The Purpose of the Histories: Notes on Book I

Book I Herodotus’s Histories is often called “Kleio,” named for the muse of the past meaning the “Proclaimer” or the “Rejoicer” (literally meaning “to recount” or “to make famous”).

The Causes of the Persian Wars
At the outset, in the proem of Book I of Herodotus’s Inquiries, he first identifies himself as the author hailing from Halicarnassus in Asia Minor. Unlike Homer, Herodotus wants his name to be remembered as well as his polis. He calls his work a ‘performance’ or ‘display’ with the objective of ensuring “that human events do not fade with time” and that the deeds of both Hellenes and barbarians do “not go unsung”. He is not a partial writer, at least explicitly, for one side or another. It should be noted that Herodotus’s history is not explicitly a work of propaganda because he is concerned with universal causes and great deeds, from both sides of the Persian Wars. However, the key addition that Herodotus makes over the Homeric poems is that he is also concerned with the causes that led to the barbarians and the Hellenes to make war on one another. Is it not the case that all readers of Homer find themselves, at one point or another, wondering why the Achaeans and the Trojans are embroiled in battle over the possession of Helen?

Rumors of the Persian War

Persian authorities claim the dispute had origins in the Phoenicians who brought materials for trade to Argos in Hellas, and after 5 or 6 days many women including the king’s daughter, Io, came down and they were kidnapped and taken to Egypt, though the Hellenes disagree with this account and the Phoenicians claim she came willingly once having intercourse with the captain and realizing she was pregnant. In response, the Hellenes, specifically Cretans, abducted the king’s daughter from Tyre named Europa. A second crime was then committed by the Hellenes -they kidnapped the king’s daughter, Medea, in the territory of Aias at Colchis, and they refused to either return her or provide compensation. This led to the Homeric origins -an account of the Homeric songs. Alexandros, or Paris son of Priam, took a wife for himself -Helen- but they were denied the request to return Helen because they refused to satisfy others for the abduction of Medea. According to Herodotus, the Persians believe that only unjust men abduct other women, though they cared not for the women, but the Hellenes mustered a massive expedition and leveled the city of Troy (Priam) in Asia. This has been the cause of their animosity towards one another, according to the Persians, and Herodotus claims not to affirm either account, “I myself have no intention of affirming that these events occurred thus” (1.5).

The Rise of Croesus and the Lydians

Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed exhibited 1830 by William Etty 1787-1849
“Candaules, King of Lydia Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges” by William Etty (1820)

However, Herodotus does claim knowledge of the man who first made transgressions against the Hellenes: Croesus, leader of the Lydians, who subjugated many of the Hellenes (the Ionians, Aeolians, and the Asian Dorians) and made them unfree. The history of the Lydians in western Asia began with king Lydus of the Heraklid name, descended from a slave-woman named Iardanos, passed down from father to son for 505 years until it reached Kandaules. Kandaules fell in love with his wife and wanted to convince his favorite bodyguard, Gyges, that his wife was the most beautiful in the world. Since most people believe their ears less than their eyes, he convinces Gyges to see her naked hiding behind a door and sneaking out before she sees him. Gyges is skeptical but is persuaded by the king. In the act, Kandaules’s wife spies him but decides, instead of taking immediate recourse, to get even with Kandaules. Among the Lydians, and all barbarians, it was a great disgrace to even see a male naked. The next day, she gave Gyges a choice, either kill Kandaules and take the kingdom or else kill himself. Despite his best efforts, Gyges could not persuade her -he had no escape as in the case of Kandaules. Therefore, he killed the king and took the kingdom, gaining both knowledge and power, and replacing the Heraklids with the Mermnads. Gyges was mentioned the poetry of Archilochus and his name was found on a tablet visiting the court of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria. Gyges was succeeded by Ardys, Sadyattes, Alyattes (Herodotus details his war with Milesians inherited from his father).

The story of Gyges offers a particularly instructive lesson from Herodotus. Much of his stories are recounted from different nations, that is to say they are mere rumors that cannot be verified. However, Gyges sees the truth with his own eyes, rather than hearing of it through his ears, and through  alethea, or Greek for unveiling to reveal truth, Gyges gains both knowledge and power. Perhaps Herodotus is revealing to readers that it is better to see with one’s eyes, rather than place trust in rumors, thus discounting much of his own inquiry. A similar but notably different account of Gyges and a ring that has the power of invisibility is presented by Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic Books I-II.

