of understanding (cf. Thesz, J.M., Thesz: Deutsche Thukydidesübersetzungen vom 18. bis zum 20. Jahrhundert. Berlin 2017, S. 201ff.). According to Feix himself (see his epilogue in volume II of the translation), his intention was to produce a readable translation which would convey the spirit of the author while following the original Greek very closely in order to allow a direct comparison with the original text.
In 1973, ten years after Feix had translated Herodotus, another very popular translation was made by Walter Marg, Professor of Greek Philology in Mainz. This was published in two volumes, the first containing books I-IV in 1973. The second volume containing books V-IX, published in 1983, could not be finished by Marg himself due to health problems and was therefore edited and completed by Gisela Strasburger with an essay by Hermann Strasburger, Geschichte und Geschichten, übersetzt von Walter Marg, 2 volumes; BD 1, München, 1973; Bd 2 bearbeitet und vollendet von Gisela Strasburger (München 1983). Marg mentions in the preface to his translation that he first thought of making a new edition of Lange’s translation but changed his mind when he realised that the results of more recent research on Herodotus were not compatible with that translation. Therefore he undertook a new one using Lange’s wording and sentences where appropriate. As Marg neither follows the Herodotean word order nor uses an antiquated German, his translation is fluent and easy to read. According to Walter Nicolai, he combines philological reliability and artistic style in a masterly fashion (s.v. ‘Marg, Walter’ in: Neue Deutsche Biographie 16 (1990), S. 151-152).
The 21st century has so far seen two further translations of Herodotus, one by Günther Nesselrath, the other byKai Brodersen and Christine Ley-Hutton.
The new translation by Günther Nesselrath (Herodot Historien. Deutsche Gesamtausgabe, neu übersetzt, herausgegeben und erläutert von Heinz Günther Nesselrath (Stuttgart 2017, KrönerVerlag), who is Professor of Greek Philology at the University of Göttingen, replaces that of Horneffer. In his preface Nesselrath explains how he came to produce a new translation: having been asked by the publisher to update Horneffer’s translation by rewriting and actualizing the introduction and the notes, he soon realised that it was antiquated and unreliable and therefore had to be replaced. Nesselrath’s translation is based on the new edition of the Greek text by N.G. Wilson 2015.
In 2019, a translation by Kai Brodersen, Professor of Ancient Culture at the University of Erfurt, and Christine Ley-Hutton, teacher of Classics in Munich, was published by Reclam: Herodot Historien, übersetzt und herausgegeben von Kai Brodersen und Christine Ley-Hutton (Stuttgart 2019). Preceding the publication of the complete translation of Herodotus in 2019, single volumes of books I-VII containing the Greek text were published between the years 2002 and 2016. Due to a change in the publisher’s policy, the complete translation of books I-IX was published in one volume without the Greek text. For the Greek text, the new edition of N. G. Wilson was consulted. The original idea of the new Reclam translation including the Greek text, was to produce a translation as close as possible in structure and wording to the original Greek, which would allow the reader to follow the Greek in the German translation. At the same time, the translation is intended to be fluent and modern in style. Some special Greek terms like agora, apoikia, barbaros, demos, eunomie, which have no simple or unambiguous German equivalent are not translated, but appear in the text transcribed and are explained in a glossary. The translation is also available as an e-book.