|In Antiquity, books consisted of papyrus scrolls. Our division of the
in nine "books" goes back to an edition by scholars of the third century
BCE, working in the great library of Alexandria. There are strong indications
that this is not the original division; probably,
thought about his oeuvre as a collection of twenty-eight lectures. (On
this matter: Silvana Cagnazzi, "Tavola dei 28 logoi di Erodoto" in Hermes
103 , page 385-423. I have deviated from Cagnazzi's division on minor
First logos: the story of king Croesus (1.1-1.94)
The Histories open with a prologue in which the author announces
that he will describe the conflict between the Greek and the non-Greek
peoples (= Persians) and will explain how they came into conflict. The
man who was responsible for this, was king Croesus of Lydia,
a country in the west of modern Turkey. He was the first to subject the
Ionian Greeks (living in Asia). After some short stories about Croesus'
court, Herodotus returns to his main theme: the conflict with Persia. Croesus
is worried about the increasing power of his neighbors, and decides to
attack them. First, he sends many very impressive presents to the oracle
of Delphi; the god Apollo suggests him to ally himself with the most powerful
Greek city-state, Sparta. The Spartans, however, are too late to offer
help and the Persian king Cyrus
captures the Lydian capital Sardes.
Croesus is taken prisoner, and placed on a pyre, but is miraculously saved
by Apollo. Seeing that Croesus is divinely protected, Cyrus allows the
former king to send an envoys to Delphi to ask the god if it is the habit
of Greek gods to be so unappreciative. The god of Delphi replies that not
even he can escape destiny; and even though he had been eager that the
downfall of the Lydian monarchy occurred in the time of Croesus' sons rather
than in his own, he had been unable to divert the course of Fate. This
ends with a digression on Lydian customs.
was well known for its gold; the wealth of Croesus, the first to mint gold,
was proverbial. (A picture of one of these coins is added.) Consequently,
this country in Western Turkey was a natural target of Cyrus' campaigns.
A cuneiform text from Babylon (year
nine in the so-called Chronicle
of Nabonidus) may enable us to assign a date to the end of the
Lydian monarchy: 547 BCE. There is, however, a lacuna in the text. It merely
says that Cyrus went north along the Tigris, defeated the Ly..., killed
their king and took their capital. It is unclear whether this refers to
Lydia (in which case Herodotus makes a mistake, since he thinks Croesus
was spared) or to another, unknown kingdom (in which case Herodotus has
ignored a campaign).
The Lydian kingdom was a great prize to win. Its
river Pactolus carried gold, and the proverbially rich Croesus was the
first to mint coins, which he used to pay mercenaries.
Second logos: the rise of Cyrus (1.95-140)
The next logos deals with Cyrus' rise
to power. Herodotus starts his story with a brief account of the origin
of the Median Empire. The Medes
(in the west of modern Iran) were the first to shake off the yoke of the
who used to rule all Asia. Herodotus mentions several Median kings and
states that king Cyaxares
"captured Nineveh and subdued the Assyrians, all except the territory belonging
Probably, the Medes were not a state (as Herodotus thinks) but a group
of nomads, not really interested in city life. The true cause of the fall
of the Assyrian Empire is unknown, but the fact that Babylonia
had gained independence in 626 must have been a very important contributing
factor. According to cuneiform texts, the Babylonian crown prince Nabu-kudurru-usur
(the biblical Nebuchadnezzar)
and the Median leader Umakishtar (Herodotus' Cyaxares)
made an alliance in 614 BCE; even though Assyria obtained help from Egypt,
the Babylonians and Medians destroyed Nineveh only two years later. (An
eyewitness account can be found in the Bible: Nahum 2.1-10.) The
Assyrian cities were occupied by the Babylonians, who advanced along the
Mediterranean shores to punish Egypt; the
Medes were content to take the Assyrian treasuries to their homeland. Herodotus'
narrative can be reconciled with the cuneiform texts if we assume that
his informers were Persians and/or Medes, and not Babylonians.
Cyaxares' son Astyages
is the next king of the Medes, and his daughter Mandane is married to a
Persian named Cambyses,
a "man he knew to be of good family and quiet habits". The Persians were
subject to the Medes. A child is born: Cyrus. After some nightmares that
predict the baby's future as lord of all Asia, Astyages decides to kill
the child. Herodotus tells the fairy tale-like story of Cyrus' miraculous
escape from danger; the boy grows up to become the bravest and most
popular young man in Persia. Then, he receives a letter from a Median courtier
who has a grudge against Astyages and wants to remove him. When Cyrus revolts,
Astyages foolishly makes Harpagus the commander of an army against the
rebels; of course, the Median army defects to the Persians, and Astyages
is imprisoned. From now on, Cyrus is the king of both Persia and the large
Median empire. As we have seen, he added Lydia a few years later.
This logos ends with a description of several
interesting Persian customs. We learn a little bit about their religion,
about alcoholic beverages, about the way they greet people, about their
dislike of lies, etcetera.
