The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2016

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NOV 2016 Issue

The Histories

BOOK I: Cleo


Herodotus of Halicarnassus here writes down what he discovered in his research so that time may not erase among men the memory of things past, and the high and wondrous deeds done by the Greeks and the barbarians may not lose their fame, especially why it was that they came to fight each other.

Those among the Persians who have an understanding of history say that it was the Phoenicians who first began the vendetta, and they say that these Phoenicians came to our sea from the one called the Eythraean Sea, and when they had settled in the land which they inhabit still, they at once set out on long sea voyages. They went everywhere, taking goods from Egypt and Assyria, including Argos. Now Argos, at that time and in all things, was the foremost of the cities in the land that is now known as Hellas.

The Phoenicians came to Argos and began to sell off the goods in their ship. The fifth or sixth day after their arrival, when most of their wares were nearly sold, there came down to the sea a group of women, and among them was the daughter of the king. Her name, as corroborated also by the Hellenes, was Io, the daughter of Inachus.

The women standing near the stern of the ship were buying the merchandise that they liked best when the Phoenicians, signalling each other, pounced on them. Most of the women escaped by running away, but Io and a few others were abducted. The Phoenicians threw them on their ship and left at once, sailing off to Egypt.


In this way, so say the Persians, though not the Hellenes, Io came to Egypt. And also according to them, this was the first beginning of the offenses.

Then, further according to the Persians, some Hellenes (the Persians do not say who these were) landed at Tyre in Phoenicia and there carried off Europa, the daughter of the king. They were more than likely Cretans. In this way, the score was settled for the first wrong. But afterwards, it was the Hellenes, they say, who were guilty of committing the second offense. They sailed off in a warship and came to the sea of the Colchians, and to the river Phasis. When they finished with those things they had come to do, they abducted Medea, the daughter of the king. And when the king of Colchis sent a herald to the land of Hellas, to exact recompense for the rape of his daughter and seek her return, the Hellenes replied by saying that since the Colchians had first refused to compensate for the abduction of Io of the Argives, they therefore would now offer none.


After this, in the generation that followed, they say that Alexander, the son of Priam, who had heard these tales, got it into his mind that he would take a wife for himself by carrying one off from Hellas. He was entirely convinced that he would not have to make any recompense, just as the Hellenes earlier had made none. In this way, he abducted Helen.

At first the Hellenes thought it best to send heralds asking for the return of Helen and compensation for her rape. But the Trojans reminded them of the rape of Medea and said that the Hellenes always asked for compensation, while offering none themselves; nor yet did they ever return any individual when asked to do so.


Up to now, it was all simply a matter of rape and pillage on both sides. But then, say the Persians, what came next, only the Hellenes are to be blamed, for they began the war by attacking Asia, well before the Persians invaded Europe.

Now, according to their way of thinking, they say it is wrong for men to carry off women, but it is worse to happily seek revenge for their rape. The best thing is not to pay too much heed when women are carried off, because it is obvious that the women would not let themselves be abducted if they were not also willing to go along. The Persians say that they, that is, the people of Asia, do not think it too grave a matter when their women are carried off. But the Hellenes, just for one Lacedaemonian woman, gathered a great army, invaded Asia, and destroyed the realm of Priam. And ever since then, they have considered the Hellenes to be their enemies.

The Persians say that Asia, with all the barbarian people that live in it, belongs to them. Europe and the Hellenic people they consider as being cut off from them.


This is how everything happened, according to the Persians; and the upshot is that in their view the beginning of their quarrel with the Hellenes was because of the sack of Ilios.

However, so far as Io is concerned, the Phoenicians tell a very different story from the one told by the Persians. They say that they did not carry off Helen to Egypt by force. Rather, they say that while in Argos, she had sex with the owner of their ship. Then, thinking that she was pregnant, and ashamed that her parents would find out, and to make sure they would know nothing about her pregnancy, she willingly sailed away with the Phoenicians.

Now, such are the tales that the Persians and the Phoenicians tell. As for me, I cannot say that things happened this way or that, or whether one or the other is true. But after I have pointed out the man who, according to my understanding, first and without any reason, brought harm to the Hellenes, I will keep moving forward with my history, and speak of the various cities of men, both the small and the great with equal measure. Indeed, those that were great in olden times have now become small, and those that were great in my own lifetime were once small. Therefore, since I know that the prosperity of men does not last, I shall comment on both kinds of cities with disinterest.


