Analysis of Herodotus: Book Three

Herodotus’ third book depicts the revolutionary developments in the Persian Empire with the ascendancy of Darius after Cyrus’ son dies. Recurring themes relating to Book One reappear with the Persian Empire retaining many of its problems, despite its development under Darius.

Cambyses and madness 

Cambyses enters the narrative as the son of Cyrus the Great looking to occupy Egypt. Two reasons for this are offered by Herodotus. His first reason is the most probable, that Cambyses wanted to invade because of the slight at being refused Amasis’ daughter (the Egyptian king instead trying to outwit Cambyses by sending the daughter of his former king to marry Cambyses). Herodotus then tries his hand at psychoanalysis, proposing that Cyrus was slighted by his father’s preference of Egyptian wives over his mother. Regardless of his reason, it is a telling development that the Persian king decided to invade the oldest civilization Herodotus has yet to describe.

Unsurprisingly, Cambyses conquered the Egyptians and showed initiative in his strategy by recruiting the Arabians to his side on the promise that they would never be ruled by him. However, his descent into madness is related as being immediate with his use of disproportionate punishment on the Egyptian people. His descent was not quite complete given that he, after he humiliated Amasis’ daughter, spared his son from his death.

The recurring theme of hubris becomes evermore present in the actions of Cambyses; unsatisfied with just Egypt, he sought to conquer the Ethiopians. Interestingly, they remain one of the few unconquered peoples in Herodotus’ Histories and he relates how the Ethiopians tried to prove their strength over the Persians by taunting them with the exercise of the bow. Cambyses’ shred of strategic thinking was immediately lost when he gave into his rage and wasted his army in an attempt to conquer the Ethiopians, misjudging the terrain and the task he was undertaking. By now this seems a common theme for the Persians and one which will re-appear in Book Four and in Darius and Xerxes’ invasions of Greece.

The presence of advisers and wisdom in Herodotus’ narrative often signposts either the avoidance or the descent into hubris. This means that it is telling when he kills the son of Prexaspes and tries to have Croesus killed.  Fear and arrogance are showed to have gripped the mind of Cambyses with the murder of his brother Smerdis and his sister-wife. Interestingly, his wife is, like many females described in Herodotus, remarkably shrewd and courageous. In one account Herodotus describes she mocked Cambyses by stripping a leaf bare and then accuses him of ruining the House of Cyrus by killing their family. The reader can either argue that Herodotus admired the women of the ancient world, or that the women of the ancient world were shrewd.


The irony of Cambyses is that his fear of his brother was that he would eclipse him and takeover his Empire. Supposedly, his brother’s ability to supersede any other Persian in the bow drawing contest made him a likely candidate for usurping. Of course in killing him he has not removed the threat; the Magus, two Median brothers, usurp his throne with one staying put as the impersonator of Smerdis.

This twist may seem to fanciful and dramatic for some readers. It is true that this is remarkably similar to the tragic failure of a hero in a Greek tragedy. However, considering the attempts of Lambert Simnel in the 16th Century, an era with a greater number of accounts and records, to claim he was one of the dead princes in the tower it is not that surprising. Furthermore, Cambyses’ recorded crimes and record of cruelty is documented, including the removal of the ears of the Magus- thus providing motive to usurp the throne. Finally, Prexaspes was the only other person to know of Smerdis’ death and therefore the plot could have been carried out.

Cambyses and Psametichius meet

The conspirators


The narrative moves on with Otanes and six other important Persians investigating the claims that Cambyses made before he died. Through Otanes’ daughter it is revealed that the Magus is not Smerdis since he has no ears. This raises another common element which is the role of women and wives in the political affairs of Persia; this was first seen in the acquisition of Lydia but also in playing a role in Cambyses’ acquisition of Egypt).


The conspirators constitute a brief discussion because of what their presence reveals in Persia. The fact they work to overthrow the Magus (which they succeed in) is telling of two things. Firstly, it shows that the heritage of Cyrus was important to the aristocratic classes in Persia since they seek to re-establish a true successor to his greatness. This is interesting because despite his success in liberating the Persians, Cyrus was unsuccessful in his final conquest and exemplified hubris at a crucial time.

Furthermore, it shows that there was still a real ethnic division in the Persian Empire; the victors of the war between Astyages and Cyrus/Harpagus  desperately want to retain their control and cannot bear the thought of the opposition leading. Political, social and economic advantages must have been very real to the hegemonic ethnic group in the Empire (especially to the Persians who leeched off the culture of others, as Herodotus would argue).

