Herodotus and the Gospel of History

Almost twenty-five hundred years ago, a Greek decided that his era was so unique and exciting that he was going to learn as much as he could about it by any means that he could. He would travel to where the great events of the age had occurred, learn about the cultures of all the different peoples who took part in these events, talk to any person who might have inside knowledge. After collecting these observations and answers, he sat down to write the first history. Even today, when History has become a formal academic discipline, the reader of Herodotus still encounters the color and romance of far-away times and places, the great adventures, and the most fantastic war the world has ever seen. Finally, this first history is not only the first chapter of the Western historical tradition, but a fundamental moment in preparing the Classical world for the reception of Christianity.

The Histories are worth reading just for the stories which the author collected and the colorful kinds of people he introduces to the reader. There’s the tragic tale of King Croesus, his son Atys, a cursed stranger, and a boar hunt. There are the descriptions of the Scythians—the embodiment of terror and excess (imagine six-year old boys with mens’ bodies who are superb warriors and horsemen). A masterpiece within the masterpiece is the long digression on the Egyptians and their country, and especially the tale of Rhampsinitus and the thief (We are assured by modern scholars that much of this chapter cannot be possibly true and is only serving Herodotus’s purposes of telling a good story. It should be noted that in confrontations between Herodotus and modern scholars, the former has come out pretty well, as archaeological excavations regularly champion what scholars had previously written was impossible). Then there are the Massagetans, the scourge of the Persian Empire and, oddly to a Greek of the time, drinkers of milk.

Not only do we encounter a vast tapestry of peoples, but also cloak-and-dagger stories galore. Cruel kings are constantly plotting to keep their power and then being overthrown by the plots of others. Control of an empire turns on what might be dubbed “The Mystery of the Missing Ear.” The great Athenian admiral Themistocles employs one deception after another to foil the two million-strong Persian army as it approaches. And an ancestor of Alexander the Great acts as a double agent for the united Greeks.

Of course, the great thread running through all these accounts are the Persian Wars, the great clash between Greek civilization and the Persian Empire which occurred from 490 to 479 BC. The Greeks won against staggering odds, either five to one (modern estimates) or fifty to one (ancient estimates). Every battle had its own epic quality, from the miraculous victory at Marathon, to the stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, to the naval battle at Salamis, to the final humbling of the Persians at Platea. It was a war that saved Western civilization; a war that allowed the Greeks to continue pursuing philosophy; that gave Rome time to establish their own order; that resulted in a Mediterranean world which valued both wisdom and social harmony at the time of Christ’s birth.

Now the historical event of the Persian Wars may have allowed the rise of a civilization friendly to Christianity, but it was the historian himself who first gave this civilization the taste for history and thus for the Gospel. Consider first his opening lines: “Herodotus, from Halicarnassus, here displays his enquiries, that human achievement may be spared the ravages of time, and that everything great and astounding, and all the glory of those exploits which served to display Greeks and barbarians alike to such effect, be kept alive – and additionally, and most importantly, to give the reason they went to war.” No pagan civilization had ever seen a story like this. Mesopotamian chronicles of wars and harvests were concerned with human events but not their meaning. The astronomical records of the Babylonians and Egyptians deal with the meaning of celestial things but not of human. Though Homer sought to understand the deepest meaning of things on earth, and while he believed that human beings were of preeminent dignity, nevertheless both truth and human value continued to find their meaning only when bumping up against a rather fickly divine order. For all that, Homer intuited that it is only through petitioning the gods that one can learn any truth; he invokes the muses, not mortals.

Far from “primitive,” this pagan attitude was eminently sensible, based on the experience, inner conviction, and the beliefs of the vast majority of men up to that point. On one hand, all men believed in the existence of the supernatural realm. On the other, they knew, by bitter experience, what most Westerners today have forgotten or chosen to ignore: human things by themselves are transitory. In a way, there seems no point in creating a history in the Herodotean sense, because it would just be endless repetitions of the same story: the rise of a people, their fall, their replacement by the next people. Homer and all the pagans are correct to an extent: man only really became worth talking about if he somehow became involved in the plans of the gods, and yet those plans rarely included ordinary people and their ordinary actions.

Why did Herodotus challenge what seemed to be common sense by interviewing humans in order to learn the details of a war in which the gods had a much less visible role? Perhaps it was that the Persian Wars were a radical change to the common script of rising and falling peoples; against all odds, the disunited and poor Greeks defeated the mighty and rich Persian Empire. In other words, like man, the Persian Wars was a story that was interesting and unique in itself. Again, perhaps the Father of History was developing the Greek intuition of the similarity and distant kinship between the divine and men. After all, the Greeks were the only ancient culture to think of their gods and goddesses as having beautiful, human forms. Quite possibility, Herodotus may have come into contact with the one ancient civilization that did value history and the place of man in time: the Hebrews.

For the Hebrews, humans were important in themselves and human actions were endowed with cosmic meaning. Man did not just occasionally take part in the affairs of the gods; his origin and birthright were divine. The latter was only lost through the sin of Adam. And the God they believed in was a God who was not going to leave them in their plight, but one who would intervene in human affairs in order to bring them back to safety and integrity, step-by-step. The Hebrews valued history because the smallest detail, the most insignificant shepherd, could be the instrument of God.

However, though the Hebrews saw history as important, they saw it as important for them, God’s chosen people. They did not, by and large, seek to share this knowledge with the Gentiles or extent a special place in History to any other people. So on one side, we have the Gentiles, who not only do not have history, but do not see the need for it, and on the other, the Hebrews, who do have history and value it, but do not see any reason to share it with the Gentiles.

For this reason, Herodotus is not merely a “great read” about important historical events. Herodotus gave Gentiles a taste and a respect for history. And this is why, when Luke wrote his Gospel for a Gentile audience, the testimony of the blessed Mother and the apostles and the disciples who met Jesus on the way to Emmaus meant something to his readers. While it was the Hebrews who first realized that the stories of ordinary people matter, it was Herodotus who prepared the civilized world of the West for such an insight.

I will add a small postscript here for parents with younger readers: while Herodotus is an eminently moral author, he does record the deeds of people who acted immorally. Immoral and perverse activities are referred to on occasion, although not in a graphic way and not with approval. Parents who wish to let their children explore Herodotus might wish to either obtain a children’s version, or—much better— to read sections of the book themselves before reading them to their children.

Paul Joseph Prezzia


Paul Joseph Prezzia is a citizen of Pittsburgh and a graduate of St. Gregory's Academy, class of 2002. He received his M.A. in History from the University of Notre Dame in 2012, and now writes in exile from Scranton.