Herodotus’ The Histories ~ Book VII

Book VII (Polymnia)

“When the report of the battle of Marathon reached Darius, son of Hystapes, who had already been thoroughly exasperated by the Athenians’ attack on Sardis, he now reacted with a much more intense fury and became even more determined to make war on Hellas than he had been before.”

Yes, Darius is irritated, but Darius always seems to be irritated about something.  And now the pesky Egyptians have revolted so Darius prepares to wage war against both Egypt and Athens.  To top it all off, his sons are now quarrelling to detemine his heir and Darius finally chooses the older son, Xerxes, born to his second wife, as he was the first son born while Darius was king.  While amassing troops for war, Darius dies and Xerxes takes over kingship.  At first, he does not wish to fight with Athens, but Mardonios convinces him with a variety of different arguments, as well as a number of delegations hostile to Athens influence his decision.  However, first Xerxes marches against Egypt, subdues them and imposes even more rigid subjugation on them than his father.

Xerxes then gathers together the noble Persians and states his reasons and expectations for attacking Hellas, backed up by Mardonios.  Only Artabanos, son of Hystaspes and uncle to Xerxes, speaks up, stating many reasons for exercising caution before declaring war and then asking that the king remain behind if the Persians indeed march on Hellas.  Enraged by his uncle’s request, Xerxes orders him to remain behind with the women for his faithless words; conflict was inevitable and one country or the other would expand its dominion —- let it be Persia!  However, later that night, after pondering the discretion of Artabanos, Xerxes realizes that attack would not be prudent. That night a man in a dream visits him, ordering him not to change his mind but nevertheless the next day, Xerxes gathers the nobles and informs them of his reversal of the original plans, for which they are well pleased.  Yet that night the dream comes again and threatens him with a short rule if he does not attack Hellas.  Completely disconcerted, Xerxes calls for Artabanos, describing his experience and asking his uncle to sit on his throne and sleep in his bed that night then, if the dream visits him too, it should be heeded.  Thinking to prove Xerxes’ dream pure nonsense, Artabanos retires to bed but surprisingly has the dream as well and awakes shrieking.  Thus, the expedition against Hellas comes to fruition, the largest expedition the Persians had ever mustered.  Xerxes builds a canal through the isthmus near to Mount Athos to avoid the previous disaster of the last Persian fleet.  Apparently the Phoenicians were the cleverest of the builders, digging the trenches much wider at the top so the dirt did not continually fall on them.  Herodotus, however, thinks this display was just to showcase Xerxes’ power, as ships could have easily been dragged across the isthmus.

Xerxes’ Canal
source Wikimedia Commons

On the march, Xerxes comes to Kelainai where the skin of Marsyas is hung (see Metamorphoses Book VI for the story of Marsyas) and meets Pythios who shows hospitality to the Persians and offers them wealth in their quest.  His offer metes him land, the title of guest friend, and Xerxes’ goodwill.  When the king reaches the Hellespont, he sends messengers to Hellas once again requesting earth and water, as his father had.  He then set to work building bridges to cross it but they are destroyed by a storm.  Infuriated, he orders the bridge supervisors beheaded and then proceeds to order 300 lashes to the Hellespont, as well as dropping shackles into the sea while spewing insolent imprecations.  The new bridge is a pontoon bridge made of boats, of which Herodotus gives detailed description, and after its completion, the army waits for winter to pass.  An eclipse occurs which the Magi declare a good omen, but Pythios is disturbed by it and begs Xerxes to release his eldest son from the expedition whereupon, in a rage, Xerxes chops the son in two.

Xerxes punishes the Hellespont
source Wikipedia

The army marches out, and the troops around the king are elated, then when Xerxes reaches Abydos, he decides to review his entire army so he sits on the marble throne and watches ships race.  Suddenly, from his position of contentment, he bursts into tears and his uncle Artabanos, who counselled against the expedition, asks him what is wrong.  Xerxes replies:

“…… I was suddenly overcome by pity as I considered the brevity of human life, since not one of all these people here will be alive one hundred years from now.”

They speak of the expedition and Xerxes questions that if Artabanos’ dream vision was different, would his counsel still have been the same?  Artabanos explains that he is fearful of his two great enemies, the land and the sea, both of which are formidable. Xerxes counters that it is better to act with fear than to fear everything and not act at all. Finally the army crosses the Hellespont and Xerxes ignores two portents depicting his expedition’s failure, as they march towards Hellas.  His land army numbered 1,700,000 men, including Persians, Medes, Kissians, Hyrcanians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Egyptians, Baktrians, Scythians, Indians, Areians, Parthians, Chorasmians, Sogdians, Gandarians, Dadikais, Caspians, Sarangians, Paktyes, Outians, Mykians, Parikanians, Arabians, Ethiopians, Libyans, Paphlagonians, Ligyeans, Matienians, Mariandynians, Syrians, Phrygians, Armenians, Lydians, Thracians, Meionian Kabales, Cilicians, Moschians, Tibarenoi, Makrones, Mossynoikians, Mares, Colchians, Alarodians, Saspeires, and island peoples from the Erythraean Sea.  A long list but worthwhile I think to even begin to imagine the numbers on the march.  The commanders and generals are listed. Thus follows descriptions of each contingent’s dress and means of transport, then Herodotus moves on to recount the fleets of each including a woman commander named Artemisia who was part Halicarnassian and part Cretan.

Crossing the Hellespont
source Wikipedia

Xerxes now surveys and categorizes his troops, then asks of the exiled Spartan king, Demaratos, if the Hellenes would dare to fight against such forces.  Demaratos speaks only for the Lacedaemonians that if confronted, they would fight to the last man.  Xerxes, however, laughs at such a foolish claim, and declares that if they were ruled by one man, he could force them to comply but given their freedom, they would not.  Demaratos insists that they are compelled by a law forbidding them to flee from battle. Nevertheless, Xerxes chuckles at his delusion and sends him away.

Xerxes’ route towards Hellas is now described, along with leaders he praises for their support, but more startling is the impact such an enormously amassed expedition has upon the cities and towns through which it passes.  Rivers and lakes are drained dry by the sheer numbers of men and their beasts of burden.  Camels are attacked by lions, en route, yet no other man or animal is touched, and Herodotus is puzzled by this odd occurrence.  In Thessaly, Xerxes is interested in the course of the river Peneios which is surrounded by mountains, and he is content with the area’s subjection to him as Thessaly would have been easy to take simply by the damning of this river.  He decides not to send heralds to Athens and Sparta asking for earth and water, as the last heralds of his father were thrown into a pit and a well, respectively.

They crashed into the Persian army ….
Walter Crane
source Wikiart

As Xerxes advanced, many Hellenes who had sent earth and water were confident that they would be passed by, but the ones who had refused were rather terrified.  However, the Athenians, rather than desert their land or submit to Xerxes, instead remained to fight and this was the saving of all Hellas, or so says Herodotus although he admits his opinion may not be the popular one.

“… they repelled the King with the help of the gods.  Indeed, not even the frightening oracles they received from Delphi threw them into a panic or persuaded them to abandon Hellas.  Instead, they stood fast and had the courage to confront the invader of their land.”

Themistokles, a prominent Athenian, interprets a second oracle differently than the oracle experts, counselling that they need to use their ships to fight the Persians. Fortunately, these ships had already been constructed for a war with the Aeginetans. Hellas attempts to unite with Argos, Sicily and Crete, while they send spies to Sardis to find out the strength of the Persian army.  The spies are caught and taken to be executed but Xerxes intervenes, allowing them to see the magnitude of his force before sending them home again, hoping that the Athenians would thus surrender to his might. The Argives, however, give trouble and when they are not given half command alongside the Spartans, refuse to participate, yet Herodotus says that their lack of participation was prompted by a visit from the Persians who cited ties of kinship to gain their allegiance.  More bickering ignites between the Spartan and Athenian envoys and Gelon of Syracuse (Sicily).  Gelon wants full command because of the refusal of the two to come to his aid previously, but at the protest of the Lacedaemonians finally agrees to accept half the command, however the Athenians fully refuse to be led at all by him.  He sends them away, then dispatches a messenger, Kadmos, to the Persians after they cross the Hellespont, instructing him to offer money, earth and water to them if they win, but to return home if they lose and Kadmos eventually proves himself an honest messenger.   The Corcyrians agreed to help but then hang back during the battle like cowards, waiting to see which side will prevail.  The Cretans will not help and the Thessalians are more concerned with saving themselves and eventually mediate with the Persians.

Mountains of Thermopylae (1872)
Edward Lear
source ArtUK

The forces of the Athenian alliance prepares to defend the territory, but move from the Pass of Tempe to Thermopylae, where they believe the Persian force will land. Herodotus calculates the Hellene forces at around 2,641,610 men, not including slaves, women and concubines, and the Persian forces at 5,283,220.  The Persians beach some ships at Magnesia but those which have to anchor in the bay are destroyed by a fierce storm, 400 ships in total, the god Boreas helping the Athenians.  On the fourth day the storm ends and the barbarians set sail.  Fifteen ships that set sail later than the others end up sailing into a Greek fleet thinking that they are their own and are captured. Events are not transpiring well for the Persians.  Meanwhile Xerxes marches with the land troops and arrives near Thermopylae where the Greeks guard the pass.  Of the generals commanding the Hellenes, the most prominent is Leonidas, king of Sparta, who became king after his two elder brothers died.  When Xerxes sends out a scout, he spies a group of Lacedaemonians combing their hair and, astonished, returns to Xerxes to report his findings.  The Persian king calls Demaratos who confirms what he had previously told him, that the Spartans would fight despite smaller numbers and that in grooming themselves, they are preparing for battle. Xerxes, however, remains unconvinced and after four days of assuming the Hellenes would retreat against his forces, loses his temper and attacks.  The Medes engage the Hellenes first and are forced to retreat, then the Persians take their place, yet face the same result and again the next day.  The Spartans are far superior fighters and lose few men.  A Hellene named Ephialtres commits a treacherous act, leading the Persians along an unknown mountainous pass which allows the Persian force to destroy the Hellene fighters.  Another account says it was Onetes and Korydallos who perpetrated the treachery, but Herodotus finds this account entirely implausible, given Ephialtres is later exiled and a price is put upon his head.  When the Persians reach the summit, they encounter Phocians defenders who flee at the first hail of arrows, leaving the path clear.  Finding out about the ambush, some Hellenes desert and some remain to fight.

“It is also said, however, that Leonidas himself sent most of them away as he was worried that all of them might otherwise be killed.  But he felt that for himself and the Spartans with him, it would not be decent to leave the post that they had originally come to guard.  I myself am most inclined to this opinion and think that when Leonidas perceived the allies’ lack of zeal and their reluctance to share with him in the danger ahead, he ordered them to leave.  He perceived that it would be ignoble for him to leave the pass, and that if he were to remain, he would secure lasting glory and assure that the prosperity of Sparta would not be obliterated.”