Next Herodotus discusses Periandros, the tyrant of Corinth. During his lifetime a man named Arion was carried by a dolphin to shore with a lyre and was the first to create a dithyramb, or a song to Dionysus later mentioned in the poems of Archilochus. This story is also mentioned six centuries later by Pausanias who also saw the small statue of a man being carried by dolphins at Corinth. After this brief interlude, Herodotus returns to to the story of the rise of Croesus, son of Alyattes, who first offended the Hellenes by attacking the Ephesians, then the Ionians, then the Aeolians. He subjugated all of the Hellenes living in Asia Minor, and thus directed his gaze toward those living along the Aegean, so he headed to Sardis and met Solon (almost certainly a fictional account). Solon, of course, was the wise archon or lawgiver of Athens who traveled abroad for “some sight-seeing” but Herodotus thinks his travels were more for the cause of not repealing any of his laws that he laid down. Solon went both to Egypt and then to the court of Croesus at Sardis to view his treasures.

Croesus asks Solon if he thinks he is the happiest and most prosperous man Solon has seen in his travels, but Solon does not flatter him. Solon, instead, declares Tellus the Athenian to be the happiest and most prosperous because he had 1) lived in a famous city 2) had good and noble children 3) was well off by Athenian standards of living 4) and he ended his life in the greatest glory by dying defending Athens on the battlefield. In second places, Solon declared Cleobis and Biton because they died proving themselves the best of men at the festival of Hera. Croesus grows andry and Solon responds:

“You seem to be very wealthy, and you rule over many people, but I cannot yet tell you the answer you asked for until I learned how you have ended your life. You see the man who is very wealthy is no more happy and prosperous than the man who has only enough to live from day to day, unless good fortune stays with him and he retains his fair and noble possessions right up until he departs this life happily. For many wealthy are unhappy, while many others who have more modest resources are fortunate. The man who has great wealth but is unhappy outdoes the fortunate man in only two ways, while the fortunate man outdoes him in many. The former is more capable of gratifying his passions and of sustaining himself in adversity, but the fortunate man, although he does not have the same ability to sustain himself in adversity or passion, avoids these anyway by virtue of his good fortune. Moreover he has nor injury, sickness, no painful experiences; what he does have is good children and good looks. Now, if in addition to all these things, he ends his life well, too, then this is the man you are looking for; he alone deserves to be called happy and prosperous. But before he dies, refrain from calling him this- one should rather call him lucky” (1.32,7).

Solon advises Croesus to look to the end of the matter in all things. Angry, Croesus has a dream that his son Atys will die soon by the spear, and, eager to rescue his son from his fate, rushed him into marriage and forbade him from going out to kill a wild boar ravaging the countryside, until his son reminds him that a boar cannot throw a spear so he allowed it. However, his son was hit by an accidental spear, a man Croesus had pardoned for the guilt of murder days before. He grieved until he saw the growing power of Persia and wondered if he could meet their power in battle, and he sent men to visit the oracles for advice. He declares the Oracle at Delphi the only true oracle and consults her three times.

Regimes of Athens and Sparta

Peisistratos rises to power in Athens by convincing the people that he is being attacked and for them to rant him protection. Therefore he takes over the Acropolis and the rest of Athens with it. Herodotus says he kept the laws intact and ruled with a “moderate and good government” (1.59). He was overtaken by Megakles and Lykourgos, but they fell into quarrelsome factions once again, and asked Peisistratos to return -he reclaimed Athens for a third tyranny.

However, the Spartans “experienced the worst government of nearly all the Hellenes” (1.65): enforced isolation and the rigorous laws of Lykourgos. They try to conquer Tegea following the Oracle of Delphi’s advice and bring the bones of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, to Sparta. In their successes, Croesus builds an alliance with Sparta and takes Cappadocia and the Halys River becomes the divide between the Median and Lydian empires. However his conquests is stopped by an eclipse predicted by Thales of Miletus.

