Herodotus, Josephus, and Being a Historian in the Ancient World

History has been used to explain what, why, and how things happened for thousands of years. Even though the term “historian” didn’t become a job title until the late 1800s, the goal of researching and analysing history has been the same for both ancient and modern historians: to learn about the past in the hopes that it will help us in the present and the future.

But as a historian, the truth is that no matter how hard we try, there will always be differences between what one historian says happened and what another historian says. We are constantly reminded that a person’s views, background, and environment have a big impact on how they see history and life in general. Ancient historians can also see that this is true. In fact, the stories of their own lives are almost as interesting as the stories they have written. Herodotus had to fight to break away from a tradition that was deeply rooted in his culture. Cato’s open hatred for Carthage led to its destruction, and Josephus was labelled a traitor even after he died. All of these started out as personal experiences that led to writings that are still read, translated, and analysed today.

Bust of Herodotus. Roman copy (2nd century BC) of Greek original (4th century BC). Neues Museum, Berlin.
Bust of Herodotus. Roman copy (2nd century BC) of Greek original (4th century BC). Neues Museum, Berlin. By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – Neues Museum, Berlin. Uploaded by Marcus Cyron, CC BY-SA 2.0

But as a historian, the truth is that no matter how hard we try, there will always be differences between what one historian says happened and what another historian says. We are constantly reminded that a person’s views, background, and environment have a big impact on how they see history and life in general.

Herodotus: The Struggle Between Telling Stories and Writing History

he Histories by Herodotus is the earliest Greek prose to have survived intact. Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 484–c. 425 BC), dubbed by many as the “Father of History”, was the first historian known to have broken from Homeric tradition of poetic storytelling and collected his materials critically to arrange them into a coherent narrative. The Histories is a record of Herodotus’s research into the causes of the Greco-Persian Wars. It also has a lot of information about geography and culture.

Bodrum, copies of ancient statues of Herodotus, Artemisia and Mausolus.
Bodrum, copies of ancient statues of Herodotus, Artemisia and Mausolus. By Mickapr – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Herodotus was born into a powerful Persian family, so it’s possible that he heard about or even saw many important events in the empire from people who were there at the time. During Herodotus’s time, Halicarnassus had stopped being close to its Dorian neighbours and had helped start Greek trade with Egypt. So, the city was an international port in the Persian Empire. Herodotus’ family may have had connections in countries that were ruled by the Persians, making it easier for him to travel and do research, which led to many of his first-hand accounts. According to what he heard from people who were there, he went to Egypt with Athenians after an Athenian fleet helped the revolt against Persian rule in 460–454 BC.

Herodotus has a strange place in history because he was the first historian to come from a culture that learned and educated through stories. So, it was natural to think that he would have used a storytelling tradition from the Ionian Islands to collect and explain the stories he heard on his travels. Herodotus put together these oral histories in a new style and format. They often had themes from folk tales, but they also had important facts about geography, anthropology, and history.

Bust of Homer, at the British Museum
Bust of Homer, at the British Museum

But he couldn’t have written what he did without the influence of storytellers. Critics in the early modern period called him the “Father of Lies” because he still wrote stories that seemed too good to be true. However, a deeper similarity remains. Herodotus writes to try to figure out what caused things to happen. This started with Homer, who asked at the beginning of the Iliad, “Which of the immortals put these two at each other’s throats?” Herodotus doesn’t always use a simple cause to explain things, like Homer did before him. As he worked from many different sources, his explanations also cover a number of potential causes and emotions. Since he got a lot of his information from Homeric writings, which were more common in his time than peer-reviewed historical papers, which didn’t exist yet, it makes sense that he would have taken some of those writings as facts.

As Herodotus was the first person to write down what had been told orally for a long time and in many places. Scholars of today have even wondered if Herodotus left his home country because his own people made fun of his writing. This was hinted at in a tombstone inscription that was said to have been written for Herodotus at Thurion. It says:

Herodotus, son of Lyxes, had this dust on his head.

