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ANCIENT HISTORY > ARCHIVE - * Supplemental - Herodotus - Truth or Lies

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message 1: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bentley | 44207 comments Mod
This thread may contain spoilers; be advised.

This is a supplemental thread where Herodotus and The Histories can be discussed in terms of inherent elements of truth or those areas where some readers might question the validity of Herodotus.

Please feel free to discuss those areas which interest you on this thread. For those of you who do not want to encounter any spoilers, this is not the thread for you. Those folks should stay on the spotlighted weekly threads where there are no spoilers allowed.


message 2: by Prunesquallor (new)

Prunesquallor | 37 comments By Way of Historiographical Caveat:

Ah, I was wondering when this most exciting (at least to me!) of all Herodotean topics might be broached: "Father of History" or "Father of Lies?"

How do we measure "historical accuracy," especially when dealing with times long passed, where we have little other documentation surviving? Alas for the lost works of Ctesias*, in them we might have had a Herodotean contemporary source with which a direct comparison might be made. In addition to this problem (paucity of verified historical data) we are also faced with a second problem, reader bias. Even among professional philologists, classicists, and historians, there seems of late (post 1870s AD) to be a decided tendency among scholars to find Herodotus "charming" and "a darn good read" -- so charming that the question of historical accuracy seems quite often to be lost in the rush to document how clever and sophisticated the old boy really was:

"Before our century, Herodotus was often considered a charming but inaccurate and gullible historian. In the last 75 years, however, scholars have more profitably attempted to comprehend what Herodotus has done, not what the later Thucydides thought a historian ought to do, and have vindicated Herodotus' paradoxical position as the childless 'father of history.'" ("The Historical Method of Herodotus," Donald Lateiner, 1989, p. 3)

Here, I think, Lateiner skirts the issue of historical accuracy in Herodotus in favor of a lengthy demonstration (structuralist approach) of just how well "The Histories" are written as a "machine" for conveying the information Herodotus thought it important to transmit to posterity. But was this information accurate? It was certainly presented in an entertaining, engaging fashion -- but is it TRUE?

It may actually be VERY difficult to obtain a balanced, objective view of the "historical validity/ accuracy" of "The Histories," simply because the volume is so vastly popular. In this regard, George Rawlinson (died 1902) may be illustrative of this reader bias in favor of Herodotus when he sneeringly points out that Ctesias MUST have been an inferior historian when compared to Herodotus simply because Ctesias' work did not survive. Does failure to survive automatically mean Ctesias' account was less historically accurate than Herodotus'? Rawlinson seemed to think so, (see pp 61 - 62 of his "Introduction to the History of Herodotus") but I wonder if this merely means that while Herodotus was a much more entertaining writer, his "truthfulness" might actually have been considerably less than that of his competitor, Ctesias? A VERY accurate book that is dryly composed, perhaps even boringly heavy on dull facts, might easily disappear over time when stacked up against a less accurate but vastly more exciting account. Ah, well, without a full version of Ctesias at hand, we will probably never know which was the more truthful...

Judgments on the historical truthfulness of Herodotus have varied greatly through time. Those who were the closest to his own period, seem to have had the most jaundiced view of his gullibility, and his lack of veracity. But "modern" classicists -- down until the 1870s when good translations of the cuneiform documents concerning the Achaemenid Persians became available -- tended to rate his veracity quite highly. After 1870, with primary source texts in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian available for comparison, how does Herodotus rate on the historical accuracy question? Sayce felt Herodotus did poorly in such a comparision, but Rawlinson disagreed by emphasizing those places where the cuneiform accounts and "The Histories" seemed congruent. Currently, it seems recent scholarship has, like Lateiner, been more interested in explicating the complexities of HOW Herodotus wrote, rather than whether or not he was historically accurate.

I think this topic is going to be both FUN and educational as we work our ways through the various commentaries and secondary analyses in the attempt to satisfy ourselves on this matter...

Perhaps to kick this off, there are two episodes in "The Histories" that often are held up as examples of Herodotean "invention," both supposedly suffering from a pronounced lack of historical veracity:

1. Was Cambyses really insane? 2. Did Croesus and Solon actually meet?


*Ctesias survives in a few fragments quoted by other ancient authors.

