An Analysis of Herodotus: Book One

As mentioned in my previous blog post, in reviewing my reading of Herodotus I am attempting to find purpose and understand the way in which his work has been written. I plan on finishing this series with posts centered around other historians’ analysis of Herodotus so as to reach an informed conclusion.

The translation of Herodotus I will be using.

Book One has three key elements I will discuss in this analysis: the introduction, Herodotus’ method and his structure.

The Introduction

Herodotus gives us his reason in beginning his ‘research’ with the abduction of Io and Europa as being that these events explain the divide between Persia and Greece. There are two cursory notes I would like to add to this. Firstly, this introduction is mimicked by Thucydides in his ‘Archaeology’. This is shown in the use of the introduction to create the dichotomy between the warring countries of both histories; Thucydides makes use of the Archaeology to distinguish between Athens and Sparta. Secondly, both introductions allude to the importance of the Trojan War. Explanations of Thucydides’ motive for this is that he wanted to prove the importance of the Peloponnesian War. However, Herodotus’ motive remains less clear. It could be that he wanted to similarly draw importance to the Persian Wars by including the Trojan War and thus have had a similar motive to Thucydides. Alternatively, its placement can be explained by the cultural relevance of the Trojan War, due to Homer’s poems, and therefore it was alluded to interest the readers who would have been familiar with them.

Herodotus’ method

Book One provides the fully formed method of Herodotus: his inclusion of the actions of gods and myths are just some examples. Some of his most famous stories are recounted here such as Arion escaping death by riding on a dolphin. However, more interesting methods of investigation are used from the beginning of Book One. For example, Herodotus provides evidence of Croesus’ appeal to the Oracles at Delphi by gifts sent to them which he then lists and provides descriptions of. Not only do these accounts provide insight into the culture of the Lydians and Greeks but they also substantiate the implied thesis that Croesus was arrogant and his downfall was caused by this. Something else that should be noted is that this is a clear instance of when Herodotus must be contextualized: the reference to these objects must be seen in the light of people being able to visit Delphi and see these objects in detail. This begins to give an insight into the multi-faceted audience Herodotus wrote for since their inclusion could reveal a skeptic audience who would not take his claims at face value.

The reader begins to see several of Herodotus’ observations on the culture. His examples include the marriage markets of Babylon, their peculiar method of curing disease and wounds by taking somebody to the marketplace and waiting for a skilled person to provide aid and the Persian practice of adopting other culture’s practices. These observations have two purposes. Firstly, they legitimize his history by providing evidence of his first hand experience with other people and sources. Secondly, they inform us of an understanding of what motivates cultures. The Persian practice of wearing other race’s clothes and taking practices would suggest the existential need to invade and capitalize on other parts of Asia and Greece- this interpretation seems legitimate due to the anecdote of Cyrus presenting the Persians with luxury and then their realization that they must be dominant over the Medes.

Herodotus’ cultural observations are also interesting in another way. Many of them in Book One center around the role of women in society: the Babylonian marriage market and the practice of sleeping with men in the temple of Aphrodite. Herodotus denotes these practices as ‘vile’, perhaps leading to the interpretation that Herodotus’ purpose was to present the clash of civilizations (a claim made false by his portrayal of the nomadic tribes). There is one simple reason as to why these observations are interesting and that is due to their absence in Thucydides. What we learn from Herodotus therefore is that the role of women in the ancient world was far greater than the world Thucydides depicts.

Croesus on the pyre

As aforementioned, Book One provides instances of the divine intervention by the Gods. Herodotus recounts how Croesus was saved by thunder called upon by the Gods and thus is crematory fire was extinguished. This is hard to reconcile with the idea that Herodotus had a greater purpose in writing the history and that he was more than a superstitious, myth-maker. The rational explanation would be that Cyrus changed his mind about burning Croesus alive and decided to rescue him- an interpretation supported by Cyrus’s later appraisal for Croesus’s wisdom, suggesting that he had seen something in the Lydian from the beginning. If a rational explanation can be applied, why include the intervention of the divine? This could be a faithful obedience to the sources which Herodotus had on the event. Though this is plausible my discussion of his structure and purpose, I hope will reveal that the inclusion of the divine intervention is meaningful.

