Herodotus opens with an explanation that his goal, in setting down his Histories, is twofold. First, he preserves the deeds of men that might otherwise be forgotten, and should not be forgotten because they were cool and impressive. But second and more importantly, he wants to ensure that the cause of the war, the massive destructive horrible thing that he lives through, will never be lost. Learn from the Persian Wars, Herodotus says. Recognize the roots of conflict and ruinous war. Otherwise this will only happen again.
(Fortunately, as a result of Herodotus’s effort, there have been zero wars since 470 BCE. Thanks, Herodotus!)
This begs the obvious question: was Herodotus the first-ever historian, or at least the first historian of what we call the Western Intellectual Tradition? The short answer is yes with an if, and the long answer is no with a but. Yes, if you discount Homer and the other epic poets who were more concerned with telling a good story than they were factual accuracy. No, but those historians who predate Herodotus left no works that survive in more than fragmentary form, the balance of evidence suggests Herodotus was largely ignorant of their work, and (since all that Hecataeus left behind is lines quoted by later scholars) we lack the tools to evaluate the extent to which what they wrote was history. It seems implausible that there might have been a well-known book of history available for Herodotus’s study in 440 BC, that he wouldn’t have picked up and studied and referred to. He would have mentioned it, surely; instead he gives the impression he was flying blind. So Herodotus might as well be the first historian, and isn’t that what counts?
Herodotus begins CLIO with an account of the history of violence, tracing it as far back as he can. Originally, he says, conflict began with the Phoenicians. In addition to inventing fighting (bunch of jerks) they traveled from their original homeland, in the general vicinity of Yemen, in a great migration. The Phoenicians went up the Gulf of Suez to Lebanon, where they founded a trading network that ran all through the Mediterranean. Once upon a time, more or less, a Phoenician trading ship landed at the city of Argos, which at the time was generally accepted as being the greatest city in Hellas. Hellas, just as a reminder, was Herodotus’s au courant term for what we now call Greece. Argos still exists, with about 30 000 people living there, but it isn’t the cultural capital of Greece the way it was back in the day; it wasn’t even the cultural capital of Greece in Herodotus’s day. You have to go back into Homer to find references to Argos as a mover and a shaker; that’s how far in the past we are.
The king of Argos, Inachos, had a daughter named Io whom the Phoenician traders abducted. They set up their wares on the deck of their ship, and invited the women of Argos to come up and shop. Once enough women had taken them up on the offer, boom, they took off with the women aboard. Most of these women escaped, probably by jumping overboard, but Io and a nontrivial number of others were grabbed by the sailors and restrained and carted off to Egypt.
At this point Herodotus drops this particular narrative thread, so let’s all hope that Io escaped her captors and married a handsome Egyptian prince (or lovely Egyptian princess, or one of each, hey, whatever floats Io’s boat). There’s a whole myth cycle about Danaus, who supposedly was both a great-great-grandson of Io and an Egyptian prince; he traveled to Argos from Egypt and became its king with the help of his fifty sexy daughters. Aeschylus wrote a whole series of plays about Danaus’s fifty sexy daughters, of which only one (the Suppliants) survives. Also Danaus supposedly invented boats. I don’t know how that fits into the timeline.
But regardless of later mythmaking, Io never returned to Argos; the damage was done. A group of Greeks were spurred to revenge. Herodotus cannot confirm that these Greeks were Inachos and his friends; they may have been an unrelated but sympathetic group from Crete. This team sailed to Tyre, in Lebanon, which at the time was a major Phoenician city. There they abducted Europa, the princess of Tyre, through a scheme Herodotus can’t identify. This should have been the end of it, but then the Greeks took it too far. Jason the Argonauts wouldn’t leave well enough alone: as part of their quest for the golden fleece, they abducted another Phoenician princess, Medea of Colchis. Colchis was located in modern-day Georgia, which is to say, quite a ways from Lebanon, so there was really no excuse for this heinous act.
