All entries for November 2015

November 07, 2015

According to Cicero, Herodotus was the ‘Father of History’, but was he an oral historian?

Ido Israelowich, Department of Classics, Tel Aviv University


Herodotus of Halicarnassus was a Carian born in or about 484 BC. The Greek city of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum) was then part of the Persian Empire. The city was known for its participation in constant fights against the Persians, who eventually invaded also mainland Greece. The Greco-Persian Wars of 480 and 479 BC and their more immediate origins were the subject of Herodotus life’s work, the Histories. However the Histories are about more than politics and warfare. Herodotus travelled widely over many years and the Histories are also studies in the customs of the counties he visited, including Egypt, Scythia and Persia. Like modern-day oral historians, Herodotus based his history on interviews. However as Herodotus was born during the Persian Wars in which his Histories culminates, his inquiries were, for the most part, second-, third-, or fourth-hand. It would therefore be more accurate to say he relied on oral tradition for his evidence rather than eye-witness accounts. However Herodotus was a pioneer in recognising the value of the subjectivity of oral sources. Mabel Lang notes that rather than seeing himself as an arbiter of truth he was more interested in what was reported than in exactly what was done (Lang 1984). He twice explicitly states this. Firstly tell his audience that: ‘Anyone may believe these Egyptian tales, if he is sufficiently credulous; as for myself, I keep to the general plan of this work, which is to record the traditions of the various nations just as I heard them related to me’; and secondly that ‘My business is to record what people say, but I am by no means bound to believe it’ (cited in Lang 1984). However, as his later successors have also experienced, Herodotus’ use of oral evidence laid him open to criticism for being an unreliable historian and he was attacked for his naiveté, plagiarisms and falshoods (Evans 1968). Perhaps the fact that he was more interested in recording the beliefs current in his day than establishing their veracity meant Herodotus was a historian ahead of his time. As Arnaldo Momigliano reflected, ‘It is a strange truth that Herodotus has really become the father of history only in modern times’ (Momigliano, 2013, 45).

References

M. L. Lang. 1984. ‘Herodotus: Oral History with a Difference’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 128, 93-103.

P. Cartledge. 2013. ‘Herodotus: A Historian for All Time’, History Today 63. Published on History Today (http://www.historytoday.com).

J. A. S. Evans. 1985. ‘The Father of Oral History’, VQR: A National Journal of Literature & Discussion (http://www.vqronline.org/father-oral-history).

O. Murray. 2007. ‘Herodotus and Oral History’, in Nino Luraghi (ed), The Historian’s Craft in the Age of Herodotus (Oxford: OUP), 16-44.

O. Murray. 2007. ‘Herodotus and Oral History Reconsidered’, in Luraghi (ed), The Historian’s Craft in the Age of Herodotus, 314-325.

J. A. S. Evans. 1968. ‘Father of History or Father of Lies; The Reputation of Herodotus’, The Classical Journal 64:1, 11-17.

A. Momigliano. 2013. ‘The Place of Herodotus in the History of Historiography’, in Rosaria V. Munson (ed), Herodotus: Volume 1: Herodotus and the Narrative of Past (Oxford: OUP), 31-45.


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  • Thank you for this informative and useful blog. I agree that historians have much to gain from looki… by Alexander Freund on this entry
  • hi Angela, there are consent forms with the interviews that have been transcribed, but not with the … by Andrea Hajek on this entry
  • Hi Andrea. Just a quick follow up question – what paperwork actually exists for the interviews? Are … by Angela Davis on this entry
  • hi Angela, thanks for this. I too am working with some archived interviews, alongside conducting my … by Andrea Hajek on this entry
  • I was interested to read the angle of your initial blog as I am in the process of planning an oral h… by Nickianne Moody on this entry

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