The Thespians and the Thracians stay behind with the Lacedaemonians, the former because they are willing to remain, but the latter are compelled by the Spartan king against their will for their previous treachery.

Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814)
Jacques-Louis David
source Wikiart

Xerxes waits for the peak hour to attack and then the slaughter is dreadful although many Persians are killed as well, including two brothers of Xerxes.  Xerxes calls to him Demaratos to ask how many Spartans are left in Sparta and if they are as brave as the men fighting now.  The traitor advises the king to capture an island off Sparta as their base to frighten the Lacedaemonians, but the king’s brother, Achaimenes, counters his advice and Xerxes listens.  As Leonidas is now dead and his body recovered by the Persians, Xerxes orders him beheaded and his head raised on a spike.

Going back in time, Herodotus explains how Demaratos was able to get a message to the Spartans of the coming Persian invasion, by inscribing a message on the wood of a writing tablet, then putting wax over it so it would appear blank.  When it arrived in Lacedaemon, at first they could not understanding the meaning of the blank tablet until Gorgo, the daughter of Kleomenes had them scrape off the wax.  A message of warning was then sent to the rest of the Hellenes.

Book VI (Erato)                                                                           Book VIII (Urania)

Herodotus’ The Histories ~ Book VI

Book VI (Erato)

“Thus Aristagoras met his end after inciting Ionia to revolt.”

Histiaios, the tyrant of Miletus arrives at Sardis after Darius released him in Susa and Artaphrenes inquired his opinion of the Ionian revolt.  Loathsome worm that he is, Histiaios disavows any knowledge of the altercation and bats his eyes in innocence (well, not really, but you know what I mean).  However Artaphrenes already knows his part and is not fooled by his duplicity.  His response arouses fear in Histiaios: “Well, then let me tell you how and why it happened, Histiaios: you stitched up the shoe, and Aristagoras put it on.”  In fear for his life, Histiaios escapes towards the coast, now an enemy of the Persians.  Fleeing to Chios, Histiaios is taken in by the Chians which is a big mistake as he lies to them too about his part in the Ionian revolt, saying Darius wanted to uproot them to Phoenicia and vice versa.  Still using underhanded tactics, he writes to Sardis urging revolt, but Artaphrenes intercepts the letters, so in a last ditch attempt, Histiaios begs the Chians to help restore him as tyrant of Miletus, however the people of Miletus do not want the return of his tyranny and repulse him.  Still working his machinations, he seized ships sailing out of the Pontus.

Meanwhile, the Persian army and navy is approaching Miletus with help from the Phoenicians, Cilicians, Egyptians and the recently re-enslaved Cyprians.  When the Ionian ships arrives at Miletus, the Persians are awed by the size of the fleet and get the Ionian tyrants to try to turn the Ionians traitors, but they disdainfully resist.  A Phoceaean general named Dionysios is able to rally the undisciplined troops but soon their laziness overtakes them and as they engage the Persians, one group after another abandons the fight except for the Chians who perform great feats in battle in spite of their fleeing comrades.  Dionysios, when he realizes what is happening, seizes three enemy ships and sails off to Phoenicia to become a pirate.  Herodotus himself is “unable to record precisely which Ionians proved themselves to be cowards or brave and valiant men in this encounter, for now they all reproach one another.”  Miletus is overcome by the Persians, their men killed and the women and children taken off to Susa as slaves.  The Athenians were so upset at the city’s capture that when Phrynikos composed his play about its seizure, the audience wept and he was fined 1,000 drachmas for reminding them of this evil.  And thus, there were no Milesians in Miletus and other Ionians left to form new colonies so as to not be subject to the Persians.

Captive with rose (1943)
Nicolas Roerich
source Wikiart

In Byzantium and hearing of the battle, Histiaios returns, falling on Chios with an army and capturing it before moving on to other areas.  But the Persian general, Harpagos, is able to halt his advance, butchering most of his army and capturing Histiaios alive.  Yet his reprieve does not last for long.  Worried that Darius would pardon Histiaios if the man was given over to him, Harpagos and Artaphrenes, the governor of Sardis, decide to hang him from a stake and decapitate him, sending the head to Darius who is distressed and orders the head buried as Histiaios had been a benefactor to him.

Quite fascinating …….. as the Persians conquered islands, they would “net” people in that they would have a line of men that stretched from sea to sea and, holding hands, they would move forward, combing every inch of ground for people.  The handsome boys they castrated and the virgins they sent to the king, burning the Ionians cities so the Ionians were subjugated to slavery for a third time, first by the Lydians and then twice by the Persians.  The Phoenicians continued to sail towards Hellespont, conquering almost all the territory for the Persians as they went.  Yet in spite of their merciless domination, the Persians brought laws and process to the Ionians, which promoted peace between peoples.

Blue Sea, Iona (1927)
Samuel Peploe
source Wikiart

King Darius dispatches his son-in-law, Madronios to depose the Ionian tyrants and form democracies before he moves on toward Athens, intending the same, but encounters resistance from the Thracian Byrgoi and after the navy’s wreck around Athos, they are forced to return to Asia.

The next year, crafty Darius tests if the Hellenes plan war against him by sending out heralds asking for earth and water (which signify subjection) from various cities in Hellas.  They give what is asked by the Persians but the Athenians take umbrage at the Aeginetan’s gift and accuse them of conspiring against them.  The Spartan king, Kleomenes, crosses over to Aegina, intending to arrest the guilty Aeginetans but Krios defies him.  Meanwhile in Sparta, the lesser king, Demaratos, remains behind, proceeding to malign Kleomenes.

Thus, Herodotus launches into a lengthy digression about the Lacedaemonian lineage that produced two kings, which includes twin sons, yet one being honoured above the other.  Still, Herodotus says the Hellenic story traces the lineage back to Perseus and the Greeks, however he believes before Perseus they must have been Egyptian by direct descent.  Bascially, no one really knows.  In war, he lists the privileges of the kings, in times of peace, and also the traditions practiced when the king dies.  As to their professions, they inherit them from their fathers regardless of inclination or talent.

Three Spartan Boys Practicing Archery (1812)
Christoff Wilhelm Eckersberg
source Wikimedia Commons

Returning to Sparta, Kleomenes plots to rid himself of Demaratos by claiming that he is not the rightful son of Ariston, his father, as Ariston had taken his mother from his friend, and Demaratos’ birth was too soon after the marriage.  Deposed of his kingship, Demaratos becomes a magristrate for the Persians but is insulted by Leotychidas who was part of the plot to disgrace him and is now king in his place.   Demanding the story of his birth from his mother, she tells him he is either the son of Ariston, or the dead hero Astrabakos, who looked like Ariston but left her with garlands from his shrine as he visited her bedroom as a spirit.  Happy with the answer, Demaratos escapes, pursued by the Lacedaemons but manages to reach the court of Darius where he is furnished with land and cities.  Leotychidas, on the other hand, leads an army into Thessaly but is caught receiving a bribe, is exiled and dies in disgrace but that happens much later.  At the moment, with the two kings against them, the Aeginetans surrender and Krios is taken as hostage along with nine other wealthy Aeginetans.  Fearing Spartan justice, Kleomenes escapes to Thessaly and then Arcadia where he tries to stir up dissent against Sparta and eventually the Lacedaemonians bring him back to Sparta to rule, apparently thinking he would be less of a danger close by.  But Kleomenes proceeds to go mad and his relatives have to confine him to a wooden pillory.  Yet the king is craftier than all and, convincing a guard to give him a knife, he proceeds to multilate himself, beginning at his shins until he has disemboweled himself.  Ugh!  The Argives claim he went mad because of an oracle at Delphi predicting that he would capture Argos which did not come to fruition because of circumstances, but the Spartans say that he was addicted to strong drink because of the Scythians and that was the reason for his madness.   

Upon the death of Kleomenes, the Aeginetans demand justice for the treatment of them by the two kings and the Lacedaemon people hand Leotychidas over to them in payment for the Aeginetan hostages taken to Athens.  However, worried of later reprisal, they take Leotychidas to Athens where he asks for return of the hostages and when the Athenians prevaricate, they are told a story of just Glaukos who thought of not returning money entrusted to him and, even though he eventually made the just decision, was punished for pondering evil by having no descendants left to carry on his name. 
Thus the Aeginetans become incensed with the Athenian behaviour and the two wage war on each other, bringing other kingdoms into their dispute and most showing a stubborn implacability that brings about many deaths.

Drawing of a Greek Vase depicting Darius I
source Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Darius is planning to revenge himself on Athens for those who had previously refused to give him earth and water.  Removing the unsuccessful Mardonios from command, he appoints the son of his brother Artaphrenes, Datis, as general who proceeds to sweep through kingdoms, starting with Naxos and making his way to Delos where he promises not to harm the site of the two gods or the people.  After he makes a sacrifice and leaves, an earthquake thunders through Delos and Herodotus supposes it was a portent of evils that were to befall them:

“For in three successive generations, during the reigns of Darius son of Hystapes, Xerxes son of Darius, and Artaxerxes son of Xerxes, more evils befell Hellas than in all the other generations prior to that of Darius.”

In Greek, Darius means “Achiever,” “Xerxes,” Warlike, and Artaxerxes, “Extremely Warlike.”

The Battlefield at Marathon (c.1849)
Carl Rottman
source Wikimedia Commons

The Persians conquer and burn Eretria, then depart for Athens, expecting full victory.  Realizing the Persians are headed for Marathon, the Athenian general, Miltiades (son of Kimon and named after the Miltiades who settled the Chersonese) along with nine other generals send a message to Sparta by the runner Philippides asking for assistance against their foe.  Philippides arrives in Sparta the day after he leaves Athens, assisted by the god, Pan.  After a vote, the Athenians engage the Persians in battle, having spread their army as long as the Persians, but as they are fewer, are not as deep and the Persians begin to prevail in the middle, whereas the Athenians and Plataeans are succeeding in the wings whereupon they come together to fight the Persians in the centre.  Meanwhile,  the Persian fleet heads for Athens and is signaled by a shield from the shore.  At the Battle of Marathon, 6,400 Persians die and 192 Athenians. 

source Wikimedia Commons

The Spartans arrive in Athens too late for battle, travel to Marathon to view the dead Persians and then return home again.  Back to the question of the shield signal, where the Alkmeonids are blamed, but Herodotus speaks of their hate of tyrants and cannot believe that they would commit such a treacherous act.  He gives further history of the Alkmeonids, including a story of the judgement of the suitors, leading to the birth of Pericles.

After the Battle of Marathon, Miltiades gains even greater fame and convinces the Athenians to give him money and ships to lead against a country he will not reveal, to win great fortune.  Given it, he sails for Paros but after besieging it for 26 days, he is thwarted by injuring his thigh and returns home in disgrace to be tried and fined, but eventually he dies from gangrene in his thigh.

