Herodotus: The Best Of

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Ancient Eye

The Greek Historian Herodotus is famed for his nine volume work entitled "The Histories". Written during the fifth century BCE it concerns itself with the history of the known world at that time. In it Herodotus wanders through a myriad of topics, ranging from the mundane to the downright fantastical. The following are some of the fascinating tales he tells.

Possibly the most interesting thing we learn from reading Herodotus is the way women were treated in the ancient world. One tale he tells concerns the Babylonians who had a tradition that stated that every woman born in the country should at one point during their life go and sit at the temple of Aphrodite and prostitute themselves out to a strange man.

Another Babylonian custom Herodotus mentions concerns marriage and tells of how each year in every village the girls that had reached marriageable age were auctioned off and sold to men who came and bid for them. He also mentions a tribe called the Nasamones that had a custom stating that at a mans first marriage he must throw a party at which each male guest is allowed to take it in turn and "enjoy" the bride.

The works of Herodotus also contain many examples of gruesome brutality, including be-headings, crucifixions and live burials. One quite shocking story Herodotus tells is about the Persian King Cambyses. A tyrannical ruler, Cambyses asked one of his loyal officials, Prexaspes, what his Persian subjects thought of him. Prexaspes replied that they praised him highly, but that their one criticism of him was that he drank too much wine. Angered by this apparent criticism Cambyses took his crossbow and fired an arrow at Prexaspes' son, claiming that if he could shoot the boy straight through the heart it would prove his sobriety and therefore prove the Persian people wrong in their judgement of him. After firing he then ordered the boy cut open and when it was shown that the arrow had indeed pierced the boys heart he took delight in his achievement and laughed at the boys father.

Another example of the brutality of the ancient world comes from the Scythians, for according to Herodotus they had a custom stating that every man should drink the blood of the first man he kills. They also apparently had a custom regarding battles which said that a man could only receive his share of the loot if he brought the heads of the men he had killed to the king - the more heads the greater the reward.

Other gruesome customs include those of the Massagetae, a tribe that had a tradition that held that once a person reached old age they should be sacrificed along with cattle and then eaten by the rest of the tribe. They apparently believed this to be the best way to die, the only people not eventually eaten being those who died of disease before old age.

Herodotus also tells a similar tale concerning the Padaei, a tribe that believed that if someone became ill or diseased it was the duty of their closest friends to kill them and hold a banquet.

Some of the various other tribes Herodotus wrote of include tribes that lived underground, tribes that slept for six months of the year, and tribes of goat-footed people. He also mentions a nation of bald people, where both men and women were completely bald from birth.

If that doesn't sound far-fetched enough he also talks of one-eyed men, dog-headed men, men unable to dream, and a creature labelled a viper-maiden - that from the middle up was a women but from the waist down was a snake. He also tells of gold-digging ants and of Arabian sheep with tails so long that their shepherds had to build little wooden carts in order to keep them from dragging along the ground.

Finally, I leave you with one story Herodotus tells about a man named Histiaeus who, wanting to send a message in secret urging a revolt, came up with a rather clever way of doing so. What he did was shave the head of his most trustworthy messenger and then tattoo a message into his scalp. After waiting for the hair to grow back he then sent this messenger with instructions that the receiver should shave his head and thus reveal the message.

Ingenious.

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