On Herodotus' Histories

Sites associated with ancient Mesopotamia The Beginnings

Histories, as we read today, was divided by a later day scholar into nine books. The first of the two parts of Herodotus' own simpler division is the subject of Books I-V which describe the background and origins of the Greco-Persian animosity; Books VI-IX contain the principal part, the history of the Greco-Persian wars from 499-479 BCE, progressing from an account of Darius' defeat at Marathon and culminating with Xerxes' larger invasion of Greece and the momentous Greek victories at Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale.

Herodotus prepares his long discourse with an obligatory recap of the extant human myths from his distant past. These must have, no doubt, acquired the sheen of historical truth on account of their ubiquity. They include big-ticket items like the abduction by Phoenicians of Io, daughter of a Greek king; by the Greeks, 'in retaliation', of Europa, daughter of a Phoenician king; and in the 'next generation afterwards', the 'Asiatics' abduction of Helen' and the Trojan War, about which he says,

The Asiatics, when the Greeks ran off with their women, never troubled themselves about the matter; but the Greeks, for the sake of a single Lacedaemonian girl, collected a vast armament, invaded Asia, and destroyed the kingdom of Priam. Henceforth they ever looked upon the Greeks as their open enemies. For Asia, with all the various tribes of barbarians that inhabit it, is regarded by the Persians as their own; but Europe and the Greek race they look on as distinct and separate.  

Odysseus slaying the suitors for his wife, details of a red-figure skyphos from Tarquinii, c. 450 BC, in the Staatliche Museum zu Berlin
Agamemnon's citadel at Mycenae. He was the leader of the combined Greek forces in the Trojan war

Herodotus, however, refuses to lend credence to Homer's yarn and offers the 'true story' based on his own researches. Apparently, after Paris abducted Helen from Sparta, and on their way back to Troy, they were swept by a gale to Egypt. Some of his slaves revolted and informed the 'warden of that mouth of the river' about his deed. The matter reached the local king who ordered Paris arrested. The king spared his life, but detained Helen and the treasures for safe return to the rightful owner. Before sending him off, the king fumed at Paris,

'Basest of men—after accepting hospitality [of Menalaus], to do so wicked a deed! First, you seduced the wife of your own host— then, not content therewith, you must violently excite her mind, and steal her away from her husband.'

Paris came home empty-handed. In fact, there was no Helen in Troy during the ten-year war—the Greeks did not believe the Trojans who told them so.  

For surely neither Priam nor his family could have been so infatuated as to endanger their own persons, their children and their city, merely that Paris might possess Helen.


Burial tombs of pre-Homeric Greek chieftains. This one belongs to the community of Mycenae (of Agamemnon).

After razing Troy, Menalaus recovered Helen from Egypt. Herodotus says, 'It seems to me that Homer was acquainted with this story, and discarded it, because he thought it less adapted for epic poetry'. He then quotes from the epics to prove his point, backing it up with a fine analysis of human nature, and cites a few Egyptian authorities on the matter—it's a delightful bit of investigative journalism.

Having located the East-West divide in Asia-Europe, he moves on to the deeds and intrigues of the more recent leading dynasties of Lydians, Egyptians, Scythians, and the eventual masters of them all, the Persians, documenting the manners and customs he found noteworthy. He interjects into his narrative not only amusing stories but even dialogue and speech by the leading historical figures. 

One story describes the meeting of Solon, the much-mythicized lawgiver of Athens, and the Lydian king Croesus. The king asks, 'Stranger of Athens, we have heard much of your wisdom and of your travels through many lands, from love of knowledge and a wish to see the world. I am curious therefore to inquire of you, whom, of all the men you have seen, you deem the most happy?' He hopes to get Solon to point to him but Solon doesn't oblige, narrating instead, stories of ordinary people he considered happy. The king is not amused, 'What, stranger of Athens, is our happiness, then, so utterly set at naught by you, that you do not even put us on a level with private men?' Solon gives a lengthy, philosophical response ending with these final words,

Hypostyle-Hall, Temple of Amon-Re, Karnak. This hall was intended to recreate the effect of the reeds of the life-giving Nile (c1300 BC)
Work begins on the palace of Knossos c. 2000 BC. The rambling structure was expanded over the centuries, and at its largest contained dwellings, storerooms and a theatre.

