Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Histories

Go To
"The Battle of Salamis" by Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1868)

"Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not be forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other."
Herodotus of Halincarnassus, preface of The Histories

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 484-425 BC) is the author of The Histories, an account of the rise of the Persian Empire and its conflicts with neighboring states and peoples, particularly the Greeks, culminating in Xerxes the Great's invasion of Greece and its defeat by an alliance of Greek city-states in 480-479 BC.

Herodotus is the main source on the Greco-Persian Wars, as well as one of the only surviving sources on many other matters. His book is what gives the word "history" the sense of "an account of the past"; in Herodotus' day, historia meant "inquiries." As such, Herodotus is often considered to be the Father of History.

Herodotus' Histories provide examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: Adrastus the Phrygian was a family friend of Croesus who was involved in two instances of accidental deaths. The first was when he killed his brother in an accident, but he was exiled from his home and lost everything because of it. The second one was when he went on a hunting trip with Atys, the son of Croesus, to stop a boar. Adrastus threw his spear at the boar, but he unfortunately missed and killed Atys in the process, much to his horror. He became convinced he was the unluckiest of men, so he went to Atys's funeral and killed himself.
  • Action Girl: Artemisia, who commands a small fleet in service of Persia so that her son doesn't have to.
  • The Alliance: Sparta and Athens form an improvised anti-Persian alliance with many other city-states.
  • Amazon Brigade: Some Amazons ended up in Scythian territory, eventually mating with Scythians to form the Sauromatai, who still have some Amazon customs regarding women.
  • Armor Is Useless: Inverted. Though the Persians and Spartans are equally brave, armor is actually a decisive factor in battles, with the Persians being more poorly armored and shielded.
  • Artistic License – History: Herodotus has "Cheops" (a.k.a. Khufu, the king who built the Great Pyramid) living at around 900 BC or so. Khufu actually lived around 2500 BC.
  • Battle Trophy: Herodotus describes how certain Scythian tribes gild the skulls of their dead enemies and use them as drinking cups.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed:
    • Spargapises, son of Queen Tomyris of the Massagetai, kills himself as soon as he gets the chance.
    • After avenging her brother by killing "a vast number of Egyptians", Queen Nitocris of Egypt suffocates herself in a room full of hot ashes to escape being killed at the hands of her people.
  • Big Creepy-Crawlies: Herodotus claims that natives of what is now the Kashmir region of India collect gold dust from the anthills of giant ants in the morning, but leave by noon because the ants would wake up and chase down their camels.
    • "Giant ants" might have been a mistranslation of "marmots": "ant" in Greek is "myrmex", and even nowadays the Minaro tribes collect gold dust excavated from the Himalayan marmots' burrows. Not that giant marmots are much more plausible, of course
  • But Thou Must!: Xerxes and Artabanos try very hard to resist the urge to invade Hellas (ancient Greece). But a dream-spirit compels both of them.
  • The Caligula: Cambyses, son of Cyrus the Great, marries his own sisters and often flips out and kills people. He is also bad at strategy.
  • Cassandra Truth:
    • Most of Xerxes' advisors tell him that the Hellenes are really stubborn and will fight to the bitter end no matter what — including Demaratos, a Spartan king-in-exile who would certainly have firsthand experience. Xerxes refuses to plan for such details until after he sees what Spartans can do.
    • Artemisia tells the Persians not to pursue a sea battle, as it would be pointless, and a slow and steady pace should be followed for the rest of the war. Xerxes agrees with her, but decides to act in accordance with the majority opinion amongst his advisors anyway.
    • Mardonios' advisors and Hellene allies tell him that he can break the anti-Persian alliance with bribery. But Mardonios insists on doing things the hard way, resulting in the Battle of Plataea.
  • Costume Porn: Herodotus describes the uniforms worn by the different factions of the diverse Persian army in great detail.
  • Creating Life Is Bad: One of the Thracian tribes, the Trausians, mourns childbirth and celebrate death.
