Student Research Projects

The Unique Tragic Plot of Herodotus' Histories

Student Christopher Merrell, '16
Faculty Mentor(s)
Department Classics
Course Classics 450: Senior Seminar in Classics


In book one of the Histories, Herodotus, known as both father of history and father of lies, chose to use a tragic plot in his method of telling history with the story of King Croesus. Why did Herodotus use a tragic plot, similar to what can be seen in Homer\'s Iliad and Odyssey? Why did Aristotle use Herodotus as an example of why poetry is more \"scientific\" and \"serious\" than history? Other questions involve conceptions of free will and determinism in Greek tragedy and how scholars have tried to figure out what Herodotus believed. To answer these questions, the research includes a discussion of both Herodotus and Thucydides in an effort to compare their methods and motives. The primary sources involve Herodotus, Thucydides, and Aristotle. The secondary sources are from scholars attempting to make sense of these thinkers. The thesis of the research paper is: What sets Herodotus apart from Thucydides is his use of a tragic plot to explain historical events. However, Herodotus\' tragic plot remained incomplete by falling short of Aristotle\'s definition of poetry; it also ended up falling short of the standards of later Roman historians. Like Thucydides, Herodotus does include historical events, but he is so distant from them that he claims no knowledge of what really happened. Ultimately, Herodotus promotes a unique lesson of history, that human conditions are eternally unstable due to the inevitable and unpreventable rising and falling of nations. This thesis explores Herodotus\' potential not just as a historian, but as an artist and a philosopher. Indeed he was hardly even a historian by any modern standard, but he did include many stories and opinions about the world. The question of whether history is a modern or ancient subject could also be explored; that would deal with what defines a \"historian” and what defines \"modern.\"