Cyrus and Croesus

Enter the scene: Cyrus, son of Astyagas, of Persia. Both he and Croesus of Lydia come into battle against one another. Croesus is forced to retreat to Sardis and summon his Egyptian and Spartan allies. Cyrus drives the Lydians behind the walls of Sardis by putting men who were not necessarily soldiers on the camels carrying food and supplies so as to inflate the number of his armies. The Spartans could not provide because they were battling the Argives with 300 men versus their 300 men. The Persians took Sardis by climbing the steep acropolis where no guards were posted and took the city. They capture Croesus when his mute son shouts for them not to kill the king (speaking for the first time in his life), and they prepare a large pyre to burn Croesus on, and Croesus reflects on the words of Solon that Cyrus asks him to reiterate, and then Cyrus begins to fear retribution, “contemplating the fact that nothing is really secure and certain for human beings” (1.86). Croesus becomes an advisor for Cyrus instructing him on how to ensure that the Persians do not loot and take too much for themselves and overthrow Cyrus. Meanwhile, the Oracle at Delphi tells Croesus that he must atone for the wrong of his ancestor Gyges, from four generations prior.

This is the story of Croesus who admits his wrong and that the god was correct, in the first conquest of Ionia. The Lydians were extraordinary for many reasons, namely for the large incredible tomb built for Croesus’s father, Alyattes in Sardis (still seen today) matched only by the structures of the Babylonians and the Egyptians.

The Rise of Cyrus and the Persians
Herodotus asks two questions regarding Cyrus: who was this man who destroyed the empire of Croesus? And how did the Persians become leaders of Asia? He uses, as sources, the Persians who did not have an intention of magnifying the persona of Cyrus, but knows three other ways to tell the story -a total of four stories.

The Medes and the Scythians

The tale begins with the Assyrians who ruled Asia for 520 years until the Medes revolted against the shackles of slavery as the result of Deiokes, leader of the Medes. Deiokes was a wise judge, and the Medes became dependent on his wisdom so he stopped judging with nothing in return and the villages became rife with robbery and anarchy. In order to preserve order, the Medes appointed him as their king -this is notably different from the ways in which the Hebrews appointed Saul as their king in order to become a “nation like other nations” (Book of I Kings). Deiokes orders a royal palace built for him at Ecbatana and in his power he has spies throughout the region and becomes isolated from the people. After 53 years, his son Phraortes became king and attacked the Persians. Between Phraortes and Cyaxeres (his son) they attacked the Assyrians at Nineveh and the Lydians at the battle of the eclipse (earlier mentioned as predicted by Thales).

However, the Medes were eventually defeated by the Scythians who conquered all of Asia. They, in conjunction with the Medes, embarked to  Egypt through Palestinian Syria, but some stayed behind and plundered the sanctuary of Aphrodite Ourania. As a result, the goddess inflicted upon the Scythians the “female disease” or the disease of lacking manhood (literally “man-woman”). The Scythians were arrogant and brutal in their rulership of Asia. Because of their decadence, the Medes regained control of Asia.

The Birth of Cyrus

Astyagas, son of Cyaxeres of the Medes has a dream (dream #1): in which his daughter Mandane urinated so copiously that she filled up his city and flooded all of Asia. After the magis interpretation (not given) he is fearful and marries her to a well-born Persian, instead of a Mede, named Cambyses. After one year, he has another dream (dream #2): in which a vine grows out of his daughters genitals and covers the entirety of Asia. He then has Mandane return from Persia, and she was with child giving birth to Cyrus.

Astyagas, paranoid, tries to arrange to have Cyrus killed by Harpagos a relative who looked after his affairs, and whom he trusted more than any other. However, Harpagos, in private to his wife, gives reasons for not killing Cyrus, namely that they are related and also, more diplomatically, he recalls that Astyagas does not have another male heir, and by murdering the child he puts himself in danger from Mandane. He, therefore, sends a message to a cowherder, Mitradates. But Mitradates’s wife gives birth to a stillborn child, so instead they place their dead child in the wilderness and raise Cyrus instead.