Archibald Henry Sayce, "Ancient Empires of the East," p. xiii ff, 1906

George Rawlinson and Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, "The History of Herodotus," 1889 reprinted 1943

"The Historical Method of Herodotus," Donald Lateiner, 1989, Univ Toronto Press

message 3: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bentley | 44207 comments Mod
Prunesquallor, I will try to respond in part paragraph by paragraph. In terms of historical accuracy, I guess we could look at what Herodotus' peers had to say at the time and later. I tend to read Herodotus in terms of two things: what he says and what he does not say (his omissions). In terms of his approach, he is for me the father of history. But like any historian, there are always stretches and biases which are part of the storyteller's point of view. Many have also viewed this work in terms of its literary greatness; but I find the rendition enjoyable and quite informative regarding this ancient time. You raise some very good points.

I have not read Lateiner so I cannot make any judgments there; but I have to say whether true or false; I think that The Histories reveals a lot of truths about how people lived and what they believed. Is it all true, most likely not. We did discuss a great deal about Croesus and Solon and it probably was not a possibility that they met.

But you are correct, how do we judge what is truthful and what is not. I find sometimes that I am asking these same questions when I am watching the news at night.


message 4: by Mark (last edited Dec 07, 2008 06:40PM) (new)

Mark | 8 comments Prunesqualor, I obviously have a great deal to read! Thanks to you and especially to Bentley for making the thread for our discussion of this topic. I am just at the start, please have patience with me as I muddle through! Thanks, and with that here are some notes I made while reading the first 15 pages of book one, part one:

Herodotus Book 1 Part 1

Questions Pertaining to Future Hermeneutical Analysis of the Text:

