Herodotus: Reflections on Tolerance and the Foundations of Democracy

The Greeks of the fifth century BCE did not practise life-writing. Our word ‘biography’ is of Greek derivation (biographia), but the genre was not developed until well after Herodotus’s lifetime and achieved its apogee only with Plutarch (c. 46 BCE – CE 120). That’s one reason why Herodotus’s life and death dates (?? 484-425 BCE) are only approximate: no one cared to record them at the time. Another is that the genre of biography was reserved at first for ‘great’ men, movers and shakers on the political scene, such as Pericles or Alexander the Great. Not for men of letters, mere intellectuals: even though – as we now know –  it’s historians who make history.

The responsibility of trying to do anything like proper justice to a thinker and writer who was one of the great innovating geniuses of the fifth century BCE is a heavy one. Herodotus was not just any historian but the founder of an entire intellectual discipline and practice, or craft, the one that I am honoured to try my hand at myself. Cicero called him ‘the Father of Historia’, and that dictum is often simply repeated without further examination. But for Romans historia had come to mean something rather different from the original Greek historia of Herodotus’s Preface (quoted below). Originally, Greek historia meant ‘research’, or ‘enquiry’ – a meaning it still carries in English in the phrase ‘natural history’. But for Herodotus it was literally a term of art – by using the word upfront in his Proimion, he was showing off a new way of looking, feeling, and above all thinking:

‘Herodotus, from Halicarnassus, here displays his enquiries’.

It’s very noticeable too that Thucydides, Herodotus’ greatest Greek successor, avoids the word historia  altogether; he avoids it like the plague, we might say. Because he saw himself as a rival of Herodotus as well as his principal successor in writing history, and he did not want to give even the merest hint that they might both of them be engaged in doing the same sort of thing. So very ancient Greek, that … an agôn (contest, competition, even war) for generic priority.

Once upon a time – not all that long ago, actually – most historians who like me were interested in the origins of their craft would unhesitatingly have ranked Thucydides above Herodotus. Thucydides was, as it were, the historian’s historian – from the Renaissance (or indeed from the Hellenized Syrian Lucian, and his How to Write History, in the 2nd century CE) onwards. Beginning in the later nineteenth century, however, the comparison between them started to be made in terms of the dominant intellectual paradigm of modern times. Thus Thucydides’ history was considered ‘scientific’, whereas Herodotus’s was if anything the reverse. He was, admittedly, a brilliant teller of tales, but all too often they were merely tall tales. Moreover, he was in general far too credulous, even gullible, so far as his sources of information were concerned, and (not least) he was far too religious in explaining what he was told and what he believed to have happened in the past: far too quick, that is, to see the hand of god (or a god) or – more impersonally –  Fate at work decisively in human history.

It is therefore one of the more positive effects of the so-called ‘postmodern turn’ in historical studies that that semi-automatic judgment in favour of Thucydides and against Herodotus has been severely questioned, even turned on its head. Now, Herodotus’s methods of enquiry and his reporting of the results of those enquiries are regularly seen as being entirely appropriate for the kind of information situation he found himself having to deal with, and for handling the type of subject matter he chose to research. Moreover, what Herodotus does, and Thucydides famously (or notoriously) does not do, is enable the reader to see that the past is a complex, indeterminate and messy sort of thing, that people’s perceptions and recollections of it are very different, often hazy, always (self-)interested, and that history is therefore always more or less invented – by the historian. (The past not only is a foreign country but also is something quite different from history.) At all events, it’s now generally agreed that there’s no such thing as ‘scientific’ history, if by that is meant that there are ‘laws’ of history to be discovered or affirmed, and hypothetico-deductive reasoning to be applied. So, from the more recent scholarship on Herodotus – of which there’s been a simply enormous amount – there has emerged a very different Herodotus from the one that was current even when I was an undergraduate student, at Oxford in the late 1960s. And it’s a version of this ‘new’ Herodotus that I want to try to articulate for you here.

