The Histories
  • Alternative view 1 of The Histories
  • Alternative view 2 of The Histories

The Histories

4.0 12
by Herodotus

View All Available Formats & Editions

'No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace – in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons

One of the masterpieces of classical literature, the Histories describes how a small and quarrelsome band of Greek city states united to repel the might of the Persian empire. But while this epic struggle forms the core of his work,

…  See more details below


'No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace – in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons

One of the masterpieces of classical literature, the Histories describes how a small and quarrelsome band of Greek city states united to repel the might of the Persian empire. But while this epic struggle forms the core of his work, Herodotus’ natural curiosity frequently gives rise to colourful digressions – a description of the natural wonders of Egypt; an account of European lake-dwellers; and far-fetched accounts of dog-headed men and gold-digging ants. With its kaleidoscopic blend of fact and legend, the Histories offers a compelling Greek view of the world of the fifth century BC.

This celebrated translation of The Histories has been extensively revised and includes an updated bibliography, chronology, glossary and additional notes.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for The Histories:
“Unquestionably the best English translation of Herodotus to have appeared in the past half-century…I am in awe of Tom Holland’s achievement, and have no doubt it will bear rich fruit in bringing Herodotus to public attention”
– Edith Hall, Times Literary Supplement

“Lively, engaging version of the Histories…[an] admirable translation”
The Economist

Praise for In the Shadow of the Sword:
"Written with flamboyant elegance and energetic intensity, Holland delivers a brilliant tour de force of revisionist scholarship and thrilling storytelling with a bloodspattered cast of swashbuckling tyrants, nymphomaniacal empresses and visionary prophets. The book is unputdownable."
The Times of London

Praise for Rubicon:
"Tom Holland has produced in one volume the crispest and most compelling account of this momentous period I have ever read."
The Seattle Times

Praise for Persian Fire:
"Excellent... Holland is a cool-headed historian who writes no less authoritatively and engagingly on classical Greece than he did on ancient Rome in his last book, Rubicon"
—Mary Beard, The Sunday Times 

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-04-08
A delightful new translation of what is widely considered the first work of history and nonfiction.Herodotus has a wonderful, gossipy style that makes reading these histories more fun than studying the rise of the Persian Empire and its clash with Greece—however, that's exactly what readers will do in this engaging history, which is full of interesting digressions and asides. Holland (In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, 2012, etc.), whose lifelong devotion to Herodotus, Thucydides and other classical writers is unquestionable, provides an engaging modern translation. As Holland writes, Herodotus' "great work is many things—the first example of nonfiction, the text that underlies the entire discipline of history, the most important source of information we have for a vital episode in human affairs—but it is above all a treasure-trove of wonders." Those just being introduced to the Father of History will agree with the translator's note that this is "the greatest shaggy-dog story ever written." Herodotus set out to explore the causes of the Greco-Persian Wars and to explore the inability of East and West to live together. This is as much a world geography and ethnic history as anything else, and Herodotus enumerates social, religious and cultural habits of the vast (known) world, right down to the three mummification options available to Egyptians. This ancient Greek historian could easily be called the father of humor, as well; he irreverently describes events, players and their countless harebrained schemes. Especially enjoyable are his descriptions of the Persians making significant decisions under the influence and then waiting to vote again when sober. The gifts Herodotus gave history are the importance of identifying multiple sources and examining differing views.A feast for students of ancient history and budding historians of any period.

Read More

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Penguin Classics Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.40(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt



HERODOTUS was born around 480 bc in Halicarnassus, on the southwest coast of Asia Minor. Few facts are known about his life but he remains known through his life’s work, The Histories, a groundbreaking account of the Greco-Persian Wars of 490 and 480–479 bc and the world in which they took place. He died around 425 bc, possibly in southern Italy. Hisreputation has varied greatly, but many believe he well deserves the title(given to him by Cicero) of “the Father of History.”

TOM HOLLAND is an acclaimed translator and historian of the ancient world. He is the author of several works of nonfiction, including Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, which won the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History and was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize, and Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West,which won the Anglo-Hellenic League’s Runciman Award in 2006. He hasadapted works by Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Virgil for the BBC.In 2007, he won the Classical Association Prize, awarded to “the individualwho has done most to promote the study of the language, literature andcivilisation of Ancient Greece and Rome.”

PAUL CARTLEDGE is A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture Emeritus atthe University of Cambridge and A. G. Leventis Senior Research Fellowat Clare College. His numerous books include Sparta and Lakonia: A RegionalHistory; 1300–362 bc and The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others.He is an Honorary Citizen of Sparta and a recipient of the Gold Cross ofthe Order of Honour conferred by the president of the Hellenic Republic.

Translator’s Preface

Herodotus: A Historian for All Ages

Herodotus is the most entertaining of historians. Indeed, he is as entertaining as anyone who has ever written – historian or not. He has been my constant companion since I was twelve, and never once have I grown tired of him. His great work is many things – the first example of non-fiction, the text that underlies the entire discipline of history, the most important source of information we have for a vital episode in human affairs – but it is above all a treasure-trove of wonders. This, coming from a translator of The Histories, may sound like special pleading – but it is not. To spend as much time with Herodotus as I have done over these past years has been a rare privilege: a veritable labour of love. The Father of History he may be – but he is also very much more than that.

The ostensible goal of The Histories is to explain what would now be termed ‘the clash of civilizations’: the inability of the peoples of East and West to live together in peace. The theme was one fit to inspire a whole new genre. Herodotus was writing within living memory of events so epic that they continue to thrill and astonish to this day. In 490 BC, the King of Persia, Darius the Great, had dispatched an expedition to swat the buzzing of the Greek city of Athens. Since the empire he ruled was the largest that the world had ever seen, and since no Greek army had ever before defeated the Persians in battle, the King was confident of victory. His confidence, though, proved misplaced. The Athenians, marching out to a plain named Marathon, defeated the invaders. The respite this won for them, however, was only temporary. A decade later, the Persians were back. This time they came in overwhelming numbers, and were led in person by their new king, Xerxes. Many Greeks, convinced that they had no prospect of preserving their liberty, went over to the invaders. Only a few cities, headed by Athens and the peerless warrior-state of Sparta, refused to surrender. At Thermopylae, a pass to the north of Athens, a tiny Greek holding-force led by a Spartan king managed to keep the Persians at bay for two days, before the pass was finally forced. Athens was captured soon afterwards. The Acropolis was put to the torch. But then, in the waters off a nearby island called Salamis, the Greek fleet won an unexpected and decisive victory. A year later, in a great battle outside the city of Plataea, mainland Greece’s liberty was definitively secured. To the Greeks themselves, and to many ages since, it seemed a barely believable triumph: the most astounding victory of all time.

That was certainly my opinion when I first read about the Persian Wars. To me, at the tender and impressionable age of twelve, the heroics of Marathon and Thermopylae, of Salamis and Plataea, seemed the very stuff of fantasy. Better than fantasy, even – for unlike Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings the victory of the Greeks, won against all the odds and achieved amid such drama, had actually happened. So it was I became obsessed. I read everything I could on the topic. It did not take me long to realize that, when it came to the study of the Persian Wars, all roads led back to the single source: Herodotus. This did give me momentary pause. I had never read a classic before. What would it be like to read a book by an actual ancient Greek? Screwing up my courage, I resolved to find out.

The Histories began promisingly:

Herodotus, from Halicarnassus, here displays his enquiries, that human achievement may be spared the ravages of time, and that everything great and astounding, and all the glory of those exploits which served to display Greeks and barbarians alike to such effect, be kept alive – and additionally, and most importantly, to give the reason they went to war.

Glorious exploits, of course, were exactly what I was after – and so on I read, my appetite duly whetted. Soon, though, I began to feel a trifle puzzled. For an author I had thought was meant to be telling me the story of the Persian Wars, Herodotus appeared to have a disconcerting habit of veering off-piste. Only a couple of pages in, he was giving me a strange tale about a king who wanted his bodyguard to have a peek at the queen while she was naked – with predictably fatal consequences. Then came a story about a musician who was captured by pirates, jumped into the sea as he played his lyre, and was promptly rescued by a dolphin. It took many pages more before Herodotus so much as mentioned a Persian king – and even then he was soon off again on a whole new tangent. Egypt, so he chattily observed, ‘is a land which boasts an inordinate number of wonders, and possesses more monuments surpassing description than any other in the world. Reason enough, then, to describe it at some length’ (2.35). Which Herodotus then proceeded to do. At great length.

Only in Book 5, halfway through The Histories, did his central narrative finally come into focus. Herodotus’ account of the road to Marathon, and of the famous battles themselves, is more than thrilling enough to meet expectations; but anyone reading him to get the story of the Persian Wars, as I was when I first read him, is liable to find the first four books a surprise. At the time, he reminded me of those comedians whose entire act consists of a single joke of escalating and ever more tantric complexity, taking forever to reach its climax. Even now, when I wish that Herodotus had written many more digressions, I think the comparison a not wholly unreasonable one: there is indeed a sense in which Herodotus is the author of the greatest shaggy-dog story ever written. Back when I first read him, I was less than sensitive to the extraordinarily subtle ordering of themes that gives such underlying unity to his material – but, even then, I could recognize that Herodotus was no leg-puller. He told often fantastical stories, to be sure, but in a spirit of enquiry and openness that struck me as something wholly admirable. ‘Now, those who find such things credible must make what they will of the stories told by the Egyptians. My own responsibility, however, as it has been throughout my writing of this entire narrative, is simply to record whatever I may be told by my sources’ (2.123).

This seemed – and still seems – to me an estimable approach to the complexities and contradictions of the world. That people from different cultures are likely to have a whole variety of perspectives on the same episode, let alone on how best to order their lives, appeared to Herodotus so significant a truth that he chose to open his work with it. Later in The Histories, when he describes how Cambyses, the king of Persia who had conquered Egypt, mocked the religious sensibilities of the Egyptians, he takes for granted that such behaviour was only to be explained by lunacy. ‘Everyone believes his own customs to be by far and away the best,’ he observes sagely. ‘From this, it follows that only a madman would think to jeer at such matters’ (3.38). It is a short step from this perspective to an attitude towards ‘barbarians’ – and towards the Persians in particular – that even on my first reading of The Histories I had found arresting. The same imperialists who had conquered Herodotus’ own native city of Halicarnassus, and brought bloodshed and fire to mainland Greece, are shown in his narrative to possess striking qualities of nobility and courage. Herodotus notes the premium they set on telling the truth; he admires their hardiness; he freely acknowledges that man for man they are in no way inferior as warriors to the Greeks. Even his portrait of Xerxes, who has come to serve us (in large part thanks to Herodotus himself) as the archetype of the overweening despot, is touched by moments of glory and pathos. Amid all the millions he led against Greece, so Herodotus tells us, there was no one more handsome nor ‘better fitted to wield supreme power than Xerxes himself’ (7.187). As he watches his army crossing from Asia into Europe, the king feels himself truly blessed – and then he begins to weep. When his uncle asks him the reason for his tears, Xerxes answers that he has been ‘musing on how short is human life, and the pity of it pierced me through. All these multitudes here, and yet, in a hundred years’ time, not one of them will be alive’ (7.46).

That the sentiment expressed by Xerxes owes more to the spirit of tragedy than to anything recognizably Persian in no way diminishes the significance of Herodotus’ attempts to see events through eyes other than his own. The truth is that he was both intensely a man of his background, and inexhaustibly curious about the world that lay beyond it. What we get in The Histories – as its literal meaning, ‘enquiries’, suggests – is a heroic attempt to push back the frontiers of knowledge in almost every conceivable sphere. This project, of subjecting the world to historiê – ‘enquiry’ – was one bred of the age. Herodotus lived in an intellectual environment that was heady with a sense of discovery, of an infinitude of wonders waiting to be identified and explained without recourse to the supernatural. Only the Enlightenment, perhaps, can compare. ‘I write the truth as I see it – for the tales told by the Greeks are, in my opinion, as laughable as they are plentiful.’ So declared Hecataeus, a geographer and genealogist from Miletus. His works have survived only in fragments, but we can be confident that Herodotus, at any rate, knew all about him. As well as featuring in the account of the disastrous Milesian revolt against the Persians, he is the butt of one of the few passages to show Herodotus in a malicious light. When Hecataeus visited Egypt, we are told that the priests dismissed his researches into genealogy – ‘a field’, Herodotus interpolates with disdainful untruthfulness, ‘with which personally I have never bothered’ (2.143). The anecdote is telling for two reasons: first, for demonstrating that Herodotus was not the first Greek to extend his enquiries beyond the limits of his own near horizons; and second, for affirming his own sense of what was original and significant about his researches. He wrote The Histories in the conviction that they far surpassed anything similar previously attempted.

And he was clearly right. In part, this was due to the fact that Herodotus – so far as we can tell – was the first to apply to the study of the past the revolutionary new methods of enquiry that were simultaneously transforming how Greek intellectuals understood the natural world: the beginnings of what we would now call ‘science’. The premium that Herodotus set on providing sources for his material is so taken for granted now by historians that it is possible not to recognize just how revolutionary it originally was. In his account of the build-up to the battle of Plataea, he describes what he has been told by a man called Thersander of Orchomenus, who in turn is reporting what he was told at a banquet by a Persian fellow-guest. It is a moment to send a shiver down the spine. Men dead for two and a half thousand years are being given voice. We are witness to the birth-pangs of historical method. History is doubly being made.

Not everything that Herodotus reports, though, can be so readily sourced. If his concern with the means of gathering evidence is something revolutionary, then so too are the sheer scope and range of his interests. No one before him had ever thought to write on such a heroically panoramic scale. Herodotus understood, to a degree that seems to have been exceptional for his time, that he was living in a globalized era. So vast was the empire of the Persians that its king could dream of leaving no lands ‘beyond our frontiers for the sun to shine upon’ (7.8). It was the world itself, in Herodotus’ opinion, that had been at stake in the great war between the Greeks and the Persians. This was the reason why his enquiry, his historiê, was of such universal scope. His ambition was an astonishing one: nothing less than to encompass the limits of what could humanly be known. Inevitably, this meant that there were occasions when his ability to determine the truth of information he had come by began to warp and buckle. No one was more aware of this than Herodotus himself. Often, when reporting some wondrous detail, he will hedge it about with qualifications: expressions of uncertainty or open doubt. Reporting the claim of a Phoenician expedition to have circumnavigated Africa (or ‘Libya’, as he calls it), Herodotus does not conceal his own scepticism. ‘One of their claims – which I personally find incredible, although others may not – was that, while sailing round Libya, they had had the sun on their right-hand side’ (4.42).

This is precisely the detail, of course, which enables us to know that the Phoenicians were indeed telling the truth and had crossed the Equator. That we have no reports of another naval expedition reaching the Cape of Good Hope until the arrival there in 1488 of the Portuguese serves to remind us at what extremes of knowledge Herodotus was often operating. Unsurprisingly, not all the information he obtained was reliable. What are we to make, for instance, of his report of giant Indian ants, ‘midway between dogs and foxes in size’ (3.102), who dig up gold, or the griffins ‘who stand guard over gold’ (4.13) in the mountains beyond Scythia? These are the kind of stories that, while they add hugely to the enjoyment of reading The Histories, have resulted in a long tradition of dismissing Herodotus as gullible at best, and at worst a liar. What is astonishing, though, is not that he got his facts about India or the wilds beyond Scythia wrong, but that he had any reports about them at all. Only in the new era of Persian imperialism, which for the first time had brought Herodotus’ native city of Halicarnassus and lands fabulously far to the east under the same rule, would he ever have thought to write about either. As it happens, a plausible case has been made for both stories being the result of Chinese whispers – in one case, perhaps, literally so. The giant ants, it has been argued, were in fact a breed of Himalayan marmots, which have been known to expose gold-bearing soil when they dig their holes; the griffins, perhaps, were the weathered skeletons of Protoceratops, a dinosaur whose fossils are to be found scattered everywhere in the Gobi Desert.1 Or perhaps not. It is as well to admit, as Herodotus himself did on occasion, that we cannot be sure. Sometimes we simply have to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge. The Histories serves us as the well-spring of historical wisdom as well as of historical method.

Today, when the entire immensity of the world’s learning is available to anyone with an internet connection, it can be harder than ever to think ourselves back into Herodotus’ shoes, and a time when the very concept of non-fiction writing was still being developed. Yet that is precisely why, now more than ever, it can be so moving to read him. The process of researching and recording facts on a would-be encyclopaedic scale begins with his history. Anyone who has ever used the internet to check up on a fact stands in a line of descent from him. ‘But if I may digress here –’ Herodotus says at one point, ‘as I have sought opportunities to do from the moment I started this account of my enquiries . . .’ (4.30). This mode of presenting information, which thirty years ago appeared closer in style to Tristram Shandy than to any conventional work of history, will nowadays strike most readers as something very familiar. The internet, with its seemingly infinite web of hyperlinks, has provided a whole new metaphor for Herodotus’ discursive style of relaying information. When he refers to the capture of Nineveh by the Medes as ‘an episode I will recount in a later chapter’ (1.106), and then never does so, the frustration for the reader is akin to that of clicking on a broken link. Similarly, the experience of never quite knowing where Herodotus’ narrative may lead – to a laugh-out-loud story of a drunk man dancing on a table, perhaps, or to the chilling account of a eunuch’s revenge on the man who had him castrated as a child – will be something thoroughly familiar to all who have ever surfed the web. One definition of a classic, wrote Frank Kermode, is that it ‘subsists in change, by being patient of interpretation’ – and, we might add, patient of translation too. That alone, I hope, is sufficient justification for this new version of The Histories. Herodotus, that most ancient of historians, has always had the capacity to renew himself, and to seem fresh to succeeding generations.

I like to think this would not have surprised him. He knew, none better, the sheer scale of what he had embarked upon, and the value of what he had achieved. His ambition, as he declared in the opening sentence of the first work of history ever written, was to ensure that ‘human achievement may be spared the ravages of time’. Literally, he spoke of not allowing them to become exitêla, a word that could be used in a technical sense to signify the fading of paint from inscriptions or works of art. Today, the colours applied by Herodotus to his portrait of the long-gone world in which he lived remain as fresh and exuberant as ever. The ravages of time have indeed been defied.

Tom Holland


1. The marmot theory is to be found in Michel Peissel, The Ants’ Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas (London, 1984). Adrienne Mayor writes about griffins and dinosaurs in The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton, 2000).


Herodotus: Historian, Ethnographer, Pluralist, Contemporary1


We alas know next to nothing for certain about Herodotus’ life as opposed to his work. Biography did not exist as a genre of ancient Greek literature in his fifth-century BC lifetime, and, even if it had, the life of a writer would not have engaged interest in the same way as would those of a politician or general such as his coevals Pericles or Themistocles of Athens. As it was, not even Pericles or Themistocles received biographical treatment in their own day, and indeed the first signs of any kind of properly biographical interest among the ancient Greeks are not detectable until well into the succeeding fourth century BC. It is a fair measure of our general ignorance of Herodotus the man that for such basic details as the names of his parents we are forced to draw upon the ‘Herodotus’ entry (one of some 30,000 in all) in a tenth-century AD Byzantine dictionary known under the title of Souda or ‘Fortress’. Any biographical reconstruction therefore necessarily depends on sensible inference from the extant work, which in antiquity attracted the title – not necessarily his own – of Historiai (‘Enquiries’, ‘Researches’).

Herodotus was almost certainly born and brought up in the Greek city of Halicarnassus, in the region of Caria on the Aegean coast of western Asia Minor (modern Bodrum in Turkey). In most of the surviving medieval manuscripts the opening sentence of the work refers to him in the third person as Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The Souda lexicon adds, on unknown authority, that his father was called Lyxes and that he had an uncle called Panyassis; the lexical formation of both those names is Carian. The non-Greek Carians, among whom Halicarnassus was founded by migrants from the Peloponnese somewhere around 1000 BC, are mentioned in the second book of Homer’s Iliad; but they are pointedly given the epithet ‘barbarian-voiced’ (barbarophônoi, 2.867) to make clear their foreignness. So, if the Byzantine dictionary is right about the names, either Herodotus could have been of mixed Carian–Greek ethnic stock or his family had such close connections with local Carians as to invite the adoption of Carian-style nomenclature.

Exactly when he was born is also unknown, but an educated guess would put his birthdate in the 480s. That would imply that he was born, not in a free and independent Greek city, but in a city that was a tributary subject of the mighty Achaemenid Persian empire. That empire, which at its greatest extent stretched from the Indus valley and Afghanistan to the southern Balkan peninsula and Egypt, had been founded in about 550 BC by Cyrus II ‘the Great’ (reigned 559–530/29), from a base in southern Iran. Within a decade of its foundation, it had conquered and absorbed the Greek cities of Asia, but just a decade or so before Herodotus’ likely birth many of them had risen in a major revolt (499–494), which the Persians had suppressed only with some difficulty. The combination of political subjection to an alien power and close familial commingling with non-Greek people would not have been unhelpful to Herodotus’ becoming the sort of acute cross-cultural observer and inclusive historian that he famously would prove to be.