1. Herodotus is a Greek.
2. This is (at least initially) a story of the Hellenes vs. Barbarians
3. The Persians say the Phoneocians were the cause of the dispute, coming to Argos and making off with Io, daughter of the king of Argos and took off for Egypt - thus, the Persians say (and not as the Greeks), Io came to Egypt. This was the first wrong according to them. Then the Persians say that some Greeks - they cannot say who, (Herodotus: they must have been Cretans) landed at Tyre in Phoneocia and carried off Europa, the king's daughter. So far the accounts had been balanced, but after this, it was the Greeks, they say, that were guilty of the second wrong: They sailed to Aia in Colchia and took the king's daughter, Medea. The Greeks refused reparation because of Io. Then in the second generation, Paris, sure of not being punished, carries off Helen (this is HIGHLY suspect - the Greeks had already taken two daughters for their one...). The Greeks first resolved to send messengers to ask for atonement for the sezuire, but the Trojans pleaded the seizure of Medea and reminded the Greeks that they demanded reparations while making none themselves. Now the Persians say that it was simply a matter of seizure on both sides, but after this that the Greeks were very much to blame because they invaded Asia before the Persians attacked Europe. "We of Asia did not deign to notice the seizure of our women - they must have wanted it themselves." But the Greeks for the sake a of Lacedemonian woman destroyed Troy (in Asia). The taking of Troy began the Persian hatred of the Greeks.
4. The Phonoecians say that they did not carry Io off forcibly, but that after having intercourse with their captain that she became pregnant and fearful of returning home impregnated (ok - so how was this to have happened in a mere 6 days time? - remembering the duration for which the Phoneocian ship set out its wares for trade). Yet the Persian story is also suspect: the women came out to see the wares after most of them were already sold off after the 5th or 6th day - this could be perhaps due to some custom - yet that would appear to be highly unlikely.
5. The Persians also consider themselves to rule foreigners in Asia but consider Europe to be apart from them. This seemingly innocuous detail seems a bit odd - who in particular are these foreigners - and where is the line drawn between east and west?
6. Herodotus claims not to know at this point who's story is accurate, but to indicate the one he knows did the Greeks injury in his following account; and to speak of SMALL and GREAT cities of men alike: for many states once great have become small and some small is his time are now great. Croesus (Lydian - and thus foreign - by birth and sovereign of all west of the river Hellas) was the first foreigner who subjugated some Greeks and took tribute from them (Ionians, Aeolians, Dorians of Asia) and made friends with others (Lacedemonians - Helen was a Lacedaemonian). Prior to Croesus ALL Greeks were free - the Sumerian host who invaded Ionia before did not subjugate them but raided and robbed them (who's side is Herodotus on? Was he in favor of the subjugation of the Greeks? If so,why?).
6.1. Rule fell to Candaules (meaning merciless in Greek) in the following way: they were descendants of Heracles and because of an Oracle. Candaules fell in love with his own wife's beauty, and told Gyges (his favorite bodyguard) that he should see his wife naked. More likely, it would seem, that in the course of performing his duty as bodyguard, that Gyges would spy the wife of Candaules. Also, Gyges was familiar with the queen because he was used to attending her whenever she summoned him. The account of the queen commanding Gyges to kill her husband for exposing her nakedness seems extremely unlikely: the queen had summoned her most loyal followers prior to summoning Gyges, however, such a plot by the queen alone seems unlikely without Gyges' consipiration (especially since he took her to wife); also, if Gyges had been placed in such a position, he would have seemingly had ample time to warn the king rather than to be 'forced' to kill him - else the queen could simply have chosen any of her loyal followers to commit the task with the same degree of secrecy ascribed to Gyges. Gyges is busted (not to mention Glaucon's differing account in Plato's Republic). Even given the queen's embarrassment from being seen naked, and her reasoning that one of the two men should die because of it, she seems to be overly sure that it was the King's fault and not the fault of the bodyguard that she was seen naked; hence she either had it in for the king, or there is a bit more to the story as is suspected. Once again, Gyges is busted. Also, it is very difficult to expect that Gyges was "forced" to kill the king and take his throne and his beautiful wife - from what we know of the Greek gods of the time, he would seem to have little to fear, especially, if as Glaucon states in The Republic, "the Gods may be 'bribed.'" Gyges also seems much too witless here in this account: he aks the queen how he should go about his regicidal business- could he really be so dim and unwilling? At least, one should think he would be tempted by the lure of a kingdom and the most beautiful woman in it! To cement things, Herodotus says, "thus *he* made *himself* ruler and master of the king's wife and sovereignty. Busted. And - when the Lydians took exception to what was done to Candaules (i.e. they did not buy that lame story about the nakedness being sacred and one of the two men needing to die, etc) Gyges sends silver to the Oracle to confirm his sovereignty. Apparently Gyges also sends a heap of gold - could it be that the silver was not a great enough initial bribe? Hmmmm... Midas son of Gordias, king of Phyrgia and Gyges both dedicated gold to the Oracle at Delphi - what is the relevance here??? And what is this thing about a problem in the 5th Generation of Gyges' succession?? A further bribe required? ;). As soon as Gyges came to the throne, he like others, immediately invaded Miletos and Smyrna and took the city of Colophon. His son, Ardys, took Priene and invaded Miletos, and was monarch of Sardis, and it was while he was king that the Cimmerians, "driven from their homes by the nomad Scythians" came and took Sardis in Asia (all but the Acropolis). It is interesting to note that Herodotus leaves off discussing Gyges, saying that he did nothing else great in his 38 years of reign as king to discuss his son (as if his son were greater than he). Yet in actuality, his son after a single invasion (reinvasion???) of Miletos loses nearly all of Sardis! I glean some prefiguration of Nicolo's tales of the Borgias here!

note: please pardon my repetition of "Gyges:
'busted'" here. These were, after all, notes to myself originally - oh and thanks once again for letting me post.

message 5: by Mark (last edited Dec 07, 2008 06:54PM) (new)

Mark | 8 comments Additional note regarding 6.1 - The statement that the king 'fell in love with his own wife's beauty,' seems both oddly placed and constructed. It is almost as if H. wishes to tell attentive readers up front that she (or her beauty) was the cause of his downfall. Notice, also, the repetition (at least in my translation) of the word 'fell': 'this is how rule fell to Candaules;' 'Candaules fell in love with his own wife's beauty.' Is H. perhaps telling us that the king was set up, or could he be conveying that this is one manner in which a king is vulnerable? - food for thought.

message 6: by Prunesquallor (new)

Prunesquallor | 37 comments Hi, Bentley!

I am still just feeling my way through the fringes of the vast forest of "commentaries and analyses" regarding Herodotus and his own place in history. The variety of opinion concerning who he was, what he did, and what it all means is particularly bewildering. Having perused the "introductions" to about a dozen secondary works -- commentaries on the Commentaries of Herodotus -- I'm beginning to believe that "The Histories" have become all things to all historians. Herodotus-commentary has become a sort of academic industry in itself, with a premium pay-out for those scholars clever enough to find something "new" to say regarding this most ancient of our "histories." At times I wonder just how truly useful these "insightful" analyses might be, especially when so many of them deliberately stand as diametric opposites? Lateiner tells me that Herodotus was a conscious manipulator, weaving subtle messages into his narrative, softly nudging his readers into the correct path of "truthful" interpretation. But A.H. Sayce ("Ancient Empires of the East," 1896) flatly denies much artistry in Herodotus at all, and sees the digressions and anecdotes as clumsy attempts to provide the early Greek audiences with something entertaining, fabulous, and even salacious -- so that they would not fall asleep during his recitations. LOL!

As Hartog and Lloyd put it, each new generation of scholars seems bound to come up with a new appraisal concerning the "historicity" of Herodotus (including the "truthfulness" question):

"For centuries, this trial aimed at convicting Herodotus by revealing all his lies. Then it took a new turn: the objective was now, for many years, to rediscover the real Herodotus, beyond all the interpretations, as if these could be bypassed or bracketed. To this end all the resources of etymology, philology, and knowledge of the canon were tapped. Today, the meaning of that word 'process' has itself changed; now it refers to ... the assumption ... that the successive interpretations of his work are no less a part of the Herodotean oeuvre than the text of the 'Histories' itself ... It is therefore impossible to write about the 'Histories' of Herodotus without considering the history of how they have been interpreted." (Hartog and Lloyd, "The Mirror of Herodotus," 1988, p. xvi)

YOW! If Hartog and Lloyd are correct, we will only be able to understand Herodotus, and pass informed judgments on him after a lengthy study of, and mastery of the salient secondary treatments that have sought to analyze his narrative. Hmmm, I don't have a full lifetime to devote to such an effort, but if I stick to about a dozen sources, perhaps I can still get a fair appreciation of the "historicity" of Herodotus?

Bentley, regarding your statement: "In terms of his approach, he is for me the father of history." (message 3)

"Father of History" -- it becomes rather confusing here, on one hand we are constantly reminded that Herodotus is (was) properly speaking, "pre-Historical," as most of the canons of that discipline were only developed after he published his work, and some of our earliest historiographical discussions were in fact provoked by the sometimes angry reception of Herodotus in ancient Greece. Ctesias and Thucydides organized their own narratives partly to make-up the defects that they found in the Halicarnasian's methods of research, organization of data, and his narrative treatment of the material. It seems to be from this reaction to Herodotus that the actual discipline of History springs, and consequently, some modern scholars state that Herodotus should not be viewed as an "historian," and must, therefore, be judged along other lines. (Hartog and Lloyd, "The Mirror of Herodotus, xiv - xvii)

"Herodotus broke new ground for literature and knew it, as his proem and insistence on the newness of his materials indicate (eg, 3.103; 6.55). Later preconceptions of what history is, or ought to be should not conceal his sophisticated techniques for telling a story and getting at the truth." (D. Lateiner, "The Historical Method of Herodotus," p. 3, 1989)

Following Lateiner here, I guess calling Herodotus the "Father of History" actually places him at an unfair disadvantage, inviting comparisons between his 'sui generis' pioneering text and those that came later. In this sense, I think I am starting to view Herodotus more as the "Enabler of History," rather than as the "First Historian," or its "Father," especially when we realize that no one acted as his heir, his "Child of History." Herodotus did not found a school of treatment/ approach/ or method, so in that sense he certainly "fathered" nothing. I thought Lateiner correctly pointed this out with his pithy phrase regarding " ... Herodotus'paradoxical position as the childless 'father of history.'" (Lateiner, p. 13, 1989).

message 7: by Prunesquallor (last edited Dec 10, 2008 10:16AM) (new)

Prunesquallor | 37 comments Hullo, Mark!

Welcome to the Group, Mark, glad to have you here! Thanks for the synopses, a good review for me!