Cuneiform texts indicate that Cyrus
(Kurush) was in fact -like his father Kambûjiya-
the king of Persia, which was subject to Media. After the elimination
of Assyria, Babylonia had become a very powerful empire under its king
who had conquered the Phoenician cities in the west and had advanced as
far as Jerusalem (the Jewish elite was deported to Babylonia in 587). The
Medes had expanded their territories to the east to the Caspian Sea and
to the north (where Cyaxares had fought an indecisive battle against Lydia
in 585). It was inevitable that these empires would clash, and it seems
that the Babylonian king Nabonidus (or Nabu-na'id, ruled 556-539) has invited
Media's Persian subjects to revolt. The Chronicle of Nabonidus informs
us that in 550 "the army of Ishtumegu revolted against him and in fetters
they delivered him to Kurush" (year
Since Herodotus is unaware of the diplomatic schemes
of the Babylonian king, we may assume that he was not using a Babylonian
but a Persian source. This may be corroborated by the story of Mandane.
On chronological grounds, it is extremely unlikely that Kurush was the
son of Kambûjiya and a daughter of Astyages. The idea that the new
king of Asia was the son of an alliance between a Persian nobleman and
a Median princess may have been part of the official Persian propaganda.
Some of the customs Herodotus mentions can be corroborated
and he seems well informed. However, he does not always understand what
he is describing. The Persian religion was founded by a sage named Zarathustra,
who had taught that there were only two gods, the wise lord Ahuramazda
and the evil Ahriman. (Since only Ahuramazda was to be venerated, the exiled
Jews in Babylonia considered Cyrus a monotheist like themselves.) All other
gods were just angels or demons. The most remarkable aspect of this religion
was the presence of an ethical message: no other pagan religion had postulated
a dichotomy between good and evil, light and dark, truth and lies. (Hence
the Persian dislike of lies.) Herodotus seems not to understand it completely.
Remarkable is his description of the ritual intoxication by drinking haoma:
he thinks that the Persians after making an important decision drink too
much wine, make up their drunken minds and know that their decision was
sound when they still see things the same way. (Before we conclude that
Herodotus was stupid: it is possible that he knew Zaratushtra's theology
very well, but hesitated to write it down. In his Egyptian logoi,
he shows good knowledge of several sacred tales but refuses to be explicit.
Third logos: affairs in Persia (1.141-216)
Herodotus goes on to tell about Cyrus' adventures after his conquest of
Media and Lydia. After his capture of Sardes (above),
the Ionian cities that were subject to Croesus send embassies to prevent
war, and the Spartans announce that they will support the Asian Greeks.
At this point, Herodotus interrupts his narrative to digress on the towns
of these Greek settlers in Asia. Cyrus ignores these embassies and returns
to Media to defend the eastern provinces of his empire against the Scythians
(below); Cyrus' friend Harpagus
(above) makes quick work of the Ionian Greeks
and the Lydians, who have revolted.
This Lydian revolt causes
a short discussion between Cyrus and Croesus. Cyrus asks the former ruler
of Lydia what to do. Croesus advises the great king to make sure that the
Lydians forget how to fight and learn more peaceful arts. Soon, they will
succumb to luxury and no longer be a threat. Cyrus recognizes that this
is a sound advice.
Cyrus now rules a large kingdom, stretching from
the Greek towns on the shores of the Aegean Sea. to the Persian Gulf in
the south. Now he prepares to attack his former ally, king Labynetos of
Babylonia. Herodotus gives a long description of its capital Babylon. Cyrus
defeats the Babylonian troops and lays siege to their city; he is able
to take it by directing the river Euphrates in another direction - when
the water is shallow enough, his soldiers enter the city through the old
water course. The Babylonians are surprised and surrender. (Click
here for a translation of the story of Cyrus' campaign against Babylon.)
After a digression on their customs, Herodotus describes Cyrus' campaign
against the Massagetes, a nomadic tribe in
modern Kazakhstan. Their queen Tomyris, however, defeats and kills Cyrus.
This logos ends with a short appendix in which Herodotus informs
us about the customs of the Massagetes.
King Labynetos is identical with Nabonidus,
but that's about all we can say for Herodotus' credibility. Cuneiform texts
tell us the Babylonian side of the story: Nabonidus was afraid of the growing
Persian power and spent much time finding allies in Arabia.
Meanwhile, he was absent from Babylon, which its inhabitants did not appreciate.
The Chronicle of Nabonidus (year
seventeen) informs us that Cyrus defeated the Babylonian army in the
neighborhood of modern Baghdad on October 10, 539 BCE; two days later,
his commander-in-chief "Ugbaru" enters Babylon and captures Nabonidus.
(His Persian name was Gaubaruva, a name usually translated into Greek as
Gobryas.) Cyrus entered the city a few days later; his own story may be
read over here.
The event is well known from the Bible, because Cyrus allowed the exiled
Jews to return home (see Ezra
1 and Isaiah
Book 2 Book
3 Book 4 Book
5 Book 6 Book
7 Book 8 Book
Herodotus' description of the city is nonsensical.
For example, he wants us to believe that the walls of Babylon are 100 meters
high and 22 kilometres long; hundred bronze gates give access to the city.
The great historian Edward Gibbon was one of the first to remark that Herodotus
never set foot in the old city - causing a bitter polemic among the believers
and skeptics which lasts until the present day. Probably, Gibbon was right
and Herodotus had no access to Babylonian information.
Cyrus' violent death occurred in December 530.