Analysis of Herodotus: Book Two

Herodotus quickly moves from the failure of Cyrus to beat the Massagetae to Egypt. His justification for his study of Egypt is vague and amounts to the interest he has in the artifacts and monuments found here; a justification applicable to any of the civilizations he has previously digressed on. I intend to discuss several motivations Herodotus had and the observations that can be made about this part of his history.

Ancient Egypt

Why Egypt?

Going beyond Herodotus’ stated motivation for describing the history of Egypt, one which I have already argued is tenuous, it seems that there are multiple possibilities. His history is fundamentally an ‘inquiry’ and therefore Egypt arguably fits into this description perfectly due to its age and status as the eldest civilization. He starts by tracing the language back and relating an anecdote about Psammetichus and how this proves that the Egyptians were the oldest group of humans in existence.

On another level, Egypt does seem to be a natural subject due to its unique placement in the world. Herodotus notes many cultural and religious differences to other nations, such as the practice of circumcision and priests shaving their bodies. These clearly were aspects of societies which fascinated him since his description of visiting various temples is evidence of his devotion to understanding the people.

Similarly, the presence of monuments and artifacts is significant to Egypt in particular. The pyramids, which he speculates on their design and construction, and the building of dikes and labyrinths would be intriguing to the any visitor of the ancient world. However, Herodotus was not just the inquisitive Greek, as stated previously, his work has a clear logical construction to it. Therefore this does not appear to be the only reason for this divergence.

Though through Amasis the reader returns to the conquests of the Persians, I will argue there are deeper points Herodotus is indicating the reader towards: primarily, the connections and contrasts between Greece and Egypt.



Egypt and Greece

Being a Greek means that Herodotus will analyse his observations from the viewpoint of a Greek. This is not to say, as some do, that Herodotus was a cultural absolutist who was critical or anti-Easterners. On the contrary, many of his observations point to the faults that the Greeks had.

Beginning with the similarities between the two countries the reader learns of the class system that the Greeks, particularly the Lacedaemonians, adopted from the Egyptians. This involved the denigration of the artisan classes in both societies. Though the Greek rule, even in tyrannical Greek countries such as Corinth, was significantly different it does point to an interesting similarity. This is especially since class is defined by the socio-economic conditions; something known to be different across the two countries since under Sesostris the Egyptians colonized further afield.

Furthermore, a direct connection between Athens and Egypt is established through Solon, one of the most important legislators in Athenians history. Solon took a law from the Egyptians about the declaration of income to a governor with refusal punished by death. Herodotus praises the law’s longevity (calling it an ‘excellent law’) providing greater evidence for the influence of Egypt as one of the first civilized nations in the world. I will note now that Herodotus is showing that Greek society was less insular than it may appear under the control of Cyrus and Croesus; it had developed a fluid relationship with other parts of the world. This will contrast with later Books in which Athens and Sparta develop in their own ways to combat the Persians.

Herodotus also relates a myth which the Greeks held dear about Heracles being taken to the alter in Egypt but turning on his captors and killing hundreds of them. Herodotus is mocking of the Greeks for believing it- he points out the rather obvious issue that one man cannot kill hundreds and that Heracles was a man thus would not be sacrificed as an animal (since he observes that the Egyptians would only kill certain animals). However, the nature of the story, a Greek hero nearly sacrificed like an animal, does reveal an archaic, almost barbaric attitude the Greeks could have about outsiders. Thus Herodotus is not revealing a bias in himself, but the attitude of Greeks.

In using Egypt Herodotus manages to highlight several aspects of Greek culture. His sources on this seem accurate; not only does he have the evidence he gleans from temples, priests and artifacts but he takes much of what he knows, as he relates to the reader, from Carian and Ionian colonies in Egypt. This not only shows that he was accurate and scientific in his records but that certain Greeks were becoming acquainted with the outside world.

Heracles challenging the Egyptians, recorded on a Greek vase.

Nature and Egypt

Much of the first part of the Book is taken up with a lengthy description of the Nile. It serves its purpose in putting Egypt as a place into context and therefore is important to the Ancient audience. In addition, this reveals the close proximity to Ethiopia (see above map) and the Ammonians which becomes relevant in Cambyses conquests in Book 3. However, nature as a theme across Herodotus’ work does have a more relevant role particularly in examining how it is controlled by humans.

The first King of Egypt that Herodotus recalls, and possibly the very first king, was Menes. His greatest achievement was to build dikes and therefore create a land in which Memphis could be built. Therefore the diversion of nature and construction of the city was important. This is not considered a revolutionary observation, particularly in a post-anthropological modern context. We often define ourselves as humans by our civilization’s domination of nature. However, in a time of superstition, which Herodotus confirms as being true, when Gods and kings blended together this was a scientific and objective observation.

Later, King Necho is attributed as being the architect of a plan to build a canal in the Red Sea. Despite killing 120,000 of his people, an ambitious number, he allegedly is told that he is doing the work of the invader for him by a god. This cannot not be a self indulgent embellishment on Herodotus’ part since he knows that Darius will attempt this same task in the future. Its inclusion could possibly be a suggestion that the reader remember that the Persians are still a threat to the Egyptians.

On the other hand, I prefer to read this as Herodotus proving that history is progress, which means that it will be gradual and incremental. Unlike his successor, Thucydides, he recognizes change as being forward looking (technologically, economically, imperially and democratically)- whilst similar events of bloodshed happen in both texts- their presentation by Herodotus connotes progress over the regress in events such as the Revolt at Corcyra in Thucydides.

Memphis, Egypt.jpg






Alexander, Helen and Proteus

Herodotus briefly relates his small revision to Homer’s epic The Iliad. By his version of events, Alexander/Paris bought Helen with him to Egypt in the time of Proteus. It follows that this led to Menelaus coming to the land. Herodotus argues that this was a sensible revision of the tale since he argues that Priam would not possibly have had Helen stay in Troy whilst his sons died to protect it.

This small divergence by Herodotus tells the reader two things. Firstly, that Herodotus is trying to overcome the Greek cultural perspective on history by challenging its highest authority: Homer. Secondly, this proves that he should be viewed more closely as an objective historian. Whilst I never finished The Iliad and I know less about the historical accuracy of the Trojan War, we see Herodotus engage with historical events with a criteria of reason and logic; he refuses to bow to the accepted version of the Greeks.


An initial reading of Book Two can leave the reader questioning Herodotus’ credibility: lengthy descriptions of rivers, thieves outwitting kings, shaven priests and ritual formalities can be tedious. However, this analysis has shown not only that Herodotus establishes a substantiated approach to history but that he could write history purposefully and overcome dogma and superstitious tradition.




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