Herodotus’ Histories, a multi-volume literary composition, is not a historical work in the modern sense of the genre. Describing the events that took place over the course of the Greco-Persian Wars serves as the major theme in the book, yet along the way, the author also creates a thorough encyclopedic representation of geographic, ethnographic, cultural, and natural evidence. Because of an enormous amount of varied information as well as frequent and sudden changes in the plot, Herodotus’ work may seem overwhelming at first.
However, the historian achieves unity in his narration by tracking the development of the conflict between the Greeks and the Barbarians in detail. He notes in the introduction to the Histories that they were published in the hope of “preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory” (Herodotus, Book I, 1).
However, even though the author of the Histories clearly states his purpose for the work, the problem of the objectives Herodotus pursued in the writing still concerns modern scholars and literary critics mainly because the ending of the book seems uncertain and incomplete, especially if it was created to be a narrative of war. Thus, the present paper will aim to explain different perspectives on the meaning and purposes of Herodotus’ book.
The Histories provide one of the most complete chronicles of the Persian Wars known today, including a record of how the Greeks and the Persians first became engaged in conflict during the Ionian Revolt of 499-494 BCE. However, according to Munson, “the historical narrative of the Histories ends in the year 479 BCE, after the defeat of the Persians and their withdrawal from Greece,” and some significant historical events actually took place beyond Herodotus’ chronological range (12).
These included the establishment of the Delian League in 478 BCE, its development into the Athenian Empire, the collapse of a coalition of states that together fought against the Persians, and more (Munson 12). Nevertheless, Herodotus scarcely refers to events that occurred after 479 BCE even though he frequently goes back and forth in time throughout the Histories as part of his narration style.
It is most likely that Herodotus lived at one point in the time frame that he described in his book, and according to Munson, it was probably during the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE (12). Nonetheless, some passages in Herodotus’ work reconstruct more ancient and mythological periods. For example, at the beginning of Book I, the author explains the reasons for the feud between the Hellenes and the Asian nations and claims the abduction of Io from Hellas by Phoenicians as the primary cause. In response to this act, the Hellenes abducted Europe and Medea from Asia, and Alexander stole Helena from Hellas. After these isolated hostile acts, the invasion by the Hellenes of Asia occurred, consequently ending with the destruction of Troy (Herodotus, Book I, 1-5).
This introductory passage demonstrates that Herodotus combines mythology with historical facts and substantially relies on the oral traditions of his time. Notably, the historian collected information for the Histories by listening to what other people said as well as via sightseeing (Munson 15). Thus, due to the secondary and subjective nature of Herodotus’ sources, his writing may lack credibility. The limited trustworthiness of historical data in the book is largely defined by an inability to retrieve more valid information. However, in spite of this, Herodotus attempts to establish himself as a credible researcher by reminding readers about the nature of the sources (Kindt).
For example, the historian states repeatedly throughout the book that his main duty is to record dominant opinions and views: “If this is true, I know not; I but write what is said” (Herodotus, Book IV, 195). In addition, the assumption that Herodotus presumably traveled long distances to collect evidence from different states and geographical areas verifies the idea that he was seeking after truth while researching and writing the text.
The Histories as an Ethnographic Source
Throughout the Histories, the reader may find numerous allusions to the foreign and domestic travels undertaken by Herodotus. Overall, based on the author’s references to different journeys, he visited the Black Sea region, Phoenicia, Palestine, Egypt, and other places. Many theorists and scholars suggest that the historian’s work was initially no more than a geographic and ethnographic description of lands. Among them, Kapuscinski states that “Herodotus’ book arose from travel,” meaning that the Histories took the shape of an ideologically whole piece only after ethnographic data was gathered (259).
The structure of the book shows that this assumption may be valid because Herodotus divided his chapters into separate themes or logos such as the geography of Egypt, the country and customs of the Scythians, and so forth (“Herodotus’ Histories”).
Herodotus extensively integrates information about his travels and the countries he visited into the historical narration. For example, the description of the conquest of the Lydian kingdom by the Persian king Cyrus gives Herodotus a reason to tell about the birth and upbringing of Cyrus as well as the emergence and spread of Persian rule throughout Asia. As part of this discussion, the author describes various military campaigns of Cyrus in detail, including campaigns against the Asia Minor Hellenes, the Babylonians, and the Massagets. When describing them, Herodotus seizes the chance to depict customs, traditions, and other features of nations that became subordinate to the Persians (Herodotus, Book I, 71-216).
