Herodotus (c.484 – c.420 BC) was born in Halicarnassus, today known as Bodrum, a popular tourist resort in Turkey. He wrote the first comprehensive history of the ancient world. His work has been lauded and denounced in equal measure, earning the twin appellations of ‘Father of History’ and ‘Father of Lies’. The latter is the consequence of some of his accounts appearing incredible at first reading, but a little
investigation and lateral thinking can reveal the underlying truth of his statements as demonstrated by Reginald Fessenden among others. Herodotus also described an unusual Egyptian barge, known as a ‘baris’, which was not confirmed until the 21st century(e).
A recent article(d) on the Ancient Origins website defends Herodotus’ reputation.
Another example is to be found in Book IV of The Histories where he mentions the Atlantes as being vegetarians and never dreaming (v.184). This apparently strange comment may be explained by the fact that vegetarians are frequently short of vitamin B6, which is recognised today as leading to the suppression of dreams. This is reminiscent of a reference in the Mahabharata to Atala, sometimes proposed as a reference to Atlantis, where it notes that it is inhabited by “white men who never have to sleep or eat” (Santi Parva, Section CCCXXXVII).
Writing nearly a century before Plato, Herodotus refers to Atlantes as a people occupying the interior of what was then known as Libya (Hist.4.184.1) and since the Atlanteans controlled the Mediterranean as far as Egypt (Timaeus 25b) Herodotus may have been alluding to them. In Book I, 202, Herodotus refers to the sea beyond the Pillars of Heracles as the ‘Sea of Atlantis’. The pre-platonic date of these comments dispels the notion that Atlantis was an invention of Plato. This same text refers to the fact that all the known seas are connected; (i) ‘the sea known to the Greeks’, namely the Aegean or eastern Mediterranean, (ii) ‘the sea beyond the Pillars of Heracles’ in the western Mediterranean and (iii) the ‘Erythraean’ or the Red Sea. This interpretation of the text implies that the Pillars of Heracles were located somewhere in the region of Malta, a view supported by some recent writers such as Anton Mifsud.
Herodotus, who flourished after Solon and before Plato, was quite clear that there were only three continents known to the Greeks, Europe, Asia and Libya [4.42]. This provides a powerful argument against the claim that America was known to the Greeks or that Plato’s ‘opposite continent’ could have been a reference to America. Furthermore, Anaximander drew a ‘map’ of the known world in the 6th century BC showing three continents without any suggestion of territory beyond them.
In spite of the above references that are apparently supportive of the existence of Atlantis, it has been reasonably argued, by Alan Alford, that they are counterbalanced by the fact that Herodotus considered the wars between the Persians and the Greeks as the greatest of all time, that he considered Sardinia the largest in the world and that the Minoans had developed the first sea empire in the Mediterranean, all attributes of Plato’s Atlantis. In response, I must argue that the war with Atlantis could have been the greatest up to that point in time but subsequently eclipsed by the scale of the war with the Persians. Similarly, the First World War was the most extensive until World War II. With regard to the Minoans, it must be pointed out that the Phoenicians had a more extensive trading empire encompassing both the eastern and western Mediterranean, whereas the Minoans were mainly active in the eastern basin.
Finally, Herodotus was wrong regarding Sardinia, as Sicily is in fact the largest island in the Mediterranean in terms of area (25,708 km2 vs. 24,090 km2). However, the coastal length of Sardinia is much greater than Sicily’s (1843 vs 1115 km). Interestingly, Felice Vinci recently wrote that ancient seafarers measured territory by its coastal perimeter rather than by its area, as we do today. In fact he relates how this method was in use up to the time of Columbus. So in the end Herodotus was quite correct according to the criteria of his age. Once again we see the dangers inherent in trying to understand writings from another age and culture.
This method of measuring territory by the length of its coastal boundaries must be taken into account when considering Plato’s description of Atlantis being greater than Asia and Libya together.
Pierre Vidal-Naquet has pointed out[580.23] how Jean-François Pradeau after studying the language of Critias demonstrated that ‘this dialogue employs certain terms that do not appear elsewhere in Plato’s works, terms that are borrowed from Herodotus’.
A modern review of Herodotus’ Histories was written by Daniel Mendelsohn in The New Yorker in April 2008(f).
Thorwald C.Franke delivered a paper to the 2008 Atlantis Conference with the self-explanatory title of The Importance of Herodotus’ Histories for the Atlantis Problem. This interesting document is now available online(c). Franke believes that Herodotus has more to offer Atlantology than is generally thought. He mentions the work of J.V.Luce having made a positive use of Herodotus’ Histories as a contribution to the Atlantis debates.
The full text of Herodotus’ writings is available online(b).