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Herodotus Histories


(Credit ; Wikimedia)

For my course with Gregory Nagy on The Ancient Greek Hero we read the Herodotus Histories.  There was no real introduction to the man himself on the course so I had to dig out that information from other sources.

The details about the stories and putting them into the context of the course come from the course lectures. I haven’t included everything about the lectures here as Professor Nagy related these stories back to other readings to emphasis the use of words.  As I have said previously I am more interested in the stories than the meanings of words and so I have studied this rather differently.

Herodutus – Father of History

Herodotus ( Ancient Greek: Ἡρόδοτος Hēródotos) was an ancient Greek historian who was born in HalicarnassusCaria (modern day BodrumTurkey) and lived in the fifth century BC (c. 484 – 425 BC). He has been called the “Father of History”, and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent, and arrange them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative. (Source Wikipedia)

The Histories is the only work he is known to have produced. It is a record of his “inquiry” (or ἱστορία historía, a word that passed into Latin and acquired its modern meaning of “history”), being an investigation of the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars and including a wealth of geographical and ethnographical information. Although some of his stories were fanciful, he claimed he was reporting only what had been told to him. Little is known of his personal history.

Herodotus’ introduction :-

“These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.”  (Translated by George Rawlinson)

History or Myth?

(credit ; livius.org)

Reading about Herodotus’ methods of collecting his stories reminded me of the methods of the brothers Grimm.  He traveled the country collecting the stories.  His sources were mainly oral and visual. He reported what he saw and heard from the Persians, Egyptians, Arabs, the Aeginetans and the Thessalians. With a few exceptions such as the Spartan Archias, he doesn’t mention who his informants were.  Not much was available as written testimonies to him and those that were he couldn’t decipher.

“Qualities as a historian

Herodotus was a great traveler with an eye for detail, a good geographer, a man with an indefatigable interest in the customs and past history of his fellowmen, and a man of the widest tolerance, with no bias for the Greeks and against the barbarians. He was neither naive nor easily credulous. It is this which makes the first half of his work not only so readable but of such historical importance. In the second half he is largely, but by no means only, writing military history.” (From The Encyclopedia Britannica.)

When reading these Histories we have to keep in mind the motives behind them. Herodotus states a purpose in his introduction. He wanted the great deeds of men to be remembered and to show who was to blame for the war. That he took the first motive from the epic he was later accused as using history for entertainment.

In J.A.S. Evan’s paper “Father of History or Father of Lies; The Reputation of Herodotus” he looks at this differently.

“Herodotus’’ second motive, his concern for the “aitia” of the war, was simply misunderstood, for it was already becoming archaic in the fifth century B.C. In Homer, the word “histor “ is used twice, and both times it means not an historian but an arbitrator, who determined who determined who was to blame for a quarrel by examining the customs and laws of a tribe and inquiring into the facts. His stance was studiously fair.”[Page 16]

Whether we look at them as true historical stories or myths surrounding the stories of war Herodotus is admired as a wonderful story writer.

The Histories

Croesus on the pyre (Credit : wikimedia)

The Histories survive as nine books. These were not divisions that Herodotus made.

He begins with the story of King Croesus of Lydia and then goes to the history and customs of the Medes and Persians. The origin of the enmity with the Greeks Herodotus assigned to the huge fuss they made when the Persians carried off Helen.

“Now as for the carrying off of women, it is the deed, they say, of a rogue: but to make a stir about such as are carried off, argues a man a fool. Men of sense care nothing for such women, since it is plain that without their own consent they would never be forced away. The Asiatics, when the Greeks ran off with their women, never troubled themselves about the matter; but the Greeks, for the sake of a single Lacedaemonian girl, collected a vast armament, invaded Asia, and destroyed the kingdom of Priam. Henceforth they ever looked upon the Greeks as their open enemies”

The book ends with Croesus’ defeat by Cyrus.

(Credit : Wikimedia)

Book II is devoted to Egypt. This large digression is justified by the conquest of the country by Cambyses, the son and successor of Cyrus.

Books III and IV address the story of Polycrates of Samos, and Darius, the successor of Cambyses, who leads an unsuccessful expedition against the Scythians. This gives Herodotus the opportunity to describe their country and their way of life. Another campaign of Darius against Cyrenaica, allows the author to report his knowledge of this area of ​​North Africa.

In books V and VI, he discusses the preliminary of the Persian wars: Rise of the Ionian Greeks, the expulsion of Miltiades and Korsun battle of Marathon and death of Darius.

