Was Herodotus the Father of History?

Answer by Robert Fowler

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).