So, wow! Clio sure was something, huh guy? It starts off with Herodotus’s extremely digressive story of Croesus, King of the Lydians, and how he invented “invading Hellenic territory” as a practice. Then it moves into Herodotus’s extremely digressive account of the life of Cyrus the Persian, from his improbable childhood to his disgusting death. Along the way Herodotus stops many times to fill us in on important details about temple prostitutes, Athenian politics, and how much the Massagetai liked milk. Plus multiple accounts of cannibalism!
Neither of the two main characters, Croesus and Cyrus, came across as sympathetic. I’d like to root for Croesus, I would! But even aside from the misogynistic rant with which he exits Clio, Croesus as hero is problematic. He had that odd dialogue with Tellos about the happiest man, wherein Croesus came across as crass and insecure. He ignored all the warning signs at sent Adrastos the cursed royal fratricide off hunting with his son. He had another son whom he just ignored his whole life, because he was mute. He decided to invade Syria for basically no reason, after bribing an endless line of priests and ignoring all the warning signs again. Then he half-invaded Pteria, turned around, and was shocked when Cyrus’s army followed him back to Sardis and conquered Lydia. He didn’t plan things through! He was like the Gob Bluth of Clio.
After Cyrus captured him Croesus suddenly shifted from being a king who made poor choices into being an advisor who was manifestly smarter than all of Cyrus’s other advisors. It’s a bit of character development I don’t find terribly plausible, but the world-weary and wise Croesus definitely improved on the reckless and overconfident Croesus… at least up until the bit at the end where Croesus asserted Cyrus shouldn’t fulfill Tomyris’s wishes because she was a woman and women were garbage.
Of Cyrus goes along with that, which costs him some points in my eyes, too. Cyrus’s motivations for the conquests he carried out weren’t explored, and in fact I’d say we don’t get as good a sense of who Cyrus is, compared to Croesus. He’s apparently a very bratty kid, and he passively follows Harpagos’s lead until such time as Harpagos vanishes from the narrative (nice one there, Herodotus). But other than that he’s a blank slate, through his conquests of Lydia and Babylon and his final ill-fated Massagetai campaign.
One last note: Herodotus seems very credulous when it comes to fanciful explanations of irrigation systems. “Oh, Cyrus the Persian had his army dig those irrigation canals, because he was angry at the river.” “Oh, Queen Nitocris laid out those oxbows for defense against brown-water naval assault.” “Oh, if you’re married among the Massagetai you can just grab another man’s wife and take her, no questions asked!” That last one isn’t about irrigation, but still. C’mon.
After the first book of the Histories, Clio, Herodotus continues on with Euterpe. Euterpe, the second of the muses! Euterpe Well-Wisher! The Giver of Delight! Inventor of the double-flute and a big pile of other musical instruments as well! Euterpe who granted us the art of the dialectic; she taught us to love to learn. Learn, and laugh, and love along with Euterpe, because the second book of the Histories is where it gets weird.
Taking Friday off for Thanksgiving; Euterpe begins on Monday.