'...[no] human being is complete. He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and, retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is, in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of 'happy'. But in every matter it behooves us to mark well the end: for oftentimes the god gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.'

That Herodotus found Solon's reasoning noteworthy sheds light on his own outlook—quiet wisdom, health, good citizenship, and family bring greater happiness than power, glory, and the riches of the world.

In Egypt, where he spent at least four months, he studied the extant religious myths and argues that the major Greek deities were in fact of Egyptian origin, examining the particular case of Heracles (the Roman Hercules). He notes that the Egyptians were the first to discover the solar year and its division into twelve parts—'to my mind, they contrive their year much more cleverly than the Greeks'. He describes temple rituals, the art of embalming bodies, the Egyptian custom of respecting the elders, a tribe of lotus-eaters, the spices of Arabia, food, fauna, geography, and much else besides. He documents prevailing theories on the varying water levels of the Nile—skeptical of them all, he offers one of his own. He next describes the building of the pyramids (a theory now discredited),

Copper finial showing a stag and two, from Alaca Huyuk, c. 2400-2200 BC; in the archaeological museum, Ankara.

[Then] Cheops succeeded to the throne, and plunged into all manner of wickedness ... closed the temples and forbade the Egyptians to offer sacrifice, compelling them instead to labor in his service. A hundred thousand men ... ten years oppression of the people to make the causeway for the conveyance of the stones ... the pyramid itself took twenty years . built in steps . after laying the stones for the base, they raised the remaining stones ... by means of machines formed of short wooden planks. The first machine raised them from the ground to the top of the first step ... another machine, which received the stone upon its arrival, conveyed it to the second step, ...

The wickedness of Cheops reached to such a pitch that lacking funds, he placed his own daughter in a brothel, with orders to procure him a certain sum ... she procured it ... and at the same time, bent on leaving a monument which should perpetuate her own memory, she required each man to make her a present of a stone. With these she built the pyramid that stands midmost of the three ... measuring along each side a hundred and fifty feet.

Cheops was succeeded ... by Cephren, his brother ... and like him, built a pyramid, which did not, however, equal the dimensions of his brother's. Of this I am certain, for I measured them both myself. It had no subterranean apartments, nor any canal from the Nile to supply it with water...

The Egyptians so detest the memory of these kings that they do not much like even to mention their names.

Leading up to the apogee of the Persian empire, he describes the many conquests and marriages of Darius after which he had twenty plum, tribute-paying satrapies. One of these belonged to

... the Indians, ... more numerous than any other nation with which we are acquainted, paid a tribute exceeding that of every other people, to wit, three hundred and sixty talents of gold-dust. This was the twentieth satrapy ... The way in which the Indians get the plentiful supply of gold ... year by year ... is the following—eastward of India lies a tract which is entirely sand. Here, in this desert, there live ... great ants, in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes ... [they] make their dwellings under ground, and like the Greek ants, which they very much resemble in shape, throw up sand-heaps as they burrow. Now the sand which they throw up is full of gold...

Indeed of all the inhabitants of Asia . the Indians dwell nearest to the east, and the rising of the sun. Beyond them the whole country is desert ... The tribes of Indians are numerous, and do not all speak the same language—some are wandering tribes, others not. Those who dwell in the marshes along the river live on fish ... another set of Indians ... refuse to put any live animal to death, sow no corn, and have no dwelling houses. Vegetables are their only food.   

Introduction : Previous

Next: The War

Designed in collaboration with Vitalect, Inc.