If, as the Souda lexicon entry also has it, he found himself exiled in his youth or early adulthood for taking part in a failed attempt to overthrow a local pro-Persian Greek dynast, that too may well have been conducive to the making of the future historian. At any rate, other famous Greek historians, Thucydides and Polybius most notably, found exile a formative experience. But where did he spend his enforced exile? One strong possibility is, at least to begin with, on the nearby Greek offshore island of Samos. Certainly, we could very reasonably infer from his work that he knew Samos intimately. For instance, he records that the local Samian dialect of Ionic Greek differed from that of Chios and Erythrae (1.142), and he is specially well informed on the three surpassing ‘wonders’ of sixth-century BC engineering that the island boasted: a remarkable kilometre-long water-tunnel bored through a mountain, a massive harbour mole and a great temple of Hera (3.60). He cites by name just three informants in the entire work, and one of these, whom he met in Sparta, as he tells us himself (3.55), had a Samian connection. (The other two personally named informants are the Scythian or Graeco-Scythian Tymnes, 4.76, and the Boeotian Thersander, 9.16.)

The late, uncertifiable evidence on his life includes mention of his receiving a very large sum of money from the Athenians, as a reward for the positive way in which he represented their role in winning the Graeco-Persian Wars (note especially the considered first-person judgement at 7.139). It is in any case likely enough that he would have spent considerable time in Athens, given its role in the fifth century BC as Greek capital of culture, to which all kinds of foreign intellectuals were almost inevitably drawn. It is also quite possible – though again there is no verifiable evidence – that he did indeed recite portions of his Histories-in-progress before huge Panhellenic (all- and only-Greek) crowds at one or more celebrations of the quadrennial Olympic Games. The work at any rate gives the strong impression in a number of ways – its strung-together rather than periodic structure, its devotion to story-telling narration and above all its aggressively personal presentation – that it was composed for oral, public recitation, rather than for a private reading audience. In fact all Greek ‘literature’ for long remained in some sense oral. The two main Greek words for ‘to read’ meant literally ‘to hear’ (akroasthai) and ‘to recognize-again’ (anagignôskein), the latter implying a process of recognizing visually in writing what had first been received aurally. Literacy rates are of course unknowable in the absence of reliable statistical data, but it is plausibly thought that the proportion of Greeks who were fully literate in both reading and writing will not generally have risen much above ten per cent of any free adult citizen population. Athens, being a democracy in which performing acts of literacy was more regularly required than in other less open polities, may well have achieved a higher rate than was normal in the Greek world.

If we look to the end, Herodotus may have finished his life not in the eastern Aegean of his birth but in southern Italy, in what the Greeks called ‘Great Greece’. There is at all events a report that, after being forced to abandon his native Halicarnassus, he at some point became a citizen of the Athenian-led foundation of Thouria (also known as Thourioi, in its Latin form Thurii) in the instep of Italy’s heel. This new cosmopolitan city was established in 444/3 on the site of proverbially luxurious Sybaris, which in about 510 had been utterly destroyed by the neighbouring Greek city of Croton. To reflect his change of address and citizenship, a few medieval manuscripts of his work even, as noted, have him refer to himself as Herodotus ‘of Thouria’ rather than, as the majority do, ‘of Halicarnassus’.


The subject of Herodotus’ work, as he advertises in his ground-breaking first sentence, is his apodexis (‘revelation’, ‘display’) of his ‘enquiries’ (historiai) into Greek–Barbarian relations, above all relations of outright military conflict, beginning in narrative earnest in the mid-sixth century and continuing down to the year that we call 479 BC. But besides the relatively rare references to pre-550 events, Herodotus also makes some twenty references to post-479 events, the latest of which belongs probably to 430 (7.137). This suggests that it was probably quite soon after that date that the work was somehow made public, which is at least not inconsistent with the date of the earliest likely independent reference to it: the Acharnians comedy of Aristophanes of 425 seems to allude parodically to Herodotus’ opening discussion of the ultimate causes of the grand East–West conflict. In what form or forms the Histories was disseminated, we cannot precisely say. It was, for sure, far too long to have been issued in manuscript copies on papyrus and placed on sale in the Athenian market-square, as we know other, much shorter works were by the end of the fifth century.

What we can say with a degree of certainty, on the other hand, is that the Histories was Herodotus’ life’s work, since there are no other works persuasively attributed to him by any ancient source. We may further plausibly infer that it was composed over a lengthy period, perhaps between about 450 and 430. The circumstance that may well have prompted its termination and ‘publication’ was the outbreak in 431 of the next major epochal military conflict to engulf the Greek world, the second so-called ‘Peloponnesian War’. This, however, was a war not of Greeks (or rather, certain Greeks) against barbarians, but instead one of Greeks against other Greeks, a huge civil war, and not therefore an obvious subject for the kind of celebratory commemoration that Herodotus’ project involved. In the event, a very different sort of writer and historian stepped up to take its measure: Thucydides of Athens. He certainly knew Herodotus’ work and refers to it dismissively (1.20), but without deigning to name its author, in a typically ancient Greek spirit of agonistic rivalry. Both historians stood in the long shadow cast by Homer, the ultimate Greek literary model for an account of a great war; Herodotus indeed was dubbed ‘most Homeric’ by the Greek author known as Pseudo-Longinus of a Roman-era work of literary criticism entitled On the Sublime. Both historians themselves still cast a long shadow even today (see section 9).


Herodotus was the historian above all of the Graeco-Persian Wars of 490 and 480–479, from which the Greeks (or rather some Greeks) emerged unexpectedly victorious. However, although one of his stated aims was to celebrate great and wondrous deeds duly so as to prevent their memory from fading, he specified that these were deeds accomplished by both Greeks and non-Greeks, by Greeks and Barbarians, alike. He signally did not succumb to the general wave of Helleno-centric triumphalism that welled up after the unpredictably successful (from a Greek point of view) outcome. Of that triumphalism, the most strikingly obvious and lasting symbol is the Parthenon temple, the construction of which on the Athenian acropolis between 447 and 432 probably coincided more or less exactly with the composition of the Histories. That even-handedness is just one of the many glories that increasingly commend Herodotus’ historical approach – not only to scholars in the field,2 but also to historically minded journalists.3

Yet Herodotus was more than just a reporter and celebrator of great and memorable events. He was in Cicero’s original Latin phrase the pater historiae, ‘Father of History’ (De legibus, ‘On Laws’, 1.5). By Cicero’s day (first century BC), History was an established genre or field, and though it meant something rather different for Romans from what it had meant originally for Greeks such as Herodotus and Thucydides (being less analytical and critical, more moralizing and didactic), Cicero’s ascription of paternity to Herodotus was a massive compliment. Besides being the first to give an account of a significant past deemed worthy of preservation and study many centuries later, he was also judged to have composed and adorned his version of it in a fitting literary manner.

Modern historians recognize and credit further pioneering achievements. All historiography is dependent ultimately on sources, and Herodotus carefully distinguished between different types of source material on grounds of their intrinsic reliability: first, eyewitness testimony or autopsy (opsis, 2.29), then, hearsay evidence (akoê, 2.99), finally ‘tradition’, or in his own phrase ta legomena. Indeed, Herodotus explicitly claims his task and duty to be no more (and no less) than to ‘state what I am told’ (legein ta legomena, 7.152), although that elides the fact that he has to a greater or lesser extent shaped the telling of it.

Upon these various sorts of testimony Herodotus exercised his ‘reasoning’ (gnômê, 2.99), more than once referring to the process of reaching judgement in terms of ‘weighing up in comparison’ (sumballomenos, 2.33, 4.87). Rather than accuracy, let alone certainty, Herodotus’ more realistic goal was literally ‘unerringness’ (atrekêiê, e.g, 4.152, 7.187).

Finally, modern historians recognize and share their ancient intellectual ancestor’s overriding preoccupation with causation: to quote again from the exordium, ‘and additionally, and most importantly, to give the reason [aitiê]’ why the Greeks and barbarians fought one another.

On the whole, Herodotus’ standards of verification and certification meet with modern approval, in principle, but there are cases – for instance, the deaths of Great King Cyrus (1.214) and of King Cleomenes of Sparta (6.84) – where his choice of explanation can seem implausible, especially when it is religiously over-determined. One major modern criticism of Herodotus, indeed, is that he can appear too theological, detecting the hand of ‘god’ or ‘the divine’ at work where, for example, his immediate successor Thucydides conspicuously did not. For if that view were to be combined with the opinion attributed to Solon (1.32) – ‘how jealous the gods are, and how perplexing in their ways’ – systematic historical inference and judgement would be exceptionally hard to execute.

Perhaps predictably, in the circumstances, the reception of Herodotus over the centuries has been very mixed. We have already noted Thucydides’ competitive scepticism. The seeming tallness of Herodotus’ travellers’ tales and the depth of his imputed political prejudices also attracted bad notices; Aristotle in his Poetics, for example, labelled him the muthopoios or ‘story-teller’, though Herodotus had himself used the word muthos only twice (2.23, 45) and on both occasions to mean an unbelievable story. Perhaps the nadir of negative reception is to be found in the usually scholarly Plutarch’s rather mean-spirited essay On the Meanspiritedness of Herodotus, but that seems to have been motivated largely by his concern to rehabilitate the reputation of his fellow-Boeotians, which the more broad-minded Herodotus had, it was said, besmirched.4

So, besides being praised for allegedly fathering History, Herodotus has had to labour also under the monicker ‘Father of Lies’, a modern coinage, but the thought behind it can be traced back at least to Petrarch’s fourteenth-century Rerum Memorandarum Libri (4.26). One recent example of that negative view affects to disbelieve that Herodotus in fact travelled to many (or any) of the far-flung places he claims or implies that he did, or even to relatively accessible Egypt (the subject of a large part of Book 2). But there are good reasons for thinking at least that latter charge to be as false and unjustified as the accusation against Marco Polo that he never travelled to or in China.


Herodotus can fairly be hailed also as the Father of Comparative Ethnography, being a generally fair-minded and balanced if at times also rather too credulous ethnographer, both of non-Greek ‘others’ and, no less remarkably, of his own fellow-Greeks. Herodotus starts off immediately after his Preface with some comparative folklore studies, asking semi-humorously who it was that started the series of Greek–barbarian conflicts which culminated in the Graeco-Persian Wars of 480–479 (1.1–5). Was it the barbarian Easterners, or was it the Greeks? ‘Learned’ Persian and Phoenician ‘authorities’ are cited, inconclusively, but Herodotus’ tongue, it would appear, is pretty firmly lodged in his cheek. For in his view, women don’t just get abducted willy-nilly, so Spartan queen Helen must bear some considerable share of the blame or responsibility for being carried off by the Trojan prince Paris. In any case, if his audience thought Helen was abducted by Paris from Sparta to Troy, as Homer had quite blatantly, unashamedly and unambiguously recounted, well, Herodotus the critical historian is going to make them think again (2.112–16).

Tales of distant antiquity – to which Plato (Hippias Major 285d) was to give the collective label of archaiologia – were not of course so distant for Herodotus’ original readers/auditors, who were fed on a rich diet of Homer. The introduction of such tales by Herodotus right at the start of his work is intended to place the extremely long series of accounts (logoi) that follows in a very broad ethnographic context, one that embraces not just the eastern Mediterranean but also a good portion of what we call the Middle East. For apart from his narration and explanation of events and processes, Herodotus describes the ethnicity, customs and beliefs of many ‘barbarian’ peoples in explicit and elaborate, if not always entirely accurate, detail, beginning with those of the Lydians and Persians in Book 1, going on to dwell in huge detail on those of the Egyptians in Book 2, and in only slightly less detail on those of the various groups of Scythians around the Caspian Sea in Book 4 (to name only his main subjects).

Moreover, Herodotus put his comparative ethnography to keen intellectual use. The locus classicus is to be found in Book 3, chapter 38. Here, in what we must assume is an invented dramatic scene, Persian Great King Darius I (reigned 522–486) summons to his presence some Greeks and some Indians who are resident in or at least present at his chief administrative capital city of Susa. He then invites each group to abandon their own traditional funerary customs (cremation in the case of the Greeks, cannibalism for the Indians) and to adopt – for a financial consideration – the customs of the other ethnic group. Both groups rather delightfully express horror at the very thought, the Indians more so even than the Greeks, and declare stoutly that they could not possibly abandon their ancestral customs. At this point, rather than condemning the Indians’ funerary cannibalism as morally barbarous, as a typical Greek of his day would surely have done, Herodotus instead passes a benign and universally applicable judgement: that all human groups, not just these two, and including thereby Greeks as well as barbarians, habitually consider their own customs to be not just the best for them, but the best in the whole world, since ‘Custom is the King of all’. This is, however, not in itself a relativist position, but rather a pluralist one, since we can be quite sure that Herodotus himself, as a good Greek, did not approve of any form of cannibalism whatsoever, funerary or otherwise.

By contrast, his discourse on Greek ethnicity, customs and beliefs is for the most part implicit. He usually reveals his own views of Greek mores and practices only indirectly, as when, for example, at the beginning of Book 8 he allows his exasperation with the Greeks’ tendency to fight against each other, rather than fight shoulder-to-shoulder with their fellow-Greeks against an alien enemy, to show through the surface of his text: ‘civil strife among people of the same heritage and race compares as disastrously to a united war effort as does war itself to peace’ (8.3).

There is one large and important exception to this general rule of implicit ethnographic indirection in respect of Greeks, namely his treatment of the Spartans. In Book 6, between the description of the Ionian Revolt and the account of the battle of Marathon (490), Herodotus includes a lengthy excursus on the prerogatives of the odd dual kingship of the Spartans (6.51–60) This is followed not long after by a story of the birth of a Spartan king, Demaratus (reigned c. 515–490), who was later to play a key role in Herodotus’ version of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in Book 7 as an ex-king and traitor, since by this time in the narrative he’d been deposed on grounds of his alleged illegitimacy and gone over to the Persian side. To add further spice to the brew, the story of King Demaratus’ conception is told teasingly from the point of view of a woman: his anonymous mother (6.63–9).

These two extended passages in Book 6 convey, as forcefully as narrative skill can, two important messages: first, that the Spartans, though Greek, are also in some vital respects ‘other’ – that is, they depart significantly from otherwise universal Greek norms; and, second, that not the least important way in which they differ from other Greeks is in the role allocated to or assumed by Spartan women, at any rate by royal women. There is a growing consensus among scholars that Herodotus was a master of the art of historiography as embedded narrative. Multiple viewpoints coexist within his narrative, the relations between the different strands shift, and explanations are cumulative rather than competing. Herodotus’ account – or rather multiple accounts – of Sparta and Spartans excellently illustrates his narrative mastery.


The chronological starting-point of the Histories in our terms is around 550 BC, when, Herodotus says, the two most powerful mainland Greek cities were Sparta and Athens. But he starts there also because 75 to 100 years constitute the rough upper limit of reliably transmitted human memory, and Herodotus was probably gathering his oral information around 450, about a century or (as he once puts it, 2.142) three generations later. The Spartans allegedly owed their eminence in the first instance to Lycurgus, their famed lawgiver, whom most modern scholars dismiss as a mostly if not wholly mythical figure. Herodotus is thus quite conventional and uncritical in ascribing most of the Spartans’ basic political and military institutions to the reforms of Lycurgus, at some unspecified early date (1.65). When he comes to describe the two kings’ prerogatives in detail in Book 6, however, he does not mention Lycurgus again, though he does comment sharply on the Spartans’ own local tradition about their original settlement of Laconia, saying that in one respect they contradicted all the poets (6.52). From this his audience would have been likely to gain the impression not only that Herodotus was very learned (as was surely his intention) but also that he had gained direct access to local Spartan genealogical and mythical history. In fact, he later tells us himself that he had personally visited Sparta and, as mentioned, names one of his informants there (3.55).

The particular history he wanted to talk with Archias about involved the politico-military expansion of Sparta out of the Greek mainland and into the eastern Aegean around 525 BC. Already by then, so Herodotus has stated earlier (1.68), the Spartans had most of the Peloponnese under their control. This was a prelude to their establishment by 500 of what is conventionally referred to as the Peloponnesian League, the multi-state military alliance that was to be the core of the Greeks’ successful resistance to Persia under overall Spartan leadership in 480–479. The League’s establishment was presented as a direct consequence of the rash policy of King Cleomenes I in seeking to dominate Athens through military force and the imposition of a quisling tyrant.

Yet Herodotus’ account of Cleomenes and his reign is one of the more puzzling, even contradictory, in the whole of the Histories. On the one hand, Cleomenes was a great and powerful king, who must have reigned for some thirty years (c. 520–490), and at any rate in the late 490s had – for Herodotus (6.61) – the best interests of Hellas at heart. On the other hand, Cleomenes ‘did not reign for very long’ (5.48), was at least a bit of a madman, only intermittently achieved anything positive in his foreign policy and died horribly by self-mutilation – in entirely just, divinely inflicted retribution (6.84). This was, according to Herodotus, for an act of sacrilege, but here too Herodotus explicitly contradicts the official Spartan version of Cleomenes’ end. The explanation of this rather violent narrative dissonance is probably the contradictory nature of his sources – emanating as they did ultimately from the two royal houses that were (as often) at loggerheads with each other. On the one side, there were those who favoured the anti-Persian line taken by Cleomenes, a line that Herodotus himself explicitly approved (6.61); on the other, there were descendants of the ‘traitor’ king Demaratus (deposed through Cleomenes’ machinations and later a favoured courtier of Xerxes), with whom Herodotus could well have conversed in Asia Minor. To this mixture Herodotus brought his own dose of conventional piety through his interpretation of the way Cleomenes allegedly met his end. A similar dissonance may be observed in his treatment of the epoch-making introduction of democracy at Athens (section 7).


There is as yet no scholarly consensus as to whether Herodotus was a cutting-edge intellectual, with perhaps a residual old-fashioned fondness for detecting the hand of god – or rather gods – at work in history (at 8.77, for instance, he seems to express the view that oracles can and do tell only the truth – but that chapter is probably a later addition). Or was he, rather, a conventional religious practitioner and believer (especially in the truth and power of oracles), but one with an unusually enlarged vision and a mind open towards naturalistic or even quasi-scientific explanations of human and natural phenomena? Thus at 7.129 he firmly states his ‘scientific’ view that the Peneius gorge in Thessaly was due to seismic activity, whether or not one wants to believe that this activity was caused by the Greeks’ earthquake-god Poseidon. At any rate, his treatment of the Spartans’ religious beliefs and practices is evenhanded. He makes it quite clear that the Spartans were exceptionally religious, and on several occasions – not least, the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae – he reports without comment that the Spartans felt unable to respond immediately or fully to the Persian threats and allied requests for help because they considered they had prior religious obligations to perform. For the Spartans, as he twice puts it (5.63, 9.7), considered the things of the gods more weighty than the things of men. More sceptical or secular modern historians have judged in accordance with their own values and mindset that the Spartans were merely using religion as a self-serving pretext. But Herodotus, in accordance with his usual stated method of reporting what his sources told him (7.152), does not take, or at least does not express, that view.


On the other hand, when he comes to choose whether it was Athens or Sparta that contributed the most to saving mainland Greece from total Persian conquest in 480–479, he delivers what he knows will be to many an objectionable judgement, but the one that he considers to be true: namely, that it was the Athenians who – above all by their conduct at the battle of Salamis – were the principal ‘saviours of Greece’ (7.139). His point was that, had the Greeks lost there, the victorious Persian navy would have sailed on into the Spartans’ Peloponnesian backyard and wrapped up the final victory soon enough. Yet that does not mean that Herodotus (unlike some modern historians) slights the critical contribution made by the Spartans to the Persians’ decisive defeat – which came on land, in pitched battle, at Plataea in Boeotia in 479. This was, for him, ‘the fairest victory of any known to us’ (9.64).5 Even so, the precise mechanics of that crucial victory remain frustratingly obscure. Herodotus was no military historian, to be sure, in any narrowly technical sense.

Likewise, Herodotus’ political attitudes are balanced, or perhaps one should say hard to pin down precisely. Pretty clearly, he did not consider absolute, autocratic monarchy – whether in the form of hereditary kingship or of usurped tyranny, whether Greek or non-Greek – to be admirable in itself. It is no coincidence that so many of these sole rulers come to a bad end. He is scathing particularly towards the Egyptians in this regard, since they seemed to him unable ‘to live without a king’ (2.147). But what sort of a ‘republican’ was he? Or, to ask that more sharply, to what degree and in what sense was he a democrat?

Though not especially interested in the finer points of constitutional government or revolutionary change, he does bring out forcefully the huge significance of Athens’ turn in 508/7 to what the Greeks understood as democracy (‘people-power’, literally) through the reforms attributed to Cleisthenes. Indeed, he states unequivocally – and controversially – that it was Cleisthenes the Alcmaeonid aristocrat who ‘instituted democracy’ at Athens (6.131). And when shortly after the now-democratic Athenians managed to inflict twin defeats on their neighbours in Euboea and Boeotia, he comments rather extravagantly that these victories made ‘manifest how important it is for everyone in a city to have an equal voice [isêgoriê], not just on one level but on all’ (5.78). Yet the manner in which Cleisthenes is said to have achieved his reform is bathed in a sharply opportunistic light (5.66). Moreover, when Herodotus related the subsequent decision by the democratic Athenians to support a major revolt of Asiatic Greeks against Persia in 500, he opines (5.97) that this seemed to suggest it was much easier to fool thirty thousand people than a single man (the individual in question being the above-mentioned Spartan king Cleomenes, who, allegedly with the indispensable aid of his shrewd eight- or nine-year-old daughter Gorgo, had rejected outright the Ionian Greeks’ request for help, 5.51).

