Herodotus Reread of Book I

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Herodotus Reread of Book I

Redigerat: sep 5, 2020, 8:46 pm

My last reading of Herodotus was in 2011. I just finished Book I today. Rereads always shame me. As soon as I put it down, I thought, the bookends of Book I are the powerful women who bring down powerful kings! The first narrative after Herodotus' introduction to the enmity between Europe and Asia is how Candaules was brought low by his Queen for his treacherous attempt to have Gyges see her naked. The end result was her successful scheme to force Gyges to kill Candaules and assume the throne. Book I ends with Cyrus' defeat and death at the hands of Queen Tomyris of the Massaegetae. The defeat was brutal and complete as she forced his head into a skin she had filled with human blood. Did Herodotus plan his first book like this? And was he trying to make a point, as if to force a contrast between "effeminate Asia" with "masculine Greece"? Another aspect of book one that was somewhat lost on me before is if the surviving Croesus is being used as a mouthpiece for Herodotus' own political philosophy. I took it all at face value in the past as if Herodotus was just recording what someone told him. In the case of Croesus, I wonder if Herodotus used him to continue the folksy philosophy of Solon as originally presented to Croesus when he asked Solon who the happiest man in the world is? I'm anxious to continue my rereading to see what I glazed over in the past. I don't count any of my musings as historically legitimate but rather fun and interesting ways to engage more actively with this masterpiece of ancient literature and history.

Redigerat: sep 15, 2020, 10:32 pm

>1 riskedom: Are you using any commentary in your re-reading? I'm just listening to the History of Persia podcast, something which might add to your reading. Trevor Culley has completed Darius' invasion of Greece in 41 episodes. Some time before Salamis! Still, the background is fairly good. Are you reading in Greek or English, by the way?


sep 15, 2020, 11:58 pm

I'm just reading for pleasure. Before picking up Herodotus again I just finished the first chapter of Chester Starr's History of the Ancient World. After some time, I'm going to pick that back up again. I'm a total amateur and reading in English. The podcast looks very interesting although a major time commitment. Currently, my on again off again podcast is Peter Adamson's History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, and it's been a little while. I just finished Book II of Herodotus and plan making a short post about it.

sep 16, 2020, 12:43 am

Book II Finished. Herodotus is deeply awed by Egyptian civilization. At every turn, he is marveling at their great antiquity and how much he believes the Greeks (the calendar, their gods, religious ceremonies) adopted from them. I don't believe it an understatement to say he believes he is recording the history of the most ancient and superior civilization in existence. He is so impressed by the Labyrinth of the 12 united kings that he can barely believe it was created by human hands. Herodotus marvels at how much freedom Egyptian women have, cataloging it as something almost unnatural as he builds his description of the role reversals remarking that "women pass water standing up, men sitting down." Yet, Herodotus, in his classic open-mindedness, simply carries on with the narrative, explaining in how many ways the Egyptians are different from the rest of the world. Maybe Herodotus hyped the glory of Egypt to make the coming Persian conquest of Egypt that much more impressive? Herodotus indeed believed or related the furthest extent of the Egyptian empire to encompass parts of Europe, Syria, Scythia and Ethiopia. He claimed the ancient empire of Egypt to have exceeded the Persian Empire at its greatest extent portraying Darius as admitting that his own accomplishments did not exceed the deeds and conquests of the conquering Egyptian King Sesostris. Herodotus relates the deeds of several consecutive kings, until he ends the chapter with the usurper Amasis. Amasis rose to power due to King Apries neglect of the ancient rights of the warrior class but was, by Egyptian standards, a dishonorable man himself. He cheated people, showed contempt for oracles and neglected the gods in general. This is perhaps a set-up to explain how Egypt lost its ancient empire and sovereignty to the Persian Empire.

sep 17, 2020, 4:06 pm

Just curious -- what edition and whose translation are you reading? Thanks!