But first – why ‘Herodotus 2500’? Although his birthdate was not precisely recorded, according to our BCE/CE system (invented in the 6th century by a Christian monk of Byzantium, Dionysius Exiguus), he was regularly said to have been born in the equivalent of 484 BCE. That accorded with the facts that he was too young to have fought in the main subject of his work, the Graeco-Persian Wars of 480-479, and their 490 BCE preliminary, but yet mature enough early enough to have grasped that this was to be his lifework and to have travelled with that work (ergon) in view and interviewed many participants – on both sides of that epochal conflict. As there was no BCE 0 or CE 0, the years from 484 BCE to CE 2017 add up to 2500. QED. Which means that his 2500th coincides with Martin Luther’s 500th, that is the 500th anniversary of his alleged posting of his 95 anti-papal theses at Wittenberg castle, heralding what came to be known as the (Protestant) Reformation. The juxtaposition of Herodotus’s historiographical reformation and Luther’s confessional reformation is alluring – and instructive. Ancient Greek ‘pagan’ religion was radically different from any version of Christianity, and Herodotus was in every sense a layman, whereas Luther was an Augustinian monk. That may help to account for the fact that, whereas Luther may be regarded (by some) as a fanatical fundamentalist, Herodotus may fruitfully and positively be considered – as I present him here – as the antidote to religious fundamentalism.

The ancient Greeks had no word for ‘religion’ as such, partly because religion (‘the things of the gods’) was for them everywhere, permeating the air they breathed. Or as the father of Greek science, Thales of Miletus (an early exponent of historia) put it, the world is ‘full of gods’. And goddesses: the plural, rather than the gender, is of course key. The ancient Greeks were polytheists, for whom the monotheism of the Jews (with whom the Greeks of Herodotus’s day had little or no contact) would have been incomprehensible. Arguably, one version of official Persian imperial religion, the worship of Ahura Mazda, was henotheist (privileging one god above any others), but Herodotus will not have been alone in discerning no fundamental difference of religious world view between that of the Greeks and that of the Persians. The Greeks’ was not a revealed religion. It had no sacred books, no vocational priesthood. Anyone – almost – male or female (and a free citizen) could be a priest or perform priestly functions. The Greeks did not worship the gods and goddesses – and heroes and heroines too –  because they had faith in them, but because these superhuman and supernatural beings might do them good – or harm. To worship the Greeks’ divine powers and especially the members of an officially recognized pantheon was to acknowledge them duly, typically by the performance of cult-acts, especially that of animal blood-sacrifice. Failure to acknowledge them duly might stir anger in and punitive retribution by these larger, anthropomorphically conceived Greeks.

I begin therefore with a – suitably Herodotean – paradox. On the one hand, Herodotus was himself conventionally pious in the ancient Greek terms of the fifth century BCE. He was a believer in the existence of the gods (or ‘the divine’, to theion) and in their ability to act powerfully and decisively in the world of men. Above all, he seems to have believed implicitly in the power and truth of prophecy. That sort of religious outlook might well be considered to be utterly consistent and compatible with what is normally referred to as religious fundamentalism today – except that pious ancient Greeks, unlike pious Jews, Muslims and Christians today, did not have authoritative sacred texts, let alone one overarching sacred text (a Bible, a Qu’ran), to guide or perplex them. On the other hand, although Herodotus was thus conventionally pious in ancient Greek terms – indeed, I am tempted to say precisely because he was pious in that way – he was both intellectually able and morally prepared to see that Others (non-Greeks) legitimately did otherwise: that they too believed and practised no less fervently very different, indeed incompatibly and incommensurably different, things in the sphere of religion.

Nor did Herodotus confine that perception to the sphere of religious beliefs and practice. He saw – both literally and metaphorically – that Others were no less committed to the unimpeachable truth and worth of their customs (nomoi) in general, not only religious customs, than were his fellow-Greeks. In other words, Herodotus was not only the first historian. He was also the first comparative cultural anthropologist. If we were to try to pin down his religious outlook more closely, we might contrast him and compare him with two of his contemporary intellectuals. Unlike Protagoras of Abdera – who is credited with having written that the subject of the gods was obscure, and that human life is too short for it to be possible fully to come to terms with it – Herodotus seems to have thought that he could know and understand the divine. But like Protagoras, who enunciated the doctrine that man is the measure of all things that are (or are not), Herodotus as mentioned also embraced a considerable degree of relativist crosscultural understanding. Like Plato’s Socrates, moreover, he too seems to have believed that ‘the unexamined life’ was ‘not worth living for a human being’. It is this Herodotus – Herodotus the relativist and pluralist in ethical stance, and critical enquirer in historical method – who stands most firmly opposed to the radical intolerance of most contemporary forms of religious fundamentalism.

