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Persian & Greek Relations


By Michael Johnathan McDonald


Herodotus is often regarded as the first western historian. Yet, with controversy.


One of the most powerful observances and points in Herodotus is the concept of the "Sins of the Father." Regardless of what one's personal beliefs, personal actions, and personal accountability, one is always subject to their heritage -- their lineage-- their progenitor. One cannot escape something that they had no control over or so it seems. 


Herodotus wrote from a Greco-centric perspective (so it is claimed, but he balanced both the good and bad points of both the Persians and the Greeks)  and gives us a glimpse into the then known world as he saw it.  The narrative in book one is broken up into four sections, increasing with length, each passage setting up the rest of the theme of the book. The first passage is one paragraph which Herodotus tells us his purpose. The second passage comprising of the four mythical abductions indicate specific regions of the world. Io goes to Egypt representing Africa, Europa is taken to Create and represents Europe. Media represents the furthest reaches of the Asia, and Helen, who represents Troy, inner Asia. The third passage begins with the story of Croesus, which is the closest to Ionia, the birth region of our author and the fourth, the story of Cyrus the great leader who dethrones Croesus’s empire, sees the leader expand the story further into Asia.


Book seven continues the perspective from the preceding books that of ‘us,’ the Greeks, verses, ‘them,’ the foreigners, in this case Xerxes and the Persians. Herodotus methodically organizes his place names with descriptions of the topography giving the reader a sense of spatial relevancy. Usually with each new Persian contact examples of ethnographies emerge giving the reader a new experience of unfamiliarity.  


Herodotus, The Histories, 430 BC

Published between 430 BC and 424 BC, The Histories were divided by later editors into nine books, named after the Muses. The first six books deal with the growth of the Persian Empire. They begin with an account of the first Asian monarch to conquer Greek city-states and exact tribute, Croesus of Lydia. Croesus lost his kingdom to Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire. The first six books end with the defeat of the Persians in 490 BC at the Battle of Marathon, which was the first setback to their imperial progress. The last three books of The Histories describe the attempt of the Persian king Xerxes ten years later to avenge the Persian defeat at Marathon and absorb Greece into the Persian Empire. The Histories end with the year 479 BC, when the Persian invaders were wiped out at the Battle of Plataea and the frontier of the Persian Empire receded to the Aegean coastline of Asia Minor. As for Herodotus' life, we know that he was exiled from Halicarnassus after his involvement in an unsuccessful putsch against the ruling dynasty, and he withdrew to the island of Samos.




Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a historian, who lived in the 5th century BCE, wrote a collection of stories while traveling through the Middle East and parts of Europe. Herodotus’ exterior studies of his known world mainly concern the relationship between the Greeks and the Persians. He embedded truth claims within his narrative conveying a message that the wars between the Greeks and the ‘others,’ groups that lived outside the porous boundaries of Greece, defined the tyrants of the age.  “Croesus of Lydia, son of Alyattes, was a tyrant…” he exclaimed as the first tyrant in his opening chapter. 1. Do we know for certain this truth claim is valid or just a personal opinion?  Herodotus appears to support his claims by using various strategies of antidotes, non-linear prose, lengthy narratives, archives, physical descriptions, and oral history to attempt to prove his claim to his audience, the Greeks. Is Herodotus’ claim successful?  The facts remains that we do not really know if Croesus was a tyrant or just a political man of his era.

To illustrate Croesus as a tyrant, Herodotus first takes the reader back five generations with an antidote of Gyges who decided to usurp the Lydian thrown in the region of western Anatolia. Herodotus narrates the events of a beautiful woman, an opportunist servant, a trusting King, a murder plot and love-intrigue to help prove a point to his readership an established streak of tyranny in this new line of kings that Croesus came from. This narrative strategy implies Croesus as tyrannical by linking his character to his lineage. However, this was not a successful strategy because everyone has freewill and one’s ancestors doesn’t necessarily make one a tyrant.  Yet, Herodotus purposely persuaded his readers to think that this strategy offered a valid reasoning.  For Herodotus’ audience, the Greeks, this important strategy got the point across that Croesus came from a line of tyrants. This early historical form of prose appeared quite persuasive. This type of strategy proved successful to a Greek audience as Herodotus’ work immediately saw public consumption. This lineage illustration signified his non-linear prose strategy and he employed it often.

