Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 550–c. 476 BC), named after the Greek goddess Hecate, 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. 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. Hecataeus is the first known Greek historian, and was one of the first classical writers to mention the Celtic people.
Some have credited Hecataeus with a work entitled Ges Periodos ("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 CE 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 the Genealogiai, 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, 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." Unlike his contemporary Xenophanes, he did not criticize the myths on their own terms; his disbelief rather stems from his broad exposure to the many contradictory mythologies he encountered in his travels.
An anecdote from Herodotus (II, 143), of a visit to an Egyptian temple at Thebes, is illustrative. 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 entirely mortal, they refused to believe Hecataeus's claim of descent from a mythological figure. This encounter with the immemorial antiquity of Egypt has been identified as a crucial influence on Hecataeus's scepticism: the mythologized past of the Hellenes shrank into insignificant fancy next to the history of a civilization that was already ancient before Mycenae was built.
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.