Cyrus’s Youth

At the age of ten, some of the young boys play together and Cyrus plays the role of king, marshaling and shepherding the people. As punishment for inflicting pain on others, Astyagas notices two things about Cyrus, that they share similar facial features and also that he speaks more like a freeman than a slave -the Greeks found a natural hierarchy among people. As punishment for his actions, Astyagas summons Harpagos’s son, cuts him limb from limb and feeds him to Harpagos, like a tyrant. Harpagos keeps his composure upon discovering that he has just eaten his son, for reasons Herodotus does not state. In consulting with the Magi about what to do with Cyrus, they convince Astyagas to let him live, for reasons they say relate to their own personal self-interest out of preserving his kingship.

Cyrus Leads A Persian Rebellion Against the Medes

Therefore, Astyagas allows Cyrus to return to Persia where he grows into a man with a desire to exact vengeance against Astyagas, though he has no power. Meanwhile Astyagas alienates the Medes by hs brutal behavior and his most trusted advisor, Harpagos, sends a message enclosed in the belly of a hare to Cyrus encouraging him to spawn a rebellion in Persia against the Medes. As such, he persuaded the Persians that Astyagas had made him general of the armies of Persia (people who are descended from Perseus) and he brings them great meats and sacrifices for them to recline and relax. Next, he instructs them that if they obey his commands, they will have many days like this without slavery. Lastly, he claims that it is by divine providence that he was born for this opportunity.

When Astyagas heard of this, he appointed Harpagos as his general of the armies, and the Medes lost the first battle terribly. In response, he issued a threat to Cyrus and impaled the magi who led him astray and ordered all of the remaining men in Ecbatana to fight but they lost again and Astyages was captured alive. Harpagos went to gloat over Astyages as revenge for cooking his only son, but Astyages tells Harpagos that he is the most foolish and unjust of men. Foolish because he never realized that he could have been king and unjust because he has sold the Medes into Persian slavery. Cyrus did not treat him poorly, but rather kept him by his side until his death. The Medes never regained their power over Asia after the Persian revolt, though they later unsuccessfully tried to revolt against King Darius of Persia, and Cyrus made his Persian capital at Ecbatana.

Persian Customs

Herodotus notes that the Persians do not erect statues or temples because, unlike the Hellenes, they do not believe the gods have human qualities. They sacrifice to the elements instead of the Hellenic gods. However, they also sacrifice to Aphrodite (Mylitta to the Assyrians and Mitra to the Persians), they learned this from the Assyrians and Arabians. Birthdays are held with the highest honors of all the days of the year. They eat copiously and drink lots of wine, typically the most important conversations are held while drunk.

The Persians, like the Medes, have a special care for their neighbors, those who live further away are instead deemed inferior. Both have a highly progressive hierarchy, beginning from the top down. The Persians also actively adopt foreign customs, for those that they deem to be superior to their own.

Herodotus praises the custom of sons not seeing their fathers for the first five years of their lives so that if they die, their fathers will not be filled with grief. He also praises the custom of the Persian king not to kill anyone for a single offense. The Persians think it most disgraceful for a man to lie or incur debt.

Persia and Ionia

After the fall of the Lydians and the Medes, the Ionians sent messages to submit to Cyrus under the same conditions in which they were ruled under Croesus of the Lydians. However, Cyrus refused to accept their offer as they rejected his plea to revolt against Medes prior. Therefore, Ionia prepared for battle and sent a request for aid to Sparta, although the Milesians were protected by the Persians.

The Lacademonians (Sparta) refused to help Ionia but also issued a messenger to Cyrus warning Persia not to invite Hellenic territory because the Spartans would not accept it. Cyrus then insulted the Lacademonians by criticizing their use of public markets (agoras) which are totally foreign in Persia, and he prepares to invade Babylon and Egypt.

Cyrus consults Croesus about the Lydians who have rebelled, and Croesus instructs Cyrus, instead of leveling the Lydians, to have them wear soft boots and tunics, to play the lyre, and become mere shopkeepers. In this way they will become a nation of women more than of men and not rebel against his rule -Cyrus follows his advice, embarking on a new kind of empire that subordinates its people by their own will to recline. Meanwhile, the general Harpagos conquered much of Ionia by building large earth works and many of the Ionians flee their home cities rather than tolerate slavery under Cyrus.

