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) ⇒


5 thoughts on “Herodotus’ The Histories ~ Book V

  1. amazing how you manage to keep track and write up all those detailed events!! reading your post, all i can think of is how extraordinary it is that humans haven't totally eliminated themselves from the planet yet… it doesn't seem like any of us ever think about anything except murdering others for some minor disagreement… maybe things have improved a little bit since then… or maybe not… tx for the clear writing and description…

  2. Ah, and here I thought you were going to come up with a sarcastic comment about the women dress pin murderers! 😉

    It's all about power and jockeying for it. A universal issue that I'm sure will never be eradicated. Sadly ……

  3. This one was a HARD post. There was so much going on and Herodotus moved through the information so quickly. I figure though, if I'm going to read it I may as well get an understanding of it.

    I think is some ways we've become better but in other ways worse. I do respect the Greeks/Persians who have integrity, courage and honour. There seems to be many of them.

  4. Pingback: Herodotus' The Histories ~ Book VI - Classical CarouselClassical Carousel

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