Herodotus – History vs. Entertainment


“It is a curious fact, a seeming paradox, that the first two great histories ever written – the histories, namely, of Herodotus and Thucydides – should stand out preeminently as types of two utterly different methods of historical writing. Herodotus, the so-called ‘Father of History’ wrote with the obvious intention to entertain. There is no great logical sequence in his use of materials; he simply rambles on from one subject to another with little regard to chronology, but with the obvious intention everywhere to tell all the good stories that he has learned in the course of his journeyings."

“It would be going much too far to say that there is no method in his collection of materials, but what method he has is quite generally overshadowed and obscured in the course of presentation. Thus, for example, he is writing the history of the Persian wars, and he has reached that time in the history of Persia when Cambyses comes to the throne and prepares to invade Egypt. The mention of Egypt gives him, as it were, the cue for an utterly new discourse…detailing all that he has learned about Egypt itself – its history, its people, and their manners and customs, without, for the most part, referring in any way whatever to Cambyses. He does return to the Persian king ultimately, to be sure, and takes up his story regardless of the digression, and seemingly quite oblivious of any incongruity…of having introduced very much more extraneous mater in reference to Egypt than the entire subject matter of the Persian Empire.”

“The method of Herodotus was justified by the results. There’s every reason to believe that he was enormously popular in his own time – as popularity went in those days – and he has held that popularity throughout all succeeding generations. But it has been said of him often enough that this work is hardly a history in the narrower sense of the word; it is a pleasing collection of tales, in which no very close attempt is made to discriminate between fact and fiction, and prime motive being to entertain the reader.”

Historiographical Note: chronology speaks to putting events in their historic order from oldest date to most recent times.

Excerpted from: The Historians' History of the World: Prolegomena; Egypt, Mesopotamia edited by Henry Smith Williams, Volume 1, 1907. (9-10)

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