Croesus was a Lydian by birth, the son of Alyattes, the tyrant of all the people on this side of the river Halys; that very river which runs from the south, between the Syrians and the Paphlogonians, and then heads up to Boreas and so into that sea which is called the Euxine.

This Croesus, the first of barbarians about whom we know anything, conquered some of the Hellenes and made them pay tribute, while others he won over as friends. Those whom he conquered were the Ionians, the Aeolians, and the Dorians of Asia; and those that he won as friends were the Lacedaemonians.

Before the reign of Croesus, all the Hellenes were free; and the army of the Cimmerians that invaded Ionia before his time, did not actually conquer the cities, but only attacked and plundered them.


As for the sovereignty which once belonged to the Heracleidae, it now fell to the family of Croesus, known as the Mermnadae. And this is how it happened. Candaules, whom the Hellenes call Myrsilus, was the tyrant of Sardis, and who descended from Alcaeus, the son of Heracles, for Agron, son of Ninus, son of Belus, son of Alcaeus was the first Heraclid king of Sardis, and Candaules, son of Myrsus, was the last. Now those who were kings before Agron were descendants of Lydus, son of Atys, from whom all these people are known as Lydian, where before they were known as the Maeonians. It was from them that the Heraclidae, who were descended from Heracles and the slave girl Iordanus, received their sovereignty, being given this charge because of an oracle. And they ruled for twenty-two generations of men, or five hundred and five years, handing down the sovereignty from father to son, until it came to Candaules, the son of Myrsus.


This Candaules was so deeply in love with his wife that he thought her to be the most beautiful woman in the whole world. And with such thinking, he would tell Gyges, the son of Dascylus, whom he liked the best of all his spearmen; to this Gyges, I tell you, he would not only relate all the most important matters of the realm, but he would also tell him about how beautiful his wife was, praising her beauty to no end.

Then, because it was fated that evil should befall Candaules, he spoke to Gyges in this fashion: “Gyges, I think that you do not really believe me when I tell you about the beauty of my wife, since men trust their ears far less than their eyes. So, find a way to look at my wife when she is naked.”

But he cried out, “What unwise words have you spoken, O lord, asking me to look upon my mistress naked? When she takes off her dress, a woman also removes her honor. Moreover, from ancient times, men have discovered proverbs that teach us wisdom. One such proverb is this: Let each man only look at what belongs to him. I completely believe that she is the most beautiful of all women, and I beg you not to ask me to do that which is unlawful for me to do.”


With words such as these, he protested, fearing that only something bad would come of it all for him. But this was the reply he got: “Cheer up, Gyges. Do not be afraid, either of me, that I am saying these things to test you, or of my wife, that any harm will come to you from her. I will work things out in such a way, right from the outset, that she will not even know that she has been seen by you. In the room where we sleep, I shall position you just behind the door. And after I have gone in, my wife will come in to lie down. Near the door of the bedroom, there is a chair on which she will place all her clothes, as she takes them off one by one, and you will be able to look at her all you want. And as she walks from the chair to the bed, you will be behind her back. Then it will be your responsibility to make sure that she does not see you as you go out the door.”


Then, he agreed, seeing that there was no way he could get out of it. When Candaules thought it time to go to bed, he took Gyges to the bedroom, and soon the woman followed, and Gyges gazed upon her as she took off her clothes. And when she turned her back to him and went to lie on the bed, he slipped out of his hiding place and was going away. But just as he went out, the woman saw him; and realizing that this must have been contrived by her husband, she did not cry out, though she was much ashamed. She pretended that she had seen nothing, but in her mind she thought of getting revenge from Candaules, for among the Lydians, and also among most other barbarians, it is a great shame for even a man to be seen naked.


For the time being, as I was saying, she kept silent and acted unaware of what had happened. But as soon as day broke, she first got ready those servants that  she thought were the most loyal to her, and then she sent to call Gyges. He, thinking that she knew nothing of what had been done, came as he was summoned, since it was his custom to always go whenever the queen called him. So Gyges came, and the woman said to him, “Now there are two paths lying before you, Gyges. Choose whichever one you wish to take. You must either kill Candaules, and take both me and the kingdom of Lydia, or you yourself must be killed now, without any delay, so that you may never again, in obeying Candaules, look upon that which you should never see. Either he must die who contrived this scheme, or you, who have seen me naked and done that which is not considered lawful.” For some time, Gyges stood astonished at these words, then he began to beg her not to force him by necessity to make such a choice. But when he could not convince her, he realized that it was in truth necessary for him to either kill his lord, or be killed himself by others. So, he chose life for himself, and he asked her further in this way, “Since you do force me to take my lord’s life against my will, let me hear from you how we are to attack him.” And she said in answer, “From that very same place shall the attack come where he exhibited me naked; and we shall attack him as he sleeps.”


