Approaches to the past are largely determined by the intellectual climate of the times

Herodotus’ Histories were to some extent undoubtedly determined by the intellectual climate of the times. This essay will explore ways in which aspects such as literacy, myth and causation of the intellectual climate have influenced Herodotus in his writings.

Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus which is modern Bodrum in what is now Turkey. This city was a melting pot of Greeks and non Greeks which almost certainly contributed to Herodotus’ open minded interest in cultures. He lived for a number of years in Athens whose history and affairs he described with admiration.

As he makes no effort to limit his reporting to objectively factual material, any reader should use caution when relying on him as a source for events. But because of his broad appreciation for how culture, legend, personality and accident can shape history, his work offers insights into ancient history that can be found nowhere else.

As stated by Carr ‘The society in which history is written shapes the history written’1 and to some extent this can be seen to apply to Herodotus. The intellectual climate of Athens has undoubtedly played a role in Herodotus’ ‘histories’. At this time Athens was the centre of intellectual life and could boast an almost unique galaxy of talent. It was clear that Herodotus was impressed by Athens and this was demonstrated by his pro Athenian bias in his narrative. ‘Herodotus was said to have recited a part of the ‘Histories’ at Athens and to have received a reward for it. To add greater precision, the absurdly high sum of ten talents was later fixed on the amount of the reward, the consequence of Athenian delight at being favourably depicted in the ‘Histories’. This shows how he was influenced by the intellectual climate because he was eager to show Athens in a positive light and this was clearly because of him having lived there for a period of his life.

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The form in which he communicated his research was the recital or public performance. The narrative structure is deliberately articulated and artistically constructed specifically for oral presentation. ‘The use of prospective sentences draw attention to the process of narration and draw the audience onward into the story’2, his narrative is obviously written with the purpose of entertaining an audience and oral presentation in mind. ‘The earlier books can be seen as independent almost detachable performance pieces’3 and this was simply because they were originally for oral tradition and they were written down at a later stage. The presentation of the narrative in this way is clearly due to the intellectual climate of the times as. ‘Herodotus lived in a largely oral society where the level of functional literacy cannot have been high’4, and so most would know of his work from oral presentations or performances. His work was therefore presented in the most appropriate way which suited the intellectual climate of the times.

Much of his work shows a strong influence of Homer who provided Herodotus with a useful model for his composition. ‘He was Homeric in terms of explanation as to why events occur and often reduced motives to one simple reason’5. Homer provided him with the structure he needed for his dramatic interpretation of history, using the Iliad and Odyssey as a guide.

The Iliad was mainly concerned with the Trojan wars, and Homer was renound for blaming Gods for acts of war. It was here also that Herodotus used Homer as an influence. ‘Herodotus’, work was more than just influenced by Homer; it was a conscious attempt to present the history of the Persian wars as the history of a new Trojan war’6.

This shows how the intellectual climate of the times determine approaches to the past as there is substantial evidence to show that in a literary sense Herodotus had been strongly influenced by Homer and his works. As Langinus stated ‘Herodotus was the most Homeric of all writers of the antiquity’7, which demonstrates Homers importance in the ‘Histories’.

In terms of mythological elements Herodotus also demonstrates influences from the intellectual climate. His stories are often described as folklore partly due to his interest in the unusual which mostly came from his fascination of extraordinary objects such as the Egyptian pyramids or Labyrinth. Due to his interest in the unusual his was sometimes regarded as the ‘Father of Lies; as opposed to the ‘Father of History’ as his reputation became tarnished because of his elaborate often mythological ideas.

However his influence from the intellectual climate has to be acknowledged. In Greece the Gods formed the basis for meta-physics and they firmly believed that much happened through the Gods. ‘The Greeks of the fifth century B.C believed in the actual existence of their Gods’8. This idea substantially affected Herodotus as in the ‘Histories’ the Gods chose to retaliate to specific crimes of individuals or groups of divine individuals which was also a reoccurring theme in the Iliad and Odyssey. He frequently mentions the Gods and his acknowledgement of them suggests he believes in them. ‘The Massagetae worship only the sun’9, as this quote from his ‘Histories’ emphasises he frequently mentions the Gods which indicates his belief in them which would subsequently mean that he was being influenced by the climate of the times because the Greeks also shared this belief.

