The Histories by Herodotus

Posted: August 12th, 2013





The Histories by Herodotus

As an American historian who specialized in studying the history of the Roman and Greek world, Thomas R. Martin was essential in his contribution toward an increased understanding of historical record archiving among different societies. Apart from these historical interests, Thomas R. Martin is also a lecturer handling courses on the Roman Empire, Hellenism and Athenian democracy. In the book Herodotus and Sima Qian: The First Great Historians of Greece and China, Thomas R. Martin contrasted the writings of Herodotus about early Greece with those of Sima Qian concerning ancient China to reveal the features of ancient history writing.

While these two novelists existed in different periods and each was not conscious of the work of the other, Thomas Martin pointed out the related efforts that each author struggled with when they were preparing their historical records and how their hard work contributed to conceive contemporary notions of writing history and the function of the historian. The introduction contained a cross-cultural investigation that comprised of the author’s biography, the situation and period in which Martin worked, as well as a dialogue of how each author brought in his aspects of understanding and ethical judgment into his scripts (Herodotus et al, 89). The enclosed documents included excerpts from the Histories and Shiji that exemplified their models in writing history.


The form in an academic work is useful when one desires to consider the shape, the structure, or the nature of writing or speech. A consciousness of form can help to generate more communication that is efficient when an author is writing a publication. Considering the form is important in clarifying the kind of product that is required because as a style, form fuses the audience and the function. Elements of form include the type of writing and the recipient of the information as well as the function. The Histories written by Herodotus exhibited various aspects of form that make up the next part of the essay (Herodotus et al, 123).

The Histories or The History of Herodotus was believed to be the founding work of history in Western writing. Herodotus wrote his book around the 420 BC in the Ionic language of conventional Greek, The Histories served as documentation for the historical conventions, geography, political affairs and conflicts of different cultures that were recognized around Western Asia and the Mediterranean during that time (Herodotus et al, 66). The Histories was not exactly partial but remained a significant source when it came to these issues in the West. Furthermore, it signified the launch of the study and genre of history in the West, even though historical accounts and archives were present beforehand.

Possibly the most important, as it emerged as the initial and existing, records of the ascend of the Persian Empire, the proceedings of, and reasons for, the Greco-Persian conflicts between the Achaemenid Empire and the Greek states during the 5th century BC. Herodotus depicted the clash as one between Persians who supported slavery on one side and a combination of Athenians and a union of Greek states that proposed freedom on the other side. The Histories was sometime separated into nine books that had modern versions that were traditionally titled after the Muses (Herodotus et al, 45).

Herodotus in his writing maintained a remarkable unbiased stand and gave numerous instances of moral and wicked acts committed by both sides. Herodotus was a famous humanist who saw and respected the common in the familiarity and activities of humanity that underlie the peculiarity of local traditions and religious values (Herodotus et al, 128). This was actually the first documented work that was awarded the name ‘history’ – in fact, the word “history” was derived from a Greek word that meant to investigate, inquire or research. Herodotus attempted to summarize all the information that he could amass about the actual world such as flora and fauna, geography, nations, mythical origins and cultures.


Herodotus regularly spoke from his direct experiences that were gathered from his widespread journeys and if he was uninformed, he added his knowledge from secondary sources. He was also careful to separate the two sources of information. Many of Herodotus’ data were peculiar or fantastical and could be considered more as folklore (Herodotus et al, 22). Nevertheless, a great extent of what Herodotus elaborates went on to stand the test of time, predominantly when it was acknowledged that he placed an immense prominence on the significance of myths as an instruments that could shape civilizations, irrespective of its neutral truth (Herodotus et al, 28).

His reports of historical and surprisingly varied cultures were extraordinarily detailed and entertaining to consume, and in many cases, were the single sources of written information handed down to later generations. This work by Herodotus was very lengthy, and some of the parts that elaborated various sideline cultures would have been scanned haphazardly, yet the time demanded to understand it properly would be sufficiently rewarded. Herodotus saw an immense link in the historical events in mythical eras in order to clarify the roots of his society and the cause of the Persian Wars.

Some of the major themes within The Histories include the interconnection and harmony of historical proceedings over many periods. The publication lustrated the different activities and documentation over the course of time starting with the BC period and culminating in the present historical records (Oswyn 34). The Histories also contained the theme of universality and variety of human existence. Herodotus examined the different cultures in his book, bringing out the differences and similarities that made up each of the cultures such as the Greek and Oriental civilizations. The topic of interconnection among miscellaneous objects was extensively addressed by Herodotus with a unique focus on the historical methods of writing and record keeping. Other minor themes that were touched by Herodotus include empire building in ancient Greece, slavery and freedoms, sacred tolerance and perseveration of great events in history. Herodotus was careful to ensure that the topics covering preservation of historical information was comprehensive and valid. To an extent, one might even argue that a large part of his book singled out and concentrated on historical record writing than any other topic (Oswyn 79).