Books VII – IX are devoted to the second Median war (battle of Thermopylae, the Artemision, Salamis, Plataea) and the story ends with the decision by the Athenians in the city of Sestos on the Hellespont.

In the introduction Herodotus told us that he would tell the great deeds done by men, Greeks and Barbarians, worthy to be kept in memory exploits. The investigation (ἱστορίη ) focuses on more varied topics. There are bits of everything. The various elements of the story are only loosely connected both with each other and the main subject, the Persian wars.  He includes a lot of details about the geography and liked to describe the countries, cities, rivers, seas he discovered during his travels.

“For my part, I cannot but laugh when I see numbers of persons drawing maps of the world without having any reason to guide them; making, as they do, the ocean-stream to run all round the earth, and the earth itself to be an exact circle, as if described by a pair of compasses, with Europe and Asia just of the same size.” (4:36 G. Rawlinson translation)

He also wrote about zoology and botany, but his main focus was people their lifestyles, activities, and religions. His work, featuring speeches, anecdotes and, digressions of all kinds, presents itself as a kind of encyclopedia, as entertaining as it is instructive. I really like the digressions which make up the interesting stories.

Readings from the EDX course

Read in Hour 13 we read books one through six and the first part of book seven. The ‘close readings’ only included two from the Histories.

Key word

The key word for hour 13 was  krinein, the “middle voice” for which is krinesthai, and the meaning of which is ‘judge, distinguish, make distinctions’. Although this was the key word we seemed to look a lot more at olbios for the two readings from the Histories.

Solon (Credit : Wikimedia)

Text A has the heading “a story about the meaning of olbios in the histories of Herodotus”. It is about an encounter of Croesus the king of Lydia with Solon the Athenian lawgiver. Testing Solon, Croesus asks him to name the most olbios person on earth, expecting that Solon will name Croesus himself. To his great disappointment, Croesus is told by Solon that an Athenian named Tellos is the most olbios of all humans. Solon uses the word olbios in one way, to mean ‘blessed’ like a cult hero, while Croesus uses it to mean ‘fortunate’ – that is, to be endowed with wealth, power, and prestige. One meaning belongs to the sacred world of cult heroes, while the other meaning belongs to the non-sacred world of ephemeral mortals.

“Athenian guest [xenos], we have heard much about your wisdom [sophiā] and your wandering [planē], how you in your love of wise things [philosopheîn] have traveled all over the world for the sake of a sacred journey [theōriā], so now I desire to ask you who is the most olbios of all men you have ever seen.” Croesus asked this question expecting the answer to be himself, but Solon, instead of flattering him, told it as it was and said, “O King, it is Tellos the Athenian.” Croesus marveled at what he had said and replied sharply, “In what way do you judge [krineinTellos to be the most olbios?” Solon said, “Tellos was from a prosperous city [polis] and his children were good and noble [agathoi]. He saw them all have children of their own, and all of these survived. His life was well off by our standards, and his death was most distinguished: when the Athenians were fighting their neighbors in Eleusis, he came to help, routed the enemy, and died most beautifully. The Athenians buried him at public expense on the spot where he fell, and they honored [tīmazein] him greatly.” (Herodotus Book1. Chapter 30)

Kleobis and Biton (Credit :Wikipedia)

There was only one further reading from the histories and that was Text D under the heading “another story about the meaning of olbios in the histories of Herodotus.” The story is carried on from the above story. Croesus, hoping for second place, then asks Solon who he thought was the next most olbios. Solon answered, Kleobis and Biton, who were two prize winning athletes, he then told the story of these two. Their oxen had not come back from the fields on time, so they took the yoke upon their shoulders took the priestess of Hērā, their mother, to the precinct of Hērā, which was forty-five stadium-lengths away from the city centre of Argos. The men thought the boys were great having such strength and the women thought the priestess blessed having such children.

During the sacrificing and the feasting, the two youths fell asleep inside the sacred precinct of the goddess, and the euphemistic wording that describes this sleep highlights a sacred idea. Here is the idea: these two youths will now be permanently encapsulated in the perfect moment that they had just reached at this climactic point in the story of their lives. As the story says, ‘they never got up again’. That is, the two youths never got up again in this world of mortals. Now they will ‘hold still’ forever in another world, in exactly the perfect moment that they had just achieved.

Some Diversions 

The other readings for the course during hour 13 were from Homer’s texts that we had read previously, which is a shame because there are some really good stories in the texts with good moral judgement to be found within them.  Here are some parts that I would have liked some discussion about.

