Dafato Team | May 27, 2022

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Herodotus of Halicarnassus(† c. 430

The geographic horizon opened up by Herodotus in the Histories even included the peripheral zones of the world imaginable to the Greeks of his time, in which there was room for mythical creatures and fantasy images. The composition of the Persian army under Xerxes I during the campaign against the Greeks was also an occasion for Herodotus to deal with the manifold peculiarities in external appearance and culture of the participating peoples. In addition, he referred to his own impressions of his extensive travels. Thus, the work contains a large number of references to the most diverse everyday customs and religious rites, but also reflections on power-political constellations and constitutional issues of the time.

By his own account, Herodotus was born in the Greek polis of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, now Bodrum. Like others in his family, he was politically opposed to the local dynast Lygdamis and was forced into exile to Samos sometime in the 460s BC. After the fall of Lygdamis, he returned before the mid-450s B.C., but left Halicarnassus for good a short time later.

According to his own statement, Herodotus undertook extensive travels, the chronology of which, however, is uncertain: to Egypt, to the Black Sea region, to Thrace and Macedonia as far as Scythia, to the Near East as far as Babylon, but probably not to Persia proper. Some researchers (the so-called Liar school) doubt this information, however, and consider Herodotus as a "parlor scholar" who never left the Greek world in truth.

Between his reported travels, Herodotus preferred to stay in Athens, where, as in Olympia, Corinth and Thebes, he gave lectures from his work, for which he was handsomely rewarded. According to an Athenian inscription, he received a gift of ten talents at the request of a certain Anytos. Herodotus's second hometown was the city founded in 444

Introductory overview

As a work of "astonishing greatness and tremendous effect" the Histories are appreciated in recent research. No other author of antiquity had made such an effort as Herodotus to convey to his audience an idea of the diversity of the whole world as he saw it: of the various peoples in their habitats, of their respective customs and cultural achievements. Wolfgang Will sees Herodotus' work in a new topical context after the end of the bipolar East-West conflict. Beyond the at times seemingly monolithic blocs, the view has now opened for "the mixture of ethnic groups with their conflicting orders", as it was already described by Herodotus on a smaller scale of the ancient world. In another respect, the Histories offer aspects of connection to the world of the present, because in Herodotus, unlike Thucydides, for example, women are also often in the focus of events.

Originally, Herodotus perhaps recited individual, self-contained sections (so-called lógoi) to the audience. When the Histories were published is disputed in research and can hardly be answered unequivocally. There are certain references to events in 430 B.C., and probably also indirect allusions to events in 427 B.C. It is unclear whether other statements refer to events in 424 B.C.. The division of the work into nine books does not originate from Herodotus; it hardly makes sense in terms of content and could be related to the assignment to the nine muses, perhaps originally created in Alexandria as a tribute to the author.

The pivotal point of the Histories is the final description of the Persian Wars, as Herodotus already states at the beginning:

This brief preface is "as it were the founding document of Western historiography." The constitutional debate contained in the Histories, in which the ancient forms of state are weighed against each other, is also significant in terms of political theory from a modern perspective. Among other things, it offers early starting points for democracy research.

For his work, Herodotus collected reports from chroniclers, merchants, soldiers and adventurers over many years and on this basis reconstructed such complex strategic events as the war campaign of Xerxes against Greece or the famous battle of Salamis. Similar to Hecataeus of Miletus, Herodotus, by his own account, traveled to many of the distant lands he reported on himself. His work set standards in the transition to written culture in Greek antiquity and was at the same time still strongly influenced by forms of expression of oral tradition.

A detailed table of contents is provided by the

Credibility and source value

There has been disagreement about the credibility of Herodotus since ancient times. Plutarch wrote a treatise about 450 years later in which he condemned him as a liar. In more recent research, some see in him a methodically for his time amazingly well working reporter, others think he invented much freely and only pretends eyewitnesses. To this day, no unanimous opinion has emerged in the research community.

