Travel in ancient times was not for the faint-hearted and this makes the extent of Herodotus's travels even more remarkable.
Herodotus, the first great writer to document European history, was described by Cicero as 'the father of history'. Cicero, of course, had a great deal of respect for him. It wasn't an universal sentiment, however, and there were some who considered him 'The father of historical tall tales'. A rather unfair moniker.
Herodotus's 'Histories' were meant to be orally narrated and therefore he laid more emphasis on being interesting rather than unerringly accurate. However, as much as possible, he tried to get his facts straight.
Herodotus traveled extensively to gather first-hand information about world events and once, after having visited Tyre, sailed all the way back there just to verify one single fact.
Herodotus also stated in his books that much of what he wrote was 'based on hearsay, mingled with.... my own observation', and said further, "It is my duty to repeat what is said, but to believe unreservedly is not; this remark applies to all my work."
Herodotus was born sometime around 484 B.C. in Halicarnassus. A prominent city near Asia Minor, Halicarnassus was then ruled by the warrior queen Artemisia. She was a vassal of the Persian King Xerxes and had fought alongside him in the naval battle of Salamis.
Nothing is known of his childhood or indeed his growing years - the world historian curiously enough failed to document in detail his own personal history. We next hear of him when he was a young man.
Queen Artemisia's grandson Lygdamis was now on the throne and no credit to that great Queen. Lygdamis was a tyrant of the first water and neither he nor his Persian Overlord Artaxerxes were very popular with the masses.
Exile from Halicarnassus
Young Herodotus and his uncle Panyasis, who was a poet, became involved in an unsuccessful plot to overthrow the evil duo. The whole episode ended with Panyasis's capture and execution and with Herodotus fleeing the city and seeking shelter in neighboring Samos.
He was to remain here for the next eight years, and in that time learned to speak and write in the Ionic dialect. His 'Histories' were later written in this language. His return to Halicarnassus after Lygdamis had been overthrown was brief and bitter - the new political party didn't want him around, and so he was again forced to leave, this time for good.
Herodotus now proceeded to Athens, then at its cultural zenith, and quickly found himself in congenial company. Sophocles, the dramatist, lived in Athens then, as did Pericles and several others. He was feted by the Athenians, who congregated to hear him speak about his experiences with Lygdamis in Halicarnassus and generously granted him pension.
Perhaps it was this popular demand for the retelling of world events that prompted Herodotus to travel in search of stories, or perhaps it was his own restless disposition and the continual urge to seek more knowledge.
In any case, he soon left the comforts of Athens for the hardships of the life on the road. The places he visited included Egypt, Babylon, Susa, Ecbatana, the Crimea, Georgia, Tyre, Syria, Thrace, Cyrene, Libya, and the whole of Greece.
The History Books
His 'History' books are essentially travelogues, where he mentions in great detail the geographical peculiarities of the places he visited, the animal and plant life of those regions, the special characteristics of the people in those parts, their political, social, and cultural features, the stories and legends that they recounted to him.
In fact, he put in everything that interested him and as he was a man of very wide interests we are offered a very entertaining picture of the life and beliefs in ancient times. It is perhaps only natural that there should be a certain amount of subjective outlook and moralizing element in the writings of Herodotus.
He was writing from his own perspective and often taking his own civilization as a standard against which all others were to be measured. He appears to have been aware of this shortcomings, because he gives a story about Darius where the King first asks some Greeks if, instead of burning their dead as they were to do, they wouldn't consider eating them.
"Never", exclaimed the horrified Greeks, "under no circumstances would they do any such thing." The King then asked the Callatians, who used to eat their dead instead of burning them, and the Callatians were as outraged as the Greeks by the suggestion. Herodotus concluded - "Pindar appears to me to have said rightly that custom is king of all men'.
Around 444 B.C., the Athenians established the new colony of Thurii in southern Italy. It was to be an international gathering place and leading citizens from all civilized nations were invited to come and reside.
Herodotus went there for a while, but - perhaps finding that the international mob can be as tiresome as the national one - he returned to Athens in 432 B.C. He died in Athens sometime between 426 and 415 B.C.