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The Histories of Herodotus

by Herodotus of Halicarnassos
The original, squashed down to read in about 35 minutes

Roman bust of Herodotus and fragment of the text from the 2nd Cent. CE 'Oxyrhynchus Papyrus'
(Greece, c450BCE)

Herodotus, the 'Father of History', set about trying to find out the cause and course of the great war between Greeks and Persians. The result was either the first ever researched history book in a European language, or the first travel book. His more than occasional lack of precision, though, has also earned him the title 'Father of Lies'.

Based on the 1890 translation by GC Macaulay. The chapter headings named after the Muses - spirits of the Arts - are medieval additions. Abridged: GH

The Histories of Herodotus

THIS is the Showing forth of the Inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassos, to the end that neither the deeds of men may be forgotten by lapse of time, nor the works great and marvellous, of both Greeks and Barbarians, may lose their renown; and especially that the causes may be remembered for which these waged war with one another.

Book I (Clio)

I will not dispute whether those ancient tales be true, of the divine Io and of Helen, and the like, which one or another have called the sources of the war between the Greek Hellenes and the barbarians of Asia; but I will begin with those wrongs whereof I myself have knowledge.

In the days of Sadyattes, king of Lydia, and his son Alyattes, there was war between Lydia and Miletus. And Croesus, the son of Alyattes, made himself master of the lands which are bounded by the river Halys, and he waxed in power and wealth, so that there was none like to him. To him came Solon, the statesman of Athens, of whom Croesus asked, "Much report we have of thy wisdom. Look upon our treasuries and our palace and tell us, who is the happiest of men?" To this the Athenian replied that the happiest man he had known was Tellos of Athens, a modest man, who had died a most fair death when yet a grandfather in defending his city. By which Solon meant that good fortune is not to be found in wealth, but that none may be judged so until his life's end.

Thereafter trouble fell upon Croesus by the slaying of his son when he was a-hunting. Then Cyrus the Persian rose up and made himself master of the Medes and Persians, and Croesus, fearing his power, made offerings to the Oracles and asked of them whether he should march against the Persians. The Oracles all agreed, declaring to Croesus that if he should march against the Persians he should destroy a great empire.

So he sought to make alliance with the chief of the states of Hellas. In those days, Pisistratus was despot of Athens; but Sparta was mighty, by the laws of Lycurgus. Therefore Croesus sent envoys to the Spartans to make alliance with them, which was done very willingly.

But when Croesus went up against Cyrus, his army was put to flight, and Cyrus besieged him in the city of Sardis, and took it, and made himself lord of Lydia. Thus the prophecy of the Oracle was fulfilled, yet it was the empire of Croesus himself which fell. Cyrus was to have burned Croesus alive, but heard him, when yet upon the pyre, calling upon Solon in remembrance of the vagaries of fortune, so that Cyrus, finding him wise and pious, he made him his counsellor.

Now, this Cyrus had before overthrown the Median king, Astyages, whose daughter was his own mother. For her father, fearing a dream, wedded her to a Persian, and when she bore a child, he gave order for its slaying. But the babe was taken away and brought up by a herdsman of the hill-folk. But in course of time the truth became known to Astyages, and to Harpagus, the officer who had been bidden to slay the babe, and to Cyrus himself. Then Harpagus, fearing the wrath of Astyages, bade Cyrus gather together the Persians - who in those days were a hardy people of the mountains - and made himself king over the Medians; which things Cyrus did, overthrowing his grandfather Astyages. And in this wise began the dominion of the Persians.

The Ionian cities of Asia were zealous to make alliance with Cyrus when he had overthrown Croesus. But he held them of little account, and threatened them, and the Lacedæmonians also, who sent him messengers warning him to let the Ionians alone. And he sent Harpagus against the cities of the Ionians, of whom certain Phocæans and Teians sailed away to Rhegium and Abdera rather than become the slaves of the barbarians; but the rest, though they fought valiantly enough, were brought to submission by Harpagus.

