Herodotus: Biography, Books & History

Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson discusses the life and work of Herodotus. Learn more about the Ancient Greek who is considered the Father of History, then test your knowledge with a quiz.


Biography of Herodotus

When Herodotus was born in 484 B.C., his hometown of Halicarnassus was an active, cosmopolitan city. The city we now know as Bodrum, Turkey had a prime location along the trade routes off the coast of Asia Minor. Details about Herodotus' life are scarce but it is known that his family of merchants did well financially. However, they were exiled to the Island of Samos when Herodotus' uncle was put to death for plotting to kill the tyrannical ruler, Lygdamis. Around 455 B.C., Herodotus returned home to help overthrow Lygdamis but rather than stay in Halicarnassus, he spent most of his life on the road. Herodotus devoted his life to a writing project about the history of the Greco-Persian Wars, which started in 499 B.C. and did not end until nearly 50 years later.

The Father of History

Depending on your point of view, Herodotus was either the 'Father of History' or the 'Father of Lies.' It is undisputed that before Herodotus, there had never been a systematic approach to studying the past, interpreting it, and then writing about it. Before Herodotus, nobody talked about reading or writing a history book because none existed. In that respect, Herodotus invented history. However, there was also quite a bit of fiction mixed in with his facts. As a result, no sooner had the next great Greek historian, Thucydides, come along that Herodotus was challenged. Thucydides said that Herodotus spiced up his writing with fiction to make it more interesting. Perhaps there was some truth to that but since Herodotus was in the process of creating a new genre of writing, he had no rules to follow.

Herodotus' Approach to History

To Herodotus, history is two things: great deeds and why they happened. He researched great deeds by relying heavily on interviews and, at times, referring to preexisting Persian and Greek documents. Herodotus made a point to not rely on tradition or family accounts of the past but compared them to his own observation instead. His goal was to create an impartial account of events and he never claimed that he personally witnessed something if he didn't. That all may sound very much like a modern historian's approach but there were elements of Herodotus' work that were very different. He was a strong believer in the circular wheel of fate determining outcomes rather than man. He also believed that gods had a role in the outcome of events.

The Father of Anthropology

Herodotus was one of the original world travelers. He saw the pyramids and the Nile in Egypt and he produced one of the first in-depth sources on Africa. He described warrior Amazon women and saw the soaring Caucasian Mountains by the Caspian and Black Seas. Along the way, he took detailed notes about the different cultures and customs that he encountered across the Persian Empire. For this reason, some consider Herodotus to be the 'Father of Anthropology' as well as history. He traced how these cultures came into contact with the Persian Empire and wrote about their food, clothes, and behaviors. Herodotus never criticized customs that he might have found odd, which led some of his Greek contemporaries to accuse him of being too nice about 'barbaric' behavior.

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