Historiai: a belated explanation

Having given my blog a new name and style (what we hip media academics call ‘rebranding’) I realized it might be worth explaining what the new name means.

Historiai is the plural of the word historiê (ἱστορίη); this is, of course, the term from which English ‘history’ is derived.  And in Greek and Latin, from the fourth century BCE onward, historiê more or less meant what we mean by history: an account of the events of the past, often accompanied by attempts to interpret and explain those events.

In earlier Greek, however, the word had much more varied connotations.  It’s ultimately derived from the title histôr, which is found in Homeric epic.  In Homer, the histôr is the referee in athletic contests, charged with deciding, for example, which chariot has come in first in a race.

In essence, then, the histôr’s job was to establish the truth about what had happened.  By the time we get to the fifth century BCE, the function of the histôr – historiê – referred more broadly to any process of investigation into the facts of any matter.  So, for example, early Greek medical writers will refer to their historiê, their investigation, of the symptoms and causes of a disease, and a natural philosopher might refer to the historiê  of the origins and nature of the universe.

The turning-point in the meaning of historiê came with Herodotus of Halicarnassus. Halicarnassus was one of the Greek cities in Asia Minor, a region which was, in the early fifth century, one of the intellectual centres of the Greek world.  While we don’t know much about Herodotus’ youth, but he clearly read widely of the historiai produced by the thinkers of his time.  As an adult, Herodotus decided to create his own historiê; the subject of this investigation, however, would not be the human body or the nature of the universe, but rather the events of recent, and less-recent past.  In particular, Herodotus sought to investigate the causes and course of the great war between the city-states of Greece and the vast Persian Empire that ruled most of the known world to the east.

Herodotus published his account under the title of Historiai: ‘Investigations’ or ‘Researches’.  So great was the influence of Herodotus’ historiê that it more or less permanently altered the meaning of the term.  In future, historiê  would no longer be a general word for investigation, but specifically an inquiry into the past.  And so, in more or less every European language, it has remained, earning Herodotus the title of ‘The Father of History.’

In choosing Historiai as my title, I wanted to play on the various meanings of the term. Partly, it evokes the word in its broadest sense: this blog will feature my own ‘investigations’ of a variety of subjects that interest me. It also refers specifically to its later sense of ‘history’ in our sense: I am a historian of Ancient Greece, so a fair proportion of my posts will be related in some way to the events of the past and their interpretation. Finally, I intended it as a nod to Herodotus of Halicarnassus, one of the most engaging, fascinating and insightful authors of the ancient world.


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