UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Political ideas of the historian Herodutus Shrimpton, Gordon Spencer


Herodotus of Halicarnassus was born into an age in which his fellow Greeks were asking themselves more political questions than they had ever done before. The reason is that many of them were taking upon themselves greater shares in the governments of their states, depriving absolute tyrants or oligarchic cliques of their power and assuming it themselves. In many cases the whole citizen-body would rule, forming constitutions that they called democracies. As these communities felt their way politically, the people asked themselves, collectively and individually, "what is the best form of government?" I have made it my task to find out how Herodotus, the father of history, would have answered that question. In his work he surveyed nearly every form of government, nearly every level of civilization attained by the various communities of his time. Which of these did he admire, and of which did he disapprove? I have studied certain instances where he records how political institutions motivated the people of his history, and I have observed a pattern that is repeated at numerous times in Herodotus' work. He believed that great deeds were more likely to come from men who believed themselves free than from men deprived of their freedom by an absolute and irresponsible ruler or government. In his third book, Herodotus studies some irresponsible rulers of the past and shows recurring patterns in their behaviour. In the middle of the book, he presents a debate by seven Persians on the subject of the best government for Persia, where, by composing the speeches of the debaters, he gives a summary of his own political ideas. To him tyrants are often deceitful, and characteristically abuse established laws and customs; they take men's wives and daughters by force, and murder men untried. However, in democracy there is not the tyrant's abuse of law, but equality before the law, and, by governing themselves, men control their own destiny without violent interference from a tyrant. These views are reflected in many places throughout Herodotus' work. Different speakers make statements that seem to reveal that they shared the same opinions. Now Herodotus will tell a story that illustrates the evils of tyranny, and now he will pass a judgement that betrays his faith in freedom, especially democracy. I have collected many of the above instances in this study and have discovered some absorbing details of the methods Herodotus employed to suggest political evaluations to his audience without any open statement. Some events are presented like one-act plays, others like full-length tragedies with character studies subtly introduced to betray the historian's sympathies. With a knowledge of these devices, the reader is in a position to obtain a deeper understanding of Herodotus and his history.

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