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Herodotus honored mankind in the greatest way he knew how: by giving to them the place of his gods, the Muses, and by treating their memories like the memories of the gods…

herodotusHerodotus begins his Histories with a two-sentence proemial (an introduction or preface) that reads:

Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time. May the great and wonderful deeds—some brought forth by the Hellenes, others by the barbarians—not go unsung; as well as the causes that led them to make war on each other. (Proem)

A phrase-by-phrase analysis of this proemial will show that Herodotus carefully molds his opening to blatantly place man where other authors, such as Homer and Hesiod, placed the gods. The peculiarities of Herodotus’ introduction and subsequent history lie not only in what he says, but also in the way he says it. Varying widely from his predecessor, Homer, and his contemporary, Hesiod, in style, tone, and grammatical structure, Herodotus reveals his esteem for man.

Herodotus opens with his own name rather than an address to the Muses, thus declaiming himself, and more broadly mankind, a credible source of history. This marks a departure from other ancient Greek texts, namely those of Homer and Hesiod. Homer opens his Iliad with: “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus” (I.1). It is clear from context that “goddess” refers to the Muse of epic poetry. Hesiod begins his poem, Works and Days: “Pierian Muses, bringers of fame: come / Tell of your father Zeus and sing his hymn” (1-2)[*]. Again, in opening his Theogony, Hesiod writes, “With the Heliconian Muses let us start / Our song” (1-2). But Herodotus opens with his own name instead of invoking the Muses, making it clear that he is writing on his own authority. In addition, Herodotus derives his accounts from men and not from the gods. In the instance of the Trojan War, Herodotus speaks to different witnesses and claims that his version of the story is the most reliable because it comes from priests who received it directly from Menelaus (2.118). Herodotus’ readiness to place trust in the accounts of men, and his assumption that his audience will do the same, present a sharp departure from Homer’s and Hesiod’s invocation of the gods for credibility.

Herodotus writes his Histories so that, “Human events [will] not fade with time” (Proem). This phrase signals readers that Herodotus will focus mostly on human deeds, referencing immortals when the historical accounts of men demand it. This is opposite of Hesiod who, writing almost exclusively about gods, only mentions specific men to illuminate characteristics of the gods—such as Zeus’ vengefulness when he commands the creation of a woman (Pandora) as revenge upon Perseus for giving man fire (Theogony 25-105). Hesiod’s Works and Days begins by asking the Muses to sing about Zeus, and continues to follow events which surround the interaction of gods, whereas Herodotus focuses on earth and only mentions the gods when they interact with man (Hesiod 1-2, Herodotus 1.88). This focus is further displayed throughout his histories, such as when Cyrus decides to burn Croesus at the stake, and Herodotus records the intervention of Apollo on Croesus’ behalf (1.87). Herodotus spends more words describing Cyrus’ reaction to Croesus as a man than he does in recounting Apollo’s appearance (1.88). Also, the reader is left in the dark about the immortal scene. By contrast, Homer shows the immortal haggling which always precedes interventions in the lives of mortals, writing about the Trojan battlefield and Mount Olympus as separate scenes. For example, when Hera seduces Zeus while Poseidon assists the Achaeans, Homer offers a scene devoid of mortals (XIV.214-377). Herodotus clearly diverges from both Homer and Hesiod by omitting mention of divine action in his introduction, valuing instead, the deeds of man.

Departing from Homer, Herodotus focuses on men’s actions regardless of their ethnicity. The proemial summarizes his goal stating, “May the great and wonderful deeds—some brought forth by the Hellenes, others by the barbarians—not go unsung…” (Proem). Recording the deeds of multiple armies is not unique to Herodotus; Homer records the Trojans’ and the Achaeans’ feats of valor (XVIII.228-229, XVI.820-821). However, since both the Trojans and the Achaeans spoke Greek, neither would be considered barbaric by Homeric audiences. In contrast, Herodotus devotes his seventh book to Xerxes, who was a non-Greek speaking (and therefore barbarian) king of Persia. For his time, Herodotus’ mention of barbarians is unique.