Nevertheless, some scholars are inclined to assert that Herodotus never went to the places he described. According to Munson, the primary reason for this claim is the outlandish and erroneous nature of some of his reports (5). At the same time, Munson notes that the historian shows a remarkable familiarity with the traditions of Athens and Samos, which may indicate that he was able to travel extensively across Greece (6).
Either way, it is evident that the portrayal of culture and geography plays an essential part in the Histories, while the historical narration serves as a thematic liaison among distinct ethnographic sections. Notably, compared to the open-ended and unambiguously closed historical narrative, the ethnographic depiction in the Histories seems more complete. However, it is also necessary to take into account the artificial and careful design of chapters in the book when analyzing its meaning and purposes. The rhetorical and compositional methods implemented by Herodotus may indicate that the Histories were intended as an artistic literary piece as well.
Ring-Composition in the Histories
According to Herington and Solmsen, the structure of the Histories and the book’s ending, in particular, are in line with a common archaic literary practice of “leaving the narrative open-ended, for a continuator to pick up on at some future time” (150). Moreover, Herodotus extensively uses the literary device of repetition or, more precisely, ring-composition, which starts with a theme set up at the beginning of a section, followed by a related discussion and repeated at the end (Herington and Solmsen 151).
It is possible to see that this method is applied throughout distinct sections of the Histories where the text is constructed in accordance with certain logos. Moreover, this scheme is used at the whole-work level as the closure of the Histories refers to the absolute beginning of the narrative. For example, the episode depicting the crucifixion of Artayctes in Book IX (116-120) closes both a lesser and a greater thematic circle. It connects the stories about Xerxes’ expeditions to Europe as described in Books VII-IX and spans back to the mythological prologue in Book I.
To see these links, it is necessary to pay attention to Artayctes’ statement: “Master, there is in this region the house of a Greek, who, when he attacked thy territory, met his due reward, and perished. Give me his house, I pray thee, that hereafter men may fear to carry arms against thy land” (Herodotus, Book IX, 116). This passage refers to the origins of the Trojan War and conflicts between Greece and Asia when the first Greek warrior entered Asian lands.
To demonstrate that the Histories conform to archaic writing practice, it is possible to draw some examples of other famous ancient literary works having a similar structure. For example, ring-composition is implemented in the Odyssey and the Iliad (Herington and Solmsen 158). In the latter work, the final chapters serve to remind readers of how the major theme, Achilles’ wrath, commenced, and thereby, they denote a complete thematic circle (Herington and Solmsen 159). In the same way, the concluding sections in the Histories allow the reader to recall the primary events whence the major episode originates and, at the same time, bring the narration to its logical end. Considering this idea, the major themes and episodes in Herodotus’ work will be analyzed in the following paragraphs.
Major Themes and Ending of the Histories
Although the stories of Xerxes and Artayctes mentioned above are thematically significant, they constitute only a small part of the major theme in the Histories. According to Herington and Solmsen, this theme is “the rise and disgrace of the Persian power,” and the final episode, “The Wisdom of Cyrus,” serves to complete it best by connecting the ending with the opening of the book (154). The last chapter in Book IX reveals Cyrus “at the height of his success” when he became the ruler of Asia (Herington and Solmsen 154).
In this way, the narration is looped back to Book I where Cyrus is portrayed by Herodotus as the one who destroyed the Lydian empire and with whose help “the Persians had become the lords paramount of Asia” (95). However, a reference to the ancestor of Artayctes to Cyrus in that chapter has greater thematic importance in the final episode. He said:
Since Jove… has overthrown Astyages, and given the rule to the Persians, and to thee chiefly, O Cyrus! come now, let us quit this land wherein we dwell—for it is a scant land and a rugged—and let us choose ourselves some other better country (Herodotus, Book IX, 122).
Cyrus’ rejected this urge and warned his people that if they were to attempt to change their land for a “softer” one, they should prepare to be ruled by others (Herodotus, Book IX, 122). The main motif in this statement is related to the idea that climate or such characteristics of the land as fertility define the character of its inhabitants, meaning that harsh climates and poor soil produce more warlike and adventurous people, and vice versa. According to Raaflaub, this theory was commonly accepted by Herodotus’ contemporaries (244).
The idea is significant because, as the overall course of events described in the Histories from the beginning shows, the Persians did not listen to Cyrus’ advice and preferred soft lands to poor ones. Eventually, they lost the power that they had enjoyed while living in lands with severe conditions and were eventually defeated by the Greeks. In a similar interpretation by Kindt, the rise of power associated with an accumulation of excess wealth is what leads nations to a sudden and catastrophic decline. Kindt states that the main adverse symptom from which the kings whose lives Herodotus portrayed in the book suffer is an exaggerated self-pride or hybris and that their individual, successive stories merely depict distinct dimensions of the same theme.
