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

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1.5 Thinking historically

There are three key points worth taking from what has been discussed so far.

First, according to the Phoenicians, Io went willingly with their ship’s captain. But the earlier account related that she had been abducted. By recording different accounts, assigning them each a source, and juxtaposing them, Herodotus puts us on guard about where information comes from, precisely what information is communicated, and how information is used. This is important because, as the Phoenician example shows, sources invariably present versions of events from their point of view or to cast themselves in the best light. Taking a critical stance like this can come in useful not just when we’re thinking about an ancient writer's account of historical events, but when we’re reading contemporary news articles or posts on social media.

Second, being alert to sources can help us better understand the content of this opening account and how it’s being presented. Right at the beginning, Herodotus assigns this account to ‘men skilled in arguments among the Persians’ (1.1.1). It is they who identify the Phoenicians as beginning all the troubles, and who identify the Greek response to Alexander’s seizure of Helen as marking the critical escalation in hostilities. They (they say) are not to blame; on the contrary, they are so fair-minded as to acknowledge that Europe belongs to the Greeks – so long as they (the Persians) have power over all the communities, Greek and otherwise, in Asia. Being alert to the source, then, can help reveal why things are presented in a particular way.

Third, what does Herodotus think about all of this? At the end of this episode he simply notes: ‘These are the things that the Persians and Phoenicians say. For my part, I’m not going to say whether these things happened in this way or some other way’ (1.5.3). The fact that Herodotus not only withholds judgement but explicitly tells us that he is withholding judgement is important to his self-representation as an author. We see him impartially weighing the evidence, struggling to come down on either side, and showing the value of doing that weighing and struggling. By being so blunt about what he cannot record, paradoxically he encourages us to believe in what he can and does record.

A picture of a ship on the sea. The hull is curved and lined (suggesting a wooden construction), with a curved bow to the right, as the viewer sees it. A central mast carries a massive sail which spans almost the length of the ship.
Figure 10 Phoenicians ship carved on the face of a sarcophagus, second century CE.

The clearest limitations in this account, as Herodotus has shown, is the need to rely on what others say. The people involved in these events are lost to time. All these women – Io, Europa, Medea, Helen – are from a world that we now recognise as myth. In fact, it is Herodotus who here first draws a distinction between myth and history. The point is not that these events didn’t happen, but rather that there is no way of knowing whether they did or not, and, even if they did, whether they happened in this or some other way. Their truths cannot be questioned or determined.

Included in this world of untestable testimony is Homer’s Troy story, which the Persians bring to mind when they assert that it was the Greeks who were to blame for sending an army to get Helen back. The lesson is that such stories, while familiar and perhaps even comforting (in that they conform to preconceived ideas), cannot be verified and are just as likely to mislead our understanding of more recent events than not.

If this, then, is a ‘false start’, where, and how, does Herododus begin his writing of history? This is the question which you’ll now consider.