sep 17, 2020, 7:51 pm

Penguin edition A.R Burn 1972. I purchased it way-back in my days at U of I, December of1992.

okt 3, 2020, 1:01 am

>4 riskedom: Interesting thoughts on Egypt! I personally think he was just awed by Egypt, which I think was probably the greatest civilization he saw himself. He definitely went to Egypt, but I don't think he is thought to have been to Babylon or Persia proper, so his comparison would be Lydia and presumably some Levantine ports (as well as the Greek world, of course). And visually it would have been awesome, with its ancient stone architecture, and more relatable than the Mesopotamian (the stone temples are surely closer to Greek ones than Mesopotamian brick ziggurats).

I need to follow your example and reread Herodotus too.

nov 24, 2020, 9:13 pm

I put it down for awhile and without quite as much fervent effort just made it through Book III and a few pages into Book IV. If I have the energy, I'll put down some thoughts.

Redigerat: nov 25, 2020, 10:45 am

A lot to cover in Book III from Cambyses conquest of Egypt, his descent into madness, the rule of the Magi, the seven conspirators and Darius' rise to the throne. One of the more interesting "diversions" in the chapter is the rise and fall of Polycrates of Samos. Herodotus can't seem to help himself when it comes to a good story about the fickleness of fortune and the often tumultuous fall of great men. Amasis is depicted as counseling Polycrates regarding his string of uninterrupted military victories. He counsels him to throw out whatever his most prized possession is if his string of good luck continues. Polycrates failed attempt to rid himself of his cherished ring turns out to be proof that fortune, God or the gods were not going to let him control his own fate through a self-inflicted loss. At last, Polycrates own greed and ambition led to his murder through a ridiculously simple con job, inflicted on him by Oreothes, the governor of Sardis. A second story worth recounting is the dialogue on what form of government Persia should adopt after the overthrow of the Magi by the seven conspirators. Again, it seems a deliberate insertion, this time for the sake of some political philosophy. He depicts three of the conspirators giving lengthy speeches advocating for democratic, oligarchic or monarchic forms of government. Darius is the third speaking in favor of monarchy. The four who did not speak voted unanimously in favor of monarchy. Darius is chosen the next day after his stallion neighed first, as agreed upon. A scheme involving the scent of a mare his stallion mounted the night before gave him the edge in the contest. The culminating event in Book Three is the fall of Babylon through another clever but gruesome act of self-harm by Zopyrus. His elaborate trick required the pre-meditated sacrifice of 7,000 soldiers (1,2 and 4 thousand at a time) in order to gain the unwavering trust of the people of Babylon. The trick worked, he let the Persians into the city, it fell to Darius and Zopyrus with his mutiliated nose and earless head was granted the governorship of Babylon. This time the city walls were torn down to ensure it's inability to defend itself in the future.

nov 26, 2020, 4:21 pm

Touchstones: The Histories by Herodotus

dec 9, 2020, 9:36 am

Book Four of Herodotus the Histories

I made it through another book but life interrupted me several times so I'm going to do my best to give a synopsis. Several themes come to mind. The first theme is the limits of the Persian Empire. The book begins in Scythia and ends in Libya. Darius fails to subdue Scythia and his governor fails to subdue Cyrene in Libya. The second theme is the limits of the world and its habitability. The North is bitterly cold and treeless and the south is an endless desert. The third theme is the limits of Greek knowledge of the world. His description of the world is a fascinating display of knowledge and ignorance. He is convinced that Europe is twice the length of Asia and also larger than Africa but this is mostly based on his ignorance of how far north and west it is. It is perhaps his realization of how vast the area north and west of the Black Sea must be and an assumption that the eastern most part of Asia is shortly past the mouth of the Indus. Also, the belief that Africa had indeed been circumnavigated may have led to the conclusion that it was considerably smaller than it actually is. This is the book with some of the most outlandish tales (i.e the Psylli who declare war on the south wind and the cattle which always must walk backward because of their ridiculously long horns). The description of the fierceness and barbarity of some of the Scythian tribes is bone chilling. Among other tales, include the hilarious “Hemp bath” and the howling with pleasure that it arouses. The Amazons warriors find their first mention in the description of Scythia. In the description of Sataspes southward journey along the West African coast we find our first mention of Pygmies. I conclude, that if you want to read Herodotus for pure reading pleasure or entertainment rather than to learn about the war with Perisa, IV is your go-to Book.