Smerdis with his bow in hand

The Debate

Though the debate between the conspirators is a short and small part of the Book, I would argue that it is one of the most important parts. This debate, the nature of it is unknown and there seems to be no way of objectively finding reliable information apart from Herodotus’ account, reveals a turning point in the Persian course of events. Though arguably, a much greater turning point would have occurred had a different course of action had been taken.

One argument put forward proposes that democracy would be the best course for the Persians. Basic arguments, familiar to the modern western reader, are put forward: accountability, division of power and prevention of tyranny, equality before the law. However, this fails to sway the opinion of the group.

A compromise is then reached by others proposing oligarchy- this would be the rule of the best, those who are wealthy and educated enough to provide the best course. They argued this would prevent mob rule but also prevent tyranny. Darius steps forward to propose monarchy; fundamentally he attacks them by claiming that oligarchy would naturally devolve into monarchy since a failed, corrupt leadership would be replaced by a demagogic leader of the people- a monarch

He also argues that if rule by the best is the best form of rule, why are so many needed? The best ruler is also more effective since he will avoid the personal feuds so likely to plague an oligarchy. His victory other the others comes in his drawing on Cyrus- ultimately a single leader liberated the Persians and therefore this is all they need.


I mention the intricacies in detail because of the fact that this shows a return to the old path of the Persians. They are presented with the two new forms of governance yet they revert back to tradition. Furthermore, I believe in accepting Darius’ proposal they are accepting not just monarchy, but the kind carried out by Cyrus. This will become later as the Athenians will also face a choice as to what kind of rule they want, and as you can guess, they choose a very different path. Much like the conflict in the Peloponnesian War, the fight is between a progressive, liberal country and its conservative rival.

Otanes, though never enthroned he is preserved in this sculpture.

Ascendancy, consolidation and reform

Darius, though not the front runner for the throne, eventually acquires it. The details of how he rigged the horse contest could well be allegorical, regardless they show his character to be one of somebody who cheats to gain his aspirations. His motives in championing monarchy will naturally be called into question- he has put himself into a position in which he would automatically assume control. He was aided by factors such as the resignation of Otanes, but when considering his past history (his father was killed by Cyrus) it seems as though he was poised to take the throne.

The Persians had learned their lesson to some extent. The six other conspirators attempted to achieve a system of checks and balances against Darius, whereby they would have rights to challenge him unless he was in bed with a wife. This does not last long since Darius had one of his fellow conspirators executed soon after. In his defense, his cruelty did not extend to the total annihilation of this man’s family.

His greatest reforms to the Persian system of rule was the establishment of the satrap and tribute system as the method of control. This is important because it became a key part of how the Persian Empire would be structured; instead of a conglomeration of conquered states needing force to be oppressed, Darius could use a formal system to extort and control the lands. Later, in Book Four, we learn that in Greece, smaller tyrants (Miltiades being an example) are supported by the Persians and that a mutual relationship is built up between the two. The tyrants derive their strength from Persia and they are obedient as they are given privilege.

Herodotus gives the reader an example of this in work but also how this was not full proof. The example of Orestes, who killed Polycrates, illustrates this. However, the strength of this system is shown in the fact that the military is still controlled by Darius. This allows him to have Orestes executed even though he rebelled against his rule.

Darius’ greatest challenge to his Empire comes from Babylon. The Babylonians being perhaps Cyrus’ greatest conquest are essential to their Empire. Furthermore, for Darius to be the legitimate ruler of Persia and heir to Cyrus he must reconquer them. Unfortunately, though Darius regains control it is through the strategy of his general and not his own- this strategy though sacrificial, is more effective than the ineffective, traditional siege of Darius. Darius’ traditional approach will come back to haunt him in Book Four.

I don’t believe that Darius could truly claim the title of Cyrus, a king who had many faults, but achieved a greater deal. Firstly, he was manipulated by his Greek doctor, his expansionist tendencies played to, so as to allow this man to escape. This shows he had become less aware of treachery and deceit. Furthermore, the tyrants at Samos rebel against him leaving him with no choice but to invade. This was another failed task since allegedly the traitors were not captured in the siege. Though Darius was cunning and a politically astute figure in his rise, as Herodotus clearly indicates, his power is shown to affect him negatively. This does follow a similar pattern to Cyrus and Cambyses and therefore a clear point about the affect of power on the attitude and outlook of leaders was being made here.

Darius enthroned

Book Three shows a tumultuous period in the history of the Persians; upheaval is followed by the chance of political revolution in the way they are managed. However, under the leadership of Darius they pursue tried, tested and sometimes failed actions in the world. Darius’ early contributions to the Persian imperial structure and rule are soon overshadowed by his tendency to revert back to the policy of his predecessors. This pursuit of the old, will I think, become relevant when analyzing the overthrow of tyranny in Athens later on.






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