Consequently, the source value of the Histories remains controversial. For many events, however, Herodotus represents the only source, which lends particular weight to the long-standing discussion about the reliability of his information. Which sources Herodotus consulted cannot always be said with certainty. According to his own statements, it can be assumed that he relied mainly on his own travel experiences, although the historicity of these journeys is sometimes questioned in research, as well as on reports from local informants. Detlev Fehling even considered Herodotus' sources largely fictitious and his alleged research and travels primarily a literary construct.

Undoubtedly, Herodotus also consulted written sources, including perhaps Dionysius of Miletus, but certainly Hecataeus of Miletus. Herodotus devoted himself, among other things, to a closer look at the oriental advanced civilizations, especially Egypt. Well known are his explanations of pyramid building and mummification. His sources were probably mainly the Egyptian priests; however, Herodotus himself did not speak Egyptian. In research it is generally disputed how carefully Herodotus proceeded in individual cases, especially since the oral tradition as well as a reference to inscriptions (whose texts Herodotus could read, if at all, only in translation) is problematic. The Histories are in any case not free of errors, fantasy and mistakes (Herodotus often succeeds in very vivid descriptions of large contexts, but also of smaller peripheral events. Erroneous information can be found, for example, in relation to the older Near Eastern and Persian history. Herodotus' description of the Persian wars, which are closest to him in time, is partly also regarded critically by the research, especially since inaccuracies or wrong information can be proved, e.g. concerning the troop strengths or certain chronological details.

Herodotus spiced his work with anecdotes and also gave more or less fictional or novella-like stories - probably also to entertain his audience. These include, among others, the story about an Egyptian master thief or his well-known report about almost dog-sized ants digging for gold in India; the narrative benefited from the fact that India appeared to the Greeks as a (semi-mythical) "wonderland" anyway. More difficult to assess as a legend was Herodotus' earliest description of a silent trade between Punic sailors and "Libyan" (presumably black African) gold traders in West Africa, which was taken up as a topos by Arab and European travelers from the Middle Ages into the colonial period. Taken as a whole, Herodotus dealt with a variety of topics of the most diverse kind (for example, geography, peoples, cults, and important rulers), whereby his "geographical horizon" has received special attention, although he could certainly draw on models (for example, Hecataios of Miletus).

Reception in antiquity

Herodotus' writings were recognized as a new form of literature soon after their publication. His prose work is also written at a high literary level, so that his style was still to exert a lasting influence on ancient (especially Greek) historiography until late antiquity (Procopius, among others).

Without referring to Herodotus by name, Thucydides succeeded him as historiographer with his history of the Peloponnesian War. In his work, written as a contemporary witness, he consciously set himself apart from Herodotus by emphasizing the most precise and critical examination of events (cf. Thucydides 1:20-22). A clear reference to Herodotus, who was handsomely rewarded for lecturing from his work to an audience in Athens, among other places Thucydides makes a clear reference to Herodotus, who was well rewarded and read from his work to audiences in Athens, among other places, when he recommends his own work: "For listening, this unpoetic account will perhaps seem less enjoyable; but whoever wants to clearly recognize what has happened and thus also what will happen in the future, which will once again, according to human nature, be the same or similar, may find it useful in this way, and this shall be enough for me: it is written down for permanent possession, not as a showpiece for a single hearing. A significant difference was that Thucydides usually chose the variant he found plausible, rather than offering different versions of the same events as Herodotus did. Both became founders of Greco-Roman historiography, which did not fade out until about 600 A.D., at the end of antiquity, and which, taken as a whole, was on a high intellectual and artistic level.

Some time after Herodotus, Ctesias of Knidos wrote a Persian History (Persika), of which, however, only fragments have survived. Ctesias criticized Herodotus with the intention of "correcting" him. In doing so, he varied Herodotean motifs and rearranged them with veiling intent, but at the same time rebuked his predecessor as a liar and storyteller. As a result, he presented a significantly more unreliable account of Persian history that bore strong novelistic features. Nevertheless, Ctesias, who worked as a physician at the Persian royal court, offered some useful information despite the fragmentary nature of his work, and he became an important contributor to the image that the Greeks had of Persian conditions.

