Monday, August 15, 2011

Reading Herodotus

Reading Herodotus is a bit tricky, due to the odd writing style compared to modern history texts. However, there are a few tricks I'd like to discuss that helped me reading Herodotus' Histories.

Background Knowledge

Without the proper background, reading Herodotus can be like reading Lord of the Rings. It helps to know classical geography, a good free reference is:

H. F. Tozer, Classical Geography.

There are four major tribes that constitute the Greeks: the Ionians (living on the Aegian coast of Asia Minor), the Dorians, the Aeolians (originally in Thessaly, northern Greece), and the Achaeans (originally living in Argolis and Laconia).

Be able to draw a map of Greece on a blank piece of paper, and identify the following city states on your map: Delphi, Thebes, Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Edessa, Marathon, Olympia. (It helps if you can do this for Asia minor, and the Middle East, identifying the major cities; and the map doesn't have to be accurate, you could use polygons!)

"Lacedaemonian" is the same as a "Spartan" and, yes, Lacedaemon is the same as Sparta.

According to Young's "The early history of the Medes and the Persians and the Achaemenid empire to the death of Cambyses", (in Boardman et al.'s Persia, Greece and the Western Mediterranean C. 525 to 479 B.C, Cambridge U. Press (1998) pp. 1–52, doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521228046.002) there is little distinction in Greek literature between "Median" and "Persian".

One recurring thing is the reliance on oracles, which is rather confusing. There is an interesting piece, A. P. David's Herodotus and Oracular Obscurity (More Intelligent Life April 30, 2008), which attempts to put Herodotus' use of oracles into a modern perspective.

Ring Structure

Apparently, Herodotus wrote in this style called a "ring structure." There is a paper on this:

GD Martin, Ring Composition and Related Phenomena in Herodotus

In a nutshell, it's basically a writing style that closely mimics how people tell stories: viz., there are a lot of tangents on kind of relevant things (discussion of culture), and a return to the previous topic of discussion. Tangents can last from a paragraph to a couple of pages, so that makes Herodotus tricky to read.

One should think of these discussions like a "threaded conversation", which makes the reader's task simply to figure out what the threads are…and how to summarise them.

Consequently, what I have found useful is to summarise each paragraph in a single sentence. To see what this looks like, I'll reproduce my notes for Book I, sections 69–140:

69. Croesus sends gifts to Sparta.

70. Lacedamonians sent Croesus a bronze vase in return, but Croesus never received it; there are two accounts of it: (1) Lacedaemonians claim Samians took it; (2) Samians claim Lacedaemonians came too late when Croesus was taken prisoner, so Lacedaemonians sold it.

71. Croesus led his forces into Cappadocia expecting to defeat Cyrus. Lyndian wise man Sandanis pleaded Croesus not to attack Cappadocia.

72. Cappadocians (known to Greeks as Syrians), geography of their kingdom.

73. Croesus wanted (1) the land of Cappadocia, (2) revenge for the wrongs of Astyages (this was "the chief reason"). Astyages (son of Cyaxeres, King of Medes) was dethroned by Cyrus, and is also Cyrus' brother in Law.

74–76. The history of Astyages becoming Croesus' brother-in-Law and source of problems with Cyrus.

76. Croesus pillages Pteria; Cyrus levies an army, fights Croesus.

77. Croesus blames not having enough men for his problems; Cyrus doesn't attack again, but asks for help from Babylon, Egypt. Croesus asks for help from his Allies, to meet at Sardis. Croesus disbands his mercenaries, permitting them to return home; Cyrus attacks, takes Croesus prisoner.

78. Croesus asks Telmussian seers their opinions of the numerous snakes.

79. Cyrus doesn't disband his forces, moves towards Sardis.

80. The armies fought in the plains before Sardis; Cyrus arranged camels, footmen, cavalry, and ordered Croesus to be taken alive "even if he offers resistance"; horses fear camels, causing Croesus' cavalry to retreat.

81. Sardis besieged, Croesus sends for help.

82. Spartans fought for Thyrea against the Argives and won.

83. Spartans went to aid of Croesus until they found out he was taken prisoner.

84. Cyrus discovered how messangers returned and left Sardis, took advantage of it, and sent his army in thus capturing Sardis.

95–130. Medes history, rise of Deioces, Phraortes, Cyaxares, and Astyages.

96–101. Deoices collected the Medes into a nation and ruled over them alone.