The Histories has been plagued with criticism from present and past scholars on three main issues: prejudice, factual errors and breaches of copyright. On the issue of factual errors and misinformation, Lucian from Samosata accused Herodotus of being untruthful in Verae Historiae and went to the extent of refusing to allocate Herodotus a position among the renowned on the Island of the Blessed. Other contemporary philosophers and historians assumed a more optimistic stand toward Herodotus’ methodology mainly those who searched for a model of purposeful historical writing. A small number of current scholars have disputed the fact that Herodotus overstated the coverage of his movements and falsified his sources yet he continued to have an intact reputation. Titles such as ‘The Father of History’ or the ‘Father of Comparative Anthropology’ served to present Herodotus as a modern scholar and historian than any other antique historian in his models on total history ideals (Herodotus et al, 34).

Herodotus has also been labeled as the “The Father of Lies” due to his propensity to present accounts having imaginary information (Herodotus et al, 99). It is imperative to note that much of these accusations leveled against him were just as whimsical and some of them were malicious and out rightly ridiculous, yet they made up for interesting information and consequently worth covering. To the credit of his critics, Herodotus occasionally reported questionable information if it touched an interesting subject and even included his own view about its consistency. Works such as Plutarch’s On the Malice of Herodotus and Dio Chrysostom’s Corinthian Oration all served to question the methodology and structure of Herodotus’ work (Herodotus et al, 12).

Herodotus took up a conventional, folk-tale but still international approach in writing The Histories. Most contemporary historians who analyzed the work of Herodotus concluded that it was “…a curious false start to history” since, in spite of its reviewing spirit, it was unsuccessful in liberating myth from history (Oswyn 188) (Siep, 218). Herodotus in fact mentioned Hecataeus in The Histories, in an occasion ridiculing him for his inexperienced genealogy and, on another circumstance, citing Athenian grievances against his management of their nationwide history. It was likely that Herodotus borrowed a large volume of thought from Hecataeus. To be specific, it was probable that he duplicated explanations of the hippopotamus, phoenix, and crocodile from Hecataeus’ ‘Circumnavigation of the Known World ‘(Oswyn 36).

However, unlike Herodotus, Hecataeus did not make tangible documentation of the proceedings that happened, nor did he incorporate the oral customs of Greek history within the bigger framework of Eastern history. There is no evidence that Herodotus obtained the motivated range of his own work, with its magnificent theme of clashing societies, from any antecedent scholar, in spite of numerous scholarly hearsay about this issue modern eras (Oswyn 145). Herodotus maintained that he was more informed compared to his predecessors and that he relied on experimental observation to correct their extreme schematics. For instance, he argued for the support of the idea of continental asymmetry rather than the earlier theory of an entirely circular earth (Herodotus, Hist. 4.36 and 4.42).

The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian

            The Records of the Grand Historian or Shiji (Chinese) were written by Sima Qian from 110 to 92 BC. The book narrated the chronological happenings in Chinese history that started during the Yellow Emperor era until his era (Hughes-Warrington, 25).


The layout of The Records of the Grand Historian was organized into chapters or “scrolls” which numbered about 130 although this figure was largely contested by other scholars (Siep, 258). These chapters were categorized into several sections with each part serving a specific function. The 12 volumes referred to as Benji, imperial biographies or basic annals that enclosed the life stories of all outstanding monarchs that assumed power with the first being the Yellow Emperor followed by Qin Shi Huang and the rulers of Shang, Zhou and Xia families (Siep, 218). The life stories of a special one empress of the Western Han Dynasty and four emperors were also incorporated. Xiang Yu’s biography was included in this category even though he never had the opportunity to rule over the country. This may be because Sima Qian considered de facto monarchs such as Empress Dowager and Lu Xiang Yu to be influential in Chinese history (Siep, 218).

The next section was the Biao that consisted of 10 volumes or “tables” that simply described the timelines of certain events. The Shu was made up of eight volumes that were dedicated to discussing economics and other related topics (Hughes-Warrington, 228). An important part of The Records of the Grand Historian was the Shiija that comprised of 30 volumes of biographies that were mostly on prominent individuals, rulers and bureaucrats (Hughes-Warrington, 198). It is in this section that the name of Confucius was first mentioned. Lastly, the Liezhuan tat comprised of 70 volumes of other collective biographies for prominent politicians, scholars and individual figures. In these biographies, the efforts of significant individuals like Sun Tzu, Jing Ke, and Laozi, Mozi were written (Hughes-Warrington, 115).

The writing by Sima Qian was very similar to Confucian writing but had a major difference in one element. Unlike successive official historical documentation that embraced Confucian techniques, including the proclamation of the heavenly rights among emperors, and dishonored any unsuccessful claims to assume the throne, Qian adopted another approach (Hughes-Warrington, 35). He was more open-minded and used a neutral prose that was popular and emulated by authors, novelists and poets. Most Liezhuan volumes contained vibrant descriptions of proceedings and individuals (Hughes-Warrington, 228).

