Slowly but surely I am getting back on track with the 10-year reading plan. I finished Book I of Herodotus The Histories last night and was delighted to get so caught up in many of his stories – my favorite, although it was horrible as well, was the story of a queen named Tomyris and her battle with Cyrus, the Persian king. When he begins to attack her she sends him this message:


I advise you to abandon this enterprise, for you cannot know if in the end it will do you any good. Rule your own people and try to bear the sight of me ruling mine. But of course you will refuse my advice, as the last thing you wish for is to live in peace.


She was correct and he did attack (using a rather nasty bit of strategy). He then took her son prisoner who ends up killing himself. Tomyris sends Cyrus a second message calling him a glutton for blood and advising him to retreat, advice he disregards and thus ensues a horrible, violent battle. Surprisingly, Cyrus and his Persians lose, and afterward, Tomyris scours the battlefield for Cyrus’s body. Once she has it she puts his head into an animal skin bag filled with human blood and says:


Though I have conquered you and live, yet you have ruined me by treacherously taking my son. See now – I fulfil my threat: you have your fill of blood.


It’s so gruesome but also vividly depicted. And I like her balanced understanding of the horrors of war. Sure, she won, but she also lost.


Herodotus is big on explaining foreign customs. These are some of the most entertaining passages of the text. In Book I, he dedicates several sections to explaining the various customs of the Lydians, the Persians, the Babylonians and the Massagatae. His description of an old Babylonian marriage custom is fairly entertaining:


In every village once a year all the girls of marriageable age used to be collected together in one place, while the men stood round them in a circle: an auctioneer then called each one in turn to stand up and offered her for sale, beginning with the best-looking and going on to the second best as soon as the first had been sold for a good price. Marriage was the object of the transaction. The rich men who wanted wives bid against each other for the prettiest girls, while the humbler folk, who had no use for good looks in a wife, were actually paid to take the ugly ones.


According to Herodotus, any money made on the sale of a beautiful woman went into the communal pot to help persuade the poor farmers to take an ugly girl.


The money came from the sale of the beauties, who in this way provided dowries for their ugly or misshapen sisters.


A very interesting system which Herodotus calls admirable and then laments because it has fallen out of practice. Yeah, I’m pretty broken up about that too.


There was another great story about a group of women who were enslaved by a conquering Ionian army and forced to become wives to their captors after their fathers, husbands and sons were all killed. In rebellion they decided never to sit at the table with their new husbands or to use their names, and they taught their daughters to do the same. I’d love to know how many generations this kept up.


Whoever he was, Herodotus had a knack for telling a good story. The introduction to my edition of The Histories tells me that Herodotus was an exile, first by force and then later because he chose to be. None of this is reliable but we enjoy having some idea of our historians, don’t we? Maybe he was a traveller, which would explain his dual interest in describing foreign customs and recording history as well as the sheer breadth of his project. I was interested to read that people would have been familiar with his work through oral recitals or performances. He himself may have travelled about performing certain passages at festivals and the like. And then people could debate his stories or discuss them. This made me think of Herodotus as the fifth century BC version of Sarah Vowell and then I wondered if he had a cool voice too.