Herodotus not only records events so that they do “not fade with time,” but also so that they do “not go unsung.” Singing is closely associated with the Muses. The works of Hesiod and Homer claim to be the songs of the Muses (Homer I.1, Hesiod Works and Days 1-2, Theogony 1-2). Not only does Herodotus presume to tell history based on the accounts of men, he claims that his readers should sing his song (Proem). He effectively suggests that man is capable of composing his own songs without the Muses. By omitting any mention of the Muses without omitting the idea of song, Herodotus, in essence, supplants the Muses—the very gods he, as a writer, should honor most.

Herodotus ends his proemial by stating that he is writing in order to record “the causes that led [men] to make war on each other” (Proem). Throughout his work, he consistently analyzes this factor, such as when he records Xerxes’ deliberation over why he should wage war against the Hellenes (7.8µ-7.19). Herodotus further discusses Xerxes’ motives in the canal instance, claiming Xerxes built a canal rather than a bridge because he “wanted to display his power and leave behind a memorial to himself” (7.24). Herodotus shows Xerxes’ longing for power, recording his boast that “there [will] be no race of humans left who [will] be capable of doing battle with [me]” (7.8g). These desires, Herodotus implies, culminate in Xerxes marching to war. The Iliad, by contrast, contains few instances of Achilleus questioning why he should fight (IX.337-39) and no account of why the Trojan War began. Homer questions which gods caused the Trojan War, asking “What god was it then that set them together in bitter collision?” (I.8). But he does not explore the causes of war from a mortal perspective in the manner Herodotus does. Hesiod mentions mortal wars in passing as an explanation for a sudden decrease in a population but draws nowhere close to speculating on the cause of these wars (160-168).

Herodotus differs markedly in his style from either Homer or Hesiod. Writing in prose, Herodotus conveys facts without artistic elaboration. Homer and Hesiod, on the other hand, both composed verse. Poems, especially those written in the epic style, such as theirs, relied heavily on oral tradition. Full of dramatic tropes and schemes, epic poems appeal to the ear and the imagination. Personification appears twice in Works and Days’ first nineteen lines (13, 19). Herodotus does not make significant use of personification, metaphor, simile or antithesis in his prose in the texts here analyzed. Indeed, in the body of his work, Herodotus conspicuously avoids these tropes and schemes where readers might expect them. For example, the reader’s only clues as to Herodotus’ reaction to his own description of Xerxes’ army come through a few signal words such as “magnificent” when referring to the horses’ tack, “sacred” when speaking of the horses and “out of all the Persians” when recording the spearmen’s elitism (7.40). If Herodotus had aimed to be a poet like Homer and Hesiod, he would have claimed that the horses were more sacred than those which pulled Zeus’ chariot or that the spearmen could each slay a thousand Greeks in an hour and had all hunted lions before they had grown beards.

But Herodotus’ work is not poetry.

Herodotus calls his masterpiece his “research” using the Greek word historia, which conveys a dedication to accuracy (Proem). Historia is translated in other places as “account,” “inquiry,” “information,” and “narrative” (Proem, 2.118, 7.96). This does not imply that Herodotus never intended his work to be read aloud or performed. In fact, his opening line can also be translated not as “presents his research,” but “displays his enquiries” (note from Proem.b). Herodotus displays his enquiries when he records finding two different accounts concerning the Trojan War, where these stories originated, and why his historia is the most accurate (2.116-2.118). The use of historia demonstrates that the desire for an entertaining performance did not undermine Herodotus’ dedication to accuracy.

The grammatical structure of Herodotus’ command: “May the… deeds… not go unsung,” presents peculiarities. This phrase is both subjunctive in mood and (in Greek) passive in voice. Compare it to the Iliad’s opening words: “Sing, goddess…” (I.1). Homer’s opening is indicative in mood and active in voice. In other words, Homer expresses a command and places the Muses as the subject of his sentence. Herodotus, by contrast, expresses a wish and positions the “great and wonderful deeds [of men]” as his subject. The grammatical structure of the opening again signals a departure from the conventional place of the Muses in literature, replaced by the abilities of men. Like Homer, Hesiod Begins his Works and Days with an indicative, active command aimed at the Muses to “come / … and sing [Zeus’] hymn” (1-2). Not only are the Muses responsible for singing, but Zeus seemingly possesses influence as well. Hesiod goes so far as to claim his Theogony is the Muses’ song which he can only sing because they taught him it (21-37). Herodotus awards himself the ability and authority to decide which deeds of men are sung or unsung, which is to define history, whereas Hesiod and Homer allocate this authority to the Muses. Once again, Herodotus places himself, a man, where Homer and Hesiod placed a god.