Herodotus himself was probably in some sense a democrat; it seems he did after all consent in the 440s to join the new foundation of Thouria in south Italy, the constitution of which (as drafted by the leading intellectual Protagoras of Abdera) was democratic. But democracy at Athens had moved on in key respects between 508/7 and the 440s, especially through the reforms of Ephialtes and Pericles in 462/1, and it did so even more thereafter, most notably in the increased power of the people’s jury-courts. So, while Herodotus was indeed a democrat, he was probably not one of the ‘extreme’ variety, that is, one favouring the more or less unfettered rule of the (poor) masses over the social, economic and educational elite.

The Spartan who led the Greeks to victory at Plataea in 479, regent Pausanias, was hugely controversial both in Sparta and outside, and both in his own lifetime and after his death. Like Cleomenes before him, he came to an unhappy end – which for Herodotus, like many Greeks, would have been a clear sign that he was fundamentally a bad or at least an ill-fated person (1.32). But unlike Cleomenes, Pausanias predominantly earns plaudits from Herodotus – so key was his role in securing Greek freedom. After victory has been won at Plataea, the historian tellingly uses Pausanias twice as an exemplar of the best Spartan, and therefore by extension Greek, values. In the first instance, a hot-headed Greek from the island-state of Aegina (which in 490 had submitted to Persian suzerainty, but in 480–479 remained true to and fought valiantly in the anti-Persian Greek cause) urges Pausanias to mutilate the corpse of Persian commander Mardonius, in revenge for the mutilation of the corpse of Leonidas by the Persians at Thermopylae the previous year. Pausanias sharply rebukes the Aeginetan and tells him that such barbarity is not the Greek way. Later, when Pausanias is shown the rampant luxuriousness of Mardonius’ tent and the vast amounts of lavish food prepared for him and his bloated entourage, he quietly orders his (unfree but Greek) helot attendants to prepare a Laconian – indeed, as we say, ‘spartan’ – meal in order to demonstrate the superior virtue of Greek self-restraint (9.82).

With that advocacy of human restraint Herodotus coupled a salutary warning that over and above the seemingly limitless range of human choices there rises a superhuman constraint, the inexorable power of fate. This warning Herodotus characteristically places in the mouth of one wise, or at least wised-up, barbarian, ex-king Croesus of Lydia, addressing another, Cyrus, now his master. For, according to his Croesus (1.207):

The first lesson you should acknowledge is that there is a cycle to human affairs, one that as it turns never permits the same people forever to enjoy good fortune.

That aphorism looks even further forward to another, as far forward as is possible in this life on earth. This time the aphorism is attributed to an exceptionally wise Greek, who once allegedly played the role of adviser to that same barbarian Croesus, then still in his pomp. Herodotus’ Solon of Athens gives his Croesus the oriental plutocrat the snappy advice to ‘always look to the end’, the end in the sense both of terminus and of goal. For, Solon argues (1.32), it is only in light of that end that it will be finally known whether one has lived well. Living well, the condition of eudaimonia, was the ultimate goal of the greatest exemplars of ancient Greek culture, such as Aristotle (384–322), who was perhaps the master of them all and himself most happily named (ariston telos means ‘best end’).

Such earthly happiness was, however, constantly placed in jeopardy in the ancient Greek world, above all by the aggressive intensity of internal and interstate politics. It was thus Herodotus’ considered view that stasis emphulios – civil war within a single people – is as much worse than united war against a foreign enemy as war is worse than peace (8.3). About war as such, indeed, he was at least ambivalent, for in peace sons bury their fathers, whereas in war fathers bury their sons, a reversal of the natural order (1.87). But we should also emphasize, at least as much as his anti-war mindset, his realism. Herodotus was all too well aware that the Hellenic ‘tribe’ was endemically prone precisely to stasis emphulios. It was with a view to pre-empting or at least diminishing that unhappy propensity that he composed a ringing declaration of support for Hellenism and placed it in the mouth of the Athenians, at a critical juncture of the Persian Wars, during the winter of 480/79 (8.144):

there is the fact that we are all of us Greeks, of one blood and one tongue, united by the temples that we have raised to the gods, and by the way in which we offer them sacrifice, and by the customs that we have in common.

Hellenism, his Athenians thus declare, is a compound of common blood, language and customs – not, it must be noted, a compound including a common political system, for politics has served more often to divide than to unite the Greeks; rather, it was a common culture, one that united not only Athenians with Spartans but also both with Macedonians and all the many other far-flung and heterogeneous Greeks. Herodotus, an eastern Greek in origin who became a western one, and who probably travelled the length and the breadth of the Hellenic world and huge distances outside it too, knew whereof he spoke.

In short, as Edward Gibbon once perceptively observed, Herodotus ‘sometimes writes for children, and sometimes for philosophers’;6 that is, he tells rattling good yarns and yet also has something valuable to say to enlightened people of the world who believe that it is both desirable and possible to learn from history.


The message of moderation, self-restraint or, in Apollo of Delphi’s terms, ‘nothing to excess’, is also exactly the one with which Herodotus chooses to end his whole work, though here it is the founder of the Persian empire, a pensive and reflective Cyrus the Great, who is credited with delivering it, to his own Persians. He advises them that tough lands produce tough peoples, so, if they wish to retain the empire he has enabled them so spectacularly to gain, they must not even think about removing themselves to some softer, enervating environment. Herodotus was thus both attributing the Greeks’ victory over the Persians significantly to their tougher environment (cf. 7.102, 8.111), and at the same time issuing a warning about the difficulty of maintaining imperial power, since, tempting as they are, ‘Soft lands are prone to breed soft men’, and soft men are likely to have to exchange dominion over others for slavery to them (9.122).


Ever since their lives and works overlapped in the fifth century BC, the twin progenitors of Western historiography, Herodotus (c. 484–c. 425) and Thucydides (c. 460–c. 400), have been judged in the light of – and more usually in opposition against – each other. There is even a conjoined, back-to-back marble herm from the Roman period, now in the Naples Museum, that seems physically to embody this contrapuntal conjuncture. It offers idealized depictions of the two literally iconic greats, duly labelled; but they face, fixedly and for ever, in opposite directions.7 For many years, indeed centuries, the balance of informed opinion from Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540) to Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) ran firmly in favour of Thucydides. He was the historian’s historian: an acute, disabused, accurate observer, analyst and reporter of the world as it was and is, the world of high politics above all. Over the past twenty years or so, however, as regards both their scholarly and their more general reception, the balance has tilted quite sharply away from Thucydides and towards Herodotus.

For two main reasons, I would suggest: one internal to the practice of historiography, the other a direct reflection of and response to the way the world itself has changed since around 1990, since all history – or rather historiography, the writing of history – is and must be in some way and to some extent contemporary history. First, within the last twenty years the profession of History has experienced a kind of internal crisis and regrouping of forces. Subjected to a barrage from the ‘postmodernists’, who claimed in essence that there is no such thing as historical objectivity and truth, that History is what any historian cares to make of it, and how any historian cares to represent it, more traditional historians have fought back by calling attention to the historian’s absolute dependence on sources and commitment in principle to telling it how it actually was, within the limits set by the available, reliable source-material.8 The outcome of that often acrimonious exchange has been a greater liberalization of historiographical norms, and a wider acceptance that even the strictest adherence to conventional protocols regarding sources is compatible with some inevitable subjectivity of perception and some individual freedom in retelling any story about any significant past. Hence, the extremely individualist and pioneering historiographical mode of Herodotus – who claims with apparent modesty only to tell what is told, though he of course tells it the way he sees fit, and whose range of subject-matter is generously comprehensive – is now found more congenial than Thucydides’ severe, and somewhat self-deluding, claim (1.20–22) to tell objectively and accurately only the actual facts of the past, and moreover those of a very narrowly defined past consisting of significant political, diplomatic and military events and processes.

Second, and directly connected to the first, the ending in around 1990 of the old East–West, Communist v. ‘Free World’, Cold War has lessened Thucydides’ seemingly paradigmatic authority as an analyst of power relations in a bipolar world divided resolutely along ideological lines. Thucydides is still acknowledged as one of the most powerful such analysts there has ever been, a truly philosophical historian in a Gibbonian sense; but there is now seen to be more scope and greater need for historians of the stamp of Herodotus, who go well beyond political, diplomatic and military history to embrace the history of society, culture, gender, religion and so forth. Herodotus may be more fanciful, less factually reliable and certainly less politically motivated than Thucydides, but these are not now seen necessarily as irremediable defects.

Besides, it is at least arguable, as I have tried briefly to suggest above, that Herodotus was in his own distinctive way a ‘philosophical’ historian no less than Thucydides. At any rate, whatever Herodotus may or may not have been, or done, his work still lives. Technically, he is of course to be numbered among Bernard Knox’s ‘oldest dead white European males’, but Knox’s correct point in ironically adopting and adapting that semi-humorous label was to emphasize that the influence of such cultural ancestors as these is far from dead, or even moribund, today.9 In their first rank, more highly regarded now than he has been for many generations, stands the engaged and limitlessly engaging Herodotus of Halicarnassus, our contemporary, whose presence has been wonderfully renewed and reinvigorated in this powerfully vibrant new translation.10


Details of all works cited here are found in the Further Reading.

1. This Introduction is ultimately and now rather remotely based, in part, on a talk I delivered at the Hellenic Embassy, Washington, DC, on 23 September 2009, thanks to the kind invitation of the Society for the Preservation of the Greek Heritage, under its President, Mrs Anna Lea; Dr Brook Manville generously introduced me and my talk. But Stuart Proffitt deserves the major share of the credit for any improvements I have been able to make.

2. See most recently Hamel 2012.

3. Kapuściński 2007; Marozzi 2008; Mendelsohn 2012 (also a Classical scholar).

4. Plutarch, On the Meanspiritedness of Herodotus (c. 100 AD), ed. A. Bowen as The Malice of Herodotus (Warminster, 1992): rev. J. Marincola, Ploutarchos 10.2 (May 1994).

5. See Shepherd 2012; Cartledge 2013. The victorious land- and sea-battle of Mycale on the Asiatic coast that followed Plataea under Athenian leadership was more of a mopping-up operation.

6. Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London, 1776–1788), ch. XXIV, note 52, in the admirable edition of David Womersley.

7. There is a plaster cast in the Cambridge Classics Faculty’s Museum of Classical Archaeology:

8. Evans 2001.

9. Knox 1993.

10. See further Cartledge 1990, 2009a.

Note on Measurements and Currency




Summary of Contents of The Histories

This overview is after Hamel 2012: 5–6. The Book divisions are not those of Herodotus himself, but ultimately of scholars working in post-Classical Alexandria in Egypt in the third century BC. The Library founded there under either King Ptolemy II (ruled 285–246) or his father Ptolemy I (ruled 305–285) aimed to produce and conserve master copies on papyrus rolls of all then known Greek texts, but much could have happened to H.’s text between c. 420 and c. 280. The Alexandria editors, however, will have been far better placed than any of their modern successors to decide what H. was most likely to have originally written, even if reading that or consulting it in its papyrus roll form was not at all straightforward. The chapter divisions are much more recent than the third-century BC copy text or texts. Indeed, the original texts did not even distinguish sentences nor did they use diacritical marks such as accents.

Book One


Book TwoBook ThreeBook FourBook FiveBook SixBook SevenBook EightBook Nine

Translator’s Note on the Text

The edition of Herodotus used for this translation is Charles Hude’s Herodoti Historiae (Oxford, 1927).

•   •   •

[ ] indicates portions of text that vary from manuscript to manuscript, or are believed to be possible post-Herodotean interpolations, and [. . .] indicates portions of the text that have been lost.

The Histories


Herodotus, from Halicarnassus,1 here displays his enquiries,2 that human achievement may be spared the ravages of time, and that everything great and astounding, and all the glory of those exploits which served to display Greeks and barbarians3 alike to such effect, be kept alive – and additionally, and most importantly, to give the reason4 they went to war.

•   •   •

[1] Well-informed Persian commentators pin the blame for the clash on the Phoenicians. These were a people who originally came from the Red Sea, as we term it, to this sea of ours;5 and no sooner had they settled in the country which remains their homeland up to the present day than they began investing heavily in the long-distance shipping business, exporting goods from Egypt and Assyria to a wide variety of markets. Pre-eminent among these was Argos,6 the city which at that time was the leading power, by any reckoning you care to mention, in the land which is now called Greece. There the Phoenicians arrived, in Argos, and duly set out their wares. Five or six days later, with almost everything sold, a large group of women came down to the shore – and among them was the daughter of the king. Inachos, he was called, and his child’s name was Io: on that much, at any rate, both the Greek and the Persian sources are agreed. These women were standing around the ship’s stern, haggling over the various items that had particularly caught their fancy, when the Phoenicians, who had alreadly tipped the nod to one another, made a sudden rush at them. Most of the women got away, but a few were seized – and one of them was Io. Into the hold the captives were bundled, up came the anchor and off sailed the ship for Egypt.

[2] This, although the Greeks tell a different version of the story, is the Persians’ account of how Io came to end up in Egypt – the first of many crimes. Next, they say, came the reprisal: some Greeks docked at the Phoenician city of Tyre, and abducted the king’s daughter, Europa.7 It is likely – although the Persians themselves are not certain as to their identity – that these pirates were Cretan. So far, they say, so even; but then the Greeks committed a second outrage. Off they sailed in a longship to Aea in Colchis, to the Phasis river, where they had no sooner completed the mission that had originally brought them there than they were kidnapping the king’s daughter, Medea. The king of Colchis sent a herald to Greece to demand his daughter back, along with restitution for her abduction; but the Greeks refused, answering that since no reparations had ever been received from the kidnappers of Io, the Argive princess, they certainly had no intention of handing over any to the Colchians.

[3] A generation now passed, we are told – and then Priam’s son, Paris, who had picked up on the story, decided that he might as well steal a Greek wife for himself, since the Greeks, who had never paid reparations to anyone, would hardly be in any position to demand satisfaction from him. The result was the rape of Helen.8 The Greeks’ initial response was to send out the usual messengers, insisting on her return, together with compensation for her kidnapping. No sooner had they made these demands, however, than they were met with the inevitable riposte: had not Medea likewise been abducted? How could the Greeks possibly expect compensation from others, they were asked, when they had refused point-blank to pay any themselves, and would not even give back Medea, no matter how often the demand was made?

[4] There followed next a massive escalation of what until then had essentially been nothing more serious than a bout of competitive princess-rustling – and the fault was all the Greeks’. Or so the Persians claim, at any rate – for they point out that long before they ever thought of invading Europe, it was the Greeks who invaded Asia. Granted, the Persians acknowledge, stealing women is never acceptable behaviour; but really, they ask, what is the point, once a woman has been stolen, in kicking up a great fuss about it, and pursuing some ridiculous vendetta, when every sensible man knows that the best policy is to affect an utter lack of concern? It is clear enough, after all, that women are never abducted unless they are open to the idea of it in the first place. So it was, the Persians claim, that people in Asia remained pretty much unperturbed by the theft of their women – but the Greeks, simply to get back the wife of a single Spartan, assembled a huge task-force, invaded Asia and annihilated the empire of Priam. Ever since then, the Persians have viewed the Greeks as a people inveterately hostile to them. Asia and all the various strange-speaking peoples who inhabit it, they think of as belonging to them, but Europe and the Greeks as lying beyond their sphere of influence.

[5] This, then, is the version of events promoted by the Persians,9 who trace the origin of their hostility towards the Greeks all the way back to the sack of Troy. Regarding Io, however, the Phoenicians do tell a rather different story. Far from bringing her to Egypt by force, they say, there was no need, for she had been sleeping with the ship’s captain – and when she found out that she was pregnant, so mortified was she at the thought of having to face her parents that she opted to sail off with the Phoenicians rather than suffer the shame of exposure. So then – these are the stories as told by the Persians and Phoenicians. Far be it from me to say whether they are accurate or not; but what I will do is to name the man who, I myself am convinced, was the first to harm Greek interests, and then, having identified him, carry on with the rest of my account.10 Human foundations both great and insignificant will need to be discussed – for most of those that were great once have since slumped into decline, and those that used to be insignificant have risen, within my own lifetime, to rank as mighty powers.11 I will pay equal attention to both, for humans and prosperity never endure side by side for long.12

•   •   •

[6] Croesus was a Lydian by birth, the son of Alyattes. He was the ruler of the various peoples who live west of the Halys, a river which flows pretty much in the opposite direction to the north wind, from the south, where it divides Cappadocian Syria from Paphlagonia, all the way to its mouth at the Euxine Sea.13 This Croesus was the first foreigner on record to establish close relations with the Greeks, forcing some of them to pay him tribute, and offering to others the hand of friendship. Specifically, it was the Ionians, the Aeolians and the Dorians of Asia who were forced to pay him tribute, and the Lacedaemonians14 who ended up as his friends. Prior to Croesus’ reign, all the Greeks had been free.15 It is true that the Cimmerian invasion of Ionia did take place earlier – but that was only a raid and not a full-blown conquest.

[7] Originally, the Lydian empire had been ruled by the bloodline of Heracles; but then it passed into the hands of Croesus’ family, a dynasty named the Mermnads.16 This is the story of how it happened. The king of Sardis who is known by the Greeks as Myrsilus was in fact named Candaules, and he was descended from Alcaeus, the son of Heracles. Alcaeus had a son named Belus; his son in turn was Ninus; and Ninus’ son was Agron, who was the first of Heracles’ line to rule as king of Sardis – just as Candaules, Myrsus’ son, was the last. Prior to Agron, the region had been ruled by the descendants of Atys’ son, the eponymous Lydus: hence the use of ‘Lydians’ to describe the people who had originally been known as ‘Maeonians’. It was thanks to an oracle that the reins of power ended up being entrusted to the Heraclids, kings who could trace their pedigree back to Heracles himself and to a slave girl owned by Iardanus; and for the next 505 years, twenty-two generations in all, son succeeded father, until at length Candaules, the son of Myrsus, ascended the throne.

[8] Now, it so happened that this Candaules had the most all-consuming obsession with his own wife – so all-consuming, in fact, that he actually believed her to be by far the most beautiful woman in the world.17 It happened as well that among his bodyguards there was one man, Gyges, Dascylus’ son, for whom the king had a particularly soft spot, and whose ear he was endlessly bending, sometimes about weighty affairs of state, and sometimes, to a quite obsessive degree, about the desirability of his wife. In no time at all, indeed, Candaules was being led into making Gyges a fateful – and fatal – proposition. ‘I can see that you still need convincing,’ he said, ‘no matter how much I keep harping on about my wife’s stunning looks. Fine – since I suppose it is always easier to trust the evidence of one’s own eyes, rather than just believing what one is told – here is what I want you to do: set things up so that you get the chance to see her naked.’ ‘Master,’ cried out Gyges in horror, ‘what a monstrous suggestion! Ogle my mistress nude? What – when a woman has only to remove her clothes to shed her sense of self-respect as well? There are certain time-honoured principles that everyone needs to heed – and one of them is this, that a man should always look to his own. I certainly need no convincing that your wife is beautiful beyond compare. But please, I beg you – do not ask me to take this illicit action!’

[9] Yet even as Gyges dug in his heels, terrified of the possible consequences if he did not, the king replied by telling him to show some backbone. ‘There is no need to be scared of me, Gyges, or of my wife. I can assure you, I am not doing this to entrap you, and as regards my wife – well – no harm will come to you from her, I promise. I have a plan, you see – one that will guarantee she never even realizes that you have been spying on her. I am going to station you behind the open door of our bedroom – and then, when I come to bed, my wife will come in close behind me. Right beside the entrance there is a chair – and as my wife starts removing her clothes, garment by garment, and laying them down on it, so will you have the perfect opportunity to look her over in detail. Then, when she crosses from the chair to our bed, with her back still to you, you can slip out through the door – making sure, of course, not to let her spot you.’

[10] Realizing that he was cornered, Gyges gave in. When Candaules judged that he could reasonably retire for the night, he led Gyges to his bedroom – where, sure enough, they were joined a few moments later by Candaules’ wife. Gyges watched her come in and disrobe. Then, as she turned her back directly on him, and headed over to the bed, he slipped out from his hiding place. But the woman caught a glimpse of him as he was leaving. She had no illusions about what her husband had been up to – but far from betraying her sense of outrage by screaming, she gave no sign that she had noticed anything untoward. She was already set on making Candaules pay: for among the Lydians, as among most other barbarians, it is such a taboo to be seen naked18 that even a man considers it a humiliation.

