Herodotus and the Persian Wars

Xerxes, Would-Be Conqueror of the World

Nearly 2500 years ago, Xerxes the Great, King of Kings, the king of Persia who considered himself a god, decided to go to war:

“My intent is to throw a bridge over the Hellespont and march an army through Europe against Greece, that thereby I may obtain vengeance from the Athenians for the wrongs committed by them against the Persians and against my father.” (The Histories, Book VII, Chapter 8)

Inheriting a large empire from his father – Darius I – Xerxes already had everything a king could desire: the borders of his lands stretched from the Hindu Kush to the Aegean Sea, from the Delta of the Danube to the Upper-Nile. Even in its ruins, his palace at Persepolis (today’s Iran) still commands admiration.

Nations Gate palace (kakh-e-darvaz-e-keshvarha) in Persepolis by Alborzagros
Nations Gate palace (kakh-e-darvaz-e-keshvarha) in Persepolis by Alborzagros

But Xerxes, like his father before him, set his eyes on the west: the blue waters of the Aegean and the city states of Greece. And Greece was only the first step. Xerxes’s ambition extended far beyond:

“…we shall extend the Persian territory as far as God’s heaven reaches. The sun will then shine on no land beyond our borders; for I will pass through Europe from one end to the other, and with your aid make of all the lands which it contains one country. For thus, if what I hear be true, affairs stand: the nations whereof I have spoken [the Athenians and the Peloponnesians], once swept away, there is no city, no country left in all the world, which will venture so much as to withstand us in arms. By this course then we shall bring all mankind under our yoke, alike those who are guilty and those who are innocent of doing us wrong.” (The Histories, VII.8)

The story of the Greek-Persian wars was told first by Herodotus, some thirty years after the war ended. His Histories, the book that is now widely regarded as the first book of history in European literature at least, charts the story of the rise of the Persian Empire, building up to the climax of the two Persian invasions of Greece in 490 and 480 BC.

Herodotus wanted to tell the story so that the fame of the heroes would last forever (together with the infamy of those who betrayed Greece).

“These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done…” (The Histories, I.1)

Father of Histories, Father of Lies?

Not all that’s written by Herodotus stands up under the close scrutiny of today’s historians: some of his facts are suspect and the further he moves away from his own time and place, the more unreliable he becomes; nor can he be regarded as entirely impartial. Often he writes about things that he does not believe himself; he mentions them because they’re wondrous and worth relating.

“Here, in this desert, there live amid the sand great ants, in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes. The Persian king has a number of them, which have been caught by the hunters in the land whereof we are speaking. Those ants make their dwellings under ground, and like the Greek ants, which they very much resemble in shape, throw up sand-heaps as they burrow. Now the sand which they throw up is full of gold.” (The Histories, III.102)

But this Greek from Halicarnassus did actually set out to ‘inquire’ into the causes of the war, making an effort to track down the facts and the stories, talking to participants and their families, travelling widely in the region in an effort to learn as much as possible; providing en route an insight into the geography, history and ethnography of not just the Persians but the Egyptians, Scythians and other involved nations as known to the Greeks at the time. And it is for this reason – for his conscious effort of inquiry into the what and the why and the how and his subsequent evaluation of the facts that he uncovered, the way he distinguished between what he saw himself and what he knew only by hearsay – that we regard Herodotus as the father of history; stories of past events had been told before but Herodotus wrote a history.

“Above all, he believed that there was a truth that could be discovered, or at least he was keen to affirm that he was finding out the truth: the Histories are full of statements of facts and corrections by Herodotus both to false anecdotes and to accepted tradition.” (Rosalind Thomas, Introduction to The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories)

Unlike Aeschylus, the Athenian playwright who fought both in the battle of Marathon and the battle of Salamis, Herodotus did not take part in the war himself; had no first-hand experience of much of what he relates. He had to content himself with interviewing others and travelling around to find out as much as possible. However, he had one advantage: being from Halicarnassus on the ‘wrong’ side of the Aegean, he was more familiar with the Persians that the average mainland Greek – who, said Herodotus memorably in Book VIII, were afraid to go east of the sacred island of Delos