Information on the conflict between the Athenians and Pelasgians follow, the Pelasgians finally carrying off Athenian women but find that the sons born of them are displaying an unusual unity between them, so they kill both the sons and wives, causing the ground to cease bearing crops and the women to cease bearing children.  Ordered to offer reparation to Athens, the Pelasgians agree to the Athenian request for their land with a string attached: they will give it when a ship sails with the north wind and completes the journey from Athens to Lemnos in one day, knowing the task impossible.  But one day in the future, Miltiades completes the journey in the indicated time and the Pelasgians have to give possession of Lemnos to the Athenians, although part has to be subjugated through battle.

Book V (Terpsichore)                                                                    Book VII (Polymnia)

Herodotus’ The Histories ~ Book V

Book V (Terpsichore)

“The Persians whom Darius had left in Europe under the command of Megabazos proceeded now to subdue the inhabitants of the Hellespont.”

Megabazos began to march through Thrace conquering as he went.  In Herodotus’ opinion, if the Thracians could only unite, they would be the strongest nation of all, but they cannot due to their constant arguments and disagreements.  He outlines many of their customs, that are often common but can differ in certain distinctions from nation to nation.  They export their children abroad, allow their daughters unrestricted sex, have tattoos to indicate nobility, respect leisure but find working the soil degrading, and honour those who make a living through war and plunder.

When Darius had crossed the Hellespont and finally reached Sardis, there he decided to honour Histiaios for his good judgement in keeping the bridge, and the sound advice of Koes of Mytilene.  Yet there were two Paionians in Sardis who wanted to rule as tyrants over their people.  Parading their beautiful sister in front of Darius, they convinced him that all women in Paionia were as beautiful and hard-working, so Darius commanded Megabazos to gather all the Paionian women and children and deliver them to him. When the Paionians heard of the Persian army’s advance, they went to meet them along the coast, but the crafty Persians came from inland surprising cities that were devoid of their fighting men.  With the cities captured, the Paionian men scattered and that is how the Paionians were driven from their homeland and moved to Asia.

Greek Builders
Victor Noble Rainbird
source ArtUK

The Persians arrive at the court of Amyntas of Macedon and make themselves very unwelcome by demanding that the concubines and wives sit with them, whereupon they proceed to fondle them.  Enraged, Alexandros, son of Amyntas, craftily replaces the women with warriors dressed as them and a battle ensues where all the Persian envoy is murdered and the Macedons are able to keep the means of their deaths a secret.

From there follows many stories that intertwine and weave through each other, yet we are always brought back to the Persians.  Herodotus’ employs a rather hectic style in this section, and his penchant for digressions is exaggerated, taking quite a lot of brainpower to follow:

  • The Macedons are Hellenes and he will demonstrate in a latter account.  
  • Megabazos convinces Darius to stop Histiaios from becoming more powerful so the king takes him with him on his journeys to Susa as a counsellor.  
  • Otanes is appointed to command forces along the coast near the Hellespont and captures many cities. 
  • Factional strife intensifies in Miletus and is adeptly handled by the Parians
  • Naxian exiles, who had fled to Miletus, along with Aristogoras its ruler, plan to attack Naxos with the help of Artaphrenes, the friend of Aristogoras and the Persian army’s commander.  The king approves the plan and they set out, but Aristagoras and Megabates (a Persian of the Achaimenid clan) quarrel and so furious is Megabates that he warns the Naxians of the attack and after a four month siege, the attackers return home unsuccessful
  • Since Aristigoras has failed to fulfil his promise of money and land to Artaphenes, as well as failed in his venture, he is worried about his position and when a messenger arrives from Histiaios urging revolt from King Darius, he complies, capturing Ionian cities yet claiming to renounce tyranny to foster friendly relations to aid his cause.  He attempts to enlist the aid of Sparta
The Mountains of Thermoplyae (1852)
Edward Lear
source ArtUK

  • Now we learn of the Spartan king Anaxandridas, who refused to give up his first wife becuse of his fondness for her when she did not bear children, but was convinced to take a second wife, which was completely unheard of in Spartan custom.  The second wife gave birth to Kleomenes, yet suddenly the first wife bore three sons, Dorieus, Leonidas and Kleombrotos.  Dorieus expected the kingship would pass to him but was livid when it went to Kleomenes, so he asked for a colony to rule but did not consult the oracle so his quest for a colony was fraught with trouble and he eventually dies.
  • Kleomenes died without an heir but when Aristagoras arrived in Sparta, he was still ruling.  Aristagoras pleads for the rescue of the Ionians from their plight as slaves, relying on their Hellenic ancestry for sympathy.  He describes the wealth of the area but when Kleomenes learns the trip means three months at sea, he says forget it.  Trying bribery, Aristagoras is unsuccessful and is admonished by Kleomenes’ nine year old daughter: “Father, your guest-friend is going to corrupt you unless you leave and stay away from him”.
  • Now Herodotus gives us a painstakingly detailed description of the King’s Road from Sardis to Susa before circling back to the conflict.  
  • Aristagoas now travels to Athens which has freed itself of its tyrannical rule from Hipparchos, son of Peisistratos and brother of the tyrant Hippias, being killed by two men descended from the Gephyraians.  The Phoenicians first introduced the alphabet which was adapted by the Hellenes.  Hippias, embittered from the death of his brother, continued to rule but unbeknownst to him the Alkmeonids, an exiled clan, was planning an attack.  After bribing the Pythia at Delphi to urge all Spartans to assist them, they receive help from the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) and the Peisistratids are beseiged. With their children captured, the Peisistratids surrender and are exiled.
Argos from Myceneae (1884)
Edward Lear
source ArtUK
  • After the expulsion of the tyrants, Athens becomes greater as Kleisthenes (an Alkmeonid) divides the people into ten tribes.  With the Argives, he stopped the bards singing, for most of the Homeric poems praised the Argives and Argos, and he also stopped the veneration of the hero Adrastos and replaced him with Melanippos.  With these actions and more he gained increased political power but Isagoras emerges to attempt to get Kleisthenes banished by implicating him in murder.  When Kleomenes (the king of Sparta) moves to place Isagoras in power, he is thwarted and Kleisthenes is recalled. Realizing that the Spartans are now their enemies, Kleisthenes endeavours to become allied with the Persians.  The messengers agree to Persian rule over Athens (this is not good) but meanwhile Kleomenes attacks again trying to establish Isagoras as ruler once more.  But there is dissent within the Spartan army and they break up whereupon the Athenians successfully wage war against other nations.  Herodotus is certain their success lies in the equality of government.  Tyrants oppressed the people but as soon as they tasted freedom, they enthusiastically began to work for their achievements.  
Ruined Temples at Thebes
William James Müller
source ArtUK
  • More war ….. now the Thebans attack the Athenians based on an oracle.  I wonder who generally interpreted the oracles from the Pythia and what would happen to them if they were wrong.  It must have been a nerve-wracking task.  The Thebans enlisted the help of the Aeginetans which had a long-standing enmity with Athens, for they stole statues made from Athenian olive wood from the Epidaurians, who then refused to fulfil their payment to the Atheians for the wood.  Enraged, the Athenians sent a trireme to steal the statues but as they were dragging them off, thunder and an earthquake shook the earth and the crew began to kill each other as though enemies until only one remained.  The Aeginetans discount this story saying that there were many ships and as the statues were being dragged off they fell to their knees.  The Argives then came to their assistance and defeated the intruders.  Herodotus simply does not believe this latter story.  The one returning man did not survive long either, as, when he returned to Athens, the wives of his crew stabbed him to death with their dress pins for being the only survivor.  The women’s act was seen as even more egregious than the loss of the army and in punishment, they were forced to dress as Ionian women (okay, is it just me, or does this seem nutty?  Apparently they would no longer have pins, but are they so agonized over their mode of dress that this would be adequate punishment?  Really???!)
  • Back to the Theban invasion … which began with the help of the Aeginetans, but then Athens receives an oracle instructing them to wait thirty years for vengeance against Aegina.  What to do, especially with Sparta knocking at the proverbial Attic door?  Sparta does not wish for a more powerful Athens and, intending to return it to tyrannical rule to weaken its position, recalls Hippias.  The Spartan allies dislike their plan, however, yet it is only Sokleas of Corinth who speaks against it, showing Herodotus’ emphasis of democracy over tyranny:

“Well, heaven will be under the earth, and the earth above heaven; human beings will dwell in the sea, and fish will take over the former abodes of men, when you, Lacedaemonians, destroy systems of political equality and prepare to restore tyrannies to the cities — there is nothing among men more unjust or bloodstained than tyranny.  If you really believe it to be a good policy to have cities ruled under tyrannies, then you should be the first to install a tyrant among yourselves before seeking to do so for everyone else.  But as it is, you have no experince of tyrants, and in fact take the most dire precautions to prevent them from arising in Sparts, while you mistreat your allies.  If you had experienced tyranny the way we have, you would be able to come up with better policies concerning it than you have now.”

  • Quite an impassioned and insightful speech for the leader and a beautiful use of metaphors.  I wish we used more metaphors in conversation; they are so powerful.  In any case, Sokleas continues to express his experience of tyranny with Corinthian tyrants and most of the allies side with him, averting war.  
Zorobabel Devant Darius
Nikolaus Knüpfer
source Wikiart
  • Hippias returns to Asia and slanders Athens to the Persians (despicable troublemaker!) who demand they take him back to ensure peace.  When the Athenians refuse, they become enemies of the Persians.  At this time, Aristogoras arrives in Athens after being booted out of Sparta trumpeting the ease of a takeover of Persia, and the Athenians are convinced by his declarations and promises.  With Sardis burned by the Ionians, the Persians pursue them and decimate their numbers whereupon the Athenians abandon the Ionians in spite of pleas from Aristogoras, but the Ionians continue the battle, assisted by a revolt of Cyprians.  Darius, however, realizes that he will punish the Ionians, but he is more concerned with revenge against the Athenians.  First he sends Histiaos of Miletus to Ionia to quell the rebellion begun by his Miletian governor, Aristogoras.  Meanwhile, the Ionians engage the Phoenicians at sea and the Cyprians engage the Persians on land, yet although the Ionians win, the Cyprians because of desertions, are routed. The Ionians decide to return to Ionia but are overtaken by the Persians and captured.  Darius now turns to subdue cities near the Hellespont, including the Carians, whom he defeats at first, but they return and ambush the Persian army.  Panicked, Aristagoras decides to retreat to Myrkinos in Thrace rather than face the wrath of the Persians, but he is killed in the battle with the Thracians.
This was a challenging book, full of numerous historical figures and events, not to mention various different cities and kingdoms, and it was an exercise to keep all of them straight.  Probably my least favourite book yet, but still interesting.  Book Six is short but that means nothing with Herodotus, as the content seems to depend on how much he decides to contract into short spurts of information, or extend into detailed narrative.  He always keeps you guessing!

Book IV (Melpomene)                                                                Book VI (Erato)

Herodotus’ The Histories ~ Book IV

Book IV (Melpomene)

“Following the capture of Babylon, Darius led an army against Scythia.”

