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Ancient Historians: How Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius Transformed How We Look At History Today

Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

Who is Herodotus?

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.480-c.429 BCE) was Greek researcher, often called the world's first historian. In his work The Histories, the expansion of the Achaemenid Empire under its kings Cyrus the Great, Cambyses, and Darius I the Great, culminating in Xerxes' expedition to Greece (480 BCE) was written with the ethnographic descriptions of the peoples that the Persians have conquered, fairy tales, gossip, and legends.

A Statue of Herodotus


Who was Herodotus' Audience?

Herodotus' audience consisted of a large public audience of illiterate Greeks and Athenians. This is since his narratives were for oral and public recitation, which made sure his works were not exclusive to the literate. preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements

— Herodotus

The purpose of Herodotus' 'The Histories'

Herodotus is regarded as 'The Father of History,' which is a clear indicator as to how significant the individual is to the concept of history itself. Within the Ancient period, particularly Greece, history wasn't taken seriously by philosophers. The thought of recording the deeds of human achievements was a new concept that Herodotus took up.

Herodotus' purpose as a historian was to record the memory of great deeds to tell a story.His aims were to preserve the memories of people in his own class and discover the origins of conflict – Greece and Asia through his text, 'The Histories.' Herodotus' 'The Histories' was meant for oral recitation, alike other epics during that time period.

Preserving history became a sentiment soon carried out by other historians who followed the idea, “to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements.”

Herodotus saw the importance of recording past events since it wold exposes the cause of conflicts and why similar conflicts would reoccur over time. Herodotus then concluded that the cause of conflict within his time frame was due to imperialism, which he felt was important to get across for the sake of civilians.

However, he recorded history in a way that would appeal to society, which at the time was fascinated by Greek gods and ethics that a story can tell, as shown by how popular Homer's epic 'The Iliad' was. Divinity was then made a theme within his texts.


The Methodology of Herodotus

The methodology of Herodotus can be percieved as questionable. This is since that he used oral sources, which could be made up or change over time. He claims he tested his sources. He had no previous scholar works to elaborate on and no printing press, which meant he got his information from oral sources. Herodotus acquired information that led him to question, sought other viewpoints to challenge or corroborate. His works was an early form of what we now call 'edutainment,' which was for recitation purpose. He essentially recorded the memory of great deeds to tell a story.

However, as Herodotus travelled he was able to gain knowledge of societies, wars etc. Despite his sources being oral, he named them and would refer to artefacts on buildings and offerings at temples. Normally, he would add stories and anecdotes to explain the concepts throughout his work. Herodotus wrote for a purpose not poetic style- but used expressions and phrases reminiscent in Homers ‘epics’.

The impact of Herodotus on historiography

Herodotus was revered for fathering history as he invented the foundations of the concept, educating ancient and today's society on ancient events in the process. This paved the way for historians and set the standard for ethnography; clothing, diet, marriage, funerary customs, ranks in society, religious beliefs and practices, health and treatment of disease. This changed the meaning of inquiry, causing later generations to investigate into the past events. This paved the way for other historians such as Thucydides to then refine Herodotus’s methods and continue what history is now today.

Why is Herodotus called “The Father of History”?

What type of History did Herodotus encapsulate?

Herodotus' works were set on creating an engaging narrative for mass consumption with a small amount of analysis. His works were based on oral sources, however, he didn't accept all sources, denying sources that he was unsure he could make a judgement on. This lead to an underlying subjectivity that makes his works questionable. This is since the majority of people he spoke to were of societal influence, thus his judgements were based on aristocratic perceptions, which did not represent all of the society.

He wrote about various topics in a holistic manner such as the expansion of the Achaemenid Empire. Herodotus mapped cultures to track the increasing influence and power of Athens and the following prosperity and success of Greece. Nonetheless, Herodotus did not have a set method for evaluating sources of research and explained everything through analysis.

A bust of Thucydides

A bust of Thucydides

Who was Thucydides?

Thucydides, (born 460 bc or earlier?—died after 404 bc?) was renounced as 'The Father of Scientific History' and author of the History of the Peloponnesian War, which recounts the struggle between Athens and Sparta in the 5th-century bc. His work was the first recorded political and moral analysis of a nation's war policies.

I have written work, not as an essay which is to win applause of to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time

— Thucydides

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Who was Thucydides' Audience?

Thucydides' audience primarily consisted of intellectuals who, according to Thucydides “... desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future”.

The purpose of Thucydides' 'The Peloponnesian War'

After participating and losing to the Spartans during the Peloponnesian war, Thucydides sought to find the truth behind what happened in particular events. He believed it was important to find the truth behind this event. This revolved around the desire to reveal the true nature of humans, especially when in danger. He would provide two contrasting testimonies and to explain the inferences he made. He was also prepared on some occasions to leave the explanations up to the audience. Thuycidides intended, to tell the truth about the Peloponnesian War as it was important to him to do so. He did not believe that accumulating of facts was a good enough method.


