Herodotus and Thucydides: The World’s First Historians

Half a millennia after the Bronze Age war between ancient Greeks and the Trojans, according to legend, the poet Homer wrote his epic Iliad extolling the valorous deeds and adventures of various characters in the supposedly decade long conflict. Whether or not Homer really wrote the Iliad or if it was composed by several anonymous bards, as is suggested by some, the tales morphed into what amounted to the popular history of the times.[1] Subsequent rhapsodists elaborated on the myths adding new stories and poetic flair. Created principally for entertainment purposes, these ancient tales became the foundation for what could be called Western historiography for the following several centuries. Such was the reach and influence of the stories that the Romans later claimed to have descended from Trojans, while as recently as four hundred years ago some French scholars took pride in their people’s supposed Trojan heritage.[2] In his work on ancient historiography historian Donald Kelley labeled this early version of Greek history as “mythtory.”[3] The Greek pattern of writing “mythtory,” the fabrication of a rhythmic “history” loosely based on legends and performed for audiences, was broken by two Greek contemporaries: Herodotus of Halicarnassus and Thucydides. For the first time historians attempted to use scientific methods and evidence to document and verify the accuracy of the versions of history that they wrote. Both men wrote in the context of great wars and used similar methods of collecting their evidence. While their works diverged in focus and in scope, they each attempted to in their own way to analyze and explain causes and effects of the events that they recorded. Their combined contributions were revolutionary in the field of ancient historiography.

Both Herodotus and Thucydides believed that it was important to produce an evidence-based account. Each provided an explanation of their rationale and methods at the beginning of his account. Herodotus’s work on the Persian War begins with the following passage:

Herodotus, from Halicarnassus, here displays his enquiries, that human achievement may be spared the ravages of time, and that everything great and astounding, and all the glory of those exploits which served to display Greeks and barbarians alike to such effect, be kept alive – and additionally, and most importantly, to give the reason they went to war.[4]

Herodotus. The Histories
Roman bust of Herodotus, 2nd Century A.D. Copy of a Greek bronze statue from the first half of the fourth century B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art

Throughout Herodotus’s “enquiries,” as he called them, he refers to various sources ranging from archaeological evidence, eyewitness and second hand “hearsay” accounts to local legends. In the case of the latter, he was careful to state that he was merely repeating what he had been told, not necessarily that he believed it to be factual. One of the most significant of Herodotus’s eyewitness interviews was that of Thersander of Orchomenus, a Thebian and veteran of the Persian War, regarding his attendance at a banquet with their Persian allies on the eve of battle. Thersander told Herodotus of a conversation with a melancholy Persian officer who believed that the coming battle would be a slaughter and that after the exchange with the Persian, he communicated this information to his superiors “then and there.”[5] This interview, quite possibly the first recorded one of its kind, gives voice to two real people who lived and died two and a half millennia ago.

In similar fashion, Thucydides in the opening pages of his record of the Peloponnesian War included the following explanation of his reasons and methods:

The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.[6]

Thucydides. The History Of The Peloponnesian War

Early 20th Century plaster cast of Roman era (100 AD) copy of original Greek bronze statue (4th Century BC) of Thucydides (in other words a copy of a copy), Russian Academy of Arts

In writing this passage Thucydides recognizes that he was deviating from the established pattern of writing popular romantic history for the entertainment of the masses. It is also significant that he hopes that his history, which he believes to be accurate, will be an aid to those in the future. Unlike his romantic predecessors, Thucydides writes not only for the benefit of the living but for the benefit of future generations. Like Herodotus, Thucydides drew on his own experiences as well as eyewitness accounts and secondhand information. Thucydides however avoided the inclusion of fantastic tales in his works. His own eyewitness accounts and experiences weigh heavily in his work and provide lasting details about life, politics, and war that otherwise very well would have perished with time. His vivid description of the plague that wracked Greece during 430-427 BC, as well as the Greek medical terms he used, are still studied by physicians today – many of whom believe that Thucydides gave the first accurate description of smallpox.[7]

While Herodotus and Thucydides were both historiographical pioneers, they diverge in several areas. Each had a distinct writing style and focus, and neither is above criticism. Herodotus was concerned with all aspects of human culture and geography and deviated from his principal stated purpose of writing about the Persian Wars with narratives on peoples and cultures across what was then the known world. Although some of the information in his histories has since been proved incorrect, he chronicled what he believed at the time to be accurate at the time based on what he was told by those whom he believed were reliable sources. Herodotus is often criticized for including tall tales in his work. Even Cicero, who recognized Herodotus as the “Father of History,” said that he told “innumerable fabulous tales.”[8] Herodotus excuses himself, again, by stating that he is merely repeating what he has been told by others. Perhaps the real story in Herodotus’s “fabulous tales” of other cultures is the fact that he told them at all. The Greek poets had always weaved very ethnocentric tales and put a Greek spin on everything they produced.

Herodotus on the contrary was very interested in the cultures of the various peoples and wrote about them from their perspective. An excerpt from his work in which King Darius teases some Greeks and Indians by contrasting their traditions regarding the dead illustrates this focus on culture. In it Darius asks the Greeks, who cremated the remains of their dead, how much money they would accept to eat the corpses of their dead parents to which they replied with horror that no amount would suffice.[9] To the Indians, who ate their dead, Darius asked how much money they would take to cremate the corpses of their fathers which greatly offended them.[10] Herodotus concluded that “custom is the king of all.”[11] Whether real or false, the fact is that Herodotus chose to include this passage that brings together two groups of people from opposite ends of the far reaches of the Persian Empire and highlights their unique cultural perspectives without judging one to better than the other.

Thucydides on the other hand concerned himself with recording and analyzing recent political and military affairs. He wrote about events for which there was an abundance of eyewitnesses and which he experienced himself. His work is also subject to scrutiny. The question arises as to why he wrote his history only up to 411 BC, well before the end of the Peloponnesian War.[12] He also omitted certain details and was vague about others. In some places he recorded specific numbers or estimates of troops or ships while in others he mentions “some” or a “few” instead of using more exact measurements.[13] In spite of this, there is lasting value in his contribution to empirical based study and analysis that was non-existent in previous works. If Herodotus can be called the Father of History, it would not be a far leap to grant Thucydides the title of Father of Scientific History.

Together and without realizing it, Herodotus and Thucydides revolutionized ancient historiography. For the first time works were produced for academic rather than romantic purposes using techniques that would eventually evolve into contemporary historiographical research methods. Their works influenced later generations of historians who learned from their successes and from their shortcomings. Twenty-five hundred years later, the works of both men are still a subject of great interest.

End Notes

[1] Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 5.

[2] Ibid. 5.

[3] Donald R. Kelley, Versions of History from Antiquity to the Enlightenment (Binghamton, NY: Yale University Press, 1991), 19.

[4] Herodotus, Tom Holland, and Paul Cartledge, Herodotus. The Histories (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2014), 3.

[5] Ibid. 594-595.

[6] Thucydides, Rex Warner, and M. I. Finley, Thucydides. The History Of The Peloponnesian War (HMDS printing press. Kindle Edition, 2015), Kindle Locations 217-220.

[7] D. L. Page, “Thucydides’ Description of the Great Plague at Athens,” The Classical Quarterly 3, no. 3/4 (July-October 1953): 113, accessed February 17, 2018, https://www.jstor.org/journal/clasquar.

[8] Kelley, Versions of History from Antiquity to the Enlightenment, 76.

[9] Herodotus, Holland, and Cartledge, Herodotus. The Histories, 207.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Breisach, Historiography, 13.

[13] Tim Rood, Thucydides: Narrative and Explanation (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 4-5.