Analysis of Herodotus: Book Four

Much like Book Two the reader is given Herodotus the ethnographer, history playing a secondary rule. Though like Book Two, Herodotus’ ethnography has another purpose and this illuminates much about the Persians and the Greeks.

The Scythians

Herodotus discusses the ancestry of the Scythians at great detail at the beginning of Book Four. As he did with the Egyptians, he tends to disagree with the common consensus about them that exists in the Greek states. An example of this is his description of the two mythical accounts for the Scythians’ origin. The Greek version has Heracles bed a woman and instruct her that one of her children will be the king of a group of people. Herodotus quickly dismisses this mythical account of the Scythian origin in favor of their own. The Scythian origin story is far more plausible and therefore Herodotus is establishing his credibility as a historian who was able to overcome cultural assertions and incorporate different sources.

Another key part of their culture which Herodotus describes is their ethnocentrism. They are known to him as being a group of tribes that refuse to bow down to other cultures and establish the primacy of their own. He discusses two accounts of different Scythians, one a king, who practiced Greek rituals and ceremonies: both Scythians were duly punished for their dissension from the established tradition. This makes the Scythians an interesting group since they remain rooted in their heritage and steadfast later against Darius. The Scythians had infighting and various feuds with mixed groups such as the Black Cloaks, however, they contrast strongly with the expansionism of Darius.

Herodotus also describes other various cultural norms that were accepted by the Scythians. For example, they relied on cattle as their source of food, worshiped only Zeus and Hera and built no towns or roads. This will all become relevant when facing the forces of the Persians.

An example of Scythian art

Darius’ Invasion

As is learned in Book Three, Darius wanted to invade Scythia before he launched reconnaissance missions into Greece and the behest of his doctor. His motivation is given that he wanted to take revenge on a group that centuries before had repelled the Medes. However, given his firm establishment of previously conquered lands, it is safe to assume that he wanted a reason to expand and gain new territory.

The theme of man conquering nature recurs with Darius having the pontoon bridge built across the Ister of the Bosporus (something he took immense pride in having achieved). In fighting his war he enlists the aid of the Ionian tyrants who hold the pontoon bridge, so as to prove their worth. This would suggest a certain amount of arrogance on his part since leaving a conquered people in charge of your most strategic point of retreat is a great risk in warfare.

His invasion soon turns out to be a complete folly since he cannot compete with the tactics the Scythians employ against him. Not only do they deprive them of their wells and land but they lead them deeper into their own territory and even into the land of the Black Cloaks so the Persians are forced to engage with a new enemy. Darius is shown to be an ineffective commander and a poor strategic thinker. Whilst he is constructing forts in the Scythian land, the Scythians are evading capture and taunting him. His arrogance and ignorance raise a key issue. I think Herodotus is pointing to an important point- ignorance of the ‘other’ is unrealistic and impractical. Herodotus, before detailing the Invasion, has described every aspect of Scythian society and thus understands fully the strategic moves they made in the defensive.

In addition to this, the Scythian king sends a telling message to Darius. He says that he answers only to Zeus and Hera perhaps suggesting that the power of man should be limited in deference to the Gods. Darius and his Persians, in their conquests of foreign lands in ignorance, have shown that human power is ultimately ineffectual without a basic understanding of the characteristics of the land: geography, culture, religion and agricultural practices. An understanding of just the fact that the Scythians were nomadic and could move constantly due to their subsistence on cattle would have informed his conquest substantially.

Darius’ last hand is played trying to retreat back to the Ister, a difficult task when he has no understanding of the geographical layout of Scythia. Whilst this continues, the Scythians intercept the Ionians and argue that they should abandon the Persians and then the Scythians will finish them off. The Ionians are offered salvation: complete freedom from invasion is what the Scythians propose. Interestingly, though Miltiades of Chersonese favors abandoning Darius, the other tyrants favor semi dismantling the bridge and then re-assembling it when Darius arrives. Though Darius’ other strategic attempts had failed in acquiring Scythia, his support for the satrap/tyrant infrastructure saved him- the Ionian tyrants ultimately argued that they only received power from the Persians. In the end they looked out for themselves over the fate of the other Greeks.


Greece and Libya 

Herodotus ends this chapter by discussing the founding of Greek colonies in Libya and their relation with the Persians. He begins with the founding of Thera by the uncle of the first Spartan king and how Battus was destined to conquer Libya and establish colonies there. Suspension of disbelief is in order: the notion of dreams instructing imperialism would have been a stretch for John O’Sullivan to argue for with the Manifest Destiny. However, Cyrene was established in Libya and after a conflict with the Barcians erupted, the Persians under Aryandes became involved. Aryandes successfully won against them, securing Cyrene as a colony and leading to the exodus of an enslaved Barcian people.

So what is the purpose of this history? As noted above, this contains a very early history of Greek colonialism on two accounts: the foundation of Thera and of Cyrene. In this respect, these anecdotes have an important place in Herodotus’ work since the colonialism of Sparta and Athens later on became a major theme of his and Thucydides’ work. However, other very interesting observations are relayed back to the reader. An example is the description of Athena. Herodotus makes the claim that the effigies of Athena were based on the apparel of Libyan women. If this were to be true then this impacts the image of the Greeks enormously- they are again shown to be a group of people who were highly interactive with North Africa and Asia and thus have less of a claim to uniqueness than one could believe.

The ‘Athens of Africa’ Cyrene


Herodotus gives many contrasts in this chapter between the non Greeks and the Greeks. However, many connections are established between Greece and other cultures. Therefore, his histories of other people have a purpose since they enrich the understanding of the Greeks. His often damning descriptions of the sexual practices of the Scythian and Libyan cultures aside, he provides much information to the reader. In addition, Herodotus carefully illustrates the strategic strengths and weaknesses of Darius. In doing so he disproves his critics; his ethnographic history of the Scythians is not the ignorant criticism of a Greek but the full understanding that a failure to understand culture, geography and history can have a damning effect of the success of civilizations.







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