For the purposes of this essay I propose to explore in some detail just five passages from the Histories of Herodotus (8.3.1, 8.144.2, 3.38, 3.80-82, and 1.207), using the recent translation of Tom Holland. The division of the Histories into books and their naming after the Nine Muses beginning with Clio Muse of History were not Herodotus’s own doing. They were superimposed by scholars working in the Library of Alexandria in Egypt (founded in the 280s BCE) long after Herodotus’s time. Herodotus himself thought rather in terms of logoi, literally ‘words’ or ‘accounts’ but here meaning narrative episodes or blocks. Let me first put my own cards on the table, as we say, and declare my hand. I am not myself opposed to all religious belief and practice as such, though I don’t happen to have any or do any myself. What matters to me, as an intellectual and historian, is the place of such religious activity and belief within a philosophical (broadly understood) worldview.

8.3.1 reads as follows: ‘civil strife among people of the same heritage and race (stasis emphulios) compares as disastrously to a united war (polemos) effort as does war itself to peace’. Herodotus, I believe, though I cannot prove it, was essentially a man of peace. This does not mean that he did not fight when he felt he had to: he is recorded as having taken part precisely in a violent kind of stasis within his own home polis (city) of Halikarnassos. What I mean is that he was not one who took delight in war for war’s sake. As he put it very vividly elsewhere (1.87), in peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons – a reversal of the natural order. That attitude might possibly have made him an untypical Greek. Surely untypical, too, was his belief as expressed so starkly in this passage that it was wrong for Greeks to fight other Greeks. That, at any rate, is what I think he meant by stasis emphulios, not – or not only – the all too frequent kind of civil war stasis that occurred within individual cities but any sort of war among Greeks.

This hostile attitude towards inter- or intra-Greek warfare was reinforced by his unusually broad and vehement version of panhellenism. (The Greeks called themselves then, as they still do, Hellenes.) For most Greeks, their patris or fatherland was their polis. Patriotism in ancient Greece was typically local or civic, not ‘national’, as it were. The ancient Greeks didn’t have, or did not form, a ‘nation’ in any strong political sense. This was a lack, indeed a failing, that Herodotus, I would argue, bitterly regretted. The evidence is in 8.144.2. We are in winter 480/479 BCE. The few and not very firmly united Greeks who have chosen at great risk to resist the massive Persian invasion, led in person by Great King Xerxes, have been defeated at Thermopylae in north-central Greece, but they have then won a great naval victory at Salamis near Athens. That victory was not, however, decisive. Xerxes has returned to Persia but he has left behind a huge army and a still useful navy to finish off the job of conquest. The new Persian commander-in-chief, Mardonius, attempts to bribe the Athenians to desert the loyalist Greek coalition headed up by the Spartans.

When the Spartans get to hear of Mardonius’s underhand initiative, they, apparently suspecting that the Athenians were indeed bribable, immediately send a delegation to persuade them to stay loyal to the ‘Greek’ cause. Herodotus uses this episode to bring out what he considers to be its most important aspect of all, its widest possible signification, namely what it was to be Greek (Hellene). Hence Herodotus’ expository device of putting into the mouths of  ‘the Athenians’ a famous declaration of what has been called ‘Hellenicity’. Here is the relevant quotation from the speech of ‘the Athenians’ to the Spartans in full:

‘There is a whole host of pressing reasons why we could never adopt such a course of action. First and foremost, the cult-states and temples of the gods have been left as charred rubble. How, when these are crying out for vengeance, could we possibly make a settlement with the culprits? On top of that, there is the fact that we are all of us Greeks, of one blood and tongue, united by the temples that we have raised to the gods, and by the way in which we offer them sacrifice, and by the customs we have in common. For the Athenians to prove traitors to all this would be a terrible thing.’