While Harpagus was completing the subjugation of the West, Cyrus was making conquest of Upper Asia, and overthrew the kingdom of Assyria, of which the chief city was Babylon, a very wonderful city, wherein there had ruled two famous queens, Semiramis and Nitocris. Now, this queen had made the city wondrous by having the course of the river changed, and many other things, yet Cyrus took it by a shrewd device, drawing off the water of the river so as to gain a passage. Thus Babylon also fell under the sway of the Persian.

The Babylonians use no oil of olives, but only that of sesame seed; they have date-palms of which they make food and wine and honey, and their boats are very ingenious, being made of straw. They wear their hair long, anoint their body with perfumes and every man carries a carved staff. They had a custom of gathering their maidens and placing them together for sale in the market. Those of beautiful form were soon sold, which provided dowries for those unshapely or crippled, so that every young woman was provided for. This good custom does not now exist, instead the common people, when wanting livelihood, prostitute their female children. Next in their wisdom, is this: of physicians they make no use, but rather they bear out the sick into the marketplace, that people who have known the same might come up and give advice.

Then Cyrus would have made war upon Tomyris, the queen of the Massagetæ, who dwelt to the eastward.

There the people have discovered a certain fruit of such a kind that when they have assembled together in companies around the fire, they throw some of it into the fire, and they are intoxicated by the smoke as Greeks are with wine, until at last they rise up to dance and begin to sing.

There was a very great battle, and Cyrus himself was slain and the most part of his host. And Cambyses, his son, reigned in his stead.

Book II (Euterpe)

Cambyses set out to conquer Egypt, taking in his army certain of the Greeks. Of all that I shall tell about that land, the most was told to me by the priests whom I myself visited at Memphis and Thebes and Heliopolis.

They Egyptians are wont to account themselves a most ancient people, to prove which their king Psammetichus had two new-born children brought up by a shepherd never to hear human voice. When they were two years old they were heard to say "beats" which is the Phrygian word for 'bread', so Psammetichus concluded that only the Phrygians were a more ancient people than themselves.

The Egyptians were the first of mankind to determine the annual revolution of the sun and first to designate the twelve gods, which the Greeks borrowed from them. Moreover, they first dedicated to these deities altars, statues, and temples; and first also sculptured animals in stone. Egypt has wonders more in number than any other land.

The Ionians reckon that Egypt is only the Nile Delta, but I reckon that the whole Egyptian territory is from the cataracts and Elephantiné down to the sea, parted into the Asiatic part and the Libyan part by the Nile.

As for the causes of the rising and falling of the Nile, the reasons that men give are of no account. And of the sources whence the river springs are strange stories told of which I say not whether they be true or false: but the course of it is known for four months' journey by land and water, and in my opinion it is a river comparable to the Ister.

The crocodile of the Nile has four feet and is an animal belonging to the land and the water both; he has eyes like those of a pig and teeth large and tusky. Now for some of the Egyptians the crocodiles are sacred, and they train them to tameness, and put ornaments upon their feet and ears, and after they are dead they bury them in sacred tombs, embalming them. But others catch them by using as bait a pig: and the hunter forthwith plasters up its eyes with mud, and very easily gets the mastery of him.

There is also a sacred bird called the phœnix, with feathers red and gold, which I did not myself see except in painting. This bird they say (though I cannot believe) contrives to carry his father, in an egg fashioned of myrrh, to the temple of the Sun.

Their ways of burial are these: whenever a man of regard dies, they go to the embalmers who, with a crooked iron tool, draw out the brain through the nostrils. They take out the whole contents of the belly, and fill it with myrrh and cassia. Having so done they keep it covered up in natron for seventy days, then is wrapped in fine linen cut into bands, smeared with gum. Then the kinsfolk receive it, and have a wooden figure made in the shape of a man, and with this they enclose the corpse, and store it in a sepulchral chamber, setting it to stand upright against the wall.

The priests tell that the first ruler of Egypt was Menes, and after him were three hundred and thirty kings, counting one queen, who was called Nitocris. After them came Sesostris, who carried his conquest as far as the Thracians and Scythians; and later was Rhampsinitus, who married his daughter to the clever thief who robbed his treasure-house; and after him Cheops, who built the pyramid, drawing the stones from the Arabian mountain down to the Nile. Chephren also, and Mycerinus built pyramids, and the Greeks have a story - which is not true - that another was built by Rhodopis. And in the reign of Sethon, Egypt was invaded by Sennacherib the Assyrian, whose army's bowstrings were eaten by field-mice.