Interest in Herodotus - not primarily as a narrator of many curious stories, but as the first great historian in the tradition with a phenomenal research horizon - has increased greatly in recent times. This may have been helped by the fact that literary and historical studies have recently found a common umbrella in cultural studies and that Herodotus can be regarded as the first great cultural theorist in this context. In addition, his reports are partially accessible to factual verification through source research and archaeological finds in the Near East. Finally, as an analyst of interstate relations in antiquity, he can also be "re-read as the first theorist and critic of imperialist politics."

His repertoire of methods covers a range from personal investigation and critical reflection to speculative conjecture based on probabilities. Reinhold Bichler sees in Herodotus' work the endeavor "to gain a standard for the conception of one's own history and to grasp and present all this in a synopsis whose narrative grace is equal to its historical-philosophical content."

Wolfgang Will considers Herodotus' account of the Persian invasion of Greece under Xerxes I to be "one of the greatest historical depictions known to Western literature. In the very first book of his work, Herodotus shows how wars change people's lives by saying that in peace children bury their parents, while in war parents bury their children.

Universal historical reach in time and space

The comprehensive perspective, which is decisive for the structure of the Histories, contributes significantly to the importance of the work. Herodotus' chronological and dating data, as well as the determination of places and spatial distances, follow a comprehensible approach of graduated accuracy or vagueness, depending on the proximity to the main narrative. Its span covers the 80 years from the beginnings of the Persian ruler Cyrus to the failure of Xerxes' expansionist policy in the battles of Plataiai and Mykale. "Herodotus carefully grades his chronological data, not only making known the decrease of certain knowledge with increasing temporal distance, but also letting us see how much the exactness of the chronological data decreases with the spatial distance from the events of the main narrative." He devotes thorough attention to the borderline between Asia and Europe marked by the straits of the Hellespont and the Bosporus, which in his view acquired fateful significance through Xerxes' move against the Greeks, and refers to his own calculations of the length and width of the straits. Other detailed data concern, for example, the distances and daily stages from Ephesus to the Persian center of Susa, for which he calculates 14,040 stadia (177 m each). Of similar density and accuracy are otherwise only the distance calculations for the course of the Nile from the Mediterranean coast to Elephantine (a total of 6,920 stadia).

Herodotus' efforts for a differentiated as well as comprehensive chronology also refer to the spaces of the Persian-Egyptian ruling dynasties: "With his exploration of the Egyptian historical tradition, for which he is vouched by the knowledge of the priests, Herodotus can advance into a depth of times, to which the Trojan War and the founding deeds connected with the heroes Heracles and Perseus or the Phoenician Kadmos must appear as events of a near past". Thus he calculates (from today's view questionably) for 341 Egyptian rulers with a total reign time of 11,340 years alone for the older king time.

Herodotus' sometimes extremely detailed (but not always error-free) chronological and geographical data with regard to his main narrative turn out to be much more vague not only for western and northwestern regions of his European horizon at that time, but also with regard to Greece. For the time before the Ionian revolt, there are no events in Herodotus' Greek history that can be dated to a specific year; and thus, the 36 years that Herodotus has set for the Peisistratid tyranny also float in his chronological structure.

The same applies to the Pentekontaetie, which he witnessed at least in part. Herodotus is conspicuously restrained in his references to the present. He seems rather to want to hide himself and his social existence, even where he lets himself be recognized by allusions as a contemporary at least of the beginnings of the Peloponnesian War. "The story he tells of the events that are to be saved from oblivion, however, takes on a supra-temporal dimension precisely because of this."

Impulses at the transition from oral to written tradition

Only with a superficial view, according to Michael Stahl, the individual logoi of geographic, ethnographic and historical content seem only loosely connected. It can be shown that every single event, including the digressions, was historically significant for Herodotus and was therefore taken up by him.

Until the 4th century BC, individual reading as a form of literary reception was still an exception, according to Stahl, although according to recent research, other authors were already writing historical prose works during Herodotus' lifetime. Herodotus still wrote primarily for oral presentation. Naturally, this could only ever bring a few parts of the complete work to the audience. From these preconditions Stahl deduces that the Histories partly still belonged to the oral culture and that therefore there were no difficulties in formal terms for the inclusion of oral testimonies in the work.