The king of Colchis sent a stern letter to Greece, which was answered with a big raspberry. And thus Phoenician-Greek relations soured, though things wouldn’t get really bad for another generation. Some number of years later, Alexander, son of Priam and the young prince of the Phoenician city of Troy, came of marrying/abducting age. He set his sights on a Greek princess, Helen of Sparta. That she was married to someone else: not a concern of his!
Alexander carried off Helen, as Herodotus puts it, and the Greeks refused to let this lie. They invented a wholly new thing: massive armed invasion! Up to this point warfare consisted solely of stealing women, but the Greeks took it to a new level. They assembled a fleet of ships, sailed to Troy, and tore that sucker down! No more Troy! Troy was a thing of the past; they destroyed the dominion of Priam. The Persians point to this as the point when the Greeks and the Persians became permanent, implacable enemies, because the Persians considered the Phoenicians to be a subset of Persians.
Herodotus relates a sort of conversation between the Greeks and the Persians, as follows.
“You invaded Troy, you jerks!” said the Persians.
“Only because you carried off Helen, you jerks!” said the Greeks.
“That was only because you carried off Medea, you jerks!” said the Persians.
“Only because you carried off Io, you jerks!” said the Greeks.
The Phoenicians themselves claimed that Io, the supposedly abducted Argive princess who set all this off, actually went willingly because the captain of the Phoenician trading ship knocked her up, and the two of them went off to Egypt and lived happily ever after with a passel of half-Greek, half-Phoenician children. Ianchos was terrible father and Io was afraid to tell him she’d gotten Teen Pregnant, is why they had to arrange the fake kidnaping and all. “Besides,” concluded the Persians, “Io was just a girl. It was all harmless girl-abducting up until you jerks attacked Troy! And yes, girl-abducting is harmless because the girl in question always tacitly goes along with her so-called abduction! Io and Medea and Helen were all into it! But you just needed some casus belli to attack us, didn’t you?”
Aristophanes would later parody this argument several times in different plays of his, so this was apparently a big crowd-pleaser in re Athenian popular culture. For his part, Herodotus has no dog in this particular fight. People have been treating one another badly for basically ever, he says, and the Greeks did things just as bad as the non-Greeks. But he has to start his story somewhere, and with all this Trojan War stuff as prelude, he wants to open with the first non-Greek who started the ball rolling, and move forward from there.
The particular non-Greek that Herodotus picks is Gyges of Lydia. There are about three stories of Gyges that come down to us from antiquity, which are mutually exclusive. Alongside Herodotus’s account, he’s mentioned by both Plato and Nicolaus of Damascus (close personal friend of Herod the Great, Marc Anthony, and Cleopatra; he’s the Dick Cavett of the ancient world). Plato, as you would remember from the Republic maybe, claimed that Gyges was a humble peasant who found a magic ring that turned him invisible, and that he used it to spy on the queen naked. Her naked body inspired him to overthrow the king and marry the queen. Nicolaus of Damascus claimed that Gyges was the king’s bodyguard, and that he and the queen were star-crossed lovers and adulterers, Lancelot and Guinevere style, with a similar end. Nicolaus’s account is sandwiched in the middle of a long history of Lydia that’s basically a romance novel.
And so Herodotus’s account, lacking as it does magic rings and plots lifted directly from romances, is actually the most plausible. It goes like so.
Once upon a time, in the land of Lydia, King Candaules loved his wife. This was, by the standards of the time, an eccentricity. Candaules adored his wife: he loved kissing her, he loved petting her, and most of all he loved staring at her naked body. He didn’t try to talk to his wife, or treat her as a partner, or anything; guy was eccentric, but he accepted the conventional wisdom that women were basically livestock. Herodotus doesn’t name Candaules’s wife, for some reason, but Nicolaus of Damascus calls her Tudo, and claims she was a princess from Mysia (a close neighbor of Lydia). Nicolaus also claims that Candaules was an epithet, and that the king’s real name was Sadyattes, but we’re going to be ignoring that part.
