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“The Histories” by Herodotus

Scope

The purpose of the book:

Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds—some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians—may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other. (1.1)

Herodotus provides an extensive background for the personalities involved in the war, including many entertaining and implausible stories.

Well, then, let these accounts told by the Egyptians be put to use by anyone who finds such things credible. My entire account is governed by the rule that I write down precisely what I am told by everyone, just as I heard it. (2.123)

He often adds his opinions after relaying the stories of others. He is motivated by his major topic—the Greco-Persian Wars—but also by relaying marvels that he has found.

I am going to extend my account of Egypt at some length here and give additional details about it, because this country has more marvels and monuments that defy description than any other. (2.35)

I have given a rather lengthy account of the Samians because they achieved the three greatest engineering works of all the Hellenes. First, they dug a tunnel through a 900-foot-high mountain. (3.59)

His writing is conversational, and he does not have a strict sense of what sort of material belongs in his account and what does not. I like the broad scope. Herodotus discusses

Herodotus does not feel any need to outline the path he takes for his readers. Whether this doing so was impractical using the writing technologies he had (i.e., he didn’t know the path his writing would take, and could not insert an outline after the fact) or because he did not feel a need to pander to his listeners (or readers) is unclear.

Outline

Epistemology

For of all the Egyptians, the Heliopolitans are said to be the most learned in tradition. I have no desire to relate what I heard about matters concerning the gods, other than their names alone, since I believe that all people understand these things equally. But when my discussion forces me to mention these things, I shall do so. As to matters concerning the human world, they were in agreement. (2.3–4)

The Hellenes tell many different naive stories, and their myth of Herakles is especially foolish. (2.45)

Religion

Herodotus was pious.

It is on this lake that they have nocturnal performances reenacting the sufferings of the gods, which the Egyptians call the mysteries. Now, although I know all the details of these rites, may my reverence ensure that they remain unspoken. I feel the same way about the rite of Demeter which the Hellenes call the Thesmophoria, so may my reverence ensure that they also remain unspoken, except for that which one can say without offense to religion. (2.171)

[The Trojan war] took place—and here I am declaring my own opinion—because a divine force arranged matters so that the Trojans, by there total ruin and destruction, would clearly demonstrate to all humans the fundamental truth that when great injustices are committed, retribution from the gods is also great. That, at least, is what I think. (2.12)

Herodotus believed that the Egyptians worshiped the same gods that the Greeks worshiped. To a modern person, it seems more likely that the gods and their stories developed largely (but not completely) independently. Herodotus’ willingness to associate foreign gods with Greek gods is consistent with the fact that he believed these gods existed and were present throughout the world.

The Hellenes believe that Herakles, Dionysos, and Pan are the youngest of the gods. But the Egyptians hold that Pan is the most ancient of these three and belongs to the first group of gods, called “The Eight Gods.” Herakles belongs to the second group, called “The Twelve Gods,” and Dionysos belongs to the third, who were born from “The Twelve.” (2.145)

The Arabians believe that Dionysos and Ourania are the only gods who exist, and they claim that they cut their hair to look just like the haircut of Dionysos. They shear the hair around the head in a ring and shave under the temples. Dionysos they call Orotalt; Ourania, Alilat. (3.8)

The only gods they [the Scythians] try to appease are Hestia, who is their most important divinity, Zeus, and Earth, whom they condier to be the wife of Zeus; after these, they worship Apollo, Ourania Aphrodite, Herakles, and Ares. While these are the traditional gods of all the Scythians, the Royal Scythians also sacrifies to Poseidon. In the Scythian language, Hestia is called Tabiti; Zeus, Papaios (and most correctly so, in my opinion); Earth is called Api; Apollo, Goitosyros; Ourania Aphrodite, Argimpasa; and Poseidon, Thagimasadas. It is not their custom to erect statues, altars, or temples, except for Ares. (4.59)

Quotes From Book I

Right and wrong were distinguished long ago:

Gyges gave a cry of horror. “Master,” he said “what an improper suggestion! Do you tell me to look at the queen when she has no clothes on? No, no: ‘when she takes off her clothing, she does away with her shame’—you know what they say of women. Let us learn from experience. Right and wrong were distinguished long ago—and I’ll tell you one thing that is right: a man should mind his own business. I do not doubt that your wife is the most beautiful of women; so for goodness’ sake do not ask me to behave contrary to custom.” (1.8)

Solon’s description of the happy life:

When Solon had made as thorough an inspection [of the royal treasuries] as opportunity allowed, Croesus said: “Well, my Athenian friend, I have heard a great deal about your knowledge. I cannot resist my desire to ask you a question: who is the happiest man you have ever seen?”

The point of the question was that Croesus supposed himself to be the happiest of men. Solon, however, refused to flatter, and answered in strict accordance with his view of the truth. “An Athenian,” he said, “called Tellus.”

Croesus was taken aback. “And what,” he asked sharply, “is your reason for this choice?”

