Herodotus, Histories of Persia: Egypt and Scythia Before the Greco-Persian Wars

The Histories of Herodutus show us the wisdom of the Greek maxims, Know Thyself, Avoid Hubris

Why did Herodotus write his Histories?

Herodotus tells us in his first paragraph, “so that human achievements may not be forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians, may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other.”

Just as in the Iliad, the Greek soldiers and sailors in the Histories of Herodotus fight for cleos, or glory, and warriors in these warrior societies are immortalized by their great and marvelous deeds on the battlefield. Herodotus is interested in recording any mighty deeds of both the Greeks and the Persians, although the glory was earned mostly by the Greeks.

Please view the YouTube video for this blog: https://youtu.be/YwUojwMIQEw

Herodotus reflects on the themes seen in the Iliad as the Greeks seek to transcend their warrior culture to a more civilized culture. In the Warrior Culture of Ancient Greece and the Old Testament:

  • Warfare meant that for the losing side, often the men would be massacred, and the women and children would be enslaved, for women this meant they would be concubines of the conquerors.
  • Avoid hubris, lest you snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
  • Know thyself, know your limitations, be open to wise counsel.
  • You gain immortality and glory through your heroism on and off the battlefield.

Herodotus was born and grew up in Halicarnassus, a Greek city on the Mediterranean coast in Asia Minor before the Greco-Persian Wars. In his youth he was welcomed to live in Athens, and often championed an Athenian viewpoint, and later in life moved to a Greek colony in Italy. Some scholars say he lived during the first few years of the Peloponnesian Wars, fought between the allies of` Athens and Sparta. The Greek cities in Ionia, along the coast of Asia Minor or modern Turkey, were under Persian rule during the Greco-Persian Wars. As you can see from the dates, Herodotus was about 24 years older than Thucydides, who wrote the main history about the Peloponnesian War. These two wars were only about eighteen years apart. Who knows? Maybe Herodotus and Thucydides were acquaintances.

The known world was much smaller in Ancient World. The map reconstructed from the descriptions of Hecataeus, the ethnographer whose works Herodotus mentions, shows a map that Vladimir Putin would like, because the Black Sea is much more than a Russian lake, to the ancient Greeks the Black Sea was the center of the world. Herodotus did not believe the land areas were round, although the map suggests this, he thought the boundaries were irregular, and was not certain that the large “river” named Ocean even existed, because in Greece nobody had ever sailed in the river Ocean. The Phoenicians MAY have circumnavigated Africa, but nobody near Greece had any idea what was in the northern reaches of Europe, or in the farthest reaches of Asia, and Libya was synonymous with Africa.

The main battles of the war were all fought in Greece, although many Greek cities in Asia Minor fought for their independence, and many succeeded after the Persian defeats in Greece. Roughly the last four books cover the Greco-Persian Wars themselves, the fifth book covers the initial mostly unsuccessful Greek Ionian revolts, and the first four books include both a history and sociological observations of Persia, Scythia, and Egypt before the war.

The Scythians lived as nomads in the steppe north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea that the Persians under King Darius tried unsuccessfully add to his empire, the Greeks saw it as a semi-mythic place at the ends of the earth people by many fantastic men and animal. The Persians could never subdue them, since they were nomads there were no cities the Persians could conquer, the Scythians retreated rather than fight openly, drawing the Persians further and further into unknown lands, harassing them in raiding parties, until the Persians had to withdraw when they were running low on supplies.

HERODOTUS: FATHER OF HISTORY

Was Herodotus the Father of History, or the Father of Lies? Scholars debate this question, but we know for sure that his history is the primary source for the history of the Greek-Persian Wars. The unlikely victory of the quarreling Greek city states over the mighty Persian Empire set the stage for the decades long Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta. Both these events formed the political background for the Trial and Execution of Socrates and all of the Platonic dialogues, which formed the basis for the Western Philosophical and Political Tradition.

The scholar JB Bury lists these three maxims of historical criticism used by Herodotus:

  1. “Suspect superhuman and miraculous occurrences.” But portents, oracles and dreams are acceptable. And Herodotus will retell mythic stories from the distant past, often as if they were history.
    The Oracle at Delphi has a special place in histories written by both Herodotus and Thucydides. The oracle was consulted multiple times in both wars, and was consulted by a companion of Socrates himself, so the oracle played a direct role in Greek politics.
  2. “When you are confronted by conflicting evidence or differing versions of the same event, keep an open mind. But this does not save him from a biased acceptance of Athenian tradition.”
  3. “Autopsy and firsthand oral information are superior to stories at second hand, whether written or oral. This tends to take the naïve form, ‘I know, for I was there myself,’ and it placed Herodotus at the mercy of the vergers and guides in Egyptian temples.”