A thing more wonderful than the pyramids is the labyrinth near Lake Moeris, and still more wonderful is Lake Moeris itself, all which were made by the twelve kings who ruled at once after Sethon. And after them, Psammetichus made himself the monarch; and after him his great grandson Apries prospered greatly, till he was overthrown by Amasis. And Amasis also prospered, and showed favour to the Greeks. But for whatever reason, in his day Cambyses made his expedition against Egypt, invading it just when Amasis had died, and his son Psammenitus was reigning.

Book III (Thalia)

Cambyses put the Egyptian army to rout in a great battle, and conquered the country, making Psammenitus prisoner. Yet he would have set him up as governor of the province, according to the Persian custom, but that Psammenitus was stirred up to revolt, and, being discovered, was put to death. Thereafter Cambyses would have made war upon Carthage, but that the Phoenicians would not aid him; and against the Ethiopians, who are called "long-lived," but his army could get no food; and against the Ammonians, but the troops that went were seen no more.

Now, madness came upon Cambyses, and he died, having committed many crimes, among which was the slaying of his brother Smerdis. And there rose up one among the Magi who pretended to be Smerdis, and was proclaimed king. But this false Smerdis was one whose ears had been cut off, and he was thus found out by one of his wives, the daughter of a Persian nobleman, Otanes. Then seven nobles conspired together, since they would not be ruled over by one of the Magi; and having determined that it was best to have one man for ruler, rather than the rule of the people or of the nobles, they slew Smerdis and made Darius, the son of Hystaspes, their king.

Then Darius divided the Persian empire into twenty satrapies, whereof each one paid its own tribute, save Persia itself, and he was lord of all Asia, and Egypt also.

In the days of Cambyses, Polycrates was despot of Samos, being the first who ever thought to make himself a ruler of the seas. And he had prospered marvellously. But Oroetes, the satrap of Sardis, compassed his death by foul treachery, and wrought many other crimes; whom Darius in turn put to death by guile, fearing to make open war upon him. And not long afterwards, he sent Otanes to make conquest of Samos. And during the same days there was a revolt of the Babylonians; and Darius went up against Babylon, yet for twenty months he could not take it. Howbeit, it was taken by the act of Zopyrus, who, having mutilated himself, went to the Babylonians and told them that Darius had thus evilly entreated him, and so winning their trust, he made easy entry for the Persian army, and so Babylon was taken the second time.

Book IV (Melpomene)

Now, Darius was minded to make conquest of the Scythians - concerning which people, and the lands beyond, there are many marvels told, as of a bald-headed folk called Argippæi; and the Arimaspians or one-eyed people; and the Hyperborean land where it is said that the air is, at a certain season, full of feathers such that men are not able either to see or pass. But the opinion I have is this; that it is not feathers, but snow: for whomsoever has seen snow falling, knows what I mean. It will be for this reason that, I think, the most Northern lands are uninhabitable.

Of these lands are legends only; nothing is known. But concerning the earth's surface, this much is known, that Libya is surrounded by water, certain Phoenicians having sailed round it. And of the unknown regions of Asia much was searched out by order of Darius.

Of the Indians the number is far greater than that of any other race of men; and they brought in a tribute of three hundred and sixty talents of gold-dust. Which gold they got in a curious fashion: In the deserts they have a race of ants, which are in size smaller than dogs but larger than foxes, and which dwell under ground and carry up the sand which contains gold.

The Scythians have no cities; but there are great rivers in Scythia, whereof the Ister is the greatest of all known streams, being greater even than the Nile, if we reckon its tributaries. The great god of the Scythians is Ares; and their war customs are savage exceedingly, and all their ways barbarous.