Not content with overrunning Babylon, Darius turns his attention to Scythia, wanting to revenge himself on them for an earlier attack on Media.  The Scythians had been absent from their country for 28 years and upon returning, found their wives had taken slaves to their beds and now the off-spring had raised an army against them.  At first, the battle was difficult but when the Scythians decided to treat the slaves as slaves, dropping their weapons and advancing with whips, the slaves abandoned their positions and fled. Herodotus now begins a detailed history of the Scythians, revealing a curious observation: the north of the land is not open to view because both the land and air are full of feathers! The Hellenes claim that the Scythians are descendents of Herakles (Hercules), but Herodotus prefers the theory that they migrated from Asia and took over the land from the Cimmerians who did not fight them, as the people fled and the royal Cimmerians divided into two groups and battled each other until all lay dead so they could be buried in their own land.

Aristeas, the poet of Proconnesus, died in a fuller’s shop but as news of his death spread, one man claimed to have just spoken with him.  When they went to retrieve his body, it was missing and seven years later he turned up in Proconnesus, composing verses, and at their completion, disappeared again.  Two hundred and forty years later he appeared in Metapontines, Italy, instructed them to build an altar to Apollo, disappeared again (of course), and to this day in the agora a statue of Aristeas stands beside one of Apollo.

Genius of Greek Poetry (1878)
George Frederick Watts
source Wikiart

More descriptions of the Scythian people, the territory, and their customs follow, including an interesting area of bald-headed men who claim that goat-footed men inhabit the mountains and beyond that, a people who sleep for six months of the year. Herodotus completely discounts the latter declaration.  As for the Issedones, when their fathers die, they eat them and keep their hair as a momento, and the women wield power equally with the men.  Scythian winters can be severe and Herodotus believes the feathers thought to fall in the north must be continuous snowfall.

Herodotus moves on now to describe the Hyperboreans and their customs, then scorns contemporary map makers:

“And it makes me laugh when I see so many people nowadays drawing maps of the earth and not one of them giving an intelligent representation of it.”

Herodotus will give his account, starting with the four nations between the two seas, then describing the Asian peninsula.  Nechos, king of Egypt, sent Phoenicians to sail around Libya, back through the pillars of Herakles, into the Mediterranean  and back to Egypt.  Later, Sataspes, an Achaimenid Persian, raped a girl who was the granddaughter of Megabyzos but since his mother was sister to Darius, King Xerxes granted her request for her son to sail from Egypt all the way around Libya until he encounted the Gulf of Arabia instead of being impaled, as was the penalty.  The man did not complete his task and was speared. 

Tripoli, Libya
Jennens & Bettridge
source ArtUK

Darius discovered most of Asia.  As for boundaries, Herodotus gives theories for the names of the areas of Libya, Asia and Europe.  Scythian rivers now become Herodotus’ focus and he gives details of many of them, from their size to the direction of their flow.  A list of the Scythian gods is now provided and he expounds on the sacrifices of which only those to Ares are different. 

The Scythian practices in war are quite disgusting.  When a man first kills, he drinks some of his victim’s blood; he decapitates and recovers the heads of those he’s killed and takes them to the king to receive his share of the plunder.  He elaborately removes the skin from the head and works it into a handkerchief which he displays on the bridle of his horse; the more “handkerchiefs” he has, the more esteem he receives (Ugh!).  They can make cloaks by stitching the “handkerchiefs” together.  They will also take the hands from their victims and use them as quiver covers.  They can also take skins from whole bodies, stretch them over frames of wood and then carry them on their horses.  As for the skulls of his most hated enemies, he saws them below the eyebrows, cleans them out, stretches oxhide over them, and for the more wealthy Scythian, he gilds the inside and uses it as a drinking cup (how absolutely repulsive!).  If a man has a dispute with a relative, he does the same and then brings the cup out for visitors, explaining their conflict, and that is how valour is earned.  If one has not killed a man within a year, he is a disgrace.

Battle Scene
Italian School
source ArtUK

When the king falls ill, they blame one of the townspeople for swearing falsely on the royal hearth.  Either the man is condemned by groups of soothsayers or if he is eventually absolved, the first group of soothsayers who condemned him is put to death by being burned in oxcarts.  Information on how the Scythians swear oaths, and bury their kings and each other, is now offered. The Scythians do not like foreign customs, as exemplified by the story of Anacharsis who was shot dead by the king for practicing them.  Likewise, a Scythian king called Skyles took up Hellenistic rites, worshiping the god Bacchus.  For his betrayal, the people revolted and Skyles fled to Thrace where he was eventually handed over and beheaded by his brother, Octamasades, the new ruler.

Back we go to Darius’ impending invasion of Scythia, where a Persian, Oiobazos, requests that Darius release one of his three sons from military duty as a favour, and Darius releases all three, but then proceeds to cut all their throats.  Darius travels from Susa to Chalcedon and sails to the Kyaneai Rocks (through which Jason and the Argonauts sailed) to view the magnificent Pontus bridge, which Herodotus describes in detail.  Finally Darius crosses the Hellespont and continues his journey leaving pillars to commemorate his advance as he goes.  Next, he conquers the Getai and Herodotus tells a tale about a man or divinity, he’s not sure which, named Salmoxis who might be a contemporary of Pythagoras and whom the people believe they go to when they die. Herodotus does not believe all he hears of him.

Bosphorus (1829)
Maxim Borobiev
source Wikiart

As Darius crosses the river Ister, the Scythians begin to get nervous and attempt to enlist nearby kingdoms for assistance in the coming confrontation.  The kings of the Gelonians, Boudinoi and Sauromatai agree to help but the kings of the Agathyrsoi, Neurians, Maneaters, Black Cloaks, and Taurians decline on the basis that the Scythians had first been the aggressors towards the Persians.  If the Persians attack them, they will fight but until then will remain neutral.  Thus, when the Persians advance, the Scythians first retreat into the Black Cloaks territory, then the Maneaters, then the Neurians, picking up allies on their way, however the Agathyrsoi refuse to allow the Scythians into their territory, forcing them back to Scythian land.  The Scythians continue to retreat, always keeping ahead of the Persians until Darius is driven to distraction.  He sends a message to them demanding they either fight or give gifts to their “master”.  In reply, the Scythians are unimpressed, stating that they were not fleeing, rather they always behaved so and if the Persians could find their ancestral graves, then they would fight, but in response to Darius’ claim of master, they reply, “Weep.”

Scythian emissaries meeting with Darius
Victor Vasnetsov
source Wikimedia Commons

They then begin incursions against Darius’ calvary when they go for provisions, always sending them running.  However, they encounter a problem when attacking on horseback for as there are no mules or donkeys in Scythia, when their horses hear the Persian mules and donkeys braying, they are thrown into confusion with the noise.  Yet the Scythians are exceptionally crafty and decide to draw the Persians further into their territory by leaving some herds behind, in hopes that their army will experience severe infliction from the lack of food available.  Seizing these stray animals, the Persians would be encouraged with their gain.  When Darius eventually finds himself in a predicament, the Scythians send gifts of a bird, a mouse, a frog and five arrows saying that if the Persians are clever, they will be able to decipher the message.  Darius thinks it means that the Scythians will surrender to him, but Gobryas, one of the seven who had deposed the Magus, thinks that unless they fly like the wind, the Scythians will overcome them.  Meanwhile the Scythians return to Ister and order the Ionians to abandon the bridge after the 60 days which Darius had commanded.  Darius, however, sees the Scythians chasing a hare and immediately accepts Gobryas’ prophecy (what? Does anyone know why on earth the hare would change his mind?)  Being the crafty person that he is, and completely devoid of empathy, Darius leaves behind his weaker soldiers with the donkeys, under the pretext that the rest of the army is leaving to attack the Scythians when, in fact, they’re retreating.  The Scythians pursue the fleeing Persians and, knowing the land better, arrive at the bridge at Ister before them.  They order the Ionians to depart immediately with their freedom after demolishing the bridge. Athenian general Miltiades and Histiaios of Miletus confer, the former counselling withdrawal, the latter loyalty to Darius.  The tyrants of the various kingdoms cast lots and Histiaios’ plan is accepted in that they will pretend to be acting on the advice of the Scythians, but only dismantle the bridge until they are out of arrow range.  Content, the Scythians leave to search for Darius and his army, but miss him, allowing the king to reach Ister, rebuild the bridge and escape, leaving in Europe Megabazos as his general.

Libyan Sybil – Sistine Chapel (1510)
Michelangelo Buonarotti
source Wikiart

Herodotus now relates stories of how the Minyans settled in Lacedaemon (Sparta) and how their arrogance sparked discontent, their imprisonment and escape.  From there, he offers a lengthy commentary on how Libya was founded by a descendent of Theras, and then the city of Cyrene in Libya by Battos, the dividing of the Cyrenians into three tribes and then details of the various Libyan nations. From the Nasamones who have many wives and swear oaths and obtain prophecies, to the Psylloi who made war on the south wind and were buried by it (Herodotus is only repeating what he was told by the Libyans), to the Garamontes who avoid “all human contact and social interaction,” Herodotus introduces the reader to these many nations, customs, native animals and crop production. In summary, there are four general nations in Libya, the Libyans and Ethiopians who are indigenous, and the Phoenicians and Hellenes who have immigrated.

Lastly follows the story of the Cyrenian queen Pheretime’s march to Barke with the Persian army loaned to her by Aryandes, the governor or Egpyt, to avenge the death of her son, Arkesilaos. The Barkians successfully repel the army until finally Amasis, leader of the army, devises a plan to capture the city.  He meets with negotiators to agree to peace which would last “for as long as this earth stays in place.”  Little does the Barkians know that the army had built trenches under them and covered them with planks and dirt.  After breaking the planks (and therefore moving the earth and nullifying the oath), the Persians overrun the city putting those responsible for the murder to death, and enslaving the others. Thus Pheretime extracts her revenge on Barke.  Yet hatred without comes from hatred within, and in the final days of her life, worms infest her body, teeming within it and crawling out of it.

“Thus the gods manifest their resentment against humans who execute vengeance violently and excessively.”

Book III (Thalia)                                                                   Book V (Terpsichore)

Herodotus’ The Histories ~ Book III

Book III (Thalia)

“It was against this Amasis that Cambyses son of Cyrus was preparing to wage war, with an army of his other subjects, including Ionian and Aeolian Hellenes.”

Back to Cambyses, the ruler of the Persians, who was getting ready to attack Egypt. From a number of complex circumstances, Cambyses asked for Amasis, the king of Egypt’s daughter but, not wishing to give his daughter the position of a concubine, Amasis sent a daughter of Apries.  I’m not certain what he was thinking, but of course the daughter exposed Amasis’ ploy, and Cambyses became enraged.  There are other tales about this circumstance, but Herodotus brushes them off with contempt.  At the launching of the campaign against Egypt, a mercenary, Phanes, who was disenfranchised with Amasis, fled to Cambyses while evading capture and revealed Egyptian secrets for a successful offensive. Cambyses was to get permission of the Arabian king to lead his army through Arabian land, as the Egyptians would be expecting them by sea and not by land.  When the two armies met, Amasis was dead and his son, Psammenitos was ruler.  Psammenitos had captured the sons of Phanes, cut their throats over bowls in their father’s sight to pay him for his treachery, and then drank their blood before going into battle.  Quite disgusting, isn’t it?

