Analysis of Herodotus: Book Eight

The war between the Persians and Greeks only intensifies in the second last Book of Herodotus’ history: this is the Book in which the prevailing forces of the Persians are finally reversed with their navy left defeated and their king in fear of the consequences. In addition, this Book highlights further the differences between Athens and Sparta as it establishes the conservative mindset of the Spartan people.

Artemisium and Salamis

As the Persians moved their forces to fight the Greeks at Artemisium it was the strategy of the Greeks which ensured their victory. This was especially vital since the Greeks were hopelessly outnumbered. Though Herodotus does give some figures pertaining to the number of Persian ships and sailors, these do seem far fetched. Once again it was Themistocles who provided much of the cunning strategy. According to Herodotus he left a message to the Ionians serving with Xerxes, which included some Carians, with the purpose of trying to separate them from the bulk of the Persian force. Herodotus notes the effectiveness of the strategy since it is clear that even if they had not switched sides, Xerxes would fear such actions and thus would prevent them from serving in the battles.



Once again it is the supposed strengths of the Persians which turn out to be their ruin. In conventional warfare, it may seem wise to utilize the largest number of ships in a battle, especially when these far outnumber your opponent. However, this backfired on Xerxes since the smaller force of the Greeks could easily outmaneuver their ships and this caused crashes and rendered their navy useless. Furthermore, Xerxes’ arrogance and incompetency is proved beyond doubt by the poor quality of his force. Herodotus reveals that many of the marines and sailors were in fact unable to swim properly. This was of course a disastrous oversight of Xerxes and therefore reinforces my analysis of Book Seven since he failed to properly think about the invasion. The juxtaposition between leader and military in Book Seven seems all the more clear and it seems as though Herodotus is noting that magnitude and power of a civilization is no testimony to their intelligence or worth. One could take this further. Xerxes is mockingly described as Zeus by one of the Greeks at the Hellespont in Book Seven. Xerxes’ earthly power is obviously perceived by himself to be indicative of the power of the Gods. Herodotus is showing that the link between earthly power and the religious is non-existent and a false construction. This relates back to my analysis of Book Four as the Scythians answer only to Zeus and Hera and appear more skeptical of the power of man.

Xerxes continues this trend of unholiness and reacts in his way by having Athens burned with its temples destroyed. This is a disproportionate action in response to his own defeat, and thus insinuating of his dictatorial character.More importantly in this passage, is what we learn of the Athenians. They, the Athenians, abandon their city and are willing to give up their homes. This seems to suggest that their view of the polis is centered on the survival of their nation as a people and that they are a pragmatic people who are willing to make short term sacrifices in order to gain in the long term. This is not that unsurprising since Herodotus points out in Book One that many of the Ionians abandoned their homes such as the Carians and the Xanthians. Though it is odd given that the Athenians’ unique claim is that they are supposedly the only Greeks who have lived on their land for an eternity and thus have a unique connection.

All of this contrasts with the reaction of the Spartans. Though their land has not yet been ravaged by the Persians they worry far more about their state of affairs. For example they begin to build a wall to defend the Isthmus against the threat of the Persians. Further to, they also suggest that they will return to Sparta to defend, giving the Athenians a headache over getting them to defend Salamis and engage in a final naval battle. In defense of the Spartans, Herodotus does mention repeatedly the sacrifice they made in Book Seven in fighting at Thermopylae and thus they do deserve some credit and a diluted criticism. Though this does present a divide between the Spartans and the Athenians: the Spartans are so deeply connected to their way of life and land that they will not make a basic sacrifice for the greater survival of the Hellenic peoples, whilst the Athenians have given up their ancient city. However, once again this must be tempered; after all, the Athenians had colonies in Italy which they could have moved to and thus were just as willing to surrender the cause of the Hellenes.