Against this folk Darius resolved to march. His plan was to convey his army across the Bosphorus on a bridge of boats, while the Ionian fleet should sail up to the Ister and bridge that, and await him. So he crossed the Bosphorus and marched through Thrace, subduing on his way the Getse, who believe that there is no true death. But when he passed the Ister, he would have taken the Ionians along with him; but by counsel of Coes of Mitylene, he resolved to leave them in charge of the bridge, giving order that, after sixty days, they might depart home, but no sooner.

Then the Scythians, fearing that they could not match the great king's army, summoned the other barbaric peoples to their aid; among whom were the Sauromatians, who are fabled to be the offspring of the Amazons. And some were willing, but others not. Therefore the Scythians retired before Darius, first towards those peoples who would not come to their help; and so enticed him into desert regions, yet would in no wise come to battle with him.

Book V (Terpsichore)

Now, at length, Darius found himself in so evil a plight that he began to march back to the Ister. And certain Scythians came to the Ionians, and counselled them to destroy the bridge, the sixty days being passed. And this Miltiades, the Athenian despot of the Chersonese, would have had them do, so that Darius might perish with all his army; but Histiæus of Miletus dissuaded them, because the rule of the despots was upheld by Darius. And thus the Persian army was saved, Megabazus being left in Europe to subdue the Hellespontines. When Megabazus had subdued many of the Thracian peoples, who, indeed, lack only union with each other to make them the mightiest of all nations, he sent an embassy to Amyntas, the king of Macedon, to demand earth and water. But because those envoys insulted the ladies of the court, Alexander, the son of Amyntas, slew them all, and of them or all their train was never aught heard more.

Now Darius, with fair words, bade Histiseus of Miletus abide with him at the royal town of Susa. Then Aristagoras, the brother of Histiæus, having failed in an attempt to subdue Naxos, and fearing both Artaphernes, the satrap of Sardis, and the Persian general Megabazus, with whom he had quarrelled, sought to stir up a revolt of the Ionian cities; being incited thereto by secret messages from Histiseus.

Book VI (Erato)

To this end, he sought alliance with the Lacedæmonians; but they would have nothing to do with him, deeming the venture too remote. Then he went to Athens, whence the sons of Pisistratus had been driven forth just before. For Hipparchus had been slain by Harmodius and Aristogiton, and afterwards Hippias would hardly have been expelled but that his enemies captured his children and so could make with him what terms they chose. But the Pisistratidse having been expelled, the city grew in might, and changes were made in the government of it by Cleisthenes the Alcmæonid. But the party that was against Cleisthenes got aid from Cleomenes of Sparta; yet the party of Cleisthenes won.

Then, since they reckoned that there would be war with Sparta, the Athenians had sought friendship with Artaphernes at Sardis; but since he demanded earth and water they broke off. But because Athens was waxing in strength, the Spartans bethought them of restoring the despotism of the Pisistratidæ. But Sosicles, the Corinthian, dissuaded the allies of Sparta from taking part in so evil a deed. Then Hippias sought to stir up against the Athenians the ill-will of Artaphernes, who bade them take back the Pisistratidæ, which they would not do.

Therefore, when Aristagoras came thither, the Athenians were readily persuaded to promise him aid. And he, having gathered the troops of the Ionians, who were at one with him, marched with them and the Athenians against Sardis and took the city, which by a chance was set on fire. But after that the Athenians refused further help to the Ionians, who were worsted by the Persians. But the ruin of the Ionians was at the sea-fight of Lade, where the men of Chios fought stoutly; but they of Samos and Lesbos deserting, there was a great rout.

Thereafter King Darius, being very wroth with the Athenians for their share in the burning of Sardis, sent a great army across the waters of the Hellespont to march through Thrace against Athens, under his young kinsman Mardonius. But disaster befell these at the hands of the Thracians, and the fleet that was to aid them was shattered in a storm; so that they returned to Asia without honour. Then Darius sent envoys to demand earth and water from the Greek states; and of the islanders the most gave them, and some also of the cities on the mainland; and among these were the Aeginetans, who were at feud with Athens.