An interesting tidbit from this battle.  The Egyptian warriors fell on one side of the field and the Persians on the other.  If one examines the skulls of each, the Persian skulls are soft and a small pebble will rupture them, however the Egyptian skulls are so hard, they are difficult to crack with a rock.  Herodotus surmises this is because the Egyptians shave their heads from childhood and the sun thickens the bone; conversely the Persians cover their heads with caps and their heads become soft from the shade. Egyptians also do not go bald; there are fewer bald Egyptians than anywhere else.

A Skull
source ArtUK

After claiming victory over the Egyptians, Cambyses tested the spirit of their conquered king.  He had both Psammenitos’ daughter and son paraded through the street, the former as a slave and the latter to his death along with other prominent children. Although the other fathers wept and lamented, Psammenitos remained silent.  Yet when his former drinking buddy, now a pauper, was paraded before him, Psammenitos sobbed openly.  When questioned, he explained to Cambyses that his family’s misfortune was too dreadful for tears but the beggar had his land taken and fallen into poverty in old age, indeed an affliction worthy of grief.  Impressed by his answer (and Croesus as well, who was with Cambyses), the Persian king pardoned the son of Psammenitos but too late, as he’d already been executed.  If Psammenitos had shown some wisdom, he would have been treated well and left to rule as administrator, but he incited a revolt and was made to drink the blood of a bull, dying soon after.

Slave Market, Cairo (1838)
William James Müller
source ArtUK

Moving on, Cambyses had the corpse of Amasis extracted, then violated it by plucking, stabbing and abusing it.  When it withstood such indecencies, Cambyses had it burned. Stories are told that it was not actually the corpse of Amasis, who had a prophecy beforehand and placed another corpse just inside the door of the tomb, but Herodotus does not believe this story for a moment.

Planning to conquer the Carthaginians, Ammonians and the Ethiopians, Cambyses sent people called the Fish-Eaters to Ethiopia with gifts of a purple robe, a necklace of twisted gold, bracelets, an alabaster pot of perfume, and a jar of Phoenician date-palm wine.  Not to be fooled, the Ethiopians chastized the king, showing contempt for all the gifts except for the wine.  Their censure was strong, berating Cambyses for attempting to send spies and for having set his sights on a country that was not his and for his plans to put their people into slavery.  They returned a bow, saying that when a Persian could draw if as effortlessly as their king, then they should make war, but until then, look elsewhere for their conquests.  When the spies returned with this information, Cambyses was enraged.  He took his army with the intent to crush his enemy, but his troops ran out of food one-fifth of the way and soon began to consume grass and then their pack animals.  When they began to consume each other, Cambyses gave up and returned to Thebes where he found that the part of his army that had set out to subdue the Ammonians had disappeared, some say buried by a tremendous sand storm.  When he arrived back in Memphis, it was the celebration of the epiphany of the god Apis, but the Persian king suspected the people where lauding his embarrassingly ineffectual campaigns and killed everyone who was revelling, while whipping the priests and, stabbing Apis (a calf) in the thigh, killing him.  Already irrational in many of his actions, after this act Cambyses went completely insane.

Women of Phoenicia (1879)
Robert Fowler
source ArtUK

First, Cambyses slew his brother, scared that he was going to usurp his throne, then next, one of his two sisters whom he had taken as wives against convention.  Herodotus alludes to Cambyses having “the sacred disease” which is noted as epilepsy.  Next, he directed his insanity toward Prexaspes, his messenger, announcing that he was going to conduct an experiment.  He pointed out Prexaspes’ son standing on the porch and declared if he was able to shoot an arrow through his heart, the Persians were talking nonsense when they declared him insane, but if he missed, the Persians would be telling the truth.  After he shot the boy, he demanded that he be cut open to examine the accuracy of his aim.  Croesus (heavens, this man seems to be everywhere) immediately admonished his behaviour, indicating that if he did not temper it, the Persians might revolt against him whereupon Cambyses tried to shoot him and when he escaped, the king ordered his death.  Yet Croesus had friends who hid him, hoping the king would eventually miss him, which he did, wishing for his return, but upon it he killed the men he had ordered to kill Croesus for their disobedience.  He then desecrated sacred areas, digging up graves and inspecting corpses (Yuck!), which proves to Herodotus that he was absolutely deranged. 

The Final Arrow
Dez Quarréll
source ArtUK

While Cambyses was in Egypt, the Lacedaemonians were warring with Samos and their ruler, Polykrates, to capture the island.  Polykrates’ power had grown so remarkably that it made his ally, king Amasis of Egypt, send him a letter of concern:  no one enjoys complete good fortune so Polykrates must select his most precious possession and dispose of it to balance his fortune, the good with the bad.  Polykrates chooses a precious emerald ring and tosses it into the ocean, but when one of his subjects presents an enormous and beautiful fish to the king, Polykrates finds his ring inside it.  When Amasis read in a letter sent by the king about this surprise, he immediately broke off his alliance so “when severe and dreadful misfortune should finally strike Polykrates, Amasis’ spirit would not be tortured with anguish, as it would be for a friend and ally.”

Hillside, Sparta
Derek Bangham
source ArtUK

Complexities follow, as the Spartans wage war against Polykrates with regard to some Samian exiles for the following reason:  Polykrates had offered Cambyses his troops in his war against Egypt and sent him Samian men who were most likely to revolt against their king, making a pact with Cambyses that they should never return, however the men escaped and sailed back to Samos where they engaged in battle but eventually had to flee to Sparta.  The Spartans agreed to help the Samians since the Samians had helped them once, but they were also irritated about the seizure by the Samians of a breastplate and then a bowl that was supposed to be sent to Croesus.  The Corinthians too had bad feelings toward Samos, for their leader Periandros, had sent 300 sons of Corcyra to be castrated and the Samians gave them sanctuary before returning them to Corcyra. There was ongoing enmity between Corinth and Corcyra and this is why:

After Periandros, king of Corinth, killed his wife Melissa, his two sons were sent to their maternal grandfather and he reveal to them their father’s perfidy.  The younger son, Lykophron, was distraught and refused to utter one word to his father, so Periandros ejected him from the house and he went into exile.  His father, enraged at his behaviour, issued an edict that no one was to give him lodging.  Finally when Lykophron was thin and beggarly, Periandros pleaded for reconciliation, but the boy would not listen and was sent to Corcyra.  More pleading and begging followed but the boy was adamant, although he finally agreed to meet his father in Corcyra, covertly planning to sail to Corinth at the same time, but the Corcyrans did not want Periandros on their land and killed Lykophron instead.  

Samos, Greece
Colin Graham Frederick Hayes
source ArtUK

And so, the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) beseiged Samos for 40 days and then gave up, abandoning the Samian exiles.  More information on these Samians follow and Herodotus reveals that he has given such a length history of them because they achieved three of the greatest engineering feats of the Hellenes: 1) they dug a tunnel through a 900-foot mountain; 2) they built a mole around the harbour in the sea, and; 3) they built the largest of all temples.

Back to Cambyses who had left Smerdis (Guamata), one of two brothers called the Magi, in Persia to govern in his absence, and then finds that he has revolted against him. When this Smerdis had learned that another Smerdis (Bardiya), the son of Cyrus and the brother of Cambyses, had been secretly killed by the advisor of Cambyses, Prexaspes, due to a prophecy, he decided to take this Smerdis’ identity and claim rule as a descendent of Cyrus.  Cambyses, realizing that the prophecy had actually been about this particular Smerdis and not his brother, suddenly became sane in his anguish, but soon died from a spear wound to his thigh that became gangrenous.  The Magi courted Prexaspes to their side, planning to have him announce Smerdis as the son of Cyrus, but instead the advisor revealed the truth and threw himself from the tower, ending his life in honour.  Meanwhile seven Persian men, led by Darius, had also had plans to reveal Smerdis’ status as an imposter.  One of the men’s daughters was a wife of Smerdis and she was to find out whether he had ears or none …… the false Smerdis had had them cut off for an offence by Smerdis, son of Cyrus.  When she found he had none, their plan was put into motion.  They entered the palace and slew both of the Magi, cutting of their heads and then rushed outside with them to proclaim to the Persians the cause of their deeds.  The people were so enraged that they joined in the slaughter of one Magus after another, and to this day there is a celebration day called the Murder of the Magi, where every Magus must stay inside his house.  Otanes, Megabyzos and Darius then argued about the best form of government for Persia to continue under, a democracy, an oligarchy or a monarchy, and the monarchy won out. Darius came up with an amazingly complex and intelligent way of determining their next king: they would ride outside the city at sunrise and the man whose horse made the first noise would be named king.  Brilliant!  ….. Good grief!  One could only hope that Darius did not get chosen, but this man was scheming, if not intelligent, and had his groom trick his horse into neighing first and lo, the kingship was his.  Yikes!  At the same time, thunder and lightning sounded, apparently sealing the decision.  Darius quickly began to organize his empire is a most businesslike way.  Comparing the three Persian rulers, the people say Darius was a retailer and conducted his affairs like a shopkeeper; Cambyses was a master of slaves and harsh and scornful; and Cyrus, a father who was gentle and saw to it that all good things would be theirs.

The Election of Darius (1767-77)
Sawrey Gilpin
source ArtUK

Herodotus goes into detailed accounts of where Darius received his tributes and for how much, then moves to India giving some details of Indian customs.  I can’t wait for your comments when you get to this part, Cirtnecce!  Moving to Arabia, Herodotus talks about vipers and winged serpents and how the Arabians harvest frankincense, having to ward off bat-like creatures.  The harvesting of cinnamon is even more fantastic: huge birds carry the stalks of cinnamon to incorporate into their nests, so the Arabians leave bones of dead donkeys, cattle, etc. under the nests and when the birds take them back, they are so heavy they make the nests crash to the ground and the cinnamon is gathered.  

One of the Persian seven, Intaphrenes, met his death by attempting to see Darius, as per their agreement. When the guards prevented him, he cut off their ears and noses, disturbing Darius who convinced himself Intaphrenes was plotting against him.  He arrested him and his family, but Darius, at the plea of Intaphrenes’ wife, allowed her to release one captive and shockingly she chose her brother, as she could get another husband and children but not another brother.  Pleased with her explanation, Darius released the brother and, as a gift, her eldest son but killed the rest.

A Persian, Oroites, who was the governor of Sardis, lured Polykrates of Samos to Magnesia where he killed him in a most disgusting way and hung him from a stake, fulfilling the nightmares of Polykrates’ daughter.  Yet soon after, Darius sent a man to Sardis who convinced Oroites bodyguards to end his life and thus they did.  