“There are good reasons,” said Solon; “first, his city was prosperous, and he had fine sons, and lived to see children born to each of them, and all these children surviving; secondly, he had wealth enough by our standards; and he had a glorious death. In a battle with the neighboring town of Eleusis, he fought for his countrymen, routed the enemy, and died like a brave man; and the Athenians paid him the high honor of a public funeral on the spot where he fell.” …

“I know God is envious of human prosperity and likes to trouble us; and you question me about the lot of man. Listen then: as the years lengthen out, there is much both to see and to suffer which one would wish otherwise. … You seem to be very rich, and you rule a numerous people; but the question you asked me I will not answer, until I know that you have died happily. Great wealth can make a man no happier than moderate means, unless he has the luck to continue in prosperity to the end. Many very rich men have been unfortunate, and many with moderate competence have had good luck. The former are better off than the latter in two respects only, whereas the poor but lucky man has the advantage in many ways; for though the rich have the means to satisfy their appetites and to bear calamities, and the poor have not, the poor, if they are lucky, are more likely to keep clear of trouble, and will have besides the blessings of a sound body, health, freedom from trouble, fine children, and good looks.” (1.30–33)

Emigrating after a famine:

There was still no remission of their suffering [from famine]—indeed it grew worse; so the King divided the population into two groups and determined by drawing lots which should emigrate and which should remain at home. He appointed himself to rule the section whose lot determined that they should remain, and his son Tyrrhenus to command the emigrants. The lots were drawn, and one section went down to the coast at Smyrna, where they built vessels, put aboard all their household effects and sailed in search of a livelihood elsewhere. (1.94)

Persian customs:

Of all days in the year a Persian most distinguishes his birthday, and celebrates it with a dinner of special magnificence. A camel or a donkey baked whole in the oven and served up at table, and the poor some smaller beast. The main dishes at their meals are few, but they have many sorts of dessert, the various courses being served separately. It is this custom that has made them say that the Greeks leave the table hungry, because they never have anything worth mentioning after the first course: they think that if the Greeks did, they should go on eating. They are very fond of wine, and no one is allowed to vomit or urinate in the presence of another person.

If an important decision is to be made, they discuss the question when they are drunk, and the following day the master of the house where the discussion was held submits their decision for reconsideration when they are sober. If they still approve it, it is adopted; if not, it is abandoned. …

No race is so ready to adopt foreign ways as the Persian; for instance, they wear the Median costume because they think it handsomer than their own, and their soldiers wear the Egyptian corslet. Pleasures, too, of all sorts they are quick to indulge in when they get to know about them—a notable instance is pederasty, which they learned from the Greeks. Every man has a number of wives, and a much greater number of concubines. After prowess in fighting, the chief proof of manliness is to be the father of a large family of boys. Those who have most sons receive an annual present from the king—on the principle that there is strength in numbers. The period of a boy’s education is between the ages of five and twenty, and they are taught three things only: to ride, to use the bow, and to speak the truth. Before the age of five a boy lives with the women and never sees his father, the object being to spare the father distress if the child should die in the early stages of its upbringing. In my view this is a sound practice. I admire also the custom which forbids even the king himself to put a man to death for a single offense, and any Persian under similar circumstances to punish a servant by an irreparable injury. Their way is to balance faults against services, and then, if the faults are greater and more numerous, anger may take its course. (1.133–137)

Fate of the Lycians of Xanthus:

The fate of the Lycians of Xanthus makes a different story. When Harpagus advanced into the plain of Xanthus, they met him in battle, though greatly outnumbered, and fought with much gallantry; at length, however, they were defeated and forced to retire within their walls, whereupon they collected their women, children, slaves, and other property and shut them up in the citadel, set fire to it and burnt it to the ground. Then having sworn to do or die, they marched out to meet the enemy and were killed to a man. (1.176)

Babylonian engagement custom:

In every village once a year all the girls of marriageable age used to be collected together in one place, while the men stood round them in a circle; an auctioneer then called each one in turn to stand up and offered her for sale, beginning with the best-looking and going on to the second best a soon as the first had been sold for a good price. Marriage was the object of the transaction. The rich men who wanted wives bid against each other for the prettiest girls, while the humbler folk, who had no use for good looks in a wife, were actually paid to take the ugly ones, for when the auctioneer had got through all the pretty girls he would call upon the plain ones, or even perhaps a crippled one, to stand up, and then ask who was willing to take the least money to marry her—and she was offered to whoever accepted the smallest sum. The money came from the sale of the beauties, who in this way provided dowries for their ugly or misshapen sisters. …

This admirable practice has now fallen into disuse and they have of late years hit upon another scheme, namely the prostitution of all girls of the lower classes to provide some relief from the poverty which followed upon the conquest with its attendant hardship and general ruin. (1.196)

Babylonian Aphrodite cult:

There is one custom amongst the people which is wholly shameful: every woman who is a native of the country must once in her life go and sit in the temple of Aphrodite and there give herself to a strange man. … Once a woman has taken her seat she is not allowed to go home until a man has thrown a silver coin into her lap and taken her outside to lie with her. As he throws the coin, the man has to say, “in the name of the goddess Mylitta”—that being the Assyrian name for Aphrodite. The value of the coin is of no consequence; once thrown it becomes sacred, and the law forbids that it should ever be refused. The woman has no privilege of choice—she must go with the first man who throws her the money. When she has lain with him, her duty to the goddess is discharged and she may go home, after which it will be impossible to seduce her by any offer, however large. Tall, handsome women soon manage to get home again, but the ugly ones stay a long time before they can fulfill the condition which the law demands, some of them, indeed, as much as three or four years. (1.199)

Massagetae customs:

Every man has a wife, but all wives are used promiscuously. If a man wants a woman, all he does is to hang up his quiver in front of her wagon and then enjoy her without misgiving. They have one way only of determining the appropriate time to die, namely this: when a man is very old, all his relatives give a party and include him in a general sacrifice of cattle; then they boil the flesh and eat it. This they consider to be the best sort of death. Those who die of disease are not eaten but buried, and it is held a misfortune not to have lived long enough to be sacrificed. They have no agriculture, but live on meat and fish, of which there is an abundant supply in the Araxes. They are milk-drinkers. The only god they worship is the sun, to which they sacrifice horses: the idea behind this is to offer the swiftest of mortal creatures to the swiftest of the gods. (1.216)

Quotes From Book II

The account of why the Egyptians came to believe the Phrygians were the oldest men:

Now, before Psammetichos became king, the Egyptians used to believe that they were the earliest humans. But upon assuming the kingship Psammetichos became eager to ascertain which people were really the first; and ever since his reign, the Egyptians consider that the Phrygians lived before they did, but that they themselves existed prior to all the rest of humanity. Unable to find a means of discovering who were the first humans by making inquiries, Psammetichos devised an experiment. He selected two newborn children from ordinary people and gave them to a shepherd to take into his flocks and raise according to the following instructions: no one was to utter a word in their presence; the shepherd should place them in a secluded hut by themselves and at appropriate intervals bring in the goats, give the children their fill of milk, and then tend to the rest of their needs. The reason he gave these instructions was because he wished to listen to the children after they had outgrown their inarticulate crying and to find out what word they would speak first. And everything turned out as he planned, for the shepherd had followed his orders for two years when one day, as he opened the door entering, both children rushed at him with outstretched hands, crying out “bekos.” At first the shepherd kept quiet about having heard this, but when the word bekos was repeated again and again as he came and went in his care for the children, he told his master. At his command the shepherd brought the children into his presence, and Psammetichos himself heard the word. When he inquired which people might use the word bekos, he discovered that the word bekos means “bread” in the Phrygian language. Thus the Egyptians accepted this evidence and concluded that the Phrygians are older than themselves. (2.2)

Whether or not the Egyptians believed this account or performed this experiment, it seems clear that some group (be it Herodotus or his listeners) found this account plausible. There is a certain logic to the argument, and it also demonstrates the basic conception of performing an “experiment” to learn about the natural world. They assume that language is innate, and that a child would innately begin speaking the first language. They also don’t seem to consider that the children could have, by chance, made up a word that matched an existing language.

Herodotus seems to believe the world is quite old:

Now then, if the Nile’s flow were diverted into this Arabian gulf, what would prevent it from filling up the gulf with silt in 20,000 years? For my part, I suppose it might fill it up with silt in only 10,000 years. Well, then, given all the years that passed before I was born, why could not a gulf much larger than this have been silted up by a river as great and powerful as the Nile? (2.11)

In several places in Herodotus, it seems the Greeks (in this case the Ionians) wanted to believe the world was innately symmetrical and ordered. Thus, they want to believe there is a clean division between the continents.

Now, if my understanding of these matters is correct, then the Ionians’ conception of Egypt is absurd, and even if their view of Egypt were correct, their simple arithmetic would be all wrong! For when they claim that the whole earth is made up of three parts—Europe, Asia, and Libya—they in fact should add the Delta of Egypt as a fourth part. Indeed, by their own definition, the Nile is what divides Asia and Libya; but the fact is that the Nile splits and flows around the Delta from its apex, so that the Delta itself lies between Asia and Libya.

Let me dismiss the view of the Ionians now and instead describe to you my own opinions on these matters. I believe it best to characterize Egypt as all the territory inhabited by Egyptians, just as Cilicia is populated by Cilicians and Assyria by the Assyrians; and as we have seen, there are no boundaries between Asia and Libya other than the boundaries of the land which is inhabited by the Egyptians. (2.16–17)

Herodotus argues that there are not geometrically pure boundaries, and perhaps that it is better to recognize that Egypt is better defined by where the Egyptians are. This conception is more consistent with my own—words are often vague, recursive representations of patterns, such as “where the Egyptians are.” But I may be misunderstanding Herodotus, because in the next fragment, he presents an argument using an oracle from Ammon, which may refute my understanding of what he says. Perhaps I am applying a 21st century expectations to him.

A fun passage discussing the cause of the Nile’s flooding:

Certain Hellenes, however, wanting to win fame for their cleverness, have expressed three different explanations concerning this river …

The second explanation is even less knowledgeable than the one just mentioned and, if I may say so, more astonishing. Its claim is that the Nile causes this phenomenon because it flows from Ocean, and that Ocean flows around the entire world.