Candaules constantly bragged to Gyges, one of his bodyguards and closest confidantes, about how hot his wife was. “I’m so lucky to be married to Tudo, dude,” he’d say. “Any man would gnaw his own arms off for a chance to see my wife naked. That’s how hot she is. You have no idea. You think you do, but you don’t.”
“I get it! Quit being creepy!” was Gyges’s usual response to this, and generally that’s where it ended. But one day Candaules just wouldn’t take that for an answer.
“You do not get it. If you got it, you would be going out of your mind with lust, so I don’t think you get it.”
Gyges tried to assure him that yes, he did get it. “Honest, boss, I believe you when you say Tudo is incredibly hot.” Candaules had a flash of crazy inspiration. “There’s only one way to prove it to you! You’ve got to see her naked.”
“What? No!” Gyges wanted none of this. “That is crazy talk! It’s morally repugnant to look at a naked woman who isn’t your wife!”
“Be of good courage, Gyges, and have no fear. It’s not a crime if the king tells you to do it, and it’s especially not a crime if Tudo never finds out about it. What we’ll do is, I’ll hide you in the closet of our bedroom, and then when Tudo comes in, to slowly and sensuously strip off her clothes, you’ll be able to peek out and see her in all her nude glory. Then while she’s getting into bed, you can sneak out the door.”
Gyges thought this was a terrible idea, but Candaules wouldn’t take no for an answer. And he was the king, so when the time came to choose between his risky plan and Gyges’s risk-free plan of not doing anything, he picked his plan. So that happened. Next thing Gyges knew, he was hiding in Candaules’s closet waiting for Tudo. He was about to give up and sneak away when she came in! So he had no choice but to voyeuristically peek in on her as she slowly and sensuously removed her clothing.
“Huh,” thought Gyges to himself. “She really is pretty amazingly hot.” He kept quiet, just hoping to get through it without getting caught.
Unfortunately for him, Candaules seriously underestimated Tudo’s peripheral vision when he came up with this plan. For while her back was turned and she was climbing into bed, Gyges tried to sneak out, as instructed, but Tudo saw him out of the corner of her eye! She whirled around, and saw Gyges’s back as he crept out. In an instant she deduced what had happened, that Gyges had been peeking on her and that Candaules had put him up to it.
At that time she didn’t say anything, but the next morning Tudo warned all the household servants (or at least those whom she thought were loyal to her) about how something was up. She summoned Gyges, who came in whistling nonchalantly, hands in his pockets, like he had no reason to be nervous about interacting with Tudo… (Later historians point out that if Tudo were a queen in the Lydian tradition, she’d be in a harem and unable to just summon Gyges in like this; the whole notion of visiting the queen is suspiciously Greek.)
Tudo sat Gyges down and did not mince words. “I know what happened. I know what you saw, and why you saw it. There are now two ways open to you, Gyges. Pick one. Either thou must slay Candaules and possess both me and the kingdom of Lydia, or thou must thyself here on the spot be slain, so that thou mayest not in future, by obeying Candaules in all things, see that which thou shouldest not. Either he must die who formed this design, or thou who hast looked upon me naked and done that which is not accounted lawful.”
“Whoa.” Gyges found this passing heavy. “Isn’t there a third, compromise option? Where me and Candaules both live?”
“Nope.” Tudo picked up her guard-summoning bell and weighed it in her hand. “What’s it going to be? Coup, or death? Coup, or death?”
Gyges tried to be a good person, but when push came to shove he didn’t want to die. “Since you’re forcing me to take my master’s life against my own will, let me hear your plan as to how we’re going to pull this off. This whole coup thing is your idea, not mine.”
“Simple,” said Tudo. “We wait until he’s asleep, and then you stab him. It’s poetic justice, inasmuch as our bedroom is where you saw me naked.”
So that happened! Herodotus is sure that this story is accurate because he can cite a secondary source, the poetry of Archilochos the Parian, who wrote the whole thing up in iambic trimeter.