Book one : Croesus

Gyges of Lydia (Credit : Wikipedia )

One digression explained how Lydian sovereignty passed from the Heraclidae to Croesus’ ancestors. Candaules (c. 700 BC) was the last of the Heraclidae he was so proud of his wife that he offered his servant Gyges a chance to peep at her naked. Gyges was very reluctant and tried to get out of it but Candaules insisted. The queen, who noticed him, didn’t let on but later summoned Gyges, and offered him a choice: die himself, or kill the king and marry her. Gyges choose to be king and  murdered the king. His rule was endorsed by an oracle.  Offerings of Gyges are still to be seen at Delphi in Herodotus’ own time

There is also the strange but true tale of Arion, a pioneering musician and poet. Made to walk the plank at sea, he jumped overboard and rode to safety on a dolphin; a statue of him & the dolphin at Taenarum in southern Italy.

Book two : Kyrnos

There are some interesting speculations on the mysteries of the Nile and why it rises and falls in a regular seasonal pattern.  Herodotus thought that the changing proximity of the sun to Egypt explained the flood patterns.  He also thought the Nile flowed west (instead of south) from Syene. This endorses the view of Etearchus, King of the Ammonians, who told the story of some people who were abducted by African pygmies and taken to a town far to the west of Ammon. Etearchus believed that a river flowing by this town was the source of the Nile.

There is some interesting information on the customs of the Egyptians and the Egyptian foundations of Greek Religion. But I liked his correction of Homer’s story of Paris and Helen. The Egyptian priests say Paris and Helen were blown off course on their way to Troy and shipwrecked near a shrine of Heracles in Egypt. The servants of Paris took refuge at the shrine and denounced him as a rapist to the local Egyptian official, Thonis. Thonis had Paris arrested and took him before King Proteus at Memphis. Proteus conducted an investigation and pronounced Alexander guilty; he kept Helen in Egypt and sent Paris home. He didn’t kill him because of xenia, he was a guest –friend.

“Finally, Proteus declared the following judgment to them, saying, “If I did not make it a point never to kill a stranger who has been caught by the wind and driven to my coasts, I would have punished you on behalf of the Greek, you most vile man. You committed the gravest impiety after you had had your guest-friend’s hospitality: you had your guest-friend’s wife.” (2:115)

“This, the priests said, was how Helen came to Proteus. And, in my opinion, Homer knew this story, too; but seeing that it was not so well suited to epic poetry as the tale of which he made use, he rejected it, showing that he knew it.” (2: 116)

Herodotus asked the Egyptian priests whether in their opinion the Trojan War really happened. Menelaus told their predecessors that it did, but that the Greeks only learned the truth, that Helen was in Egypt, after the fall of Troy. Menelaus went to Memphis to retrieve Helen and was well received by Proteus. He later fled Egypt in disgrace after sacrificing two children to allay contrary wind. Herodotus believes that if the Trojans had had Helen, they would have given her back rather than allow their entire city to be destroyed.

Book three: Timesios

Smerdis (credit : iranchamber.com)

Firstly a story about the Magi conspiracy. The Magi seized the throne of the Persian Empire at Susa by disguising one of them as Smerdis,  ’ brother. The real Smerdis has been executed on Cambyses’ orders.  Cambyses hears a proclamation in the name of King Smerdis and questions Prexaspes who promises that he had buried Smerdis. They found out who this really was and then Cambyses tried to get to Susa, but accidentally jumps on his sword and gravely wounds himself. As he is dying, Cambyses begs the Persians not to let the Persian Empire fall into the hands of the Medes. The nobles do not believe that the Smerdis, a Medes, is an impostor so let him rule for seven months. He wins support by granting tax breaks and freedom from military service. Otanes, a noble Persian, begins to suspect Smerdis.  Otanes’ daughter is one of Smerdis’ wives and Otanes sends her three questions eventually:-

“Now, then, when he lies with you and you see that he is sleeping, feel his ears; if he has ears, rest assured that you are living with Smerdis son of Cyrus; but if he has none, it is Smerdis the Magus.” (3:69)

He has no ears and so he is found out.  Seven nobles plans to overthrow the Magi. The Magi hire Prexapes to address the populace from the palace walls, and to reassure them that Smerdis the son of Cyrus is indeed King. Prexaspes agrees, but when he gets up on the walls, instead of propagandizing for the Magi he tells the people the truth. Then he commits suicide by toppling headlong from the walls. The nobles approach the palace and are encouraged by a bird sign. We learned the importance of bird signs when reading the Odyssey.

