Herodotus, “The Histories”, and the Greco-Persian Wars

An old joke holds that historians are gossips with footnotes. This often seems true of Herodotus, the “father of history”. Curious about everything anyone tells him, at times, he can be a bit credulous and some of the stories he relates are what we would call tall tales. Nevertheless, his methodology- taking various accounts of past events and making decisions about which are the most plausible and what resulted from those events- is indeed historiography. Besides, it’s pretty hard not to enjoy the sort of historian who can write a sentence like, “There is a place in Arabia… where I went to try to get information about the flying snakes.”

The Persian Wars nearly ended the Greek experiment. Divided among themselves, not really prepared for a large war, and with many Greeks siding with the enemy, the eventual defeat of the Persian invaders by a handful of scrappy city states was one of the great victories in military history. It would define how the Greeks, particularly Athens and Sparta, saw each other and the outside world. The “histories”of Herodotus give a good sense of how they saw both the Persians and war itself.

He begins by looking back a few hundred years for the roots of the war. For some time, the Greeks and Persians bickered without much coming of it. Finally, Croesus of Lydia decides to attack the growing Persian Empire. Appealing to the oracles at Delphi, he is told that, if he attacks, a great empire will fall. Little does he know it will be his own. The theme of misunderstood oracles occurs throughout the story. The Greek states in particular cannot go to battle without first consulting the oracles, and Herodotus explains nearly every defeat by a failure to think deeply about what has been revealed.

Cyrus defeats Croesus but feels pity and spares his life. Herodotus tells the story of Cyrus’s childhood, which is strikingly similar to Oedipus: fated by an oracle to overthrow his father, who sends a servant to kill the child; the servant instead gives him to a distant farmer to bring up, but he eventually outs himself as the natural king. Cyrus then starts campaigns of conquest, taking the Medes, Ionians, Lycia, Babylon, and several others before dying in battle, according to Herodotus.

Cyrus is followed by Cambyses, the Magi, Darius and Xerxes, with rule becoming progressively more tyrannical, according to Herodotus. He shows the growing power of the Persian Empire as they conquer the Egyptians, Babylonians, Scythians, et cetera. As his story unfolds, he tells us the customs of each group of conquered people, moving into what we might call anthropology instead of history. These sections are a bit rambling but highly entertaining. But, they should be taken with a grain of salt as much of the information comes from word-of-mouth and local legends.

Herodotus is not above the sensational or salacious; I was tickled to discover recently that one group of fetishists takes as their avatar Candaules, the King of Sardis, who Herodotus tells us was overthrown due to his indecent desire to have a servant spy on his wife while she was bathing. Huge swaths of the Histories record gossip and rumor. Every Babylonian woman serves as a temple prostitute once in her life. In Egypt, women urinate standing up, men sitting down. In India, they train ants the size of dogs to dig for gold. The Massagetae are wife-swappers; someone should probably inform the wife-swapping community! The Persians have a custom of burying people alive. Typical of ancient Greeks, Herodotus is most interested in the Egyptians. The older, richer, and more stable kingdom was a subject of fascination. We should be skeptical though about his claims that Greek religion was imported wholesale from Egypt.

Why do nations wage wars? In truth, it’s quite often out of greed or paranoid self-interest. Most accounts give higher explanations. The chanson de geste talks about heroic good versus evil; we tend to talk about evil ideologies and cultures. Herodotus points quite often to hubris and power-hunger, but he also suggests that the Persians, especially Xerxes and Darius, saw tyranny as the natural state of things and underestimated the cohesion that could come from democracy. At times, this verges on cultural mythology, as when Darius asks a Greek ally how people who live free could fight so well, and gets the dramatic response, “They are free, yes, but not entirely free because they have a master- Law- which they fear much more than your subjects fear you.” Cue the trumpets! Exaggerated or not, this is a story asserting the natural defeat of tyranny by democracy. It is understandable why the story is still admired in the modern west.

