Histories | Study Guide


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Histories | Quotes


Herodotus ... displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time ... And especially to show why the two peoples fought.

Narrator, Book 1, The Story of Croesus

In the first passage of the text, Herodotus sets out his goals. He describes his goal as the creation of a record that will ensure that deeds and events are not erased by time. In particular, he states that he wishes "especially" to show why the Greeks and Persians fought one another. This sets his work apart from the work of a chronicler. He wants to show not only what happened but also why and how it happened. He does not believe that the enmity was deep-seated or inevitable. He believes it was the result of events and decisions. This reinforces the suggestion he has just made, that bravery and great deeds existed among both Greeks and "barbarians," who are simply people with different cultures and histories.


They foretold that if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.

Narrator, Book 1, The Story of Croesus

This refers to the famous declaration made by the oracle of Delphi to Croesus, who was the questioner. It is a classic cautionary tale of the ancient world. Croesus took the prophecy to mean that he would destroy the Persians. But the empire he destroyed was his own. Prophecy features throughout Herodotus's text, as it did throughout the ancient world. But a major theme is that fate is fickle and prophecy is difficult to interpret.


In peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons.

Croesus, Book 1, The Rise of Cyrus the Great

Croesus's lament is used to show the upheaval and the tragedy of war. The sons buried in war are the scores of young men killed while fighting. Although Herodotus records many bold deeds, he uses episodes like this to show that war causes immeasurable pain and sadness. The tragedy of a father burying a son is one that resonates with any audience.


At last they had found a leader, and welcomed with enthusiasm the prospect of liberty.

Narrator, Book 1, The Rise of Cyrus the Great

This is the reaction of the Persians to Cyrus. The Persians had leaders before, but Herodotus means that Cyrus was the man to lead them to liberty, to free them from Median rule. Herodotus places the desire for liberty in the voices of the Persians he depicts, and he suggests that such a desire burns in the hearts of all people. But this is not a democratic liberty, as enjoyed in Athens. It is best understood as the desire of a people or a cultural group to rule themselves. Cyrus did not only liberate the Persians but also guided them to rule over other groups of the region, the Medians among them.


About Egypt I shall have a great deal more to relate because of the number of remarkable things which the country contains.

Narrator, Book 2, Customs and Animals of Egypt

Herodotus's enthusiasm for the cultures and places he encountered is clearly shown in this passage. He is fascinated by Egypt, and the breathless language of the passage communicates his high regard for the land and its customs. Herodotus at times blends his history with ethnography (studies of peoples) and a genre of writing that can be identified as travel writing. Ancient audiences had a keen desire to hear about places they had not themselves seen, and Herodotus is more than willing to fulfill this desire.


Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best.

Narrator, Book 3, Cambyses's Conquest of Egypt

Herodotus tries to avoid judgment when dealing with the cultures of foreign peoples. However, during his travels he has noticed that people always believe that their culture is greater than others. Because everyone thinks this, it cannot be really true. His mention of "the religion he was brought up in" indicates why Herodotus thinks this is. That is, people favor what they find familiar. His language here seems to indicate that he thinks the phenomenon of cultural supremacy to be faintly comical. Herodotus has political preferences, especially for liberty, but he does not think these qualities and preferences are intrinsic to one people or culture.


One ruler: it is impossible to improve upon that—provided he is the best.

Darius, Book 3, The Magi and the Rise of Darius

This statement sums up Darius's tyrannical impulses during a debate about which form of government is the best for the Persians to use. Darius promotes the one he wishes to implement. He admits the obvious flaw with the principle of a single ruler: it is not the best system if the ruler is unsuitable. Darius's arrogance is shown by the fact that he believes he is more than qualified for the task. He thinks of himself as "the best" and thus sets the tone for the rest of his rule.


Besides the story which the Greeks of Pontus tell, there is another which I myself consider the most likely of the three.

Narrator, Book 4, The Country and Customs of the Scythians

In passages like this, Herodotus allows the reader to see the process of his work. He has collected three stories about the same events, compared them, and weighed which one he thinks is the most likely. Part of Herodotus's reputation as a historian rests on these examinations and comparisons of competing accounts. Whatever one thinks of his conclusions, he is honest about how he arrived at them. Further, he shows humility with regard to the truth. He does not state that his favored explanation is the truth; merely that it is, in his view, the most likely.


