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) ⇒


5 thoughts on “Herodotus’ The Histories ~ Book IV

  1. I'm blown away by Darius and the Persians. I'm just now getting into the Greek history (book six), and the Persians still won't go away. It's impressive.

  2. Thanks! I'm having fun with it. Herodotus does jump around a bit though from present to past and back again, and also his digressions lead to rabbit trails but honestly, he's really charming.

  3. Pingback: Herodotus' The Histories ~ Book V - Classical CarouselClassical Carousel

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