The prose Herodotus uses created a structured non-linear time which goes forward and backwards to show different generations of Lydian kings and how they were tyrannical. After introducing Croesus, Herodotus again reverts back in time. This time to Croesus fathers’ apparent ways:  “ Alyattes carried on the war which he had taken over from his father.” 2.   “His custom each year was to invade.” 3.     Why would Herodotus continue to use this strategy? This strategy also develops information overload; the longer the narrative on informing his audience of a Lydian’s lineage of tyranny the greater the chance of convincing his audience a truth claim of a Lydian tyrannical leadership.  This successful strategy tells of a time showing that the Mermnadae, the family-line of Croesus, had a long history of tyrannical operations and aspirations.  Yet, this is still a one-sided perspective and may not follow what the Lydian’s felt or understood about Croesus’ reign.

Another strategy Herodotus employs came from archives of oracles to validate if Alyattes and Croesus really did inquire about their futures. Oracles were real sources and were kept on file at Delphi. So the fact we know that Croesus had desires to go to war against the Persians, by his enquiry to the Delphi oracle, was a great strategy on the legitimacy of Herodotus’ truth claim. Here we have written evidence. People of his time could go to the building and enquire if Croesus indeed sent emissaries to inquire about his fortunes. Herodotus employed this strategy to validate his truth claim. This, of course, is supported with his narrative and prose to from a more fluid successful strategy.  In addition, to further weight his claim, he felt physical description would even add more validation to his truth.

Physical descriptions of Croesus’ presents sent to the Delphi oracle was described by Herodotus in Book one (I.51).  Some of these presents “now stands in the treasury of Clazomenians”. 4.  It is important to establish Croesus as a real person with a history, so that all the stories about him can be made more credible.  This deliberate strategy of physical confirmation plays a successful strategy for a historian convincing his audience of a real person.  However this strategy doesn’t confirm that Croesus was in fact a tyrant. This strategy only merely validates Croesus was a real leader.

Finally, Herodotus employs oral history. “Herodotus begun by narrating what Persian logioi, or experts’, have told him.” 5.  Croesus lived one hundred years before Herodotus.  In his narratives and antidotes, Herodotus uses the” I” role. This is what I heard; this was what I was told. The success of the accuracy of information can only be speculative in so far as the trust of the orator’s memory and honesty. He also says he chooses the evidence thus becoming the judge of it. By using this strategy he also becomes suspect to which sources he left out. Were they contradictory or shown in a light that Croesus was not a tyrant?

The success of Herodotus’ remark on Croesus being a tyrant creates suspicion to the stringent codes of historical accuracy. Croesus could just be an advantageous leader of his time. The intended audience, Greeks, however, mattered to Herodotus and it is safe to say many trusted his accountability. The contemporary strategies he uses do appear persuasive.  Yet, for us, we do not have collaborating evidence and other substantial evidence historians use to validate a description of tyranny. Therefore “Every reader must in the end assess for himself or herself how earnest or trustworthy Herodotus is as a reporter of genuine information.” 6.  There just isn’t enough verifiable historical proof to pin the label on Croesus as a tyrant. Therefore, the validation of this truth claim may never be known.






1. De Sélincourt, Aubrey. Herodotus ‘The Histories’. [Penguin Books Ltd. 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England. 1954, 1972, 1996, 2003], 5.


2. Ibid 9.


3. Ibid 9.


4. Ibid 22.


5. Waterfield, Robin.  Herodotus The Histories.  (Oxford University Press. Great Clarendon Street. Oxford OX2 6DP. 1998),  597.


6. Ibid XXXIV



Herodotus’ Truth


Herodotus deplored war. He therefore wrote on a theme he equated to a truth. One of his pursuits proved a theme that the high and mighty fell from grace by the vary nature of their pride, their desire for power, their desire for wealth and their desire for self-aggrandizement. Herodotus’s work, ‘The Histories’, finished around 440 BCE, dealt with this theme in the stories about the Greek and the Persians wars. The figures Herodotus spoke of remain mainly kings and military leaders. 


Herodotus’s narrative illustrates the theme by recording the rise and fall of these mighty-military leaders of their age. Herodotus places many ‘warners’ of fate into his narrative 1. Gyges being the first warns that his lineage will pay for his sins. Gyges whose thirst for power invaded Lydia and exemplified an usurpation of the Lydian kingdom passed on an omen to his sons.  After noting Gyges’ sins, the story in book one turns to the fifth generation Lydian king, Croesus, who accumulates great wealth, assumes his happiness, but wants more. He therefore proceeds to conquer the eastern Greeks, forcing them to pay tribute.


