The world of the Father of History — Exploring the geography of Herodotus

Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks.

— Herodotus, The Histories

Herodotus of Halicarnassus

Our next stop as we follow the development of knowledge of the world through antiquity is with the man who Cicero called the ‘father of history’Herodotus of Halicarnassus. This article is the fourth in a series, parts 1 and 2 and 3 set some context, but you do not need to have read them first to follow this one.

Although Herodotus did not produce any maps himself, his work is many ways the culmination the work of Anaximander and Hecataeus. Through his comprehensive work known as The Histories we get a detailed description which probably represents the pinnacle of knowledge of the world’s geography at the time. The work is so comprehensive that a complete rendering of how a map of Herodotus’ world would look can be produced. We will have a detailed look at this rendering later in the article. But first, an understanding of the context of the world in which Herodotus lived is needed.

Herodotus lived roughly from 485 BCE to the 420’s BCE. This time would begin with the Greco-Persian Wars, see the rise of Athens and end with the titanic struggle between Sparta and Athens known as the Peloponnesian war, although Herodotus would not live to see the end of that conflict.

When Herodotus was born in 485 BCE, his home city of Halicarnassus was under the rule of the Persian Empire. The empire had grown rapidly under the rule of first Cyrus, and then his son Cambyses and finally under the stewardship of Darius the Great. Although the world had seen the rise and fall of many empires, none had been quite as large and all-encompassing as the realm created by Cyrus and his successors. The Persian state covered all the land from India to Egypt and north to the borders of Greece. Darius himself led a vast expedition into Scythia, modern Ukraine, in order to secure his empire’s borders.

The Persian Empire at its height in the 5th Century BCE

Although Darius’ rule had seen the final phase of expansion of the empire, Darius had also overseen the consolidation of the vast domain, ensuring that the conquests would last longer than a generation. Darius stabilised and consolidated all the land under his rule, attempting to draw all its peoples together. This process saw its culmination with the founding of the ceremonial city of Persepolis from about 515 BCE onwards, turning the attention of the core territories of antique civilisation toward Persia itself.

This growing stability would be shattered in 499 BCE as the Ionian Greeks living on the edge of the empire revolted against the rule of the Great King. The revolt would wrack the empire for years, the Greeks, with the aid of Athens, even managed to sack Sardis, the capital of Lydia. Eventually, the overwhelming might of Persia drove the Greeks to defeat, the city of Miletus, perhaps the greatest Greek city of the time, being utterly destroyed. Darius would not forget the insult the Athenians dealt him by supporting the revolt and ordered an invasion of the Greek mainland to punish the city. What looked like certain destruction turned to celebration when the Persian army sent to conquer Athens was vanquished at the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. However, Athenian celebrations would be premature as the Persians were defeated but they would return.

Darius would die before he could take his revenge on Athens, but his son Xerxes would take up the mantle left by his father. Assembling a vast army and fleet to invade in 479 BCE, 6 years after Herodotus was born. This campaign would be the action around which Herodotus would later write his history in which he claimed Xerxes’ force numbered more than 6 million men.

Despite the heroic defence by the Spartans and others at Thermopylae, Xerxes army drove its way deep into Greece, sacking the city of Athens itself, although the population had long since fled to the island of Salamis. A Persian victory seemed inevitable and many Greeks began surrendering and joining the invaders, an action the city of Thebes would never really live down in the eyes of the other Greeks. However, the Athenian statesmen Themistocles was able to crush the Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis, isolating the army. A year later, a Spartan led victory at Plataea ended the Persian attempt to conquer Greece.

The main campaigns of the Greco-Persian Wars

Even though the city was sacked during the Persian invasion, Athens would emerge from the conflict as one of the leading Greek cities. Throughout the following years Athens would slowly turn itself into the hub of a naval empire. Using the Delian league, an alliance founded to keep the Greeks free from Persian rule, the city would grow rich, eventually turning the alliance of cities into a fledgling empire in the Aegean Sea.

The growth in the power of Athens would begin to alarm Sparta, the traditional hegemonic power of Greece. Despite the two cities being officially allied, tension would continue to growth as the century wore on and the wealth, power, and prestige of Athens continued to expand. The tension boiled over into the first Peloponnesian war in 460 BCE. The fighting ebbed and flowed as neither side could gain a significant advantage, even after a simultaneous Athenian expedition to Egypt was defeated by the Persians. The inconclusive war led to what was called the 30 years peace in 445 BCE, in which the Athenians gave up the gains they had made in return for Spartan recognition of the Delian League. A second and more conclusive war would break out in 431 BCE. The intended 30 years of peace had lasted for less than 15 years when this second war started. The conflict would rage on and off for almost 30 years and would eventually see the destruction of the Athenian hegemony, its empire ruined, and the city’s democracy crushed. Herodotus would not live to see the end of this war, however, dying sometime in the 420s BCE.

Alliances of the Peloponnesian War

Herodotus was born in the city of Halicarnassus, modern Bodrum in Turkey. Most of the information we have on his life comes from Herodotus himself, backed up by some later Byzantine sources, but it appears that he came from an influential family in the city. His parents were Lyxes and Dryo and his brother was Theodorus. He also seems to have been related to the epic poet Panyassis.

Halicarnassus was, at the time, a part of the Persian empire, and as a child Herodotus would have been close to, and maybe even witnessed, the assembling of Xerxes invasion force along the Anatolian coast. A childhood experience which almost certainly would have influenced his later writing and may in some way explain the vast numbers he claimed there were and the epic proportions of the fleet, a vast army magnified through the eyes of a child.

