Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
HISTORY: THE ACHAEMENID DYNASTY
Analysis of Herodotus in
Livio Catullo Stecchini
Scythian Gift Bearers, Persepolis
who wanted to discredit Herodotus as a responsible historian found that the best
way was to concentrate their criticism on his report of the campaign conducted
against the Scythians by King Darius of Persia around 513 BCE This report
occupies most of the Fourth Book (Melpomene) of Herodotus' Histories (1-144);
the balance of this book (145-205) consists of a survey of Africa west of Egypt
and, hence, can be presumed to be infantile like all things that concern
If this entire book contains preposterous data, it will be proved that an entire
ninth of Herodotus' work is the product of an irresponsible and confused mind,
with the result that the rest of his work must be presumed to be unreliable,
unless the contrary is specifically proved. (27)
The account of the Scythian campaign is an essential transition in the scheme of
Herodotus' narrative: Whereas the first three books present the Persian Empire
as a great rational construction based on the scientific and cultural
achievements of the preceding monarchies, the Fourth Book describes how the
Persian Empire used the military strength inherent to its structure in relation
to foreign territories, so that this book sets the technical frame of reference
for the presentation of the military campaigns of King Darius and King Xerxes
against Greece, the main concern of the last five books. Herodotus intends to
explain the historical phenomenon that the Greek city states were able to
challenge a state organization based on the rational exploitation of the
physical and intellectual resources of a territory embracing a great part of the
inhabited earth. The narrative of the Scythian campaign reveals how people
willing to make extreme sacrifices for the defense of their liberty could take
advantage of favorable geographical factors to frustrate even the boldest and
most imaginative plan to make them crumble under the weight of Persian power.
Thereby it prepares the reader to understand why Darius' successor, Xerxes, did
fail in his attempt to crush the Greeks. This, however, is an historical problem
that does not exist for many modern historians because they reduce the
proportions of the Persian campaign against Greece to about those of the
campaign of Lord Kitchener against the Sudan.
The proper understanding of the nature and development of the Persian campaign
against Scythia permits to understand the causes of what we know as the Persian
Wars. The scorned Book Four of Herodotus is essential in the general structure
of his historical work. But even without considering the later historical
consequences, the campaign of King Darius proves to be one of the greatest
military enterprises of all times. It was more dramatic and more grandiose in
its development and scope than the campaign of Napoleon and the campaign of
Hitler. It was not a whimsical sortie conceived by a monarch who could act
irresponsibly because of his absolute power; its account is not provided by a
storyteller who in his childish imagination pursued details that are both
fictitious and inconsequential. In political and military matters King Darius
was one of the most powerful organizing minds of all times, certainly not
inferior to Alexander the Great or to Caesar, and his greatness found a worthy
interpreter in an historian who, although the first to write universal history,
well understood the dynamics of the great historical developments. It was the
main purpose of Herodotus to explain what were the might and weakness of the
great imperial states of the Orient, in contrast with the nature of the Greek
city states, and he certainly succeeded. He also tried to explain how ancient
imperial states were compelled by their own structure and purpose to follow a
given course of action; it is this inner compulsion that caused the Persians to
engage first in the unsuccessful war against the Scythians and as a sequel in
the equally unsuccessful wars against the Greeks.
The criticism of the narrative of the Scythian campaign is of central
significance for those who intend to belittle the achievements of ancient
science and try to prove that the predecessors of the Greeks were prelogical and
that the Greeks themselves did not emerge from the prelogical mentality, except
for the individual contributions of some specific thinkers, most of whom belong
to the Hellenistic age.
In two essays, the first of which was presented in 1811, (28)
Niebuhr stated that Herodotus was so "uneducated and simple-minded" as
to believe that Scythia had the shape of a square bounded by the sea to the
south and to the east. (29)
The west side of the square would be formed by the Danube, believed to be
running north-south, from about the latitude of Kiev to the Black Sea. Niebuhr
relates that this last point was suggested to him by Ideler, who was the first
scholar to claim that the length of the circumference of the Earth was not known
in pre-Greek times. (30)
According to Niebuhr, Herodotus would have placed the mouth of the Don at the
north-eastern corner of the square at the same latitude as the source of the
Danube which, as I have said, he claimed had been placed in the area of Kiev.
