Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course


Download this course

Share this free course

Herodotus and the invention of history
Herodotus and the invention of history

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1.1 How do we know what we know?

If you wanted to know about a specific topic, what would you do?

Activity 1

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes for this activity

Using Herodotus as an example, think about what you would do to find out who he is. Jot down two or three sources where you’d look to find out this information.

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


There are many different ways you may have answered this question. Perhaps you know someone who you think will know the answer, and you asked them. Perhaps you looked the answer up in a book you have to hand. Or perhaps you typed ‘Herodotus’ into Google.

All of these possibilities are fine, but can we trust them? Or, to put that slightly differently, how can we trust them? What kinds of elements do we look out for? Let’s take one particular popular internet source for information: Wikipedia and its entry for Herodotus.

Study note: a note on Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopaedia. Maintained and updated by community contributions, it allows multiple users (known as Wikipedia editors) to create and edit content. As such, it is a powerful means of gathering and sharing knowledge. When you perform a search online using Google or another search engine, it’s likely that one of the highest-ranked results that you’ll see will be a Wikipedia article. Because of the collaborative way it is compiled, Wikipedia pages change often. The text that appears in the activity below is what the page on Herodotus looked like when accessed in March 2024. It may look different if you search for it yourself now.

Activity 2

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes for this activity

Read the first three paragraphs of the Wikipedia entry on Herodotus reproduced below (see also Figure 3 below). You may well encounter names of people, places and events that are unfamiliar to you, as well as some technical words. Try not to get too bogged down in these details for now, but rather focus on the following tasks.

  • First, identify one bit of information about Herodotus from each paragraph.
  • Second, jot down how you think any of this is known.

Herodotus[1] (c.484 – c.425 BCE) was a Greek historian and geographer from the Greek city of Halicarnassus, part of the Persian Empire (now Bodrum, Turkey) and a later citizen of Thurii in modern Calabria (Italy). He is known for having written the Histories – a detailed account of the Greco-Persian Wars. Herodotus was the first writer to perform systematic investigation of historical events. He is referred to as ‘The Father of History’, a title conferred on him by the ancient Roman orator Cicero.[2] [3]

The Histories primarily cover the lives of prominent kings and famous battles such as Marathon, Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale. His work deviates from the main topics to provide a cultural, ethnographical, geographical, and historiographical background that forms an essential part of the narrative and provides readers with a wellspring of additional information.

Herodotus has been criticized for his inclusion of ‘legends and fanciful accounts’ in his work. The contemporaneous historian Thucydides accused him of making up stories for entertainment. However, Herodotus explained that he reported what he could see and was told.[4] A sizable portion of the Histories has since been confirmed by modern historians and archaeologists.

[1] ‘Herodotus’. Unabridged (Online). n.d.

[2] Luce, T. James (2002). The Greek Historians. p. 26.

[3] ‘Herodotus’. Encyclopædia Britannica. Archived from the original on 4 April 2021. Retrieved 30 March 2021.

[4] Hornblower, Simon; Spawforth, Antony; Eidinow, Esther (11 September 2014). The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. OUP Oxford. p. 372.

A screenshot of the Wikipedia entry for Herodotus, with the text on the left and the image of a bust of Herodotus on the right. The text has a series of words in blue (indicating hyperlinks to other Wikipedia entries), as well as footnote references.
Figure 3 Screenshot of the Wikipedia entry on Herodotus, taken 1 March 2024.
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


You may have noted the following points:

  • In paragraph 1 we’re told where Herodotus comes from, or what he’s known for, or how he’s been thought about.
  • In paragraph 2 we learn a little bit about his work: the main battles of the war, or alternatively his broad range of interests from ethnography (‘the study of peoples’) to history.
  • In paragraph 3 we’re introduced to the question of how he’s assessed as a historian, whether critically or more positively.
  • As for the question, ‘How is this known?’, perhaps you noticed some references — notes letting us know where the information comes from.

Wikipedia, then, is a useful resource for supplying a quick answer to our question, ‘Who is Herodotus?’, including information about why he’s important – for example, that he is the author who records the battle of Thermopylae, which was famous for being the last stand of the 300 Spartans. At the same time, you may have noticed a structure to this entry that is shared with many Wikipedia entries on people: who (someone is), where (they’re from), what (they did). Underpinning this common structure is a concern to evidence each claim – not just with footnotes (including references to more traditional encyclopaedias) but also with the use of the modern-day name for the ancient place of Herodotus’ birth. This kind of information provides the entry with authority. It encourages us to believe it.

By the same token, a comment that is not referenced can, and perhaps should, strike us as being less persuasive. Ironically, no reference is provided for the criticism of Herodotus for including ‘legends and fanciful accounts’, though the quotation marks suggest that a source is being cited. Similarly, the claim that ‘Herodotus explained that he reported what he could see and was told’, is supported by a reference to a work of scholarship, not to the Histories themselves. Yet, what Herodotus actually says is: ‘While I am obliged to say what was said, I'm in no way obliged to believe it’ (Herodotus 7.152.3). Perhaps this warning does a better job than the Wikipedia article in rebutting that criticism of Herodotus for including ‘legends and fanciful accounts’: Herodotus himself is aware that many of the accounts he relates may be fanciful, but he includes them nonetheless because they are important for some reason. As you will find out, Herodotus is keenly alert to the problem of sources.

This course will shine a light on the process of information gathering. You will learn about the kinds of challenges that Herodotus faced when wanting to find out about past events and, critically, why they happened. And, just as importantly, you’re going to learn what Herodotus does in response – how he constructs history as an active enquiry (historiē) into whom and what to believe. In short, you’re going to learn how to think historically.

Study note: how to refer to the Histories

The conventional way of referring to a section of the text of the Histories of Herodotus is to provide the book, chapter and paragraph numbers. So the reference ‘Herodotus 7.152.3’ refers to Book 7, chapter 152, paragraph 3 of the Histories. You may also sometimes see ‘Herodotus’ abbreviated to ‘Hdt.’.