Herodotus’ command is negative instead of positive. He writes so that the “deeds… not go unsung” (Proem. Emphasis added). This difference is nuanced, but worth noting because it emphasizes Herodotus’ determination to yet again turn every aspect of his opening upside down and backwards. Herodotus writes to mortals, therefore he makes his appeal that this song “not go unsung” directly to men—thus suggesting that it is the duty of men, not the Muses, to praise human deeds. Indeed, if it would be wrong for these deeds to go unsung, and Herodotus is asking men to sing them, then in essence, Herodotus is implying that it would be wrong for men not to sing his song. The negativity of Herodotus’ command attaches a moral obligation to accepting his Histories.

In accordance with his content and prose style, Herodotus’ tone varies from that of Homer and Hesiod. Tone refers to both the attitude with which the author addresses his audience and the attitude he hopes to engender in his audience. Hesiod speaks in a stream of parable-like stories and proverbs (Works and Days). Homer’s Iliad sweeps the reader up into the internal struggle of Achilleus’ wrath and the battlefield on which it plays out. Readers identify heavily with Homer’s characters, relishing the vivid depictions of their emotions. When Achilleus inveighs against Agamemnon saying, “For as I detest the doorways of death I detest [Agamemnon] …,” the reader’s heart is stirred (IX.312). Contrast this to Herodotus’ account of Croesus and Solon. Croesus, having shown Solon his palace and treasures, asks Solon who is the most prosperous and happiest of men (1.30) and is enraged when Solon lists other men before Croesus. These situations are similar in that Agamemnon undermined the standard by which Achilleus defined his manhood—acceptance as Agamemnon’s councilor—in the same way that Solon undermined the standard by which Croesus defined his supremacy and maturity in reign. However, unwilling to record or compose a fiery retort, Herodotus recounts Croesus’ actions simply and unemotionally: “Croesus dismissed him, thinking him worthless and extremely ignorant” (1.33). Rather than fuel an emotional response from the audience with emotionally charged rhetoric, Herodotus approaches his subject as an uninvolved narrator and expects his audience to do the same.

In his proemial, Herodotus emphasizes his departure from the popular standard seen in Hesiod and Homer. His introduction signals his Histories’ unique writing approach and content. Foregoing any invocation of the Muses, Herodotus boldly substitutes his own name and subsequently references the deeds and authority of men (both Greeks and barbarians). Claiming authority over song-making, Herodotus reinforces the omission of the Muses before introducing the question of why men choose to wage war, in place of the older Homeric question of which gods cause war. Herodotus uses the then-unusual style of prose to present a factual account free from fanciful language—that is, a historia. Herodotus’ original audience, familiar with Homer and Hesiod, could not have missed the proemial’s multifarious differences from these works. All these divergences harmonize with a single, central idea: Herodotus’ esteem for man. Herodotus honored mankind in the greatest way he knew how—by giving to them the place of his gods, the Muses, and by treating their memories like the memories of the gods.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally presented at Streamlines Undergraduate Writing Conference in Dubuque, Iowa (November 2016) and is republished with gracious permission from the author. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[*] All citations of Hesiod, whether referring to Theogony or Works and Days, are by line number rather than page number.

Herodotus. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories. Trans. Andrea L. Purvis. Ed. Robert B. Strassler. New York: Anchor Books, 2009. Print.

Hesiod. Theogony. Hesiod and Theognis. Trans. Dorothea Wender. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1986. 23-56. Print.

Hesiod. Works and Days. Hesiod and Theognis. Trans. Dorothea Wender. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1986. 59-86. Print.

Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Print.

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