Greek historian (c.484–c.420 BCE). Born in Halicarnassus (present-day Bodrum) in south-western Asia Minor, he was related to the epic poet Panyassis, and the family was active in city politics, a situation which led to Herodotus's departure (probably to exile) in the 450s. He traveled widely, though in what capacity we do not know, and eventually settled in Thurii in southern Italy, where he probably died. His only extant work is the History, a nine-book exploration of the conflict between the Greek states and the Persian Empire from the sixth century to 478. The early books describe the preliminaries to the invasions of Greece by the Persian emperors Darius and Xerxes and are used to define the religious, cultural, and moral issues as seen from a Greek perspective. Therefore, they serve not only to outline the expansion of the Persian Empire but also to characterize both the Greek states and the peoples brought under Persian control, building a picture of the resources of the empire and creating a dynamic sense of approaching menace, which ends with the crescendo of the great assaults on Greece in 490 and 480. Within this context, Egypt—a major part of the Persian Empire—receives fuller treatment than any other state. The whole of book II is devoted to it, as well as the early section of book III though references to things Egyptian also occur elsewhere in the work.
Herodotus's sources for Egypt are easily identified. He is much given to emphasizing his autonomy in acquiring information, describing his entire work as a “(personal) enquiry,” and he claims to have traveled throughout the country himself, a claim which is generally, though not universally, conceded. (The date of this visit is probably between 449 and 430.) For the first ninety-eight chapters, he insists on his use of autopsy, or personal analysis and oral inquiry (II,99,1). Subsequently he continues to employ autopsy but also draws on Egyptian tradition, gleaned particularly from priests but also from Egyptians in general, local sources, and once an interpreter. From the point of book II, 147,1, non-Egyptian traditions assume major importance. These would have been overwhelmingly Greeks and Carians, but Libyans and Colchians also feature. Nevertheless, Herodotus did have his precursors in writing on Egypt. Homer spoke of it and played a significant, if unobvious, role in setting the agenda for discourse on that mysterious land, and other epic writers as well as Greek dramatists made significant contributions to the body of data, opinion, and attitude on which Herodotus drew. The major written sources that either fed him or provided points of departure or reaction were Anaximander for geography, geology, and meteorology and Hecataeus for cartography, geography, ethnography, botany, mythology, and legends; neither, however, is explicitly acknowledged as a quarry of information, and much research has been expended in trying to determine the extent of his indebtedness to these two authors.
Herodotus's account of Egypt is all-embracing: at book II,1, he gives the justification for his discussion—the incorporation of Egypt into the Persian Empire—and then proceeds to investigate the antiquity of Egyptian civilization (2–4), the geography of Egypt (6–18), the Nile and its behavior (19–34), and Egyptian manners and customs, with particular emphasis on things religious (35–98). The geographical section is developed against the background of contemporary debates on the origins and structure of land masses. In the ethnographic excursus, the perspective is determined by a concern with differences between Egyptians and Greeks; the unwritten agenda is to define Greek ethnicity as well as that of the Egyptians. Not surprisingly, therefore, his attention is arrested by anything thomasion (“astonishing, marvelous”) in Egyptian behavior. At the same time, he shows a remarkable willingness to admit Egyptian cultural priority in many areas, and there is a pervasive conviction that numerous elements in Greek civilization derived from Egypt, particularly in the sphere of religion. This conviction is based on little more than the operation of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: that is, if something in Egypt resembles something in Greece, it is argued that it must have come from Egypt because Egyptian civilization is so much older. The result is that many erroneous claims are made, but this has not prevented Herodotus's assertions and those of later and frequently derivative classical writers from being used to support highly dubious Afrocentric theories of cultural diffusion. The cultural picture is further distorted by a marked tendency to oversimplification, which leads him to convert trends into hard-and-fast rules.
At book II,99, Herodotus moves on to history, which he discusses in two sections: chapters 99–146 cover events from the beginning of Egyptian history to the seventh century, and chapters 147ff. study the Saite period and the Persian conquest. The history of Egypt, like that of all non-Greek peoples, is presented within a thoroughly Greek framework. It also shows a common Herodotean trait in its predilection for digression into excursuses on matters that particularly interested him. However, the two historical sections differ considerably in character. The first is chronologically confused and consists largely of oral tradition customized to a greater or lesser extent for Greek consumption; its value as evidence lies in the insight it offers into the nature of Egyptian oral tradition on early history. Once Herodotus gets to the seventh century, things improve greatly. His account of the Saite dynasty and the Persian conquest is the earliest consecutive account that we have from any source, and it largely defined the parameters of the subject for later writers. Its points of emphasis are those of interest to Greeks, and the account is subject to Greek and Egyptian propaganda.
Caution is always required when dealing with Herodotus's data, but much valuable information is conveyed not only on historical events but also on Late period culture. The surprise is not that things sometimes go wrong, but that so much goes right.
- Armayor, O. Kimball. Herodotus' Autopsy of the Fayoum: Lake Moeris and the Labyrinth of Egypt. Amsterdam, 1985. A good example of the work of the liar-school which examines closely the section of Book II dealing with two features of Middle Egypt.
- Fehling, D. Herodotus and His “Sources.” 1989. A critique of Herodotus's veracity, well assessed by J. P. A. Gould: “There are problems, certainly, about believing everything that Herodotus says he saw or was told but they are not so great as the problem of recognizing Fehling's Herodotus in the text that we have.”
- Godley, A. D. Herodotus. Loeb Classical Library. 4 vols. London and New York, 1920–1924. A reliable translation with facing Greek text and some notes.
- Gould, John. Herodotus. London, 1989. Probably the best discussion of Herodotus in English.
- Hall, E. Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-definition through Tragedy. A brilliant exploration of Greek perceptions of ethnicity. Its position is exaggerated, but it is required reading.
- Hartog, F. The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History. Berkeley and London, 1988. A penetrating and thought-provoking attempt to define Herodotus's conceptual world. Unmissable.
- Hunter, Virginia. Past and Process in Herodotus and Thucydides. Princeton, 1982. Essential reading on the nature of fifth-century Greek historical thought.
- Lloyd, Alan B. Herodotus Book II. Etudes préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l'empire romain, 43. 3 vols. Leiden, 1975–1993. The introduction contains a detailed discussion of the pre-Herodotean tradition and Herodotus's sources and methods. The commentary addresses all aspects of Herodotus's discussion of Egypt.
- Lloyd, Alan B. “Herodotus on Egyptian Buildings: A Test Case.” In The Greek World, edited by Anton Powell, pp. 273–300. London and New York, 1995. An evaluation of Herodotus's capacity for accuracy against the evidence of buildings which still survive.
- Pritchett, W. Kendrick. The Liar School of Herodotus. Amsterdam, 1993. Polemic against the position of Armayor and Fehling.
Alan B. Lloyd