[11] Anyhow, as I mentioned, she held her tongue and gave nothing away – but no sooner had morning come than she put her most trusted house-slaves on stand-by, and sent for Gyges. Since he had long been in the habit of dancing attendance on the queen and her demands, and since it had never crossed his mind that she might have rumbled what had happened, he naturally answered the summons; and the moment he turned up, she came straight to the point. ‘Gyges,’ she said, ‘you have two courses open to you, and which one you opt for is entirely up to you. Either you can kill Candaules, marry me and become the king of Lydia – or else you can be struck down on the spot by this, my dagger, so that I can at least be sure that never again will you be sweet-talked by Candaules into gazing at what is not yours to gaze upon. One of two people must die: either the man whose idea this whole business was, or else the man who saw me naked, in defiance of all propriety.’ So astonished was Gyges by this speech that it took him a while to find his tongue; and when he did so at last, he begged the queen not to force him into making such an impossible choice. She would not be shifted, though, and so Gyges recognized that he really did have only the two options, either to kill his master, or else to be killed in turn. He chose to save himself. But next he had a question. ‘Now that you have twisted my arm, and made me swear to kill my master – something I really do not wish to do, I can assure you – answer me this: how do we actually lay our hands on him?’ ‘In the very room where he put me on display naked,’ came the queen’s answer, ‘that is where you will attack him – and you will do it while he is asleep.’19

[12] So the plot was hatched, for Gyges, who knew himself cornered, with no prospect of escape, had realized that either he or Candaules would have to die. At nightfall, Gyges followed the woman into the bedchamber. She handed him a short sword, then hid him behind the same door as before. Shortly afterwards, as Candaules lay asleep, he crept out and struck. Queen and kingdom, both now belonged to Gyges – that very same Gyges who is commemorated in a poem of iambic trimeters by his contemporary, Archilochus of Paros.20

[13] That his hold on power then grew even stronger was due to the oracle at Delphi.21 The wretchedness of Candaules’ fate had not failed to move the Lydians to pity – and indeed, such was the level of outrage that many began dusting down their arms. Gyges’ faction, however, succeeded in patching up terms with the other Lydians: the agreement being that if the oracle confirmed Gyges’ right to the rule of Lydia he would continue as king, but if not, then the Heraclids would be restored to power. The oracle gave its approval to Gyges – who duly remained on the throne. Nevertheless, the priestess did offer this qualification: that after five generations, the Heraclids would be avenged upon Gyges. But to this prediction, neither the Lydians nor their kings paid the slightest attention – or, at least, not until it came true.22

[14] So that is the story of how the Mermnads wrested power from the dynasty of Heracles. Gyges, now that he was king, showed himself far from ungrateful to Delphi. For of the many silver offerings which currently adorn the oracle, by far the greatest proportion were dedicated by him – and that is not even touching on the various golden treasures which he also presented to Delphi, and of which the most memorable are six great bowls. These weigh 30 talents and stand in the Corinthian treasure house (although, properly speaking, it is not the treasure house of the Corinthian people as a whole, but only of Cypselus, Eëtion’s son). This Gyges was the first barbarian on record23 to have presented votive offerings to Delphi, with the single prior exception of the Phrygian king, Midas, Gordias’ son. For Midas too made a dedication which is well worth seeking out: the very throne on which he sat in state, and from which he delivered justice, can be found stationed next to Gyges’ bowls. The Delphians call the gold and silver presented by Gyges ‘The Gygian Treasure’, in commemoration of the man who gave them.

[15] Now, once he had seized power, he adopted the time-honoured policy of attacking Miletus and Smyrna, and actually succeeded in capturing the city of Colophon.24 These, however, were the limits of what he achieved during the course of his thirty-eight-year rule – and so, since there is nothing else to add to the details of his reign, let us move on to another king. And specifically to Ardys, Gyges’ son and heir. This king captured Priene25 as well as invading Miletus, and it was during his time as the master of Sardis26 that the city was captured by the Cimmerians, a people who had been driven into exile from their own homeland by nomads called the Scythians. Only the acropolis of Sardis succeeded in holding out.

[16] Ardys ruled for forty-nine years in all, and was followed on the throne by his son, Sadyattes, who ruled for twelve. He was succeeded in turn by his own son, Alyattes. This king went to war against the Medes under Cyaxares, the grandson of Deioces; he drove the Cimmerians out of Asia; and he captured Smyrna, a city which had originally been founded by settlers from Colophon.27 He also attacked Clazomenae – but there, rather than succeeding in his war aims, he was given a bloody nose. There were other accomplishments too that he achieved as king, and which merit rehearsing.

[17] The war against the Milesians, which he had inherited from his father, rumbled on.28 Leading his troops against Miletus, and putting the city under siege, Alyattes’ strategy was to launch his invasion just as the crops were at their ripest. He would march in to the accompaniment of pipes and harps, and flutes both high-pitched and low. Then, once he was on Milesian soil, he and his men would make a point of not demolishing any houses they might come across out in the countryside, nor of setting them on fire, nor even of breaking into them, but instead, across the whole span of their enemy’s territory, of letting them stand: for it was the crops and the fruit trees that were Alyattes’ targets. The harvest would go up in smoke, and the invaders would then tramp back home. After all, with the Milesians the masters of the sea, what earthly point would there have been in putting their city under siege?29 As for the reason why the Lydian king spared their houses – well, it was to ensure that the Milesians would have somewhere to live when the time came for them to sow and work the land, and that he, thanks to all their toil, would have something to destroy when he launched his invasions.

[18] For eleven years, then, this was the way that the war was fought – a period which witnessed two serious Milesian reverses, one a battle fought on their own soil, at Limeneium, and the other on the plain of the River Maeander. For six of those eleven years, it was Sadyattes, the son of Ardys (who was still king of Lydia at the time, and had originally begun the war), who led the campaigns against Miletus, but for the remaining five it was Alyattes, Sadyattes’ son, who conducted operations: he had inherited the conflict from his father, as I explained earlier, and really threw himself into its prosecution. As for the other Ionians, they signally failed to come to the support of the Milesians – all, that is, except the Chians,30 who felt duty bound to help shoulder the burden of the war effort. (This was because the Milesians had previously lent them support in their own war against the Erythraeans.31)

[19] Twelve years into the war and it so happened that a cornfield was being put to the torch by the invaders. As the crops blazed, sparks were borne on a violent gust of wind towards a temple of Athena. The temple, which stood at a place called Assessus, caught fire and burnt down. At the time, no one thought much of this – but in due course, when back in Sardis with the army, Alyattes fell ill. Time passed and still he remained confined to his sick-bed. At last – perhaps on the advice of others, perhaps on his own initiative – he sent messengers to the oracle at Delphi, to ask Apollo for his diagnosis. When the messengers arrived at Delphi, however, the priestess refused to see them, and warned that they would only be granted a consultation once the temple to Athena had been rebuilt – the same one which had stood outside Miletus at Assessus, and which the Lydians had burned to the ground.32

[20] Now I know for a fact that this is what happened, because I heard it directly from the Delphians themselves.33 The Milesians elaborate further: they say that Periander, the son of Cypselus, and a man who was bound by the most sacred ties of friendship34 to Thrasybulus (who was the tyrant of Miletus at the time), happened to learn the details of what the oracle had revealed to Alyattes, and promptly sent a messenger to his friend, letting him in on the secret. Intelligence, after all, is always the key to forward planning.

[21] That, at any rate, is what the Milesians claim. Alyattes, briefed on the news from Delphi, immediately sent a herald to Miletus with the aim of securing a truce with Thrasybulus and the Milesians – but only for so long as it took the temple to be restored. The emissary duly set off for Miletus – where Thrasybulus, armed with reliable inside information, and with a shrewd idea as to Alyattes’ likeliest course of action, had come up with a plan of his own. First, he ordered the city’s storehouses, from his own to the meanest larder, to be emptied, and all the food to be brought into the market-square; next, he told the Milesians to wait on his signal, and then, when it was given, to crack open the wine and start partying.

[22] There was method behind the seeming madness of these actions and orders, for Thrasybulus’ object was to ensure that the herald from Sardis would report back to Alyattes about all the towering stockpiles of food he had seen, and the population dancing in the streets. Sure enough, it all came off as planned. The herald witnessed everything; and once he had delivered the Lydian king’s message to Thrasybulus and returned to Sardis, the consequence was indeed, so my sources report, the end of the war. No other explanation will possibly do.35 Alyattes had been confident that Miletus was in the grip of a severe famine, and that her population had been ground down to an extreme of suffering – but now here was the herald back from Miletus reporting that the actual state of affairs in the city was the very reverse of his assumptions. In due course, by terms of the treaty, each agreed to be the friend and ally of the other; additionally, Alyattes built two temples to Athena at Assessus, rather than just the one, and found himself restored to full health.36 And that is the story of his war with Thrasybulus and the Milesians.

[23] Periander, the son of Cypselus, and the man who had originally told Thrasybulus about the oracle, was the tyrant of Corinth. It was during his lifetime, so the Corinthians say (and the Lesbians back them up), that something truly astounding happened: Arion of Methymna, the leading musician of his day, a man who could sing and play the cithara with equal proficiency, and who was such a trend-setter that he was, so far as we know, the first to compose a dithyramb,37 to name it as such and to have it sung in public, was carried to Taenarum38 by a dolphin.

[24] Now, although Arion spent the greater part of his career at Periander’s court, and produced his dithyramb in Corinth, he had nevertheless always wanted to visit Italy and Sicily. He raked in an absolute fortune touring there, then looked to return to Corinth. For the journey back from Tarentum, he opted to take a ship manned by Corinthians – a reflection of the trust that he had always placed in the people of Corinth. No sooner were they out at sea, however, than the sailors hatched a plot to throw him overboard and take his money. When Arion discovered this, he fell down on his knees before them, offering them all his wealth if they would only spare his life. But his pleas fell on deaf ears. Instead, the sailors told him that he had only two options: either he could kill himself, if he wanted to be buried on dry land, or else he should hurry up and walk the plank. A desperate situation indeed! Arion, recognizing that the sailors were implacable, begged them for permission to stand on the quarterdeck in his full singing regalia, and give them a song – with the proviso that, when the song was over, he would do away with himself. The sailors, who were delighted at the prospect of hearing the best singer in the world, all came hurrying down from the stern into the middle of the ship while Arion, arrayed in his singing robes and clutching his lyre, stood on the quarterdeck. There he sang a haunting hymn in honour of Apollo – and then, when the song was done, hurled himself into the sea, just as he was, still wearing all his robes. The sailors continued on to Corinth; but Arion, it is said, was picked up by a dolphin and borne on its back to Taenarum. There he was able to disembark and make his own way to Corinth, where – without even having changed his clothes – he poured out the full story. So incredible did Periander find it, though, that he ordered Arion to be put under house arrest while a sharp look-out was kept for the sailors. When they duly turned up, he summoned them into his presence and asked them whether they had any news of Arion. ‘Oh yes,’ they answered, ‘he is safe and sound back in Italy. When we left him, he was the toast of Tarentum.’ No sooner had they said this, however, than out stepped Arion himself, dressed exactly as he had been when he jumped overboard. Such was the sailors’ stupefaction that they could no longer maintain their denials in the face of the on-going cross-examination. This, at any rate, is the story as told by the Corinthians and the Lesbians – and it is a fact that in a temple in Taenarum there is an offering from Arion, a small bronze statue of a man on the back of a dolphin.

[25] Alyattes of Lydia did not live long after the conclusion of his war against Miletus, dying after a reign of fifty-seven years. He was the second of his dynasty to dedicate an offering to Delphi. For once he had recovered from his illness he presented the oracle with a large silver bowl, complete with a stand made out of welded iron. Even when one bears in mind the great mass of offerings at Delphi, this one is still well worth a look, for it was the handiwork of Glaucus of Chios, the man who single-handedly invented the art of iron-welding.

[26] On Alyattes’ death, he was succeeded as king by his son, Croesus, who was then thirty-five years old. The first Greeks whom the new king attacked were the people of Ephesus. It was during the course of his siege that the Ephesians ran a rope from the temple of Artemis39 to the city wall, and thereby succeeded in dedicating their city to the goddess. (The distance from the old town, which was the part then under siege, and the temple is 7 stades in total.) So far as Croesus was concerned, however, Ephesus was only a beginning: he went on to attack all the Ionian and Aeolian cities one by one. His justification would vary from case to case: whenever he had a serious ground of complaint, he could be sure to make a great fuss about it, but even when one was lacking he would manage to rustle up some flimsy pretext.40

[27] In due course, with the Greeks on the Asian mainland all conquered and brought to pay him tribute, Croesus embarked on a programme of shipbuilding, with the intention of taking the attack to the islanders. Just as everything was ready for the shipbuilding to begin, however, Sardis was visited by someone (Bias of Priene, some say, although others claim it was Pittacus of Mytilene) who ended up being responsible for the aborting of the entire project; when asked by Croesus what news there was from Greece, the visitor replied that the islanders were busy buying up horses, ten thousand of them. ‘And their plan, my Lord, is to strike at you in Sardis.’ ‘If only!’ exclaimed Croesus, taking the accuracy of this report for granted. ‘The very thought of it – that the gods might so delude the islanders as to bring them against my brave Lydians, and perched on horseback too!’ ‘My Lord,’ came the reply, ‘the obvious implication of your prayer is that you are keen to catch the islanders while they are in the saddle, here on the mainland. As well you should be. But has it not crossed your mind that the islanders, the moment they became aware of your plan to prepare a naval campaign against them, might have offered up a corresponding prayer of their own? After all, they would like nothing better than to catch the Lydians out at sea – for then they would be able to pay you back for your enslavement of their countrymen here on the mainland.’ Croesus was much amused by the way that this point had been made – not to mention persuaded by its self-evident good sense. The result was the abandonment of his shipbuilding programme, and the signing of a treaty of friendship with those Ionians who lived offshore.41

[28] Meanwhile, over the course of time, almost all the peoples living west of the River Halys had been brought to submit to Croesus.42 The Lycians and the Cilicians excepted, all the others had ended up crushed by him, and absorbed into his empire: the Lydians, the Phrygians, the Mysians, the Mariandynians, the Chalybes, the Paphlagonians, the Thracians (both Thynian and Bithynian), the Carians, the Ionians, the Dorians, the Aeolians and the Pamphylians.43 In the wake of these conquests, and with Croesus still busy adding to the Lydian empire, Sardis stood at the very height of her prosperity.44

[29] All the most learned Greeks of the age were drawn there, each one making the trip in his own way – and one of these visitors was Solon of Athens.45 He was the man who had been asked by the Athenians to draw up a law-code for them – and now, having completed that, he had gone abroad for ten years. The excuse he gave for embarking on his travels was that he wanted to see the world; but the truth was that he did not want to be pressured into having to repeal any of his recently issued laws. The Athenians themselves were unable to repeal the law-code that Solon had delivered to them, for the reason that they had all solemnly pledged themselves to give it a decade’s trial.

[30] This, then – quite apart from any taste for sightseeing – was the reason for Solon’s going abroad. In the course of his travels he paid a visit to King Amasis in Egypt, but his prime destination was Sardis, where he was put up by Croesus in the royal palace itself. Three or four days after his arrival, Croesus instructed some servants to give Solon a guided tour of the various treasuries and point out to him how splendid and sumptuous everything was.46 Then, after Solon had seen and inspected everything, Croesus took the opportunity to ask him a question. ‘We have heard a good deal about you, my guest from Athens: you have a reputation as a wise and well-travelled man, as a philosopher indeed, one who has travelled the world and always kept his eyes wide open. So here is the question I would like to put to you: have you ever come across anyone whose state of contentment would rank head and shoulders above that of everyone else?’ In asking this, of course, he was taking for granted that the answer would be himself; but Solon, rather than indulge in flattery, preferred instead to speak what he saw as the truth. ‘Yes, my Lord,’ he answered. ‘An Athenian, by the name of Tellus.’ The reply took Croesus aback. ‘And why exactly,’ he demanded in a heated tone, ‘do you reckon this Tellus to have been so happy?’ ‘There are two reasons,’ Solon answered. ‘Firstly, he lived at a time when his city was particularly well off, he had handsome, upstanding sons, and he ended up a grandfather, with all his grandchildren making it to adulthood. Secondly, at a time when – by our standards – he was a man of considerable wealth, his life came to an end that was as glorious as its course had previously been happy. What happened was this: the Athenians were fighting a battle against their neighbours at Eleusis, when Tellus stepped into the breach of their crumbling line, and put the enemy to flight. It is true that he himself died, but his death was something beautiful, and the Athenians gave him a state funeral at the very spot where he fell, and awarded him splendid honours.’47

[31] This discourse of Solon’s, with its cataloguing of all the ways in which Tellus had been truly happy, had certainly served to pique Croesus’ interest; and so it was, confident that he would be named the runner-up at least, he asked Solon for the name of the second happiest person on his list. ‘Cleobis and Biton,’ Solon answered promptly, ‘two young men of Argos, because they never lacked for means, and also because of their remarkable physical strength. Not only were they both prize-winning athletes, but there is also the following story told about them. The episode took place during an Argive festival in honour of Hera, when their mother urgently needed to be driven to the temple in their cart, but early in the day, before the oxen had been brought back in from the fields. There being no time to lose, the two young men shouldered the yoke themselves and pulled the cart, with their mother riding on top of it, for a full 45 stades, all the way to the temple. Everyone who had gathered for the festival was a witness to this exploit, and then, in its wake, the two young men died in the best way possible: a divinely authored proof that it is better to be dead than alive. The Argives kept crowding round them, congratulating them on their strength, and the women of the city kept telling their mother how fortunate she was in her children. In due course, such was the rapture of her joy at her sons’ achievement and the fame they had won, that she went to stand before the statue of Hera, and prayed to the goddess that she would bestow upon her children, her Cleobis and Biton, who had brought her such great honour, the greatest blessing that it is possible for mortals to be granted. The mother finished her prayer; and then came the sacrifices and the feasting; and then the young men passed inside the temple and fell asleep, never to wake up again; and in this way their lives were brought to a close. The Argives made statues48 of them, which were then sent to Delphi – for it was clear that they had been the very best that men can be.’

[32] But Solon’s nomination of these two young men for second place in his list of the happiest people known to him threw Croesus into a rage. ‘And what of my own happiness, my Athenian friend?’ he demanded. ‘Is it so beneath contempt that it is not even to be mentioned in the same breath as that of men without rank or title?’ ‘Croesus,’ Solon replied, ‘your question was one that touched on the lot of humanity – and I answered it as someone who is all too well aware of how jealous the gods are, and how perplexing in their ways.49 The longer the span of someone’s existence, the more certain he is to see and suffer much that he would rather have been spared. Say that the limit of a man’s life is set at seventy years. If you exclude intercalary months, then those seventy years comprise 25,200 days – but if you add a month on to every alternate year, so that the seasons are properly calibrated, then seventy years will give us an additional thirty-five months – which in turn will give us an additional 1,050 days. That means that your seventy years of life will give you 26,250 days in all – and not one of them will resemble the next in terms of what it brings. So you can see, Croesus, how human life is nothing if not subject to the vagaries of chance.50 Now, to be sure, I can recognize that you are fabulously rich and that you are the king of a great number of people – and yet for all that, I will not be able to say about you what you were anticipating that I would say until I have learned that you died contentedly. Great wealth, after all, is no more guaranteed to bring a man happiness than is daily subsistence – unless, that is, good fortune proves to be the rich man’s constant companion, enabling him to keep all his blessings intact, and bringing his life to a pleasant conclusion. But just as there are many men of moderate means who enjoy the most wonderful luck, so are there many wealthy men who suffer repeated misfortune. Someone who is rich but unlucky is only really better off than a lucky man in two respects, whereas there are many ways in which a lucky man has the advantage of a rich man plagued by ill fortune. It is true that the millionaire is well placed to do whatever he likes and to ride out such disasters as befall him, while the man of moderate means is not; but the latter, if he is only lucky, is far more likely to avoid disasters in the first place, not to mention disfigurement, disease and a whole host of other evils, as well as enjoying parenthood and good looks. And if, in addition to all these advantages, he dies as well as he lived, well, there you have the kind of man you are looking for: one who truly merits the epithet of “happy”. But until he is dead, do not go leaping to any conclusions: for he is not yet truly happy, only fortunate. The reality is, of course, that no one can really combine all these blessings, just as no country can produce everything that it needs, for no matter what resources a land may boast, it is bound to be deficient in some, and being the best is simply a matter of being better endowed than the rest. It is the same with mortals: flesh and bone can never be self-sufficient. The man who has one thing will lack another. Whoever is blessed with the most advantages in life, and retains them to the end and dies a peaceful death, that is the man, my Lord, who in my opinion best deserves the title. No matter what, you must always look to the end, look to how it will turn out: for the heavens will often grant men a glimpse of happiness, only to snatch it away so that not a trace of it remains.’

[33] Sentiments such as these were hardly designed to please Croesus, and so he dismissed Solon as a man unworthy of his further attention. Self-evidently, he thought, anyone who told him to disregard the assets of the moment and look instead to the end of everything could only be an idiot.51

[34] But after Solon’s departure, the noose of a divine and terrible anger began to tighten around Croesus – and this was clearly because he had presumed himself the happiest of men. Almost straightaway, as he slept, a dream laid him in its shadow, one that revealed to him a calamity soon to befall his son – a glimpse of the future destined to come true.52 Croesus had two sons: one of them was disabled, being both deaf and dumb, but the other, whose name was Atys, was the outstanding figure of his generation, a young man whose talents knew no bounds. It was Atys whom Croesus had seen in his dream, being killed by a blow from an iron spearhead. When the king woke up, a few moments’ reflection on what he had been shown put him into such a panic that he married off his son, and forbade him to go off on any further military expeditions – and this despite the fact that Atys was a commander in the Lydian army. Croesus also had any weapons that might be used in battle – javelins, spears, and so on – removed from the men’s quarters, where they had been kept hanging from the ceiling, and had them stashed away instead in the women’s bedrooms, so that there would be no risk of them dropping onto his son.53

[35] Meanwhile, as he busied himself with the preparations for his son’s wedding, there arrived at Sardis a Phrygian, a man of royal descent but one who was nevertheless caught up in the toils of a terrible calamity – for he had blood on his hands. Heading for Croesus’ palace, the visitor begged the king to cleanse him of his blood-guilt in accordance with Lydian custom (the ceremony is very similar to the one that is practised in Greece);54 and Croesus duly set about the process of purification. Then, with the rites formally completed, he asked the man who he was and where he came from. ‘We are both of us human, after all,’ he said, ‘so please, tell me your name. Whereabouts in Phrygia did you live before you ended up here, an asylum-seeker at my hearth? Who did you kill, what man or woman?’ ‘My Lord,’ the stranger replied, ‘I am the son of Gordias, the grandson of Midas, and my name is Adrastus. The man I killed was my own brother, in an accident. Driven into exile by my father, and stripped of everything that I ever owned, I have ended up here.’ ‘Your family and mine have long been allies,’ responded Croesus, ‘so relax, you are among friends. For as long as you are here in my home, you will want for nothing. Try not to let the burden of your misfortune weigh down on you too heavily – that is the best approach.’