He was the master of Ionian history.

Who did well when he was away from his Dorian home;

After running away from harsh criticism of its people,

He was from Thurion, which was his home.

Cato the Censor and Livy, Emperors’ Historians

Latin literature was “created” between the late 3rd century BC and the early 2nd century BC by professional writers and performers from newly conquered lands who were paid for their work by the Roman elite. Some of these professionals were poets like Livius Andronicus, Plautus, and Terence, who are known for their work in the early days of Latin literature. We can also say that the growth of Rome led to the rise of literature.

The Patrician Torlonia bust thought to be of Cato the Elder
The Patrician Torlonia bust thought to be of Cato the Censor

So, the literary practises that were already in place in ancient Rome had to compete with those that had come before. Elite Romans started to show off their literary knowledge by imitating Greek and other non-Roman performances and by putting on their own shows that were similar to those of other cultures. During this time, an author’s place in the bigger picture of social relationships depended on whether he wrote poetry or prose in Latin. Latin poetry was started by professional immigrants, while the beginnings of Latin prose were tied to the life of Cato the Censor, a man from Tusculum who moved to Rome and became the most important person in the city’s government for about 50 years.

In 234 BC, Marcus Porcius Cato was born in Tusculum. He grew up on the country estate his father owned and joined the army at the age of 17. By 195 BC, he had worked his way up the traditional political ladder and reached the position of consul. In 191 BC, he quit the army and spent most of his time instead taking part in debates in the senate. Even when he was young, Cato didn’t like what he called “Greek decadence.” When he was elected censor in 184 BC, he used his power to kick out of the senate a man who had a public kiss with his wife in front of his daughter. He cut the pipes that people used to get water from the public water supply without permission, and he tore down private buildings that were built on public land. He made the rich pay very high taxes and put in place strict rules to stop any extravagances he thought were too much.

Archaeological Site of Carthage
Archaeological Site of Carthage, By Christian Manhart – This place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed asArchaeological Site of Carthage., CC BY-SA 3.0 igo

Cato was a powerful man, and people knew about how much he hated Carthage even when he was alive. He thought it was possible that Carthage would rise up again and cause trouble for the Roman Empire once more. He was known for saying “Delenda Carthago,” which means “Carthage must be destroyed,” in every speech he gave in the senate, no matter what was being talked about at the time.

In 150 BC, Cato was put in charge of a Roman commision of enquiry that was supposed to decide what should happen between Carthage and Numidia. After two wars with Rome, Carthage was only a shadow of how powerful it used to be. Its Numidian neighbours were making life hard for Carthage. But Cato, who had hated Carthage for a long time, made sure that the commision sided with Numidia. This led to the Third Punic War and, in the end, to the destruction of Carthage and its culture.

When Cato finally left politics, he wrote the first Roman encyclopaedia, a book about the history of Rome, and the oldest complete Latin prose work, a book about farming. Cato wrote Origines, a history of Rome from the beginning of the city to his own time, to teach Romans what it means to be Roman. The early history is full of legends that show what it means to be Roman. Origines also said that the Romans were better than the Greeks, which is similar to how Cato felt about the Greeks and foreigners in general. To prove his point, he used examples of noble men from before his time.

Late 15th century bust of Titus Livius
Late 15th century bust of Titus Livius

Cato was not only the first person to write prose in Latin, but his style became the model for Augustan Rome. When Livy was younger, from 64 or 59 BC to 17 CE, civil wars were happening all over the Roman world. Asinius Pollio, who was the governor of Cisalpine Gaul at the time, had tried to get Patavium to join the side of Marcus Antonius, who was one of the three men fighting for control of Rome. Later, Livy got to know Emperor Augustus, who became ruler after Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra were killed. As Augustus became known as the best Roman emperor by the Romans, it helped Livy’s career a lot that he was a historian who Augustus supported.

Livy wrote in the beginning of his history that he wanted to “keep alive the memory of the deeds of the world’s most important nation.”

