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Herodotus, the father of history: 5th century BC

The next great achievement of Greek literature is the writing of history. No one before Herodotus has consciously attempted to discover the truth about the past and to explain its causes. He is rightly known as the 'father of history'.

The saga which inspires him to undertake anything so new and so difficult is the one which has overshadowed his own childhood and youth - the clash between Greeks and Persians. Herodotus grows up in Halicarnassus, in Ionia. At the time of his birth the Greeks are winning great battles in mainland Greece. During his adult life they drive the Persians from the Greek colonies of Ionia.


Asia Minor lies between these two great civilizations, Greece and Persia. Brought up within the first, Herodotus determines to find out about the second. He spends much of his life travelling within the Persian empire, which extends at this time into Egypt. So this first work of history is also, in a sense, the first travel book. In the way of travel books, it includes exotic details - such as how the Egyptians make mummies.

Copies of Herodotus are available by 425 BC. By then his story has a patriotic urgency, with its account of a time when all the Greeks combined against a common enemy. In strong contrast is the bitter contemporary squabbling of the Peloponnesian War, which has entered a new phase in 431 BC.


Thucydides and contemporary history: 431 - 411 BC

The second Greek historian, Thucydides, adds a new dimension - that of contemporary history. An Athenian, born probably in about 460 BC, he is a young man when war is renewed between Athens and Sparta in 431, after a peace of sixteen years.

Although the complete work of Herodotus is not yet published, Thucydides is certain to know the work of the older historian - who has made his living by reciting the highlights of his narrative. Herodotus has told the story of the last great war, between Greeks and Persians. In 431 Thucydides recognizes the onset of the next major conflict, between Greeks. He resolves to record the Peloponnesian War as it happens.


He is immediately in the thick of events. In the summers of 430 and 429 Athens is stricken by plague. The Athenian leader, Pericles, dies of the disease. Thucydides himself catches it but survives. His Account of the symptoms is a first-hand report of unprecedented vividness.

In 424 he is elected one of the ten strategoi or military commanders for that year. Put in charge of an Athenian fleet in the northern Aegean, he fails to prevent the Spartans capturing an important city in the region. As a result he is exiled from Athens. He says later that the misfortune helps him in his great task, forcing him to travel and enabling him to view the conflict from different perspectives.


An important characteristic of Thucydides' work is his determination to achieve an objective view of what has happened, and of its causes. He states this clearly at the end of his introduction, saying that he will begin by listing the precise complaints of each side which, in their view, led to war.

But he then adds that he believes such arguments obscure the issue. In his own considered opinion, 'what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta'.


A clear statement of the available evidence, leading to an informed conclusion, has remained the basic principle of history. The serious historian is advocate for both sides as well as presiding judge. To this end Thucydides uses a method which seems strange to a modern reader. His protagonists put their points of view in long speeches, perhaps in an assembly or before a battle. In the narrative these fall naturally enough. But since Thucydides himself was usually not there, his method is a fictional one which now seems out of place in history.

His account ends abruptly in 411. Whatever the reason may be, it is not his own death. He returns from exile to Athens at the end of the war, in 404.


Xenophon and eyewitness history: 400 BC

Thucydides' history is continued from 411 BC by the third and last of the great trio of Greek historians - Xenophon. The fact that a contemporary continues the work so precisely from this date proves that Thucydides did indeed finish his work there, rather than the remainder being lost. But Xenophon, though a vivid writer, proves a very inadequate historian at a serious level. A supporter of Sparta, he lacks any sense of objectivity.

Fortunately this does not spoil the work which has made him famous. In 400 BC he finds himself part of a Greek force making a desperate retreat from Persia. Objectivity is irrelevant. He describes only what he sees and hears. The result is vivid eyewitness history, akin almost to journalism.


Xenophon's Anabasis (Greek for 'the journey up') is full of fascinating detail, as the Greek mercenaries struggle homewards from defeat in Persia. Desperate for provisions, they are constantly skirmishing with hostile tribesmen. Xenophon is voted into the leadership group and he gives himself much of the credit (possibly with justification) for their safe return to Greece, five months later.

The most famous moment in his account is when the leaders of the column come over the ridge of a mountain and begin shouting Thalassa, Thalassa (the sea, the sea). They have reached the Black Sea and relative safety.


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