How Reliable is Herodotus’ Account of the Persian Wars?

Answer by Paul Cartledge

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).