Next Cyrus’s general Harpagos conquered much of the Asia Minor territories, including the Carians, Caunians, and the Lycians -whom the Hellenes obtained significant customs from. The Lycians held out against Harpagos and burned down their city, killed themselves and their families rather than submit to slavery.

Cyrus Conquers Babylon

After he had conquered all of mainland Asia, he continues onto Babylon, the “strongest and most powerful” of Assyria’s cities, after Nineveh was leveled. Herodotus then describes the fortifications and geography of the city of city of Babylon -geographic descriptions are just as important to the understanding of a particular culture in the ancient world. He describes the mighty temple of Zeus Belos, or Baal, the greatest god of the Assyrian pantheon (the temples in Assyria are often called Ziggurats). He also describes the boats that carry trade down the Euphrates and the boats crafted by the Armenians for trade, as well. He lists two great female rulers of Babylon: Semiramis ad Nitokris, both known for large construction projects, such as river embankments. Nitokris was buried in a tomb over the most frequented gate of the city with an inscription beckoning future rulers of Babylon to only open the tomb if they were in need of money, otherwise terrible things would come of their actions. When King Darius decided to open the tomb, all he found was a note stating that he was insatiable and greedy for opening her tomb.

In order to conquer Babylon, Cyrus had to use clever maneuvers. The city was prepared for a long siege after watching the Persians conquer so many other cities before them so they stockpiled enough resources within its walls to last them years. Thus, during the siege, Cyrus decided to reroute the river Euphrates so that it flowed only thigh-high and the men were able to enter the city through the riverbed that flows right through the middle of Babylon.

The wisest custom of the Babylonians, according to Herodotus, is that of auctioning the most beautiful women to a crowd of men, in order of their beauty. The term Herodotus uses for ‘marriage’ is more synonymous with making a union of households. However, once the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians and became impoverished, they were forced to make their daughters prostitutes rather than wives. The second wisest custom is that they do not use physicians, but rather sick people are led out to the public square and the general public can advise about their illness.

The most “disgusting” of the Babylonian customs is the ritual prostitution of wives. Once in her life, every woman goes to the temple of Mylitta (Assyrian word for Aphrodite) and wait until a stranger gives her some silver and has intercourse with her. The tall and beautiful women will leave quickly, but some women have had to wait for either three or four years to complete their duty to the goddess.

The Death of Cyrus and the Massagetai

Next, Cyrus turns his gaze to Massagetai to the east of Babylon where some say a Scythian tribe dwells. The two reasons Cyrus wanted to make war with the Massagetai were because his birth seemed super-human, and his past good fortunes in his campaigns. Cyrus tried to win over their ruler, the queen Tomyris, but she refused his courtship and he prepared for battle. However, she gave him an alternative, let them meet on the field of battle in Persian territory or otherwise pass through her territory. Cyrus’s council of advisors unanimously agreed to the former, but Croesus, former ruler of the Lydians, disagreed. He advised Cyrus not to appear as retreating in the face of a woman, but also if they lost the battle his empire would be ruined, as good fortunes of men do not last forever. He advised bringing food and wine with the best parts of his army to present well to the Massagetai so they will learn the higher ways of the Persians. Croesus, ever the strategist in post rulership as Cyrus’s council, is concerned with winning a war of what we would call “hearts and minds.” Croesus’s strategy succeeds as the Massagetai are drawn to the banquets and then slayed once they are sated, and the Queen’s son was captured. After begging for release, Cyrus grants him freedom but the Queen’s son, Spargapises killed himself. This greatly upsets the Queen and she meets Cyrus for battle in what Herodotus calls the most violent of the barbarian battles. Both sides refused to back down and the Massagetai eventually prevailed killing many Persians including Cyrus. Tomyris then finds Cyrus’s body and abuses it, putting his head in a cask of blood and declaring herself the victor.

In the closing paragraphs of Book I, Herodotus describes a dream Cyrus has of Darius, the son of Hyaspes of the Achaemenids, in which he gains wings and spreads them over all of Asia and Europe. Without consulting the magi, he concludes that Darius is trying to conspire against him, but in fact, the dream is meant to convey that Cyrus will die soon and that Darius will succeed him in the future.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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