What did Herodotus think about the gods? He had no problem retelling origin myths involving the gods taking place many centuries ago, like how Hercules peoples a land in Scythia with a woman who was snake from the waist down, but he refrains from claiming they are active in the world today or in living memory.

JB Bury writes that Herodotus “was in certain ways so lacking in common sense that parts of his work might seem to have been written by a precocious child. He undertook to write the history of a great war; but he did not possess the most elementary knowledge of the conditions of warfare. His fantastic statements of the impossible numbers of the army of Xerxes exhibits an incompetence which is almost incredible and is alone enough to stamp Herodotus as more of an epic poet than a historian.”

Perhaps Herodotus was aiming more to be an epic poet, though working in prose, than an academic historian. We do know that Herodotus was the Father of Travelogues, the first four books review the culture and history of Persia, Scythia, and Egypt. Herodotus lacks the intellectual rigor of modern academic historians; he is more comparable to a modern movie producer. He wrote his books so they could be read at religious festivals and other public gatherings, he wanted his books to be entertaining, so he includes many anecdotes, descriptions, and stories simply because they are interesting. As JB Bury notes, Herodotus “has a wonderful flair for a good story; and gracious garrulity with which he tells historical anecdotes is one of the charms which will secure him readers till the world’s end. Gibbon happily observed that Herodotus “sometimes writes for children and sometimes for philosophers.”[1]

What is more wonderful that the delightful story Herodotus retells of the Amazons, the fierce women warriors in Scythia? In the Scythian language, Amazon meant “man-killer,” they are forbidden to marry until they have killed an enemy in battle.

The Amazons in ancient Scythia were just as enticing and threatening. Like the Persians and Scythians both, they were skilled at horsemanship. When they invaded Scythia, Herodotus tells us that they made “no further attempt to kill the invading Amazons, but they sent a detachment of their youngest men, about equal in number, with orders to camp near them and take their cue from whatever it was the Amazons then did: if  they pursued them, they were not to fight, but to give ground; then, when the pursuit was abandoned, they were once again to encamp nearby. The motive was the Scythian’s desire to get children by the Amazons.” “The Amazons, realizing the men meant no harm, ignored them, so each day the two camps drew closer together. Neither party had anything but their weapons and their horses, so both lived by hunting and plundering.”

During dinner and drinks the lades had to go off in ones or twos to diddle in the bushes, and some ran into young men diddling, and soon they were dallying, and then the Amazons brought their friends, and the camps united and everyone was dallying, but the Amazon ladies did not want to settle down, so they jointly continued their hunting and raiding parties, living happily ever after.[2]

HERODOTUS AND EGYPT

Herodotus discusses Egypt in the second book of his Histories, provided both cultural background and the conquest of Egypt by the Persian King Cambyses.

Did Herodotus visit Egypt personally? Or did Herodotus merely copy the travelogues of Hecataeus or repeat eyewitness accounts of other Greeks who visited Egypt. His stories of Egypt are almost as fantastical as those stories about Scythia? His inaccuracies cause some scholars to wonder. Although his description of a crocodile suggests he actually saw a crocodile, he totally botches his description of a hippopotamus. The Greek word for a hippo is a river-horse, and he repeats Hecataeus in describing what the term “river-horse” would suggest, “an animal that has four legs, cloven hoofs like an ox, a horse’s man and tail, conspicuous tusks, and a voice like a horse’s neigh.”[3]

My opinion is Herodotus did travel to Egypt. He recounts the Egyptian version of the story of the Trojan Prince Paris, who abducted the already married Helen from the palace of King Menelaus. Herodotus could not have made up a story like this, the source must have been Egyptian.

Although Herodotus does not retell them, the myths surrounding Helen of Troy would have been known to all Greeks. In one myth, Helen was the daughter of the god Zeus and the mortal Leda. An eagle was chasing Zeus who had taken on the form of a swan, and to escape the eagle this divine swan sought refuge with Leda, and they enjoyed a mutual affection, and Leda laid an egg, and out of the egg hatched Helen, daughter of Leda and the swan, Zeus!