Notice once again the key importance attributed by Herodotus to religion – another reason, one might well have thought, why the conventionally pious Herodotus was likely to have been hostile to and intolerant of non-Greek, ‘barbarian’ religious practices and beliefs. Yet he wasn’t. On the one hand, he was the first to acknowledge, indeed to proclaim, that, despite all sorts of other things which they did either differently or precisely oppositely, the barbarians – and especially the Egyptians – had invented and gifted to the Greeks some key aspects of Greek religion. On the other hand, even where the barbarians’ religious customs in question were as far removed from, as alien to, indeed as opposite to Greek ones as it was possible to imagine, even – or especially – then Herodotus was prepared to perform an immense act of interpretative charity, almost indeed one of empathetic understanding.

There can be presumably no more revealing feature of human societies’ customary religious outlooks and practices than their attitudes to death and burial. This is also at the same time an intimately revealing constituent of both personal and group identity. Tell me how you die – that is, how you treat the process of death and burial – and I’ll tell you who you are. Hence the magnum force of Herodotus’ prime illustrative anecdote, or parable, which is to be found at 3.38. Here we notice at once a feature of Herodotus’s manner of exposition that is going to recur in my fourth passage, and indeed elsewhere at key moments in his work (most relevantly, the so-called ‘Persian Debate’ on the theory of political constitutions, also in Book 3, chapters 80-82): namely, his choice of a non-Greek, more specifically a Persian, setting to provide the focus for a moral or ethical discussion that is really about – and intended solely for – his Greek audience.

At some unspecified date Great King Darius (r. 522-486), father of Xerxes, summons to his presence at Susa representatives of two non-Persian ethnic groups – just two out of the many such groups who we know were employed as part of a vast multinational army by this greatest of Persian palatial builders. The first to be summoned are Greeks, the second Callatian Indians. Of the former he asks how much he would have to bribe them (bribery again …) to persuade them to go dead against their actual customary funeral practice and eat – as opposed to cremate – their kindred dead. The Greeks reply that they would never ever do so, not at any price. Darius then asks the Callatian Indians how much he would have to bribe them to cremate – as opposed to their normal practice of eating – their kindred dead. They are even more outraged than the Greeks at the very suggestion – and beg Darius not even to breathe it aloud. Whereupon Herodotus comments that he agrees with (Greek lyric poet) Pindar that ‘custom (nomos) is king (basileus) of all’. In other words, this anecdote had been introduced and/or retold by Herodotus precisely in order to exemplify and to bring home to his audience the general rule governing the behaviour and worldview of all human social groups, namely that every people believes its own customs to be, not just the best possible for them, but the best absolutely – the best against all competition.

That in itself is a pretty sobering thought: you may believe that your customs are absolutely the best but, let me tell you, that’s actually only your opinion, and other people do things very differently from you, and they too think exactly the same about their way of doing things as you do about yours! There speaks Herodotus the ethical relativist. But it is also Herodotus the pluralist, as he does not in fact judge all people’s customs to be equal: for example, eating people – people they have deliberately killed in order to eat them – as is customarily done by the Androphagoi Scythians, is for Herodotus quite simply wrong. Such people ‘have no notion of justice’ (4.106). It is therefore remarkable that, in introducing and commenting on the anecdote, Herodotus does not pass negative moral judgment on the cannibalistic funerary practice of the Indians. That, surely, is to display an extreme tolerance – and also to point the way towards a proper respect for the sincere beliefs and practices of Others, no matter how ‘other’ those beliefs and practices may seem (to Us) to be.

I mentioned the so-called ‘Persian Debate’ on the theory of political constitutions: Book 3, chapters 80-82. This is actually the first surviving example of fully developed political theory (not just political thought) within the Western tradition. The alleged setting and date – the Persian capital of Susa in about 522 BCE – are frankly impossible, and Herodotus could not possibly have known what his three Persian debaters actually said, even if they had really held the views he attributes to them. But actually the entire debate is utterly Greek both in form and in content, and the political ideas and institutions under discussion include one form or genus that had not even been invented yet in the Greek world in the late 520s: namely democracy. Yet that is what the first of Herodotus’ three noble Persian speakers is made to advocate, although he does not use the word demokratia itself. Whoever invented the word demokratia, and whenever it was invented, it was not a neutral, universally approved form of political self-governance. As today, ‘the people’ (demos) can mean lots of different things depending on who is using it. Herodotus’s speaker however was taken by his two opponents to mean something something pretty radical, something like the masses, the majority of ordinary poor (adult, male, legitimate, free) citizens. And that they thought was equivalent to mob-rule – rule by the ignorant, stupid, ill-educated over their betters – the few smarter, richer, better born, more intelligent citizens. Herodotus’s own views on demokratia are not absolutely clear but it in his pages that this extraordinary, complex and dangerous political form was born.

