History Develops as a Scholarly Discipline Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

History developed as scholarly discipline, establishing historiography as a literary and scientific genre.

Summary of Event

Herodotus’s monumental history of the Greco-Persian Wars, Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709), established its author as “the father of history,” in the words of the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero (106-43 b.c.e.). It is an extraordinary work, combining history in the modern sense with geography, anthropology, and comparative religion. Hecataeus of Miletus Herodotus Thucydides

As part of the unprecedented intellectual movement that began in the fifth century b.c.e., Herodotus was in the midst of a philosophical revolution initiated by Socrates (c. 470-399 b.c.e.), perfected by Plato (c. 427-347 b.c.e.), and culminating with Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.). In an analogous fashion, Herodotus initiated the new style of historiography, Hecataeus of Miletus (fl. sixth-fifth centuries b.c.e.) solidified the notion of scientific historical and geographical evidence, and Thucydides crowned their efforts.

Like most genres, history did not achieve maturity in its first form. Herodotus, while groping for the historical perspective mastered by Thucydides a generation later, retained many characteristics of his diverse predecessors. The Greek poet Homer (early ninth century-late ninth century b.c.e.) influenced him significantly; critics have pointed out that epic poetry, for centuries the repository of records of the Greek past, probably hindered the development of history as a discipline through its emphasis on the biographical rather than the institutional, its theistic-humanistic philosophy, and its appeal to romance and excitement.

Herodotus clearly derived much from the poets: the art of holding interest by intermingling digressions with narrative, the significance put on characterization of leaders, and, most important, a view of history as controlled to a great degree by the gods. Like his contemporaries, the great dramatists Sophocles (c. 496-c. 406 b.c.e.) and Aeschylus (525/524-456/455 b.c.e.), Herodotus followed Homer in viewing human affairs as divinely ordained: Man is a creature of fate, often a suffering victim. Like the heroes of classical tragedy, Herodotus’s kings and princes become arrogant in their wealth and power and bring catastrophe on themselves. Once the Persian prince Xerxes I (c. 519-465 b.c.e.) chastises the sea, the reader knows his great host crossing the Hellespont is headed toward destruction.

Although Herodotus worked objectively, sometimes resembling a modern-day anthropologist or ethnographer, he imbued his work with divine plans and predestinations in the Homeric tradition. The use of history to defend the existence of a divine power is common in ancient and modern historiography. The eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon believed in divine cycles in history, each of which was initiated by a divine figure such as Moses, Jesus, or Muḥammad. Thucydides, in contrast to Herodotus, treated history in a more dispassionate manner. He was interested in the simple formula of “Who, what, where, and when?” His Historia tou Peloponnesiacou polemou (431-404 b.c.e.; History of the Peloponnesian War, 1550) is a masterpiece of historiography. He advised historians not to be “masked by exaggerated fancies of the poets” or the stories of chroniclers who “seek to please the ear rather than to speak the truth.”

Although epic was the most popular record of the past in the Greek world of the seventh and sixth centuries b.c.e., Ionian writers were gradually developing prose accounts of the geography and customs of the areas they visited as they sailed on trading expeditions around the Mediterranean. The exposure to a variety of cultures seems to have developed in them a rational, often skeptical spirit, and they began to cast the eye of reason on the myths that passed for history among their people. Only fragments have survived to indicate the nature of these semihistorical works. The remains of two treatises by Hecataeus of Miletus, who wrote during the latter part of the sixth century b.c.e., are probably representative of the new school of thought. In his Genealogia (c. 500 b.c.e.; genealogies), he attempted to give rational explanations for familiar tales of the gods and heroes who were purportedly the ancestors of the Greeks of his own day. More significant for Herodotus was Hecataeus’s Ges Periodos (c. 500 b.c.e.; tour around the world), his account of his observations on his journeys into Egypt, Persia, mainland Greece, and the countries near the Black Sea.


(Library of Congress)

Thus, Herodotus began his work with a foundation in the epic concept of the relationship of god and humankind, and an Ionian-inspired curiosity about humankind and society, along with a rationalistic and skeptical approach to mythical history. To these perspectives must be added his strong pro-Athenian bias. Born in the Dorian city of Halicarnassus on the coast of Asia Minor, Herodotus lived in Athens for much of the period between 454 and 443, when he helped to colonize Thurii in Italy. He was thus a part of the flowering of Periclean Athens during the years between the end of the Greco-Persian Wars in 479 and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War in 431. It was during these years that he probably derived his strong faith in the free state and its ability to triumph over tyranny, a belief that becomes a significant theme in the histories.