When they had made the plot, and it was night (for Gyges was not dismissed, nor could he find a way to escape, but that he must either be killed or that he must kill Candaules), he followed the woman to the bedroom, and she gave him a dagger and hid him behind that same door. Then before long, as Candaules slept, he quietly came up to him, and killed him, and got both his wife and his kingdom. In fact, Archilochus the Parian, who lived around this time, mentions him in one of his iambic trimeter verses.


He got the kingdom and was confirmed in it by way of the Delphic Oracle, for when the Lydians were angered by what had happened to Candaules, and had taken up arms, a treaty was signed by the supporters of Gyges and the other Lydians that if the Oracle returned an answer that said he was to be the king of the Lydians, then he would be king. But if not, then he would return the kingship to the Heraclidae. The Oracle returned its answer, and Gyges thus became king. However, the Pythian priestess also said that the Heraclidae shall have vengeance on the descendants of Gyges in the fifth generation. The Lydians and their kings paid little attention to this Oracle until it came true and was fulfilled.


In this way, the Mermnadae took up the office of the tyrant, after driving off the Heraclidae from it. When Gyges became the tyrant he sent offerings to Delphi, and they were not a few. Of all the silver offerings at Delphi, his number far more than any other man. Other than the silver, he also offered a great sum of gold, especially one donation which is worth mentioning over all the rest, namely, six mixing bowls of pure gold, which are placed there as a gift from him. Their weight is thirty talents and they are found in the treasury of the Corinthians; though, truth be told, this treasury does not belong to the Corinthian people, but to Cypselus, son of Aetion. This Gyges was the first among the barbarians, to our knowledge, who gave offerings at Delphi, other than Midas, the son of Gordias, the king of Phrygia, who gave as offering the royal throne on which he sat in front of everyone to pronounce judgment; and this throne is a marvel to see and is found in the very same place as the bowls. All this gold and silver that Gyges gave as an offering is known as “Gygian” by the Delphians, so named after him who offered it.


Now, as soon as he became king, he too led an army against Miletus and Smyrna and took the lower city of Colophon. But he did no other great deed in his kingship, which lasted thirty-eight years. Thus, we shall pass over him, making no more mention of him than what has been done already.

And now I shall speak of Ardys, the son of Gyges, who became king after Gyges. He took Priene and carried out an invasion of Miletus, and while he was ruling over Sardis, the Cimmerians, driven from their homes by the nomad Scythians, came into Asia, and took Sardis, all except the citadel.


Ardys was king for forty-nine years, and then Sadyattes, his son succeeded Ardys, who ruled for twelve years, and after him came Alyattes. This Alyattes succeeded Sadyattes. And the latter made war against Kyaxares, the descendent of Deiokes, as well as the Medes. And he chased the Cimmerians right out of Asia, and he captured Smyrna, which had been established by Colophon, and he made an invasion of the Clazomenae. He came back from this, not as he might have hoped, for it was a great disaster, but he did do many other things which are certainly worth mentioning.

The Histories explores the purpose and meaning of the past for the present. In this regard, Herodotus elaborated upon the Greek notion of reciprocity, in that humans have always engaged in giving back what they have received, whether gifts, or good and bad actions. Thus, Herodotus is the first to define history as the result of human causation.



HERODOTUS, whom Cicero first called, “the Father of History,” was born in Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum, Turkey), sometime around the year 484 BC, or perhaps 480 BC. He came from an aristocratic family and was the nephew of the epic poet, Panyassis. Because of political involvement, Herodotus was forced into exile in 460 BC, and thereafter became a dedicated traveler, visiting most of Asia Minor, parts of the Persian Empire, Scythia, and Egypt. He stayed the longest on the island of Samos, and then went to Athens around the year 445. From there he journeyed to southern Italy (Magna Graecia) and helped establish the Athenian colony of Thurii, in the year 443. He returned to Athens often and gave public readings of his writings, which may have been versions of his Histories, a work that he completed sometime in 440. Herodotus died in Thurii, around 425 BC.

Nirmal Dass

NIRMAL DASS teaches and translates from various dead and living languages. He is currently working on translating some of Klabund’s works.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2016

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