The tradition, especially of elements of the archaic history of Greece, was shaped and selected by the contemporary interests of Herodotus' informants. Herodotus, for his part, evaluated what came to his ears with regard to what suited his own views. However, the social control accompanying the oral presentation might have ensured that he could not have replaced the messages of his informants with his own fictions. "Therefore, despite everything, it will be possible to say that oral tradition found its 'mouthpiece' in Herodotus." On the other hand, however, the written version of large parts of the oral tradition represented, in Stahl's words, a henceforth "unavoidable frame of reference, which drew very narrow limits to possible further formations of the tradition."

Included mythological elements

Herodotus' integration into a traditional narrative structure is often discussed in research, often in connection with the reference to his critical distance to the mythical-religious tradition, to which he asserted rational objections. On the other hand, for Katharina Wesselmann it is important to note that mythical elements also shape and permeate the histories. The traditional thought patterns of his contemporaries are found again in Herodotus; for "the outrages of the historical figures are the same as those of their mythical predecessors." But the inclusion of elements of the mythical narrative tradition was also important for the composition of the work. It enabled Herodotus, he said, to embed the wealth of facts, episodes, and digressions introduced into structures familiar to the audience. "It is only through the context thus established, through the recognition effect in the mirror of tradition, that the data take on color: orientation to familiar patterns of thought helps the recipient to structure and mentally process them; the drowning of individual elements of importance to the overall narrative is prevented by adapting the facts to the tradition and the tradition to the facts."

The tension between facticity and functionality in the Histories appears to Wesselmann to have been generated primarily by the demands made on Herodotus after historiography had established itself as a genre in its own right. "Since then, attempts have been made to 'divide' Herodotus into the ethnographer Herodotus and the historian Herodotus, or precisely into the 'chatterer' and the historian." A consciousness of fictionality in the modern sense, at least before Aristotle, could not be assumed for Greek antiquity. According to Wesselmann, even Thucydides, who disparagingly attested to his predecessors that what they presented was aimed more at the public's desire to hear than at the truth, did not consistently dispense with mythical elements, since he included King Minos, for example, in his historical work, although his epoch eludes documentation. Even in Plutarch, "a traditionalizing shaping of the material" is recognizable, which is why Herodotus' location at the turning point between orality and writing is rather misleading: "in the institutionalization of the medium of writing and the loss of importance of oral narrative modes, it is by no means a point event, but a process lasting for centuries; not even the point of its conclusion seems to be clearly ascertainable."

Continents and Margins in Herodotus' World

"Appreciating geography as a factor in understanding what we call history is part of Herodotus' legacy," Bichler states. Herodotus had indeed taken up already existing ideas, but had formed something new from them. For him, there were only two continents, Europe and Asia, because he did not consider Libya as a continent of its own, but as belonging to Asia. He imagined both continents to be separated by a borderline running in a west-east direction, mainly marked by waters. Asia was enclosed in the south according to his conception by the southern sea, Europe to the north however too extended and unexplored, in order to prove it likewise as surrounded by a continuous sea connection. The borderline between the two continents runs from the Pillars of Heracles (at the Strait of Gibraltar) through the Mediterranean Sea, the Dardanelles, the Bosporus, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, which appears for the first time in Herodotus as an inland lake surrounded by shores.

The mysterious marginal zones of that world of that time offered from time immemorial plenty of material for fantasy images. Herodotus was aware of this and demonstrated his own distance in his information about these remote regions by not referring to direct eye and ear witnesses but to indirect informants and by frequently raising his own doubts. However, according to Bichler, "his criticism has its limits where it would get in the way of his own narrative pleasure."

With the treasures and mythical creatures presented according to common pattern in the marginal zones of the world Herodotus deals partly extensively. He reports more or less recognizably skeptically about treasures of tin, "electron" (probably amber is meant) and gold in the extreme northwest of Europe, about griffins guarding the gold and about one-eyed men who steal it from the griffins. Also about gold is the above-mentioned story of nearly dog-sized giant ants in India's gold-rich desert who, while digging tunnels, throw up gold dust that the locals cunningly take. A third way of extracting gold leads to Libya's distant coast, where girls scoop gold out of a lake using bird feathers that have previously been coated with pitch.