The pragmatic leadership of Themistocles, according to Herodotus, is the cause of a second union between the two nations and the defeat of the Persians again. According to Herodotus, the Athenian used a messenger to alert Xerxes to their position and encourage a naval battle by admitting that the forces are divided. Ironically, Xerxes acting on this advice brings greater unity to the Greek forces and thus the defeat of Xerxes. This reinforces the reader’s image of Xerxes: he acts on advice from a Greek without questioning the ulterior motive of the Greeks. This is of course an obvious action in the course of war. Furthermore, he ignores Artemisia’s advice  with regards to the defeat of the Greeks. She correctly points out the need to destroy the Spartans and the method of creating fractious alliances: by invading Sparta. This, the reader knows from the debates, would lead to the Spartans abandoning the Athenians cause and sailing back. As an evaluative point, I would like to reinforce Herodotus’ characterization of Themistocles. By recounting the events Thucydides presents in his first Book, when Themistocles betrays the Spartans over the building of the Athenian walls, he shows that Themistocles was a pragmatic, if at times, cynical and expedient leader.

As one would expect, the Persians are defeated at Salamis as well. They had not learned from their previous encounters with the Greeks and Xerxes’ poor leadership has not helped. This is perhaps best signified when he mistakenly thinks that Artemisia’s ramming of a Persian ship was an act of valor. This reveals Xerxes has no understanding of the inner workings of those around him. This has been established previously; his uncle fails to convey to him the extent of Mardonius’ ambitions and his adviser, Demaratus, had warned the Spartans of the invasion. The political figure of Xerxes can now be called into question as well. It appears that like all the previous Persian kings, they are politically shrewd when obtaining power and useless at managing power when they have it. It is thus no surprise when Xerxes heeds the advice of Artemisia and flees to the Hellespont.

Kaulbach,_Wilhelm_von_-_Die_Seeschlacht_bei_Salamis_-_1868 (2).JPG
Battle of Salamis by Wilhelm von Kaulbach

Another rift occurs between the Athenians and Spartans over the conclusion of the battle since the Athenians wanted to pursue Xerxes. This is tactically used by Themistocles who tries to convince Xerxes that he was the one who let him go. Unlike few of the people Herodotus discusses he thinks about possibility that the Athenians will turn on him and exile him. Importantly he understands how treacherous the Greeks can be and the selfishness of human nature. However, one who has read Thucydides may question whether Themistocles has read the nature of the Athenians, or whether his eventual ostracism will be the result of a culture of pragmatism and selfishness that he has encouraged.

The final debate

The final part of Book Eight relates how Alexander of Macedon is used by the Persians to deliver a message offering a truce between the Persians and the Athenians. The political structure of Cyrus and Darius is showed to have been continued with the use of stooges and despots in the countries dominated by the Persians. Once again the Persians are shown to have little understanding of their enemy since they underestimate how much freedom is worth to the Athenians. The Athenians value their freedom above all else. Regardless, this is a fact that could be ascertained by simple logic. The Athenians chose to rebel and aid their fellow Ionians, they chose not to give Earth and Water to Darius and they chose to fight at Marathon regardless of their numbers and resources.

Interestingly, the Spartans take a realist approach and regardless of the feud before Salamis offer, and their hesitation in providing an army for a campaign in Boeotia, they step in to provide aid and assistance. The Athenians thank Spartans but reassert their love of freedom and refuse their aid. This does seem to be a point at which the Athenians are willing to distinguish themselves and gain their independence as quickly as possible. This is supported by the fact that Book Five dealt with their rebellion and it is made clear that the Spartans were a threat to the Athenians. In addition, they also chastise Spartans for retreating and not offering troops for Boeotia campaign


Book Eight consolidates much of what was established in Book Seven with regards to the failings of Xerxes. Again, it reinforces the need for the study of history in understanding one’s enemy. One could question my thesis here: a reader may ask, where was the Spartan understanding of the Persians? Where was the Athenian understanding? Whilst there is no open acknowledgement of their enemy, there are two pieces of rebuttal to this point. Firstly, the Athenians were on the back-foot and defending their own land, thus they have the knowledge to utilize as they choose Artemisium and Salamis as their positions to fight at. Secondly, their awareness of the size of the Persian fleet and their use of this against them at Artemisium is evidence of their use of knowledge. Importantly, they think rationally and do not rely purely on material strength. As previously stated, the Book establishes the differences between the two main nations of Sparta and Athens. Many points in their unity thus also serve as points of clash in the decades to come.