More stories follow telling of Samos, of particular interest how Maiandrios of Samos greeted a Persia envoy led by Orantes, how he allowed his crazy brother, Charilaos, to attack the envoy while he escaped to Lacedaemon.  Maiandrios attempted to dazzle the king of Sparta, Kleomenes, with gifts but the king sensed the danger of his guest and banished him.  Meanwhile, the Babylonians were revolting against poor Darius who, though he tried every trick in the book, including the one by Cyrus (see Book I), could not suppress them.  However, Zopyros’ mule fulfilled a portent that when a mule gave birth, the Persians would take the city, so Zopyros mutilated himself and went to Darius, revealing a plan that included the killing of Darius’ own troops.  Darius agreed and Babylon was taken.  While Cyrus had allowed the city walls and gates to remain intact, Darius destroyed them and killed 3000 of its most important citizens.  However, he was kind enough to bring more wives for those left, as the Babylonians had killed most of theirs so they wouldn’t use up the food.  Zopyros was lauded by Darius all his days.

Babylon Fallen
Gustave Dore
source Wikiart

Book II (Euterpe)                                                 Book IV (Melpomene)

Herodotus’ The Histories ~ Book II

Book II (Euterpe)

“When Cyrus died, the kingship was inherited by Cambyses.”

Upon the death of Cyrus, his son Cambyses took power and immediately led an expedition to Egypt, including the conquered Ionians whom he saw as slaves. Herodotus now falls into a long narrative about Egypt’s land and customs.

Architecture and Art of the great Temple of Karnak
David Roberts
source Wikiart

He claims the Phrygians are the oldest people, citing an experiment done with babies to see what the first word uttered would be, however the Egyptians were the first to discover the year by dividing it into twelve parts and adopt names for the twelve gods. Here begins a lengthy description of the land and terrain, the soil and the flooding of the Nile and its channels.  Herodotus claims the Hellenes have three theories about the Nile’s floods: 1) the Etesian winds cause the flooding, which Herodotus says is ridiculous; 2) the Nile flows from the Ocean and the Ocean surrounds the entire world, which Herodotus states is even more ludicrous, and; 3) the floods are caused by melting snow from Libya which pass through Ethiopia.  The last is the most believable explanation, yet the most erroneous.  Herodotus presents his own theory which has to do with the sun being pushed off course by storms, then in spite of Herodotus’ promise to be brief, he offers a rather complex explanation.

The Nile (1881)
Vasily Polenov
source Wikiart

Next, Herodotus launches into a description of Egyptian customs, claiming they are opposite to the customs of other peoples.  Here are a few for your enjoyment:

  • The women go to the market to sell goods, whereas the men stay home and do the weaving.
  • The men carry loads on their heads and the women on their shoulders.
  • Women urinate standing up; men sitting down.
  • They ease themselves (urinate & defacate, I believe he means) inside their houses but eat outside on the streets.
  • Sons do not have to support their parents, but women do.
  • Women cannot be priestesses, only men can be priests
  • They live together with their animals
  • They knead dough with their feet but lift up dung with their hands

….. and so on and so forth.

The Egyptians are pious and Herodotus explains in detail animal sacrifices, then moves on to their understanding of Herakles, which is very different from the understanding of the Hellenes.  In fact, Herodotus proves his dedication for discovering the truth by visiting Tyre in Phoenicia to discover how these people viewed the god, as well as a sojourn in Thaos.  Herodotus finally concludes that the Hellenes myths of Herakles are the most foolish.

The Sanctuary of Hercules (1884)
Arnold Böcklin
source Wikiart

A discussion about where the Hellenes derived the names for their gods follows, and Herodotus is certain most of the names came from barbarians, namely the Egyptians, although Poseidon seems to be borrowed from the Libyans.  As to their origin, Herodotus believes that Hesiod and Homer, who lived no more than 400 years before him (modern scholars believe 200 years before), composed the theogony of the gods along with bestowing them with their attributes, behaviours, skills and descriptions. From there we move to religious rituals and festivals, and the Egyptians care of their animals. Do not intentionally kill an animal or you are sentenced to death.  For the death of a cat, the household will shave its eyebrows, but for the death of a dog they shave their whole body and head.  Many animals get buried in sacred places or tombs.  The crocodile is sacred in some places as is the hippopotamus, and my favourite animal, the otter. Herodotus’s description of the hippopotamus is rather implausible:

” …. it has four feet with cloven hooves like an ox, a blunt snout, a mane like a horse, conspicuous tusks, and a horse’s tail.  It neighs.  It is the size of the largest ox, and its hide is so thick that once it is dried, spear shafts are crafted from it …”

There is a very impolitic footnote stating that obviously Herodotus has never seen a hippopotamus, but honestly who really knows?  I choose to believe him, or at least that he thought he saw one, as later he describes a phoenix but is very careful to reveal that he has never actually seen one.  From this evidence we can conclude that, at the very least, Herodotus is attempting to be accurate and transparent.  In any case, this phoenix carries the body of its father wrapped in an egg of myrrh from Arabia to the sanctuary of Helios when he dies, or so the legend goes.

Hatwell’s Gallopers’: Hippopotamus Hunt
Henry Whiting
source ArtUK

After, Herodotus discusses various themes such as fish, methods of embalming, Egyptian boats, and then begins to share some Egyptian history.  Priests told him that the first Egyptian king was named Min who founded the city of Memphis and dammed the Nile.  After him, 330 kings followed which included one Ethiopian and one woman (Nitokris – different than the Babylonian Nitokris of Book I) who avenged her brother by locking his numerous murderers in a chamber and drowning them before throwing herself into a chamber of ashes to escape retribution.  However, the Egyptians claim these kings were more or less useless except for the last, Moeris (king Amenemhet), who produced a memorial to himself and excavated a lake.  King Sesostris, who came after, marched all over Asia erecting pillars to commemorate his victories and would put on them the genitals of a woman for those whom he thought cowardly.  When his brother plotted his murder, Sesostris used two of his six children as a bridge to cross a flaming pyre, burning them up, and in this way, escaped with the rest of his family.  His son, Pheros, ruled Egypt after him and then came Proteus, with whom Helen and Paris stayed.  Herodotus calls into question Homer’s account of the Trojan War stating in his opinion that Helen was in Egypt the whole time of the war.  After all:

” … considering that if Helen had been in Troy, the Trojans would certainly have returned her to the Hellenes, whether Alexandros (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 Alexandros could have Helen.”

Thebes Colosseums, Memnon and Sesostris (1856)
Jean-Leon Gerome
source Wikiart

After Proteus, Rhampsinitos assumed kingship, amassing great amounts of silver for which he built a great vault.  But the builder made a secret entrance which he told to his sons upon his death and they began to borrow from the king.  The king discovered the theft and laid traps for the robbers whereupon one of them was caught, but he convinced his brother to behead him so their identity would not be discovered.  The king then took the headless body and hung it as bait but, upon the urging of his mother, the thief made the guards drunk and stole it.  The king then set his daughter up as bait in a brothel to attempt to identify the robber (Herodotus expresses his disbelief at the veractiy of this account), but although the thief confessed his sin while enjoying the daughter’s favours, he offered the arm of a corpse he had brought along with him when she tried to grab him, and once more eluded capture.  So impressed, the king pardoned the man and gave him his daughter in marriage, then King Rhampsinitos descended to Hades to play dice with Demeter. (Yes, seriously!)

While Egypt prospered under Rhampsinitos, the next king, Cheops (Khufu), laid the people under bondage, forcing the people to do labour for him, hauling stones to build causeways and his great pyramid.  His brother, Chephren (Kafre), was not much better and built his pyramid of coloured Ethiopian stone, however, his son, Mykerinos (Menkaure), disliked his father’s policies and enacted change.  He is liked more than any other king but at times his leniency caused him great trouble.  After sexually abusing his daughter who killed herself, an oracle told him that he only had 6 years left to live, therefore he stayed awake twice as long and extended his life to 12 years.  Asychis followed, who built his pyramid of bricks, then a blind king, Anysis, who fled the Ethiopian king who took over, who then fled himself after a dream, whereupon Anysis returned. The Egyptians believe that before the kings, the gods ruled over Egypt.

Great Pyramid of Giza
source Wikipedia

After Ethiopian rule, they divided the kingdom into twelve districts and kings ruled each, forming alliances but promising not to depose each other.  To commemorate them all, they had a marvellous labyrinth constructed that Herodotus claims eclipses the pyramids themselves and he would know as he was shown the upper chambers although denied the lower ones.  Yet even with their pact for peace, a mistake brought about dissent. While meeting together, only 11 golden cups were brought out for libation and Psammetichos had to use his helmet.  A horrified hush came over the rest of the kings as they realized the oracles proclamation was coming true: that the one who drank from a bronze vessel would reign over all the kingdoms.  They decided to exile instead of kill him but Psammetichos returned and with the help of the Ionians and Carians, became sole ruler of the kingdoms.  Nechos, the son of Psammetichos, reigned after, constructing a canal and leading military campaigns, before his son, Psammis took over, followed by his son, Apries.  Due to a failed military campaign, the people blamed his poor leadership and Apries had to send an envoy, Amasis, to quiet them, however they crowned Amasis king, so Apries sent Patarbemis to fetch his disloyal envoy.  Amasis (Ahmose II) refused to return, but Patarbemis was able to determine his intent to attack the king.  However, upon return, Apries was so furious that Patarbemis had returned empty-handed, he seized him to cut off his ears and nose before the man could relate his discovery.  Amasis with his foreign army of the Ionians and Carians who had settled in the land, met Apries’ Egyptian army in battle and Apries was eventually captured. Amasis treated him well, however, yet the citizens complained and Amasis turned him over to them at their request, whereupon they strangled and buried him.

Amasis II
source Wikipedia

The people at first despised Amasis because he was merely a common man, but Amasis won them over.  Yet he was not a serious man and enjoyed drinking with his friends.  Concerned about his reputation, his close friends and family admonished him but Amasis answered:

“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 be of no 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.”

Egypt prospered under Amasis and he was also friendly to the Hellenes.

⇐  Book I (Clio)                                                                                Book III (Thalia)

The Well-Educated Mind: Reading The Histories

Ruth at A Great Book Study is beginning to read through The Well-Educated Mind Histories beginning January 1, 2017 and I’m going to join her on the journey.  We read through the Biographies together (or almost. I still have The Gulag Archipelago to finish up) and while it took two and a half years, it seems just like yesterday that we began.

Now, I’m under no illusions; the histories are going to take longer, especially if one wants to really absorb them.  Here is the list:

  • The Histories by Herodotus
  • The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
  • The Republic by Plato
  • Plutarch’s Lives
  • The City of God by St. Augustine
  • The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede
  • The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
  • Utopia by Sir Thomas More
  • The True End of Civil Government by John Locke
  • The History of England, Vol. V by David Hume
  • The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • Common Sense by Thomas Paine
  • The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Democracy in America by Alexis De Tocqueville
  • The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels
  • The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt
  • The Souls of Black Folk by W.E. B. Du Bois
  • The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber
  • Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey
  • The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
  • The New England Mind by Perry Miller
  • The Great Crash 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith
  • The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan
  • The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
  • Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made by Eugene D. Genovese
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century by Barbara Tuchman
  • All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein
  • Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson
  • A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
  • The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama

Some of these I’m so excited to read, such as The Histories, The Republic, The Prince, The Social Contract, and A Distant Mirror; others leave me rather unmoved, for example, The True End of Civil Government (big yawn!), Common Sense and The Feminine Mystique.  I expect to have some surprise favourite and flops before the read is over.