Redigerat: dec 29, 2020, 9:47 pm

Book Five of Herodotus the Histories

The main theme is the Ionian Revolt but it begins with an undescriptive account of the Persian conquest of Thrace, whom Herodotus holds in very low regard. He regards it as a country of extremely large population but so disunited that they had no chance of effectively opposing Darius' forces. He also regards them as quite savage, mourning when their infants are born and rejoicing when their elderly die because of the immense suffering of this world. He described plunder as their main occupation, idle behavior as honored and those who practice agriculture as the most despised. The Persians went as far as Macedonia but stopped short after the envoys never returned. They were murdered by hot headed but "smooth chinned" Macedonian youths who dressed up as women to avenge the honor of the women who had been violated by the Persian men. They managed to keep the affair quiet by bribing the Persian in charge of the search party for the envoys. The beginning of the Ionian revolt is described as more or less the result of internal scheming within the Persian Empire. The jealous Megabazus, eyeing Histiaeus building fortifications in the areas recently conquered, believes he will seek to revolt from Darius and convinces Darius to recall him before he does so. Darius is convinced and ends up having Histiaeus stationed far away in Susa. Histiaeus, somehow getting wind that Aristogorus was planning a revolt in Ionia, has a trusted slave tattooed on his head with the message to revolt. After his hair grows back he sends him to Aristogorus with instructions to shave his head. Somehow, this was all the push Aristogorus needed and he begins to seek support to undertake his plans. He travels to Greece and appeals to the Spartans without success and then to the Athenians who agree to lend 20 ships. Between this narrative is a great deal of Greek history but in particular Athenian progress towards democracy. Between this is the Spartan attempts to subvert democracy in Athens and the Corinthian history of their own experience with the despotic government of Cypselus and his son Periander. Within the Corinthian history is the tale of Periander's envoy to Miletus who is instructed to inquire of Thrasybulus method of maintaining power. The envoy is confused by his lack of instruction relating only that Thrasybulus walked through a field with him and cut down all the tallest ears of wheat. Periander took the hint and proceeded to cut down to their death the most talented men of Corinth in order to maintain his grip on power. Back to the revolt. After some initial failures, Athens withdraws their support but Aristogorus managed to find more supporters including Cyprus and some other cities around the Hellespont. Meanwhile, Histiaeus convinced Darius to allow him to put down the revolt. It seems the main point to be had was that Darius seemed to blame Athens, who played such a small and unsuccessful part. Darius instructed one of his servants to repeat "Remember the Athenians" three times every time he sat down to dinner. In this I think I find Herodotus' interpretation of history coming out again. Fate is at play here. In order to avoid revolt, Darius recalls Histiaeus but the recall only leads to a revolt, inaugurated by the man who put it down. The man who led the revolt, Aristogorus, goes outside of Ionia, to seek the support of Greece. In doing so, he initiates the wrath of Darius against Greece. In the end, these men are all players in an act that is beyond their control. The war between Greece and Persia was meant to happen, just as in the beginning of Herodotus work, Croesus was meant destroy a great empire. Now a greater empire is meant to engage in a costly, futile war and Greece is meant to defeat her.