It also has to be acknowledged that his interest in the unusual was part of a ‘long tradition of Ionian story telling which helped to bring his works to a level of inspired brilliance’10. This shows how the intellectual climate had had an effect on Herodotus’ work as the Greek view of myth as well as traditional story telling impacted him and again this is clearly demonstrated in his works.

Herodotus was the first Greek to attempt in prose to order the mass of Greek traditions and to investigate the customs and people of the Mediterranean using his own inquiry and rational analysis. It could also be argued that Herodotus wrote his ‘Histories’ in prose because that was what the form that the philosophers of the time wrote in. Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle wrote predominantly in prose and discussion. It could be seen that Herodotus wanted to be taken more seriously and so decided to write like the philosophers as he knew how highly regarded they were.

‘Herodotus doesn’t write in poetry because people do not mind whether poetry is true or false’11. He wants to be taken seriously as his aim ‘why the Greeks… and Barbarians fought with each other’12 must not be forgotten. He is determined to pass his history down to generations so that people can understand his times. As a result of this he does want to be acknowledged as truthful and wants people to take his history as being serious, therefore knowing that the philosophers are predominant people of the time he decides to take their influence and write in prose as they would. This again shows the impact of the climate of the times as Herodotus is attempting to relate his works to the public in this way as it is the best way at the time for them to be taken seriously.

In terms of causation Herodotus again shows Homeric attributes which highlights how he was influenced by the climate of the times as Homer was a key role model for him. He views causation similar to Homer; an example of this would be the tale of Croesus. Herodotus commences by informing the reader of the tale of Gyges rise to the throne of Candules. The effect of this usurpation of the Lydian dynasty was that a curse was brought upon the family, which would take effect on the fifth generation of Gyges, namely Croesus.

Herodotus uses Homers attributes in so much as his terms of explanation as to why events occur, the structure of the ‘Histories’ is based around a concept of cause and effect. The theme of retribution and vengeance- that those who commit evil deeds will pay for them now or in the future is also deeply woven into Herodotus’ view of human action and historical causation. Like Homer, Herodotus often reduces motives to one simple reason and although this is effective it also causes Herodotus to be criticised. By being similar to Homer in terms of causation it shows how approaches to the past are determined by the intellectual climate of the times as Herodotus was clearly knowledgeable about authors who came before him as he shows substantial use of some of their methods and concepts which show their influence.

However to a certain extent it can be argued that Herodotus’ work was not determined by the climate of the times. One suggestion of this would be that although he freely mentions and discusses Gods he does not actually print that he believes in them. ‘It may be objected that we have no right to assert that Herodotus accepted the existence of Gods because he did not expressly deny it. A modern anthropologist never thinks of denying the existence of the Gods worshipped by the primitive peoples whose culture he is studying: but we do not for that reason conclude that he believes in their existence’13

If this were true then it would mean that Herodotus’ works were not determined by the intellectual climate of the times. The Greeks had a strong belief in their Gods and if Herodotus did not express his belief then it would imply that he was not a believer which would go against the society of the times.

Although it has to be noted that more can be said about the influences of the intellectual climate of the times such as in terms of religion and perhaps philosophy it can still be attained that the society in which Herodotus lived proved to be a clear influence on him and his works. Any counter arguments against this are weak and as shown earlier can be discredited in support of the intellectual climate. Herodotus clearly liked Athens and was careful not to offend in his works. His aim was to show the history of his time in his way so he was careful to avoid too strong opinions so as more people would read his work. Although he has faced criticism, for example in the ”On the malice of Herodotus’, Plutarch accuses him of slander, spite partially for the Barbarians and general maliciousness’14 it is a known fact that ‘although criticised he was never replaced’15and so being influenced by society was clearly not negative as it simply made his work more popular which was what he ultimately wanted.