Niebuhr does not submit a single example of textual analysis in order to prove
that Herodotus had concocted this geographical monstrosity, but declared that
the work of Herodotus is full of data about measures and distances that do not
fit reality. He asserted that Herodotus is wanton when he uses figures, but did
not submit these figures to a single test. To discredit the geography of Herodotus
means to discredit the scientific value of his entire work, because geography
provides the structural framework of the presentation. Herodotus created the
science of history by writing a universal history which took as starting model
works of universal geography, such as that of his fellow Ionian, Hekataios of
Miletos. Hekataios had written a Periegesis, "journey around the
world," in which in the form of what we would call social geography, he
included a good deal of historical information.
Since Herodotus' account of Scythia was used to justify a revolution in the
interpretation of ancient thought, it is worth observing that the interpretation
of his words was a distorted one, since not many years after Niebuhr's first
writing Arnold Hermann Heeren provided a sensible interpretation of the
geography of Scythia according to Herodotus. It is expressed in these words:
boundaries which Herodotus assigns to Scythia are as follows: on the south,
the coast of the Black Sea, from the mouth of the Danube to the Palus Maeotis
[Sea of Azov]; on the east, the Persian gulf and the Don, or Tanais, to its
rise out of the lake Ivan, which Herodotus was acquainted with; on the north,
a line drawn from this lake to that out of which the Tyras, (or Dniester)
flows. . . the western boundary was a line from thence to the Danube. (31)
had proved that Herodotus' text could be taken as having a reasonable meaning if
one wanted to; but Niebuhr was speaking in the terms of the spirit of the age
and his opinion carried an immense prestige, even though the perusal of his
writings does not provide anything but gratuitous assertions.
Among the commentators of Herodotus, only George Rawlinson dared to question
outright the interpretation of Niebuhr and to uphold that of Heeren. Rawlinson
expressed this opinion: "We seem to see in Herodotus a remarkable knowledge
of leading geographical facts, combined, either really or apparently, with
mistakes as to minutiae." (32)
But Rawlinson wrote before 1880, before the great turning of the tide in ancient
studies. Specialists of ancient geography have on the main accepted Niebuhr's
view, except for some minor modifications that are more charitable to Herodotus.
It is regrettable that specialists of ancient geography have accepted the
statement of historians of science about the low level of ancient geographical
science, so that they have never tried to ascertain why Herodotus based his
calculations on a square. Greek geographers repeatedly mention an entity called sfragis,
but this term is not explained except by saying superficially that it means
"seal," although Greek papyri indicate that sfragis is an
entity to which plots of land are related in cadastral surveys. However, it can
be gathered from the contexts that when geographers speak of sfragis they mean a
geodetic square. All that specialists of ancient geography have achieved is to
try to give interpretations of Herodotus' geography of Scythia that are somewhat
more charitable than that proposed by Niebuhr.
As a result John L. Myres tries to propound that, in spite of all the criticism,
Herodotus still has some virtues as an historian, when it comes to the question
of Scythia, argues again, after evaluating the several interpretations, that Herodotus
saw this land as being a square surrounded by the sea on two sides. (33)
According to Myres, Herodotus' geographical conceptions were all extraordinarily
infantile. The method used by Myres to prove his contention is essentially that
followed by Niebuhr, namely, to give a concrete material meaning to mathematical
concepts. By this method it could be argued that geographers of our age are so
primitive and superstitious as to believe that the world begins at Greenwich and
that across the Pacific there runs a line such that by crossing it one can move
backwards in time.
