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Herodotus As An Oral Historian Notes

Classics Notes > Greek Literature of the 5th Century BC Notes

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What might it mean to call Herodotus an 'oral' historian? Is it a good description? Illustrate your answer with reference to particular episodes from book 3. Herodotus used many oral techniques in compiling his Histories, both in the way he collected his stories and the way in which he put together his narrative. His curious mixture of material makes him unlike earlier oral poets and unlike later historians; the same is true of his structure which, although broadly chronological, has room for many digressions purely for interests sake and material is grouped according to themes more recognisable from tragedy and poetry. It is always useful, when assessing the merits and qualities of Herodotus as a historian, to compare him to the other great chronicler of the age, Thucydides. In his introduction Thucydides is contemptuous of other men who have done a similar thing to Herodotus, calling them logographers and accusing them of being unwilling or unable to check their stories. He gives Herodotus a lot more respect than this but he does say that in the absence of romance (a clear reference to his predecessor) he will create a very accurate account of events which will help understand them in the future; it is not unfair to say that Herodotus sometimes gets things wrong and only confuses interpretations. On the matter of source collection and validation Thucydides has this to say, "And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. [3] My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other." Herodotus however relied mostly on information gathered from the various oral traditions he encountered on his travels; tales which were largely unverifiable and in many cases certainly not historical in the way which Thucydides would demand it, as is the nature of these types of myths and folk-tales. This is shown by the fact that as his information gets closer to his own time his stories only get more frequent and detailed rather than getting quantitatively any better; the story of Polycrates and Samos below is one of the best examples of this. It also seems to indicate that things such as local archives and dating systems were largely unknown to Herodotus, making a stark contrast with Thucydides' extensive use of such things when researching his account of the Athenian expedition to Sicily. A source he was clearly fond of was Egyptian priests, from whom he extracted a lot of information particularly in book two but also here in book three. For example his extensive and (perhaps a little surprising) scientific knowledge of Ethiopian mummification no doubt comes from the Egyptian spies he mentions who subsequently told the priests, "the corpse is plainly visible inside the cylinder; there is no disagreeable smell, or any other cause of annoyance, and every detail can be as distinctly seen as if there were nothing between one's eyes and the body." This shows that he could get good and accurate knowledge if his sources were reliable enough but elsewhere throughout the book he makes it clear that even he doesn't believe some of the stories he is told. He includes them, however, out of balance

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