Analysis of Herodotus: Book Seven

Herodotus’ seventh book brings together many of the strands developed in previous books of hubris, Greek development and the clash of civilizations. This rests on an interpretation of Herodotus which states he was a purposeful, subtle historian, one which I agree with.

Darius’ last days

Herodotus opens with the failure of Darius to comprehend his armies’ defeat at Marathon and his decision to invade Greece. This is all indicative of the arrogance of Persian kings from Cyrus through to Xerxes since it is Athens’s size which should act evidence for the Persians that size and established power is not all that is required for effective rule and military success. This message is seemingly reinforced by the news that Darius received after that Egypt had revolted, showing his control over the Empire waned and was problematic. Like Cyrus and Cambyses he ended his reign with failure which was the reflection of arrogant leadership and shortsightedness.


Unfortunately, the education history provides all with was lost on the rising prince in Persia. Xerxes is told by Herodotus to have not been Darius’ eldest son but instead the first born son of the daughter of Cyrus. Whilst this gives some legitimacy to his claim to being ruler, when compared to the madness of Cambyses, an actual son of Cyrus, this claim immediately appears weak to the reader. Interestingly, he becomes king through the machinations of the former King of Sparta, Demaratus. Demaratus will go on to be a wise adviser to Xerxes, unfortunately, his advice is not heeded to at times of import.

In presenting the debates around the invasion of Greece, a task Xerxes is showed to be incapable of doing, Herodotus shows his key character failing. Xerxes is despotic and tyrannical, but he is also weak and indecisive. At an important time in the existence of the Empire, facing a rebellious group of nations, he is swayed by Mardonius’ arguments to launch into a rash attack against the Ionians. Whilst Mardonius puts forward a convincing argument, that invasion will punish the Greeks and give greater way to expanding the Empire, Herodotus clearly shows that this is rooted in his own self interest. The fact Herodotus gives little attention to his sources in this part would suggest that this may have been his hypothesis, further strengthening the argument that Herodotus was shaping this Book to make a point about the nature of rule and despotism.

Xerxes’ failings continue since not only is he easily swayed but he is shown to be ignorant and dismissive of his uncle, Artabanes’. This is of course problematic since his uncle points out that Mardonius has selfish intentions in persuading the King to go to war, though this is conveniently ignored by Xerxes. Fundamentally he is fundamentally despotic since even after it is  pointed out that Xerxes will be defeated as his father was in Scythia (they will rout them and then deconstruct Hellespont bridge) he refuses to acknowledge this evidence. Furthermore, he is shown to be weak and unsure of his own command. For example, he asks that Artabanes go to his bed as he would so as to invoke a dream giving prophesies. His issue is thus that he acts despotically but ineffectively since he is unsure of his own decisions.


The crossing and invasion of Greece

Xerxes personal failings are symbolized in his actual invasion of Greece. He decides he will enter Greece by constructing canals and the bridge at the Hellespont but with such drama and stagecraft so as to prove his might. Herodotus devotes pages to carefully listing the armies, their equipment, their country of origin and their military statuses who come with Xerxes to Greece. One cannot help but feel that this is Herodotus showing the complete ridiculousness of Xerxes’ nature. His observation of the failure at Marathon is the numbers, whilst numbers of course did not cause the Athenian victory. His misdiagnosis and flaunting of his military strength becomes evidence of his failings as a leader and signposts to the reader that the expedition itself would fail. Later, when he crosses the Hellespont and offers the sword, cup and bowl to the Gods, he shows himself to be a dramatist and peacock. Ironically, this magnificent display sets him up for failure.

