Herodotus, The Histories



The author

Herodotus was born around 484 B.C. in the city of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum), which lay in the country of Caria in south west Asia Minor. He is believed to have been exiled from the city in 457, for his political activities or beliefs, by its ruler Lygdamis, and spent his exile travelling extensively throughout the known world. His travels took him through Asia Minor to Mesopotamia and Egypt as well as to the Aegean islands and mainland Greece. He returned to Halicarnassus after the expulsion of Lygdamis (some time before 454), but subsequently set off again on his travels, in the course of which he may have lived for a time in Athens. He seems to have won the admiration of leading Athenians of the day like Pericles, and he became a friend of the playwright Sophocles. After that, probably around 443, he joined the Greek colony sent under Athenian sponsorship to Thurii on the south coast of Italy. It may have been here that he wrote a great part if not all of his Histories. But this is open to debate. We do not know for certain when or where the work was composed.The date of Herodotus' death is also uncertain. It was probably around the year 425. He may have died in Thurii, where allegedly his tomb was identified, but there is also an ancient tradition that his death occurred at Pella in Macedonia.

The Histories

Already in antiquity Herodotus' Histories was divided into nine books, each named after one of the nine Muses. The division, for which Herodotus himself was certainly not responsible (it was probably the work of an editor of the later Hellenistic period), is in a number of respects a quite inappropriate one. In fact it has been described as "the clumsy outcome of an ancient librarian's fantasies". Even so, the nine-part division has become firmly established with time, and is still used today.

The main purpose of the Histories is to provide an account of the Persians' two invasions of Greece, and the Greek allies' ultimate victory. But it is not until Book 6 that the account of the invasions actually begins, with Darius' campaign on the Greek mainland in 490 B.C. The most detailed treatment, however, is reserved for the second Persian campaign in Greece, under Darius' son Xerxes, from 481 to 479 B.C. The account of this campaign occupies much of Book 7 and all of Books 8 and 9.

The earlier books provide a lengthy preamble to the invasions, along with much detail that goes considerably beyond the military record, including a wide range of information about the customs, legends, traditions and history of many peoples of the ancient world - Lydians, Scythians, Egyptians, Babylonians, as well as Medes, Persians, and Greeks. Basically the first six books "give the background that allows us to understand the larger implications of what we read in books 7 to 9. They sketch out the peoples and places encountered by the Persians in the course of their imperial expansion from the time of Cyrus the Great, and they trace the growth of the Persian empire from its beginning under Cyrus in the 500s through the brief reign of Cambyses and then through the much longer reign of a third Achaemenid king, Darius." (Dewald) The widely travelled Herodotus, who has been dubbed "the Marco Polo of the ancient world", visited many of the regions inhabited by the peoples whose history and traditions he wrote about in the early books of the Histories.

The Persians

In the late 7th century B.C., in the wake of the fall of the Assyrian empire, the Medes under their king Cyaxares built their own empire, which covered the whole of western Iran, including the land of the Persians at Fars in the south west, and extended westwards through eastern Anatolia as far as the Halys river (the modern Kizil Irmak). But Median supremacy was to last no more than a few decades. In 549 B.C., a local Persian king called Cyrus, originally the ruler of a small district called Anshan*, overthrew his Median overlord Astyages and established the Persian empire. By the end of his reign in 530, this empire stretched across the Middle and Near East to the western coast of Asia Minor. Cyrus and his successors belonged to the Achaemenid dynasty, so called after its founder Achaemenes (Hakhamanish in Persian), who lived in the 7th century.

(* "Anshan was long considered to lie in the foothill country of Elam. However it has now been placed exactly on the map by the discovery in 1972 of inscriptions naming it at Malian in the high basin of Fars, a long day's walk north of Shiraz." (Cook, The Persian Empire, p. 3))

Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses, previously appointed by his father as ruler of Babylon. The most notable achievement of Cambyses’ reign was the Persian invasion and conquest of Egypt, recorded by Herodotus in the first part of Book 3. As we shall see, there were different versions of the actual extent of the conquest, and the treatment which the conquered peoples received at the hands of their conqueror. Cambyses’ reign came to an abrupt end with his death in Syria in 522 B.C., the result of an accidentally(?) self-inflicted wound while the king was hastening home to suppress a rebellion in the heart of his empire. The rebellion was led by a usurper, perhaps Cambyses’ brother Bardiya, who now seized the throne for himself. But he occupied it for only eight months before he was assassinated by a rival claimant Darius. The latter was also a member of the Achaemenid dynasty, and had formerly been a commander in Cambyses’ army. Darius was to prove one of the greatest of all Persian kings, as reflected particularly in his very able organization and administration of the Persian empire. Herodotus’ account of his reign begins in Chapter 90.

The subject matter of Book 3

After devoting the second book of his Histories to a lengthy digression on Egypt, covering the physical features of the country, and the customs, traditions, and history of its people, Herodotus returns in Book 3 to the Persians and their king's conquest of the land he has just been describing. Broadly speaking, the subject matter of Book 3 may be divided thus:

1-38: Reign of Cambyses and the Persian conquest of Egypt.

39-60: Excursus on Samos and its ruler, the tyrant Polycrates.

61-87: Transitional period between Cambyses and his successor Darius.

88-116: The extent of the Persian empire under Darius.

117-60: The first stage of Darius' reign.