The third theory, though ostensibly much more plausible, is in fact the most erroneous. Indeed, this theory makes no sense at all when it claims that the Nile’s flood comes from melting snow which flows from the interior of Libya through the middle of Ethiopia and then issues forth into Egypt. Well, now, how could flood come from melting snow if its water flows from the warmest regions to those which are for the most part cooler? A man could at least try to think logically about such things … [Herodotus gives various arguments against this second theory]

And the man who spoke of Ocean, transporting his story into the realm of the unknown, cannot possibly be refuted. For I, at least, have no certain knowledge that such a river Ocean exists; I think, rather, that Homer or one of the poets before him invented the name and introduced it into his poetry.

If one were to say, however, that after finding fault with the opinions already proposed about the unknown, one should declare his own ideas, I shall reveal to you why I think the Nile floods in summer. I believe that during the winter the sun is driven off its usual course by storms and travels to the region of the sky above Libya. (2.20–23)

As in the story about Psammetichos’ experiment, it seems that rational and empirical explanations are being pursued. I especially like how Herodotus dismisses the second argument since it is not refutable, and then conjectures that a poet made it up.

A bizarre story about cats:

Many animals live with these people, but many more would do so if it were not for the fate of the cats. When the female cats have given birth, they no longer associate with the males, who, however, still seek intercourse with them, but without success. So in response, the males outsmart the females by stealing away and then killing their offspring, although they do not eat them after killing them. The females, bereft of their babies, feel a desire foe more and so go back to the males, for they are fond of offspring.

And whenever a fire breaks out, some divine seizure comes over the cats. The Egyptians stand at intervals and try to keep the cats safe, but if they fail to extinguish the fire, the cats slip between or leap over them and rush into the flames. When this happens, the Egyptians are overcome by intense grief. All those who live in a household where a cat has died a natural death shave their eyebrows. For the death of a dog, however, they shave their entire body and head. (2.66)

A comical story about a Pharaoh that simultaneously hints at the Greek (and perhaps also Egyptian) view of women:

They say that when Sesostris died, his son Pheros inherited the kingdom. He performed no military feats, but was blinded in the following incident: during his reign the river flooded over the land to a greater extend than ever before; it rose to a height of twenty-seven feet, and when it overflowed the fields, the winds drove it to surge in waves like a sea. They say that this kin, in reckless arrogance, took a spear and cast it into the eddies in the middle of the river, and that immediately afterward, his eyes were afflicted with disease and he became blind. His blindness continued for ten years until, in the eleventh year, there came an oracular response from the city of Bouto stating that the duration of the his punishment was over now and that he would regain his sight by washing his eyes with the urine of a woman who had been with her husband alone, having had no experience of any other men. And so he first tried this with the urine of his own wife, but this failed to restore his sight. He then tried all other women, one after the other, and when he finally regained his sight, he bright together into one city—which is now called Red Soil–all the women he had tried except for the one whose urine had restored his sight. When they were gatherer together there, he set them all on fire along with the city itself. But he took as his own wife the woman with whose urine he had washed his eyes and regained his site. (2.111)

According to the Egyptian priests, Helen never made it to Troy—violent winds pushed Paris off course, and after landing in Egypt and learning what had happened, they retained Helen:

That is what the Egyptian priests said, and I agree with their argument, considering that if Helen had been in Troy, the Trojans would certainly have returned her to the Hellenes, whether Paris concurred or not. For neither Priam nor his kin could have been so demented that they would have willingly endangered their own persons, their children, and their city just so that Paris could have Hellen. Surely the Trojans would have realized this even in the first years of the ware and would have given her up. (2.120)

There is a fantastical story about an architect, his two sons, the Pharaoh, and his daughter, in Book II fragment 121, but it is too long to transcribe. I recommend reading it.

Apparently some of the Egyptians believed in reincarnation:

The Egyptians are in fact the first to have claimed that the human soul is immortal and that each time the body perishes, it enters at birth another living being; and whenever it has gone through the lives of all types of creatures living on land or sea, or flying in the air, it again enters at birth the body of a human. This cycle is said to take 3,000 years. There are certain Hellenes—some who lived earlier, some later—who have adopted the theory as though it were their very own. (2.123)

The Pharaoh’s prostitutes his daughter:

The priests said that Cheops sank to such depths of wickedness that when he ran short of money, he placed his own daughter in a brothel and ordered her to charge a certain sum of silver, although they neglected to tell me the exact amount she was to demand. She did as her father ordered, but, intending to leave behind a memorial of her own, she asked each man who came to her for the gift of one stone. And from these stones, they said, was built the pyramid that stands in the middle of the three that are situated in front of the great pyramid. Each of its sides measures 150 feet. (2.126)

The Pharaoh Amasis’ advice about working too much:

Amasis established the following daily routine for himself. He worked diligently on serious matters of government from dawn until the peak market hour [about 10 a.m.], but after that he would drink and banter with his drinking companions. His close friends and family were disturbed by this behavior and admonished him: “Sire, you are not conducting yourself properly by pursuing worthless pastimes. You outhit to be seated solemnly upon your stately throne, transacting affairs of state throughout the day; that way, the Egyptians would know that they were being governed by a competent man, and your reputation would improve. But as it is, you are not acting at all like a kin.” Amasis retorted: “When archers need to use their bows, they string them tightly, but when they have finished using them, they relax them. For if a bow remained tightly strung all the time, it would snap and would be of nos use when someone needed it. The same principle applies to the daily routine of a human being: if someone wants to work seriously all the time and not let himself ease off for his share of play, he will go insane without even knowing it, or at the least suffer a stroke. And it is because I recognize this maxim that I allot a share of my time to each aspect of life.” (2.173)

Quotes From Book III

Greek culture held these two, somewhat contradictory, beliefs: that men should compete and strive for excellence “be the best”, but also that they should not strive with the gods. Both beliefs are present in Homer (the former being especially clear in the Iliad, and the later perhaps more in the Odyssey), as well as Herodotus. This story is a nice example of the latter belief:

Now Amasis did not fail to notice Polykrates’ [a Greek tyrant] exceptionally good fortune, and it worried him; so when his luck continued to improve still further, Amasis wrote him a letter and sent it to Samos. The letter said, “From Amasis to Polykrates: It is a pleasure to hear that a friend and ally is doing well, but I am not pleased by your exceptional good fortune, since I know that god is jealous. Actually, what I sincerely want for both myself and for those I care about is good fortune in one matter but failure in another, and thus a life of continually alternating fortune rather than of success in everything. For I have never yet heard of anyone enjoying good fortune in all things who did not ultimately die in total disaster. And so now listen to me and deal with your perpetual good fortune as I advise. You must think about what you have and select your most valuable possession, whatever would most break your heart were you to lose it; and then throw that object away so that it will never reach a human being again. If, after this, your good fortune persists and does not alternate with suffering, apply the remedy I have suggested once again.”

When Polykrates read this latter, he realized that Amasis had given him very good advice, so he search for the one heirloom in his possession shoe loss would most afflict his heart and select a signet ring that he wore, and emerald set in gold which had been crafted by Theodoros of Samos son of Telekles. And so when he decided that his ring was the object he should throw away, he manned a penteconter, got on board, and ordered the me to put out to sea. When they had reached a distance far form Samos, he took off his ring and, as all the men sailing with him looked on, tossed it into the sea. That done, he sailed home and mourned his loss.

But then, four or five days later, a fisherman caught a huge and beautiful fish; and thinking that it was only right to present it to Polykrates as a gift, he took it to the doors of Polykrates’ home and announced that he wished to be admitted into the presence of Polykrates. When this request was granted, he offered the fish to Polykrates with these words: “Sire, when I caught this fish, I did not think it right to take it to market, although I do make my living by my own labor. Instead, I decided it was worthy of you and your rule. So I bring this fish and give it to you now as a present.” Polykrates was delighted to hear this little speech and replied, “You are very kind; I thank you twice over, both for your words and for your gift, and I invite you to dine with us.” The fisher man went home every flattered by the esteem shown him by Polykrates. But when the servants cut open the huge fish, they discovered the ring of Polykrates within its belly. As soon as they saw it, they took it out and gleefully brought it to him and, as they gave it to him, explained how they had found it. Polykrates realized that this was an act of god, so he wrote down everything he had done and what had happened to him, then sent the whole story in a letter to Egypt.

When Amasis read this letter, he realized that it was impossible for one person ton rescue another from what he destined to experience: he knew that Polykrates was not going to continue to enjoy good fortune in everything and come to a happy end, since even what he had attempted to throw away had been restored to him. So Amasis sent a herald to Samos to announce that he was breaking off their alliance of friendship. (3.40–42)

And Polykrates did meet a terrible end, in fact, his death was so gruesome Herodotus says he didn’t want to describe it. Most historians today believe that Polykrates broke off the relationship with Amasis when Cambyses conquered the Phoenicians (who had a great navy), and thus threatened Samos. I am interested in the story because it is entertaining and because it gives us insight into the Greek’s beliefs about good fortune.

The ethnic cleansing of the Magi, after over-throwing the short-lived conspiracy by the two Magi brothers to pose as Smerdis:

After the conspirators had killed both Magi, they cut off their heads and, leaving their own wounded men there, since they were too weak to go with them but could help guard the acropolis, the other five ran outside carrying the heads of the Magi. There, with great shouts they called out to the other Persians, describing all that had happened and showing them the heads. As they spread the news, they also killed every Magus they found in their path. When the Persians learned from them about the Magi’s criminal fraud and what had just occurred, they decided it was right for them to join in the killing, too, so, drawing their daggers, they slew every Magus they found, and if nightfall had not ended the slaughter, there would not have been a single Magus left alive. The Persians commemorate this day as their most important public holiday and celebrate it with a great festival they call the Murder of the Magi. And during this entire day all Magi must keep within their houses—none are permitted to appear outside. (3.79)