His tyrannical, dictator like cruelty is on full display in the journey into Greece. This is made apparent in the murder of a patron’s eldest son who he wanted to stay behind to look after him. The patron’s crime was to think that he was above the status of a slave, which is everyone in Xerxes’ eyes excluding his own person. This behavior is the kind of Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin and thus Herodotus’ characterization is worth its study since it provides some psychological insight into the mind of dictators. He does display some compassion: on looking out on his vast army, he notes how it is sad that all men will cease to be. Artabanes counters saying  the sadness comes from the fact that the Gods make life sweet enough to be missed. This conversation also has hints of Solon’s discussion in Book One. There is thus the suggestion that failure to understand happiness is coming back to haunt leadership. This raises the question of whether Herodotus is making a judgement about humanities’ inability to understand happiness throughout the History.

Herodotus also shows through the eyes of Demaratus that Xerxes is destined to fail. The reader is presented with two contrasting images of Xerxes’ expedition: that of the physical armies and the inner workings of Xerxes’ strategy, one is magnificent, the other weak. Demaratus points out that the Greeks will not so easily be pushed over and will fight for their freedom. He argues that the Greek’s strength comes from an obedience to the law which Xerxes is obliged to dismiss. The irony is that misunderstanding of other cultures and peoples has led to the defeat of the Persians time and time again. Darius fundamentally failed to conquer Scythia because he failed to see how their way of living would make a traditional invasion useless. Xerxes here is ignoring a vital source of information about the Greeks: their former king. As a general comment on Herodotus’ writing, these passages could be Herodotus is writing himself into the narrative. He is saying that the studies of culture, heritage and history are essential because these are organs of society which are connected to geopolitics.

The Hellespont with modern settlements

Athens joins

Herodotus’ complexity as a historian is only further developed in this passage since he makes use of the modern idea of the counter-factual. Whilst he used it earlier in the history his use is most obvious here. He argues that Athens was essential to the liberation of Greece because without it the Spartans would have been cut off and would eventually have been defeated. This use of the counter-factual could point to Herodotus’ favored side in the war. Whilst he does, in Book Eight, provide further evidence of his support for the Athenians this is by no means conclusively true. The need for the Spartan troops and aid at Thermopylae show how much of the Athenian strategy rested on Spartan co-operation.

An interesting passage is that of the Athenians debating with the message of the Oracle of Delphi over whether they should fight in the oncoming war. Thucydides rarely shows the Athenians consulting any form of religious authority, with the Dorians being more preoccupied with religious matters. However, this is evidence that consultation with the Oracle was not uncommon. The eventual decision to side with Themistocles regardless and dismiss the Oracles’ message is also revealing of the Athenians. Ultimately, they are shown to favor the opinion of man over the divine and practical, reason over hypothetical superstition. This all seems to be true since much of Pericles’ later leadership in Athens promotes the limitless expansion of the Athenians and joins the achievements of the ancestors, the dead and current Athenians with the man made creation of the city-state. A Straussian reading would definitely agree that the Athenians had a godless streak within them (further supported by Cleisthenes’ deceitful use of the Oracle to persuade the Spartans to aid them).

The peak of Athenian pragmatism and reason is shown in these passages. Firstly, the leadership of Themistocles is fixed upon the development of a navy, utilizing the recently developed silver mines to fund this. This shows the elevation of the community and development of the Athenians, a departure from some of the later hyper-realist acts of Themistocles. Secondly, the Athenians do attempt to build alliances. Their efforts with Sparta manage to overcome their ‘Athenian Exceptionalism’ (i.e. claiming rights to leadership because of their ancient Ionian status) and they put aside their feuds with the Aeginetans in order to gain an alliance. Even their attempts to recruit the Syracusans, which are marked with bitterness, show their willingness to compromise. They ultimately cannot recruit the Syracusans, not because of their arrogance or obstinacy, but because of their agreement with the Spartans. As a side note, the Syracusans attack the Athenians for wanting everything but not being willing to concede anything. Interestingly, this does not describe the Athenians now, but it is an accurate description of their interests in the late 5th century when they are not willing to compromise Alcibiades’ imperialism with Nicias’ realism and invade Sicily. My own constant comparison between these passages of Herodotus and Thucydides are deliberate: this is because there is a development of portrayal of sophisticated diplomacy many critics associate only with Thucydides.