“All beyond that [Delos] seemed to the Greeks full of danger; the places were quite unknown to them, and to their fancy swarmed with Persian troops; as for Samos, it appeared to them as far off as the Pillars of Hercules.” (The Histories, VIII.132)

Why We Love Herodotus

We love Herodotus because he wrote a history and while doing so, he wrote compelling stories and anecdotes, like Solon’s encounter with Croesus (indeed the entire story of the rise and fall of Croesus), the circumnavigation of Africa by the Phoenicians or the conversations of Demaratus, the exiled Spartan king with Xerxes.

Herodotus is our main source regarding the Persian Wars; these wars in which a group of small and quarrelsome city-states chose to stand united against the might of an empire covering half the known world. And these underdogs won.

We love Herodotus because he writes about people who dared to die in order to defend their freedom. As the Spartans said to Hydarnes, the Persian governor, when he asked them why they didn’t submit themselves to Xerxes:

“Hydarnes,” they answered, “thou art a one-sided counsellor. Thou hast experience of half the matter; but the other half is beyond thy knowledge. A slave’s life thou understandest; but, never having tasted liberty, thou canst not tell whether it be sweet or no. Ah! hadst thou known what freedom is, thou wouldst have bidden us fight for it, not with the spear only, but with the battle-axe.” (The Histories, VII.135)

Herodotus has so many stories to tell: watch this space.

8 thoughts on “Herodotus and the Persian Wars

  1. Wow, this is quite a marathon series of posts – I’m wondering I’ve maybe not been fully awake often times when blogging. I don’t quite know how I missed the earlier posts in this series. You seem to have put a lot of effort into researching for these posts. It’s quite fascinating and I’ll have to make time to read more and pay attention better while reading. Typically, no time enough right now so I’ll leave excavating with you for another time and skip back for a flit through your recent posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m really enjoying these posts too! Only, I’m a bit of a Xerxes / Persian fangirl so I tend to take Herodotus with even more of a pinch of salt than usual. So far I’ve only dipped into the relevant parts of Herodotus, but I have a copy of Tom Holland’s translation sitting on my shelf, so I have no excuse not to read the whole thing!


    1. Is Tom Holland’s version any good? (Not that I’m going to buy a fourth version of The Histories – there are limits, especially in shelving space!) Just curious.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the Herodotus series – I enjoy writing them. Which is the only reason they exist, I can’t say that I noticed a great popular demand! But if you’re a fan of Xerxes, it’s only fair to warn you that I’m not entirely unbiased and I do take the Greek side. I always liked the Ancient Greeks and on top of that, I do have a bit of a weakness for the Spartans – much maligned and often dismissed out of hand!

      Have been a bit snowed under recently but I hope to get out a bit more now, what with the weather improving, so are you still interested in meeting up in the BM one Friday night?


      1. Well, I don’t have anything to compare his translation to, but I find it a very enjoyable read. Why not borrow a copy from the library just to compare with your other editions?

        Ha ha, don’t worry; the vast majority of people are on the Greek side. I’m very fond of Greeks and Spartans myself (I did Classical Civilisation at school and the word pentakosiomedimnoi still makes me twitch). But Achaemenid Persia has really captured my attention recently. So many great stories! It’s OK. I can just chip in now and then with a little cheer for the Persians in order to balance out the reporting. 😉

        And yes! Definitely would love to meet you at some point. Just keep me posted. We can discuss the Persian Wars some more *laughs*


        1. Pentakosiomedimnoi is certainly a mouthful… I had to do German at grammar school and I still remember Landwirtschaftaustellung (agricultural exhibition) as virtually unpronounceable (mind, I consider the English ‘months’ and the French ‘aujourd’hui’ in the same category). 😂
          Let me know if you have any preference for a particular Friday (you can e-mail me via the contact form) and I’ll have a look in the diary too.


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