Things changed for the Persians at the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE), one of the most stunning military victories in ancient history and a vote of encouragement for Greek confidence in the hoplite phalanx, the democratic reforms of Cleisthenes, and their own superiority over the barbarian. Some estimate Persian forces of 20,000 and, at best, the Greeks had half as many men; but the general Militiades (who had once fought for Darius) and a surprise running attack by the Greek phalanxes trapped the Persian forces and routed them. Herodotus puts the Persian deaths at 6400, which is probably not accurate, and the Athenian losses at 192, which actually is accurate.

Darius’s successor Xerxes dithers on responding to the humiliating defeat. Herodotus, characteristically, attributes his decision to attack the Greeks to goading by lousy subalterns and a series of prophetic dreams, misinterpreted. It is interesting that one of his best warriors and smartest advisors is a woman, and Herodotus lacks the misogyny or patronizing attitude we might expect.

Xerxes invades. The Battle of Thermopylae (480) has been immortalized by the movie 300; here that number of Spartans under Leonidas held off wave after wave of Persian forces, knowing they faced certain death. After the Persians were shown a narrow mountain path by which to attack from the rear, the battle was finished. The epitaph raised to the 300 by the Spartan state: “Go tell the Spartans, you who read: we took their orders, and are dead.”

The Battle of Salamis really kills the Persian invasion. Interestingly, Herodotus sees this as divine retribution for outsized human power. After a devastating storm: “God was indeed doing everything possible to reduce the superiority of the Persian fleet and bring it down to the size of the Greek.” A major theme of the Histories is that God will punish anyone, Persian or Greek, who becomes too powerful. As he writes, “Human life is like a revolving wheel and never allows the same people to continue long in prosperity.” This subtext about a vengeful God and human arrogance undercuts the slightly propagandist flavor of his take on Persian tyranny.

In other words, the Greek story is triumphant, but not yet triumphalist. The barbarians are prone to human failings, just like the Greeks. The idea that God might want to keep every nation from becoming too powerful is certainly plausible, given the history of every nation. Unfortunately, it’s not an argument one hears very often today.

Endnotes: Of course, we’re planning to read the Symposium by Wednesday. I’d also like to read Aeschylus’s take on the Persians, which I’ve never read. On the Persian kick, sometime in the future, I’d like to get to the Persian Book of Kings, the Shannameh. As for early histories, I’d like to get to Thucydides in the near future.

Rufus F.

Rufus is a likeable curmudgeon. He has a PhD in History, sang for a decade in a punk band, and recently moved to NYC after nearly two decades in Canada. He wrote the book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (2021).

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22 Responses

  1. Paul B says:

    Good stuff!

    Just want to point out some of what was long assumed to be embellishment or invention on Herodotus’ part might actually have been true. Not just the gold digging ants, but also a disappearing Persian army, and the Egyptian/Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa (Herodotus is skeptical of the account because the sailors claimed to have seen the sun to their north, which of course is precisely what would happen south of the equator).

    That doesn’t mean the Herodotus wasn’t given to flights of fancy, especially in Rand McNally Egypt (“they wear hats on their feet and hamburgers eat people”), which tend to cast non-Greeks as the Other in the interest of shoring up Greek identity. And I hope we get to Thucydides, if only to see how tenuous that shared identity was.

    • Rufus F. says:

      I have to look it up but there’s a story in there about a priest who tries to establish himself as a god by living in an underground chamber for a few years and then returning. I’ve heard there have been some recent studies on him and I would love to see them because that story is just fascinating in Herodotus.

      • Paul B says:

        That one doesn’t ring a bell, but it’s been a long time since I plowed through all of Herodotus. Let me know f you track it down!

        • Rufus F. says:

          Okay, it was Salmoxis in Book Four, section 96. I knew I underlined that. The Getae saw him as a god. There’s an interesting Wikipedia entry on him- under Zalmoxis.

  2. Kyle says:

    I’m excited for Thucydides. The Greco-Persian wars are interesting but the Peloponnesian Wars are just fun.

    • Rufus F. says:

      Yeah, I’m excited about reading the whole thing- I’ve read excerpts, but never got around to it. And, yeah, I agree that the subject matter is great.