His history of Rome was Livy’s best-known work. In it, he tells the whole story of the city, from when it was first built to when Augustus died. Livy wrote his history during the reign of the emperor Augustus, so he focuses on Rome’s great victories during that time. He wrote his history with embellished accounts of Roman heroism in order to promote the new type of government implemented by Augustus when he became emperor. Livy wrote in the beginning of his history that he wanted to “keep alive the memory of the deeds of the world’s most important nation.” Livy’s history was not taken seriously at the time he wrote it, unlike Cato, who became a respected politician. However, many Romans came to believe that what he wrote was the true story of how Rome was built.

Look at Two Sides of History with Josephus

Josephus was born in Jerusalem in the year 37 CE to a family of priests. His name was Joseph ben Mattathias. He excelled in his studies of Jewish law before eventually aligning himself with the Pharisees. After completing a mission in Rome with the help of Nero’s wife Poppaea, he went home in 65 CE to find that his country was fighting against Rome.

Even though Josephus had a lot of doubts about the revolt, it happened anyway. This led to the growth of Jewish groups that thought the end of the world was near. In the year 66 CE, when the Zealots took over Masada and the Romans were on the move, Josephus was put in charge of Galilee. He fought a defensive war and tried to keep the Jews from fighting among themselves. A year later, during the siege of Jotapata, Josephus and some other rebels were trapped in a cave. They made a deal to kill themselves. However, Josephus became the sole survivor and was taken hostage by the Romans, led by Vespasian.

The actual sculpture that was scanned from a copy of Josephus' 'The Jewish War' dated 1888.
The actual sculpture that was scanned from a copy of Josephus’ ‘The Jewish War’ dated 1888.

Josephus cleverly rewrote the Messianic prophecies for Vespasian, saying that Vespasian would become the ruler of the whole world. He then became Vespasian’s slave, which made his countrymen call him a traitor. He worked as a consultant for the Romans and a go-between with the rebels. Josephus couldn’t get the Jewish rebels to give up, so he had to watch from the Roman side as the Jews lost the war.

When Nero killed himself and Vespasian became Emperor, Josephus’ “prophecy” came true. Josephus was freed because Vespasian liked him. Josephus moved to Rome and became a Roman citizen. He took the family name Flavius from Vespasian and used it as his own. He was asked to write his histories by Vespasian. The Jewish War tells the story of how the Jews rebelled against Roman rule (66 – 70 CE). His completed works include, the Antiquities of the Jews in 93 CE, Against Apion in ca. 96-100 CE, and The Life of Josephus, his autobiography in ca. 100 CE.

Even after he died, people who didn’t like him couldn’t figure out why he didn’t kill himself in Galilee and instead worked for the Romans. Nitsa Ben-Ari, a scholar, says that before the 1800s, Josephus’s works were banned because they were written by a traitor. They could not be read or translated into Hebrew.

Even today, scholars argue about who Josephus was writing for. Jewish people could read about the history of the Jews. But there are also many asides in the book that explain basic Judean language, customs, and laws. This shows that Joesphus did not expect his readers to know anything about the laws or where the Judeans came from.

“But if anyone is rigid in his criticism of me, let him attribute the facts themselves to the historical part and the lamentations only to the writer himself,” he says.

In the preface to his book Jewish Wars, Josephus criticises historians who misrepresent the events of the Jewish-Roman War, saying that “they want to show how great the Romans were while making the actions of the Jews seem less important.” His intention was to correct this method of recording. But he “will be fair in prosecuting the actions of both sides.” Josephus admits that his own history will affect how he writes about these events. He says that he won’t be able to hold back his lamentations as he writes about them. “But if anyone is rigid in his criticism of me, let him attribute the facts themselves to the historical part and the lamentations only to the writer himself,” he says.

"L'historien Juif Flavius Josèphe Délivré À Rome De Ses Fers" by Jean Antoine Th. Giroust (c.1817)
“L’historien Juif Flavius Josèphe Délivré À Rome De Ses Fers” by Jean Antoine Th. Giroust (c.1817)

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