To assess The History as history, it is perhaps useful to note that the Greek word histor means “observer,” or “recorder,” rather than “analyst of facts,” and Herodotus is a historian in this sense more than in the modern one. Especially in the first six books, he refers repeatedly to what he has seen or what he has been told. He does not uncritically accept everything he hears, but neither does he attempt to sort out every conflicting account.

Like Thucydides, Herodotus was committed to objective reporting. In book 7, he writes, “My duty is to report all that is said, but I am not obliged to believe it all alike.” For the most part he was fair and impartial. For example, despite his fervent Greek patriotism, he gave a meticulous and largely accurate account of the enemy’s history and cultural practices.

Herodotus’s work begins with a discussion of the earliest conflicts between the Near Eastern and western Mediterranean cultures and an account of the growth of the Persian Empire. As he recounts each new conquest, he digresses to describe the customs of the soon-to-be invaded nation: Lydia, Assyria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Scythia, India, and Arabia. He traces the careers of successive Persian monarchs, Cyrus the Great (c. 601/590-530 b.c.e.), Cambyses II (d. 522 b.c.e.), and Darius the Great (550-486 b.c.e.), setting the stage for the massive expedition of Xerxes I against the Greeks. Initially more digression than narrative, Herodotus’s work sharpens its focus as it moves toward the climax, the account of the battles that culminated in the Persian defeat at Salamis in 480 b.c.e.


Herodotus was criticized by ancient and modern historians on various charges. The Greek biographer Plutarch (c. 46-after 120 c.e.) dubbed him “the flatterer of Athens.” He was considered by various historians a mere industrious compiler of gossip, a moralizer, inept in military tactics and statistics. For example, he reported the size of the Persian army as five million—too inflated by any ancient or modern estimation. He was also accused of plagiarism, dishonestly using Ionian chronicles as eyewitness reports and even doing that uncritically. Some downplayed his History as inconsistent, lacking unity of purpose or direction.

Some of these accusations have been proven false or exaggerated. Herodotus worked within the limitations of his time. He had little evidence to verify the accounts of his eyewitnesses. He was careful in crediting what he noted, distinguishing between things he saw and things he only heard. He revisited battlefields and alleged army routes. He often used inscriptions on monuments and quoted extensively from temple records at Delphi. As a tourist-historian at Egyptian pyramids, he gave a meticulous, although at times speculative, account of what he saw. Only in the last two centuries have geographers, archaeologists, and anthropologists confirmed many of his observations.

Herodotus was an intelligent and observant historian with good faith and tolerance for diverse cultures. The unity of his work comes from his deep religious convictions and notion of history as divine epic. Many historians consider him the father of history without whose work modern readers would have been deprived of invaluable insights into the ancient world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brunt, P. A. Studies in Greek History and Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Meticulous accounts of early Greek ideas on historiography and historical analysis.
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    xlink:type="simple">Derow, Peter, Robert Parker, and Robert A. Sedgewick, eds. Herodotus and His World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. A lively and diverse set of essays on Herodotus in his cultural, historical, and literary context. Discusses topics such as Herodotus’s attitudes toward ethnicity, tradition and history, the supernatural, religion, chronology, and epigraphy.
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    xlink:type="simple">Harrison, Thomas. Divinity and History: The Religion of Herodotus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Scholars have tended to view Herodotus’s depictions of religion as separate from his conception of history; this work shows how the two are intimately interrelated and discusses how this relationship should affect the reading of his work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hornblower, Simon, ed. Greek Historiography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. This is a challenging and rich book. It has a thorough and extensive introduction (seventy-two pages) and an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luraghi, Nino, ed. The Historian’s Craft in the Age of Herodotus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. A collection of essays on a wide variety of topics in fifth century b.c.e. historiography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Rosalind. Herodotus in Context: Ethnography, Science, and the Art of Persuasion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Examines the intellectual context of Herodotus’s work, particularly in his descriptions of foreign and exotic lands and peoples.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Cyrus the Great; Darius the Great; Herodotus; Homer; Flavius Josephus; Livy; Polybius; Sima Qian; Tacitus; Thucydides; Xerxes I. Historiography;Greece

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