Finally, 1.207: this is another passage set within a Persian context – though not this time in Iranian Susa, but far away in the territory of the barbarous Massagetae of Central Asia to the east of what is left today of the Aral Sea. Here Great King Cyrus, founder of the Persian empire (r. c. 550-530), is conducting yet another punitive expedition of conquest, against a people who are ruled by a ferocious queen. He calls a conclave of his leading Persians and also some non-Persian advisers, including a certain Croesus. This is ex-king Croesus of Lydia, who despite classically and fatally misreading an ambiguous Delphic oracle, and thereby losing his kingdom, had allegedly had his life spared by his magnanimous conqueror Cyrus. Herodotus too is happy to keep Croesus alive, so that he can serve in his narrative as an adviser or warner figure for the Persian Great King, as he does in the scene I am specially interested in now.

Croesus begins his homily to Cyrus piously, claiming that it was Zeus who had surrendered him and his life to Cyrus. (How Cyrus – as opposed to Herodotus himself or his audience – would have understood such a claim is another matter. In any case, Croesus would of course not have spoken of ‘Zeus’.) He then rehearses his own great and bitter sufferings – but only so as to insist that he has learned a powerful lesson from them, and that the same lesson can be learned by Cyrus, provided he does not make the cardinal mistake of equating himself with the immortal gods. The lesson is this: that the affairs of humans are configured like the motion of a revolving wheel (kuklos), and so the same persons are not allowed always to continue in a state of good fortune.

Herodotus was indeed the father of history, and his 2500th birthday (or thereabouts) deserves to be duly commemorated – and celebrated. However, the circle or cycle metaphor catches very well one major difference between our own patterns of thinking and those of the ancient Greeks. They were by no means unfamiliar with the notion or idea of Progress – technological, cultural, even sometimes moral progress. But it was hardly a dominant idea, let alone the driving force, of their culture. For them, the Golden Age was typically thought of as being in the past, as having happened once upon a time long ago. It was envisaged therefore as an ideal to be at best retrieved and possibly emulated, but not necessarily surpassed. One version of this essentially static worldview took the form of eternal recurrence, precisely Croesus’s kuklos: the wheel of fortune which deposited even or especially the most eminent people back where they started, or brought them low after they had been riding high. It is, perhaps, a comforting thought in unsettling times. Even for us – or Us.

Further reading

Bruit Zaidman, L. & P. Schmitt Pantel, Religion in the Ancient Greek City (Cambridge, 1992)

Cartledge, P.A., The Greeks. A Portrait of Self and Others, 2nd edn (Oxford, 2002)

Cartledge, P.A. Ancient Greek Political Thought in Practice (Cambridge, 2009)

Hall, J., Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture (Chicago, 2002)

Hansen, M.H., POLIS: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State (Oxford, 2006)

Hartog, F., The Mirror of Herodotus. The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History

(Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1988)

Holland, T., translator, with introduction and notes by P. Cartledge, Herodotus the Histories (London, 2013)

Roberts, J.T. Herodotus. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2011)


Paul Cartledge is Emeritus A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge, where he has taught since 1979; he is also a Fellow of Clare College. He is the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of a score of books, including most recently The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization; Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History c.1300-362 BC; The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others; The Spartans: An Epic History; Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past and Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World . He co-edits two monograph series, sits on the editorial boards of three learned journals and serves as consultant in ancient history to Duckworth publishers. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and holds the Gold Cross of the Order of Honour awarded by the President of the Hellenic Republic.

Paul will be speaking about Herodotus: The Father of History on Thursday, 28 June at 5pm.