Histories, book 4
summary and comments by Jona
Tenth logos: country and customs of the Scythians (4.1-82)
After his successes
in quelling the revolt of pseudo-Smerdis, the rebellion of Babylon, and
conquering Samos, king Darius decides to attack the Scythian tribes that
live in what is now called Ukraine. The opening logos of Book Four
tells about their way of life. Herodotus first gives a description of the
country, which he knows as a green pasture, bordered in the north by large
stretches of snow. There are several Greek cities on the shores of the
Black Sea, where people have a more or less decent life style. Traveling
north, you will leave civilization: first there are the farmer tribes of
the Callipides and the Alizones, then you will reach the Neuri and finally
the Man-eaters. More to the east live the Thyssagetes and the Iyrcans,
both hunters; in the far east, you will encounter the Argippeans -who are
all bold- and the Issedones. This description of the Scythian nations is
not complete without Herodotus making a digression on the relative size
of the three continents Asia, Europe and Africa; this digression is interrupted
by a small digression about a Phoenician expedition that managed to round
Cape of Good Hope (click
here). Returning to the topography of Scythia, Herodotus tells a lot
about the main rivers of Scythia, then changes subject and informs us about
Scythian customs - religion, sacrifices, royal burials, the use of marihuana,
The northern frontier of the Persian Empire
was open to attacks by the nomads who were roaming over the Central-Asian
steppe. In their own language, which seems to be related to modern Chuvash,
they called themselves Skudat ("archers"?), which the Persians rendered
as Sakâ and the Greeks as Skythai. There were several
tribes, such as
Several tribes had invaded Asia. The Cimmerians -whose name Gimirru
means "people traveling back and forth" and who gave this name to the Crimea-
had destroyed the kingdoms of Urartu and Phrygia in the first quarter of
the seventh century BCE. Other Scythians had reached Ascalon in Palestine
and reputedly had ruled Media for 28 years.
the Sakâ haumavargâ ("haoma-drinking Saka") who were
subjected by Cyrus and who are called Amyrgian Scythians by Herodotus;
the Sakâ tigrakhaudâ ("Saka with pointed hats") who
were defeated by Darius and are visible on the relief at Behistun;
the Apâ Sakâ ("Water Saka"; or Pausikoi as Herodotus
prefers to call them); later, they are known as the Abian Scythians (in
books like Arrian's Anabasis and Ammianus' Res Gestae);
the Ma-Sakâ, who are called "Massagetes" by Herodotus (see
and were responsible for the death of Cyrus;
the Sakâ paradryâ ("Saka across the sea"), living in
As yet, there is no evidence to discredit Herodotus' description of
the Scythian homeland. Probably, we may identify the Neuri with the so-called
Milograd-culture, the archaeological remains of which have been found on
the confluence of the Dnjepr and Pripyat. The strange story about the Man-eaters
received some confirmation with the excavation of human remains that
were gnawed at by human jaws; these excavations were along the river Sula.
The Argippaeans are usually identified with the ancestors of the Calmucs;
the Issedones may be identical to the Wu-sun who (according to Chinese
texts) lived on the shore of Lake Balchash.
Eleventh logos: Darius' campaign against the Scythians (4.83-144)
The next logos tells about Darius' campaign. After crossing the
Bosporus, he subjects a tribe called Getes, on whose belief to be immortal
Herodotus devotes a short digression. Darius reaches the Danube, where
the allied Ionian Greeks have already built a bridge. When the Persian
army has crossed into modern Rumania, the king orders the bridge to be
destroyed. A Ionian Greek in his army, Coes of Mytilene, objects to this
and suggests not to cut off a possible line of retreat. The great king
agrees and orders the Ionian Greeks to remain where they are for at least
sixty days. After a short digression on the Scythian tribes that Darius
is about to engage, Herodotus tells about a Persian envoy who demands that
the Scythians surrender. They refuse and form three armies. Two of these
lure the Persians deeper and deeper into Scythia, until they reach the
river Oaros (the Wolga). When Darius is finally
able to join battle, he realizes that he can never win and follows Gobryes'
advice to return to the Danube. Meanwhile, the
sixty days have passed and the Ionians deliberate what to do; the proposal
of Histiaeus of Miletus to keep the bridge intact is finally accepted.
Darius is able to return safely. He leaves Megabazus behind as satrap of
his European possessions.
This logos did not earn Herodotus his title "father of history".
Even though the way the Scythians fight seems to be authentic, the narrative
is messy and unintelligible. From the fact -if it is a fact!- that Darius
wanted the bridge across the Danube to be destroyed, we may guess that
he wanted to fight his way through Ukraine and across the Caucasus to Armenia;
this hypothesis is as close as we can get to the historical truth.
This campaign must have taken place after 521 (when
Darius was recognized as king) and before 500 (when the Ionians revolted,
see below). A date in 514 or
513 is plausible. The "Oaros" reached by Darius may in fact have been the
Dnjepr ("Borysthenes" in Greek); the mistake can be explained from the
Scythian names of these rivers, *Varu
(= Oaros, "broad") and *Varu-stâna
("having a broad space").
There are some indications that the co-operation
among the Scythians against the Persian invasion was an incentive to unite
and form a real state.
Twelfth logos: the Greeks in Cyrene become subjects of the Persian Empire
This book ends with a logos about a Persian campaign against the
Greek towns in the Cyrenaica. First, Herodotus tells us about the way the
Greeks colonized this part of Africa and how they have lived since the
adventures of these first settlers. He interrupts his story to digress
on the desert tribes in the Sahara, and then returns to his original story.
He explains how the Greek settlers are divided and how one of the quarreling
factions invites the Persians to take hold of the towns in Cyrenaica. The
new masters take many captives, who are deported to far-away Bactria.
As usual, Herodotus' narrative looks more reliable when he describes
the recent past; the legends about the founders of Cyrene are strange.
His description of the tribes in the Sahara belongs to the most reliable
parts of his Histories.
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