Histories By Herodotus – A Movie Script Disguised as a History Book

Histories by Herodotus is considered the first true history in Western Civilization.  It was written over 2400 years ago by a man named Herodotus.  He was from a city called Halicarnassus which was located on the western coast of modern-day Turkey.  This was WAY back before any Turks inhabited the area (which would happen around 1000 A.D.)Halicarnassus was part of the larger Hellenistic world, or as you know it, the Greek world.

Herodotus is one of the famous three Greek “H” authors.  In chronological order you have Homer, who is credited with the “Illiad” and the “Odyssey.”  You have Hesiod, who wrote “Works and Days” and his more famous “Theogony.”  Finally you have Herodotus and his “Histories.” Western culture would be different without these three important and wonderful authors.

Herodotus is called the “father of history.”  He is also called “the father of lies.”  There is not doubt that Herodotus embellished parts of his work.  There were simply some things he didn’t understand, such as full knowledge of various cultures and a full knowledge of geography.  For writing over 2400 years ago, Herodotus, in my humble opinion, wrote on of the greatest books of all time.  I absolutely LOVE “Histories.” It is anything but a boring read.  It is not the easiest read, but there is help with that.  I read “Histories” through the Landmark series of classics.  There are maps, footnotes with explanations and corrections, and really awesome appendices that are essentially essays by experts explaining certain aspects of Greek and other cultures encountered in “Histories.”

If you read only ONE classic in your life, “Histories” by Herodotus would be one of the best choices.  Originally written in ancient Greek, “Histories” is divided into nine books. The Landmark translation mentioned above is 722 pages (including all maps) and about 850 pages with all of the must read appendices.  It is well worth it.

Below is a summation of my favorite part of the whole work, the end of Book 1…

It is about a great King, a strong defiant Queen, and a moral lesson in pushing one’s luck.

————————————————————————————————————————————– The great Persian King Cyrus (the Great), in his quest to conquer as much as he could, decided to make war with the Massagetai, a people living amongst the plains to the east of the Caspian sea, to the north of the realm of King Cyrus. King Cyrus has had nothing but success so far in his life, beating the Massagetai was simply a foregone conclusion to him.

The Massagetai were ruled by a woman named Tomyris.  Cyrus sent queen Tomyris a proposal of marriage, but Tomyris saw this proposal was simply a ruse to gain her kingdom by deception and she refused his proposal. Thus rebuked, King Cyrus led his army to the Araxes river and his engineers began construction of a bridge of boats in order to cross the river.  As his army was building the bridge Queen Tomyris sent a message to Cyrus:

“King of the Medes (Persians), cease your labors; you cannot know whether this project will prive to be advantageous to you.  So stop; be satisfied with reigning over your own people and endure the sight of me ruling over the subjects that I have now. However, I assume that you will not follow my advice, as you would find anything preferable to living in peace.  Well, if you heart is so strongly set on a trial of strength with the Massagetai, come on then and we shall oblige you; but you need not labor more to build a bridge. Give us three days to retreat from the river, and then you may proceed to invade my territory.  Or, if you would prefer to admit us into your territory, you do the same.”

When Cyrus received this message he summoned the top Persians to meet with him and discuss the situation.  They almost unanimously agreed that Cyrus should admit Tomyris and the army of the Massagetai into his territory. The only contrary opinion was that of the former king and now advisor to Cyrus, Croesus.  Croesus says to Cyrus:

“Sire, you know, as I told you earlier, that since Zeus gave me to you (Croesus was defeated by Cyrus and lost his kingdom to him), I would always strive, to the best of my ability, to avert any harm to you and your house that I could envision.  My suffering, though joyless for me, has taught me many lessons. If you think yourself an immortal an that you command an immortal army, no opinion of mine will mean anything to you. But if you realize that you are human and command an army of human beings, consider first that there is a cycle in human affairs, and as it goes around it does not permit the same person to enjoy good fortune forever. Therefore, I have an opinion opposite to that of these men concerning this matter. For if you permit the enemy to enter your territory and are defeated, you will risk losing your whole empire. For if the Massgetai should win, it is quite obvious that they will not retreat but will march on your other provinces. And even if you defeat them there, you will not gain as much from the victory as you could have gained had you crossed the river and defeated the Masssagetai on their own territory, and pursued them as they fled. Just as they might have done great harm to you had they defeated you here, your victory there will permit you to advance directly into the empire of Tomyris. And apart from all that, it would be an intolerable disgrace for Cyrus son of Cambyses to concede the initiative to a woman and to retreat before her. For these reasons, I think you should cross the river, advance as far as they make way for you, and then endeavor to gain the advantage over them by means of the following scheme… I hear that the Massagetai have had no experience of all the amenities and the finer things in life which the Persians enjoy. So I propose that you shold deal with these men in the following way: slaughter many cattle – and be generous about it. Have the cattle prepared to serve as a feast in our camp, along with generous provisions of undiluted wine and foo of every sort. When everything is prepared, leave behind the worst part of your army and retreat at once with the rest to the river. For in my judgement, the Massagetai, when they see the any good things to eat and drink there, will turn their attention to these delights and thereby create an opportunity for us to perform great deeds of valor.”