After the Magi revolt is put down, the seven Persians purportedly debated the merits of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Here is the argument for Democracy:

“I think it best that we no longer be ruled by one of ourselves as a monarch, since that kind of government is neither pleasant nor good. You have seen how Cambyses became outrageously arrogant, and you have all experienced the insolence of the Magus directly. How could monarchy be a harmonious and coherent system when it permits the ruler to do whatever he wishes, to be accountable to no one? Even the best of men, if placed in this position of power, would lose his normal mental balance, for arrogance will grow within him as he enjoys all the good things at hand, as will envy, too, which is always a fundamental component of human nature. All evil likes in these two traits, and he manifests both of them. … The rule of the majority, however, not only has the most beautiful and powerful name of all, equality, but in practice, the majority does not act at all like a monarch. Indeed, the majority chooses its magistrates by lot, it holds all of these officials accountable to an audit, and it refers all resolution to the authority of the public. I therefore propose that we abandoned monarchy and raise the majority to a ruling position, for in the many is the whole.” (3.80)

It seems impossible that this conversation ever occurred, partly because Herodotus’ presentation of democracy includes several components which are very specific an unique to how Athenian democracy was performed. Here are the arguments for oligarchy:

I am in favor of what Otanes says in his attempt to put an end to tyranny, but when he tells us to transfer power to the majority, he has strayed far from good judgement. For nothing can be both more unintelligent or insolent than the worthless, ineffectual mob. If men want to escape the arrogance of a tyrant, it is absolutely intolerable that they should then fall victim to the arrogance of the undisciplined common people. For whatever the tyrant may do, he at least knows what he is doing, whereas the people have no idea of what they are doing. How could someone who has not been educated, who has never seen anything good or decent, be knowledgeable about anything? He pushes and shoves and stumbles into affairs without thought, like a raging torrent. (3.81)

And finally, here is Darius’ winning argument for monarchy:

What Megabyzos claimed about the majority seems right to me, but what he said about oligarchy seems wrong. For if we compare the best examples in theory of these three types of government—the best democracy, the best oligarchy, and the best monarchy—I declare that monarchy surpasses the other two by far. For obviously nothing can be better than the one man who is the best. And since he has the best judgement, he would be a blameless administrator of the majority, and thus, too, he would best be able to maintain silence about his plans to oppose enemies. In an oligarchy, on the other hand, many men strive to achieve excellence, and thus private rivalries tend to become public hostilities. For each man wants to be the head of affairs and desires that his own opinions prevail; so that they ultimately become extremely hostile toward one another, which leads to the emergence of factions, which in turn produces bloodshed, and then, also demonstrates just how much monarchy excels the others. Then again, when the people rule, incompetence will always inevitably be the result. While this incompetence is present, these inept men do not themselves engage in public hostilities, bu instead form strong friendships among one another as they incompetently manage the commonwealth together. This situation goes on until one of them steps forth as leader of the people and stops the others from continuing such actions, after which this man is effectively declared to be a monarch, which again proves that monarchy is the best of the three. (3.82)

An interesting observation about how frequently animals reproduce:

The Arabians say that the entire world would be filled with these snakes if it were not for a certain phenomenon that happens to them, and which, i believe, also happens to vipers. And this phenomenon indeed makes sense: for divine providence in its wisdom created all creatures that are cowardly and that serve as food for others to reproduce in great numbers so as to assure that some would be left despite the constant consumption of them, while it has made sure that those animals which are brutal and aggressive predators reproduce very few offspring. The hare, for example, is hunted by every kind of beast, bird, and man, and so reproduces prolifically. Of all animals, she is the only one that conceives while she is already pregnant; her womb can contain at the same time young that are furry, bare of fur, just recently formed, and still being conceived. (3.108)

I think Herodotus’ observation is clever, and it seems reasonable. It is like people who say that God created each animal with its own job and role; while perhaps true in a deeper sense, it is not true in the direct sense. For evolution has brought about the fine balance of the animals.

Fantastical thoughts about the end of the earth:

It is clear that gold exists in by far the greatest quantities to the north of Europe, but I cannot say with certainty how it comes to be there. It is reported that there are one-eyed men called Arimaspians who snatch it away from griffins, but I cannot believe in the existence of one-eyed men who are born that way, and who would still have in all other respects a nature just like that of other humans. In any case, these peripheral regions which surround and enclose the rest of the art on all sides quite reasonably contain the very things we value as most beautiful and rare. (3.116)

Note that Herodotus (inconsistently with his discussion of the number of continents in book II), applies reason to the deduction of geography. This expectation that geography can be reasoned about, perhaps parallels our own expectations of how the laws of physics should act, although I believe we are right and they were wrong. Still, when seen as a parallel like this, such arguments may feel less silly to us.