Sparta encounters similar issues that the Athenians had. They try to attempt compromise with the Argives, their long standing enemy, but to little success. Herodotus does show some pan-Hellenic unity with the Athenians and Spartans working together by positioning land forces first in Thessaly, then at Thermopylae and moving fleet to Artemisium. The Athenian’s dominance of naval matters and Sparta’s primacy in hoplite military strategy shows that the two are natural allies and not enemies. This accounts for much of the awkward ‘intercourse’ of the early stages of the Peloponnesian War in which the Spartans ravage Attica by foot whilst the Athenians target Spartan allied islands and carry out naval raids.

Herodotus once again draws the reader’s attention back to Solon’s words in Book One. According to Herodotus, the Spartans claim that they should not fear Xerxes since the greater the man, the greater his fall will be when his luck runs out. Once again the words of Solon about chance, success and leadership come back to haunt Xerxes. Herodotus ultimately knows this will happen since he lives in the post-invasion Greece and thus he could be applying his interpretation to history which is empirically true. Modern historians do similar things, whether intentional or not; Prof. Simms in his work Three Victories and a Defeat works from the premise that British policy was successful when working with Europe and he then analyses history from this viewpoint.

The actions of the Spartans in the battle show that Herodotus is true in this respect. Though vastly outnumbered (the three hundred Spartans is true, albeit they have support from helots and other Greeks). They lead Xerxes’ army into the pass only to turn on the army and annihilate them one by one. This of course plays on the arrogance of the Persians, who through Xerxes, already revealed that they believed Greeks would always flee at the sight of them. Demaratus clearly understood the Spartan tactic and thus berated Xerxes for not listening. Once again Xerxes’s arrogance was his downfall.

Thermopylae by Jacques Louis David, 1814

Though the Spartans were eventually defeated, this was not through the military expertise or strategic thinking of the Persians. Ultimately, they are aided by the actions of Ephialtes who reveals the hidden path through the pass which allows the ambush and final defeat of the Spartans. Xerxes does have the fortune of good luck in this instance, but as Solon said it would, this will quickly evaporate.

Herodotus also uses the battle to fulfill the typical duties of his role as a historian. He notes the Greeks of honor and especially the achievements of Leonidas. Importantly, many of those who were successful in the Battle were members of different parts of society, they were not all members of an aristocratic elite- this further reinforces Herodotus’ interest in society as a whole and with presenting a history for the Greek peoples.

Whilst Xerxes mutilates Leonidas’ body – an act that Herodotus denigrates as a truly despicable act- Demaratus advises attacking Sparta from an island. This seems to be a good piece of advice since the Spartans cannot abide the attack on their land. This raises the questions of Demaratus’ loyalty and where his heart truly resides. His character is resolved since Herodotus reveals that Demaratus helped the Spartans by sending the wax tablet with message carved into wood. This makes us, the readers, think Demaratus is wise after Xerxes’ adviser just chastised him and thus restores the reader’s faith. Importantly, though he helps the Persians, wisdom is shown to be present in all armies and civilizations. Herodotus thus shows it is the civilization that decides to utilize reason and experience which will be effective.

Memorial at Thermopylae


Herodotus’ depiction of the events not only shows his complexity and intrigue as a historian but shows the Spartans and Athenians in a new light. Athens is shown as pragmatic and reasoned, willing to make compromises with previous enemies and not quite destined for a path of hubris and eventual destruction. The Spartans make a Thermopylae the ultimate sacrifice and thus are made heroes in this tale; something which their words of wisdom before the battle shows is fitting of them. However, Herodotus also uses this history to show the need for the study of history itself by showing the failings of man when it places power with those who have no care for the study itself. Herodotus writes his own case into the failing of Xerxes.




