Literature Study GuidesHistoriesBook 1 The Story Of Croesus Summary

Histories | Study Guide

Herodotus

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Histories | Book 1, The Story of Croesus | Summary

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Histories is divided into nine lengthy books. For the purpose of summary and analysis, this guide further divides each book into three sections.

Summary

Herodotus opens by stating he wishes to record the deeds of the past, and that he wants to show how the war between the Greeks and Persians began. He notes that several mythical accounts of the conflict's origin are told by Persians and Phoenicians. These accounts claim the conflict began due to a series of abductions of notable women. Herodotus says he will attempt another explanation, which begins with Croesus, king of Lydia. Croesus is a powerful king who has made the Greeks who live in Ionia his subjects. He is visited by Solon, an Athenian, who cautions him against ambition. Croesus rejects this advice and, fearing his Persian rivals to the east, decides to attack Persia. He is encouraged to do so by his misunderstanding of a prediction made by the oracle at Delphi: if he attacks Persia, a great empire will be destroyed. Croesus mistakenly believes the empire in question was Persia. Instead, his own empire is destroyed. When Cyrus captures Sardis, capital of Lydia, Croesus is captured. Cyrus plans to burn Croesus to death, but he relents when Croesus yells Solon's name upon the pyre, bitterly regretting he had not taken the man's advice. Croesus is allowed to send more messengers to Delphi, to ask what had gone wrong. He is told he cannot cheat fate. Cyrus's conquest of the Lydians marks another step in his rise to power.

Analysis

To begin considering the causes of the Greco-Persian wars, Herodotus summarizes the mythical abductions of Io, Europa, Medea (in the myth of Jason), and Helen (in Homer's Iliad), and states that these are the explanations for the conflict given by "Persians and Phoenicians." The Phoenicians were a people famed for their ability as sailors, and as the people who gave the Greeks their alphabet. Herodotus discusses these myths because they would have been familiar to his audience. He dismisses them, however, as a way to introduce his own project.

Herodotus begins his narrative with Croesus (reigned 560–46 BCE), rather than the Persian king Cyrus (c. 590–29 BCE) or the Greeks, because it is Croesus who first made the Ionian Greeks his subjects. Ionia is the region on the west coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). These Ionians will return many times in the narrative as the prime instigators of conflict between the Greeks and Persians.

Many of the details in this section should not be taken literally. They contain too many elements of moralistic fable. Croesus is also the first of many characters in the narrative to reject advice to temper his ambition. This advice arrives in the form of a conversation with Solon (630–560 BCE), an Athenian statesman. The early connection between Croesus and Solon helps set up the ongoing debate about liberty and tyranny in the narrative. The famous story of the oracle and Croesus's downfall is another fable, this time about the dangers of prophecy. This is another theme Herodotus will return to time and again. It is clear throughout that prophecy and fate are understood as powerful forces in the world. Consulting the oracles is a major step any commander takes before committing to battle.

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