  • Darkest Hour: The Battle of Thermopylae is merely a speedbump to the Persian invasion force, and eventually Athens falls. According to Xerxes' casus belli, the war is actually won at this point. But then comes the Battle of Salamis and the Battle of Plataea.
  • Dated History:
    • The Histories is perhaps the oldest work we know where the Egyptian Pyramids are claimed to have been built with slave labor, steering historians and pop culture for millenia to assume the same (the other main reason, The Bible, only says that the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt, but not that they built the Pyramids). Modern archaeologists have found evidence that the Pyramids were built mostly or entirely by free people, as public works intended to give farmers something to do in the off season when the Nile fields were underwater.
    • The claimed number of Persian soldiers involved in Xerxes' invasion of Greece is now thought to have been exaggerated by a factor of 10.
    • There was probably no "Median empire", not if the contemporary literary and archeological evidence is anything to go by. Medes, yes, but they were probably more like a patchwork of tribes and city-states that miiiight have been on the road to forming an empire.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: Cambyses has his brother Smerdis murdered, but keeps the murder secret. This allows Smerdis the Magus to impersonate the dead Smerdis.
  • Defeat Equals Friendship: Cyrus defeats Croesus and nearly burns him at the stake, but the gods have mercy on Croesus and spare him from this fate. Thereafter, Cyrus and Croesus are friends.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Croesus once had a dream that Atys, one of his sons, would be killed by a blow from an iron weapon, so he took drastic measures in an attempt to protect Atys from this fate, even confiscating all the weapons and storing them in the women's quarters, lest one fall on Atys' head. One day, Adrastus, a Phrygian and a family friend of Croesus, asked for permission to have Atys go on a hunting trip with him so that he could stop a boar that was destroying the crops. Croesus initially declined on the grounds of trying to prevent his dream from coming true but relented at Atys's insistence. Unfortunately, the dream came true as Atys was indeed killed by a blow from an iron weapon, a spear, while Adrastus was aiming for the boar the entire time. Needless to say, Croesus and Adrastus were both devastated at the outcome.
  • Drowning Pit: To avenge her brother, Queen Nitocris of Egypt invites his killers to a banquet in an underground hall, then locks the doors and has the room filled up with water through a hidden duct.
  • The Eeyore: Solon believes that having good fortune and then dying immediately is happiness — and that simply not being alive was happiest of all — or so says Herodotus about him.
  • Evil Virtues: King Darius is portrayed as ambitious and ruthless in his pursuit of power as well as despotic and arbitrary in his judgments. However, Herodotus also acknowledges his shrewd intelligence, administrative skills, the magnanimity he shows to many of his defeated opponents, his openness towards other cultures, and his willingness to provide shelter to various Greek exiles.
  • Flat World: How Earth is according to Herodotus.
  • The Good Queen: Assyrian queens of Babylon are noted, each one contributing to economic and defensive projects.
  • Guile Hero: Themistokles, who uses carefully-chosen words and flat-out lying to secure victory as much as he uses military means.
  • Had to Be Sharp: Cyrus advises the Persians to keep living in their mountain homeland even after they've conquered the rich countries of Mesopotamia, because "soft lands breed soft men."
  • Half-Human Hybrid: The Hellenes say that Herakles (Hercules) mated with a snake-woman, and one of her children was the father of the Scythians.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Herodotus claims Khufu was a cruel tyrant who enslaved his people to built the Great Pyramid and prostituted his own daughter to pay for it, but historical evidence suggests he was well-loved and his reign prosperous.
  • Hit-and-Run Tactics: The Scythians harass the army of Darius in this manner, eventually forcing him to leave.
  • Hobbes Was Right: Those who support tyranny and monarchy state this frequently, especially Darius of Persia.
  • How We Got Here: Nearly once per page, starting with the very first lines of the book. Herodotus is therefore infamous for "digressions" (which may then have their own digressions), infuriating anyone looking for a linear narrative.
