Egypt, Persia, and the New Regime: Book III

Book III of Herodotus’s Histories is concerned with the internal battles among the barbarians -a competition for the best of men among the Egyptians and the Persians. Per usual in Herodotus, he presents multiple perspectives and defends one or the other, as in the case of the Greek and Egyptian defense of Helen arriving in Egypt for the Trojan War, contra other barbarian nations that claim she stayed in Ilium for the war.

Persia Conquers Egypt

Cambyses, son of Cyrus, wishes to claim Amasis’s daughter as his wife but Amasis (Pharaoh of Egypt) fearing that Cambyses hopes to take his daughter only as a concubine, sends instead another girl. When Cambyses discovers this truth, he makes war on Amasis. However, the Egyptians present a false version of the story according to Herodotus. Amasis sees safe passage from the Arabians -a culture that worships only Dionysos and Ourania (Heavenly Aphrodite) and heavily values pledges made between men.

The Persians meet the Egyptians and prior to the battle, the Egyptians bring out the sons of Phanes, a defector, and slit their throats into a jar of wine and drink the wine before battle as punishment. Years later, Herodotus claims to have visited the grounds where this battle took place and discovers that the Egyptian skulls are more brittle than the Persian skulls due to increased exposure to sunshine from baldness and shade. Upon invading Egypt, Cambyses orders the corpse of Amasis to be defiled, contrary to both Egyptian and Persian custom.

Elsewhere in Book II Herodotus claims the Egyptians to be the “wisest men on earth” but the Ethiopians are rumored to be the “tallest and most beautiful” people in Book III. Cambyses tries to march against the Ethiopians but they run out of food and withdraw. Upon retreating, Cambyses descends into madness unjustly killing many Egyptians. He then stabs a sacred cow in Egypt, and kills his brother, kills one of his sisters that he married, and other fellow Persians. Croesus is still an advisor to him like Cyrus. Cambyses suffers from the “sacred disease” from birth, today called epilepsy. He tries to kill Croesus after Croesus councils Cambyses to behave with more forethought and he kills the servants protecting him (successfully). However, he soon longs for Croesus, but Cambyses also commits strange acts such as digging up the graves of the dead and inspecting them, and also entering sacred temple spaces.

The Madness of Cambyses

According to Herodotus, Cambyses was mad because he laughed in the face of his cultures own customs, and this is mad because every man believes his own cultures customs to be the best. At one point, when Darius ruled he brought forth Hellenes who said they would never eat the remains of their dead, and then he brought forth Indians who do eat their dead and asked if they would burn their dead. They responded that he shut his mouth! Herodotus defends Pindar for stating in his odes that “custom is king of all” (3.38).

Herodotus also details the Lacedomians invasion and war with Samos along with other Hellenistic city-states. A man who looks and acts like Smerdis appears in Egypt and the Magi revolt against Cambyses encouraging the people to follow Smerdis (ironically the same name and appearance of his brother). Frightened and in sorrow over the senseless past loss of his brother, Cambyses jumps on his horse intending to ride out into battle but his blade stabs his leg and he believes himself mortally wounded in Ecbatana. There Cambyses dies when his flesh became gangrenous, leaving no heirs.

A Conspiracy to Overthrow Cambyses and the Magi

A conspiracy of seven men seeks help from Darius to storm the palace and claim Persia. Darius advises that they act immediately: “…many plans cannot revealed in speech, but only in action, just as there are plans that can be described, but nothing glorious comes from them…For where a lie must be told let it be told. We strive for the same goal whether we lie or tell the truth. Some people lie hoping to gain by convincing their listeners to believe them; others tell the truth hoping that trust will thereby be placed in them. Our goal is the same, though the methods we practice to reach it may differ. If there were nothing to gain, a truthful man would be just as likely to lie as a liar would be to tell the truth. Now then, we will see to it that any guard watching the gates who is willing to let us pass will be rewarded in the future; but whoever tries to resist us let him be marked as our enemy, and then let us push our way through and keep to the task at hand” (3.72). Darius, a keen political man, is concerned with the end goal, not as much with the means by which one arrives at it -such as by lying or telling the truth. The ultimate goal to is rally a herd of people to follow.