The Babylonians, when they revolted, killed many of their women:

After the navy sailed off to Samos, the Babylonians revolted. They had prepared for this rebellion well in advance, for during the entire period of disorder when the Magus ruled and the Seven revolted, they were making preparations for a siege, and somehow no on noticed them doing it. When they did revolt openly, each man set aside his mother and on woman he selected from his household to prepare his food. These women were saved; all the other women were brought together and strangled in order to prevent them from consuming the supply of food. (3.150)

Quotes From Book IV

Sailing around Africa:

After he [king Nechos of Egypt] stopped excavation work on the canal, which extended from the Nile to the Arabian Gulf, he sent some Phoenicians off on boats with orders to sail around Libya and back through the Pillars of Herakles into the Mediterranean Sea and to return by that route to Egypt And so the Phoenicians set out from the Erythraean Sea and sailed the Southern Sea. Whenever autumn came, they would put in to shore at whatever region of Libya they happened to have reached in order to sow seeds. There they would wait for the harvest, and after reaping their crops, they would sail on again. This they did for two years, and in the third, they came around through the Pillars of Herakles and returned to Egypt. They mentioned something else which I do not find credible, thought someone else may: that when they were sailing around Libya, the sun was on their right as they went. (4.42)

An account of Scythian soothsayers:

Whenever the king of the Scythians falls ill, he sends for three of the most distinguished soothsayers, and they perform prophecies in the first way that I described. What they generally report is that some person has sworn falsely by the royal hearth, and they accuse one of the townspeople by name. In fact, it is the Scythian custom that when someone wants to swear the most solemn kind of oath, he most often does so by the royal hearth. The man named by these prophets is immediately apprehended and brought to the soothsayers, who charge that their prophecy has revealed him to be a perjurer on the royal hearth and thus to be the cause of the king’s present pain. When the accused man protest vehemently and denies the charge, the king responds by sending for twice as many soothsayers. If they, too, condemn the man as a perjurer through their prophecies, the man is immediately beheaded, and the first three prophets divide up his possessions by lot. But if they recently summoned soothsayers in addition to the other three absolve him of the charge, then other soothsayers come, and again more besides. If the majority of all these acquit the man, it is decreed that the first three prophets themselves must die. (4.68)

The tradition implies skepticism of the soothsayers’ ability and motives. This description is an example of superstition leading to injustice.

Here is an incredible story about the supposed development of the believe in immortality:

As to immortality, the Getai believe that they do not really die, but that when one of them passes away, he goes to Salmoxis, a sort of divinity whom some of them also call Gebeleizis. Every fifth year they send off one of their number, who has been selected by lot to serve as a messenger to Salmoxis, with instructions as to what they want at that particular time. This is how they dispatch him . Three men who are appointed to the task each hold a javelin, while others seize the hands and feet of the man being sent to Salmoxis, swing him up in the air, and throw him onto the points of the javelins. If the man dies from being impaled, they believe that the god is well disposed toward them; but if he does not die, they blame the messenger himself, accusing him of being a bad man, and seek another to send in his place. They give the messenger instructions while he is still alive. These same Thracians shoot their arrows up into the sky, aiming at thunder and lightning as they shout threats at the god, and they believe that no other god exists but their own.

I have heard from the Hellenes who inhabit the Hellespont and the Pontus, however, that this Salmoxis was actually a human being who had been enslaved and served Pythagoras son of Mnesarchos on Samos. But he was eventually freed, and then he acquired abundant wealth there before returning to his own land. Now while the Thracians live a crude life and are rather stupid, Salmoxis knew the Ionian way of life and character, which is more profound than that of the Thracians, and he had associated with Hellenes, including Pythagoras, certainly not the feeblest thinker of the Hellenes. And so he had a banqueting hall built where he hosted and entertained the leading men of the town, and he taught them neither he nor they, his drinking companions, nor their descendants would die, but that they would come to a place where they would live on and have all good things. And as he was composing these lessons and relating them to his guests, he was also constructing an underground chamber. When it was completely finished, he vanished from the sight of the Thracians, by descending into the chamber and spending three years there. The Thracians missed him and grieved for him as though he had died, but in the fourth year he appeared to them, and thus what Salmoxis had thought them became credible. That, at least, is what they say he did.

I myself do not believe this story about him and the underground chamber, although I don’t discount it completely I do think, however, that this Salmoxis lived many ears before Pythagoras. But whether Salmoxis was born a human being or exists as some sort of native divinity among the Getai, let us bid him farewell. At any rate, that is how the Getai were subdued by the Persians, and they were no following along with the rest of the army. (4.94–96)

Herodotus’, following a Greek sort of reasoning, compares Scythia to a square:

And so the shape of Scythia is square: two of its sides reach down to the sea, and these and its coastal and inland margins make it equal on all sides.