Analysis of Herodotus: Book Six

Many of the trends Herodotus established in Book Five are continued in Book Six: the pace quickens and history becomes increasingly concerned with events in Athens and Sparta.

Ionia in rebellion

The account begins with the defeat of the Milesians and the other Ionians standing against Darius’ forces. Interestingly they are becoming more organised under the Phocians even practicing their naval manoeuvores. However, this ultimately fails to deter or prevent the Persians from encroaching and beating them.

When the Milesians were defeated and exiled from their city this is recorded as having an impact on the popular opinion in Athens. Herodotus shows his versatility as a historian in recording the influence that the play, The Fall of Miletus, had on the attitude of the Athenians. I mention this because it provides an insight into the culture of the Athenians and Herodotus’ use of sources.

Despite the devastating effect the play had on the emotions of the people, the Athenians were for the mean time, distant from the Revolt.


Sparta and Athens

Herodotus further illuminates on the relationship between Sparta and Athens. He does this by showing how the Spartans co-operated with the Athenians in their conflict with the Aeginetans. This is all based on the actions of one of their kings, Cleomenes and the claim that the Aeginetans had sided with Persia. Ultimately, this only leads to further divisions between the Spartan kings, however, there is a more interesting history being told at this point. This is in the fact that after the Aeginetans were beaten, the Spartans gave the Athenians the prisoners which they then refused to hand back to the Spartans. I mention this because the Spartans cite the example of Glaucus in their diplomacy with the Athenians, a man who did not give up his deposit and was subsequently punished by having his family and name expunged from the Spartan records. This is particularly revealing as it shows early examples of the reasoned, logical diplomacy that is evidenced in Thucydides’ work.


Herodotus then shows the reader the nature of the Spartan rule. Because of a myth, which is dubious in accuracy, the Spartans had two kings ruling at the same time. This of course was prone to causing conflicts and personal disputes amongst these kings. One of these disputes is relayed to the reader concerning Demaratus and Cleomenes. Cleomenes essentially conspired with Leotychidas to accuse Demaratus of not being the true king. This is supported by the lengthy anecdote of Ariston, Demaratus’ father, who was unable to conceive with any of his wives. This also reveal to the reader that the Spartan system, whilst being a monarchy, with the kings having the powers to go to war, was not a tyranny. This is because of the simple fact that the people could challenge their rulers and bring a court case against them.

Continuing the history of mad rulers, Cleomenes’ descent into madness is portrayed. This is first in that he slaughtered a number of innocent Argives and also this is shown by his failure to conquer all of Argos. This was leveled at him in a court case brought by the Spartan people against him, which although his justification that the gods didn’t want him to take Argos was accepted, is evidence of his erratic behavior. Herodotus reveals much about his own views when he describes this descent. He offers two reasons as to why Cleomenes descended into such madness. Firstly, he says the Spartans believed he had become made from drinking the stronger wines of the Scythians. Allegedly, a Scythian embassy had tried to persuade the Spartans to invade Persia and in their time in Sparta, drank frequently with him. However, Herodotus briefly says that the real reason that Cleomenes went mad was because of what he had done to his brother. Whilst this could be interpreted as being guilt, it seems likely that he meant this was some kind of punishment from the gods or karmic retribution. This affirms that Herodotus was moralistic and put much by the punishment brought about by hubris, suggesting that he constructed his history in a way that was deliberate.

Demaratus, the exiled King of Sparta


Mardonius’ punishment of the Ionians got gradually closer toward Athens. The Eritreans were the next group to suffer: their punishment of slavery for the women and castration for the youngest boys was truly barbaric and Darius’ defeat at Marathon was only fitting punishment for his own cruelty. After the defeat of the Eritreans the Athenians tried to gain the assistance of the Spartans, who cordially declined because of their participation in a religious ceremony. This seems to not have hindered the final result and contributed to the battle’s shaping of the Athenian people. This is a fact confirmed by the Spartans arrival at the battlefield to remark and appreciate the power of the Athenians.