But of those who would not give the earth and water were the Eretrians of Eubcea. So Darius sent a great armament by sea against Eretria and Athens, led by Datis and Artaphernes, which sailed first against Eretria. The Athenians, indeed, sent aid; but when they found that the counsels of the Eretrians were divided, so that no firm stand might be made, they withdrew. Nevertheless, the Eretrians fought valiantly behind their walls, till they were betrayed on the seventh day. But the Persians, counselled by Hippias, sailed to the bay of Marathon, from where the Athenian generals sent off a herald, namely Pheidippides, who practised running as his profession, to Sparta for aid. Pheidippides said that he had met the God Pan along the way and so the Spartans promised aid, yet for sacred reasons they would not move until the full moon. Years later the Athenians thus established a temple to Pan and an annual race in his honour.

So the Athenian host had none to aid them save the loyal Platæans, valiant though few. Yet in the council of their generals the word of Miltiades was given for battle, whereto the rest consented. Then the Athenians and Platæans, being drawn up in a long line, charged across the plain nigh a mile, running upon the masses of the Persians; and, breaking them upon the wings, turned and routed the centre also after long fighting, and drove them down to the ships, slaying as they went; and of the ships they took seven. And of the barbarians there fell 6,400 men, and of the Athenians. But as for the story that the Alcmæonidæ hoisted a friendly signal to the Persians, I credit it not at all.

Book VII (Polymnia)

Now, Darius was very wroth with the Greeks when he heard of these things, and made preparation for a mighty armament to overthrow them, and also the Egyptians, who revolted soon afterwards. But he died before he was ready, and Xerxes, his son, reigned in his stead. Then, having first crushed the Egyptians, he, being ruled by Mardonius, gathered a council and declared his intent of marching against the Hellenes; which resolution was commended by Mardonius, but Artabanus, the king's uncle, spoke wise words of warning. Then Xerxes would have changed his mind, but for a dream which came to him twice, and to Artabanus also, threatening disaster if he ceased from his project; so that Artabanus was won over to favour it.

Then Xerxes made vast provision for his invasion for the building of a bridge over the Hellespont, and the cutting of a canal through the peninsula of Athos, where the fleet of Mardonius had been shattered. And from all parts of his huge empire he mustered his hosts first in Cappadocia, and marched thence by way of Sardis to the waters of the Hellespont. But because, when the bridge was a building, a great storm wrecked it, he bade flog the naughty waves three hundred times and had fetters thrown into the water. Thereafter a bridge was built and he passed over with his host, which took seven days to accomplish.

And when they were come to Doriscus he numbered them, and found them to be 1,700,000 men, besides his fleets. And in the fleet were 1,207 great ships, manned chiefly by the Phoenicians and the Greeks of Asia, having also Persian and Scythian fighting men on board. But when Demaratus, an exiled king of Sparta, warned Xerxes of the valour of all the Greeks, but chiefly of the Spartans, who would give battle, however few they might be, against any foe, however many, his words seemed to Xerxes a jest, seeing how huge his own army was.

Now, Xerxes had sent to many of the Greek states heralds to demand earth and water, which many had given; but to Athens and Sparta he had not sent, because there the heralds of his father Darius had been evilly entreated. And if it had not been for the resolution of the Athenians at this time, all Hellas would have been forced to submit to the Great King; for they, in despite of threatening oracles, held fast to their defiance, being urged thereto by Themistocles of Athens, who showed them how those oracles must mean that, although they would suffer evil things, they would be victorious by means of wooden bulwarks, which is to say, ships; and thus they were encouraged to rely upon building and manning a mighty fleet. And all the other cities of Greece resolved to stand by them, except the Argives, who would not submit to the leadership of the Spartans. And in like manner Gelon, the despot of Syracuse in Sicily, would not send aid unless he were accepted as leader. Nor were the men of Thessaly willing to join, since the other Greeks could not help them to guard Thessaly itself.

Therefore the Greeks resolved to make their stand at the strait of Artemisium by sea and some three hundred only of the Spartans commanded by king Leonidas at the "Hot Gates" of Thermopylæ on land, where, as they gathered, Xerxes sent a scout on horseback to see how many they were. The spy saw the men practising athletic exercises and combing their long hair. Hearing this Xerxes was not able to conjecture the truth, namely that they were preparing to die; but thought them merely ridiculous.