jan 2, 2021, 3:17 pm

Book Six

Though the Ionian Revolt continues with Histiaeus picking up where Aristogorus left off in the end it seems more like mop-up operations. Histiaeus put together a large number of allies but when it came down to a large naval battle against the larger Persian fleet most turned tail and fled. Those who remained loyal were defeated by the Persians, leaving Miletus exposed and easily defeated. Most of the Milesian men were killed, the women and children sold as slaves and the temple of Didyma was burned and plundered. Histiaeus, trying to carry on the revolt closer to the Hellespont, was soon captured and executed by the Persian commander Harpagus and the governor of Sardis Artaphernes. After his execution, the remaining cities in revolt were easily put down. After this, the Greek cities immediately to the west of the Hellespont were subjected to Persian rule. Soon after, a new general, Mardonius, was sent to the coast to oversee all operations on land and sea. With his stated objective being Athens and Etreria he crossed the Hellespont and added the rest of Macedonia to the Persian possessions. The overall mission was not a success though because a storm destroyed a large proportion of the Persian fleet. In addition, a land battle against a Thracian tribe, while ultimately successful, cost him a tremendous number of Persian troops. As a result, Mardonius retreated having failed in his mission. After Herodotus relays Darius' success in gaining Aegina’s defection, he goes into a lengthy digression about the history of the origin of the kings of Sparta to explain why they were not united in their policy against Aegina. Eventually, once they are united, Aegina is sufficiently cowed into supporting the Spartan position against Persia. While Darius was getting another force together under new generals, Greek squabbling continued, this time between Athens and Aegina regarding hostages that were given to Athens by Demartus’ successor Leotychides. The new force sailed more directly towards Attica this time, first took over Naxos and soon after subjugated Eretria. From Eretria would begin the direct assault on Attica. The great battle was to take place in the plain of Marathon and the Athenians were led by ten generals. To request the assistance of Sparta they sent the long distance runner, Pheidippides to Sparta to inform them of the impending invasion and to request their assistance. The Spartans agreed but felt compelled by religion to wait until the full moon. In the intervening days, the Athenian generals began to vacillate but a rousing speech from Miltiades led to the war archon Callimachus casting the deciding vote to continue to fight though the odds appeared greatly against them. When the battle began the Athenians were strong on the flanks but so thin in the center that the Persians thought victory all but certain. The center was in fact beaten by the Persians but the flanks had such resounding victories that they were able to reunite as a single force and face the Persian who had defeated the center. This united force routed the remaining Persian army and chased them to their ships. Enough Persian troops got back safely to the ships that they now planned on sailing directly for Athens in an attempt to capture the now undefended city before the soldiers could return. The soldiers managed to beat the Persians to the city and when they realized they would not be able to capture Athens the Persians returned to Asia. Once the full moon arrived the Spartans showed up, surveyed the battlefield and congratulated the Athenians on a job well done. Soon, Athens went back to fighting her neighbors as Miltiades used the seventy ships he requested to make war on the Parians, ostensibly because they lent a single trireme to Marathon with the Persian fleet. Miltiades severely injured his leg while trying to gain secrets from the shrine of Demeter. The mission failed and he stood trial in Athens for his misdeeds. His life was spared, he was charged a fine but his wound festered until he died from it.

jan 3, 2021, 10:48 pm

Detta konto har stängts av för spammande.

jan 29, 2021, 1:24 pm

Reading this has made me want to re-read it too, which English translation is thought of as the most accurate? Last time I read this was in high school (20 odd years ago).

jan 29, 2021, 9:55 pm

If you scroll way down on the ancient history posts there is a thread about a new Herodotus translation. Whether it is the best one I don't know. I've been reading a penguin classics translation from the 1970's. Trying to wade through the many translations is a bit dizzying for me. The one I have is very readable. Translater Aubrey de Selincourt with an introduction by A.R Bury. I'm on Book Seven still. Gonna read some of it tonight. Sparta and her allies are about ready to defend the pass at Thermopylae.