Solon, an Athenian archon, visited Croesus after the king conquered Lydia and the many regions of eastern Anatolia including the Ionians, Dorians and Aeolians settlements. In Solon’s words appear the truth claims of Herodotus’s theme on the high and mighty. Solon represents the moral teacher to the king as a talk of happiness ensues.  The king emotes all his joy at all the conquests which made him a powerful and rich leader. Solon says, “Often enough God gives a man a glimpse of happiness, and then utterly ruins him” 2.  Solon continues telling Croesus that a man can remain happy and die happy only if he is able to hold on to that which he has gained and remain in power until the end and die peacefully. This pride and desire for more power and wealth eventually leads Croesus, king of Lydia, to attempt to subjugate the Persians. 


Croesus met Cyrus at Sardis and was defeated ending his kingdom, his wealth and his power. The Herodotus version speaks of Croesus living a while longer, however, the Babylonian version has Cyrus killing Croesus in the battle at Sardis. Although, Herodotus took the fifth century notion that the gods played a role in the hand of fate for these leaders, he makes his argument specific that human deeds by these leaders are what brought about their ultimate doom. Therefore, the gods brought low the actions of the lofty and prideful Lydian king by his human actions, and soon will be the case for the Persian king Cyrus.


After Cyrus had defeated the Lydian kingdom, he took over the subjugation of the Greek settlements. He then turned south-east and defeated the Babylonian kingdom where he decided he wanted more power. Cyrus went further east and challenged the Massagetae, first by a cunning attempt then by open force. Here again before the battle plans were agreed upon another warner, this time Croesus the Lydian, advised Cyrus against pride and invincible thinking:  [Note this is the message that Herodotus purposely places in his narratives to facilitate his point]  “ Doubtless, if you think that you and your men are immortal […] human life is like a revolving wheel and never allows the same people to continue long in prosperity”.3 Herodotus makes sure his truth message is loud and clear. Cyrus described as the founder of the Persian Empire is soundly defeated by a lesser army confirming Artabanus future warning to Xerxes and proving Herodotus main truth-theme once again.


Xerxes uncle, Artabanus intervenes on a group discussion in which Mardonius proposed to the young leader, apparently too young to make important decisions himself, the notion of vengeance against the Athenians and the Greeks, after the disastrous Battle of Marathon saw the Greeks victorious over the Persians. The theme of Herodotus reemerges as Artabanus warns Xerxes on concerns of challenging the Greeks:


“ You know my lord, that amongst the living creatures it is the great ones that God smites with his thunder, nor does he allow them to show off. The little ones do not vex him, 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. Often a great army is destroyed by a little one, when God in his envy puts fear into men’s hearts, or sends a thunderstorm, and they are cut to pieces in a way they do not deserve. For God tolerates pride in none but himself”4.


This mere induction of this passage gives us a hint at Herodotus’s true feelings which are in fact strewn throughout ‘The Histories’.  Artabanus merely tells Xerxes to look at the situation realistically. Herodotus tells us that everyone at that time didn’t agree with the continuation of these vengeance wars. This is part of his truth claim. The wars could have ceased and been the end of the fighting. However, Xerxes is shown too eventually to purse this war on the basis of the glory and desire for power and wealth.


An antidote close to the end of the text in book nine sums up Herodotus’s true feelings on the loftiness’ of these great military leaders. In regards to Xerxes extravagant lifestyle and pursuit for more power and wealth, Pausanias remarks, “Men of Greece, I ask you here in order to show off you the folly of the Persians, who, living in this style, came to Greece to rob us of our poverty”5. Herodotus brings to light at the end of ‘The Histories’, the mighty Persians who occupied all of Asia and were not satisfied with what they had and thus decided to try to conquer Greece.


Herodotus may have concerned himself with this truth-theme for a variety of reasons, of which one could be the warning to the Athenian buildup of power in their own region.  This observed truth; the lofty will fall, eventually led to the defeat of the Persians and so will also lead to the same casual effects with the Athenians. History proved Herodotus correct and within a few decades the Athenians proved just as ambitious as the Persians for power and wealth which eventually brought enmity upon them from Sparta.





1. Waterfield, Robin.  Herodotus The Histories.  (Oxford University Press. Great Clarendon Street. Oxford OX2 6DP. 1998),  598.


2. De Sélincourt, Aubrey. Herodotus ‘The Histories’. [Penguin Books Ltd. 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England. 1954, 1972, 1996, 2003], 16.


