Hecataeus of Miletus

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For the later historian of this name, see Hecataeus of Abdera.

Hecataeus of Miletus (/ˌhɛkəˈtəs/; Greek: Ἑκαταῖος;[1] c. 550 BC – c. 476 BC[2]), son of Hagesandrus,[3] was an early Greek historian of a wealthy family. He flourished during the time of the Persian invasion. After having travelled extensively, he settled in his native city, where he occupied a high position, and devoted his time to the composition of geographical and historical works. When Aristagoras held a council of the leading Ionians at Miletus to organize a revolt against the Persian rule, Hecataeus in vain tried to dissuade his countrymen from the undertaking.[4] In 494 BC, when the defeated Ionians were obliged to sue for terms, he was one of the ambassadors to the Persian satrap Artaphernes, whom he persuaded to restore the constitution of the Ionic cities.[5] Hecataeus is the first known Greek historian,[6] and was one of the first classical writers to mention the Celtic people.


Reconstruction of Hecataeus' map

Some have credited Hecataeus with a work entitled Περίοδος γῆς (Periodos ges, "Travels round the Earth" or "World Survey"), written in two books. Each book is organized in the manner of a periplus, a point-to-point coastal survey. One, on Europe, is essentially a periplus of the Mediterranean, describing each region in turn, reaching as far north as Scythia. The other book, on Asia, is arranged similarly to the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea of which a version of the 1st century AD survives. Hecataeus described the countries and inhabitants of the known world, the account of Egypt being particularly comprehensive; the descriptive matter was accompanied by a map, based upon Anaximander’s map of the earth, which he corrected and enlarged. The work only survives in some 374 fragments, by far the majority being quoted in the geographical lexicon Ethnika compiled by Stephanus of Byzantium.

The other known work of Hecataeus was regarded as the Γενεαλογίαι (Genealogiai) or the Ἱστορία (Historia), a rationally systematized account of the traditions and the myths of the Greeks, a break with the epic myth-making tradition, which survives in a few fragments, just enough to show what we are missing.


Hecataeus' work, especially the Genealogiai, shows a marked scepticism of oral history, opening with "Hecataeus of Miletus thus speaks: I write what I deem true; for the stories of the Greeks are manifold and seem to me ridiculous."[7]

Herodotus (II, 143) tells a story of a visit by Hecataeus to an Egyptian temple at Thebes. It recounts how the priests showed Herodotus a series of statues in the temple's inner sanctum, each one supposedly set up by the high priest of each generation. Hecataeus, says Herodotus, had seen the same spectacle, after mentioning that he traced his descent, through sixteen generations, from a god. The Egyptians compared his genealogy to their own, as recorded by the statues; since the generations of their high priests had numbered three hundred and forty-five, all mortal men, they refused to believe Hecataeus's claim of descent from a god. Historian James Shotwell has called this encounter with the antiquity of Egypt an influence on Hecataeus's scepticism: he recognized that oral history is untrustworthy.[8][9]

He was probably the first of the logographers to attempt a serious prose history and to employ critical method to distinguish myth from historical fact, though he accepts Homer and other poets as trustworthy authorities. Herodotus, though he once at least contradicts his statements, is indebted to Hecataeus for the concept of a prose history.


  1. ^ Named after the Greek goddess Hecate
  2. ^ Livius: Hecataeus of Miletus, Jona Lendering
  3. ^ Hecatei Fragmenta, fr. 362
  4. ^ Herodotus, Histories (Herodotus) 5.36, 125
  5. ^ Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica 10.25
  6. ^ Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C.; Sabloff, Jeremy A. (1979). Ancient Civilizations: The Near East and Mesoamerica. Benjamin/Cummings. p. 5. 
  7. ^ The History of History; Shotwell, James T. (NY, Columbia University Press, 1939) p. 172
  8. ^ The History of History; Shotwell, James T. (NY, Columbia University Press, 1939) pp. 172–173
  9. ^ The Ancient Greek Historians; Bury, John Bagnell (NY, Dover Publications, 1958), pp. 14, 48


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