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Greek Historiography from Herodotus to Thucydides - by Peter Xiao

Herodotus and Thucydides are the two most well-known Greek historians in the world. Herodotus was described as the ‘father of history' by Cicero whilst Thucydides is considered by many scholars to be the father of both international relations and war studies. His famous work ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ is now an essential book in the reading lists of many universities’ international relations programmes. However, both historians had different attitudes in regards to the nature of history and this could have been due to their contrasting subject focus and research interests.

Marble bust of Herodotos 2nd century A.D.
Marble bust of Herodotos 2nd century A.D.

Herodotus was mainly working on his history under the influence of Homer and many other Pre-Socratic philosophers. Herodotus belonged to the intellectual milieu of Ionia and owed his style mostly to Homer. In the prooemium (beginning or preface) of ‘The Histories’ by Herodotus, he declares publicly that he ‘here displays his inquiry so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds- some by Greeks, some by barbarians- may not be without their glory.’ This opening statement by Herodotus is extremely crucial because here he describes his writing of history as an inquiry. The origin of the English word history came from the Greek word ‘historia’ meaning inquiry; therefore, history in its original sense is a form of inquiry. Herodotus also raises the importance of glory and great deeds in his opening statement. Glory (kleos) and great deeds (aristeia) are both important elements in the Homeric Epics. A Homeric hero would normally win long-lasting kleos through his aresteia in battles. From this statement by Herodotus, we can see that he looked up to Homer for inspiration and as a model. Herodotus intended to replicate what Homer has accomplished in poetry in his history. The influence of Homer on Herodotus is profound. Meanwhile, the philosophical atmosphere in Ionia in the 6th century and early 5th century BCE also gave Herodotus wide-ranging interests in human affairs and customs. Herodotus' unique curiosity was heavily influenced by the rise of sophists in Miletus and many other coastal cities in Ionia. As a native of Halicarnassus, it was very likely that Herodotus was influenced by this intellectual atmosphere when he was young. Therefore he began to develop this intellectual curiosity for all cultures in the ancient Mediterranean world when he was composing his history.

Thucydides Mosaic from Jerash, Jordan, Roman, 3rd century CE at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin
Thucydides Mosaic from Jerash, Jordan, Roman, 3rd century CE at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

Thucydides the Athenian was a very different figure compared to Herodotus. He was described by many scholars as a rather pessimistic and conservative individual. Many readers do find his history less interesting and engaging to read compared to Herodotus’ history. Thucydides’ research interest was certainly much narrower compared to Herodotus’. He was more interested in war and politics than in human affairs and history. He believed that the lessons of history on human nature could only be appreciated through the study of war and politics. Thucydides himself was critical of Herodotus’ research interests and historical methods and he believed what Herodotus had produced was fiction rather than true history. In the introduction of the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’, Thucydides declares that ‘my work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.’ Many scholars interpret this statement by Thucydides as a form of attack on Herodotus’ research interests and historical methods. They believe that Thucydides was actually referring to the works of Herodotus when he was talking about ‘designed to meet the taste of an immediate public.’ Thucydides himself knew that his work was less interesting to read for the public audience compared to Herodotus’ work because Herodotus’ ‘Histories’ had a much broader interest and focus. However, Thucydides was not frustrated by this prospect as he fervently believed in the idea that his research interests represented the true direction that the discipline of history was moving: focusing on the paramount importance of war and politics in human affairs. Historians in our times are still influenced by this important historical thinking; it was only until the beginning of the last century that historians started to look more at areas such as economics, sociology, ethnography and geography which are areas outside the traditional domain of war and politics.

However, there are still some similarities in the work by Herodotus and Thucydides. One prominent example is the use of speeches in their history. When we talk about Greek and Roman historiography, we are talking about history writings that incorporated a lot of speeches made by the participants of the events. For example in the ‘Histories’ by Herodotus, there are speeches made by the Great King of Persia, famous Athenian political leaders of the day and also the Spartan kings and generals. They were all direct participants of the historical events that Herodotus was narrating. Meanwhile, in Thucydides, we see speeches made by famous Athenian leaders such as Pericles, Cleon, Nicias and Alcibiades. Many scholars have questioned the authenticity of these speeches and we must recognise that not all of them are perfect accounts of what the participants actually said. One line from Thucydides could be a great summary of this historical approach: ‘so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.’

Herodotus and Thucydides were two important figures in the development of the genre of history. It is important for us as readers of history to carefully study their research interest and historical methods before appreciating their works' complexity and wisdom.

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