There is also a Reading the Histories group on Goodreads where we’ll be able to discuss as we go.  So please join us if you feel so inclined and we can read the histories together.  You never know where they may take us!

All Rivers Run to the Sea by Elie Wiesel

“Last night I saw my father in a dream.”

Born in the town of Sighet, Romania in the Carpathian Mountains in 1928, Wiesel’s family of six was part of a thriving Jewish community. During World War II, murmurs of Jewish persecution by the Germans reached the town, but the villagers doubted the rumors and discounted anything they heard.  Even with the German occupation of the town on March 19, 1944, the Germans behaved correctly and no one was disturbed.  Months before their arrival, a man called “Moshe the Beadle” arrived in town with talk of his escape and stories of atrocities, yet his words fell like a barely noticeable rain:

“Messenger of the dead, he shouted his testimony from the rooftops and delivered it in silence, but either way no one would listen.  People turned their backs so as not to see his eyes, as though fearing to glimpse a truth that held his past and our future in his steely grip.  People tried, in vain, to make him doubt his own reason and his own memory, to accept that he had survived for nothing —– indeed, to regret having survived.”

Their own housekeeper, Maria, tried to convince the family time and again to seek refuge with her at her house in the mountains, but they were reluctant to abandon their Jewish community, still believing that all would be well.  Even when they were imprisioned in the ghetto, she would sneak through the barbed wire barricades to bring them food.  She figures prominently in Wiesel’s memory:

“I think of Maria often, with affection and gratitude.  And with wonder as well.  This simple, uneducated woman stood taller than the city’s intellectuals, dignitaries, and clergy.  My father had many acquaintances and even friends in the Christian community, but not one of them showed the strength of character of this peasant woman.  Of what value was their faith, their education, their social postion, if it aroused neither conscience nor compassion …. It was a simple and devout Christian woman who saved the town’s honor.”

Wiesel doesn’t examine in depth his time in the concentration camp —– his book, Night, describes this ordeal —- rather he shares questions which he had before and after the nightmare.  Why didn’t Jews in other countries do more for their suffering brothers? Why were there not more bombings to stop the transport of Jews?  Why did the world watch as six million Jews were exterminated?  There is a poignancy to the fate of the town of Sighet, as the Third Reich was already in disarray, and Hitler knew that his fight for world dominance had ended, yet he was determined to exterminate the Jewish people, making the deportation of Jews a priority over military convoys.

Wiesel comments on the Jewish passivity during the Holocaust:

“Today, as I write this, I think of all those who chided us for our passivity, our resignation, during the war.  ‘Why didn’t you resist?’  What about the Germans?  What accounts for their obsequious cowardice before foreigners after their defeat?  There were endless rumors about parents who sold their wives and daughters to the first American soldier for a pair of nylons, former high-ranking Wehmacht officers who would shine shoes for any corporal, bankrupt merchants who fought over cigarette butts flicked into the road by drunken solders.  Their strength was gone, their power dissipated, their arrogance a memory.  Yesterday’s supermen had become subhuman.  But no, I don’t like either of those terms, superman or subhuman; both victors and vanquished are no more, no less, than human beings.”

“Jewish avengers were few in number, their thirst for vengeance brief ……. the Jews, for metaphysical and ethical reasons rooted in their history, chose another path.  Later, this absence of violence among the survivors, this absence of vengefulness on the part of the victims toward their former hangmen and torturers was widely discussed.  Of course, the setting was a Germany barely able to breathe under the weight of its ashes, a nation humiliated as few have ever been.”

Yet within the tragic fate of so many of his people, Wiesel observed the quiet resolution and courageous determination that his fellow Jews exemplified.

“With hindsight I realize that it was in the ghetto that I truly began to love the Jews of my town.  Throughout the ordeal they maintained their dignity as human beings and as Jews.  Imprisoned, reduced to sub-human status, they showed themselves still capable of spiritual greatness.  Against the enemy they stood as one, affirming their faith in their faith.”

With the death of both of his parents in the camps, after his release Wiesel went to France where, under the children’s rescue society, he began schooling and reconnected with his Jewish religious roots.  He rather naively began his journalistic career working for a Yiddish news weekly funded by the Igrun, an Israeli resistance group.  Eventually, he found himself in New York as a foreign correspondent, and finally became a U.S. citizen.  He recounts his meetings with political dignitaries and writers such as Golda Meir, Ben-Gurion, Saul Lieberman, Yitzhak Rabin, Hannah Arendt, etc., as his travels took him between France, the U.S. and Israel.   Through his experiences, we get a first-hand view of Israel’s fight for independence in 1947, to its struggles up to the Six Day War with Egypt in 1967.

About claims that he renounced his faith, Wiesel responds:

“There is a passage in Night  — recounting the hanging of a young Jewish boy — that has given rise to an interpretation bordering on blasphemy.  Theorists of the idea that “God is dead” have used my words unfairly as justification of their rejection of faith.  But if Nietzsche could cry out to the old man in the forest that God is dead, the Jew in me cannot.  I have never renounced my faith in God.  I have risen against His justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within faith and not outside it ……. my Talmudist master Rabbi Saul Lieberman has pointed out another way to look at it.  One can — and must — love God.  One can challenge Him and even be angry with Him, but one must also pity Him.  ‘Do you know which of all the characters in the Bible is most tragic?’ he asked me.  ‘It is God, blessed be His name, God whose creatures so often disappoint and betray Him.’  He showed me ….. God wept, His tears fell upon His people and His creation, as if to say, What have you done to my work? …… Perhaps God shed more tears in the time of Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz, and one may therefore invoke His name not only with indignation but also with sadness and compassion.”

Yet throughout this book, the tragedy of his people lives within him, their suffering and memory never far from the surface of his thoughts.  It is as if their legacy lives inside him and his soul needs to shout their story.

“To write is to plumb the unfathomable depths of being.  Writing lies within the domain of mystery. The place between any two words is vaster than the distance between heaven and earth.  To bridge it you must close your eyes and leap.  A Hasidic tradition tells us that in the Torah the white spaces, too, are God-given.  Ultimately, to write is an act of faith.”

I really loved his biography, as Wiesel is very honest and forthright, yet we see compassion and understanding, not only for Jews, but for Germans and Arabs as well. There is no resonance of hatred in Wiesel’s narrative, only a cry for understanding.  He does not want vengeance, and not necessarily even justice, but more a soul-searching to prevent another atrocity such as the Holocaust, which would give some sort of meaning to the tragedy.  Wiesel tells his story with a quiet strength, offering questions that perhaps have no answers, but always has the Jewish plight speaking from both light and shadows.  Ultimately, a good part of life is made up of questions without answers and perhaps Wiesel exemplifies best how to live in that tension, and also to use it for good.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (As Told to Alex Haley)

“When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night.”

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925.  He was the fourth of seven children, his father being an outspoken Baptist speaker.  The family relocated to Lansing, Michigan where they were targets of attacks of the Black Legion, a racist group led by whites.  Before Malcolm’s seventh birthday, his father was killed in a streetcar accident, but rumours of the Black Legion’s involvement were rife.  When a relationship with a man she was dating deteriorated, Malcolm’s mother had a breakdown and was placed in a mental asylum where she remained for 24 years.  At fourteen, he began to get involved in all sorts of illegal activity, from gambling, hustling, drug dealing, racketeering, pimping, etc in New York City.  He became a thug and a criminal, hanging out at music halls and smoking “reefers”, living a wild life on the edge:

“Looking back, I think I really was at least slightly out of my mind.  I viewed narcotics as most people regard food.  I wore my guns as today I wear my neckties.  Deep down I actually believed that after living as fully as humanly possible, one should then die violently.  I expected then, as I still expect today, to die at any time.  But then, I think I deliberately invited death in many, sometimes insane ways.”

Finally at 20 years old, an attempted robbery landed the young man in prison, where he finally discovered through one of his brothers, the “natural religion of the black man”, the Nation of Islam.  Through their prophet Elijah Muhammed, a new history of the black man was revealed:  600 years ago everyone was black but a “Mr. Yacub”, a scientist with a large head decided to break the peace.  Exiled to Patmos (the same island were the Apostle John lived when he wrote Revelations), Yacub, embittered towards Allah, made a race of “bleached-out white people” through his followers.  In two hundred years the black people were eliminated, two hundred more and the brown people followed, then two hundred each for the red people and the yellow people (yes, the math doesn’t add up, but I’m just repeating the story).  The new white people were like animals, walking on all fours and living in trees and it was two hundred years before they returned to civilization and made it a living hell.  All the black people’s problems stemmed from this “devil white race”.  History had been completely rewritten by the white man.  X also figured out that because the King James Bible was considered the ultimate in English and the King had poets write it, Shakespeare must have written it.  So in Malcolm X’s mind, King James used the alias of Shakespeare and wrote the Bible to “enslave the world”.   And thus, Malcolm X began to correspond with his siblings & Elijah Muhammend, read any book he could to support his position and to recruit for the NOI (Nation of Islam).  He was successful with converting some followers, but the majority thought their tenants strange, to say the least, and rejected his overtures.

Malcolm X before a press
conference (1954)
source Wikipedia

Malcolm X despised the white race, but he also showed extreme antipathy towards the black elite, or any black person who did not agree with him, calling them brainwashed by the white people, including Martin Luther King, Jr. whom he labelled a puppet of the white establishment.

“Why you should hear those Negroes attack me, trying to justify, or forgive the white man’s crimes!  These Negroes are people who bring me nearest to breaking one of my principal rules which is never to let myself become over-emotional and angry.  Why, sometimes I’ve felt I ought to jump down off that stand and get physical with some of those brainwashed white man’s tools, parrots, puppets.”

Yet with his evangelizing, NOI numbers slowly grew.  His met his wife, Sister Betty X, at his temple and after they were married, she became a good Muslim wife to him, caring for their children and supporting his ministry.  When questioned about his religious philosophy and its proclivity for spreading hatred, the people questioning him would immediately become “breathing living devils” and X would immediately go on the attack, claiming the white man was in no moral position to accuse anyone else of hatred, or he would accuse them of attacking his people because they were black.  As an artist might work in oils, Malcolm X worked in logical fallacies, painting his rhetorical and philosophical landscapes with circular reasoning, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, appeals to fear, tu quoque, and the straw man.