Another main idea in the king’s response refers to an antithesis between freedom and slavery, which Herington and Solmsen define as a leitmotiv in the Histories as a whole (155). Similarly, Penner considers that the figure of Cyrus is a symbol of freedom and wisdom in Herodotus’ work (35). Notably, from Cyrus’ words in the final episode, it is clear that slavery is not merely physical confinement or involuntary work but also excess dependence on comfort and riches.
Therefore, the king considers freedom to be incompatible with luxury and easy living. Penner concludes that Cyrus is “aware of the fact that the Persians are more inclined toward a softer life than towards simply a state of freedom” and thus encourages them to make the right choice between the two (38). For this reason, it is possible to say that freedom in Herodotus’ view also implies accountability for own decisions and actions.
Other Themes and Meanings
Along with everything stated above, it is worth noting that the ending of the Histories is open to interpretation, and readers may derive many other meanings from it. For example, Desmond considers that the open-ended closure in the work represents the author’s final reflection on “the ambivalence of human accomplishment” and states that the theme of punishment and justice is overriding in the Histories (20). In this context, Desmond refers to the place where Artayctes was crucified—“the same peninsula where Xerxes first landed in Europe”—as a symbol of retribution for the initial crime of the latter (33). Additionally, Desmond states that Herodotus believed in injustice and revenge as primary forces driving the course of history and emphasized the role of the divine in the lives of individuals and nations (28). In this way, the historian used punishments such as the crucifixion of Artayctes to convey both historical and his own religious perspectives.
It is possible to assert that Herodotus’ theological views have biased his evaluation of historical events and their causes to some extent. It seems that instead of investigating the internal links between various incidents, he tends to explain them by posing supernatural reasons. One of the best examples demonstrating this is the historian’s description of Cleomenes’ madness. Herodotus notes that Cleomenes’ countrymen, the Spartans, stated that their king went mad because of “the habit of drinking wine unmixed with water, which he learned of the Scyths” and later adds: “but for my own part I think his death was a judgment on him for wronging Demaratus” (Book VI, 75, 84).
However, Herodotus was not the only person of his time to explain distinct events and phenomena by using ethical-theological concepts; such an approach was typical in ancient Greek society, and the author merely recorded common opinions in his work. It is possible to say that this feature makes the book more valuable as both a literary and a historical piece because, although not accurate at all times, it reflects the dominant ideologies that penetrated social and political lives in the ancient world.
The Histories combine the features of heroic and mythological outlooks. According to Kindt, “the most subtle feature of the Histories, perhaps, is the profound sense of balance that pervades all aspects of the cosmos.” In Herodotus’ picture of the world, wrongdoing is always punished, and good deeds are always rewarded. Nevertheless, compared to earlier epic works such as the Iliad, while the gods no longer intervene in the course of events directly and explicitly, the author still acknowledges their transcendental influence. Based on this fact, it is possible to assert that the Histories signify a transition from a mythical worldview to a more modern one.
Analysis of the Histories reveals that it serves multiple purposes. One of these is to provide a record of historical events, which Herodotus declares to be the primary intention for the creation of the work. In addition, the book provides a thorough ethnographic description of various peoples and countries, and many scholars tend to believe that the historian initially collected information on distinct cultures and nations during his domestic and foreign travels and only then applied the narrative of war to link these datasets and unite them thematically.
Herodotus also conveyed some moralist, political, and theological ideas through his writing, and this observation emphasizes the value of the Histories as a literary piece. The findings of the literature review indicate that the book is constructed in accordance with the archaic literary practice and uses ring-composition as the foundation for its structure. Analysis of the Histories through this framework makes it clear that the themes Herodotus describes are not randomly located but form a greater picture and contribute to the main idea by depicting its disparate sides. The link between the final chapter, “The Wisdom of Cyrus,” and the opening of the book verifies this assumption.
By placing the idea about the inevitable fall of nations following the rise of their power and wealth as well as freedom and accountability for their own decisions, at the end of the narration, Herodotus emphasizes its significance. This theme is core to the understanding of the Histories as a whole, and it is used by the author to explain both the successes and failures of the Greeks and the Barbarians in a world driven by divine forces and always tending to balance.
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Herington, John, and Friderici Solmsen. “The Closure of Herodotus’ ‘Histories.’” Illinois Classical Studies, vol. 16, no. 1/2, 1991, pp. 149-160.
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