Gyges declared himself king, married Tudo, and proceeded to brutally put down the rebellion that started as soon as the Lydians found out he was a regicide who’d just usurped the throne. This was a nasty fight, but ultimately Gyges and the leading pro-Candaules fighters agreed to a cease-fire. They sent a courier to the Oracle at Delphi, asking who should be king of Lydia. The Oracle, perhaps influenced by the massive bribe Gyges sent her, asserted that Gyges should be king if that’s what he wanted, but that if he did, then his great-great-grandson Croesus would suffer for it.
“Screw that unborn guy,” said Gyges, and ruled for thirty-eight years.
Fun note: Herodotus somehow has a catalog of the massive bribe Gyges sent to Delphi. Of all the silver offerings at Delphi his are more in number than those of any other man; and besides the silver he offered a vast quantity of gold, and especially one offering which is more worthy of mention than the rest, namely six golden mixing-bowls, which are dedicated there as his gift: of these the weight is thirty talents. Also his gold and silver which Gyges dedicated is called Gygian by the people of Delphi, after the name of him who offered it.
According to Herodotus, Gyges’s son and grandson did not lead terribly interesting lives. War, invasion, yadda yadda. But his great-grandson (Croesus’s father) Alyattes was a little better, at least from the perspective of a historian; he performed other deeds very worthy of mention. He inherited a war with a neighboring country on the Black Sea, Miletos, which he waged for eleven years by marching an army into Miletos every harvest-time, looting or burning most of the Milesian grain, and then marching the army back out. He didn’t burn the towns, which meant that the Milesian farmers all survived to plant their crops and labor, so there’d be plenty of grain for the Lydians to seize when they came back next year. This worked great for eleven years, but the twelfth time Alyattes tried it, while he was burning a wheat field a wind came up and blew the fire onto a nearby temple of Athena. When the temple burned down (killing all inside), Athena hit Alyattes with a delayed-action death curse.
A few weeks later, sick unto death and pretty frantic about it, Alyattes sent couriers with more gold to the Oracle at Delphi, asking advice, and got back the answer that he needed to rebuild the temple he’d burned. Meanwhile, this Milesian named Periander, houseguest of King Thrasybulos of Miletos, intercepted this answer at some point in its journey. Periander passed on the message to Thrasybulos, who deduced that Alyattes would likely come to him looking to make peace and rebuild that temple.
So Thrasybulos emptied out his granary and got all the food stores in his capital city together, and threw a gigantic feast just as soon as Alyattes’s envoy arrived. His capital, the city of Miletos, had a harbor that the Lydian invaders hadn’t been able to interfere with; thanks to regular trade and so on, the granaries of the king were full. The envoy was shocked, inasmuch as all the Lydians had assumed that the Milesians were starving to death (what with eleven years of burned wheat). I guess the Lydians hadn’t noticed all the ships coming and going from Miletos?
The Lydian envoy sent word back to Alyattes, who was likewise surprised, and long story short Thrasybulos negotiated some very solid concessions in his peace treaty with Lydia. Alyattes built two new temples to Athena, recovered from his illness, and everyone lived happily ever after. As his last act before his death forty-odd years later, Alyattes donated another offering to the Oracle, namely a great mixing-bowl of silver with a stand for it of iron welded together, which sounds kind of lame but Herodotus assures us it was a very special treasure because it was the work of Glaucos the Chian, whom Herodotus asserts invented ironworking. Not a very plausible claim, given the archaeological record. Six hundred years after Herodotus’s writing, the geographer Pausanias visited Delphi and described the treasures there. This bowl and stand are the only treasures of Gyges he included in his list.
But eventually Alyattes passed, and his son Croesus became the king of Lydia in 560 BC. Once in office, Croesus invaded his neighbors, straight away. Specifically he attacked the Ephesians, because they handy, on some pretext Herodotus doesn’t bother to report. He attacked other city-states one after another, each time finding some excuse that put him in the right. Some of these pretexts were pretty flimsy, but the various city-states declined to unite and repel his invasion, instead just letting him take them down one by one.