A facile writer of history, Bishop Connop Thirlwall, who now is entirely
forgotten but in his time was most influential because he was a popularizer of
Niebuhr's ideas and wrote in consultation with him, declared that Darius'
"adventures in Scythia elude every attempt to conceive their real nature
and connection." (34)
But no sample of a possible attempt was submitted. Bishop Thirlwall asserted
that all that the Persians did was to engage in a campaign for the conquest of
Thrakia in the course of which they conducted a foray across the Danube in order
to intimidate the Scythians from molesting the newly acquired territories.
Thirlwall's theory has been accepted by the majority of historians among which I
may quote Beloch, De Sanctis, and G. Grundy in his book on the Persian Wars, and
Others, while willing to believe that there actually took place a campaign
against the Scythians, treat the matter as not serious, dividing the blame
between Herodotus and King Darius: the campaign was an occasional adventure
expressing the whim of an Oriental potentate about which Herodotus reported a
tale spun with Oriental fantasy. Interpreters have read Book Four so as to make
both Darius and Herodotus appear as irresponsible children, one for thinking of
the enterprise and the other for weaving such lengthy and pointless tales about
it; but they emerge as two giants of the human spirit, one as a statesman and a
warleader and the other as the worthy historical interpreter.
Most historians of Greece and of Persia dispose of the Scythian campaign in a
passing page. It has become traditional to be flighty about this campaign:
Gustave Glotz in his authoritative great treatise of ancient history sums up the
events after the crossing of the Danube in these words: "Then, says Herodotus,
the army trundled towards the interior, without provisions, without
Of course, Herodotus does not say anything of the sort.
It is assumed that the marches and countermarches of the Persian army do not
need to be considered, since it was Herodotus who pushed this army back and
forth across the vastness of Russia, in order to fit the military operations to
his insane geography. Rawlinson, since he found the geographical description of Scythia
to be comprehensible, protested against the view of those who qualified Herodotus'
narrative as "illustrative fiction"; but Rawlinson was speaking to the
By the middle of the last century George Grote could write without bothering to
document his extreme contention that what happened after Darius' crossing of the
Danube "if tried by the tests of historical matter of fact, can be received
as nothing better than a perplexing dream" (36); in Herodotus' account
"we find nothing approaching to authentic statement, nor even what we can
set forth as the probable basis of truth on which exaggerating fancy has been at
work -- all is inexplicable mystery." (37)
Philippe-Ernest Legrand, the author of a comprehensive commentary to the
writings of Herodotus, has followed the line of attack indicated by Niebuhr: as
a first step he published an essay on Herodotus' account of the Scythian
campaign. Herodotus would have invented the Scythian campaign of King Darius in
order to have a device to string together the pieces of information that he had
collected on the customs and practices of several nations. Geographical lines
and the Persian army would have been made to follow the needs of a colorful
presentation of ethnological data. Legrand sums up his thought with this
exclamation: "I do not believe that in other parts of Herodotus' work there
could be found another example that reveals his flippancy (desinvolture) in so
striking a manner." He concludes his essay by the qualification that the Scythian
campaign is an exception and that usually la fantaisie d'Herodote is kept
within narrower limits.
Legrand accepts the view held by the majority of scholars that all that King Darius
did was to lead an incursion against some Scythian tribes who lived just north
of the Danube. Although "the long tours that Herodotus ascribes to Darius
do not have an historical character," Legrand hesitates in calling Herodotus
an outright prevaricator. The Greek historian would not have been in bad faith
when he related that the Persians advanced to the Volga: some travelers would
have seen Scythian tombs in the form of kurgans in the area of the Volga and,
knowing that the king had been in Scythia, would have called them "castles
of Darius"; on the basis of this Herodotus would have built the story of a
Persian advance to the Volga and the construction of a fortified line.