It has not been clarified beyond doubt, but at least it is probable that Herodotus was able to refer for the Histories to a writing about airs, waters and localities (cited as environmental writing), which was formerly wrongly attributed to Hippocrates. In it, Bichler sees "an early example of medical and scientific speculation and at the same time an important piece of ethnographic and political theory," according to which climate and geographical milieu shaped the physical condition as well as the character and customs of the respective country's inhabitants. In comparison to the environmental writing, however, Herodotus' thought processes were much more complex, for example, by giving the geographical view a historical dimension and reckoning with the shaping of the country's nature by both long-term natural and cultural forces such as dikes and canals.

Ethnologist and cultural theorist

In the same way that Herodotus weaves his geographical description of the world into the sweeping narrative of the prehistory of the Persian wars, his diverse ethnological observations and information are embedded as digressions into the military undertakings of the Persian great kings. In the great army show, which Xerxes held after crossing the Hellespont at Doriskos, Herodotus gives an overview of the numerous peoples in the catchment area of the Persian supremacy, concentrated on external characteristics such as costume, armor, hair and skin color. Again, at other seemingly appropriate places in his composition of works, Herodotus deals with social behaviors, customs and traditions of a multitude of peoples in the core and peripheral regions of the world accessible to him. Unlike in modern racial doctrines, Herodotus' ethnographic classification types are not accompanied by a valorization or devaluation. Rather, his cultural-theoretical attention seems to be directed at showing the fragility of one's own civilization in the mirror of the behavior of distant peoples: "Herodotus' ethnography conveys the impression that, with increasing distance from one's own world, all those traits dissolve that give our life in an ordered society firm contours: Personal identity, regulated communication and social consciousness, regulations of sexuality and cultivation of nutrition, life in family associations and in a dwelling of one's own, care for the sick and the dead, and respect for superior norms expressed in religious views and practices. "

What Herodotus knew to report to his contemporaries about known and unknown regions of the world of that time and their inhabitants, results in a multifaceted mosaic, which could partly arouse astonishment and shudder and was not stingy with the fascinatingly exotic. Strikingly often, the described behaviors represented striking taboo breaks with regard to the traditional Greek culture, such as eating raw meat, cannibalism and human sacrifice. Perhaps Herodotus was also influenced by the contemporary cultural theory of sophism, which assumed an initial rawness for early human existence close to nature and translated it into all kinds of horror images.

In the face of the diversity of other ways of life, awareness of the peculiarities of one's own culture and customs arises, but these are thus also called into question. In this respect, Herodotus created an enormously rich offer of orientation. For example, he gives examples of an unusual distribution of roles between the sexes. He reports about the Egyptians that the market trade was determined and handled by women, while the men did weaving work at home. Among the Libyan Gindans, it is said to have been customary for women to indicate their social status by placing a leather strap around their ankle for each of the men who cohabited with them. According to Herodotus, the Lycians had the peculiarity of naming offspring after their mothers rather than their fathers, and favored women legally in other ways as well.

Elsewhere, women were treated as social common property, among the Massageites, for example, in that the men attached their bow to the wagon of the currently selected copulation partner as a temporary signal. Similarly, the Nasamones proceeded with their women by communicating coitus by means of a staff placed in front of the door. In the course of the first wedding of a Nazamone, the male wedding guests were given the opportunity to have intercourse with the bride in connection with the presentation of gifts. Among the Auseans, on the other hand, there were no marriages at all. According to Herodotus, the mating process was performed according to animal species, and paternity was determined afterwards by examining and determining the child's resemblance to one of the men.

For this as well as for the other areas of Herodotean ethnography, it is important to note, according to Bichler, that Herodotus did not press his ethnographic classifications into a fixed cultural schema: "A people that is characterized as crude in light of its sexual mores may appear more civilized when measured by other standards, and vice versa."

