Did Herodotus Support Athens?

Answer by Giorgia Proietti

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.