Getting out of an oath in a clever way:

There was in Axos a merchant, Themision of Thera, with whom Etearchos pledged guest-friendship and whom he asked to swear to perform whatever service he would request. When Themision had sworn the oath, Etearchos brought forth his daughter and handed her over to him with instructions to take her away and throw her into the sea. Infuriated at being deceived by the oath in this way, Themision renounced his pact of guest-friendship, and then, to release himself from obligation under the oath he had sworn to Etearchos, he sailed away with the girl, tied a rope around her, lowered her down into the sea, and then, after pulling her back up, took her with him back to Thera. (4.154)

Sexual customs of the Auseans:

They share intercourse with their women in common, promiscuously like beasts, and do not dwell together as couples. Whenever a woman’s child has developed sufficiently, the men get together within three months, and whichever of them the child resembles most is acknowledged as his father. (4.180)

Quotes from Book V

The life-denying Getai:

When a child is born to them [the Getai], his relatives sit around him and grieve over all the evils he will have to endure later, recounting all things that humans must suffer. But when someone dies, they have fun and take pleasure in burying him in the ground, reciting over him all the evils he has escaped and how he is now in a state of complete bliss. (5.4)

The contest among Krestonian wives:

Each man has many wives, and whenever a man dies, a great contest with fierce rivalry is held among his wives and their families concerning which of them was the wife whom he loved the most. The woman who is judged most worthy of this honor is eulogized by both the mean and the women, after which her closest relative cuts her throat over the grave and she is buried with her husband. The other wives consider their rejection a terrible misfortune and the greatest possible disgrace. (5.5)

The Thracian customs:

They sell their children for export abroad and do not keep watch over their unmarried daughters, but instead allow them to have intercourse with any man they want. They purchase their wives, however, from the women’s parents for very high prices and then guard them quite strictly. To have tattoos is a mark of nobility, while having none is a sign of baseness. The idle man of leisure is most admired, and the man who works the soil is most despised. The most honorable way to make a living is thought to be by war and plunder. Those are their most remarkable customs. (5.6)

Darius’ comment about friendship:

Of all possessions the most valuable is a friend who is both intelligent and well intentioned. (5.24)

Sending a message on a slave’s tattooed head:

Histiaios had wanted to tell Aristagoras to revolt but could not safely send such and instruction to him, since the roads were guarded. And so he had chosen his most trustworthy slave, shaved his head, tattooed it with his message, and waited for the hair to grow back. As soon as it had done so, he sent the slave off with instructions to do nothing other than go to Miletus and, once there, to tell Aristagoras to shave off his hair and look at his head. (5.35)

The Athenian women stab a man to death with pins:

Actually that one man did not survive long either, but perished in the following way. After he had returned to Athens he reported the disaster, and when the wives of the men who had served with him against Aegina heard of it, they became outraged that of all the men, he alone had come back safely. They took hold of him on all sides and, as they all asked him where their own husbands were, they stabbed him with the pins of the cloaks; and so that is how he, too, died. To the Athenians, what the women had done seemed an even more terrible disaster than the loss of the army. They could find no other penalty to impose upon the women except to make them change their style of dress to the Ionian fashion. Prior to this, the Athenian women had worn Dorian clothing, which most resembles the Corinthian style, but now they changed to wearing a linen tunic, so they would have no pins to use. (5.87)

Herodotus’ comments about democracy in Athens:

So the Athenians had increased in strength, which demonstrates that an equal voice in government has beneficial impact not merely in one way, but in every way: the Athenians, while ruled by tyrants, were no better in war than any of the peoples living around them, but once they were rid of tyrants, they became by far the best of all. Thus it is clear that they were deliberately slack while repressed, since they were working for a master, but that after they were freed, they became ardently devoted to working hard so as to win achievements for themselves as individuals. (5.78)

When Aristgoras appeared before the Athenian people, he repeated the same things that he had said in Sparta about the good things in Asia and about Persian warfare—that they used neither shields nor spears and how easy it would be to subdue them. In addition, he told them that Miletus was originally and Athenian colony, and therefore, since the Athenians were a great power, it was only fair and reasonable for them to offer protection to the Milesians There was nothing he failed to promise them, since he was now in dire need, and at last he managed to win them over. For it would seem to be easier to deceive and impose upon a whole throng of people than to do so to just on individual, since he had failed with Kleomenes of Lacedaemon, who was alone, but then succeeded with 30,000 Athenians. After the Athenians had been won over, they voted to dispatch twenty ships to help the Ionians and appointed Melanthion, a man of the city who was distinguished in every respect, as commander over them. These ships turned out to be the beginning of evils for both Hellenes and barbarians. (5.97)

Darius’ comments when he first hears about the Athenians:

It is said that when Darius first heard this report, he disregarded the Ionians, since he knew that they at least would not escape punishment for their revolt; but he inquired who the Athenians were, and after he had been told, he asked for a bow. He took the bow, set an arrow on its string, and shot the arrow toward the heavens. And as it flew high into the air, he said: “Zeus, let it be granted to me to punish the Athenians.” After saying this, he appointed one of his attendants to repeat to him three times whenever his dinner was served: “My lord, remember the Athenians.” (5.105)

Onesilos’ head:

Because Onesilos had besieged the Amathousians, they cut off his head and took it to Amathous, where they hung it up over the city gates. The head eventually became hollow as it hung there, and then swarms of bees entered it and filled it with honeycombs. (5.114)

Quotations are taken from Andrea L. Purvis’s 2007 translation of The Histories, published by Anchor Books.