Kagan has said that Hippias’ advice to the Persians is a lesson in not listening to exiles. When he landed in Greece he had the vision of copulating with his mother, and in another Freudian moment for an Athenian he believed that this was evidence of his impending victory. Almost poetically, his realization that the dream meant that only his tooth would be reclaimed by Attica coincides nicely with the Persians’ stunning defeat.

I will not bore any reader of this blog with the exact details of how the battle was won since Herodotus does a far better job and this is not the purpose of this analysis. Much more interesting is Miltiades’ use of reason and logic to persuade the War Archon to stay and fight the Persians. Interesting it is because of the arguments that he puts forward. He argues primarily that it has split the generals of Athens in two and therefore could only lead to civil war if they made no attack on the Persians. However, his appeal to the glory and material gain that could be won if the Persians were defeated is what wins over the Archon. This is significant since it shows a long history in Athens of the primacy of imperial expansion that they always sought after.

A map showing Marathon’s location


Continuing his analysis of the Athenians, Herodotus examines the Alcmeonidae more closely. I can only conclude that Herodotus examines Athenian expansion (as is discussed above) and the Alcmeonidae because these two were connected through Pericles in the Peloponnesian War (the time in which Herodotus wrote in). What is interesting is that he recounts how they were unfairly treated by the other Athenians, accused by some of trying to warn the Persians of the attack at Marathon. Herodotus provides an analysis of why this would be a ludicrous claim since the Alcmeonidae had been the ones who had ultimately expelled the Pisistratidae. He claims that they deserve more honor than the two lovers who tried to kill Hippias since Cleisthenes was actually successful. This analysis sheds light on the difficulties Pericles experienced with the Spartans invoking the Alcmeonidae curse and the people removing him from office. It reveals further that the Athenians had a great capacity for dishonorable behavior as the result of jealousy.

Herodotus clearly admired the entire ancestry since he carefully relates their history. Firstly, how Alcmeon became rich through pure luck and reward by Croesus but also how Megacles successfully married the daughter of Cleisthenes. Their shrewd capacity as political leaders definitely foreshadows the success that Pericles would later have. The maneuvering of Cleisthenes was present in a leader who could banish the son of one of Athens’s most distinguished military commanders.

Athenian expansion

The initial expansion of Athens began in Book Five with the continuous war between the Aegenitans and the Boeotians . It increases with the pledge of allegiance from the Plateans, who were clearly afraid of their Theban neighbors (a fear that would be justified in the Peloponnesian War). Athens’s power was now beginning to become an asset since smaller countries appealed to them for protection. This also moves them closer to being a match for the Spartans since they had a similar system.

However, it seems as though it was charismatic leadership which would cause the Athenian expansion. This would first be through Miltiades who appears immediately to be a rogue like figure because of his earlier betrayal of the Persians in Book Four and his constant evasions of assassination attempts. Under his leadership the Athenians give the thirty ships required to attempt to conquer Paria, Pelasgus and Lemnus. Though two one of these actually succeed, the seeds were sown for the expansion of the Athenian people. Herodotus describes no opposition from the Athenian people in giving the resources to undergo ill thought out expeditions. They do punish Miltiades for his failure, the bill being picked up by his son Cimon. This only reveals the other side to Athenian culture: the obstinate denial and failure to accept that expansion can fail. Their consistent reaction in punishing the individual leader is only evidence of their denial of the problems of a system which directly votes people into power who will carry out military expeditions.



Herodotus reveals much about his own method in this Book and the successes and failures of the people involved. The Book shows the cruelty of warfare as well as the advancing nature of diplomacy.In addition, the fractious nature of the Greeks with their inability to unite even at a time of existential threat. Furthermore, the identity of the Athenians and Spartans are developed and so the observational reader can see the origins of the crowds who believed Alcibiades’ invasion of Sicily was a sensible, realistic and pragmatic solution to a war.






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.






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.





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.



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.