The Persians lead a revolt against the Magi slaying as many as people by beheading them. This is till celebrated by Persians (Iranians) today.

Establishment of A New Persian Regime

The conspirators are thus left to persuade the people of the best form of government. Otanes provides a defense of democracy, the rule of the majority, and he uses the insane rule of Cambyses and the Magi as examples of how the nation cannot be governed by a single man. Therefore he argues to elevate the majority to the regime”for the many is the whole” -also translated as “the plurality is really the totality” or “in numbers is everything.” Otanes claims that human nature is corrupt when given such luxurious power that is accountable to no one, and that therefore a Monarchy cannot be sustained as any man will be corrupted.The Monarch possesses all good things and therefore becomes envious and paranoid when the best of men confronts him, and he commits brute force on women and overturns ancestral customs. Otanes is concerned with number fundamentally (3.80).

Next, Megabyzos is not concerned with number, but rather with ridding themselves of a tyrant, however at least a tyrant knows what he is doing, while the common people have no idea was they are doing -the “mob”. “How could someone who has not been educated, who has never seen anything good or decent, be knowledgeable about anything? He pushes and shoves and stumbles into affairs without thought, like a raging torrent” (3.81). Megabyzos defends an oligarchy as the best of men to rule.

Finally, Darius defends a Monarchy. He claims that if we compare the best of three regimes: the best democracy, the best oligarchy, and the best monarchy -monarchy invariably surpasses the other two. Darius does not make his argument based on endurance of the regime, but rather he makes it based on virtue ethics. In an oligarchy many men strive to achieve excellence and thus private rivalries become public hostilities, and when the people rule, incompetence prevails. They form compacts with one another and this incompetence goes on until one steps forth as the leader, and therefore monarchy redeems the democracy. Lastly, Darius asks from where did our freedom come from? Since neither from the people or from a group of men, it came from a monarchy. Therefore Monarchy should prevail (3.82).

The irony of the situation is that in making the decision, the men constitute an oligarchy -a chosen few of men who decide by a majority vote that Darius’s conception of the best regime is superior. Onates also, like a monarch, preserves his own family from political repercussions and the laws of the city. The regime that establishes a future regime for the barbarian Persians, is a blend of three best regimes.

The Kingship of Darius

The remaining four men decide in favor of Monarchy but Otanes addressed them stating that he would relent only if his family would not be required to submit to the new Persian King -a tradition lasting to Herodotus’s day. They decided to ride their horses outside the city and the first horse that made a noise, his horsemen would be king. Darius decided to rig his kingship by having his servant tie his mule to a gate just outside the city. That morning it happened as planned along with thunder and lightning from the sky -and the remaining men prostrated themselves before Darius. Another story told by other Persians is that his horseman rubbed the genitals of another horse and put it before the horses nose once outside the city. Therefore Darius became ruler of all of Asia- except for the Arabs who had formed an alliance rather than submit to slavery. He divides the kingdom into 20 sections and establishes a tribute system.

Customs of the Indians and the Conquering of Babylon

Herodotus lists the customs of the Indians such as the many people with different languages, the black skin like the Ethiopians, cannibalism, camels, heat of the sun and so on. India is the furthest East in the inhabitable world, Arabia the furthest to the South.

Darius lays siege to Babylon employing similar tactics to Cyrus when they try to revolt. However a soldier, Zopyros mutilated himself and pretended to defect to Babylon. Once he gained their trust, he opened the gates and let in the Persians to conquer Babylon. Darius then impaled 3,000 of the highest ranking Babylonians.


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

The Rise of Egypt: Notes on Book II

Book II of Herodotus’s Histories is often called “Euterpe,” named for the muse of the past meaning “rejoicing well” or “delight.”

In beginning to discuss the much envied empire of the Egyptians, Herodotus opens with an account of the Egyptian quest for origins, not merely their own, but rather for all humans. They had believed themselves to be the oldest until king Psammetichos inquired, and went that failed he conducted an experiment and found that the Phrygians were the oldest people. He selected two children to be raised by a shepherd with the flock and not spoken to in order that he might learn which language is most primal. Their first words were beckos meaning “bread” in Phrygian.