When it was time for the beautiful Helen to marry, many of the Greek kings and princes wooed here, bringing many gifts. Odysseus had the suitors promise that whoever won the hand of Helen, the others would defend the chosen husband against whoever would quarrel against them. After the suitors agreed, King Menelaus was chosen as her husband.[4]

Why did Paris abduct Helen? In this myth Eris, the goddess of discord, throws a golden apple into a banquet held by Zeus, and the three goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite claim the golden apple. They asked Zeus to say who among them was the fairest and most deserving of the apple, but Zeus stays out of it, and delegates this unpleasant task to Paris so he can judge between them. The three goddesses attempt to bribe Paris, Hera offers to make him king of
Europe and Asia, Athena offers him wisdom and skill in war, but Aphrodite promises him the most beautiful woman in the world, Queen Helen.[5]

Helen is already married, so Paris goes to visit the palace of King Menelaus, where he seduces and abducts Helen, with the help of Aphrodite. In the Egyptian version of the story told to Herodotus, on his way back to Troy, the ship of Paris and Helen of Troy is driven to the Egyptian shore by bad weather. Some of his slaves seek refuge and tell the Egyptians how Paris had abducted Helen from her palace. They are brought before King Proteus of Egypt, according to Herodotus, Proteus upbraids Paris, “I should punish you for the sake of your Greek host. To be welcomed as a guest, and to repay that kindness by so foul a deed! You are a villain. You seduced your friend’s wife, and, if that were not enough, persuaded her to escape with you on the wings of passion you roused. But though I cannot punish a stranger with death, I will not allow you to take away your ill-gotten gains: I will keep this woman and the treasure, until the Greek to whom they belong chooses to come and fetch them.”

This story makes sense to Herodotus, why else would the Trojans slog through a bloody war for a solid decade? If Helen were in Troy, they would simply give her back to the Greeks and tell them to go back to Greece.[6] But then Homer could not have written the epic poem, the Iliad, with the many stories of Paris and Helen and their conflicted love, if Helen of Troy was instead Helen in Egypt.

Herodotus tells us another humorous story about Queen Nitocris of Egypt. She inscribed on her tomb, “If any king of Babylon hereafter is short of money, let him open my tomb and take as much as he likes. But this must only be done in case of need. Whoever opens my tomb under any other circumstances will not benefit.”

Of course, King Darius of Persia opens the tomb, where he reads this inscription, “If you have not been insatiably greedy and eager to get money by despicable means, you would never have opened the tomb of the dead.”[7]

Herodotus fancied that Egypt was source of Greek culture of religion because of its great antiquity. When the Greeks went back over a dozen generations to the time of the Trojan Wars, many of their Greek ancestors were descended from the gods, but the Egyptians claimed they could go back hundreds of generations. Herodotus thought at the time that the pyramids were two thousand years old, but they were several millennia older.

The stories about Egypt and Scythia are fantastical and of little use to history scholars. Scholars theorize that some Egyptian priest tour guides are pulling his leg in many of these stories, so we will let you read more of these tall tales.

HERODOTUS BEGINS WITH PERSIA AND EGYPT

What were the root causes of the Greco-Persian Wars? There was tension between the Greeks in Europe and the Persians in Asia, and historically each side had been guilty of abducting the women of the other, starting with Trojan War, where the Iliad remembers how the kings of Greece sailed to Troy to avenge the abduction from King Menelaus of his beautiful wife Helen by the Trojan Prince Paris.

Capturing concubines was part of the warrior culture of the Greek city-states, and the ancient world in general, as the Iliad itself is about how the honor of Odysseus is offended when Agamemnon seizes Briseis, the concubine Odysseus captured in battle, after the god Apollo forces Agamemnon to relinquish his concubine Chryseis to her father, a priest of Apollo. Students over the ages complain about how close these names are, but you can imagine what Agamemnon said to Odysseus, Briseis, Chryseis, what is the difference?

