The Origin of History as we know it
The term history nowadays is a very common term used to describe things that have happened and can be defined as the events of the past, particularly human affairs. This concept is one that is extremely familiar to us in the modern day but this has not always been the case. The origin of the word history originates in Ancient Greece where the terms histor and historia were based around the exploration of a narrative. This is not to say that the Greeks were the inventors of history, far from it. Cave paintings such as those found in the Chauvet Cave dated to at least 35,400BC show a people with the desire to describe events. However, this relatively new greek approach represents a critical analysis of events that wasn’t present in previous writings.
The first example of this style of thinking can be seen in the histories written by Herodotus of Halicarnassus in 425BC, almost 2,500 years ago. Herodotus is commonly known as ‘the father of history’ and was the first writer to display the type of critical historical thinking that we are familiar with today. The opening lines from the Histories demonstrate the aim of Herodotus and the manner in which he wrote:
“so that things done by man may not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Greeks, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory, including among others what was the cause of their waging war on each other”
Here Herodotus is simply stating his reason for describing the events of his time. The war that he refers to is the Greco-Persian wars (499–449BC) between the City states of Greece, mainly Athens and Sparta and the Achaemenid Persian Empire. This is one of the influential conflicts in History as it represents one of the earliest conflicts between the European east and the Asian west recorded in detail. It is still at the forefront of our imaginations today in films such as 300.
While the opening lines refer to the notions of great deeds and glory which is a common theme in other classical authors, most notably Homer. Homer’s work the Illiad is regarded as one of the first works of European literature and describes a period of the Trojan war. The key theme within the Illiad is heroism and the glorification of great heroes and their deeds. However, Homer wrote in a descriptive way that makes the historical contents of this work questionable. There is a lack of critical thinking which prevents the Illiad from being a highly regarded reliable work of history. Rather it should be regarded as a work of fiction loosely based on true events. In my opinion, that is. It is also fair to acknowledge that Herodotus was not without his own biases and is not regarded as a fully reliable source of historical information despite his approach.
It is doubtful that Herodotus was aware of the significance of this piece of work as it would later represent a new concept of examining the origin and cause of events in a critical manner. Here is a clear difference between works of Herodotus and Homer, it is this fact in which Herodotus demonstrates the historical nature of thinking that we are familiar with today.
So why is History important?
History is important because it helps us to understand ourselves both as a society and an individual. By learning about the past experiences that our society has gone through it will help us to understand why things are the way they are today. Another key aspect of the importance of history is the sense of community that it promotes. By remembering significant historical events we as a society can come together in remembrance of these events.
“History is the teacher of life”
By remembering historical events we can try to replicate or make sure we don’t replicate them depending on the situation. By using critical evaluation, we can recognise why events happened. Therefore we can make sure the same mistakes are not repeated and in doing so make our society better. 1st century BC politician Cicero stated that ”history is the teacher of life”, indicating its uses as a guide to inform our current practices.
History gives us so much to work and strive for, by reading about the exploits of King Leonidas I of Sparta in Herodotus the Histories or of Achilles and Hector in the Illiad we are able to imagine people doing great and extraordinary things that we are naturally inclined to admire. The glorification of historical events and iconic peoples forces us to work together in order to bring out the best in ourselves. History can act as a galvanising force and bring out the best in us.
Addressing the state of ‘The Classical Histories’ blog
If there is one thing that we have in abundance it is commentaries on historical events. Doubtless, there are numerous scholars who have superior expertise to comment on them than me. That being so, it isn’t my goal to provide new insights into these events. I merely find the events that I will describe as fascinating and therefore worthy of retelling. I will try my best to retell these events to the best of my ability with the hope that any readers will find enjoyment in them.
So this marks the beginning of my contribution to the continuation of the histories with the hope that they too will not be forgotten with time.
Oliver J. Hallett
Grant, M. 1971. Cicero: Selected works. 3rd edition. Penguin Classics. London, England.
Selincourt, AD. 2003. Herodotus: The histories. 4th edition. Penguin Classics. London, England.
Thurman, J. 2008. First Impressions: What does the world’s oldest art say about us?. The New Yorker Magazine. [Online]