During Croesus’s naval buildup (so he could conquer all the islands in his neighborhood) either Bias of Priene or Pittacos of Mytilene visited his capital Sardis and warned him about an army of ten thousand cavalry, out on the islands, ready to repel his invasion and then counter-invade Lydia and occupy Sardis to boot.
“Crap,” said Croesus, and made peace with the islanders. Whether the islanders actually had an army of ten thousand cavalry Herodotus doesn’t say. But in this way his campaign of conquest ended, and he launched a campaign of nation-building and retrenchment in his occupied territories. Both Priene and Mytilene tried to take credit for this, after the fact, which is why Herodotus doesn’t know which ancient statesman to credit with this bit of political gamesmanship. Although historians who came after Herodotus note that Pittacos, at least, died ten years before Croesus became king. Bias, meanwhile, was a legendary sage who supposedly wrote a 2000 line epic poem about nation-building, invented many proverbs, et cetera.
A few years into the peaceable era of Croesus’s rule, he was visited in Sardis by Solon of Athens, aka Solon the Lawgiver. Solon had drafted Athens’s first code of laws and then left the city before anyone could talk him into editing them. Croesus was excited to host this statesman, and gave him all kinds of VIP tours of Sardis. At the close of one such tour, Croesus observed that Solon was a wise man.
“Reasonably wise, sure,” Solon responded cautiously.
“And you’ve seen a lot, all this traveling you’ve been doing.”
“Some amount of travel, yes.”
“So tell me: who’s the happiest man?” Croesus cleared his throat and pointed to himself, in case Solon needed help figuring out the answer.
Solon didn’t take that bait, however. “The happiest man was my late friend Tellos of Athens, who was medium-rich, enjoyed life in a prosperous city-state, heroically defended his city against invaders, and was buried with honors after he fell in battle.”
“Huh.” Croesus didn’t much care for this answer. “Who’s second-happiest, then? It’s me, right?”
“Nah. Second-happiest would be the brothers Cleobis and Biton of Argos. They were athletes, who died hauling a cart for a religious parade. Everyone saw them die very heroically, right there on the parade route! They made some statues to honor them.”
Croesus scowled. “Listen, buddy, I don’t know if you picked up on it but I was fishing for you to call me happy. What’s up with you not calling me happy?”
“Call no man happy until he is dead,” replies Solon, after listing off some dodgy statistics about lifespan that I think Herodotus cribbed from an ancient Greek actuarial table. “All kinds of dreadful things might happen in a man’s lifetime; you can’t judge whether his life is a pleasant one until it’s over. For many very wealthy men are not happy, while many who have but a moderate living are fortunate. In truth the very rich man who is not happy has two advantages only as compared with the poor man who is fortunate, whereas this latter has many as compared with the rich man who is not happy. Advantage one: the rich man can buy nicer things. Whoop de doo. We live in the Hellenic period; there is not much to buy. No amount of money can buy an air conditioner, a bottle of vodka, a DVD player, or a car. Advantage two, the rich man has a better shot at recovering from some kind of catastrophe, like a fire or something. That’s a legit advantage, but we’ve established that we’re comparing him to a poor man who is happy, and the happy poor man has a big pile of advantages over the unhappy rich man.”
“That’s it! Out of my kingdom!” And Croseus kicked Solon out of Lydia, for making such a cogent argument that Croesus felt dumb. This is a great story, so much so that Plutarch declined to admit it must have been wholly fabricated (Solon left Athens twenty or thirty years before Croesus even became king, and would have been long-dead by this point in the timeline, despite a whole slew of later historians trying to come up with ways to salvage this story on the grounds that something so poetic must be true).
NEXT: IN AN IRONIC TWIST, THINGS START TO GO BADLY FOR CROESUS! GUESS HE SHOULDN’T HAVE COUNTED HIS CHICKENS BEFORE THEY HATCHED!
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