Histories | Study Guide

Herodotus

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Histories | Summary

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Summary

Book 1

Herodotus introduces his project, which is to record the deeds of Greeks and others, and to understand how the Greek and Persian conflict began. He begins by considering the mythical origins of the conflict. These include the mythical abductions of Medea by the Greeks and Helen by Paris of Troy. He then moves on to begin his own story by introducing Croesus, king of Lydia in Asia Minor. Croesus is very wealthy and powerful, and he welcomes a visit by Solon, the Athenian politician and philosopher. Solon cautions Croesus against excessive ambition and argues that one cannot judge whether a man has led a good life until it has ended. Croesus dismisses this advice and makes plans to attack a rising power, Persia. He consults the oracle at Delphi, who tells him, cryptically, that if he attacks a great empire will be destroyed. Croesus attacks Persia, but it is his own empire that is defeated. Croesus is captured by Cyrus, ruler of the Persians, and ultimately spared. Attention shifts to the history of the Persians. The Medians rise to prominence and construct a capital at Ecbatana. The daughter of Astyages, king of Media, has a son, Cyrus. Astyages, fearing a dream he had was a prophetic message, orders the child to be killed. His servant, Harpagus, secretly spares the boy and gives him to a shepherd. Eventually, Cyrus becomes known at court, and Harpagus is punished for his deception. His own son is cooked and served to him. Harpagus, seeking revenge, convinces Cyrus to begin a revolt against the Medians. He succeeds and overthrows Astyages, thus founding the Persian Empire. Cyrus is not content with this success and begins to expand his empire. He conquers Ionia and Babylonia. He then attacks the nomadic Massagetae but fails and loses his life.

Book 2

Cyrus is succeeded by his son, Cambyses. Cambyses aims to continue his father's conquests by attacking and subduing Egypt. Herodotus spends some time describing Egypt's geography, animals, people, religious practices, and culture.

Book 3

Cambyses's conquest of Egypt is successful. He aims to continue expanding the empire by moving further into Africa, attacking the lands of Libya and Ethiopia. These endeavors meet with less success. Cambyses then goes mad. The action shifts to Polycrates of Samos and his conflict with the Spartans. Polycrates attempts to ally with Cambyses against the Spartans, but Sparta forms an alliance with Corinth and sends an army into Asia. Meanwhile, Cambyses commits suicide. Cambyses's priests, the magi, form a conspiracy to replace Cambyses with an impostor—Cambyses's brother, Smerdis. However, the real Smerdis had been murdered by Cambyses in a fit of madness. The ruse is discovered because the imposter playing Smerdis has no ears. Otanes, a suspicious councilor, asks Smerdis's wife to check, at night, whether Smerdis has ears. The false Smerdis is killed, along with the other conspirators. At the head of the campaign against the conspiracy is Darius. Meanwhile, everyone is debating which system is the best government for the Persians. Darius backs monarchy. Then Darius contrives to win the election and to be crowned king of the Persians. As king, he launches a military campaign against Samos and emerges victorious. He then suppresses a revolt in Babylon.

Book 4

Herodotus proceeds to describe the culture and history of the Scythians. He relays several myths about their origin but makes clear that they are nomads who practice human sacrifice and blood drinking in their religious and cultural ceremonies. This description of the Scythians sets up Darius's military campaign against them. Darius's campaign against the Scythians is a failure, as he cannot keep up with the mobile Scythian armies and is forced to retreat. Attention then shifts to a description of Libya in North Africa, which has been colonized by the Greeks. A series of conflicts among the colonies, Libyans, and others are then described.

Book 5

Darius orders his general, Megabazus, to begin the conquest of Thrace, a large and prosperous region. Thracian customs are discussed as well as the relationship between the Persians and Macedonians. The Macedonians receive envoys from the Persians, but they murder them. A major revolt then breaks out in Ionia, in western Asia Minor. A leader of the revolt, Aristagoras, tries to convince the Spartans to aid him in his war against the Persians. The Spartans refuse, so Aristagoras heads to Athens instead. The origins and customs of Athens are introduced, including their democratic system of government and their occasional conflicts with Sparta. Aristagoras is able to convince the Athenians to oppose the Persians, but the Ionian revolt is defeated anyway. Athens's aid to the Ionians has been noticed by Darius, who plots to invade Greece and punish Athens.

Book 6

Darius completes the reconquest of Ionia. He then sends his armies forth to conquer Athens. Envoys are dispatched to Greek cities to demand submission in the form of a gift of earth and water. The Athenian rival, Aegina, agrees to submit, and the two cities go to war. The Athenians decide they will fight to maintain their liberty, and an Athenian army confronts the Persians at Marathon. In a surprise defeat for the Persians, the Athenians win because of their superior knowledge of the terrain and their clever generals who make the most of the Athenians' strengths. The Spartans were asked to aid the Athenians, but they declined because they could not fight during one of their religious festivals.

Book 7

Darius swears further revenge on the Greeks but dies before the new army sets out on its campaign. Darius's son, Xerxes, becomes king. He inherits his father's ambitions and spends years in preparation for the invasion of Greece. He ignores the advice of his advisor, Artabanos, who tries to dissuade him from the invasion. Xerxes marches on Greece but has trouble crossing the Hellespont, a natural strait, or narrow waterway, between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara. He orders his soldiers to whip the water—to punish it. Xerxes's massive army eventually makes the crossing. This time the Spartans will join the Athenians in fighting for Greek liberty. An Athenian leader, Themistocles, heeds the words of the oracle at Delphi and orders the construction of a vast navy. A tiny army of a few thousand, led by the Spartan king Leonidas, opposes the huge Persian force at Thermopylae, a narrow pass. The Spartans hold out heroically for two days before the Persians discover a road to flank the Greeks. All of the Greeks are killed, and Xerxes has Leonidas's head mounted on a pike. The Persian armies march toward Athens.

Book 8

The Persian invasion of Greece is accompanied by a large navy. The Athenians believe that if they can defeat the Persian navy, they can cripple the Persian invasion. They fight an inconclusive naval battle at Artemisium, and the Athenians decide to abandon Athens to the Persians. The undefended city is captured and burned by the Persians, and the Athenian temples are destroyed. Themistocles convinces the other Greeks to fight the Persian navy at Salamis. The ensuing battle is a great success for the Greeks, who crush the Persian navy. Xerxes is forced to retreat back across the Hellespont, leaving part of his army in Greece over the winter under the command of the Persian general Mardonius.

Book 9

Mardonius attacks Athens once more in the new year. An alliance of Greeks brings the Persians to battle at Plataea. Despite being outnumbered, the Greek alliance is once more triumphant, and Mardonius is killed. This ends the Persian invasion of Greece. The Greek alliance breaks up, although not after the city of Thebes is attacked for joining the Persians. Themistocles, the hero of Athens, feels his home city has not given him the honor he expects and finds accolades in Sparta instead. The narrative closes with an anecdote about Cyrus, who had warned his followers against expanding into the West and becoming "soft."
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