Another aspect frequently included by Herodotus in highlighting the cultural characteristics of the individual peoples is the attitude toward death and the treatment of the dead. Here, too, a very diverse and partly contradictory spectrum emerges from his indications. On the one hand, according to his explorations, there were Indian peoples at the eastern edge of the world whose old and sick people withdrew to die in the solitude of nature and were left to themselves there without anyone caring about their death. Among the Padaians, on the other hand, who also lived far to the east, the sick were supposedly killed by their closest relatives and then eaten: A sick man was strangled by male family members, a sick woman by female ones. One did not like to wait until the disease had spoiled the meat. Among the Issodons in the north, the consumption of family fathers alone after their death was common, mixed with cattle meat. The prepared heads of the fathers, covered with gold plate, served as cult objects for the sons at the annual sacrificial feast. While the kings of the Scythians were buried in mound tombs together with the strangled servants, with horses and golden tableware, the Ethiopians, who were native to the southern sea, are said to have placed their dead as mummies in columnar, transparent coffins and kept them in their house for another year and sacrificed to them before placing them somewhere outside the city.

So, even if the customs of dealing with the deceased may have been far apart and even if they may have aroused horror among the Greeks who burned their dead, Herodotus tried to warn urgently against mockery or scorn in these matters by an anecdote from the Persian royal court. According to this story, Darius had once asked the Greeks at court what they wanted in return for eating their parents, but they refused under all circumstances. Then he sent for the Callatians from India, who were eating their dead parents, and inquired about the price for their willingness to burn the corpses of their own parents. Screaming protests and the accusation of godlessness he had received from them for the answer. Herodotus thus sees proof that each people places its own customs and laws above those of all others, and confirms the poet Pindar in considering the moral law as the highest authority of rule.

For Herodotus, the worship of gods, sanctuaries and religious rites among the marginal peoples of his world at that time are only sporadic and not very complex. Of the Atamarants living under the scorching sun of Libya it is said not only that they were the only ones without individual names, but that they occasionally turned collectively cursing and swearing against the sun that plagued them. According to Herodotus, the Taurians, who neighbored the Scythians in the north of the Black Sea, sacrificed all the castaways they picked up to Iphigenia, impaled their heads on long poles, and had them act as sentinels high above their houses. Of the Thracian Getae, Herodotus reports a belief in immortality, in that to the god Zalmoxis ascended whoever of them perished. They considered their god to be the only one at all, whom they threatened in turn by shooting arrows towards the sky during thunderstorms.

Herodotus traces the origin of the anthropomorphic multiform community of gods familiar to the Greeks essentially to the Egyptians with their far older history. Only the Egyptian pantheon could compete with the Hellenic world of gods in exemplary diversity. According to Herodotus, it was the Egyptians who first gave the gods their names and erected altars, temples and cult images for them. From them came sacrificial customs and processions, oracles, interpretation of omens and astrological conclusions. The doctrine of transmigration of souls and the doctrines of the underworld connected with the cult of Dionysus were also of Egyptian origin. In general, Herodotus interpreted a whole series of domestic cults, ecstatic festivals and rites preferably as foreign adoptions of various origins.

In Bichler's view, Herodotus consistently historicized the process of the Theogony, "probably not least under the impression of the sophist doctrine of the emergence of culture, which also conceived of the genesis of the knowledge of the gods as a process of gradual change in human history." In the approach of treating knowledge of God as a phenomenon of the process of cultural history, Herodotus was, notwithstanding his reservations about intellectual arrogance, "a son of the 'Enlightenment' of his time."

Political analyst

As a noteworthy interpreter of political constellations, Herodotus has only recently come increasingly into focus in the history of reception. Christian Wendt attributes the fact that he has received little attention in this regard, especially in comparison with Thucydides, to doubts about Herodotus' methodological consistency and his credibility, but above all to his broad representational horizon and the abundance of the material he worked on: "Herodotus covers a much broader field in his observations than Thucydides; 'political history' is only a facet, not the core of the investigation.

Herodotus' political observations and interpretations, like the geographical, ethnological and religious digressions, are scattered throughout his work and are subordinated to the history of the origins and course of the great warlike conflict between the Persians and the Greeks. How he himself thought about war and civil war was revealed by Herodotus in remarks that he put into the mouth of the defeated Croesus as an insight: "...no one is so foolish that he freely chooses war instead of peace. For here sons bury their fathers, but there fathers bury their sons." Civil war, on the other hand, he had the Athenians invoke in the face of the Persian threat: "For a struggle within a nation is so much worse than a war fought with one accord, as war is worse than peace."