(Croesus advises Cyrus to leave a trap for the Massagetai soldiers, to lure them into getting drunk and feasting in order that they would be easy prey for the Persian army.)

Cyrus chooses to follow the plan of Croesus. He then told Tomyris to withdraw so he could cross the river into her territory.  Cyrus sent his son Cambyses (II) with Croesus to Persia for safety in case anything should happen to the king in battle and then he crossed the river with his army. That night, Cyrus had a dream that young Darius, son of Hystaspes, had wings on his shoulders, one wing cast a shadow over Asia, the other over Europe. Cyrus interpreted the dream viewing Darius as plotting against his kingdom when in reality, the gods were trying to warn Cyrus that he would die in battle and that Darius would eventually succeed to this throne.

After a day of marching past the river for a day, Cyrus set up a banquet as Croesus advised. Cyrus took his best troops and marched back, leaving the weaker part of his army with the wine and food.  These troops were slaughtered by the Massagetai soldiers who were surprised to see a feast simply waiting for them.  The Massagetai began to eat and drink.  Cyrus’ army then attacked the unaware Massegatie, killed many, and captured more alive, including a general named Spargapises, the son of Tomyris.

When Tomyris learned what had happened, she sent Cyrus another message:

“Bloodthirsty Cyrus, do not gloat over what has happened here. You Persians indulge yourselves with the fruit of the vine (wine) to the point of madness, so that as the wine descends into your bodies, ugly words flow up and out of you. By such means you have tricked me and have taken my son prisoner, but not by supremacy in battle. Well, then, I urge you to follow this advice: return my son to me and, despite the damage you have cunningly wreaked upon a third part of the army of the Massagetai, you may leave this land unharmed. If you do not do this, I swear by the Sun, the Lord of the Massagetai, that I will satisfy your thirst for blood, insatiable as you are.”

Cyrus ignored this message when reported to him. Soon, Sparagapises became sober only to discover that he was captured by Cyrus.  He begged Cyrus to set him free of his chains, which Cyrus did. Sparagapises immediately killed himself.

Tomyris saw that Cyrus did not heed her warning.  She gathered here army and attacked the Persians.

Herodotus writes of the battle:

What happened then was, in my judgement, the most violent of all battles ever fought by barbarians; (meaning non-Greeks) this is what I heard about how it was waged. It is said that the battle began with each side shooting arrows at each other while still far apart. Then, when their supply of arrows was exhausted, they fell upon each other at close quarters with spears and daggers. For a long time they fought fiercely and neither side was willing to flee. But at last the Massagetai prevailed. A large part of the Persian army perished in this battle, and in particular, Cyrus himself met his end. He had reigned for twenty-nine years.

Tomyris then filled a wineskin with human blood and searched for the corpse of Cyrus among the Persians’ dead. When she found him she thrust his head into the wineskin, and as she thus abused the corpse, she declared to it:

“I am alive and have conquered you in battle, but you have ruined me by taking my son through guile. Well, then, just as I threatened, I will slake your thirst for blood.”

Of the many stories told about the death of Cyrus, this account seems to me to be the most credible version.


Oh yeah, the story of the fall of Cambyses II, the rise of Darius, Xerxes invading Greece, and the story of the 300 Spartans are all to come….. no big deal!

I must again recommend HARDCORE HISTORY – KING OF KINGS I, II, and III

It is simply amazing.  Check it out for free at http://www.dancarlin.com

Credit for the material in the summary and picture go to the Landmark crew published by Anchor books.