Literature Study GuidesHistoriesBook 1 Affairs In Babylonia And Persia Summary

Histories | Study Guide


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Histories | Book 1, Affairs in Babylonia and Persia | Summary



Having related Cyrus's conquests of the Medes and Lydians, Herodotus begins to narrate Cyrus's campaigns of expansion. The Greeks of Ionia attempt to placate Cyrus, but he rejects their embassies, arguing that the time for them to submit was before they had supported Croesus against Cyrus. Herodotus then describes the Ionian cities, including Halicarnassus, and their customs. The Ionians, seeking aid, send an embassy to the Greek city-state of Sparta, and the Spartans agree to back them in their struggles. Harpagus, now one of Cyrus's greatest generals, leads the Persian armies against the Ionians and subjugates them. Cyrus, meanwhile, is busy leading a campaign against the Babylonians. The great city of Babylon is described at length, with attention given to its major defensive wall and its impressive temples. Despite the wealth and greatness of Babylon, Cyrus defeats the Babylonian armies by ordering the diversion of the Euphrates River so that the river that once ran through the city dries out. Cyrus's armies invade the city through the dry river bed. Cyrus, at the height of his power, decides on another campaign of conquest. His final target is the nomadic Massagetae. Croesus, who serves Cyrus as an advisor, urges caution. He urges Cyrus to be content with ruling his own people. Cyrus ignores him. The queen of the Massagetae, Tomyris, refuses Cyrus's offer of marriage because she knows he only wishes to possess her lands. In the war that follows, Cyrus is outwitted and ultimately killed. Tomyris has Cyrus's severed head placed into a bag filled with blood, giving him, at last "his fill of blood."


After explaining Cyrus's rise, Herodotus devotes time to relating the expansion of his new Persian Empire. The subjugation of the Ionians will prove to be the catalyst for direct conflict between Greeks and Persians. In the Ionian attempt to get aid from Sparta, the reader sees a preview of what is to come—the liberty-seeking Ionians will request aid from the powerful Greek states multiple times.

Herodotus describes Babylon in detail, but these descriptions are not particularly accurate. In various places Herodotus is reporting what he has heard, not what he has seen, and this is a prime example. The descriptions of Babylon's treasures serve as background to make Cyrus's defeat of the Babylonians more impressive, and to show what he will gain by their capture. The episode describing the rerouting of the Euphrates is a colorful story that serves to demonstrate Cyrus's genius, but again, it is unlikely to be truthful.

Cyrus ultimately goes the way of ambitious men in Herodotus's Histories. His ambition to conquer the Massagetae (a nomadic tribe of the Asian steppe) leads him to his doom. Once more, he ignores the warning of his advisor. Herodotus uses these thematic episodes to provide his narrative with structure. It is also a central moral lesson of Histories. Queen Tomyris's treatment of Cyrus's severed head is the sort of punishment that would have thrilled Herodotus's audience. It also cements the idea that this is a world in which powerful and arrogant men will, ultimately, get what's coming to them.

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