Concerning the geography of Scythia, Legrand, although granting that Herodotus'
words indicate that he had a map before his eyes, repeats Niebuhr's assertions
beginning with the one that Herodotus believed that the Danube flows in a
north-south direction. Herodotus had some correct information about the coastal
areas of the Black Sea, and for the rest he "embroidered"; names of
tribes like the Androphagoi and the Melanchlainoi would have been invented in
order to populate a terra incognita. Such is the opinion of a scholar who
considers himself a defender of Herodotus' sincerity against more radical
The alleged geographical absurdity of Herodotus' description of Scythia is used
as evidence not only against Herodotus, but also against the Persians. In
summing up the accepted views, Robert Cohen declares that one of the main causes
for King Darius' failure in his campaign was "his ignorance of
The truth could not be more in flagrant opposition to these beliefs of the
academic world. An ignorance of geography would have been impossible according
to the Persian conception of the cosmological function of their world empire.
The Persians were neither ignorant of scientific geography nor indifferent to
it. When King Darius, in order to sanction the establishment of his Empire,
founded a new capital, Persepolis, he placed its sacred area exactly at latitude
30 degrees 00 minutes North and at a longitude calculated exactly to the minute
in relation to Egypt (3 units of 7 degrees 12 minutes east of the Main Axis of
Egypt) so as to be at the point considered the middle of the Oikoumene, the
But, leaving out of consideration general issues, there is specific textual
evidence about the method by which the Persians proceeded to gather information
about Scythia. Ktesias (fr. 13, Jacoby) relates that, in preparation for the Scythian
expedition, Ariamnes, satrap of Kappadokia, was instructed to cross the Black
Sea with a small fleet and to conduct raids on Scythia in order to carry off as
prisoners possible informants. One of these, the brother of a Scythian king,
proved a valuable source of intelligence. The fleet did not consist of triremes,
as might be expected, but of 50 penteconters, which may have been chosen in
order to ascend the Russian rivers.
King Darius did not start his Scythian campaign before having gathered a mass of
exact and systematic geographical information that would have been a feat of
scientific achievement even a couple of centuries ago. In the first half of the
last century Europeans were not as precisely informed about the geography of
Central Africa, as King Darius was informed about the geography of Central
Russia. It is true that Herodotus had some difficulty in reporting exactly the
mathematical elements of the Persian geographic survey, but the very fact that
he tried to cope even with the aspects of ancient geography that were taxing him
because of their technicality, prove how well he grasped the importance of
In order to plan their campaign, the Persians proceeded to a geographical survey
of the Scythian territory. Following what was ancient practice, the survey
started by establishing a geodetic square. This geodetic square had an extension
of 10 degrees by 10 degrees and included the area from the mouth of the Danube
to the mouth of the Don and extended in latitude from the northern coast of the
Black Sea to almost the latitude of Moscow. Since Herodotus considered that
geography and distances were the main factor in the Scythian campaign, he built
his narrative around the data obtained by the construction of this geodetic
square. Since he provides exact information about the geography and the
distances of the Scythian area in terms of the geodetic square, the first step
in understanding the military operations of King Darius and the presentation by Herodotus,
is to locate this square on the map. (39)
If this is not done the account by Herodotus becomes incomprehensible and so do
the actions of the King. When interpreters throw overboard the data of
mathematical geography, they are left with a tale told by an idiot, full of
sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Herodotus, who is considered to unfold his narrative without a forethought,
dedicates several chapters in the part that immediately precedes the account of
the Scythian campaign (III 134-138) to explain by a concrete example, as is his
style, how the Persians proceeded to gather geographical information. While the
Persian leaders were planning their Scythian campaign, the question was raised
by some of them whether action should be taken against the Greek mainland before
attacking Scythia. King Darius, leaving the main issue open, immediately ordered
that as a preparatory step fifteen prominent Persians should conduct a survey of
the coasts not only of Greece proper, but also of that part of Italy where there
were Greek colonies.