[36] So Adrastus came to live with Croesus. Simultaneously, in Mysia, a great monster of a wild boar appeared on Mount Olympus,55 and made its lair there, from where it was forever descending to trample the Mysians’ crops. Repeated attempts were made to finish it off; but the Mysians’ success was in inverse proportion to the damage that kept being inflicted on them by the boar. Finally, as a last resort, they sent a delegation to Croesus. ‘My Lord,’ the messengers said, ‘a great monster of a wild boar has appeared in our country and is ruining our crops. Desperate though we are to capture the brute, the task is beyond us. Please, we beg you, send us your son and the pick of your young men, your dogs as well, so that we can drive the beast off our land.’ Now Croesus, listening to this request, could not help but remember his dream. ‘No more talk of my son,’ he declared. ‘I cannot possibly let him go with you. He has only just got married, and so he has his hands full with that. But you can certainly have the pick of Lydia’s huntsmen, not to mention my entire pack of hounds, and I will give them strict instructions to do all they can to clear your lands of this beast.’

[37] This answer was good enough for the Mysians – but not for Atys, who at that very moment came bursting into the room. The young man had heard about the Mysians’ request, and now, finding his father obdurate in refusing to let him join them, he wanted his say. ‘Father, time was, out on the battlefield or on the hunt,56 when the fairest and noblest deeds imaginable would be credited to our family, and redound to our honour. Nowadays, however, you forbid me from engaging in either pursuit, even though there has never been any suggestion that I might be a coward or lacking in spirit. What kind of a figure must I cut, then, walking in and out of the city’s public places? What will my fellow-citizens make of me? What will my new bride take me for? She must feel that she has been landed with a pretty miserable husband, that is for sure! So I beg you – either let me go on the hunt, or else give me just one reason why what you are doing is for my good!’

[38] ‘My dear boy,’ answered Croesus, ‘my decision is certainly no reflection on you, for I have never detected so much as a hint of cowardice57 in you, nor any other failing, come to that. No, I had a dream, a vision which came upon me in my sleep, telling me that your time was almost up, and that your doom was fast approaching in the form of an iron spearhead. That is why I rushed you into getting married, and why I am refusing to let you go on the expedition: my vision. I am determined, for so long as I still have breath, to smuggle you past anything that fate might throw at you. But that requires taking precautions. You are my son! Indeed, my one and only son – for your brother, [deaf and] handicapped as he is, I scarcely count as my child.’

[39] ‘Well, I can hardly blame you for trying to protect me, Father,’ the young man replied, ‘if that was your dream. But there is one thing you have failed to appreciate, one thing you have overlooked – and it is only proper that I point it out to you. You say that your dream revealed to you – and here is the detail which has thrown you into such a panic – that it is an iron spearhead which is destined to spell my end. But what kind of a boar possesses hands, let alone an iron spearhead? Had you been told that I would be gored to death by a tusk, or something like that, then, yes, you would have been perfectly justified in doing what you are doing. But it was a spear – a spear! It is not as though I am heading into a battle or up against men! So please – let me go!’

[40] ‘My dear child,’ answered Croesus, ‘for some reason which I do not altogether understand, I find myself bowing to the force of your argument about my dream. You win. My mind is changed. You have my permission to go on the hunt.’

[41] The conversation now being over, Croesus sent for Adrastus, and when the Phrygian had come into his presence, said: ‘Adrastus, it was to me you came for purification when you found yourself struck down by misfortune, and I have never held it against you. Not only that, but I took you into my house and I spared no expense in setting you up here. You are in my debt: I have shown you every kindness, and now it is your turn to do me a favour. I would like you to become my son’s bodyguard on this hunt he is about to embark upon, in case any bandits or villains of that kind attack him while you are out on the road and try to do him harm. And besides, you owe it to yourself to go where you will have the chance to burnish your name: your family is a distinguished one, after all, and you are hardly lacking physically.’

[42] ‘My Lord,’ answered Adrastus, ‘under normal circumstances I would have nothing to do with an exploit of this kind. It is hardly fitting for someone with my record of misfortune to associate with his more successful peers, nor is it something I would wish to do. There are so many reasons for me to show self-restraint. But you keep pressing me – and I can refuse you nothing, not when I reflect how much I owe you for all the kindnesses you have bestowed upon me. I am ready to do as you urge: to serve to the very best of my ability as your son’s bodyguard. Rest assured, he will come back to you safe and sound.’

[43] Such was the promise he made to Croesus; and sure enough, not long afterwards, he and Atys set off with a train of hand-picked young men and dogs. On arriving at Olympus, they set to searching the mountain for the beast, and then, once they had tracked it down, they encircled it and let fly with their spears. And now it happened that the single foreigner among them – yes, Croesus’ guest, the same man who had been cleansed by him of the stain of blood, the one known as Adrastus – took aim at the boar with his spear, missed, and hit Croesus’ son. Struck by the spearhead, Atys fell to the ground – and the calamity foretold in the dream was fulfilled. The news of what had happened was immediately dispatched to Croesus. The messenger, having run all the way to Sardis, reported to the king how the boar had been fought, and how his son had met his doom.

[44] The death of his child left Croesus utterly prostrated; and what made his cries of anguish all the more terrible was the fact that he himself had cleansed the killer of the taint of bloodshed. Indeed, such was the violence of his grief at his misfortune that he called upon Zeus,58 as the god of purification, to witness what he had suffered at the hands of the stranger he had welcomed as a friend; and then a second time, but now as the god of hearth and companionship, he invoked the name of Zeus. Why as the god of the hearth? Because, by welcoming Adrastus into his home, Croesus had unwittingly been hosting the killer of his son. And why as the god of companionship? Because, by appointing Adrastus his son’s bodyguard, Croesus had in effect recruited to his side a deadly foe.

[45] Time passed, and in due course the Lydians arrived bringing with them the dead body; and in their rear there followed the killer. He stood in front of the corpse, stretched out his hands to Croesus in a gesture of abject submission and told the king to end his life right there, over the body of his son. ‘My earlier misfortunes were terrible enough,’ he said, ‘but now, after I have brought ruin down upon the head of the very man who purified me, why should I wish to live a moment more?’ Croesus, when he heard this, was moved to pity, even in the midst of all his own sorrows. ‘My friend,’ he said, ‘this sentence of death which you have pronounced upon yourself is all the justice I desire. You are not to blame for the horror which has overwhelmed me. No – you were nothing but the unwitting agent of some god, whose warnings of what was fated to happen were delivered to me long ago.’ And thereupon, in a mighty barrow as befitted a prince, Croesus buried his child. But Adrastus – the son of Gordias, the grandson of Midas, the man who had killed his own brother and dealt a murderous blow to the very man who had purified him – waited until the mourners were gone and the tomb was abandoned to silence; and then, in the firm conviction that of all the men who had ever lived there was no one more crushed by misfortune than himself, he climbed the grave and slit his own throat.59

•   •   •

[46] For two years, Croesus sat paralysed by grief at the death of his child. But then, after the empire of Astyages, Cyaxares’ son, was toppled by Cyrus,60 the son of Cambyses, the growing might of the Persians led Croesus to put his grief to one side, and begin instead to weigh up his likely prospects for nipping Persian greatness in the bud, and checking the spread of its power. No sooner had he started turning this over in his mind than he decided to test out the efficacy of an assortment of oracles, (mainly Greek, although there was one in Libya as well). Emissaries were dispatched to various locations: to Delphi, to Abae in Phocis and to Dodona. Some were sent to Amphiaraus and Trophonius,61 and some to Branchidae in Miletus. These were the Greek oracles consulted by Croesus’ servants; but he also sent men to pay their respects to the oracle of Ammon62 in Libya. His purpose in doing this was to test just how accurate these oracles truly were; and then, to those which had successfully demonstrated their authenticity, to send messengers a second time, and ask them whether or not he should go to war with Persia.63

[47] The instructions he gave to the Lydians before sending them off to test the oracles were very precise. They were to keep a careful track of how many days had passed since their departure from Sardis, and then, on the hundredth day, they were to seek an oracular consultation and ask what King Croesus of Lydia, the son of Alyattes, was doing at that very moment. Each oracle was to give its response; and then, once the answers had been written down, they were to be brought back to him. Now, in every case bar one, we have no record of what the oracles actually said; but we do have the response of Delphi. For there, the moment that the Lydians stepped into the innermost sanctum of the shrine, looking to consult the god and to put the question they had been instructed to ask, the priestess – the Pythia – began to speak as follows, chanting in perfect hexameters:

‘I can count an infinitude of grains of sand and I have the measuring of the sea,

I understand the talk of the dumb, and I can hear what the voiceless say.

A scent wafts through my senses, the scent of a hard-shelled tortoise,

Boiling within bronze, bubbling with lambs’ flesh,

Bronze lies beneath it, and bronze is its covering too.’

[48] After the priestess had delivered this pronouncement,64 the Lydians wrote it down and returned home to Sardis. When the other emissaries too were back, all with their own messages, Croesus opened up the scrolls and looked over what he found written in them. None met his expectations. But then the message from Delphi was read out to him, and immediately he cried out in awestruck wonder, hailing its accuracy and declaring that only Delphi, of all oracles, had the true gift of prophecy – for it alone had identified what he had been up to. Croesus’ scheme, you see, following his dispatch of the emissaries to the oracles, had been to arrive at some course of action that no one would ever find out or guess; and so, after keeping a careful track of the calendar for a hundred days, he had taken a tortoise and a lamb, cut them both up and boiled them in a cauldron made of bronze – as was its lid.

[49] So much, then, for the story of what was revealed to Croesus by Delphi. I have been unable to identify the message that was delivered by the oracle of Amphiaraus to the Lydians, once they had completed the traditional rites at the temple: for no record of it has survived. All I will say is that this oracle too proved itself authentic – according to Croesus, at any rate.

[50] Croesus’ next move was to propitiate with a magnificent sacrifice the god who speaks at Delphi. First he immolated three thousand animals, an offering of every conceivable breed that might be reckoned acceptable to the heavens, and then he raised a great pyre, heaping up couches overlaid with gold and silver, golden bowls and purple cloaks and tunics, before torching the lot – all in the expectation that this would give him a better chance of winning the god over to his side. He also instructed the Lydians to make their own sacrifices, each according to his means. Then, when these ceremonies had been completed, he melted down an enormous amount of gold and had it moulded into 117 ingots, all of the same size: six palms long, three palms wide and one palm high. Four of the ingots were made of pure gold, and weighed 21/2 talents each, while the other ingots were made of an alloy of gold and silver and weighed half a talent less. Croesus also ordered the image of a lion to be fashioned out of pure gold:65 its weight was 10 talents. (When the temple at Delphi burned down, this same lion fell off the ingots which had been serving as its pedestal, and three and a half talents’ worth of its gold melted away: it now weighs 61/2 talents, and is to be found in the Corinthian treasury.66)

[51] Once these offerings had all been made ready, Croesus sent them off to Delphi, along with a number of other gifts. There were two huge mixing-bowls, one of gold, which was placed on the right-hand side of the temple entrance, and another of silver, which was placed on the left. (These also had to be moved when the temple burnt down: the gold one, which weighs 81/2 talents and 12 minae in all, now stands in the Clazomenaean treasury, while the silver bowl is kept in the corner of the temple’s entrance-hall. Its capacity is equivalent to 600 amphoras – a detail which derives from the Delphians’ use of it to mix wine at the Festival of the Theophania.67 The Delphians identify it as the work of Theodorus of Samos – an attribution which I personally am quite content to accept, since it really does seem to me a most extraordinary piece of work.) Croesus also sent four rounded silver jars, which stand in the Corinthian treasury, and he dedicated two basins for the sprinkling of holy water to the service of the god, one of gold and one of silver. (The gold basin has an inscription on it, claiming that it was a votive offering presented by the Lacedaemonians; but this is untrue. Croesus donated it along with all his other gifts, and the inscription was only added later by a Delphian who wished to ingratiate himself with the Lacedaemonians: I could name the guilty person, but will keep my peace.68 Granted, the boy through whose hand the water trickles was indeed given by the Lacedaemonians – but not the bowls themselves.) Croesus also sent a host of other votive offerings at the same time which lacked inscriptions: these included some casts of silver poured into round moulds, and a gold statue of a woman three cubits high, which ranks as an item of particular interest, because – the Delphians say – it represents the woman who used to bake Croesus’ bread.69 Croesus also made a dedication of his wife’s ornamented belts, and of necklaces unclasped from her very throat.

[52] Such were the gifts Croesus sent to Delphi. He also sent votive offerings to the oracle founded by Amphiaraus (the story of whose valour and misfortunes he had come across during the course of his researches): a shield made entirely of gold and a spear likewise fashioned out of solid gold, from the shaft all the way to the tip. In my own lifetime, both these items were still on display in Thebes – in the temple of Ismenian Apollo,70 to be precise.

[53] The Lydians who were to take the gifts to the shrines were instructed by Croesus to ask the oracles whether he should go to war with the Persians, and also whether he should attempt to secure an alliance with some other leading military power. Arriving at their destinations, the Lydians duly made a presentation of the votive offerings, and then approached the oracles with their enquiries. ‘Croesus, the king of the Lydians and of many other peoples,’ they said, ‘in the firm conviction that yours are the only true oracles that mankind possesses, has sent you the gifts that your powers of divination merit. Now, here are the questions he wishes to put to you. Should he go to war with the Persians? And should he seek out an alliance with some other military power?’ The two oracles, delivering their judgements in response to these questions, were in perfect agreement, for they both predicted that Croesus, if he did go to war with the Persians, would destroy a mighty empire, and they both advised him to identify the strongest military power among the Greeks, and to swear a treaty of friendship with it.

[54] When Croesus was informed of the prophecies that had been brought back to him, he was delighted with the oracles, and secure now in the firm conviction that he would indeed destroy the kingdom of Cyrus, he made enquiries as to the size of Delphi’s population, and then, dispatching his ambassadors there again, to the seat of the Pythia, he presented every Delphian with a gift of 2 gold staters. In exchange, the Delphians granted Croesus and the Lydians first place in any queue to put questions to the oracle, waived all consultation fees and reserved them front seats at each and every festival – not to mention the right, granted in perpetuity, of becoming citizens of Delphi if they so wished.

[55] Then, with his bounty duly scattered among the Delphians, Croesus consulted the oracle a third time – for the taste of an authentic prophecy had left him greedy to have his fill of more. On this occasion he asked the god if his reign would be a long one. This was the Pythia’s answer:

‘Only when a mule has become the ruler of the Medes

Should you flee, Lydian, upon your soft-soled feet, without delay,

By pebbly River Hermus, unashamed to play the coward.’

[56] This response, when it was delivered to Croesus, delighted him more than anything he had yet been told – for the Medes, after all, were hardly likely to replace their human kings with a mule! Confident now that he and his dynasty were destined never to lose power, Croesus next turned his attention to an investigation of the political scene in Greece, with a view to securing the most formidable states there as his allies. His enquiries soon revealed to him that the two leading powers – the first of Dorian stock, and the second of Ionian – were the Lacedaemonians and the Athenians: none ranked above them. The roots of both were ancient, for the Athenians were sprung from the race of the Pelasgians, and the Lacedaemonians from that of the Hellenes. Unlike the Pelasgians, who were indigenous, the Hellenes had for a long time been inveterate nomads. Back when Deucalion was their king, they dwelt in Phthia; but by the time of Dorus, Hellen’s son, they had settled between Mount Ossa and Mount Olympus, in the land known as Histiaeotis. Next, after being driven out of Histiaeotis by the Cadmeians, they settled on Mount Pindus, where they were known as ‘Macedonians’ – until in due course they set off on yet another migration, this time to Dryopis. Only once they had left there did they finally arrive in the Peloponnese, and come to be known as ‘Dorians’.71

[57] Working out what language was spoken by the Pelasgians is a problem which defies a definite solution. Perhaps, though – if one must posit an answer – it is reasonable to deduce it from those who have survived into the present day; for there are Pelasgians still living in Creston, in the land of the Tyrrhenians, and who were once the neighbours of the people now known as the Dorians (and who then lived in a land called Thessaliotis), as well as those who were originally the compatriots of the Athenians, and founded Placia and Scylace in the Hellespont, not to mention a whole host of other settlements which once used to rank as Pelasgian, but have since changed their names. On the basis of this evidence, at any rate, it has to be concluded that the language spoken by the Pelasgians was not Greek; and if this is so – and if the inference is one that can be applied equally to all Pelasgians – then it is clear that the Athenians, as a people originally of Pelasgian stock, must at some point in the process of their Hellenization have learned a whole new language: Greek. Certainly, the fact that the Crestonians and the Placians both speak a similar tongue – one which bears no relation to those spoken by their immediate neighbours – strongly suggests that, although they may have changed one homeland for another, they did not change their language, but instead zealously preserved it in its native form.

[58] As for the Greeks,72 it seems clear to me that they have always spoken the same language, right from their very beginnings. It is true that they were originally of little account at the time when they first established themselves as a people distinct from the Pelasgians, but since then they have come to encompass a great multitude of different nations, and have long since outgrown their humble beginnings. The Pelasgians themselves were the most notable example of a people who ended up being Hellenized, but there were numerous others as well, all of them originally non-Greek speaking. It is worth reflecting that for as long as the Pelasgians stuck with their own language, they never amounted to much at all.

[59] So, then. Of the two peoples who had been brought to Croesus’ attention, one of them, he soon discovered, was riven by internal divisions, for Attica in those days was labouring under the rule of a man who had established himself as a tyrant over the Athenians – Peisistratus,73 the son of Hippocrates. An extraordinary thing had once happened to this Hippocrates. One day, while he was at the Olympic Games, watching them in a purely private capacity, he had made an offering of sacrificial animals, put the meat into some merchant-ship cauldrons and topped them up with water – only to find the cauldrons, without the fires so much as having been lit, starting to boil and bubble over. It so happened that Chilon the Lacedaemonian was passing at the time, and on witnessing this miracle offered Hippocrates the following advice: that on no account should he bring into his home a wife who might give him children; or failing that, if he already had one, he should immediately send her packing; or failing that, if he should indeed end up with a child, he must disown it on the spot. Hippocrates, however, refused to subscribe to this advice from Chilon74 – and sure enough, some time afterwards, Peisistratus was born. Peisistratus’ aspirations would prove to be of a markedly tyrannical bent; for in due course, at a time when Attica was riven by civil strife, with one faction led by Megacles, the son of Alcmaeon, drawn from the villages along the coast, and a second, led by Lycurgus, the son of Aristolaides, drawn from the lowland settlements further inland, Peisistratus began to pose as the champion of the upland regions, and thereby set himself at the head of a third faction. Next, he put into effect a cunning plan. First he took a knife to himself and his mules, and drove his cart into the city square, claiming to be on the run from enemies who had sought to murder him as he was driving out of town. Then, exploiting the reputation he had won as a general in the campaign against Megara (when he had blazed a whole trail of prodigious feats, including the capture of Nisaea), he asked the people to supply him with a bodyguard. The mass of the Athenians were well and truly duped, and a hand-picked body of men drawn from the city itself was duly assigned to guard Peisistratus – men who might as well have openly carried spears as the clubs that they actually came to carry. Brandishing their wooden maces, these heavies followed him wherever he went. With their backing, Peisistratus was soon able to stage a coup and seize the Acropolis. From that moment on, and without once having meddled with the existing structure of magistracies or changed the laws, Peisistratus was the master of Athens; and as such, he governed the city with a due respect for constitutional proprieties, ruling it properly and well.

[60] It did not take long, however, for the two factions of Megacles and Lycurgus to make common cause and drive him into exile. So much for Peisistratus’ first spell as the tyrant of Athens: he lost power before his regime could put down roots. No sooner had Megacles and Lycurgus succeeded in expelling Peisistratus, however, than they were back at each other’s throats. When Megacles found himself having the worst of this faction-fighting, he made contact with Peisistratus, offering to back him as tyrant if he would only first agree to become Megacles’ son-in-law. The overture was accepted, an accord was duly drawn up, and then, plotting how best to secure Peisistratus’ restoration, the two men came up with quite the most harebrained scheme I have ever heard of, certainly in recent times – and all the more so because the Greeks have long been distinguished from other people by their intelligence and general lack of gullibility, just as the Athenians, who were the victims of the trick, are widely acknowledged to be the most intelligent of the Greeks.75 In the village of Paeania there was a woman called Phya, who combined stature – she was almost 6 feet tall – with great beauty. The conspirators dressed her up in full armour; then they put her in a chariot, showed her how to hold a striking pose and drove her off to town. Runners were sent ahead, serving her as heralds and broadcasting all the way to Athens a carefully scripted proclamation. ‘Athenians,’ they cried out, once they had arrived in the city, ‘take Peisistratus back into your hearts! For Athena76 herself has chosen to honour him above all mankind! Why, she is even now escorting him from exile back to her very own acropolis!’ Such was the report they delivered all over town – and straightaway the news began to spread like wildfire back out into the countryside that Athena was bringing Peisistratus back home. Meanwhile, in the city itself, men were so convinced that Phya was indeed the goddess that they received her with their prayers, and Peisistratus with open arms.