“While they were arguing, they saw seven pairs of hawks chase and slash and tear to bits two pairs of vultures. And seeing this all seven consented to Darius’ opinion, and went on to the palace, encouraged by the birds.” (3: 76)

They go into the inner chamber and kill the two Magi there and then run back into the streets, killing every Magian they meet and announcing the news; soon all the Persians are busily killing Magi

“This day is the greatest holy day that all Persians alike keep; they celebrate a great festival on it, which they call the Massacre of the Magi; while the festival lasts no Magus may go outdoors, but during this day the Magi remain in their houses.(3:79)”

From the Book – Darius the Great, (Credit : Gutenberg.org)

Following that story was a constitutional debate where Otanes argued against monarchy, Megabyzus agreed that the monarchy should go, but wanted oligarchy but Darius thought monarchy was the best.  Darius won and Otanes waived his claim to be King. The other six agreed that whoever’s horse neighed first in the morning will be King. Darius’ groom Oebares mated Darius’ horse with a mare that night, and on the next day lead the men past that spot. The horse remembered his night of passion and neighed.  Zeus confirmed the outcome with a flash from a cloudless sky and Darius become King

“Some say that this was Oebares’ plan; but there is another story in Persia besides this: that he rubbed this mare’s vulva with his hand, which he then kept inside his clothing until the six were about to let go their horses at sunrise, when he took his hand out and held it to the nostrils of Darius’ horse, which at once snorted and whinnied.”(3:87)

Darius became King of Asia and set up a stone monument carved with the figure of a horseman to commemorate his accession.

This story reminded me a lot of Thyestes and Atrius and the trick with the Golden Sheep from the House of Atreus stories.  

Book four : Miltiades

Darius III: 336-330 BC (Credit ; thenagain.info)

This starts with the story of how Darius attacked the Scythian tribes that lived in what is now the Ukraine.

There is a lot about the way of life in the north and a large digression on the relative sizes of Asia, Europe and Africa. That digression in turn is interrupted by a digression about a Phonecain expedition to round the Cape of Good Hope. Then he talks about the geography of Scythia and about the Scythian way of life. Their use of marijuana is interesting.  There is also the story of Helen and Paris as I mentioned above, before that is a story that could have come straight out of a fairy tale book.

The Scythian tradition of origin is that before Targitaus the country was country a bare desert. He was a son of Jove and has three sons, Leipoxais, Arpoxais, and Colaxais. Four implements fell from the sky; all made of gold- a plough, a yoke, a battle-axe, and a drinking-cup. The eldest brother saw them first and tried to pick them up. When he got close the gold blazed. The second brother tried and the same thing happened. The youngest brother tried and immediately the flames were extinguished. He picked up the gold and carried home. The two elder brothers agreed that he should have the kingdom.

The Mixoparthenos (Credit ;realmsofgoldthenovel)

Herodutus then tells us the Greeks version of the story which is that of Hercules. Hercules was carrying the cows of Geryon. He arrived in the desert from Scythia. He sheltered from a storm and slept. The mares which drew his chariot disappeared. He looked everywhere for them eventually getting to “the Woodland,” where a cave he found a creature who from the waist upwards was like a woman and below was like a snake. He asked about his mares and she said she had them. To get them back she would have to be his mistress. He agreed but afterwards she delayed and just kept him as long as possible. By the time she gave them up she said she was pregnant with three sons from him. She asked if she should keep them or send them to Hercules. He said to keep them until one could bend his bow and put his belt on then she should keep that one and send the others away. When they grew up the three tried and Scythes, the youngest, succeeded, and so he was allowed to remain. From Scythes, the son of Hercules, were descended the after kings of Scythia.

These stories as they have many of the same elements of the Grimm’s stories that I have read. The youngest of three always wins the challenge for example.


  1. […] and from classical Athens to classical Rome.  Virgil is also more recent that Herodotus who I studied in my Ancient Greek Hero […]

  2. This is wonderful–but Encyclopedia Britannica has it wrong and you should note that. Herodotus is a horrible geographer. Anyone with common knowledge of the layout of Egypt can recognize just how bad of a geographer he is when reading Book II. I love Herodotus, like I love all classics, but we need to be honest about their strengths and weaknesses and not take them for granted.

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Thank you for putting me right on this. I am not much of a geographer myself. You are right that we need to recognize their weaknesses as well as strengths.

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