What were the Persian ambitions is indicated by the circumstance that more than
twenty years later the Greek Histiaios, the tyrant of Miletos, who was kept
prisoner at Susa, promised King Darius, in order to deceive him into letting him
return to his homeland, that he would make him master not only of all the
Greeks, but also of the island of Sardinia, which Histiaios described as the
largest island of the Mediterranean Sea (V 106). The Persian reconnaissance
mission left Phoenicia on two triremes and a large merchant ship loaded with
material for gifts and, proceeding along the Greek coast "made a written
record of the results of a careful survey of most and best known features of the
coastal areas" (III 136). The mission continued beyond Greece to Italy
where in Tarentum its members were arrested as spies. Herodotus does not explain
who were the fifteen prominent Persians, but possibly they were magi, experts in
astronomy who could calculate latitudes and longitudes.
In order to explain how the Persians tried to pool together all the intellectual
resources of the Empire, Herodotus gives the example of a certain Demokedes, a
Greek from Kroton in Italy, who was brought along in this mission under strict
guard. On one occasion in which King Darius, while at the capital of Susa, had
dislocated his foot, he turned to Egyptian physicians who were part of his
retinue, since Egyptians were reputed to have the greatest skill in the medical
art; but when after seven days these Egyptians could not stop the pain in the
ankle of the King, he caused Demokedes, who was considered the best physician of
Greece, and who was then at Sardis where he had been in the retinue of the local
satrap, to be brought to Susa. Demokedes, by following the principle primum non
nocere of Hippokratic medicine, instead of the drastic methods of Egyptian
medicine, was able to stop the pain and to cause the King to acquire again the
normal use of his foot. Demokedes succeeded also in curing Queen Atossa of a
cancer of the breast. As a result Demokedes was treated with the highest honor,
but was not allowed to leave the King's court, until the Queen who was in favor
of a campaign for the conquest of the Greek mainland in preference to the Scythian
campaign, persuaded the King to send the exploratory mission to Greece and
Italy, taking along Demokedes "as the best man to provide guidance and
information in all that concerns Greece" (III 134).
The story of Demokedes is used by Herodotus also to convey the opinion that King
Darius would have been better advised if he had attacked Greece instead of Scythia. Queen Atossa was the daughter of King
Cyrus, the founder of the Persian
Empire, whom the Greeks considered superior in wisdom to his successor. In the
tragedy Persians Aischylos presents Queen Atossa as pointing out to Darius'
successor, Xerxes, the strategic and political errors that caused the Persian
disaster in the campaign against Greece in 480 BCE
All this indicates that the Greeks considered that the Persian rulers in their
planning made some erroneous decisions, but not because of lack of rational
thinking, nor because of lack of accurate geographical information. Once the
geographical data are properly reconstructed, the Persian strategy in the Scythian
campaign becomes perfectly clear and Herodotus' account of the events become
simple and unequivocal. (40)
The Strategy of Darius the Great
to the Main page: The Persian Wars
below, Part II: "Herodotus on the Sahara."
proposition was advanced explicitely by Macan.
ueber die Geschichte der Skythen, Geten, und Sarmaten," lecture of
1811, and "Ueber die Geographie Herodots," lecture of 1812, in Kleine
historische und philologische Schriften (Bonn, 1828).
p. 356. Cf. J. Ludwig Ideler, Historische Untersuchungen ueber die
astronomische Beobachtungen der Alten (Berlin, 1806).
H. Heeren, Historical Researches into the Politics, Intercourse, and
Trade of the Principal Nations of Antiquity (Oxford, 1833) vol. II, p.
257, note 4. Heeren conceived of the square as extending as far north as to
include the Czarist administrative districts of Riazan and Mogilev.
of Herodotus, fourth edition, (New York, 1880), p. 206.
The Father of History (Oxford, 1953), pp. 171-172.
History of Greece, (London, 1855), Vol. II, p. 223.
Grecque Vol. II (Paris, 1931), p. 17.
Grote, History of Greece, (London, 1862), Vol. III, p. 229.
Cohen, La Grece et l'hellenization du monde antique, p. 162.
below, Part II: "The Geodetic Square of Scythia."
Part II: Geography.
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies