Great historian or great liar

 

He also outright calls Herodotus a liar stating that he is going to expose his lies, not even taking into consideration the possibility that Herodotus may not be expecting people to take ever word as gospel truth. Despite these two critics of Herodotus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, another classical historian, praises his work. “This author in the choice of words, in his composition and in the variety of his figures far surpassed all others, and made his prose utterance resemble the best kind of poetry, by reason of his persuasiveness, grace of style and great charm”(On Thucydides:23, Dionysius of Halicarnassus trans Pritchett.

University of California Press 1975. ) Dionysius is a neutral commentator of Herodotus work, as opposed to Thucydides, Dionysius is not bias to a particular style of writing and his studied both. He has also taken into account that “the qualities of a forensic nature seem to be lacking, whether he was not naturally gifted with these, or, whether in pursuance of a certain design he voluntarily rejected them as unsuited to history” (On Thucydides:23, Dionysius of Halicarnassus trans Pritchett. University of California Press 1975.

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) And despite this criticism Dionysius still states that he Herodotus is “second to none” (On Thucydides:23, Dionysius of Halicarnassus trans Pritchett. University of California Press 1975. ) Herodotus does use secondary sources and his work is often bias, on numerous occasions referring to the Persians as ‘barbarians’ but what has given him the name as the father if lies is his tendencies to exaggerate and refer to fictional, impossible events and figures. For example Herodotus claimed “In this battle of Marathon there died, of the barbarians, about six thousand four hundred men, and, of the Athenians, one hundred and ninety-two.

Those were the numbers of the fallen on both sides. ” (The Histories:117, trans. David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1987) It is obviously very difficult to believe these figures as they are, simply, impossible. Herodotus has a strong religious element to his recordings with no evidence based on fact which adds to his reputation as a liar. Herodotus insists that once the Persians had entered Athens, burnt the Acropolis they also burnt and totally destroyed a tree sacred to Athena. However the next day somehow a new shoot eighteen inches had grown from the stump.

Spiritual miracles like this don’t fit well in historical texts, but was there a reason for this bias and mythological element? His bias nature, the language used and the integration of religion and fantasy into his work suits the audience he aimed at. Herodotus wrote for the people and attitudes of his time unlike other historians who wrote historical records so that they would be preserved in time, “In a word, Thucydides wrote for the future, Herodotus for his contemporaries” (Herodotus: an interpretative essay, Chp 4, Fornara, C W, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1971.)

Herodotus wrote for the Greek audience, particular the Athenians, which is why he only consulted Greeks as sources, never the Persians. This is why his Histories paint the Athenians as great and the Persians as barbarians. He was pro-Athenian, they had adopted him into their city, and he was trying to please them with his portrayal of the Persian war, but not only was he trying to please them he truly believed in the superiority of Athens and her people. This is why he did not just want to reach the intellectuals of his era but also the real, ordinary people.

Wanting to make the history of the Persian war accessible and understandable to them, to anyone. Considering that the ordinary citizens, as well as the intellectual, were his target audience not only would Herodotus have to provide historical bases but also an entertaining undertone. What the citizens of Athens were used to, understood and were entertained by were the epic stories of Homer, with regards to their digressive style and varying content between historical and mythological elements.

Herodotus work is believed to have similarities to that of Homer and if the opinion that Herodotus may have used similar literary techniques is correct then this would explain the fantasy and exaggeration in Herodotus as well as the use of “the harshest words and phrases” “instead of saying that Nicias had an excessive propensity toward superstition he would call him “a religious fanatic. ” (The Malice of Herodotus, Plutarch, trans Walter Blanco. ) He used this type of language to relate to those who would read his work as well as the other techniques to create drama.

The constant religious reference of hubris as one of the reasons behind the downfall of the Persians would have appealed to this audience, who were certainly religious, superstitious, god fearing people and this remains in his work even though no blame for the Persians failure can be placed on the will of the gods. Herodotus was caught in between periods of writing, when historical analysis was entwined with mythology, Homers’ Odyssey and Iliad, and when the birth of true historians were coming about, Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian war. He is, if you like the middle man between the change in style.

His Histories could be labeled the transition piece between epic stories historical writings. “If Thucydides is eminently ‘scientific’, Herodotus is essentially an artist” (Herodotus: an interpretative essay, Chp 4, Fornara, C W, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1971. ) Herodotus writing style, technique and content is much more artistic than scientific due to his need to entertain as well as inform. Which reads, it’s fair to say, more like an epic story than a historical recording. So what needs to be answered now is can an artist also be a historian?

And is it the fact that Herodotus is an artist what makes him a great historian? Or the father of lies? Firstly the answer to this question ultimately lies in the individuals preference as to how they would prefer to see history recorded. Purely factual with little regard for literary technique or entertainment factor or rich in drama and excitement at the expense of accurate details? For some like Thucydides when accuracy is everything, a boring, monotonous account is often produced, he admitted this himself but this was his preference.

In contrast Dionysius of Halicarnassus preferred a well written, elegant piece of literature, and if it lacks in forensic qualities it didn’t affect its genius. According to the dictionary Herodotus is, on the simplest level, a historian. He studied and recorded history. Using dictionary definitions again, Herodotus is not a liar, (someone who tries to purposefully and knowingly pass off falsehoods as truths) he never out rightly claimed that everything that he had written had defiantly taken place, he assumed that it had and wrote it down.

Resulting in an account which has both definite truths, where there was prove and evidence, and assumptions of what happened, even when there was no strong evidence for the purpose of an interesting and education work. Herodotus has both fact and fiction in his recordings. This diverse content doesn’t make him a great historian in the traditional sense of the word even though “the historian takes great liberties with facts. “(Sir J. Reynolds) Nor does this make him a great liar, even though much of his work is fictitious.

To satisfy both those who believe that he is the father of history and those who believe him to be the father of lies, I would class Herodotus as a great entertainer, a storyteller, as stories can both incorporate fiction and fact without criticism and ultimately that is what he did, told stories; of his travels, of the Persian war. He predominantly wrote for the purpose of entertaining his audience using many different techniques to do so and having great success. Herodotus is to some a great historian, to some a great liar but should be regarded as a great storyteller.

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