Herodotus confirms this dark side of Greek life when he says, “Abducting young women,” in the opinion of the Greek warriors, “is not a lawful act; but it is stupid to make a fuss about avenging it. The only sensible thing to take no notice; for it is obvious that no young woman allows herself to be abducted is she does not wish to be.” Herodotus does not miss a change to denigrate the Persians, as the Persians “took the seizure of the women lightly enough, but not the Greeks,” who “raised a large army, invaded Asia and destroyed the empire of King Priam.”[8]

Herodotus has many fantastic stories about women in strange lands. Herodotus says that the Babylonians share this custom with the Eneti in Illyria: “In every village, once a year, all the girls of marriageable age are gathered, while the men stand round them in a circle; an auctioneer then calls each one in turn to stand up and offers her for sale, beginning with the prettiest.” “Marriage was the object of the transaction. The rich men bid against each other for the prettiest girls, while the humbler folk, who had no use for good looks in a wife, were actually paid to take the ugly ones.”[9] How preposterous! This is less like history and more like gossip from the Greeks in Ionia about how barbaric the barbarian Persians were.

Herodotus may have fooled the great German commentator on Deuteronomy, Gerhard von Rad. In his discussion on temple prostitution he summarizes from Herodotus, Babylonian “women offer themselves to sanctuaries in consequence of a vow.”[10] He references where Herodotus tells us about a shameful Babylonian custom where every woman, rich and poor, “must once in her life go and sit in the temple of Aphrodite and there give herself to a strange man.” “Once a woman has taken her seat she is not allowed to go home until a man has thrown a silver coin into her lap and taken her outside to lie with her. After that, her duty to the goddess is discharged and she may go home, after which it will be impossible to seduce her by any offer, however large.”[11] We can surmise that Herodotus is at his least reliable when he describes the love lives of barbarians.

CURSE ON KING GYGES AND HOUSE OF CROESUS

Croesus of Lydia was the first Asian tyrant to conquer the Greek colonists in Ionia. He lost his kingdom both from his foolish hubris, and by the fulfilling of a curse on Gyges for another act of hubris, his ancestor five generations back. Gyges was the bodyguard for King Candaules. The king told Gyges, “It appears you don’t believe me when I tell you how lovely my wife is. Well, a man believes his eyes better than his ears, contrive to see her naked.”

“Gyges gave a cry of horror. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘what an improper suggestion! Do you tell me to look at the queen when she has no clothes on? No, no, when she takes off her clothing, she does away with her shame!”

As students of ancient history know, what kings want, kings get, and so he hid Gyges behind the curtain to spy on his wife as she disrobed. Yes, the queen did notice, she kept her anger to herself, she did not indicate to the king her observation.

She had a plan to ease her shame, the next day she summoned for Gyges to appear. “Gyges, there are two courses open to you, and you may take your choice between them. Kill Candaules and seize the throne, with me as your wife; or die yourself on the spot, so that never again may your blind obedience to the king tempt you to see what you have no right to see. One of you must die; either my husband, the author of this wicked plot; or you, who have outraged propriety by seeing me naked.”[12]

WOW, true love knows no bounds. This love triangle ensnares everyone in a web of hubris and deceptions.

KING CROESUS, THE FIRST ASIAN KING TO CONQUER THE GREEKS OF IONIA

King Croesus was known for his fabulous wealth, even today we often say that someone is “as rich as Croesus.” History and archaeology reveal that Croesus was an early king who first learned how to melt down precious metals and strike them into coins, metal from his rich mines in Lydia, which is roughly the western half of Asia Minor, or today’s Turkey.[13]

We know the discussion in Herodotus between Solon and Croesus was chronologically impossible, but it is a discussion that should have happened. Solon was the famed law-giver to Athens who, after his laws were put into place, travelled around the Mediterranean so his laws could not be amended. When Solon visited the court of King Croesus, the king asked Solon, “I have heard about your wisdom, and how widely you have travelled in the pursuit of knowledge. I cannot resist my desire to ask you a question: who is the happiest man you have ever seen?” The answer Croesus wanted to hear was that he was the happiest of men, since he was so wealthy.

Solon said that Tellus was the happiest man, because in battle “he fought for his countrymen, routed the enemy, and died a brave man; and the Athenians paid him the high honor of a public funeral on the spot where he fell.”

Croesus did not pick up on the moral lesson, but thinking he might get second prize, asked Solon, who was the next happiest person? Solon said that Cleobis and Biton were the next happiest of men. Their mother wanted to drive their oxcart to the festival at the temple of the goddess Hera. The oxen had not yet come in from the fields, so her two sons, Cleobis and Biton, dragged their mother in the cart for six miles to the temple. The crowds crowed about how lucky their mother was to have such two fine, dedicated sons! Their mother, in sheer pleasure at how the public praised her sons, prayed in the temple to the goddess Hera to grant her sons “the greatest blessing that can fall to mortal men.”