3. Ibid 90.


4. Ibid 420.


5. Ibid 588.




Herodotus’s The Histories – Outline: Pages 4-44.

1. Herodotus and Myth.  The abduction of Io, Europa, Medea, and Helen.  ( continued on page 4) Significance: The Trojan War claimed the first act of aggression by Greeks against Asia. (Pages 5) Dismissal of the Persian claim of first aggression; the story of Croesus of Lydia. (Pages 6-15) Croesus lineage and background;  Gyges’ sin of overthrowing a king. (page 16) Croesus’ son Atys dies. ( pages 16 -30 ) Preparation and background of Croesus’ Persian campaign, including survey of Athens and Sparta. ( pages 34-40) Campaign and Croesus’ defeat. ( Pages 40 -44) The Aftermath; Croesus admits his faults. The Lydian culture.

              Ssu-ma Ch’ien


            Ssu-ma Ch’ien finished a worked titled “The Records of the Historian” begun by his father during the Han dynasty. He is often compared to Herodotus. Both unprecedented world historians worked from two separate worlds unbeknownst to one another. Like Herodotus, Ssu-ma Ch’ien links time to the past. However, Europe during the period of Herodotus did not have a clear calendar of time or a rich historical writing past. The beginnings of writing (Dragon Bones) on animal bones begun under the Shang dynasty (1750- 1100 BCE) and continued under the Chou (Zhou), where Lao Tze, according to Ssu-ma Ch’ien, was an archivist in the Imperial Library and Confucius  composed (or edited)  “Spring and Autumn Annals”, chronicles of feudal states of Yü, a treaties on the virtues of leaders. Then much later, during the warring period, writing expanded to numerous chronicles and works of history already compiled by the feudal states and the various schools of philosophy.  These records help us to determine how Ssu-ma Ch’ien was able to write in a chronological order.


             Often, Ssu-ma Ch’ien denoted months when speaking of time. This indicates a lunar calendar which was in use, but would be unfamiliar to Herodotus who would not understand the changing days and sometime months of the new years. Ssu-ma T’an , Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s father, reverted to “ affairs of astronomy and the calendar” already in use, Ssu-ma Ch’ien writes in a letter to Ban Gu, a personal friend, who recorded it in his book “Han Shu” ( ADE 32-92)1.  Both cultural and political time was a big issue for both. However, Herodotus wrote more on a liner time scale aided by oral tradition.  To record history like Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Herodotus would have to concern himself with non-linear time of repeated-cyclical repetition represented in graph-time of  Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s method:  “I wished to examine […] to penetrate the changes of the past and the present […]” and “I have examined […] success and failure, their rise and decay, in 130 chapters, ” Ssu-ma Ch’ien wrote 2. This could only be achieved by concern for detecting the principles of change of social and political lengths of time in which Ssu-ma Ch’ien covers the generations of the Chinese people from the Yellow Emperor to the time of the historians.




1 Sima Qian’s Letter to Ren An. Appendix Two.  The Chinese University of Hong Kong. 1993.Text presented in the University of California, Berkeley Reader, RI. The Writing of History. 66-71. Spring 2006.



2.  Ibid.


Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s Shih chi (The Grand Scribe’s Records).  The work contains the “basic annals” of five early Han-dynasty emperors. Ssu-ma Ch’ien finished 130 chapters in a worked titled “ The Records of the Historian” begun by his father during the Han dynasty.

Ssu-ma Ch'ien, "Records of the Grand Historian of China." Translated from the Shih chi of Ssu-ma Ch'ien by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, New York. 1958, 1961, 1962, 1969.

The beginnings of writing ( Dragon Bones) on animal bones begun under the Shang dynasty (1750- 1100 BCE) continued under the Chou (Zhou), where Lao Tze, according to Ssu-ma Ch’ien, was an archivist in the Imperial Library and Confucius composed (or edited) “Spring and Autumn Annals”, chronicles of feudal states of Yü, a treaties on the virtues of leaders. Then much later, during the warring period, writing expanded to numerous chronicles and works of history already compiled by the feudal states and the various schools of philosophy. These early attempts helped Ssu-ma T’an , Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s father, revert to “ affairs of astronomy and the calendar” already in use, Ssu-ma Ch’ien writes in a letter to Ban Gu, a personal friend, who recorded it in his book Han Shu ( ADE 32-92)1. This hint helps us to determine how Ssu-ma Ch’ien was able to write in a chronological order.


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