Structure and Purpose

Herodotus’ work is not a rambling but a thoughtful and purposeful construction. There are several instances in which the way he structured his history make this readily apparent.

Book One focuses on the rise and fall of the Lydian Empire, the rise of the Persian Empire and the death of Cyrus as well as the fate of the Greeks. Using the Greek ideas of hubris and virtue contextualizes Herodotus and shows how this is evidence of a structure which points to a greater purpose. The Lydian Empire is acquired by Gyges and his descendants through dishonorable means and the Lydians under Croesus soon become arrogant. One could argue here that Herodotus wanted the reader to see the primacy of the God’s power since Gyges’ descendants have ignored the curse placed on them for their treachery.

However, I think Herodotus is making a secular and rational argument about the rules of Empire. Croesus’ mistake ultimately comes about because he ignores the deeper meaning of the Oracle of Delphi’s riddle, a fact Herodotus makes very clear. Furthermore, Herodotus further emphasizes Croesus’s hubris through the dialogue with Solon. Solon posits that no state can entirely provide virtue and that Croesus’ wealth and empire does not make him the happiest man alive. Instead, Solon shows his wisdom by pointing to the randomness of history and the role of chance, therefore revealing that luck plays a role in the happiness of the individual. Croesus’s hubris is to ignore this advice and to turn his anger on Solon. It is only after Croesus is about to die does he fully understand Solon’s message and therefore the error of his ways. As a side note, it is interesting that Solon is travelling away from Athens so as to preserve his reforms of the constitution at a time in which the Athenians give in to the tyranny of the Pisistratus- perhaps a subtle recognition of the Athenians’ own tendency to ignore wisdom.

solon before croesus.jpg
Solon goes before Croesus

So what does the reader learn from the way that Herodotus has constructed his history? The reader begins to understand the pattern of civilizations of the ancient world. What becomes apparent is that greed and hubris lead to destruction and not greatness and power. Another reader could argue that the description of the rise of the Persia under Cyrus defies this pattern: Cyrus acts to conquer the entirety of Ionia (excluding Miletus) and half of Asia- something he succeeds in doing.

However, I believe the example of Cyrus further goes to show the obvious message Herodotus is trying to convey for three reasons. Firstly, the ascension of Cyrus is due to the failings of his grandfather, Astyages and his hubris in abusing Harpagus and Cyrus. This gives Harpagus reason to incite Cyrus to raise the Persians and defeat Astyages.

Secondly, Cyrus’ ambition does not serve him well. Though he conquers Babylon he is destroyed by the Massagetae. Herodotus describes how he believed that he was superior to other peoples since he had conquered so many and how he lusted after their kingdom. Furthermore, his cruelty he exhibits in slaughtering the Massagetae prince after tricking them into feasting (a part at which one must suspend disbelief- perhaps Herodotus intended some euphemism to mean that they betrayed them over a treaty) leads to his defeat in a battle against their queen.

Thirdly, though Cyrus is often seen as the template for the later Persian rulers there are two actions he commits which could be Herodotus drawing a parallel between him and Xerxes, the more obvious tyrant. Firstly, he tries to punish the Euphrates River when he initially does not cross it; an action paralleled by Xerxes by lashing the Hellespont thus showing an extreme level of arrogance since they both see themselves as above nature. Secondly, is his pursuit after a nomadic race attempting to conquer them. Darius would later repeat this action with a similar level of failure thus showing that Cyrus exhibited the arrogance and irrationality which later leaders would take further.

Cyrus the Great in battle

Anyone willing to defend these charges against Cyrus could cite his willingness to take advice from Croesus and therefore his temperate nature. Whilst Cyrus does make use of Croesus, to the Greek audience this would not necessarily have been met with such admiration since the Greeks despised indecision. In addition, he is not providing an example of a wise and temperate monarch since he has misplaced faith in his adviser- a man who spectacularly lost his military campaign. Cyrus is thus revealed to be superficial, another trait of Xerxes, since he clings to the superficial wisdom of Croesus instead of favoring his tried and tested strategic intellect.

Book One is Herodotus’ template for the growth and failure of empire, perhaps his major theme. This analysis has proved that his structure points to this purpose and this will be proved in the other posts that will be made.













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