Egyptian Customs

Herodotus notes that the Egyptians were first to correctly divide up the year into twelve parts and also name the twelve gods, and are much wiser than the Hellenes in this respect. The first king they knew of was Min (or Menes) and the Nile is the greatest of all rivers. The Egyptian system is superior to the Hellenes in that its cyclical provision of water is beneficial for agriculture, whereas the Hellenes rely on the fruits of Zeus alone. The Egyptians require the least labor of all mankind because the river allows grain to grow without the plow or the hoe. Herodotus searched in vain for an answer as to why the Nile flooded as he traveled along it to the Egyptians and the Ethiopians.

Herodotus provides an extensive overview of Egypt because the “country has more marvels and monuments that defy description than any other” (2.35). Some strange Egyptian customs: they write from right to left in opposition to the Hellenes, the women urinate standing up and the men sitting down, they have two scripts a sacred and a public script (today we acknowledge three), they shave their heads and circumcise their young, they are the “most pious” of all peoples, only men are priests, Herakles is considered one of the twelve of their gods (Herodotus travels to Phoenicia to inquire about the gods).

Herodotus comes to the conclusion that the names of the gods came to Hellas from barbarians, specifically from Egypt. This excludes Poseidon who came from the pious Libyans and the Dioskouroi, the heroes whose origins are unknown. Additionally, that the Pelasgians brought the deities to Hellas. Herodotus says that Homer and Hesiod are the instructors of the Hellenes regarding all things theogony. Herodotus also describes the Egyptian process of embalming, household cats (the Egyptians live among the animals), Nile crocodiles, the myth of the Phoenix, and the ibis or winged serpent. Herodotus discusses incarnation predicated on the belief that the soul is immortal and gets transmuted to different bodies across a 3,000 year span.

Egypt had 330 kings at the time, all of them Egyptian men except 18 Ethiopians and one female, Nitokris, the same ruler of Babylon elsewhere mentioned. Significant rulers he mentions include Sesostris the conqueror of the Scythians who constructed the temples and canals, built by the enslaved multitudes he had conquered, and Herodotus also gave an account of Pheros who cured his blindness, son of Sesostris. The priests of Egypt also knew of Alexandros (Paris) and his abduction of Paris because a strong wind blew him off course to Egypt briefly where his crew turned him in to the king Proteus, the mythical king from Homeric literature. Herodotus defends the assertion that Homer left clues in the Iliad to show that Alexandros and Helen were rerouted through Egypt, but that the Cypria, a poem that detailed the direct flight of Alexandros and Helen from Sparta to Troy, is fallacious -a now lost poem that was once attributed to Homer but later attributed to other poets. He agrees with this notion because if the Trojans did have Helen prior to the war Priam would certainly have returned her to the Achaeans. Herodotus claims that when injustices like Alexandros’s are committed, retribution from the gods is swift. Euripides is said to have agreed with Herodotus with the assertion that Helen remained in Egypt during the war.

Proteus is succeeded by Rhampsinitos, who is succeeded Cheops (builder of the famous pyramid Cheops), succeeded by Chephren, succeeded by the beneficent Mykerinos, succeeded by Asychis -Herodotus estimates the age of Egypt to be 11,340 years old. In the origins, Egypt was ruled by the gods, the last of whom was Horus son of Osiris, the Hellenes call him Apollo.

Herodotus closes Book II with the reign of Amasis who captures Cyprus.


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

The Empires of Croesus and Cyrus

The notion of imperial conquest, or the need to build a city that is enduring, is central to the inquiries of Herodotus. What is lasting human greatness? How can we inquire into our shared human past while preserving the question of enduring greatness? What is the just city? Is the just city also an enduring city? These and many other questions are integral to Herodotus’s work.