  • I Love the Dead: They say that an Egyptian embalmer once had sex with a beautiful corpse, but was reported by his co-worker.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Median emperor Astyages punishes a disobedient member of his court, Harpagus, by killing Harpagus's 13-year-old son and secretly feeding him to Astyages during a banquet.
    • Also, many northern tribes ate their dead.
  • Impostor-Exposing Test: Smerdis son of Cyrus had normal ears, while Smerdis the Magus had had his ears cut off. So, it's up to a royal concubine to bang Smerdis and check out his ears while he sleeps.
  • Insane Troll Logic: When Cambyses becomes aware that the Persian court generally regard him as insane, he declares to his friend Prexaspes that, if he can kill the cup-bearer (who also happens to be Prexaspes' son) with an arrow through the heart, then he can't possibly be mad. After murdering the boy in front of his father, he has his servants cut the body open, and finds that the arrow has indeed hit the heart. Apparently this is enough to convince Cambyses that he was completely sane.
  • Jerkass: Cambyses, who kills many Egyptians and crashes a big celebration just because he suspects that Egypt is celebrating a recent misfortune that he had.
  • Kissing Cousins: Leonidas is Gorgo's uncle (half-brother of her father, Cleomenes), if one looks at their lineage.
  • Lady of War: Artemisia, who commands five warships in Xerxes' fleet during the second invasion of Greece.
  • Merciful Minion: Astyages orders his subordinate Harpagus to kill his grandson Cyrus, who is destined to overthrow him, but Harpagus passes the job on to a shepherd, who spares the child. An interesting case in that Harpagus is mostly acting out of his own self-interest. He doesn't want to get in trouble with Astyages, but he also knows that when Astyages's daughter ascends to the throne, she'll want to punish the one responsible for killing her son.
  • The Mole: Zopyros, son of Megabyzos, a Persian who gains the trust of the Babylonians only to turn the city over to Darius.
  • Nasty Party: Queen Nitocris of Egypt invites a large number of her subjects who were involved in the killing of her brother to a banquet in an underground hall. In the middle of the feast, she has the doors locked and the room flooded, killing all who are inside.
  • Never Found the Body: Or bodies, in this case. When Cambyses launches a military campaign against Nubia, he simultaneously sends a second army to conquer Libya. They get lost somewhere in the African desert and were never heard from again. The Libyans themselves claim that no invading army ever reached them, and to this day the lost army of Cambyses remains something of a mystery.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Herod: The Oracle of Delphi prophesies that a certain baby (Cypselus) will overthrow the ruling house of Corinth and become a tyrant. The ruling house of Corinth tries to have the baby killed, but fails.
    • Similarly, the attempts to kill infant Cyrus contributed to the rise of Cyrus.
  • No Ending: The book ends with Persian intrigues after the war. The intent was probably to subtly call attention to how the hubris and mismanagement of the Persian kings led to their downfall, and how even now Athens was going the same way and would also come to a bad end they didn't change their imperialist and arrogant ways. Of course, it flew right over the heads of the Athenians of the time, and fails to connect with us today, since we aren't contemporary Athenians. Of course, one could argue that this lesson is important to all other great powers of history, but that gets messy quick.
  • Noble Savage: The Scythians.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: The earliest known recorded mention of a werewolf transformation being reversible, though the transformation lasts several days, and are full transformations on actual wolves.
  • Perspective Flip: With respect to the Old Testament. In The Histories, the Persians are the antagonists. In the Old Testament, the Persians (especially Darius) are considered heroes by the Jews because they freed the Jews from the Babylonian captivity and supported building the Second Temple.
  • Phantom Thief: An unnamed thief pulls quite a few tricks to plunder the treasure of King Rhampsinitos, remove evidence of his acts, and hook up with the king's daughter. The only reason why the secrets of any of his exploits were known was that the king pardoned him to hire him.
