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Herodotus, the Father of History

History is the study of or a record of past events considered together, especially events of a particular period, country or subject. Sri Lankans have a right to boast of a 2,000-year-old history. The Mahavamsa records the beginnings of our history and its gradual expansion to the present period.

History was taught as a subject in schools and universities from time immemorial. However, at one stage, history was scrapped along with literature from the school syllabus. The rulers at that time would have thought that history was a useless subject. As a result a generation of students did not learn history. However, times have changed. Today history is taught in schools and universities. Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena is reported to have said that he would make history a compulsory subject. This is a healthy sign that history is to be been given its pride of place.

Elegance

Some of the history students may not know that Herodotus (c. 484 - 408 BC) was the Father of History. “Herodotus,” says Lempriere, “is among the historians what Homer is among the poets and Demosthenes among the orators of ancient times. His style abounds with elegance, ease and sweetness...” While Homer was the first and greatest of the poets, so Herodotus was the first and fountain-head of prose writers. No one has questioned the title “the Father of History” which Cicero bestowed upon Herodotus. If we go a step further, we can say that Herodotus was also the Father of European Prose.


Herodotus

It is ironical that the man who wrote “things which have happened may not perish” has not left his own life history. As a result, we know very little about the life and times of Herodotus. Perhaps he is one of those misty figures unknown to historians.

According to information, Herodotus was born at Halicarnassus in the south-west of Asia Minor around 484 BC. At the time of his birth, Halicarnassus was ruled by Artemisia, the warrior queen. When Herodotus was a young man, Artemisia’s grandson Lygdamis, was the tyrant of the city under Artaxerxes, the king of Persia which is known as Iran today.

Inspired by the spirit of Greek sense of freedom, Herodotus joined the revolutionary party to overthrow the Persian king. The party was led by Herodotus’s uncle Panyasis. However, Panyasis was captured by the king’s men and was was executed. Feeling that he was not safe to live there, Herodotus fled to Samos. Thereafter he started writing history in exile.

Tyrant

When the tyrant was overthrown, Herodotus returned to his motherland. However, to his surprise, he found that the new party in power too was hostile to him. This forced him to leave Halicarnassus for good. Then he led a life wandering in different countries. After some time, Herodotus made Athens his second home. At the time, Athens was a flourishing democracy and it was considered the cultural centre of the world.

Herodotus had cordial relations with the great dramatist Sophocles. Herodotus read his histories in public and the people were delighted to hear them. What is more, as a reward, he was given a grant from the public funds. His public readings of histories at Olympic games received wide applause. However, instead of resting on his laurels, Herodotus continued to travel extensively.

His experience as a great traveller enabled him to give people an authentic description of what was happening in the countries he visited. He went up the Nile into upper Egypt and travelled to Babylon and Persia. He sailed across the Black Sea and visited Crimea and the land of Colchis. He also travelled the length and breadth of Greece. Unlike modern historians who do desk research in modern libraries, Herodotus collected first-hand information for his histories.

Death

When Athenians established a new colony in the south of Italy, they founded the town Thurii. It attracted many Athenians including the great orator Syracusan an historian Herodotus. At the time of his death, Herodotus was in Athens. He could not, however, complete his monumental histories.

Those who have a passion for history will always remember Herodotus as an unusual historian who preferred to be in places where history was being made. He travelled to many countries, spoke to the people and gathered information. He also visited places where battles were raging. He wanted to record what he actually saw with his own eyes and what he heard.

Herodotus has his own detractors. They have criticised him for his rambling stories and inaccuracies. He also believed in divine intervention, something modern historians laugh at.

With all such inaccuracies and limitations, Herodotus compiled the first book of history popularly known as the Histories. Therefore, he deserves the sobriquet the Father of History.

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