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)

6 thoughts on “Herodotus’ The Histories ~ Book III

  1. I'm having so much fun! If The Faerie Queene was so much fun, I would have finished it months ago. And now I've reminded myself about it. Darn! I should try to find it again and pick up where I left off …..

  2. Pingback: Herodotus' The Histories ~ Book IV - Classical CarouselClassical Carousel

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