102. Phraortes (son and successor of Deioces) declared war on the Assyrians, died in the expedition.

103. Cyaxeres (son of Phraortes) organized Medes' army into companies, etc. Won a battle against Assyrains when horde of Scythians entered Median territory.

104. Scythians defeated Medians and took over their empire.

106–125. Background of Cyrus' birth, upbringing, etc.

106. Cyaxeres regained control by inviting Scythians to party, killing them after they passed out drunk.

107–108. Cyaxeres has vision, marries his daughter Mandane to the Persian Cambyses.

126–130. Cyrus overthrowing Cyaxeres by using the Persians, becomes ruler of the Persians.

131–140. Culture of the Persians.

Although I get kind of sloppy summarising, e.g., §§131–140 as a single terse sentence, it enables me to quickly summarise what's going on. If I were more precise, I would have broken it up into religious aspects, marriage, etc.

But I have found it useful, depending on how much information one is after, to summarise threads of discussion. For example, 95–130 is one thread of discussion which can be summarised in a single sentence. In fact, it brings us to the notion of a logos


Another point of view is that there are 28 logoi, or "lectures", in Herodotus' Histories. It's arranged in 8 books due to the library of Alexandria's formatting.

The 28 logoi are discussed on, but I will reproduce them for pedantry:

  • Book one
    • first logos: the story of Croesus (1.1-94)
      • text: Candaules, his wife, and Gyges
      • text: the story of Arion
    • second logos: the rise of Cyrus the Great (1.95-140)
    • third logos: affairs in Babylonia and Persia (1.141-216)
      • text: The capture of Babylon
  • Book two
    • fourth logos: geography of Egypt (2.1-34)
    • fifth logos: customs and animals of Egypt (2.35-99)
      • text: Egyptian customs
      • text: The hippopotamus
      • text: Mummification
    • sixth logos: history of Egypt (2.100-182)
      • text: The relief of Sesostris
  • Book three
    • seventh logos: Cambyses' conquest of Egypt (3.1-60)
      • text: The skulls at Pelusium
      • text: The madness of Cambyses
    • eighth logos: the coups of the Magians and Darius (3.61-119, 126-141, 150-160)
      • text: The list of satrapies
      • text: The gold-digging ants
      • text: The edges of the earth
      • text: The fall of Intaphrenes
      • text: The coat of Syloson
      • text: The capture of Babylon
    • ninth logos: affairs on Samos (3.39-60, 120-125, 142-149)
  • Book four
    • tenth logos: country and customs of the Scythians (4.1-82)
      • text: The circumnavigation of Africa
    • eleventh logos: Persian campaign against the Scythians (4.83-144)
    • twelfth logos: Persian conquest of Libya (4.145-205)
      • text: The Nasamones (4.172-173)
  • Book five
    • thirteenth logos: Persian conquest of Thrace (5.1-28)
    • fourteenth logos: beginning of the Ionian revolt; affairs in Sparta (5.28-55)
      • text: The story of Dorieus
      • text: The royal road
    • fifteenth logos: affairs in Athens (5.55-96)
    • sixteenth logos: Ionian revolt (5.97-126)
  • Book six
    • seventeenth logos: Persian reconquest of Ionia (6.1-42)
    • eighteenth logos: affairs in Greece (6.43-93)
      • text: Glaucus
    • nineteenth logos: battle of Marathon (6.94-140)
  • Book seven
    • twentieth logos: Persian preparations (7.1-55)
      • text: Xerxes' ancestors
      • text: Xerxes' canal through the Athos
      • text: Xerxes in Abydus
    • twenty-first logos: the Persians cross to Europe (7.56-137)
    • twenty-second logos: battle of Thermopylae (7.138-239)
      • text: Greek spies at Sardes
      • text: the battle of Himera
      • text: the topography of Thermopylae
      • text: the battle of Thermopylae
  • Book eight
    • twenty-third logos: naval battle off Artemisium (8.1-39)
    • twenty-fourth logos: naval battle of Salamis (8.40-96)
    • twenty-fifth logos: winter (8.97-144)
      • text: the Macedonian royal dynasty
  • Book nine
    • twenty-sixth logos: battle of Plataea (9.1-89)
    • twenty-seventh logos: liberation of Ionia (9.90-113)
    • twenty-eighth logos: foundation of the Athenian empire (9.114-122)

One can see how my approach of summarising each section really complements the logos approach to understanding Herodotus.

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