Herodotus' Histories, book 5

summary and comments by Jona Lendering


Thirteenth logos: the Thracians (5.1-28)

The fifth book marks the beginning of the wars between the Persians and the Greeks. After a short digression on Thracian customs, Herodotus tells us about Megabazus' conquest of Thrace and the ensuing submission of eastern Macedonia. One of the newly conquered towns is Myrcinus, which Darius presents to Histiaeus of Miletus as a reward for his role in the retreat of the Persian army from Scythia. This loyal Greek becomes one of Darius' advisors in Persia - according to Herodotus a kind of honorable detention. Megabazus' successor as governor of the European territories is Otanes, who subdues several Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. Herodotus praises this governor with the words that the troubles between Persians and Greeks ceased for a while.

Fourteenth logos: the Ionian Revolt; affairs in Greece (5.28-55)

In the next logos Herodotus explains how the Ionian Greeks living in the Persian Empire revolt against Darius. He considers this a disaster, caused by the short-sighted and egoistical behavior of several Greek protégés of the great king. While Histiaeus stays at the Persian court, Miletus -Ionia's main city- is ruled by his son-in-law Aristagoras, who tries to add the Greek island Naxos to the Persian Empire and his own sphere of influence. He and the Persian governor of Lydia, Artaphrenes, join forces, but they fail to capture the island. Aristagoras does not wait until he has fallen in disfavor with Darius, and decides to revolt against the great king. However, Herodotus knows another story: Histiaeus, irked by his honorable detention, had sent a trusted slave to Ionia, with the word "revolt" tattooed on his scalp. Whatever the true reason, the Ionian Greeks rebel. The pro-Persian leaders are seized, democratic government is established, and preparations are made for the war. The Milesian Hecataeus (the man responsible for the description of the hippopotamus; above) proposes to trust on the navy and to pay the marines from the temple treasury of the Branchidae, an oracle that had received extraordinary gifts from Croesus. This advise is ignored; instead, Aristagoras decides to ask for help from Sparta, famous for its army. Herodotus starts his description of Aristagoras' visit to Sparta with a story about his host, king Cleomenes. We hear strange rumors about his birth, learn that he was not quite right in his head and understand that his behavior caused great trouble in his country. His half-brother Dorieus, unable to accept the fact that a madman rules Sparta, had even gone off to Sicily. This Cleomenes receives the Milesian envoy, who delivers a very long speech about the glories of a war against Persia; the king's laconic answer is that "the proposal to take the Spartans a three months' journey from the sea is a highly improper one".

Fifteenth logos: affairs in Athens (5.55-96)

Next, the Ionian ambassador goes to Athens, which gives Herodotus a chance to devote a logos to the period in which the Athenian democracy was founded. Athens had been ruled by a respected man named Pisistratus, but after his death his son Hippias had ruled the city like a despot. After his brother had been murdered by two noblemen, his rule had become oppressive and the noble Alcmeonid family had decided to remove Hippias from Athens. After a failed first attack, one of them, a man named Clisthenes, bribed the priestess of the oracle at Delphi to tell the Spartans that it was their duty to liberate Athens.
A first Spartan expedition had been a disaster, because Hippias had known of the Spartan plans. This had been unacceptable to Cleomenes, who had lead the second invasion in person. This time, the Spartans were successful, and Hippias had left Athens. He settled in Sigeum, at the Hellespont, but was to come back, as we will see below.
    Although Athens had been free, its troubles had not ended: rivalries between the noble families had taken their toll. Finally, Clisthenes had been able to overcome his opponents by allowing every male citizen a vote in the people's assembly. At the same time, he had divided the population of Athens in new voting districts, situated across the territories of the old aristocratic families, and effectively breaking their power. This meant the establishment of democracy, not exactly what the Spartans had been fighting for. Twice Cleomenes had returned, but the free Athenians had been able to survive his invasions. The second of these had been well organized, and Athens had had to cope with invasions from all its neighbors (Thebes and Aegina); they had even sent an embassy to the Persian governor Artaphrenes at Sardes to ask for help.
    This logos ends with a story about a meeting at Corinth, where Cleomenes and his allies had discussed the Athenian problem. Cleomenes had proposed to restore Hippias, but Herodotus knows of a speech by the Corinthians, who had shown the true nature of one-man-rule, and had convinced the Spartans that their cause had been hopeless.

Sixteenth logos: the Ionian Greeks capture Sardes (5.97-5.126)

At the beginning of the fourth logos of Book Five, Herodotus returns to the point where he had started the preceding logos: Aristagoras of Miletus asking Athens for help against the Persians. The people's assembly decides to send a squadron of twenty warships to help the Ionian Greeks. Five ships are added by the town Eretria, which had to pay a debt of honor to the people of Miletus. The sailing of this fleet was, in Herodotus' opinion, the beginning of the trouble for the Greek homeland. Its marines landed at Ephesus, where they joined forces with the troops of the Ionian Greeks; this army delivered a surprise attack on the capital of the Persian governor Artaphrenes, Sardes. Except for the citadel, the complete town is burnt to the ground, including the sanctuary of the mother goddess Cybele. After this success, the Ionian Greeks disperse for the winter; they are an easy target for Artaphrenes' army, which inflicts a minor defeat on the looters of the sanctuary. This Persian victory cannot prevent the revolt from spreading to the Greek towns of Cyprus, to the Carians, and to the Greeks living along the Hellespont and Bosporus.
    When king Darius hears from the rebellion, he implores his god to grant him the punishment of the Athenians; he orders a servant to remind him of the Athenians three times a day. He levies an army, and orders his courtier Histiaeus of Miletus (above) to command it against the Ionian cities. At the same time, the Phoenician navy ferries a Persian army to Cyprus. In a naval engagement, the Phoenician is defeated by a squadron of the Ionian Greeks, but treason allows the Persians to reconquer the island. Two other armies are send against the Carians and the Hellespontine Greeks; both armies are victorious and Miletus is left alone. Aristagoras flees from his town to Myrcinus, where he is killed by the Thracians.
Book 1   Book 2    Book 3  Book 4    Book 6 Book 7  Book 8    Book 9