  3. Will says:

    Rufus, is that the definitive translation of the inscription at Thermopylae? I’ve heard so many different versions. For my money, “Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we lie, obedient to their command” is the most romantic.

    • Rufus F. says:

      I don’t think there’s any authoritative one. That is a nice translation though. I probably just prefer “Go tell the Spartans” because of the Burt Lancaster film.

      • Kaleberg says:

        That was a great film and very powerful. George Macdonald “Flashman” Fraser recommended it in his book, The Hollywood History of the World. I went on a video kick watching Carry On Cleo, Fire Over England, The Cruel Sea and a host of others. Go Tell The Spartans really stood out.

        Historians have always been more than gossips with footnotes. You’ll notice that Herodotus started with rumors, but then tried to substantiate them as best he could, by asking people from the area, by finding out more about monuments and artifacts, by listening to alternate accounts and so on. He even applied scientific principles to cast doubt on that story of a journey around Africa. The principles were wrong, but that wasn’t the first time historical views have changed based on new scientific results.

        • Rufus F. says:

          Yeah, I think Herodotus is a great introduction to historiography because he really does show the detective work behind it. On one hand, it’s prose writing; and on the other, it’s pure legwork. If I ever design an intro class for graduate students, I plan to start with his chapter on Egypt.

          I’ll have to look for that book. I just got done with a Sam Fuller video kick, so it would be good to have a new project.

  4. sean matthews says:

    I think one could reasonably claim that the battle of Thermopylae was comfortably immortal before release a couple of thousand years or so later, of Zak Snyder’s 300, and will still be going strong in the mythic achievement stakes, long after the movie has has disappeared again.

    • Rufus F. says:

      Yeah, I guess maybe I was trying too hard to appeal to the young’uns with that line! I’ve not actually seen 300, which just looked to me like a non-interactive video game. Is it based on Herodotus’s account?

      • Jaybird says:

        It’s based on a comic book that was somewhat loosely based on Herodotus… they did keep some of the smack talk (“surrender your arms” “come and take them” and “our arrows will block out the sun” “So much the better…then we shall fight our battle in the shade”… which, lemme tell ya, is some excellent smack talk now that I think about it).

        I’d recommend watching the trailer three or four times in a row over watching the movie. The trailer is better.

        But if you’ve got a bottle of something and find yourself in a room with it… eh, you could do worse than get drunk and watch it.

        • Rufus F. says:

          I could be a bit jaded- I had a bad experience watching Troy.

          • Jaybird says:

            Here’s the thing about 300. It contains the emotional force of the original. If you have a beer in you, you could be 12 years old and hearing this story be told around the fire at any point in the past.

            Does it do a good job of retelling the story accurately? Oh, hell no. If you watch it as a scholar of history, you’ll find yourself saying “I can’t believe they put that in there!” and “THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED!!!”

            If, however, you watch it the way a 12-year old boy would appreciate a story told around a fire of how our ancestors defeated a much larger army… oh, you’ll be ashamed of how much you like it. You might even try to justify it to yourself by writing posts like this one.

      • 300, the comic, was by the same guy that did The Watchmen. I haven’t seen it either, but the trailers struck me much the same way they did Rufus. Isn’t Xerxes portrayed as some towering giant of a man, actually more like a god in appearance?

        • Rufus F. says:

          I’m sure I’ll rent it at some point or watch it on cable. I think what turned me off was what Patrick is talking about- in the trailers, Xerxes looked like Ru Paul.

        • Jaybird says:

          Alan Moore did The Watchmen.
          Frank Miller did 300.

          Alan Moore is pretty much on the left. Anarcho-left, but left. Miller is on the Right in the way that only someone who thinks that Batman has a point can be on the Right.

  5. Mike Schilling says:

    The Battle of Salamis

    What a bunch of bologna.

  6. Dimitris says:

    The translation is a bit skewed, but Will is on the money – the inscription read “? ????’, ????????? ?????????????? ??? ???? ???????, ???? ?????? ?????? ??????????”, i.e. “Oh Stranger, go tell the Lacaedemons that here we lie, obedient to their sayings/commands”.