According to Bichler, the political leitmotif in Herodotus' histories is the lure of power, which leads to unjust campaigns of conquest and to ruin - Greeks and non-Greeks alike. Pure expansionism is often shown to be the main driving force of action. The defining element of interstate politics is thus the weighing of self-interests, to which morality, law and treaties are sacrificed according to need. The calculation of power constellations is central to political actors almost everywhere; the primacy of one's own advantage is constantly in effect. In this respect, even different systems of rule do not differ fundamentally in Herodotus' view. For as soon as the Persian danger had been averted, the Athenians, who had long since been freed from tyranny, also showed "that tendency toward imperialistic grandmannism.

The Lydian king Croesus was the first in the series of Asiatic rulers treated in detail by Herodotus in the genesis of the Persian Wars. He had first levied tribute from the Greek poleis in Asia Minor, leaving the Persian Great Kings Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius and Xerxes a marginal source of tension in their domain. Each of these rulers embarked on military campaigns of conquest and ultimately failed.

Croesus went to battle against Cyrus with the intention of conquering his great empire, was defeated, captured and led to the stake before Cyrus pardoned him and made him his advisor from then on. Cyrus, for his part, and at first successfully, set about subjugating the peoples of Asia to his rule and also conquering Babylon for the first time. But when, driven by Croesus and convinced of his own invincibility, he also sought to subjugate the Massagets on the other side of the Caspian Sea, his army was finally defeated by the forces of the Massaget queen Tomyris, Kyros himself was killed and his body desecrated by Tomyris, who thus took revenge for her son.

Cyrus' son and successor Cambyses followed in his father's footsteps as a conqueror by subjugating Egypt in a comprehensive enterprise on land and sea and now also drawing tribute from Libya. Thus he ruled over the largest historically known empire up to that time - and was not content with that. With the main part of his army he went on an expansion course far to the south to the Ethiopians, practically to the end of the world at that time. Already beyond Thebes, however, the food for the supply of the army became scarce. Soon even the draught animals were consumed; finally the famine was so great that, using the lottery, every tenth comrade-in-arms was killed and eaten by his comrades. Only then did Cambyses abandon the enterprise and turn back.

Xerxes, in turn, was not deterred by the double failure of his father Darius - first in the campaign against the Scythians and then in the first major attack on the Greek mainland - from mobilizing once again and even more intensively for a campaign of punishment and conquest. Herodotus attests Xerxes an apparently boundless striving for power expansion by having him state in verbatim speech in the council of war that as a result of the forthcoming conquests he would, so to speak, exercise world domination with his Persians:

In Herodotus' portrayal of the aforementioned main actors of the historical-political events, power and the desire for conquest appear almost fatefully and inevitably coupled. They are apparently incapable of timely moderation; they are ultimately inaccessible to good advice; warnings are smugly thrown to the wind, dreams, omens and oracle sayings are often misinterpreted. The arrogance that grows with power leads to arbitrary violations of the natural order and of moral and religious norms.

Herodotus' Croesus already shows in his legendary encounter with the wise Athenian Solon how little he understands about the true conditions of a happy life, despite all his ostentatiously displayed wealth. Before his attack on the Persian Empire under Cyrus, he tries to secure himself by meticulously questioning and examining all important oracle sites, but then, among other things, when evaluating the Delphic oracle saying that was decisive for him - that if he went against the Persians, he would destroy a great empire - he carelessly draws the conclusion that victory was prophesied for him. Only after defeat does he come to the realization that he has ultimately destroyed his own empire. The tyrant Polycrates of Samos, who ruled unchallenged for many years and envied his existence, suffers a similar fate at the end of his life when, lured by prospects of additional wealth through military expansion, he falls into a trap and meets a terrible end. For neither seers and friends with their warnings nor his nightmare-ridden daughter were able to keep him from stepping into ruin.