  • Prophecy Twist: Crœsus, the King of Lydia, is told by the Oracle of Delphi that if he attacks Persia, he will bring down a great empire. The great empire the Oracle is referring to is Crœsus's own empire, the Lydian empire, which falls to Persia after Crœsus attacks.
    • The prophecies leading Sparta to conquer Tegea also had a few twists.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The Persians consider the Hellenes to be such:
    "As a matter of fact, according to what I hear, the Hellenes are in the habit of starting wars without the slightest forethought, out of obstinacy and stupidity... What they ought to do, since they speak the same language and use heralds and messengers, is to thus put an end to their differences and employ means other than battles to become reconciled... Thus the Hellenes do not employ intelligent strategies..." — Mardonios
  • Rags to Riches: Herodotus relates that the famous courtesan Rhodopis of Naucratis was originally a Thracian slave sold into Egypt, where she was bought and set free by the merchant Charaxus on account of her beauty. Shen then becomes a 'hetaira' (courtesan), a business which makes her rich and so famous "that every Greek knew the name of Rhodopis". Some even say she was so fantastically wealthy that she had a pyramid built for herself, but Herodotus rejects this as a ludicrous exaggeration.
  • Rain of Arrows: Invoked by a Greek native of the region near Thermopylæ, who warns the Greek army about the multitude of their Persian enemies: "... when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude".note 
    • This warning is replied to with one of the great Badass Boasts in history:
    Dienekes: "Good. Then we will fight in the shade."
  • Realpolitik: Although speeches are made concerning freedom and honor, they also appeal to the lust for glory, wealth, and power.
    • For instance, Xerxes has nothing against Hellas (Ancient Greece) until someone persistently convinces him to invade — and it's primarily that one adviser who stands to gain anything. Xerxes also has multiple chances to cancel the war, and even cancels it verbally once, but is pushed on by the need to appear to be a strong king.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Inverted — Cambyses is mortally wounded from an accident and consequently confesses to one of his plots.
  • Regime Change: The Spartans are frequently involved in these throughout Greece.
  • Retcon: Helen of Sparta (more often known as Helen of Troy) visited a temple on the Nile Delta in Egypt after going off with Alexandros (Paris) — and this was only the latest in a long series of two factions taking each others' women. In fact, Herodotus says Helen never made it to Troy, and thus the Trojan War was all for naught. After the war, Menelaus found her in Upper Egypt.
  • The Rival: Many city-states have such a rivalry that they choose sides in the Greco-Persian Wars just to spite some city-state on the other side.
  • Salt the Earth: The Scythians do this to deny Darius any supplies.note 
  • Secret Path: Persia is able to break the stalemate at the Battle of Thermopylæ when Ephialtes of Trachis, a Greek, tells them about a secret path around the pass.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy:
    • By rebellion against the oracles of the gods, mortal men only succeed in sealing their fates ever more strongly. Astyages trying to prevent the rising of Cyrus is a big example of this.
    • Croesus had a dream that one of his sons, Atys, would be killed by being stuck by an iron weapon, and he took drastic measures to protect his son from his fate, like taking away all the weapons from the men's rooms and put them all in the women's quarters. One day, Adrastus asks Croesus to send his son and a group of young men to join him in a hunt for a wild boar. Croesus agrees to send the other young men, but not his son. Eventually, he relents and lets Atys join the hunting party... but Atys gets killed in a hunting accident when Adrastus, aiming for the boar, throws his spear and hits him.
  • The Siege: When a city is actually prepared for one, they do take quite a while and require epic efforts to finally take the city.
  • Snake People: Herodotus relates a myth about the Scythian people being descended from a snake-woman and a human warrior.
  • Snark-to-Snark Combat: "... since the Athenians had come with two great gods, Persuasion and Necessity, the Andrians certainly had to give them money. To this the Andrians replied that it made sense for Athens to be great and prosperous, since she had the good fortune that came with useful gods; but the Andrians had come to a point of extreme deficiency in land, and they had two useless gods — Poverty and Helplessness — who apparently wished to remain on their island forever and refused to leave it."