Regarding Mark's Message 4: Questions Pertaining to Future Hermeneutical Analysis of the Text:

1. Herodotus is a Greek.
2. This is (at least initially) a story of the Hellenes vs. Barbarians

Confining myself at the moment to just these two statements, yeah, it may seem trivial, but "Herodotus is a Greek," and he is relating the circumstances of War(s) between the Greeks and the Barbarians. One way to gauge his "truthfulness," is to gain an appreciation of how his ethnicity may have biased his account, and was he himself aware of this danger, and did he deliberately try to overcome the consequences it might entail? Here, I think Herodotus did consciously try to treat both sides fairly, and did try to suppress his own ethnic attachment to the Greek cause. In some ways, I think on this issue of "fair-play," Herodotus does better than many of our modern U.S. Civil War writers...

"Hitherto the injuries on either side had been mere acts of common violence; but in what followed the Persians consider that the Greeks were greatly to blame, since before any attack had been made on Europe, they led an army into Asia. Now as for the carrying off of women, it is the deed, they say, of a rogue; but to make a stir about such as are carried off, argues a man is a fool." (Histories I.4)

As I interpret this passage, Herodotus actually chastises "his" Greeks for letting a fairly "trivial" matter like woman-stealing provoke a full scale, long-lasting war. As much as we might detest kidnappings, I don't recall any incident in U.S. history where such actions led to a major, international war ("Wind and the Lion" not withstanding). Although I think Herodotus then unfairly condemns women for their assumed part in such kidnappings, I find him taking a sort of "pro-Barbarian" stance here when he details the incredulous attitude of the Asiatics: "What, we nab a few women and you crazy Greeks initiate a thousand years of bloody warfare!? Crazy!"

message 8: by Mark (last edited Dec 10, 2008 06:08PM) (new)

Mark | 8 comments Dear Prune,

My comments concerning Herodotus' being Greek were concerned with nationality as opposed to ethnicity, although there may have been a heavy correlation between the two at the time; because, according to my understanding of Aristotle's Politics, the Greeks thought themselves to be a civilized people, whereas I cannot say that they thought the same of Persians or other 'barbaric' nations of the time. As to whether this held true for Herodotus' time as it did for Aristotle's, I cannot say for sure, however, I would tend to think along these lines until I have encountered a reason to think differently, such as I might encounter upon further investigation into the matter.

As for your comments concerning Herodotus's perspective concerning the abduction of the women, I hardly find his portrayal of the accounts to admit as simplistic reading, as such an interpretation would seem want to do. Rather, I believe that Herodotus has a multi-leveled message for a varied audience; this is as of yet my opinion on the matter, but time and effort permitting, a thorough investigation shall be attempted.

Thank you very much for your discussion regarding this topic.

Kindest regards,


message 9: by Prunesquallor (new)

Prunesquallor | 37 comments Mark, not sure what you mean here: what's your defintion of nation (a concept that scarcely existed before 1500 AD, I'm told by the Poli-Sci boys) and how does it differ from ethnos? For example, could one regard oneself as a Greek, and yet belong to no nation at all? As we read it today, "nation" may not have a useful meaning to the ancient Greeks who were still divided into Polis or tribal formations that considered themselves the sovereign political/ economic units.

The constrastive concepts of Hellene vrs Barbarian seems to be a very flexible thing. Barbarian in especial did not necessarily mean such persons were inferior, rough, primitive beings -- just that they spoke languages that were unintelligible among the Greeks. At times the more savage, country-bumpkin Greeks remarked upon the refinement of some barbarians seeing them as superior to the Greeks in some ways. Other times there was a sneering sense of Greek superiority. I think Herodotus gives us a balanced account here, detailing the superior elements of the Persians and then countering with a list of those virtues of the Greeks he considered "superior."

Regarding the start of wars -- women being kidnapped -- I think Herodotus is having us on, he presents the mythic narratives as if he believes they really happened, and that they are sufficient causi belli, but I rather suspect it is all tongue in cheek and Herodotus knew quite well that economic gain was the real motivating factor of these early wars that were conflated into the account of the Trojan War.

This last may be a form of historical lying in itself, I'm sure Herodotus had a pretty good grip on the causes of war in his own time, real politics, social darwinistic competitions for resources, land, slaves, control of trade routes -- so why does he trot out the silliness of woman-stealing? Is he laughing at those gullible enough to take him seriously? LOL

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