[61] So it was that Peisistratus became tyrant again; and just as the agreement with Megacles had obliged him to do, he married Megacles’ daughter. Because he already had grown children, however, and because the Alcmaeonid family was supposed to lie under a curse, he did not wish to have any children by his new wife – and so would only have sex with her in a thoroughly illicit way.77 At first his wife kept this a secret, but in due course she told all to her mother (who may or may not have been pushing her about it in the first place), and she in turn went straight to her husband. Megacles was thrown into such a fury by the way Peisistratus had dishonoured him78 that he immediately set about patching up his quarrel with his political adversaries. When Peisistratus learned of the moves that were being made against him, he fled the country altogether and made for Eretria,79 where he held a council of war with his sons. It was the advice of Hippias,80 who encouraged him to have another stab at the tyranny, which ended up carrying the day; and so they set about raising contributions from each and every state which happened to owe them a debt of gratitude, no matter what it might be. A host of cities duly contributed handsomely to the Peisistratid coffers; but it was Thebes which loosened the purse-strings to most generous effect. Time went by, and (to cut a long story short) eventually all was primed for the attempted return. There were Argive mercenaries, recruited from the Peloponnese; and there was also a volunteer from Naxos,81 by the name of Lygdamis, a man who had no rivals as an enthusiast for the cause, nor as a provider of funds and men.

[62] Setting out from Eretria, they returned home after ten years and more of exile. The place in Attica they seized as their beach-head was Marathon.82 Their camp there was soon swelled by an influx of supporters from the city, while others streamed in from the outlying villages: men who preferred the rule of a tyrant to freedom. And so their numbers grew. In the city, meanwhile, Peisistratus’ fund-raising, and even his subsequent capture of Marathon, had barely raised an eyebrow among most Athenians; but when they found out that he was advancing from Marathon on the city itself, they abruptly grasped the need to salvage the situation. Out they marched in full force against the returning exiles, and on came Peisistratus and his troops, down the road that led from Marathon to the city – until in due course, at the temple of Athena in Pallene, the two sides met and took up positions opposite one another. Then it was that the hand of a god revealed itself, for Amphilytus of Acarnania, a man blessed with the gift of second sight, accosted Peisistratus, and spoke to him in hexameters, rhythmic words of prophecy.

‘Cast is the fishing-net, and far-flung its meshes,

Tuna, darting through the moon-flecked night, draw near!’

[63] Peisistratus, listening as the god spoke through the seer, and realizing what the prophecy meant, declared his full acceptance of the revelation, and ordered his men into battle. As this was going on, the Athenians from the city had actually been busy with their lunch; and now that they had finished eating, some of them were settling down to play dice and others were curling up for a nap. Peisistratus and his men fell on them and put them to flight. It was at this point that Peisistratus came up with an exceedingly clever ploy to ensure that there would be no prospect of an Athenian rally, and that the fugitives would be scattered for good. His sons were ordered into their saddles and sent galloping off. Then, in accordance with Peisistratus’ instructions, every time they overtook a group of fugitives they would cry out to them, telling them that there was no call for anxiety, and urge everyone to go home.

[64] The Athenians fell for it – and Athens, for the third time, was Peisistratus’. This time, the roots of his tyranny were to be planted deep: for he made sure to deploy a large number of mercenaries, and to raise a substantial income for himself,83 partly from Attica, and partly from his estates on the River Strymon.84 He also took as hostages the children of those Athenians who had remained in Athens and not immediately fled the city, and packed them off to Naxos (where opposition had similarly been crushed by military means, and which he had handed over to Lygdamis). One final step he took was to follow the advice of an oracle, and lift a curse from the island of Delos:85 the ritual of purification required him to dig up all the dead bodies which had lain buried within sight of the temple, and transfer them to another part of the island. So it was that Peisistratus ruled as the tyrant of Athens. Many Athenians had fallen in battle against him, and many others fled into exile – the Alcmaeonids most prominent of all.86

[65] If this, however, was the state of oppression under which the Athenians were labouring at the time of Croesus’ fact-finding mission, then the condition of the Lacedaemonians87 told a very different story, for they had left the worst of their troubles well behind them. They had even won the upper hand in their war against Tegea, the one city which – in the days when Leon and Hegesicles were the kings of Sparta – had resisted the rising tide of their good fortune on the battlefield. Even longer ago, the Lacedaemonians had been the worst governed people in the whole of Greece: domestically speaking, their affairs had been a disgrace, while as for external affairs – well – they had simply refused to have any dealings with foreigners at all.88 Here is the story of how they came to set their constitution on an infinitely better footing. It happened that Lycurgus,89 a man who was much esteemed among the Spartans, went to consult the oracle in Delphi, and no sooner had he entered the shrine than the Pythia began to address him:

‘Here you are, Lycurgus, come to my rich temple,

Dear to Zeus and to all who dwell on Olympus.

Are you man or god? That is more than I can tell,

But on balance I think you must be a god, Lycurgus.’

There are those who say that the Pythia also bequeathed to him the very political order which prevails in Sparta to this day – although the Lacedaemonians themselves claim that he brought it from Crete while he was serving as regent on behalf of his nephew, Leobotas, the king of Sparta. It is certain that the start of his regency marked a major reform of the constitution, and that he took very good care to ensure his new laws would not be sabotaged. In due course, he also set himself to restructuring the state’s military apparatus – introducing bands of men all sworn to protect one another, divisional units of thirty and communal messes – and to establishing the civil offices of ephor and City Elder.90

[66] As a result of these reforms, the entire constitution was left immeasurably improved; and when Lycurgus died, such was the profound reverence in which his memory was held that a temple was raised to him. Nor did it take long, thanks to the fertility of Lacedaemon and to the size of her population, for her to start expanding and flourishing. The Lacedaemonians soon found themselves scorning the ease of peace; and in the arrogant conviction that they had the measure of the Arcadians, they sought the advice of the Delphic oracle, with a view to grabbing all the Arcadians’ land. This was the Pythia’s reply:91

‘You ask me for Arcadia? You ask me for too much!

Arcadia is full of tough nuts, acorn-eaters all,

Men who will block your path. Even so, I hate to be mean.

My gift to you is Tegea: dance there with pounding feet,

And pace out her beauteous plain, measure it with a rope.’

Once the Lacedaemonians had absorbed this response, and having failed to spot its ambiguity, they decided that they would leave the rest of Arcadia to its own devices, and go to war against Tegea alone – and as they marched, so they made sure to take fetters with them, the better to lead the Tegeans off into slavery.92 But when the battle came, it was they who came off second best; and the survivors ended up bound with the very chains93 that they themselves had brought, and were put to work on the Tegean plain, measuring it out with rope. Within my own lifetime, these same chains – the ones that were used to fetter the Lacedaemonians – were still kept secure in Tegea, hung up around the inside walls of the temple of Athena Alea.

[67] Nevertheless, even though the early campaigns had gone badly for the men of Sparta, and seen them repeatedly bested by the Tegeans, by the time of Croesus, when Anaxandridas and Ariston were kings in Lacedaemon, it was they who had emerged as victors in the war. This is how they pulled it off. At a time when they were suffering defeat after defeat at the hands of the Tegeans, they sent emissaries to Delphi, to ask which god they would need to propitiate if they were ever to win the war against Tegea. ‘Find the bones of Orestes, Agamemnon’s son,’ the Pythia replied, ‘and bring them back home.’ It proved impossible, however to identify Orestes’ grave; and so the Lacedaemonians sent back to the god, to ask him where the body lay. When this question was put to the Pythia, she answered:

‘On a level plain there stands Arcadian Tegea,

Where two winds roar, nor have any option but so to do.

Blow is met here by counter-blow, and grief is piled on grief.

Its life-giving earth contains the son of Agamemnon.

Bring him home and become the guardian of Tegea.’

This reply, however, brought the Lacedaemonians not a whit closer to discovering the body. Still they kept on searching, high and low – until a Spartiate official called Lichas, one of the ‘Benefactors’, as they are called, made the breakthrough. (A ‘Benefactor’ is one of those five citizens who, every year, are required to graduate from the cavalry because they have passed the given age threshold; it is their duty, in the year after their retirement, to serve as agents of the Spartiate community, forever going on missions, wherever they might be sent.94)

[68] Lichas, then, was one of these officials; and he made his discovery while travelling in Tegea, the result of luck and his own sharp wits. He was there taking advantage of a temporary thaw in relations with the Tegeans, when he happened to enter a forge; inside it he saw the blacksmith hammering out iron, an activity so unfamiliar to him that he was quite stupefied by the sight.95 When the smith noticed his guest’s astonishment, he paused in his work, and said, ‘Well now, my Laconian friend, if your jaw is going to drop at the sight of someone working iron, you should have seen what I saw – that really would have made your eyes stand out. There I was, looking to sink a well in my courtyard, and while I’m digging, what should I come across if not a coffin? Seven cubits long, it was! Well, I didn’t for a moment think that people back in the past could genuinely have been taller than we are today – but when I opened it, there was the skeleton, and yes, it really was the same size as the coffin! I measured it carefully, then covered it back up with earth.’ Such was the smith’s account of what he had seen;96 and as Lichas turned it over in his mind, so it began to dawn on him that everything exactly matched what the oracle had said, and that the body could therefore only have been Orestes’. All the clues seemed to point to the one conclusion. What were the smith’s two bellows, for instance, if not the ‘winds’? What were his hammer and anvil if not the ‘blow’ and ‘counter-blow’? As for the smith’s beating out of the iron, well, it was Lichas’ conjecture that this was what the oracle had meant by its allusion to ‘grief’ being piled on ‘grief’ – for what had the discovery of iron ever brought to mankind aside from grief?97 The puzzle was solved – and so Lichas returned to Sparta, to tell the Lacedaemonians the news. There, it was arranged that a fake charge be brought against him; a sentence of banishment was delivered; back Lichas went to Tegea where, after he had first made sure to tell the blacksmith all about his misfortune, he declared his wish to lease the courtyard. The smith, after some initial foot-dragging, was brought to accept the offer. Lichas settled in. He dug up the grave, collected the bones and carted the whole lot back to Sparta98 – and from that moment on, whenever there was a trial of strength between the two peoples, it was the Lacedaemonians who proved themselves decisively the superior in battle. Indeed, it did not take them long before they had brought the greater part of the Peloponnese under their control.

[69] All this was duly made known to Croesus; and it prompted him to send heralds to Sparta, emissaries who took with them both gifts and a request for an alliance. ‘Croesus, who is the king of the Lydians, and of many other peoples besides, sent us,’ the heralds declared on their arrival, making sure to follow the precise script that had been issued to them by their master. ‘This is his message to you: “Men of Lacedaemon, it was the divinely sanctioned advice of the oracle that I should make a friend of the Greeks. You, I have been informed, are the leading power among the Greeks. Accordingly, just as the oracle recommended, I extend to you the hand of friendship. Let us be allies – and may our dealings be free of all treachery and deception!”’ Such was the message that Croesus delivered through the mouths of his heralds; and the Lacedaemonians, who in truth had already heard all about the oracle’s advice to Croesus, were so delighted to receive the Lydians’ overtures that they signed up to a treaty of friendship and alliance on the spot. The reason for this was that, some time previously, Croesus had done them certain favours, and so they owed him a debt of gratitude. There was the time, for instance, when the Lacedaemonians had needed gold for a statue of Apollo (the same one which now stands in the Laconian town of Thornax) and had sent agents to Sardis looking to make a purchase; but Croesus had given it to the would-be buyers for free.

[70] Partly for this reason, and partly also because Croesus had ranked them worthy of his friendship above all the other Greeks, the Lacedaemonians signed up to the proposed alliance. They then took two further measures. The first was to declare themselves ready to answer any call for help from Croesus that he might send; the second was to repay his generosity to them by taking him a gift of their own, a bowl made of bronze, lavishly decorated around the outside rim with tiny figures, and with a capacity equivalent to 300 amphoras.99 In the event, however, the bowl never made it to Sardis – and for this, two conflicting reasons are given. The Lacedaemonian story is that, while the bowl was still on its way to Sardis, and passing through Samian waters, the Samians100 got wind of what was off their coast, sent out longships in pursuit and stole it. The Samians themselves, however, give a very different account: they claim that the Lacedaemonians responsible for escorting the bowl were overtaken by events, and that after learning of the fall of Sardis and the capture of Croesus, they sold the bowl in Samos to a group of private citizens, who then placed it as a votive offering in the temple of Hera. If that is indeed what happened, then the men who sold the bowl might very well have claimed on their return to Sparta that it had been stolen from them by the Samians.

[71] So much for the bowl. Meanwhile, because he had failed to grasp the true meaning of the oracle, Croesus was busy with his invasion of Cappadocia, convinced that he was bound to crush the power of Cyrus and the Persians. In the midst of these preparations for the campaign against Persia, however, he received some advice from a Lydian named Sandanis, a man who had always had a name among his countrymen for intelligence, but who now gave that reputation a great boost, such was the quality of his analysis. ‘My Lord,’ he said, ‘bear in mind the kind of men you are planning to attack. Men who wear leather wrapped around their legs – indeed, who never wear anything except for leather. Men whose native land is so unforgiving that they do not consume, they merely subsist. Men who drink no wine but only water, who never so much as get to nibble on a fig, who possess nothing worth having at all. Nothing will come of nothing – so even if you defeat them, what is there in it for you? But should they defeat you, well then – just think how much you stand to lose! Give them a taste of how well we live, and see how they will seize upon the discovery, see how they will resist all our attempts to beat them off. Be grateful to the gods, I say, that they never put it into the Persians’ heads to launch a war of aggression against us!’ And Sandanis was right, for although Croesus did not take his advice, it is perfectly true that it was indeed the conquest of Lydia which provided the Persians with their first experience of those luxuries which together go to make up the good life.101

[72] The Cappadocians are called ‘Syrians’ by the Greeks, and prior to the rise of the Persians to power, and their acknowledgement of Cyrus as their king, they had ranked as subjects of the Medes. The reason for this was that the frontier between the Median and the Lydian empires was the River Halys, which rises in the uplands of Armenia, flows through Cilicia and then continues with Matiene on its right bank and Phrygia on its left, before leaving those territories behind; it is now that its currents start to battle the gusting of the north wind, and to separate the Syrian Cappadocians from the Paphlagonians to the west. As a result, the Halys serves to demarcate virtually the whole of western Asia, from the shoreline opposite Cyprus all the way up to the Euxine Sea. It is very much the neck of the peninsula, and it would take a man who was travelling light five whole days to traverse it.102

[73] So why did Croesus invade Cappadocia? Well, there was certainly his lust for territory, which had him itching to add to that portion of the world which was already his; but there was also the confidence he had placed in the oracle, and his desire to punish Cyrus for the downfall of Astyages. Astyages, you see, who was the son of Cyaxares, was also Croesus’ brother-in-law, and was the king of the Medes; and Cyrus, the son of Cambyses, had defeated him and taken him prisoner. Let me explain how it was that Astyages had ended up related by marriage to Croesus. It all began with a band of nomads, Scythians who been caught up in some tribal blood-feud, and came skulking into Median territory. Media at this point was ruled by Cyaxares, the son of Phraortes, who in turn was the son of Deioces. He treated the Scythians well at first, on the grounds that they had come to him asking for asylum. Indeed, such was the value he put on them that he entrusted some children to their care, so that the boys would pick up their language and their skills in archery. Time passed. Every day the Scythians would go out hunting, and every day they would bring back some trophy. Then one day they brought back nothing. When Cyaxares, who was evidently not the most even-tempered of men, saw that they had returned empty-handed, he had them roughed up and publicly humiliated. So indignant were the Scythians at this treatment, which they felt to have been thoroughly unjustified, that they put their heads together and decided that they would carve up one of their young pupils, dress him for the table exactly as they were accustomed to dress game and then serve the boy up to Cyaxares, as though he were indeed some catch they had hunted down, while they themselves, the moment the dish had been laid before the king, made off at breakneck speed for the court of Alyattes, the son of Sadyattes, in Sardis. All went exactly to plan. Cyaxares and his guests at the banquet tucked into the joint of meat – and the Scythians, their business done, claimed asylum from Alyattes.

[74] The aftermath of this was that Cyaxares demanded their extradition, but Alyattes refused, and so there was war between the Lydians and the Medes. For five years it raged, with the fortunes of battle favouring now the Medes over the Lydians, and now the Lydians over the Medes. On one occasion, they even fought what can only be described as a battle at night. Then, in the sixth year of a conflict that until that point had been thoroughly indecisive, there was yet another engagement, and this time it so happened that, right in the midst of the battle, the two sides suddenly found themselves fighting in the dark again, even though it was still the day. The Ionians had been forewarned of this eclipse by Thales of Miletus, who had pinpointed the date103 with such accuracy that he had identified the very year in which it did indeed eventually take place. When the Lydians and the Medes saw that the day was darkening into night, they not merely broke off the battle, but both actively committed themselves to securing a long-term peace. Syennesis, from Cicilia, and Labynetus,104 a Babylonian, were the two principal negotiators. Both were keen that a formal treaty should be signed, and that the two sides be bound by ties of marriage. Accordingly, it was decided that Alyattes would give the hand of his daughter, Aryenis, to Astyages, the son of Cyaxares – for everyone knew that treaties rarely endure unless they are framed by lasting sureties. This compact was then formalized according to the custom of both peoples, which differs from Greek practice in only one detail: both parties, after they have nicked the skin on their own forearms, will then lick up the other’s blood.105

[75] It was this same Astyages who was the father of Cyrus’ mother and who, for reasons I will explain later on in my narrative, had been toppled and imprisoned by his grandson. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Croesus should have regarded Cyrus’ actions as a provocation, and sent messengers to ask the oracles if he should invade Persia; nor, once the oracle’s ambiguous answer had been brought back to him, that he should have interpreted it favourably for his own ambitions, and pushed his army directly into the Persian sphere of influence. When Croesus arrived at the Halys, he used existing bridges to get his troops across the river – that is my opinion, at any rate, although it is true that the story as conventionally told by the Greeks106 holds Thales of Miletus responsible for effecting the crossing. This version presupposes that the bridges had not yet been built, and that Croesus, arriving at the river with his army, found himself with no idea how to cross it; Thales, however, who was present in the camp at the time, was able to make the river flow on both sides of the army, rather than merely on its left. He achieved this feat by digging a deep, crescent-shaped trench, starting upstream from the army’s encampment and finishing well in its rear, so that the river was diverted from its old course into the new one, flowing on round the camp until in due course it had bypassed it altogether and rejoined the original channel. Instead of one river, there were now two – and both were fordable. Indeed, there are those who say that the original river-bed dried up altogether, a claim which seems to me most improbable107 – for how then would the return crossing have been made?

[76] Beyond the river, Croesus and his army advanced into a land known as Pteria: this is the most readily defensible region of Cappadocia, and lies more or less in a line with the city of Sinope108 on the Euxine Sea. Croesus built a camp there, and set himself to ravaging the Syrians’ farmland. The main city of the Pterians was captured, its inhabitants enslaved and all its outlying settlements overrun, while the Syrians – who had done absolutely nothing to merit this treatment – were made into refugees. Cyrus, meanwhile, had been mustering his own army, and now he set off to confront Croesus, raising conscripts from among all the peoples he passed along his way. Prior to setting out with his army on this expedition, he had even sent heralds to the Ionians, trying to incite them to rebel against Croesus – but they had resisted his blandishments, and so it was that Cyrus ended up in the region of Pteria, eye-balling Croesus from his camp and then locking with him in a trial of strength. The battle was fierce and the casualties heavy on both sides, but even as dusk began to thicken and the two armies fell back, neither had secured victory, such was the quality of the contest that the rival camps had fought.

[77] To Croesus, of course, this came as a major disappointment; and because the army he had led into battle was much smaller than that of Cyrus, he attributed his lack of success to the fact that he had been outnumbered. So it was, the next day, when Cyrus did not return to the fray, that he ordered a withdrawal to Sardis. Prior to his alliance with the Lacedaemonians, he had arranged a pact with Amasis, the king of Egypt; and it was his intention now to invoke the terms of this treaty with the Egyptians. Nor was that all – for because he had also made an alliance with Labynetus, who was the ruler of Babylon during this period, he similarly planned to summon the Babylonians to his assistance, as well as issuing a specific date for the Lacedaemonians to join him; then, with these reinforcements secured, and his own army mustered, he aimed to bed down for the winter and to attack the Persians the moment spring arrived. Sure enough, no sooner had he returned to Sardis than he put this plan into action, dispatching heralds round his various allies, instructing them to assemble at Sardis in five months’ time. The mercenaries in the army that had already fought the Persians he disbanded and sent home, every last one – for so evenly matched had he and his rival found themselves while going head to head, it never crossed his mind that Cyrus would actually advance on Sardis.