  • Succession Crisis: Several. The most notable is after the death of Persian king Cambyses, in which Darius and several of the Persian nobility depose an usurper, Darius eventually becoming king.
  • Tall Poppy Syndrome: Periander of Corinth needs advice about keeping people in line. The tyrant Thrasybulus of Miletus offers to help but doesn't speak a word; walking out to a grain field he cut offs the tallest stalks of grain and throws them away. This is probably the inspiration for Tarquin's trope naming actions.
  • A Taste of the Lash: When the pontoon bridge across the Strait of Hellespont, meant to carry the Persian army into Greece, is damaged in a storm, Xerxes has the strait lashed as punishment.
  • Toilet Humor: "... Amasis, who happened to be sitting on his horse at that moment, lifted himself from the saddle, broke wind, and told Patarbemis to take that message back to Apries."
  • Unstoppable Mailman: More or less how Herodotus describes the Persian courier system. Considering how rugged and inhospitable the Iranian landscape could get, it was some pretty high praise.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Periander, the second tyrant of Corinth, kills his wife Melissa. Later, when Periander consults her through an oracle of the dead, Melissa's ghost will not reveal the information he seeks, but does reveal that "the oven was cold when he baked his loaves in it".
  • Villainous Valor: Herodotus always gives credit where credit is due, and individual Greeks and Persians are both singled out for their bravery during the wars.
  • Virile Stallion: Exploited, in this story by Herodotus, he tells his account of the coronation of King Darius I of The Achaemenid Empire. It was declared that whoever could make their stallion whinny first before daybreak would be crowned king. Darius, being a Guile Hero, rubbed his hands over the genitals of a mare in heat, and then wafted them under his stallion's nose, arousing it into whinnying.
  • War Is Hell: "The one to blame is the god of the Hellenes; it is he who encouraged me to go to war. Otherwise, no one could be so foolish as to prefer war to peace..." So the Lydians say were the words of Croesus when he's captured by the Persians.
    • "In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons."
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The Hellenic alliance against Persia is only held together by Sparta's reputation and the fact that Athens is the direct target of the invasion. There are many strains over who has command rights over which army or fleet, who is the most honorable, who contributes the most, etc. Whole city-states refuse to join in just because they won't have any share of the command rights, or because they don't think the current allotment of command rights is honorable.
  • We Have Reserves: Darius sends 7000 of his own troops into ambush and slaughter at the hands of Zopyros, to help Zopyros gain the trust of the Babylonians.
  • Wicked Stepmother: The Cyrenaeans say that King Etearchos of Axos, a city on Crete, had a daughter Phronime. Phronime's mother died, so Etearchos married another woman, who "assumed the right to play the role of stepmother. She abused and harassed the girl..." Apparently this trope was well-known even in the day of Herodotus.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: The Spartans at Thermopylae "would turn their backs and feign flight all together, and the barbarians, seeing this, would pursue them with much clatter and shouting; the Lacedaemonians [mostly Spartans] would allow the barbarians to catch up with them and then suddenly turn around to face them..."
  • Xanatos Gambit: Themistokles carves a message telling the Ionians to switch their allegiance from Persia to their fellow Hellenes, or at the very least fight like cowards. Either the Ionians would actually obey the message, or the Persians would distrust the Ionians, or both.
  • You Can't Fight Fate:
    • Croesus trying, and failing, to prevent his son's prophesied death.
    • After his Magi interpret a dream of Medean king Astyages to mean that his baby grandson Cyrus would overthrow him, Astyages gives Cyrus to a shepherd (indirectly) to be killed. The shepherd instead raises Cyrus as his own child, and the child goes on to overthrow Astyages and become Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire.
    • Although there is some lampshading of all the times the oracle gets bribed.
  • You Killed My Father: Lykophros refuses to have anything to do with his father Periandros or the inheritance, for Periandros had killed his wife Melissa (Lykophros' mother).

Alternative Title(s): Histories, Herodotus