Herodotus' sources

Though Herodotus is sometimes described as the world's first great historian, there has been much discussion about his actual value as a historian - some of it quite negative - in ancient as well as in modern times, and much debate on the reliability of the information he has provided - historical, ethnographic and otherwise. Herodotus based much of his material on oral traditions and anecdotes provided by local informants in the countries which he visited. We shall be referring in the notes which follow to the likely influence exercised on him by his Egyptian informants in his account of the Persian invasion and conquest of their country. The bias of such sources has undoubtedly compromised in varying degrees the historical validity of this account. We do, however, have independent sources contemporary with the period covered by the Histories which enable us to make a more balanced assessment of the persons and events of this period. A notable example is the inscription on the statue of the Egyptian naval commander Udjahorresnet, set up in the temple of Neith at Sais in the Egyptian Delta c. 519 B.C. Amongst other things, this inscription provides interesting information about the Persian king Cambyses - information which is somewhat at variance with Herodotus' record of Cambyses' conduct in Egypt. We shall have more to say about this below.

But by far the most important independent source for the period is the famous inscription of Cambyses' eventual successor Darius (I), carved on a rock face at Bisitun (modern Behistun), which lies in the Zagros mountains in western Iran, between Baghdad and Teheran and some 100 kms. from the ancient Median capital Ecbatana. The inscription records in three languages (Elamite, Akkadian, and Old Persian) the stages by which Darius became ruler of the Persian empire (522-519 B.C.). We should not of course regard this inscription as an entirely objective account of Darius' exploits. As Cook comments, the inscription "serves as a warning that a narrative of historical events was only recounted for purposes of self-justification and establishing the claim to rule." (The Persian Empire, p. 13). It quite clearly presents the king’s exploits in the best possible light, and because of this is clearly susceptible to a certain degree of bias and distortion. Nevertheless it provides an extremely important complement to Herodotus' account of Darius' reign, and we shall have occasion to note both coincidences and discrepancies between what Darius and Herodotus tell us.

For all his alleged defects as an historian and teller of the truth, Herodotus remains indisputably one of the greatest story-tellers of all times. And it is his narrative skills, and his sheer entertainment value, that have made his work one of the most enduring and one of the most popular legacies passed on to us from the Classical world.

The Ionic dialect

The Histories are written in the Ionic dialect, which was spoken in a region comprising the western coast of Asia Minor, the Cyclades, the island of Euboea, and Attica. We shall note the various Ionic forms and their Attic equivalents as we encounter them in the text, at least on the first few occasions. Some of the common features of the dialect (following Newmyer's summary) are:

Vowel and consonant changes

h for long a after e, i, r (e.g. prh'gma, aitivh = Attic pra'gma, aijtiva)

k for p in kw'", kovtero", kou', etc. (= Attic pw'", povtero", pou')

p, t, k, for f, q, c (e.g. ajpiknevomai, au\ti", devkomai = Attic ajfiknevomai, au\qi", devcomai)

First declension forms

-ew for -ou in gen. sing. of masc. nouns in -How & Wells'"

-ewn for -w'n in gen. plur. nouns

-h/si for -ai" in dat. plur. nouns

Second declension forms

-oisi for -oi" in dat. plur.

Third declension forms

uncontracted endings; e.g. gevneo", basileve" = Attic gevnou", basilei'"


uncontracted endings; e.g. ejmevo (or ejmeu') = Attic ejmou'

oiJ = Attic aujtw//aujth'/, min = Attic aujtovn/aujthvn

sfei'" = Attic aujtoiv/aujtaiv

relative pronouns begin with t for all cases except the nominative, and are identical in form to the corresponding definite articles; e.g. tw'/, tovn = Attic with|/, o{n


Augments are sometimes omitted; e.g. ajmeivbeto = Attic hJmeivbeto

Vowel stems are usually uncontracted; ajdikevetai = Attic ajdikei'tai

-atai and -ato for -ntai and -nto in 3rd plur. midd.-pass. forms of many verbs; e.g. tiqevatai, genoivato = Attic tivqentai, gevnointo.

The notes

For ease of reference, the numbers preceding each note indicate the chapter and section numbers used in the OCT (Oxford Classical Text) edition of the Histories as well as a number of other editions. Thus 1.1 = chapter 1, section 1; 2.1 = chapter 2, section 1; etc. In addition to comments on matters of language and content, the notes provide literal translations of a number of passages. These translations are intended to assist you in analysing and interpreting sentences or phrases which may cause you some difficulty. Occasionally the notes provide a freer or more idiomatic translation of a passage as well as a literal one. Such translations are intended to serve merely as guidelines. And generally it will be left to you to compose a final translation, which should be expressed in good, idiomatic English.

The notes also contain a number of references to the following:

S.T. Newmyer, Herodotus Book III, Bryn Mawr Greek Commentaries, 1986

W.W. How & J. Wells, A Commentary on Herodotus, Oxford (Clarendon Press), 1912

C. Dewald, notes to translation of the Histories by R. Waterfield, Oxford UP, 1998

J.M. Cook, The Persian Empire, London etc. (Dent), 1983

JACT (Joint Association of Classical teachers Greek Course, Grammar, Vocabulary and Exercises).

N.B. For this course you will be required to read and study Chapters 1 to 119 only. It will of course enhance your appreciation of Book 3 if you read the remaining chapters as well, at least in translation.

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