[78] Over and over Croesus turned his plans in his head; and as he did so, all the lower reaches of the city began to swarm with serpents. No sooner had this phenomenon manifested itself than horses out in the fields, interrupting their grazing, came trotting into town and started eating the snakes. Croesus naturally supposed that he was being shown a portent – as indeed he was. Urgently, then, he sent messengers to Telmessus,109 where there were men qualified to interpret such things. Sure enough, on their arrival, his emissaries were told by the Telmessians precisely what the prodigy meant – but Croesus never got the news. Well before the return voyage to Sardis was over, he had fallen into enemy hands. This was in fact exactly what the Telmessians had said would occur: that Croesus could expect to hear the languages of a foreign army spoken in his land, and would witness its inhabitants conquered by invaders. For what is a snake, after all, if not the offspring of its native earth, and what a horse, if not a creature broken to warfare, and imported from foreign fields? Such was the interpretation provided by the Telmessians. They had delivered their judgement in complete ignorance of the news from Sardis, and of what had happened to Croesus himself, even though he had already been made a captive by that time.

[79] Meanwhile, in the wake of the battle of Pteria, with Croesus in headlong retreat, and with news reaching the Persians that he planned to disband his army on his return home, Cyrus held a council of war, at which it was agreed that the opportunity to march on Sardis as quickly as possible, before the Lydian forces could be mustered a second time, was too good to miss. No sooner had this been decided than it was put into effect. The messenger who brought Croesus the news that the Persians were at his doorstep was none other than Cyrus himself. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Croesus now found himself in desperate straits, with all the assumptions on which he had based his strategy left in ruins, he still led the Lydians out to battle. Not for nothing was this an era when the Lydians stood unrivalled for courage and prowess in war among the peoples of Asia.110 Their particular strength lay in their cavalry, for not only were they brilliantly skilful horsemen, but they could handle lances of an unusual length.

[80] The two sides met in front of the city of Sardis, on an immense and treeless plain. (It is watered by a number of rivers, the Hyllus included: all of them are tributaries of the largest river, the Hermus, which rises in the mountain sacred to the mother goddess Dindymene and reaches the sea near the city of Phocaea.) When Cyrus saw the Lydians arrayed for battle, his alarm at the threat posed by their cavalry led him to adopt a suggestion of a Mede, a man called Harpagus: namely, that all the camels which been following in the army’s train carrying food and baggage should be divested completely of their loads, formed into a single unit and mounted by men dressed in the clothes of a cavalry unit. Once they had readied themselves, Cyrus commanded these men to advance against Croesus’ horsemen, with the rest of his army following behind – his infantry first and then, in the rear, all his cavalry. His orders, given to his entire army as they waited at their battle-stations, were to spare not a single Lydian, but rather to kill all who stood in their way – all, that was, apart from Croesus, who was to be taken alive even if he resisted capture. Such were the instructions that Cyrus issued. As for the reason why he had positioned his camels directly opposite the enemy’s cavalry: this was because horses are terrified of camels, and cannot stand the sight of them, nor even to breathe in their scent upon the air. Here was the detail, the crucial detail, upon which the entire stratagem had been founded: it provided Cyrus with a means of disabling Croesus’ cavalry, of neutralizing the arm which the Lydian most expected to shine. Sure enough, when battle was joined, the horses had only to smell and see the camels to turn tail, and to trample, as they stampeded, all Croesus’ hopes into the dust. Nevertheless, the courage of the Lydians did not fail them; realizing what was happening, they leapt down from their saddles and met the Persians on foot. The slaughter on both sides was prodigious; but it was the Lydians who finally withdrew and fled, back behind the walls of their city, where they now found themselves cooped up by the Persians and put under blockade.

[81] So it was that the invaders settled down to the siege. Croesus, confident that he would be able to hold out for a good while, sent messengers out from his stronghold to his allies. Whereas his first dispatch had requested them all to assemble in Sardis in four months’ time, now, with his capital under siege, he sent a revised appeal: that they should come to his assistance without delay.

[82] This alert was sent to all his allies; but to none of them was it sent with a greater sense of urgency than to the Lacedaemonians. By coincidence, however, the warriors of Sparta were preoccupied at the time with a quarrel of their own, a dispute with Argos over the region known as Thyreae, which they had recently annexed and occupied, despite the fact that it lay within the Argive orbit. (In fact, everything as far west as Malea had once belonged to Argos – not simply the mainland, but the island of Cythera, and all the other islands too.) The Argives, coming to the rescue of their stolen fiefdom, held a parley with the Lacedaemonians, and agreed with them that three hundred men from each side should meet in pitched combat, with Thyreae going to the victors. Meanwhile, the main bodies of both armies were to withdraw back to their own borders, and to remain there for the duration of the contest – thereby ensuring that neither was tempted to come in on the side of its own champions, should it witness them succumbing. Such were the terms on which the two armies parted; and behind them, on the field of battle, the nominated warriors on both sides advanced to the fight. So evenly matched was the clash between them that by the end only three of the six hundred men were left: Alcenor and Chromius for the Argives, and on the Lacedaemonian side, Othryades. These, as night began to fall, were the sole survivors. The two Argives, taking for granted that they were the victors, made off at speed for Argos, but the Lacedaemonian, Othryades, who had been busying himself with the stripping of the Argive dead and the stockpiling of their arms in his camp, refused to abandon his post. The next day, the two armies reappeared, and the story of what had happened was rehearsed in full. For a while, both sides claimed victory: the Argives on the grounds that they had the most champions left standing, and the Lacedaemonians because their own champion – in contrast to the two Argives who had abandoned the battlefield – had remained there all night, despoiling the enemy dead. Finally, so heated did the argument become that the two sides fell to blows. Casualties on both sides were heavy – but it was the Lacedaemonians who came out on top.111 Ever since then, the Argives have worn their hair cropped short, in contrast to their previous custom, which was to wear it long; indeed, they passed a law, complete with curses against those who broke it, to the effect that no man in Argos should ever grow out his hair, and no woman wear gold jewellery, until Thyreae was theirs again. The Lacedaemonians also passed a new law, but one that was the mirror image of the one passed in Argos, for whereas previously they had worn their hair short, now they began to wear it long.112 One other detail – it is said that Othryades, the sole survivor of the three hundred, felt such shame at the thought of returning to Sparta while all his comrades lay dead in the earth of Thyreae, that he killed himself there.113

[83] This, then, was the situation in which the Spartan elite were operating when the herald from Sardis arrived, requesting their assistance in helping Croesus to lift the siege. Despite everything, once they had heard the herald out, they showed themselves more than willing to answer the call for help. No sooner had they readied themselves and their fleet114 for departure, however, than another message came, this time bringing news that the Lydians’ stronghold had fallen, and that Croesus himself had been taken alive, and was a prisoner. The Lacedaemonians, with great regret, abandoned their effort immediately.

[84] This is the story of how Sardis fell. Two weeks after bottling Croesus up inside the city, Cyrus sent horsemen touring the lines of his army with a proclamation: the first man over the battlements could expect a rich reward. Prompted by this announcement, soldier after soldier made the attempt, but none succeeded. Then, when everyone else had given up, a Mardian by the name of Hyroeades made an attempt to scale the one point of the acropolis which stood unguarded for so precipitously did it rise, and so impregnably, that it had never crossed anyone’s mind that an attack there could possibly succeed. Even Meles, a king of Sardis back in former times, had overlooked it; and he had been told by the Telmessians that a lion borne to him by his concubine, if it were carried around the battlements, would serve to render Sardis forever proof against capture. Meles had duly carried the lion along all those stretches of the walls where the acropolis might be reckoned vulnerable to attack; but the sheerest and most impregnable spot, a cliff on the side of the city which faces Mount Tmolus, he had neglected to tour. It was down the very face of this point on the acropolis, however, that Hyroeades, the previous day, had seen a helmet roll, and then, from the summit, a Lydian descend to retrieve it – a sight which the Mardian had noted and replayed over and over again in his innermost thoughts. Up the cliff he went and other Persians quickly began to follow in his wake. More and more made the climb; and the consequence was the fall of Sardis and the sacking of the entire city.

[85] And what of the fate of Croesus himself? To answer that question I must mention his son again, the one who despite all his many other qualities had always been a mute. In the days before the ruin of his prosperity, Croesus had done all that he could for the young man, trying this and that, even to the extent of sending emissaries to Delphi to consult the oracle on his son’s behalf. This was the Pythia’s reply:

‘Such folly, though you are lord of many, Lydian-born Croesus!

Beware what you wish for! That sound you long to hear, in your home,

Your son finding his tongue – better for you never to hear it.

Know, when he does talk for the first time, that the day will be an evil one!’

Well – the battlements had been stormed, and one of the Persians was approaching Croesus to cut him down, not knowing who he was. Even though Croesus could see the soldier coming, such was the numbing effect of the catastrophe which had overwhelmed him that he did not care – for what did it matter to him now if he was struck down and killed? But his son, the mute, terrified and appalled by the sight of the Persian bearing down upon his father, suddenly found that his tongue was sounding out words. ‘Please, Sir,’ he cried, ‘do not kill Croesus!’ This was the very first time that he had spoken – and from that moment on he could talk with perfect fluency, and continued to do so all his life.115

[86] Sardis fell to the Persians, and Croesus into Persian hands, in the fourteenth year of his reign, and on the fourteenth day of the siege. Just as the oracle had foretold, he had indeed destroyed a mighty empire – his own. Now, following his capture, he was led into the presence of Cyrus, who had him loaded down with chains, and then, accompanied by the children of some prominent Lydians, fourteen of them in all, placed on top of a huge pyre, ready built for the occasion. Quite what Cyrus had in mind, I am not sure: perhaps he was aiming to dedicate the choicest offerings in his possession to some god or other; or perhaps he was looking to fulfil a vow; or perhaps he had learned of Croesus’ reputation as a god-fearing man, and made him mount the pyre to see if a supernatural agency of some kind would preserve him from being burned alive. Whatever the explanation,116 however, Cyrus did what he did; and Croesus, standing there on top of the pyre, and in the full consciousness of his ruin, was suddenly reminded of a maxim that seemed to him now touched by an authentically divine wisdom, for it was the same maxim that had been pronounced by Solon, when he had declared that no one living ranks as happy. The recollection of this prompted Croesus to sigh bitterly, and to utter a groan; and then, breaking a long silence, he repeated, three times over, the name of Solon. Cyrus, overhearing him, ordered the interpreters to approach Croesus and demand of him whom it was he had been calling upon – which they duly did. Although Croesus refused to respond to their questioning at first, an answer was eventually dragged out of him. ‘A man so remarkable’, he said, ‘that I would willingly have paid a fortune to ensure that every ruler in the world be given the chance to listen to him.’ This reply, of course, made little sense to the interpreters; and so they pressed him to clarify his meaning. Crowding around Croesus, they kept on badgering him until at last he told them about Solon: how he had come from Athens, how he had made light of all the splendour he had been shown (that had been the gist, at any rate), and about how everything he had warned Croesus might happen had indeed come to pass. ‘Nor’, said Croesus, ‘were his words directed at me alone, for they apply with no less force to men everywhere – and especially to men who consider themselves blessed by fortune.’117 So he spoke – and all the while the pyre, which had already been torched, was starting to crackle along its edges. But Cyrus, when he learned from his interpreters what Croesus had said, found his heart melting.118 He reflected that he too was mortal, and yet there he was, burning alive a fellow human being – and one who had previously been no less prosperous than himself. And then too there was his dread of retribution, and his growing consciousness of the mutability of the affairs of men; and so he gave orders that the fire should be extinguished at once, and that Croesus and all those with him should be helped down from the pyre. And yet the flames, despite frantic efforts, could not be mastered.

[87] It was then, so the Lydians say, that Croesus grasped what was happening: that Cyrus had changed his mind, and that his men, despite all their efforts to extinguish the flames, were failing to bring them under control. Seeing this, Croesus raised a desperate appeal to Apollo: ‘If ever any offering I have made to you has been acceptable in your sight,’ he cried out, ‘then please, stand by me now, and redeem me from this danger I face!’ Such was his invocation of the god, uttered through his tears; and at once the previously clear and windless sky began to cloud over, and a storm to break, and then rain to lash down so hard that all the flames were put out. Here was proof enough for Cyrus that Croesus was indeed a good man, and a favourite of the gods; and so he had him brought down from the pyre. ‘Tell me now, Croesus,’ he asked, ‘someone must have persuaded you to invade my country, and to be my enemy rather than my friend – who was it?’ ‘My Lord,’ Croesus answered, ‘it was all my own doing – to your profit, and to my misfortune. When I launched the invasion, however, it was with the full encouragement of the god of the Greeks – so the ultimate blame, I suppose, should lie with him. For would I otherwise ever have been so foolish as to choose war over peace? In peacetime it is sons who bury their fathers – but in times of war, it is fathers who bury their sons. Somewhere in the heavens there is someone smiling at what has happened.’119

[88] Cyrus, impressed by this speech of Croesus’, ordered his chains struck off, and commanded him to sit down by his side. Indeed, it was not only Cyrus but his entire entourage who found themselves admiring Croesus’ demeanour. Lost in thought, however, the man himself said not a word. Then he turned, watching as the Persians devastated the Lydian capital, and opened his mouth at last. ‘O King, should I say what has been on my mind, or is this not an appropriate time to speak?’ Cyrus told him not to be afraid, and to say whatever he wished. Croesus responded with a second question. ‘What are they doing, all these rampaging hordes?’ ‘Why,’ said Cyrus, ‘they are tearing your city to pieces, and carting off your treasures.’ But Croesus turned this statement upon its head. ‘It is not my city they are tearing to pieces, not my treasures. None of it belongs to me any more. It is you who is being robbed.’

[89] This observation was sufficient to give Cyrus pause; and so he dismissed the rest of his entourage and asked Croesus for his full reading of the situation. ‘Since the gods have seen fit to give me to you as a slave,’ Croesus replied, ‘it is clearly my duty, should I ever have a particular insight, to share it with you. The Persians are naturally prone to violence – and they are poor. If you simply stand by as they plunder and hoard all this staggering wealth, then I can tell you what is likely to happen – the one who grabs the most is bound to end up behind a bid for power. However, I do have a suggestion to make – and one that I hope will meet with your approval. Put your bodyguards on sentry-duty by all the city gates. Have them confiscate any valuables they see being removed from the city. Give as your pretext the need to offer a tithe to Zeus. If you do that, then you will avoid the obloquy that would otherwise be yours for forcibly stripping people of their plunder – for they will recognize the justice of what you are doing, and willingly forgo what they have.’120

[90] Impressed by what he had heard, Cyrus approved this advice wholeheartedly. With much praise for its good sense, he ordered his bodyguards to put the proposal into effect, then turned back to Croesus. ‘A king you may once have been,’ he said, ‘but I see you are no less ready on that account to do me good service and to offer me sound advice. Let me give you something in exchange. Is there anything you want? You only have to ask me for it, and it will be yours straightaway!’ ‘Master,’ Croesus answered, ‘nothing would gratify me more than to be allowed to send these chains to the god of the Greeks, whom I honoured above all others, and to ask him if it is his custom to cheat those who serve him well.’ When Cyrus asked him what grudge he could possibly hold against the god that he made such a request, Croesus told him the whole story: the plans he had drawn up, the answers he had received from the oracle, the rich gifts he had sent (these were a particular grievance) and the prophecies which had encouraged him to go to war with the Persians. Then, when he had finished his story, he repeated his request for permission to take his reproaches to the god. Cyrus laughed. ‘Yes, Croesus,’ he said, ‘of course you have my permission – not only on this occasion, but whenever else you may have a similar request to make.’ The moment Croesus heard this, he dispatched a delegation of Lydians to Delphi. Their orders were to lay the fetters on the threshold of the temple, and then, pointing to them, to ask the oracle if he was not ashamed to have encouraged Croesus to go to war with the Persians, and to believe that Cyrus’ hold on power could possibly be destroyed, when the only fruits of such a war were destined to be his chains. All this they were to demand; and then they were to ask whether it was the normal practice of the gods of the Greeks to show such ingratitude.

[91] But when the Lydians arrived in Delphi and obediently repeated Croesus’ words, the Pythia, it is said, had a ready retort. ‘Not even a god can evade what fate has preordained. Five generations ago, an ancestor of Croesus, a man who at the time was a guard sworn to the personal protection of the Heraclids, succumbed to the seductions of a woman’s treachery, killed his master and stole his throne, an honour to which he had no claim – and now it is Croesus who has paid the debt on that crime.121 The truth is that Apollo was keen to see Sardis suffer her downfall in the time of Croesus’ sons, rather than during the reign of Croesus himself – but the Fates would not be gainsaid. Nevertheless, what little they would allow, the god did secure on Croesus’ behalf. The fall of Sardis was delayed by three whole years – and so you should be sure to inform Croesus that he has had three years more of freedom than was originally his lot. Secondly – did the god not come to his rescue when he was on the verge of being burned to ashes? As for the oracle he received, Croesus certainly has no right to find fault with that: attack the Persians, Apollo declared, and you will destroy a great empire. Such an answer should have prompted Croesus to consult his advisers, and then to send men back to ask which empire had been meant: Cyrus’ or his own? But because he misinterpreted what had been said, he did not follow it up with the right enquiry – and so he should accept that the fault is his alone. He should also acknowledge that he misread the very last oracle he received – the one in which Apollo alluded to a mule. After all, what else but a mule would you term Cyrus, a man who has both the blue blood of his mother flowing in his veins, and the blood of his father, who came from a quite different country, and was of a much lower social class? For Cyrus’ mother was a Mede, and the daughter of Astyages, the king of Media; but his father was a Persian, a vassal of the Medes, and therefore in every way the inferior of the woman he ended up marrying, who should properly have ranked as his mistress as well as his queen.’122 This was the reply that the Pythia gave to the Lydians; and once they had returned with it to Sardis, and Croesus had listened to them repeat it, he freely acknowledged that he had indeed been culpable, and that the god was not to blame.

[92] Such is the story of Croesus’ reign, and of how Ionia came to be conquered for the first time.123 Greece is full of Croesus’ votive offerings, and not only the ones that I have already had cause to mention: in Thebes, in Boeotia, for instance, there is a golden tripod, dedicated to Ismenian Apollo; in Ephesus, it was Croesus who donated the golden cows and most of the pillars; and in ‘The Shrine Before the Temple’ at Delphi, there is a huge shield of gold. All these dedications were still to be seen even in my day, although there are others which have not survived. Branchidae, in Miletus, I am told, also boasts offerings presented by Croesus, which are similar to those found in Delphi, and equal in weight. All the gifts he sent to Delphi, and to the shrine of Amphiaraus too, were paid for out of his own household coffers and the patrimony he had inherited from his father; but the rest were funded by the estates of an enemy of his, the same man who had led the faction which was opposed to his becoming king, and backed the right of Pantaleon to the throne. (Pantaleon was the son of Alyattes, but he and Croesus were only half-brothers – for Croesus was born to Alyattes by a Carian woman, whereas Pantaleon’s mother was an Ionian.) It was Croesus, of course, who ended up inheriting the throne from his father; and no sooner was he king than he made sure to torture his opponent to death by hauling him over the spikes of a carding-comb.124 Even prior to this, Croesus had vowed that all his adversary’s belongings would be dedicated to the gods, and so they were, just as I previously described – for they were sent to the various shrines I have already listed. So much for the votive offerings made by Croesus.

[93] As far as natural wonders are concerned, Lydia has nothing particularly worthy of record, certainly not in comparison with other countries – the one exception being the gold dust which is washed down from Mount Tmolus. The country can, however, boast a man-made wonder which, with the exception of those built by the Egyptians and the Babylonians, serves to put all others in the shade. This is the tomb of Croesus’ father, Alyattes, a monument which consists of a mound of earth raised up on a base of giant stones. Its construction was funded by tradesmen, craftsmen and whores. Even in my day, there were five stone pillars on the summit, each one inscribed with a record of precisely what proportion of the tomb had been funded by these various classes of business; and the figures, when they are added up, prove that the largest contribution of all was made by the whores.125 (Not that this is surprising: in Lydia, every daughter born to working-class parents will work as a prostitute, and continue to do so until she has raised sufficient money for a dowry, and can secure a husband. This she will arrange on her own terms.) The circumference of the tomb is 6 stades, and it is 13 plethra wide. Beside it is a large lake, named after Gyges, which according to the Lydians never dries up. That is all there is to be said about the tomb of Alyattes.