Be careful what you pray for. Should the mother have prayer this prayer? Herodotus does not provide us her name, which says to us that perhaps her prayer was not a good prayer. Hera granted her wish, the two lads “fell asleep in the temple, and that was the end of them, for they never woke again. The Argives, considering them to be the best of men, had statues made of them, which they sent to Delphi.”

In both these stories, and also the Iliad, we are reminded that in a warrior culture like the Greek culture, you gain everlasting glory from the deeds you perform that are retold many times by future generations.

Croesus did not like this answer either. Solon then tells Croesus, “Man is entirely a creature of chance.” “Great wealth can make a man no happier than moderate means, unless he has the luck to continue in prosperity to the end. Many rich men have been unfortunate, and many with a modest competence have had good luck.” “Though the rich have the means to satisfy their appetites and to bear calamities, the poor, if they are lucky, are more likely to keep clear of trouble, and will have besides the blessings of a sound body, health, freedom from trouble, fine children, and good looks.”

“Now if a favored man dies as he has lived,” he may die happy. But “until he is dead, keep the word ‘happy’ in reserve. Until death, he is not happy, but only lucky.” “The man who dies a peaceful death is happy.”[14]

Croesus may have died happy, but he did not die rich. Later he learned of a new king named Cyrus who was expanding his territory to the East of Lydia. King Croesus decided to consult the Oracle of Delphi, he was uncertain whether he should see if King Cyrus wanted to attack Lydia, or whether he should launch a pre-emptive strike against the young king. With his request Croesus sent lavish gifts of solid gold with his query to the god Apollo at the Oracle of Delphi. But King Croesus did not heed the inscription carved on the Temple at Delphi: KNOW THYSELF. He did not sufficiently ponder the response given by the Oracle, “If Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.”

Having received what he thought was a favorable answer, he was greedy for more good news, so sent another query, asking if his reign would be a long one. Likewise, he did not deeply ponder the meaning of the next response from the priestess of Apollo:

“When comes the day that a mule shall sit on the Median throne,
Then, tender-footed Lydian, by pebbly Hermus
Run and abide not, nor think it shame to be a coward.”

Instead, Croesus interpreted the oracle’s answer literally, and prepared to attack the young King Cyrus, since there would never sit a mule on the throne of the Medes.[15] So, King Croesus crossed the River Halys and attacked the kingdom of Cyrus. The two armies fought hard all day, the fight was even, and Cyrus withdrew. But after Croesus withdrew back over the Halys, and released his mercenary forces, Cyrus followed the reduced forces of King Croesus and decisively defeated him.

Herodotus notes, “the oracle was fulfilled; Croesus had destroyed a mighty empire, his own.” Cyrus was the mule, Cyrus the Great was half Persian, half Mede, sitting on both thrones. We will let you read the story why Cyrus spared his life, and how Croesus became a trusted advisor to King Cyrus the Great, since he gained in wisdom what he lost in wealth.

Herodotus tells a wonderful tale of how Croesus piqued the curiosity of Cyrus when he was sentenced to be burned alive on a funeral pyre, with the help of the gods who helped douse the flames, and how Croesus became a trusted advisor to the Persian King.[16] Thus, Croesus he gained in wisdom what he lost in wealth, he may have died happily with modest wealth. This hiring of vanquished kings as advisors to the Persian king was a common practice during the many wars waged between Greece and Persia.

One moral lesson to learn from this incident is when Croesus requests from Cyrus “permission to reproach Apollo for his deceit,” since Croesus thought that the Delphic Oracle’s advice to fight Cyrus was so misleading. This frank request humored Cyrus, and when Croesus sent envoys to the Oracle with this query, he instructed them “to ask if it was the habit of Greek gods to be ungrateful.” Croesus thought Apollo was ungrateful, Herodotus lists at length the many gifts of gold and treasure Croesus shipped to Delphi, Croesus had donated a large chunk of his fortune to bribe the favor of Apollo and the gods.

The priestess of Apollo responded that “the gods themselves could not escape destiny,” a common theme of Greek mythology as that even almighty Zeus had very limited power to alter the judgement of the Fates. The Oracle reminded him of the curse of Gyges. The priestess informed Croesus that she did intervene to postpone Cyrus’ invasion by three years; and reminded him that Apollo did save him from his funeral pyre. Also, he should have inquired further about whose empire he was going to destroy.