The first barbarian empire identified in the text is that of the Lydians, inherited from the actions of Gyges, a man who by fate acquired a vast empire. His descendants, Sadyattes and Alyattes, conquered the surrounding territories. When conquering Miletus, they laid siege to the city and nearly burned down every house in order to maintain a slave labor population, the fruits of which they could plunder. The empire of the Lydians comes to us as a tyrannical rule, one that is prone to frequent revolution and attack. A self-conscious rule that destroys the cultures of the people it conquers (see the burning of the temple of Athena, called ‘Asseos’ 1.19). Croesus, the son of Alyattes, inherited this vast kingdom and expanded it into Asia even further, and in his vast splendor, Croesus reclined comfortably in his riches until Solon, the lawmaker of Athens, arrived in his travels at Sardis. When Solon failed to affirm either Croesus’s wealth or his happiness, Croesus grew angry. Croesus asks Solon if he is nothing more than the “common man”. Solon’s advice is to look to the end of a man’s life to discover his true happiness and wealth, otherwise he is merely a lucky man. Thus, if we look to the ends of Croesus’s empire, we find it in decay -his son was killed in a boar hunting accident, and his empire was eventually conquered by Cyrus’s Persian empire. Croesus’s empire had desperately chased after prosperity and happiness at the same time, and tragiclly had found neither. Though Croesus was kept alive as a trusted advisor to Cyrus, it was only because of Croesus’s account of Solon’s visit which he delivered when nearly burned alive by Cyrus.

In contrast, the Persian Empire has its roots in rebellion as Cyrus once overthrew the Medes under Astyagas and claimed kingship. As a result of the war, the Empire lived under constant war and expansion in Cyrus’s 29 year rule from the Medes to the Lydians to Ionia and Babylon. However, unlike the Lydians, the Persians did not subjugate its conquered territories. Client cities were all allowed to adopt and maintain their cultural customs, and in fact, the Persians were liberal enough to assimilate and incorporate the habits and practices of their conquests, as well, unlike the Scythians -a nomadic tribe who ruthlessly ruled Asia for a brief two decades but collapsed as they did not integrate any new customs into their tribe and also failed to establish an enduring regime. However, Cyrus was often praised by his conquered peoples, earning him the moniker of “The Great”. Elsewhere in the Biblical Book of Isaiah, Cyrus is referred to by the subjugated Jews as the “Annointed One” (Isaiah 45:1). He was remembered for his empire that did not force Persian influence upon its conquered territories, but rather adopted the various cultures, unlike the forced subjugation of the Scythians wo were a nomadic group without a connection to place.


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

Confucius and Socrates

Among Western scholars, comparisons between Confucian literature and the Platonic corpus are made frequently. To their credit, both literary characters are memorable for their obsession with virtue and the appropriate means of political life. Both, presumably, emphasize the importance of a rigid social or political order, devotion among the citizenry, and both were considered a threat to their cities in their day -Socrates was condemned to death and Confucius (Master Kong) was exiled during the Warring States period of ancient China. Both can claim a dogma that degenerated into a religion in future ages, Confucius can be said to be the founder of the Confucian state religion that lasted for thousands of years in China that yielded the origins of certain politico-theological doctrines such as the ‘Mandate of Heaven.’ Plato’s Socrates, distinct from the Socrates we encounter in Xenophon, can be said to be the founder of all Western philosophy and the genesis of later religious doctrines, such as Christianity -a notable inversion, or perhaps, perversion of ‘Platonism.’

However, we also are compelled to acknowledge the sharp distinctions that exist between Kongfuzi and Socrates, distinctions that reveal considerable polarizations between what is now called ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ philosophy. First, it should be emphasized that Socrates claimed not to possess knowledge and only to ask questions, whereas Confucius answers the questions of his pupils with distinct responses, often ontological responses related to appropriate religious or political behavior. Socrates often explored ‘what is’ questions with his interlocutors to continue to challenge them to seek answers, rather than relying on the rumors of the masses, or the insubstantial knowledge of the Sophists, akin to public lawyers in antiquity. This relentlessly revolutionary, self-overcoming, that is central to Western civilization, forms the grounding for the future: capitalism, republicanism, and freedom. Second, Confucius strongly encouraged obedience to strict ancestor worship and religious doctrines, for the sake of an orderly state/city. However, Socrates is often called a skeptic. One of the two charges brought against him in Athens is that of not respecting the gods of the city. Socrates is a freethinker, though he does not clearly, explicitly encourage a youthful disrespect for the gods of Athens.

The Confucian genesis and the Socratic legacy each demonstrate some stark distinctions that have endured for thousands of years, establishing the foundations of classical Chinese civilization and Western civilization.