This reason for this had been accredited to the understanding that the writer critically used chronicles passed on from ancient times as part of his resources, harmonizing dependability and accurateness of the accounts. For example, the information on Jing Ke’s efforts to murder the China’s first emperor were purportedly based on the story given by an eye-witness and propagated by the different people, who worked as bureaucrats and housel helps at Qin’s court and were lucky to be present during Jing Ke’s diplomatic ceremony (Sima & Watson, 28). Sima had access to first hand information of the royal dynasties and other prominent scholars and politicians mainly because his family was deeply entrenched in the Han emperor (Hughes-Warrington, 28).

Sima Qian’s father had previously occupied the position of the grand Historian, and Sima Qian automatically took up his father’s position in the Emperors’ office. Therefore, he was able to access the ancient Han dynasty archives, announcements, and documentation. Sima Qian was a highly methodical, critical historian who had access to historical manuscripts, inscribed on wooden slips and bamboo, from before the Han Dynasty period. Apart from access to imperial records and archives, Sima Qian also interviewed various respondents and toured around China to confirm his sources.


The Records of the Grand Historian contained various historical events, political decisions and economic changes that shaped China into what it has become presently. Sima Qian was very influential in documenting all these events in the proper chronological order in which they occurred. In this way, Sima ensured that the history of China was in part maintained and passed on the future generations. The content of The Records of the Grand Historian revolves around the Unification of China, governance by the Emperor, abolition of basic freedoms and the contribution of scholars.

Beforehand, Sima noted that China was subdivided into thirty-six provinces and at the time, there were efforts to reunite these divisions under one leadership. This unification involved collection and destruction of all weapons as well as the standardization of measurements and industrial norms. These events were captured by Sima in the Basic Annals of Qin. Sima Qian also illustrated the type of governance exhibited by the Emperor toward his subject. He described the strong monarchy within China that offered no space for political freedom. This type of leadership was characterized by the destruction of previous historical records and the freedom of speech.

Sima Qian mentioned the prohibition f behavior that bordered on challenging the decrees and declarations made by the central government. These changes in the freedoms were significant in that succeeding dynasties adopted the same policies that transformed China into a dictatorial state with limited freedoms. Some of the content that made Sima Qian’s work seem fantastical was the idea of immortality that was mentioned in the Biography of the First Emperor. Qian discussed the futile efforts by the First Emperor to seek out methods to make himself immortal.

Within The Records of the Grand Historian, several events warrant detailed acknowledgement and analysis. The first was the destruction of academic works and murder of Chinese scholar. This beastly act was perpetrated by the First Emperor of Qin, Emperor Qin Shihuang who was ill advised by his prime minister, Li Si and his subordinate Doctor Chun Yuyue. Apparently, the point of conflict was the usage of traditional customs in running the state. The fear that scholars that subscribed to the Confucian way of thinking would use their knowledge of the past to influence the present prompted the Emperor to order the execution of over 400 scholars (Kim, 87). Moreover, he also ordered that all the books in academic centers be destroyed. These two extreme actions were responsible for some of the gaps and errors that existed in Chinese ancient history (Zhang, 178).


Sima embraced a new method of categorizing the historical information and a different approach to documenting historical records. Sima scrutinized the records and organized the sources into relevant material that were useful in developing the Shiji. His intention was to find out the trends and principles of human history development. Sima also stressed on the function of single personalities in influencing China’s historical development and this was one of the initial attempts in Chinese history (Kim, 417). Additionally, he also suggested in his historical insight that a state cannot evade the outcome of the boom and bust cycle. This and other postulations were part of the Shiji.

Reliability of The Records of the Grand Historian

Writers such as Joseph Needham questioned the extent of reliability of Sima Qian’s work. In 1954, Needham commented on the doubts that The Records of the Grand Historian contained exact information by questioning the sources of the information on the thirty kings belonging to the Shang Dynasty. While many scholars debated on the likelihood of Sima gaining access to written materials that documented historical events a millennium before his era, Needham came to a different conclusion. In fact, the remarkable unearthing of twenty-three bones structures that matched the thirty Shang kings that Sima had mentioned at an excavation that was situated at Anyang in the Shang Dynasty capital. Needham noted that the extraordinary archaeological discovery proved that Sima Qian used dependable sources. This fact underlined the intense historical-mindedness that is characteristic of the Chinese.

Shiji as written by Sima Qian was highly revered as a benchmark of biographical writing that possessed a great literary worth. Its artistic quality was mainly revealed in the skillful depiction of many individual characters that were founded on authentic historical data. Sima Qian was also excellent at demonstrating the character’s response by inserting him in an aggressive argument and letting his expressions and actions speak for him (Kim, 567). The usage of conversations in the writing also served to make the imagery more animated and practical. Sima Qian also instigated a new approach in writing historical accounts. The language that Sima Qian used in writing Shiji was casual, amusing and full of differences. Sima Qian created his own basic, brief, flowing, and easy-to-read method. Sima made his own commentaries while describing the historical proceedings. In writing the Shiji biographies, Sima shunned from making broad explanations. Instead, he struggled to grasp the real meaning of the events and depicted the characters in a solid manner (Kim, 47).



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