During the three generations comprising the reigns of Darius ... his son Xerxes and his grandson Artaxerxes, Greece suffered more evils than in ... generations before Darius was born.

Narrator, Book 6, The Battle of Marathon

Herodotus frames the invasions of Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes as the great crisis of the Greeks. Part of the reason he was moved to write his history is that the recent past seemed to be filled with unprecedented calamities. The "evils" he mentions are the invasions and destruction of cities like Athens, and the death and destruction that follows in the wake of war. He does not mean that the Persians themselves are evil. Rather, it is a testament to the abilities of Darius and Xerxes that they were able to cause such troubles.


It is always the great buildings and the tall trees which are struck by lightning. It is God's way to bring the lofty low.

Artabanus, Book 7, Xerxes and Persian Preparations

Artabanus, Xerxes's advisor, is the figure who cautioned Xerxes not to invade Greece. Here he describes the folly of the invasion as tempting fate (or God) to destroy Xerxes's ambitions. The "great buildings" and "tall trees" are a metaphor for the great and mighty. The use of lightning as a metaphor refers to the seemingly random natural (or perhaps supernatural) events that cause woe to the powerful. In Herodotus's work, Xerxes is a victim of hubris, a moral failing common in Greek tragic theater. Hubris is overconfidence that leads to downfall. This conversation sets up this theme in Herodotus's narrative. That Xerxes ignores his advisor shows that he believes nothing can go wrong with his plans.


They are ... not entirely free; for they have a master ... that master is Law, which they fear ... more than your subjects fear you.

Demaratus, Book 7, The Persians Invade Europe

Herodotus uses Demaratus, a deposed Spartan king, to describe the virtues of Greek liberty in the Spartan form. Again, the liberty described here is primarily the liberty from rule by a foreign power. The only ruler Spartans will accept is "law," specifically the laws of Sparta. Comparing Spartans' fear of their law with the Persians' fear of their leaders is an important point for Herodotus. He believes that free people should govern themselves. Domination by a tyrannical power is a great evil that free people cannot bear. In this conversation, the point is that the Spartans will die before surrendering their liberty, for their fear of their laws is far greater than any motivation the Persians can bring to bear on their own armies.


It was the Athenians ... who, having chosen that Greece should live and preserve her freedom, roused to battle the other Greek states.

Narrator, Book 7, The Battle of Thermopylae

While Histories is full of praise for the Spartans, it is the Athenians who receive the majority of the credit for securing Greek liberty. The choice the Athenians made—to fight for liberty—is not one that all Greek cities made. Moreover, the Athenians are described not only as having made the decision to fight for themselves but also to lead all Greeks in the struggle. That this is framed as a choice reinforces Herodotus's wider argument that the conflict was not inevitable, nor were the events that followed. The Athenians had to choose their role, then follow through on the decision they had made. Otherwise, they could have chosen to surrender.


If the Persians hide the sun, we shall have our battle in the shade.

Dieneces, Book 7, The Battle of Thermopylae

This famous line is attributed to Dieneces, a Spartan soldier at Thermopylae. The soldier had been told that the Persian army had so many soldiers their arrows would blot out the sun. His pithy response is an example of "laconic" humor, which takes its name from Laconia, the region of Sparta. The Spartans were famous for their wry sense of humor and gift for comic understatement. Herodotus was fond of peppering his narrative with such colorful details because he wished to entertain and engage his audience.


My men have turned into women, my women into men.

Xerxes, Book 8, The Battle of Salamis

In this instance, Xerxes is referring to the cowardice of his generals. Earlier, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus had counseled Xerxes not to face the Greek fleet at Salamis, but Xerxes did not heed her advice. Though she did not agree with the king's decision, she fought bravely. This episode reveals something of the belief in gender roles at the time. Women were supposed to be timid, while men were expected to be brave. This reversal of the established order is another symbol of Xerxes's failure. It is unlikely that Xerxes uttered these words, but Herodotus cannot resist embellishing his story with anecdotes of this kind.


Soft countries ... breed soft men. It is not the property of any one soil to produce fine fruits and good soldiers too.

Cyrus, Book 9, Foundation of the Athenian Empire

The words of Cyrus at the end of Herodotus's narrative serve as a capstone. "Fine fruits" and "good soldiers" do not grow in the same soil, meaning that a people can be warlike or luxurious, but not both. The society that forgets liberty comes at a price will ultimately lose it. Decadence most certainly leads to conquest and slavery.

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