How reliable was Herodotus’s account of the Greco-Persian Wars, especially considering that he was Greek?
well I mean it’s not like he isn’t not unreliable
Okay, so disclaimer number 1: people have literally spent their entire careers writing whole books that fail to give a definitive answer to this question. It is impossible for any answer I give here to be anything but a ludicrous oversimplification.
Disclaimer number 2: reliable or not, he is the best we’ve got. There just aren’t any surviving contemporary Persian sources that talk about the war in the kind of detail that Herodotus does, and Herodotus was literally the only person in the world writing something we would think of as “history” in his time.
Anyway. How reliable is this bull$#!t. Well. Herodotus gets kind of a bad rap for just making stuff up, or putting stuff in his history just because some random dude told him and never checking it. You can see a lot of that in his chapter about Egypt, in which it rapidly becomes clear to everyone that Herodotus has never been to Egypt and knows very little about the region. Also, four words: giant gold-digging ants. Google it. But, having said all that, the obvious bull$#!t quotient drops dramatically as he writes about stuff that’s closer to Athens (he was from Halicarnassus, in Asia Minor, but he probably lived in Athens for part of his life). He certainly didn’t invent the war out of whole cloth. Like, super broad strokes here, there definitely was a Greco-Persian War, it definitely happened early in what we call the 5th century BC, and the Greeks definitely won it. We’ve found the grave mound of the Athenian war dead at the site of Marathon; we’ve maybe found the monument of the Spartans at Thermopylae; heck, some people even think we’ve found the vestiges of the canal that Xerxes cut through Mount Athos; the major battles definitely happened in more or less the times and places he says they did. The stuff he says at the beginning about the causes of the war, where he tries to link it back to Greek mythology and the Trojan War and talks about this thousand-year-long intercontinental woman-stealing contest, that is all 100% grade A bull$#!t (I mean… I hope you don’t need to be told this), but again, there was no “history” before this; he’s doing his best with what he was given.
Herodotus was probably born around the time of the war, so any memories he might have had of the conflict personally would have been super sketchy, but he would have had plenty of opportunity to talk to a diverse selection of eye-witnesses. Eye-witness testimony is itself sketchy, especially when you’re thinking back to a chaotic event like a battle that took place more than a decade ago, but hey, it’s probably a damn sight better than Livy writing about the Roman regal period. Herodotus’ descriptions of exactly how the battles went down, in terms of tactics and troop movements, are vague and often difficult to square with the actual topography of the battle sites or our archaeological evidence for what Greek military equipment was like (there’s a huge body of scholarship on the battle of Marathon in particular). It’s probably best to think of the battle descriptions as “how these three dudes that I talked to remember it, from a certain point of view,” or even just “well, this could be how it happened, and it kind of makes sense, right???” Every time he says a number, any number, you should default to suspicion. I don’t think anyone today seriously believes that five million Persians invaded Greece. Aside from being a ridiculous number on the face of it, how would Herodotus have known that? He wouldn’t have had access to Persian archives, and the Greeks would have had some idea of roughly how big the army was, but they wouldn’t have had a detailed breakdown of… well, anything.
Be even more suspicious when he talks about anything from the Persians’ point of view – there are bits where, for instance, he’ll listen in on one of Xerxes’ war councils and talk about Xerxes’ motivations and his conversations with his commanders, and those are almost certainly made up. It’s plausible that he might have spoken to people who’d fought in the Persian army (after all, a lot of Greeks fought for Xerxes), and it’s plausible that the opposing forces at the time had some idea of each other’s motives. However, there’s no way he could have known the course of deliberations in a Persian council of war. Partly that stuff is in there to explain the Persians’ decisions (and probably represents his best guess), and partly it’s in there to make the history more exciting to read. Most importantly, though, it’s in there because Herodotus’ real goal is to explain why the Persians lost despite having the clearly superior force, and he thinks they lost because of Xerxes’ hubris. In English, this word means pride, but in ancient Greek, it’s more a sense that a mortal has enjoyed good fortune beyond what is normal or deserved, and is doomed to eventually face nemesis, the retribution of fate itself. This is one of the core beliefs of archaic and classical Greek religion, and once you know to look for the theme, you can see it in almost every anecdote in the entire Histories. In order for Herodotus to make this case persuasively, everything Xerxes says and does has to reinforce that theme, so that when fate finally catches up with him, his defeat seems inevitable – and Herodotus probably wasn’t above a little bit of “speculation” here and there to make the events of the story fit the pattern as neatly as possible. That’s not to say he consciously lied; I’m sure he believed it all. And all of it is true – from a certain point of view.