jan 29, 2021, 11:59 pm

Book Seven

So begins the raising of an army from all corners of the Persian empire. Darius is determined to destroy Greece. Unfortunately for him, Egypt erupts in revolt and this must be dealt with first. After a thirty-six year reign, Darius died. Herodotus gave no explanation for his death so perhaps he assumed it was old age. In any case, his son Xerxes succeeded him and his first task was to put down the rebellion in Egypt. As soon as this was accomplished he turned towards his advisors regarding Greece. Mardonius encouraged Xerxes desire to subdue Greece while Artabanus advised against it. A lengthy section regarding the haunting dreams of Xerxes is recounted. Within this narrative is inserted a very interesting and psychologically sophisticated theory about why people have the sorts of dreams they have. In the end, Artabanus has a dream with the same phantom figure described by Xerxes compelling him to not dissuade the king from invading Greece. This convinced Artabanus that God himself wanted the Persians to invade Greece. From that point, three years of preparation were undertaken to build the largest army the world had ever seen. After crossing or bridging the Hellespont Xerxes has another conversation with his advisor Artabanus after weeping over the brevity of life. Artabanus begins to doubt his confidence in the expedition and relays that Xerxes’ two greatest enemies in the war are the land and the sea. Ultimately, neither has the capacity to harbor such a vast fleet and sustain such an enormous army. Indeed, before the war began, 400 of the 1207 Persian ships were lost because of a terrible storm. Furthermore, the ridiculous quantities of food and drink that were required to sustain Xerxes’ army are almost beyond belief. Herodotus claimed more than once that rivers were emptied of their water because of the soldiers, servants and pack animals of the vast Persian army. He estimated 1,700,000 soldiers, not including cavalry, marching towards Attica and the Peloponnese.
In the meantime, allied forces had been patched together by Athens and Sparta. Athens would lead the naval forces and Sparta the land forces. It was decided and led by Sparta to make a stand at the narrow pass at Thermopylae where it would be impossible for the Persians to overwhelm them with sheer numbers. Nonetheless, it was a tiny force led by 300 Spartans and their King Leonidas. When the Persian spy reported this to Xerxes he was amazed at what he considered “reckless folly”. Nonetheless, contingent after contingent was defeated by the 300 Spartans until the treacherous Ephialtes informed Xerxes of another route through the mountains. A force led by Hydarnes surprised the Phocians from behind. Once Leonidas realized the overall situation was hopeless, he sent most of the troops back to their various allied cities while they stayed to hold off the Persians with their mostly intact 300 man force. In addition to this, the 700 Thespians also stayed and fought beside them. They were surrounded on all sides and destroyed almost to a man. Two survived ignominiously and of those two one committed suicide. At this point, Xerxes, with some advice from the former Spartan king Demaratus, planned his next move.

jan 30, 2021, 7:42 pm

Book Eight

In the previous book, during the failed diplomatic effort to obtain help from the Gelon, king of Gela in Sicily, it was maintained that Athens was in command of naval operations, when Gelon demanded this command in return for his support against Persia. Early on in Book Eight this has changed as Sparta now demanded the command of both naval and land operations. Herodotus portrays Athens as giving way for the sake of maintaining Spartan support in the war against Xerxes. He also portrays Themistocles, with his 200 Athenians war ships, as having the most sway and manipulative influence, while Eurybiades held the official command. The Greeks held out in and around Salamis while the land forces converged to defend the Isthmus. On the Persian side, Xerxes is portrayed as seeking the advice of Artemisia, the Queen of Caria, because of her renown and distinction. He rejected her advice to fight a land battle first and gave way to the majority of his commanders desire to win a decisive naval battle instead. This proved disastrous as the Persians were roundly defeated by the vastly outnumbered Greeks. The victory was achieved with the Greek strategy to wait for the Persians in the narrow straits where their smaller, faster and more organized ships could do the most damage to the larger and more cumbersome Persian fleet. The disaster at Salamis frightened Xerxes into considering a complete withdrawal, though Mardonius pleaded with him to allow 300,000 of the best picked soldiers to stay behind and attempt a final battle against the combined Greek forces. Again, he vacillated and sought the advice of Artemisia, who counseled Xerxes to make his way safely back to Persia, while allowing Mardonius one last chance to achieve victory. During the Battle of Salamis, from Xerxes vantage point, Artemisia, appeared to achieve greater military seamanship than his other captains, causing him to exclaim, “My men are becoming women and my women becoming men.” This appears to be just another shot by Herodotus to compare effeminate Asia to the manly valor of Greece. Xerxes followed Artemisia's advice and marched a dejected army back towards the Hellespont while allowing Mardonius to suffer his chances with an army less than one-fourth the size of what Xerxes originally crossed the Hellespont with. Before making his final assault Mardonius sent Alexander, son of Amyntas, current lord of Macedon and a friend of both Persia and Athens, to make an appeal. He offered Athens, an alliance with Persia, that would guarantee them the mastery of Greece, under the authority of Xerxes. Alexander’s speech repeated the same assertions of the inevitability of Persian victory. Before responding, the Athenians dallied long enough to keep Alexander there until the fretful Spartans arrived. Upon the arrival of Spartan delegates, Herodotus recounts or invents a rousing Athenian speech on the virtues of courageously fighting for temples, gods and freedom. Alexander is sent on his way and Greeks wrap their mind around getting ready for another colossal battle.

feb 1, 2021, 5:34 pm

Book Nine

The Spartans dealt the mortal blow to the Persians. The ever pious Herodotus made it plain that while the Greeks followed the advice of oracles and signs, Mardonius pursued, against advice both human and divine to play offense. The same Alexander of Macedon that advised the Athenians to make an alliance with the Persians, betrayed Mardonius’ plans to surprise the Greeks from behind and thus pen them in. The Greeks moved their troops in the night and the Spartans, because of their own delays were the first to meet the Persian army. The battle was heated at first but when Mardonius died fighting, without their leader, the Persians were a disorderly mess and the Battle of Plataea was a rout. The Athenian naval forces kept pursuing the Persians all the way to Ionia where they dealt them another defeat at Mycale. Afterwards, they sailed up to the Hellespont to try and break the bridge but that had already been done. I’m not sure who they were trying to stop at this point (remnant Persian troops?). I thought the highlight of the final chapter is when Pausanias orders the Persian cooks to prepare a meal exactly the way it would have been done for Xerxes in the ostentatious tent that had been left behind. Simultaneously, he had his own servants prepare a meal in the austere Spartan fashion. In a boast that sounded like a Germanic tribe mocking a defeated Roman Emperor he exclaimed to the Greek commanding officers: “‘’Gentleman, I asked you here in order to show you the folly of the Persians, who, living in this style, came to Greece to rob us of our poverty.’”

And I'm done! It’s been a journey and really this is the first time I gave the whole of Herodotus a thoughtful and reflective reading. I finished The Histories for the first time my senior year of college in 1993 and certain parts I glazed over out of sheer exhaustion. I read it again in 2011 and I don’t know how long I spent with it. That time I gave a short review of the work but certainly I could have done better. Nine years later, I’ve done it again and this time I’m feeling really good about my efforts. I’ve got to believe if I ever read Herodotus again, it will be my last and I’ll be looking for “the great translation”.

Lastly, I have some thoughts in response to the person who mentioned they hadn’t read this since high school. I boldly think this ought to be required reading for all who claim to have a “liberal education”. When well read it is truly inspirational. If a whole course was dedicated to this work and the historical and cultural background that goes with it a far greater education would be had than reading an approved textbook accompanied by “selections” of various ancient authors. From time to time I think about if history had gone another way. When reading Herodotus, with all his flaws and the flaws of his countrymen in mind, God help me but I believe the world would have been a much more dreary, rotten and dull place had Xerxes had his way with Attica and the Peloponnese.