Did Herodotus have Friends?

Answer by Sheila Murnaghan

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