In Herodotus, Xerxes' decision to launch a campaign of revenge and conquest against the Greeks goes through a process of prolonged vacillation and multiple reversals. The influence of conflicting advice and oppressive dreams had caused him massive uncertainty and hesitation. In the end, it was again a dream that was decisive, namely that of his uncle Artabanos, who, as an advisor, originally argued courageously against the euphoria of expansion. Thus, in this case, too, the insatiable lust for power finally took its fateful course.

In Herodotus, progressive imperiousness is usually accompanied by hubris, by a self-aggrandizement and self-exaltation that believes it can override human measure and moral law and even the order of nature. Thus it is said of Cyrus, who drowned one of the holy horses in the current of the river Gyndes during the campaign against Babylon, that he then wanted to punish and humiliate the river itself by ordering canalization measures, which should lead to the fact that even women could cross it afterwards without even touching the water with their knees. Xerxes, in turn, is reported to have had the sea, which was unruly to him, flogged with insults when a storm destroyed the bridge of hemp and Byblos bast across the Hellespont, over which the army was to pass from Asia to Europe. In his opinion, nature had to be subordinated to the will of the ruler. In addition, however, the heads of the builders of this bridge were cut off.

Greek tyrants were also afflicted with hubris, as Herodotus first shows with the example of the Peisistratid tyranny in Athens, whose founder Peisistratos is said to have subjugated the island of Naxos in order to hold the sons of his possible Athenian rivals for power hostage there. The tyrant Periander is said to have done even worse in Corinth. He had his fellow tyrant Thrasyboulos, who ruled in Miletus, ask him through a messenger for a recipe for the optimal arrangement of his rule. Thrasyboulos had led the messenger to a cornfield and had cut off there all above-average outstanding ears of corn. Although the messenger himself did not understand the message, Periander, the recipient, did, and he then displayed a cruelty unheard of until then by ensuring that every more important head among the Corinthians was killed or expelled.

Like all of Herodotus' political-analytical statements, the constitutional debate is purposefully integrated into the context of the presentation and subordinated to it. The context to be considered here is Darius I's cunning initiation of rule. In the course of events reported or arranged by Herodotus, his first concern is to prove that the monarchical form of rule is the best compared to popular rule and aristocratic rule by a few. In the opinion of most scholars, Herodotus does not reproduce Persian thought, but the Greek constitutional discourse of his own time.

As an advocate of popular rule, Herodotus lets Otanes present the already known evils of autocracy (crimes of arrogance, oversaturation, mistrust or ill will towards others; despotic rule by force and arbitrariness in the final result) as a plea for his counter-model: equality of all before the law, lack of offices, accountability of office holders, popular assembly as decision-making body. It is no coincidence that these are the basic principles of Attic democracy.

Megabyzos, who, according to Herodotus, advocates an oligarchic exercise of power, agrees with Otanes in his argument against autocracy, but on the other hand, he sees above all the unbridled masses as possessed of foolishness and wantonness, and concludes that a selection of the best men - among whom one must certainly count oneself - should be given power. For only from them the best decisions are to be expected.

Herodotus has Darius first explain that one must consider the constitutions in their ideal, best form. Then, in his plea for monarchy, he agrees with Megabyzos on the rejection of popular rule, but praises the sole rule of the actual best man, which is free of the rivalries and strife that in an oligarchy inevitably lead to stasis, murder and manslaughter among hostile aristocrats. Nothing could be better than the rule of the best. Popular rule, on the other hand, favors the cronyism of the particularly bad citizens and their community-damaging activities until someone steps forward, creates order and thus recommends himself as autocrat.

Herodotus refrains from expressing his own opinion on the three pleas. The fact that Darius' position prevailed and that only the question of who was the "objectively best" candidate for sole rule remained open is due to the course of history itself. The historian, however, combines this with an ironic punch line: among the seven remaining candidates for the throne, a joint ride was allegedly agreed upon with the goal of determining the future king whose horse neighed first after mounting. Here, too, Darius prevailed because his groom had cleverly prepared his master's steed.

In 1986 the asteroid (3092) Herodotus was named after him. Also the lunar crater Herodotus is named after him.



  1. Herodotus
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