Two clues may hint that Herodotus spent a part of his childhood in exile on the island of Samos. The first is anecdotal, as Herodotus himself expresses an affection for the island. The second is that the epic poet Panyassis is said to have taken part in a failed revolt against the tyrant of Halicarnassus. Putting two and two together, some historians have concluded that Herodotus’ family was also involved, and he found himself living on Samos as a result.

Herodotus was fortunate that Halicarnassus was, at the time, an outward looking port city and had been key in pioneering trade between the Greeks and Egypt. As such, it is perfectly possible that his family had contacts in Egypt and the wider Persian empire and that it was these contacts which allowed Herodotus to travel far and wide.

He appears to have travelled to Egypt first, in association with the Athenians, possibly in connection with the Athenian expedition sent to assist a rebellion against Persian rule in 454 BCE. From here it seems that Herodotus travelled on to the city of Tyre and from there down the Euphrates to Babylon.

Greek colonies in southern Italy

Upon returning to Halicarnassus, he seems to have fallen out of favour in the city for an unknown reason and so moved on to Athens. This was Athens at the height of its power, and Herodotus spoke with admiration for the people and its institutions. In Athens, Herodotus seems to have been rewarded with a prize for his work and may even have tried to become an Athenian citizen, a privilege not handed out lightly at the time, and he was unsuccessful. In his later life Herodotus moved to southern Italy as part of an Athenian sponsored colony called Thurium. From here we are uncertain as to what he did next, some passages in his work suggest he moved back to Athens and as no reference in his work can be dated later than 430 BCE, it is possible that he died in the plague that struck the city in that year. However, it is also possible that he died at the court of the King of Macedon having been given the King’s patronage, or even in Thurium itself.

Herodotus’ Histories is the first work of Greek prose history that has come down to us intact and is almost unique in its scale, scope, and ambition, setting a model for all antique historians to follow. This is why Cicero called Herodotus the ‘Father of history’ and why the name stuck.

His style is engaging and easy to follow as he writes as a storyteller, eager to relate curious tales he discovered on his travels or from talking to others. However, this style has led to fierce criticism and the sarcastic title ‘father of lies’ due to his willingness to engage with fanciful tales. But, this willingness and curiosity about the world, and the near contemporary criticism, gives us a unique insight into what was known about the world and what was considered wrong, exaggerated, or complete fabrication.

Herodotus’ detailed explanation of the world as he narrates the expansion of Persian power provides us a with an easy to follow guide to the world which we can turn into a map to understand the extent and limits of knowledge of the world during Athens’ golden age. Using Herodotus’ detailed descriptions of what the Greek’s called the Oikoumene, the inhabited world, it is possible to construct what this world would have looked like as a map.

A rendering of the world according to Herodotus

Already at this early stage of our period, a world map that looks identifiable to our eyes is beginning to emerge. However, we can also see a clear descent from previous world maps, the links to those of Hecataeus and Anaximander are obvious, but even a link to the much older Babylonian world map is easy to see. The major details of all these maps are all but unchanged, the world of Herodotus is still divided into three continents, Europe, Asia, and Libya, and is still encircled by a great ocean. Although Herodotus description does allow for some speculation as to what lies further east. A subtle shift has also occurred in the conception of the world, as the centre of the map has shifted increasingly westward, from Mesopotamia to the Aegean. This is almost certainly a reflection of the biases of the authors of the maps we have examined, but it could also reflect the expansion of antique civilisation further into the Mediterranean. Whatever the reason, this shifting of the centre of the map is a feature which will continue in cartography right down to our own day.

The major difference and development from each map to the next is the inclusion of an increasing amount of detail, building on the ideas and concepts of previous generations. In this development of detail, Herodotus may have held a significant advantage over his predecessors due to the fact that he travelled extensively and so had a first-hand opportunity not only to experience more of the world, but to gain a broader understanding of common patterns and formations of nature. This experience is perhaps reflected in the rendering of Herodotus’ world with the number of rivers and mountain ranges mapped, a significant increase on his predecessors and could have only been done with any accuracy through first-hand experience or discussion with people who had visited the areas.

Herodotus writings in the 5th century BCE take us to about a third of the way through our period. What we can discern from the examples we have available to us, is that knowledge of the world in Classical Antiquity progressed quickly and was continually adapting and expanding as enterprising individuals pushed this knowledge further and further. However, what we have also seen is that a set of assumptions and a general framework was established fairly early in the discipline of recording this knowledge. The idea of an encircling ocean, three separate continents and uninhabited or unknown land being the most obvious. This framework for understanding the world would continue to grow and change, but its fundamental principles would stay broadly the same and paved the way in which antique civilisation, and eventually our own, would view the world.

The next article will explore the culmination of this period of Greek scientific thought and exploration. Following on from the conquests of Alexander and the dawning of the Hellenistic age, the polymath Eratosthenes would use the centre of learning that Alexandria would become to develop the discipline of geography.

Main Sources

Translated by Robin Waterfield, Herodotus, “The Histories”, Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1998

Translated by Martin Hammond, Thucydides, “The Peloponnesian War”, Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2009

Robin Lane Fox, “The Classical World; An epic history of Greece and Rome”, Penguin Books, London UK, 2006

Brooke-Hitching, Edward “The Golden Atlas: The Greatest Explorations, Quests and Discoveries on Maps”, Simon and Schuster, London, 2018

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Lewis D'Ambra

Lewis D'Ambra

I write about history and its echoes and lessons for the present.