Thucydides' Methodology

Thucydides' technique was to enter the minds of his characters and discuss the feelings and behaviours. For example, he was once a commander meaning that he could emphasise and understand the state the commanders were in in the situation. He used oral evidence from basic sources. Since Thucydides was known as 'The Father of Scientific History,' he made sure that his works had a heavy foundation of sources.

He believed during the time that the war was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past. He referenced his information with speeches, some that he heard on his own and some that he told by others. He did not always take what someone said word-for-word, he would instead add his own opinion on what they said. Thucydides tested his sources with rigorous cross-checking and accounting for bias. Alike to Herodotus's methodology, he made full use of eye witnesses.

Thucydides was willing to sacrifice a partial amount of the truth to construct his history in a more dramatic and tragic style. His evidence and method of inquiry are stated candidly for review and rebuttal. Some believed that he made up oral evidence that he thought would have genuinely happened.


Thucydides' Impact on Historiography

Thucydides had the greatest influence of his successors as he brought forward a new type of history. He did not believe any role was played by the Gods, which he excluded from his works. His works were definite, told the audience what to think and what we need to know. He was known to have recorded the first real contemporary history and eyewitness accounts.

Thucydides was known as the father of ‘scientific’ history as in the eyes of most classical historians, it was Thucydides who wrote true history and not Herodotus. He believed that the truth required his own interpretation of the events he presents. His ability to use knowledge and reach a higher wisdom about the nature of human behaviours significantly influenced the methodologies of following generations of historians.

The Type of History Thucydides encapsulated

Within his text 'The Peloponnesian War,' he wrote of the war between the Peloponnesians (Spartans) and the Athenians, putting the events of this in chronological order. Thucydides attempted to adopt an objective standpoint throughout his writing, making sure not to exaggerate his information or lie to make the information more appealing. He wanted a strong foundation of facts as a critical method to back up what he was saying. He preferred scientific history and did not speak of supernatural history. He never spoke of gods controlling and having influence on the events he wrote about.

Who was Polybius?

Polybius (c. 200 – c. 118 BC) was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period noted for his work, The Histories, which covered the period of 264–146 BC in detail. The text encapsulated the rise of the Roman Republic to the status of dominance in the ancient Mediterranean world and included his eyewitness account of the Sack of Carthage in 146 BC. Polybius is important for his analysis of the mixed constitution or the separation of powers in government.

Who was Polybius Audience?

Polybius' target audience were those with power or practising and aspiring statesmen due to his focus on practical skills e.g. tactics. However, it is suggested that his work was adapted (language and style) so that his history could be for ordinary people as well. His main audience consisted of more on the Greeks than the Romans.

There can surely be nobody so petty or so apathetic in his outlook that he has no desire to discover by what means and under what system of government the Romans succeeded in less than fifty-three years in bringing under their rule almost the whole of the inhabited world, an achievement that is without parallel in human history.

— Polybius

Polybius' purpose of 'Histories'

Polybius' purpose on writing history was a didactic purpose, which sought to teach a lesson not entertain or inform. He believed history had a practical, instructive purpose and could provide military and political guidance. He believed that history could help people cope with moral problems and face whatever changing fortunes occurred. He believed in getting into the heart of the past, linking the chains of what causes an event. Polybius saw moral lessons to be learned about how men react to challenge and adversity.

It is History which…will mature our judgement and prepare us to take right views

— Polybius

Polybius' methodologies

His personal context and ability to travel extensively allowed him an acute insight into the event he was relating. He said there are three main methods that need to be practised for reliable history:

  1. Collecting and carefully studying the written sources.
  2. Visiting and checking the geographical locations referred to in his work.
  3. Detailing first-hand experiences e.g. interviewing eye witnesses.

He used speeches with an emphasis on getting them right. He explains that a historians aim;

“...should not be to amaze his readers…nor should he aim at producing speeches which might have been delivered, nor study dramatic poetry…record with fidelity what was actually said or done.”

His method of his work consisted of three parts for analysis: causes, beginnings and pretexts.
He sometimes provided several interpretations of the Roman actions, allowing the readers to make up their own minds. He also argued history, criticised other historians, especially Timaeus.

Brian McGing introduces Polybius: The Histories

Polybius' Impact on Historiography

Polybius' career marked the progress of history since Herodotus. This highlighted that historical writing has long moved away from Herodotus’s style. His work is judged both as the finest history of the ancient world. Polybius influenced the great historians of Rome such as the historian Sempronius Asellio.

The Type of History Polybius wrote

Polybius wrote a factual narrative, with analytical content, concentrating on diplomatic, political and military issues. His works were meant to be pragmatic, rational and logical history written. He did not write the fantastic or the dramatic, which meant no gods or fate was present in his work 'Histories.'

He also put forward the idea of why the Romans were so successful in the takeover of the Mediterranean world. He believed it was due to the national character of the Romans, Rome’s constitution and the skills on the Roman army. He also believed monarchy evolves into a dictatorship, aristocracy causes corruption and democracy lead to lawlessness and violence. Therefore, his lesson put forward was that a mixed form of government prevailed.

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