Summing up these moral lessons, we can conclude that we will have limited success when we try to bribe God, and that consultants we hire will often tell us what we want to hear, or at best provide advice diplomatically. Here the Greek maxim written on the Temple at Delphi, KNOW THYSELF, counsels us to realize our own prejudices so we can honestly evaluate the advice and counsel provided by our friends and acquaintances, by our pastors and counselors, by Scriptures and Church teachings.

BIRTH AND BOYHOOD OF CYRUS THE GREAT

Originally the Medes were the dominant kingdom, the Persians were conquered by the Medes. Herodotus says that the Mede King “Astyages had a daughter called Mandane, and he dreamed one night that she urinated in such enormous quantities that it filled his city and swamped the whole of Asia.” When consulted, his wise magi were alarmed, and rather than marry her to a Mede Prince, he married her to a safe Persian, Cambyses, “of good family and quiet habits,” so their child would not have wholly royal blood flowing in his veins.

After the wedding, King Astyages had a more alarming dream about his pregnant daughter, “a vine grew from his daughter’s private parts and spread over Asia.” He consulted with his magi, the dream was clear, that child would grow up to be a usurper of his throne. After Cyrus was born, he instructed his loyal steward, Harpagus, to take and kill the child. Harpagus sent for the herdsman Mitradates, “who knew a stretch of pasture in the mountains ranged by wild beasts, most suitable for the task at hand.”

Who would want to expose a sweet child, our sweet Cyprus, to the beasts? Not Mitradates. His wife was worrying about her husband being summoned to the palace, Mitradates was worrying about his wife heavy with child. She burst out crying, putting her arms around the legs of her husband, begging her not to expose the child, much like inexperienced warriors did in the Iliad when they did not wish to be slaughtered. “My own child,” she said, “was born today, born dead. Take the body and expose it, and let us bring up Mandane’s son as our own.” “Our dead baby will have a royal burial, and this live one will not be killed.”

How was Cyrus discovered? He was playing ‘King’ with the other boys in the village near the palace, and the other boys selected Cyrus, son of the herdsmen, as king. One of the boys, son of a distinguished Mede, refused to do what the boy  “King” Cyrus told him to do, so Cyrus “beat him savagely with a whip.” This Mede dad brought the boys before King Astyages, who gazed at Cyrus, but that was not his name then, asking, “Have you, the son of a slave, the impudence to handle in this outrageous manner a boy whose father is my most distinguished subject?”

“Master,” little Cyrus replied “there was nothing wrong in what I did to him. We boys in the village were playing our game, and they made me king, because they thought I was the best man to hold the office. The others obeyed my orders, but he did not; he took no notice of me, until he was punished. That is what happened; and if I deserve to suffer for it, I am ready.”

Herodotus tells us, “Astyages guessed who he was, for that was not the answer of a slave; moreover, the boys features resembled his own, and his age fit the date of the exposure.” King Astyages welcomed his grandson with open arms. The magi did not want to have the boy killed, so they said that Cyrus had already been king in this little game, and that “even our regular prophecies are sometimes fulfilled in apparently small incidents, and dreams often work out in trivial ways.”

Kings do as they please, the king told Harpagus there was no hard feelings. But the king was upset that his steward did not follow orders, the king was upset that he deceived him. So the king invited him and his son to a banquet, where the cook chopped up the son, roasting and boiling the meat. “Dishes of mutton were placed in front of everyone else, but to Harpagus was served the flesh of his son.” “When Harpagus had eaten as much as he wished, King Astyages asked him if he had enjoyed his dinner.” Harpagus said yes, indeed, and then the servants “brought in the boy’s head, hands, and feet in the covered dish, stood by Harpagus’ chair and told him to lift the lid and take what he fancied.” Harpagus kept his cool, when Astyages asked him what flesh he had eaten, Harpagus simply replied, “I know, my lord, may the king’s will be done.” Harpagus did not forget, hubris always bodes ill.

The magi did advise that Cyrus be sent back to Cambyses palace in Persia, where he was received with delight. After Cyrus had grown up to “be the bravest and most popular young man in Persia”, Harpagus was conspiring with dissatisfied nobles, and sent Cyrus a note that now was the time. Cyrus threw a banquet for the army of Persia in a large field, he spoke to them, “Take my advice and win your freedom. I am the man destined to undertake your liberation, and it is my belief that you are a match for the Medes in war as in everything else. It is the truth I tell you. Do not delay; fling off the yoke of Astyages at once.”

When Astyages assembled his army, he appointed Harpagus as commander in chief! Most of the army of the Medes defected to Cyrus, there was not much of a fight. Later the Medes rebelled, the Persians put down the rebellion. But Cyrus was not interested in revenge, Herodotus tells us that “Cyrus treated Astyages with great respect and kept him at his court until he died.”[17]

There was conflict between the Persians and the Greek cities in Ionia, on the west coast of Asia Minor. These cities sent a delegation to Sparta asking for help, but the Spartans declined, instead dispatching a fifty-oared galley to Ionia to warn Cyrus “not to harm any Greek city or they would take action.” Cyrus asked some Greeks, who are these people, how could they “dare to send him such a command?”

Cyrus answered the Spartan herald, “I have never yet been afraid of men who have a special meeting place in the center of their city, where they swear this and that and cheat each other.” [18] His successors would learn that the mainland Greeks were of sterner stuff than the Ionian Greeks. Was this small incident a premonition about the future Greco-Persian Wars?

His general Harpagus subdued the Greek cities of Ionia while Cyrus traveled with his army to the east where he conquered Babylon, and Herodotus tells us many grand stories about his battlefield exploits.

CYRUS THE GREAT MEETS HIS END ON THE BATTLEFIELD

In the Histories of Herodotus, Cyrus the Great loses his life when the armies of Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae defeated him in battle. They were a Scythian race at the far eastern end of the Persian Empire east of the Caspian Sea, where many of the Russian Muslim republics are today. Cyrus first offered her his hand in marriage, but as Herodotus notes, “he was met with a refusal, for the queen was well aware that he was wooing not herself but her dominions.”

Since they were nomads not accustomed to the luxuries and delicacies the Persians enjoyed, his trusted advisor Croesus suggested a clever strategy: the Persians would setup a massive tempting banquet guarded by his weakest troops but withdraw and conceal the main force. Sure enough, a third of the Massagetae army, commanded by the son of Tomyris, Spargapises massacred this rump force, and “at once took their seats and began to regale themselves, and ate and drank so much they fell asleep,” and they were massacred by the main Persian force.

This treachery infuriated our nomad queen, and her army won after many hours of close fighting with bows and arrows and spears and daggers, overwhelming and destroying the Persian Army. Herodotus tells us, “After the battle Tomyris ordered a search to be made amongst the Persian dead for the body of Cyrus; and when found she pushed the head into a skin which she had filled with human blood, and cried out as she committed this outrage, ‘Though I have conquered you and live, yet you have ruined me by treacherously taking my son. See now, I fulfill my threat: you have your fill of blood.’”[19]

Xenophon, who also wrote the history of the Peloponnesian War picking up where Thucydides stopped, in mid-sentence, also wrote a history of Cyrus the Great, in his version Cyrus the Great died peacefully in his sleep. However, archeologists and modern historians debate many of the details in both these histories.

Herodotus leaves out completely in his history the incident that is so important to Jews and Christians, how after he conquered Babylon, King Cyrus allowed the Jews and other conquered peoples forcibly removed to Babylon to return home to their native land. Cyrus the Great even helped fund the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

KING CAMBYSES, CONQUEROR OF EGYPT

In Herodotus, before his last battles Cyrus dreamed that Darius would take over his throne. Herodotus says this dream did not reveal treachery as Cyrus thought; but was instead a prophecy that Cyrus would soon lose his throne. Consequently, Cyrus sent his son Cambyses with his trusted advisor Croesus back to Persia, so they survived.

Cambyses conquered much of Egypt for Persia, which Herodotus describes in Book II. Herodotus views Cambyses as being “half-mad, cruel, and insolent,” and committing acts of arrogance and hubris like sending his army on campaigns crossing the desert without adequate supplies. There are many stories about Cambyses in Book II of the Histories that covers Egypt. He ruled for only eight years, Herodotus says his death was brought on by an act of hubris when he stabbed the sacred Apis Bull, causing its death. Cambyses was succeeded by his brother Smerdis per Herodotus, Smerdis in Greek, Bardiya in Persian, who ruled for only a few months before he was overthrown by conspirators led by King Darius, who is also mentioned in several books of the Old Testament.

KING DARIUS ASCENDS TO THE THRONE

One of the most notable and the most unlikely debates in the Histories occur between the conspirators who include Darius, unlikely because they are debating which form of government of government is superior, a democracy, an oligarchy, or a monarchy. How many conspirators keep notes of their secret discussions? If they did, would they share them with Herodotus? This is clearly a Greek debate inserted into the mouths of the Persian conspirators. Herodotus himself acknowledges that many in the audience will not believe they occurred.

Since King Darius would be an absolute monarch, we know that his argument supporting monarchy will be the final word. But the debate opens with the assertion that “monarchy is neither pleasant nor good.” “The typical vices of a monarch are envy and pride; envy, because it is a natural human weakness, and pride, because excessive wealth and power lead to the delusion that he is something more than a man. These two vices are the root cause of all wickedness: both lead to acts of savage and unnatural violence.”

But under a democracy, “under a government of the people a magistrate is appointed by lot and is held responsible for his conduct in office, and all questions are put up for debate.”

But, in favor of an oligarchy, “the masses are a feckless lot, nowhere will you find more ignorance or irresponsibility or violence. It would be an intolerable thing to escape the murderous caprice of a king, only to be caught up by the equally wanton brutality of a mob.” “The masses handle affairs without thought; all they can do is rush blindly into politics like a river in a flood.”

In the closing speech, Darius favors monarchy. “One ruler: it is impossible to improve upon that, provided he is the best.” “In an oligarchy, the men competing for distinction leads to personal feuds,” “which can lead to civil wars and bloodshed.” In democracies, “admiration of the mob” for a ruler often results in absolute rule.” His closing argument, we should preserve the monarchy, “we should refrain from changing ancient ways, which have served us well in the past.”[20]

Darius the Great would preside over the Persian Empire at its greatest extent, and he would lead the first failed expedition to conquer mainland Greece after subduing the restless Greeks in Ionia on his western shores. He would find the mainland Greeks to be more resolute and determined than the Greeks in Ionia.

Succeeding blogs and videos:
Histories of Herodotus, The Greco-Persian Wars
http://www.seekingvirtueandwisdom.com/histories-of-herodotus-the-greco-persian-wars/
https://youtu.be/JjNcyLo54ko

Aeschylus and Herodotus, The Battle of Salamis, Greco-Persian Wars
http://www.seekingvirtueandwisdom.com/aeschylus-and-herodotus-the-battle-of-salamis-greco-persian-wars/
https://youtu.be/cabAkQwHnlk

[1] JB Bury, The Ancient Greek Historians (New York, Barnes and Nobles, 2006, 1909) , pp. 40-41.

[2] Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey De Selincourt (London, New York: Penguin Classics, 2003, 1954, originally Fifth Century BC),  Book Four, Chapters 110-117, pp. 276-278.

[3] Herodotus, The Histories, Book Two, Chapter 71, pp. 123-124.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_of_Troy

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judgement_of_Paris

[6] Herodotus, The Histories, Book Two, Chapters 112-120, pp. 137-141.

[7] Herodotus, The Histories, Book One, Chapter 187, p. 82.

[8] Herodotus, The Histories, Book One, Chapter 4, pp. 4-5.

[9] Herodotus, The Histories, Book One, Chapter 196, pp. 86-87.

[10] Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy, on Chapter 23:15-16, p. 148.

[11] Herodotus, The Histories, Book One, Chapter 199, pp. 87-88.

[12] Herodotus, The Histories, Book One, Chapter 8-12, pp. 6-8.

[13]John Hale, Greco-Persian Wars, lectures recorded by The Great Courses, (www.thegreatcourses.com, 2008), Lecture 2, The Empire Builders – The Persians.

[14] Herodotus, The Histories, Book One, Chapters 30-32, pp. 13-16.

[15] Herodotus, The Histories, Book One, Chapters 46-56, pp. 20-24.

[16] Herodotus, The Histories, Book One, Chapters 71-87, pp. 32-41.

[17] Herodotus, The Histories, Book One, Chapters 107-130, pp. 49-61.

[18] Herodotus, The Histories, Book One, Chapters 152-153, pp. 68.

[19] Herodotus, The Histories, Book One, Chapters 205-214, pp. 90-94.

[20] Herodotus, The Histories, Book Three, Chapters 80-82, pp. 207-209.

About Bruce Strom 168 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.