Yet when the Persians sought to storm the pass, they were beaten back with ease, until a track was found by which they might take the defenders in the rear. Then Leonidas bade the rest of the army, and his soothsayer, depart except his Spartans. I am of opinion that Leonidas desired to lay up glory for himself, but the Thespians also would not go. Thus those Spartans and Thespians went out into the open and died gloriously. A stone lion has now been erected there in their memory.

Book VIII (Urania)

During these same days the Greek fleet at Artemisium fought several engagements with the Persian fleet, in which neither side had much the better. And thereafter the Greek fleet withdrew, but was persuaded to remain undispersed in the bay of Salamis. The Peloponnesians were no longer minded to attempt the defence of Attica, but to fortify their isthmus, so that the Athenians had no choice but either to submit or to evacuate Athens, removing their families and their goods to Troezen or Aegina or Salamis. In the fleet, their contingent was by far the largest and best, but the commanding admiral was the Spartan Eurybiades. Then the Persians, passing through Boeotia, but, being dispersed before Delphi by thunderbolts and other portents, took possession of Athens, after a fierce fight with the garrison in the Acropolis.

Then the rest of the Greek fleet was fain to withdraw from Salamis, and look to the safety of the Peloponnese only. But Themistocles warned them that if they did so, the Athenians would leave them and sail to new lands and make themselves a new Athens; and thus the fleet was persuaded to hold together at Salamis. Yet he did not trust only to their goodwill, but sent a messenger to the Persian fleet that the way of retreat might be intercepted. For the Persian fleet had gathered at Phalerum, and now looked to overwhelm the Grecian fleet altogether, despite the council of Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, who would have had them not fight by sea at all. When Aristides, called the Just, the great rival of Themistocles, came to the Greeks with the news that their retreat by sea was cut off, then they were no longer divided, but resolved to fight it out.

In the battle, the Aeginetans and the Athenians did the best of all the Greeks, and Themistocles best among the commanders; nor was ever any fleet more utterly put to rout than that of the Persians, among whom Queen Artemisia won praise unmerited. As for King Xerxes, panic seized him when he saw the disaster to his fleet, and he made haste to flee. He consented, however, to leave Mardonius behind with 300,000 troops in Thessaly, he being still assured that he could crush the Greeks. And it was well for him that Themistocles was over-ruled in his desire to pursue and annihilate the fleet, then sail to the Hellespont and destroy the bridge.

Book IX (Calliope)

When the winter and spring were passed, Mardonius marched from Thessaly and again occupied Athens, which the Athenians had again evacuated, the Spartans having failed to send succour. But when at length the Lacedæmonians, fearing to lose the Athenian fleet, sent forth an army, the Persians fell back to Boeotia. So the Greek hosts gathered near Platæa to the number of 108,000 men, but the troops of Mardonius were about 350,000. Yet, by reason of doubtful auguries, both armies held back, till Mardonius resolved to attack, whereof warning was brought to the Athenians by Alexander of Macedon. But when the Spartan Pausanias, the general of the Greeks, heard of this, he did what caused no little wonder, for he proposed that the Athenians instead of the Lacedæmonians should face the picked troops of the Persians, as having fought them at Marathon. But Mardonius, seeing them move, moved his picked troops also. Then Mardonius sent some light horse against the Greeks by a fountain whence flowed the water for the army; which, becoming choked, it was needful to move to a new position. But the move being made by night, most of the allies withdrew into the town. But the Spartans, and Tegeans and Athenians, perceiving this, held each their ground till dawn.

Now, in the morning the picked Persian troops fell on the Spartans, and their Grecian allies attacked the Athenians. But, Mardonius being slain, the Persians fled to their camp, which was stormed by the Spartans and Tegeans, and the Athenians, who also had routed their foes; and there the barbarians were slaughtered, so that of 300,000 men not 3,000 were left alive. But Artabazus, who, before the battle, had withdrawn with 40,000 men, escaped by forced marches to the Hellespont.

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