After years of working as Elijah Mohammed’s front man and “minister”, Malcolm X began to act more independently.  Praise was always given to Mohammed, but there were suspicions that his actions were not always pleasing to his superior and that the NOI head resented his subordinate’s popularity.  When Mohammed was accused of sexual impropriety with NOI secretaries, a serious breach of the rules of Islam, Malcolm X attempted to justify his behaviour.  However, with Malcolm X releasing inappropriate comments after John Kennedy’s assassination, in spite of a NOI ban on commenting, the leader felt X had become too independent and prohibited his public speaking for 90 days.  Malcolm X finally left the organization, founding Muslim Mosque, Inc. and in 1964 made a pilgrimmage to Mecca where he was astounded to see believers of all colours. It was the beginning of a change within the charismatic leader and when he returned to the States, there was tone moderation in some of his discourses.

“Yes —- I wrote a letter from Mecca.  You’re asking me ‘Didn’t you say that now you accept white men as brother?’  Well, my answer is that in the Muslim World, I saw, I felt, and I wrote home how my thinking was broadened!  Just as I wrote, I shared true, brotherly love with many white-complexioned Muslims who never gave a single thought to the race, or to the complexion, of another Muslim …….  In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people.  I never will be guilty of that again — as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man.  The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against black ….. (it) was the first time I ever had been able to think clearly about the basic divisions of white people in America, and how their attitudes and their motives related to, and affected Negroes.”

He finally saw that it wasn’t “the American white man who is a racist, but … the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourished a racist psychology in the white man.” His inclusion now did not only cross the boundaries of race but also religion and political philosophy.  Suddenly Malcolm X began to get an inkling that his previous experiences which formed his views might have been based on ignorance, and he strove for a change.  Finally, we see a man struggling with new ideas that perhaps are trying to kick the old ones aside, as he tried to merge his new identity with the old one.  And we get a glimpse of some perhaps insightful self-examination:

“For the freedom of my 22 million black brothers and sisters here in America, I do beliee that I have fought the best that I knew how, and the best that I could, with the short-comings that I have had.  I know that my shortcomings are many.”

Malcolm X defends his house
Photo from Ebony magazine
source Wikipedia

In spite of his new outlook and more moderate thinking, Malcolm X’s rhetoric did not noticably change, other than the added sprinkling of more impartial comments.  It would have been interesting to see where this new-wakening would have taken him but it was not to be.  He knew his time was running out, as his divide with NOI had stirred a pot of vipers.

“Every morning when I wake up, now, I regard it as having another borrowed day.  In any city, wherever I go, making speeches, holding meetings of my organization, or attending to other business, black men are watching every move I make, awaiting their chance to kill me.  I have said publicly many times that I know that they have their orders.  Anyone who chooses not to believe wht I am saying doesn’t know the Muslims in the Nation of Islam …..  each day I live as if I am already dead …..”

In an epilogue added by Alex Haley, we learn of Malcolm X’s demise.  At a conference in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, while addressing the Organization of Afro-American unity, Malcolm X was shot multiple times by three men rushing the stage.  He was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital with 21 bullet holes in his body. The three men, Nation of Islam members, were arrested and imprisoned for his murder.

✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥

This book is brutally appalling and without encouragement from Ruth, I would probably not have finished it.  The vicious hatred and counter-disease of racial prejudice was so palpable it was nearly unbearable, being very similar to Hilter’s discourses in Mein Kampf.  Personally, while I could never condone hatred, I could at least understand animosity against a person who had perpetrated an horrible act against him.  But I couldn’t understand the savage hatred against people who had never done a thing to him but only shared the same colour of skin as those who had oppressed his people.  As I read his speeches and invectives, I did not feel like Malcolm X was speaking for his people; he was simply mentally creating a situation that he wanted to believe and acted on it, his own philosophy being more important than the people he was trying to vindicate.  It was only in the latter part of the book that his views began to be adjusted, and it would have been interesting to learn if they would have become even more moderate and inclusive with time.  Sadly, we will now never know.

The most interesting part of the biography was the epilogue written by Alex Haley. Through him we get a sense of Malcolm X, a man who was distrustful of everyone around him, including himself.  Even his friends were seen a partial enemies and his whole life was spent like a hunted animal, either from his own internal expectations, or real threatening circumstances.  Constant drama surrounded X and he appeared to need to feed on it, as one would food for sustenance.  His moods would swing from jubilant to sullen and back again.  Haley had often to lead and coax the black leader to tell about himself, luring him away frominstead of resorting to diatribes against whomever he felt conflicted with him or his views.  Yet even with the often unbalanced raving tirades and untenable attacks, there is no doubt Malcolm X had a compelling magnetism that garnered attention.

The violence through which Malcolm X lived and appeared to advocate, did not only culminate in his death but resonated throughout his family.  In 1995, his daughter Qubilah was arrested and tried for plotting the murder of Louis Farrakhan, then the leader of the Nation of Islam whom she felt bore the responsibility for her father’s murder.  Two years later, her twelve-year-old son set fire to his grandmother’s house (Betty, Malcolm X’s wife) which caused burns to over 80% of her body and caused her death.  In his 28th year he was found beaten to death in Mexico.

Perhaps Malcolm X did give a type of pride to black Americans but the stain of violence he contributed and left in his wake cannot be seen as a value to anyone as far as I’m concerned.  If those who are advocates for the oppressed act exactly the same as the oppressors, no one benefits and the prejudices and hatred are simply perpetuated.  If it is simply a matter of anger and revenge, we learn nothing.

Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton

“Begin here.”

Introducing Journal of a Solitude, another out-of-order book for my WEM Biographies Project.  I’m finding the remaining biographies heavy on U.S. content, and being a Canadian I wasn’t at all familiar with May Sarton.  Born in Belgium, when German troops invaded the country, Sarton’s family fled to England, then to Boston, Massachusetts.  As a writer, she wrote a number of novels, poems and memoirs, mostly a commentary on her life and experiences on aging, friendship, depression, lesbianism, doubt, failure, the simple pleasures of life, and other personal musings.

Published in 1973, Journal of a Solitude is a response to her novel Plant Dreaming Deep.  Sarton stated that in the latter novel, people felt that in her they had found an intimate friend, but with Journal, she attempted to shatter that image and produce a reality of herself that was stark and intense, yet honest.  Sarton’s initial description holds a sincere, startling, simple candor:

“I am an ornery character, often hard to get along with.  The things I cannot stand, that make me flare up like a cat making a fat tail, are pretentiousness, smugness, the coarse grain that often show itself in turn of phrase.  I hate vulgarity, coarseness of soul.  I hate small talk with a passionate hatred.  Why?  I suppose because any meeting with another human being is collision for me now.  It is always expensive, and I will not waste my time.  It is never a waste of time to be outdoors, and never a waste of time to lie down and rest even for a couple of hours.  It is then that images float up and then that I plan my work.  But it is a waste of time to see people who have only a social surface to show.  I will make every effort to find out the real person, but if I can’t, then I am upset and cross.  Time wasted is poison.”


“…. I am an impossible creature, set apart by a temperament I have never learned to use as it could be used, thrown off by a word, a glance, a rainy day, or one drink too many.  My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there.  I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.  I write too many letters and too few poems.  It may be outwardly silent here but in the back of my mind is a clamor of human voices, too many needs, hopes, fears ….”


The Common, Nelson, New Hampshire, 1914
source Wikipedia

Sarton’s journal covers one year and gives the reader a warm, intimate view into her life in rural Nelson, New Hampshire.  As she paints her life with words, her thoughts go deep, exposing the beauty around her but also the turmoil inside her:

“I think of these pages as a way of doing that.  For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision.  I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation.  But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self.  I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose —- to find out what I think, to know where I stand.  I am unable to become what I see.  I feel like an inadequate machine, a machine that breaks down at crucial moments, grinds to a dreadful halt, ‘won’t go,’ or, even worse, explodes in some innocent person’s face.”

In spite of her success as a writer, depression haunted Sarton; it was a companion that she could not seem to shake and she admits to thoughts of suicide:

“Cracking open the inner world again, writing even a couple of pages, threw me back into depression, not made easier by the weather, two gloomy days of darkness and rain.  I was attacked by a storm of tears, those tears that appear to be related to frustration, to buried anger, and come upon me without warning ………”

Yet, in spite of the adversity of her regular despondency, Sarton managed to decorate her life and the pages of her book with stories of the death of a friend, her bird, the battles with the neighbourhood racoons and her intense love of gardening.  The tales resonated with insight, as Sarton was always examining life.  Even the letter of a twelve-year-old girl, produced a philosophical rumination:

“In the mail a letter from a twelve-year-old child, enclosing poems, her mother having psuhed her to ask my opinion.  This child does really look at things, and I can write something helpful, I think.  But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or a craft.  Instant success is the order of the day; ‘I want it now!’  I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines.  Machines do thing very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start at first try.  So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value.”

While Sarton lived in solitude, she at times travelled for speaking engagements and in each place she received something to ponder, whether it was the struggle of women, the advent of materialism, or the sometimes suffocating pressure that life laid upon her in the form of human contact. The journal skips along from day to day, emotion to emotion, task to task, her reflections personal, yet one senses a soul reaching out for something just beyond its grasp.  I’ve read numerous works on religious contemplative living, and each has been rich with a vibrancy that is quite startling contrasted with the starkness of their existence.  Sarton’s journal reverses this observation; her existence is filled with what she craves — writing, gardening, solitude —- yet, her inner soul lacks peace.


While Journal of a Solitude was a mildly enjoyable book for me, I can’t say that I’m going to rush out and read another by Sarton.  Even though, there was intimacy in her words, I never really grew to know her, perhaps because she didn’t seem to know herself.  The searching quality of the work brought a type of disquiet, and while I had empathy for her struggles, there was a melody of despair that hovered around her and echoed long after the book was done.  Life was an unconquerable bête noire for Sarton, ever present and often discouraging.  Which was all rather sad.

In this book, there is an enlightening reference to Virginia Woolf, of whom Sarton was familiar, perhaps illustrating the unusual temperaments of authors such as herself:

“When I was young and knew Virginia Woolf slightly, I learned something that startled me — that a person may be ultrasensitive and not warm.  She was intensely curious and plied one with questions, teasing, charming questions that made the young person glow at being even for a moment the object of her attention.  But I did feel at times as though I were ‘a specimen American young poet’ to be absorbed and filed away in the novelist’s store of vicarious experience.  Then one had also the daring sense that anything could be said, the sense of freedom that was surely one of the keys to the Bloomsbury ethos, a shared secret amusement at human folly or pretensions.  She was immensely kind to have seen me for at least one tea, as she did for some years whenever I was in England, but in all that time I never felt warmth, and this was startling.”

Why are so many artists tortured souls?  Is it because of the solitude they need to hone their skills, and the lack of human contact diminishes their souls?  With their art, are they sharing of themselves, giving of themselves and therefore becoming less?  The act of creation should be life-giving to both the giver and receiver, yet in many cases, why does one seem to benefit and the other is hindered?  Or have I asked the unanswerable question?  Sarton didn’t know the answer and I believe this question was one of many that haunted her through her long yet productive life.