[94] Their habit of sending their daughters out to work as prostitutes excepted, the Lydians live their lives in a way not dissimilar to the Greeks. So far as we know, they were the first people ever to strike gold and silver coins,126 and to use them: the result was the invention of shopping. For their own part, the Lydians also claim to have invented the games of which both they and the Greeks are nowadays so fond. The invention of these games, so they say, took place at the same time as the colonization of Tyrrhenia; and they tell a story which explains this conjunction of events. Back in the reign of Atys, the son of Manes, Lydia was afflicted by a terrible famine. For a while, the Lydians endured the pangs of hunger as patiently as they could; but as time went by, and the grip of the famine worsened, so they began to look around for some way to alleviate it, with first one solution and then another being proposed. Among the expedients devised during this period was a whole host of games – dice, knuckle-bones, anything involving balls. (In fact, the only game the Lydians do not claim to have invented themselves is backgammon.) But how, you may ask, did these inventions help the Lydians to cope with the famine? The answer is that every other day they would play their games, and thereby distract themselves from the need to go scrabbling about after food, while on the alternate days they would stop playing games, and concentrate on the demands of their stomachs instead. By this means, they kept going for a full eighteen years. Still, rather than abating, the crisis grew ever more brutal. Eventually, the king divided the entire Lydian people into two, drew lots, and decreed that one half of the population should remain in Lydia, while the other half were to emigrate. As king over those whom fortune had ordained should stay behind, he appointed himself; while as the leader of the emigrants he appointed his son, a man by the name of Tyrrhenus. Once the lots had been cast, the group which was to leave their country made their way down to the coast at Smyrna, built ships for themselves and loaded up all their serviceable possessions, and then set off in search of livelihood and land. Many were the peoples whose countries they sailed past; until in due course they arrived in the land of the Umbrians, and there they settled and put down permanent roots. No longer did they call themselves Lydians; instead, they bore the name of the prince who had led them, and they have come to be known, in witness to his nomenclature, as Tyrrhenians.127 The Lydians, meanwhile, ended up the slaves of the Persians.128

•   •   •

[95] It is time now to open up a new chapter in our story. Who was Cyrus, this man who had destroyed the empire of Croesus, and how was it that the Persians had risen to mastery of Asia? I have uncovered four different accounts, and each one serves to shed its own light upon Cyrus. But the version I have chosen to follow is the one told by those Persians who think it more important to get the facts straight than simply to exalt Cyrus.129 Now, for a period of 520 years, it was the Assyrians who were the masters of Asia; and the first to revolt against their rule were the Medes. In fact, this war of independence proved to be the making of the rebels, for so heroically did they fight the Assyrians that they succeeded in casting off the yoke of slavery altogether and securing their freedom. In the wake of this victory, others too followed the Medes’ example.

[96] Yet though the entire continent eventually won its independence, despotism was destined to make a return. There was a Mede named Deioces130 the son of Phraortes, a man whose lust for power was more than equalled by the keenness of his intellect, and who had come up with a plan. The Medes at this time lived in settlements which were nothing more than villages, and Deioces, who was already a figure of high standing in his own village, began to work harder even than he had been doing previously to establish himself as the very model of fair dealing – for the rule of law was notable by its absence across the whole of Media, and he well understood that to those who value justice there can be no greater enemy than its breakdown. The Medes of his own village, observing his high moral standards, duly appointed him their judge; and Deioces, who was forever focused upon how to win power, made sure to fulfil this office with an unbending show of integrity. Such conduct won him no little praise from his fellow-villagers – so much so, indeed, that the people of other villages began to pick up on his reputation as a man who, uniquely, could be guaranteed to arbitrate between rival plaintiffs with a strict impartiality. No longer willing to tolerate the breakdown of justice, people were inspired by what they had heard about Deioces to approach him, and gladly to submit their cases to his judgement, until, in the end, they refused to turn to anyone else.

[97] Larger and larger grew this body of his loyal clients, men who knew that they could rely upon him to resolve their every lawsuit in accordance with the facts alone. Deioces himself, however, realizing that he was now being called upon by anyone with a legal problem, declared that he had had enough: no longer would he take his place in the public chair where he had previously sat to deliver his verdicts, and no longer would he operate as a judge. How did it serve his interests, after all, to spend his entire day attending to the business of his neighbours, to the utter neglect of his own? But when the impact of this decision upon the villages proved to be a crime wave worse even than the previous one had been, and a total collapse of law and order, the Medes met in assembly to debate what to do about the situation (a debate in which, I strongly suspect, it was the partisans of Deioces who hogged the floor). ‘Only continue as we are’, they said, ‘and life in this country will become insupportable. We must appoint a king – a king who is one of our own! How else will we ever secure a society governed by the rule of law? What prospect otherwise of getting down to work? Are we all to be swept away upon this rising tide of anarchy?’ Such, in their essentials, were the arguments which convinced the Medes of their need for a king.131

[98] Which in turn prompted an obvious question: who should they now choose to rule over them? Overwhelmingly the most popular candidate, because the most praiseworthy, was Deioces;132 and he it was who duly secured the appointment. ‘Build me a palace fit for a king!’ he then commanded. ‘Give me a bodyguard!’ The Medes obeyed. Up went a large and well-fortified palace, on a site chosen by Deioces himself, and in came a bodyguard, chosen by the king from among the entire population of Media, without interference from anyone. Then, with his grip on power secure, he compelled the Medes to labour at building a single great conurbation, a project so demanding of their time and effort that everywhere else in Media was left to crumble through neglect. Again the Medes were brought to comply, and so was raised the city known now as Agbatana,133 an immense and impregnable stronghold enclosed within a series of concentric walls. These are so fashioned that each successive defensive ring serves to rise above the preceding one by the height of its bastions, an effect assisted by Agbatana’s hillside situation, to be sure, but which owes much, nevertheless, to careful design. There are seven rings in all – and enclosed within the innermost one are the royal palace and the treasuries. The outermost one is roughly the size of the wall which encircles Athens.134 The bastions of these various walls have all been painted different colours, so that the cumulative effect is akin to that of a garland of flowers: the first circle is painted white, the second black, the third purple, the fourth an azure blue and the fifth orange. As for the bastions of the two innermost circles, those of the penultimate one are plated with silver, and those of the last one with gold.

[99] These fortifications were built for the protection of Deioces himself and his palace; everyone else was ordered to settle beyond the walls. Then, with the completion of his various building projects, Deioces set about establishing a wholly novel ceremonial: he forbade people to come into his presence, obliging them instead to communicate with him through intermediaries; he placed an interdict on anyone so much as seeing the king; and he proclaimed it an outrage for anyone to laugh or spit in the royal presence. There was method behind this cocooning of himself within pomp and ritual, for he was looking to be screened from the gaze of his contemporaries, men with whom he had been brought up, and who were not an iota his inferiors in either breeding or courage. No wonder, then, that Deioces should have fretted about provoking them to resentment and conspiracy, and sought, by hiding himself away, to foster a sense of his own mystique.135

[100] The introduction of this system of etiquette was not the only way in which he sought to strengthen his autocracy,136 for he wielded a rod of iron in the field of justice too. Rather than presenting their suits in person, plaintiffs were obliged instead to send them into the palace in written form; Deioces would assess them, then have his verdicts sent back out. Parallel to this manner of resolving lawsuits was a further innovation: anyone reported to be getting above his station would be summoned into the royal presence and slapped down with a punishment appropriate to the offence. Spies were everywhere in the kingdom – Deioces’ eyes and ears.

[101] Although it is true that his sway never extended beyond the frontiers of Media, his great achievement was not merely to have forged the Medes into a single people but to have ruled them as one. There is certainly no lack of tribes in Media. The Busae, the Parataceni, the Struchates, the Arizanti, the Budii, the Magians: all are Medes.

[102] Deioces finally died after a reign of fifty-three years, and was succeeded as ruler by Phraortes, his son. The new king, dissatisfied at ranking merely as lord of Media, set himself at the head of a great army. The first people he attacked were the Persians, whom he forced into vassalage. With two powerful peoples now brought under his command, he then advanced to the conquest of Asia, country by country, until at length he came up against the Assyrians – or to be precise against the Assyrians of Nineveh, that same people who had once been the masters of the world, but who since a revolt by their allies had found themselves shorn of their empire. Nevertheless, they remained a significant power; in the resulting war Phraortes himself and much of his army were wiped out, thereby bringing to an end his reign of twenty-two years.

[103] After Phraortes’ death, it was his son, Cyaxares, who was the next of Deioces’ line to ascend the throne. Cyaxares, according to reliable report, had even more of a taste for battle than his predecessors. He was the first man in Asia to divide his troops up into separate units, and the first to regiment what had previously been a disorganized rabble into separate lines of battle: spearmen, archers and cavalry. It was also Cyaxares who fought the battle against the Lydians on the day of the eclipse, and who forged all the lands of Asia beyond the River Halys into a single empire, ruled by himself. He took advantage of all the resources this gave him to launch an attack on Nineveh, with the aim of wiping the city out, and thereby avenging his father. He defeated the Assyrians in battle – but then, in the midst of his siege of Nineveh, he was attacked by King Madyes, the son of Protothyes, who came against him at the head of an immense army of Scythians. These invaders had crossed into Asia in hot pursuit of the Cimmerians, a people whom they had previously expelled from Europe, and driven before them in headlong flight. Now the Scythians had arrived in the land of the Medes.

[104] It will take a man travelling light thirty days to cover the distance from Lake Maeëtis to Colchis, on the River Phasis; but to go from Colchis to Media takes no great time at all. There is only the one country to pass through, the land of the Saspeirians – and then comes the Median frontier. The Scythians, however, rather than taking this route, had veered northwards and followed the much longer upland road, keeping the Caucasus mountains on their right. The Scythians met with the Medes in battle and routed them; and so it was, with the consequent collapse of Median power, that the whole of Asia became theirs.

[105] The Scythians’ next target was Egypt. Arriving in the region of Syria known as Palestine, they were met there by the king of Egypt, Psammetichus,137 who alternately bribed and begged them not to continue their advance, and thereby succeeded in turning them back. As the Scythians were retracing their steps through Syria, they came to Ascalon; and while most of them bypassed the city and left it untouched, a small group separated from the main body of the expedition and fell to plundering the sanctuary of Aphrodite Urania.138 (An interesting detail that I uncovered during the course of my investigations is that this same sanctuary is the oldest temple to the goddess in existence: even the one in Cyprus derived from it – as the Cypriots themselves freely acknowledge. As for the one in Cythera – well – who could that have been founded by if not the Phoenicians, and from where did the Phoenicians come if not the very region of Syria where the temple at Ascalon stands?)139 The Scythians who looted the shrine found themselves struck down by the goddess with a disease that transformed them into women:140 one that their descendants still suffer from even today. This, at any rate, is how the Scythians explain the ailment; and anyone who visits Scythia can see with his own eyes what it is to be an ‘Enarean’, as the natives term those afflicted by the malady.

[106] The dominion of the Scythians over Asia lasted twenty-eight years – a period during which their violence141 and arrogance had everything in a state of constant upheaval. When they were not busy extorting the arbitrary taxes they had imposed on everyone, they would gallop around the country, indulging themselves in barefaced robbery. At last, Cyaxares and the Medes hosted a great feast for most of the Scythians, and then, when they had got their guests roaring drunk, put them all to the sword. So it was, with one fell swoop, that the Medes won back their great-power status, and all their former dominions as well. They even succeeded in capturing Nineveh (an episode I will recount in a later chapter),142 and absorbed the whole of Assyria into their empire – all, that is, except for Babylon and its territories. When Cyaxares finally died, it was after a reign which had lasted – if the Scythian period of rule is included in the tally – for forty years.

[107] His successor on the throne was his son, Astyages. He had a daughter called Mandane, and one night, in his sleep, he imagined that he saw her urinating, making such a flood that it filled his entire city, and drowned the whole of Asia. When Astyages confided the details of this nightmare to those among the Magi143 who were proficient in the art of reading dreams, the interpretation that they gave him, a full and precise one, chilled his blood. As a result, when Mandane came to be of a nubile age, he did not give her as a wife to any Mede of appropriate status, but instead, haunted still by his dream, married her off to a Persian named Cambyses – a man whom he knew to be of good family and undemonstrative disposition, but who, in Astyages’ opinion, was so lacking in any social standing as to be the inferior by far of a Mede of even mediocre rank.

[108] But then, not a year after Mandane had settled down to married life with Cambyses, Astyages was visited by a second dream of his daughter. This time he saw a vine sprouting out of her intimate parts; and the tendrils of the vine reached so far that they served to put all Asia in their shade. Again, Astyages confided to the dream-readers what he had seen; and then he had his daughter, who was about to give birth, sent from Persia and placed under lock and key. His intention, once the baby had been born, was to have it killed; for the Magi, skilled as they were in the reading of dreams, had interpreted his vision to mean that his daughter’s offspring would rule in his place. No wonder, then, that Astyages should have been made uneasy. Sure enough, once Cyrus had been safely delivered, the king summoned a kinsman of his, Harpagus by name, a Mede who served as steward of the entire royal estate and was the loyalest of the loyal, to issue him with some very particular orders. ‘If I give you something to do, Harpagus, you are to do it properly. No going behind my back. Side with anyone apart from me, and you will be sure to pay the price. Now then – Mandane has given birth to a child. You are to get hold of it, take it to your house and dispose of it. You can inter the body as you please.’ ‘O King,’ Harpagus replied, ‘have you ever had any reason to find fault with me in the past? Can you really doubt just how determined I am not to get your orders wrong in the future? You have told me what you want to see happen. My duty is clear enough. What must be done, must be done.’

[109] Barely had Harpagus given this reply than the child, already wrapped up in a shroud, was handed over to him, to be wetted by his tears and borne by him to his house. On his arrival there, he told his wife everything that Astyages had said. ‘What will you do now?’ she asked him. ‘Not what Astyages ordered,’ Harpagus answered, ‘that is for sure. He can rant and rave all he likes, but no matter how lunatic his tirades become I refuse to go along with his scheme. Me, the instrument of such a murder? Never! There are any number of reasons why I should refuse to kill the child. Not only is he a relative of mine, but Astyages is old, and has no male heir. Suppose, when he dies, that the person who picks up the reins of power should turn out to be Mandane – mother of the very child he is getting me to kill. How would my prospects look then? Bleak – very bleak. Of course, it is essential that the child die for my own safety’s sake, but it should be one of Astyages’ servants who is the killer – not one of mine.’144

[110] And putting his words immediately into action, he dispatched a messenger to one of the king’s cowherds, a man named Mithridates, who kept his cattle in pasturage ideally suited to Harpagus’ purposes – for it was set high up in the mountains, and the mountains were infested with savage beasts. This Mithridates lived with his wife, another slave, who in Greek would have been known as ‘Cyno’, or ‘bitch’, for she bore the Median name ‘Spako’, and spaka, in Median, means ‘bitch’. (It was beyond Agbatana, where the north wind is met by a range of mountains as it gusts towards the Euxine Sea, that there rose the foothills on which this herdsman set his cattle to graze. Although everywhere else in Media is completely flat, this one part of the country – the mountainous region which borders the land of the Saspeirians – consists of thickly wooded uplands.) When the cowherd, who had scurried to answer the summons, arrived before Harpagus, he was given his orders. ‘Astyages has instructed that you are to take this child’, Harpagus said, ‘and leave it on the very loneliest of mountainsides. He wants it eliminated, and without delay. He has also asked me to pass on to you that should you fail to kill the child, and find some way to spare it, then your death will be a truly excruciating one. I will be watching – for I have my own mission, which is to ensure that the child is indeed exposed.’

[111] With these words still ringing in his ears, the herdsman picked up the child and retraced his steps, all the way back to his hut. It so happened that his wife, who for days had been waiting to go into labour, had given birth at around the same time as the herdsman was making his way to the city – certain proof that a guardian spirit was keeping watch over Cyrus. Husband and wife alike had been fretting about the other: he owing to anxiety about his wife’s confinement, and she because of the seemingly unaccountable way in which Harpagus had summoned her husband. On his return home, the sight of him standing before her took the woman by such surprise that she immediately asked him, before the herdsman could so much as open his mouth, why it was that Harpagus had sent him such an urgent summons. ‘My dearest wife,’ he answered, ‘I found something waiting for me in the city that I would give a great deal not to have seen or heard. Our masters are caught up in a terrible business, and I only wish that it were otherwise. As I went in through Harpagus’ doorway, I found that the entire house was echoing to the sound of weeping – and then, no sooner was I inside, than I saw a baby lying there, squirming and bawling, and it was dripping with gold, and dressed in the most exquisite clothes. When Harpagus saw me, he ordered me to pick up the child immediately, and be gone – and he said that I was to take the child with me, and abandon it on a mountainside, at a spot where the wild animals are at their most fierce. These orders, he told me, came directly from Astyages – and he kept on threatening me, over and over again, with what would happen if I let him down. So I picked the baby up and carried it off, taking for granted that the mother was a house-slave. Certainly, it never crossed my mind whose child it really was! What did puzzle me, of course, was the spectacle of the gold and the beautiful clothes – not to mention all those tears that were being shed, quite openly, in Harpagus’ house. But then, as I was being shown the way out of the city, the whole story came out. The attendant who was serving as my escort, laying the new-born baby in my arms, told me that its parents were none other than Mandane, Astyages’ daughter, and Cambyses, the son of Cyrus. What was more, the orders for its disposal did indeed come from Astyages. And look – here the child is.’

[112] So saying, the herdsman unveiled the infant and showed it to his wife. The sight of such a healthy, good-looking baby immediately had the woman flinging her arms around her husband’s knees, and begging him, through floods of tears, not to expose it under any circumstances. ‘What alternative do I have?’ he replied. ‘Harpagus will send spy after spy to check up on me, and I will be put to a terrible death if it is found out that I have disobeyed him.’ The woman, however, rather than bowing to her husband’s flat refusal, chose instead to try a second approach. ‘Clearly,’ she said, ‘I am not going to be able to dissuade you from exposing the child. Alright, then. If it is absolutely necessary for a baby to be exposed – and to be seen to be exposed – then here is what I suggest you do. My own child, my very own child, came into the world stillborn. Take the body and expose it, and let us bring up the son of Astyages’ daughter as if he were our own. It is not as if our masters will be able to catch us out having done anything wrong, is it? And only think how it will work to our advantage! Our own dead boy will be given a funeral fit for a king, while this child, still strong and healthy as he is, will escape execution.’

[113] The herdsman thought that this plan was, under all the circumstances, an excellent one, and so he immediately set about putting his wife’s proposal into effect. The baby he had brought with him to be executed he handed over to his wife; his own baby he picked up and laid inside the container which he had earlier been using to transport the living child. Then, once he had adorned the corpse in all the finery previously worn by the other boy, he took it to the very loneliest of the mountains, and left it there. A day passed, and then another. Still the body lay exposed out on the mountainside. Only on the third day, and only after he had made sure to delegate one of his deputies to stand guard over it, did the herdsman head for town, and Harpagus’ house. ‘The time has come,’ he announced, ‘to show you the corpse of the infant.’ To confirm this claim, Harpagus sent the most trusted members of his personal guard, who duly reported themselves satisfied, and interred the herdsman’s child. So it was that the one baby was consigned to its grave, while the other, the boy who would subsequently be known as Cyrus, was adopted by the herdsman’s wife and brought up as her own – although not, of course, as Cyrus, but under a quite different name.145

[114] Then, however, around the time of his tenth birthday, something happened which led to the revelation of his true identity. He and the other boys of his age were playing out in the main road of the village where they all lived, up amid the meadows where the royal cattle grazed. The game required the children to appoint a make-believe king – and upon whom should their choice fall if not the boy who was supposed to be the herdsman’s son. More appointments followed, these ones made by the ‘king’ himself: some of his friends he set to building houses, and others to shouldering the spears of a bodyguard; one was ordered to serve him as his ‘Eye’, keeping his kingdom under unblinking surveillance, and another, in a particular mark of honour, to bring him his messages.146 Not a playmate, in short, but he was given some task to carry out. There was one boy, however, the son of an eminent Mede named Artembares, who refused to do as he was told: a show of disobedience which prompted Cyrus to order his arrest. Once the other children had dutifully grabbed him, Cyrus, not stinting in the slightest, gave the boy a savage flogging. Outraged by what he saw as this insult to his dignity, the boy had no sooner been set free than he was running off down to the city and into his father’s house, whining at the top of his voice about the treatment he had received at the hands of Cyrus. (Although, of course, he did not actually refer to his assailant as ‘Cyrus’, since there was no one yet of that name to complain about, but rather as ‘the son of Astyages’ cowherd’.) Artembares, furious at the humiliation suffered by his son, promptly marched him off to Astyages, and told the king everything. ‘You see, my Lord,’ he asked, stripping bare the boy’s shoulders, ‘how insolently we have been treated? And by one of your slaves! By the son of a cowherd!’

[115] The story of what had happened, combined with the physical evidence for it, served to convince Astyages that the boy should indeed be granted restitution, if only because of the father’s rank; and so a summons was duly issued to the herdsman and his son. When the pair had been brought into his presence, Astyages looked Cyrus over. ‘Can it really be true,’ he demanded, ‘that you, a slave, and the son of a slave, had the audacity to mistreat in this appalling manner a boy whose father is the leading man at my court?’ ‘Yes, Master,’ came the answer, ‘it is true – and I was perfectly within my rights. We were all of us – me, him, the other children in the village – playing a game. The whole point of this game was to set one of us up as king. I got the vote – because I was the one that everyone else thought would make the best king. All the other children did as they were told – but not this one. He refused to listen, wouldn’t even talk. That is why he was punished. But if you really think that I did something wrong, and that I am the one who deserves to be in trouble – well, here I am.’

Read More

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“De Sélincourt’s pacy, natural-sounding, rendering, as superbly revised and annotated by John Marincola…was a game-changer…still reads freshly and is a bestseller six decades after its first publication.”
—Edith Hall,  Times Literary Supplement

Meet the Author

Walter Blanco is Associate Professor of English at the City University of New York.

Jennifer Tolbert Roberts is Professor of Classics and History at the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her books include Accountability in Athenian Government and Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought.

Walter Blanco is Associate Professor of English at the City University of New York.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >