Herodotus, Book IV

The Fourth book is largely taken up with Herodotus’ intriguing account of the Scythians and with Darius’ ill-advised expedition against these strange people.  The Scyths were a people of Iranian stock, probably very similar to the Medes and Persians before they entered the Middle East and found themselves subjected to the constraints of civilization.  They were nomadic horsemen, fearless warriors, and hard to govern.  While Darius claims one reason or another for holding a grudge, it would seem that Herodotus regards the expedition as an instance of megalomania.

In dramatic terms, the expedition against Scythia is a dress rehearsal for Darius’ two expeditions against Greece.  As lord of everywhere, he regards any rebuff to his authority to be an act of injustice, and nothing infuriates him so much as a people who defend themselves.  He refuses good advice even when it comes from close relatives, and is lucky to escape with his life.  Scythia, the point is made, lies in Europe, and Dareius (pronounced, by the way, Duh-rye-us) has a bridge constructed to facilitate the passage of his troops, and this bridge should have been broken down, as the Scythians request, by the Ionian Greeks, but they prefer to follow the timid counsels of Histiaeus, the tyrant of Miletus.  He understands—as do most of the Greek tyrants installed by the Persians—that his personal wealth and power depends upon his support from the Persians, and if their power is broken, he will, at the very least, go back to being just another Greek.

Support for tyrants is the Persian policy, because the King can depend upon the loyalty of these stooges.  Of course, it will be Histiaeus himself who plots the Ionian Revolt.  It is not that he has fallen out of favor with Darius.  On the contrary, Darius has smiled on his request of territory in which to build a city, but, when an advisor warns the King that Histiaeus may be getting too big for his britches, Darius calls him to the Persian court because, as he claims, he values his advice.  This is, in fact, true, but the Milesian tyrant feels himself a prisoner, and, quite apart from losing the sense of power, he longs to be back in Greece.  There are several stories told of Greeks being held in Persia and plotting an escape.  Why?  Because living as a Greek was for them more important than all the wealth and luxury they were enjoying in Persia. 

So, Histiaeus favors guarding the bridge, while the tyrant of the Hellespontic Chersonese, Miltiades the Athenian, strongly advises destruction.  Miltiades will be driven out of his territory by the Persians, ally himself with wealthy Thracians, and his nephew and namesake will return to Athens and lead the Athenians to victory at Marathon.  What a coincidence one might think, but it is not coincidence that a Greek ruler, used to commanding men in battle even against Persians, will be the one Athenian who will know how to defeat them.

I am happy to say more about this book in response to queries.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

20 Responses

  1. Jacob Johnson says:

    The accounts of the Scythians were intriguing. The story of confronting the slaves with whips instead of swords has notable implications. The soothsayers finding who made the king sick and executing seems like a convenient way to get rid of somebody. And generally it seems no wonder they might be not the easiest to subdue. “Support for tyrants is the Persian policy, because the King can depend upon the loyalty of these stooges. ” This is very relevant to the world today as I see it. Much could be said on that. As is,”Because living as a Greek was for them more important than all the wealth and luxury they were enjoying in Persia.” This is a considerably important point which I think explains to a large the unhappiness of many people who embrace the way things are now without question. I find the books build upon each other very well and I’ll look forward to having a few days off this weekend to see what comes next.

  2. Jacob Johnson says:

    *to a large extent..
    One question I can think of Now: The accounts of the Scythians I also found interesting because of having read a bit about Cossacks earlier this year in With Fire and Sword. Is it known to what extent the Scythians are ancestors of the Cossacks? I do remember the previous discussions of the Ukrainian ethnicities being somewhat complex and uncertain.

  3. William Shofner says:

    I noticed today in the “American News” , as reported on 5-30-21, that Princeton has eliminated the Latin and Greek language requirements for Classics majors in order to combat “racism”. Princeton, I guess, found that teaching and learning these languages lacked Uplift, Vision and Breath of Mind, so it has left these languages to others, if anyone, to teach as it follows the March of Mankind.

  4. Dot says:

    Were the Scythians of ancient times similar to the Barbary pirates who were not Christian?

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Wes, classics departments have been headed in this direction since at least the 1960s when they began to institute classics in translation programs, then classics degrees with little or no Greek or Latin. It is not that none of these courses were any good, but the purpose was to boast enrollments and thus justify the real courses, but, as departments were increasingly taken over by Marxists, feminists, deconstructionists, and generally third-raters who aped the follies of the departments of English, focus was lost. Ironically–if that is the right word for it–BL Gildersleeve, America’s greatest classical philologist and Confederate veteran and apologist, preferred to concentrate on German studies, because by the time he got to Princeton in his mid teens, he knew more Greek and Latin than the faculty/

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Dot, the Barbary Pirates were mostly made up of North Africans and Arabs in every sort of combination with a few renegade Greeks thrown in–and at least one American! The rulers of their “countries” were Islamic predators.

    The Scyths by contrast were an Indo-European people of the Iranian type and therefore related more to the Persians and Medes. They seem to have been fairly intelligent and creative and for centuries refused to settle down into a sedentary life, preferring the freedom of nomads. They were capable of great violence but they were not particularly predatory, though they did invade the Middle East under pressure from the Cimmerians. The artifacts of their culture, whether made by them or by Greeks, are distinctive and beautiful. In one theory, not to be dismissed, they or people like them dominate ed the Slavs for a time and left an imprint on Slavic languages. In the 19th century it was fashionable to say that the Slavic peoples were descended from them, but that is probably a gross over-statement. It is also true, that in the great traditional division between Indo-European languages, Iranian, Indic, and Slavic languages fall on one side of the line and Greek, Latin (and thus all Romance languages), Germanic, and Celtic fall on the other.

  7. Allen Wilson says:

    I believe it has been conjectured that the remnants or descendants of Scythians and related peoples may have been absorbed by eastern Slavs when they moved onto the steppe, or sometime thereafter. Some of them who had been living further east may have headed west under pressure from Turkic expansion and found refuge with the Slavs. It’s a fascinating subject with but very little evidence and a great deal of mystery. I would say that if the Cossacks are descended from such peoples, then the descent would be from the very last ones to “Slavize”, probably those who came west last.

    I once saw a depiction of what a Scythian man would have looked like. He was depicted as blonde and may as well have been from Scotland or the Ozark mountains, Denmark or Warsaw. Take your pick. To me these ancient steppe peoples seem at once strange and different, yet strangely familiar.

  8. Dot says:

    Thank you, Dr. Fleming. I found that fascinating.

  9. Michael Strenk says:

    I am personally fascinated by the caucasian peoples who inhabited Central Asia all the way into the territory now inhabited (for the present) by the Uyghurs who descend from these peoples. They were blond and red haired, tall with long noses and their mummified remains and graves litter the Xinjiang desert. The Chinese have disallowed further excavations in this region. These peoples have been in the area for at least 5,000 years and are said to have brought the wheel to China. They were charioteers and herdsman. When the Mongols and the Turks came west many of their vassal peoples were made up from the peoples of these lands. At the time, they were still blond and red haired and blue and green eyed. In fact the names of some, such as the Polovtsi (Cumans) were so uniformly blond that, according to Runciman, the names for their peoples in western languages generally translate to some form of whitey or blondie. The Komi, still extant, are another such people from further north and west, but they belong to a different language group (Finno-Ugric)

  10. Michael Strenk says:

    Incidentally, Dogfish Head Brewery was making a “beer” based on residue analyzed from a vessel in King Midas’ tomb. It is a cross between beer, mead and wine and is quite good, but pricey. Worth a try though, purely for the sake of historical research, of course. I don’t know if it is still available.

  11. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Ancient beer-making in Middle East and Egypt was quite primitive. You could ferment a few days in jugs, some of which had a construction that would allow you not to suck up the yeast and grain sludge from the bottom.. I doubt their malting process was very sophisticated–they did not even have a means of measuring temperature, which is a must today. If I ever go back to brewing beer, I may try my hand at some generic barley beer with honey.

  12. Michael Strenk says:

    Much of the impetus for the fermentation of grains was to make them more digestible. Grains (and beans) also contain phytates which bind important minerals necessary to proper biological functions. Of course, ancient man did not know this, but they were much more observant than most of us are. Its not hard to imagine how some grain might get wet and forgotten in a vessel, and how some frugal householder would not want to waste it, especially if it smelled good. Some make a big deal of the fact that the Vikings drank beer for breakfast, but this was a very low alcohol small beer, which was highly nutritious and probiotic (a very fashionable phrase these days). I prefer the higher alcohol version, but preferably unpasteurized, although not for breakfast (at least not anymore).

  13. Allen Wilson says:

    I saw a video on You tube about the ancient Egyptian diet, and it appears that mainstream historians are still rehashing the same old stuff about how bad and monotonous ancient diets supposedly were. According to this video, even the pharaohs suffered from ill health due to their diet, which mostly consisted of Bread, Beer, wine, and honey. I wondered if the guy who made the video thought that the pharaohs were living on something like Wonder Bread and Milwaukee’s Beast. The guy who made the video was an amateur who probably got his information from the usual sources. He was nevertheless intelligent, somewhat knowledgeable and was trying to do something useful. I hate to see such honest and sincere people be so misinformed. Great civilizations are not built on bad diets and disease.

  14. Michael Strenk says:

    The problem with elites in most societies is that they tend to decline physically over time because of refined tastes. All forms of sugar were expensive before mechanization and often were dependent on slavery to process. Sugar consumption, for this reason was limited to special occasions for the masses, but was more constant among the wealthy. I have read that the Russian aristocracy considered their rotten teeth to be a symbol of their status. Elites tend to prefer white flour which is stripped of much of its nutritive value. Elites tend to start living higher on the hog, preferring blander, less nutritious muscle meats as opposed to offal, which are the most nutritious parts of the animal, and many other parts, like feet, heads, and skin, which, properly prepared, provide superb nutrition. I can’t speak specifically regarding Egypt, but from what I’ve read they had another bad habit which facilitated their degeneration, and that was incest. Occasional close breeding can be beneficial in livestock husbandry to accentuate desired traits, but what human elites seek in pursuing such practices is to perpetuate is not physical and mental health, but the continued concentration of power and wealth.

  15. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Michael Strenk brings up one or two good points, but, alas, they are two good points among dozens, even hundreds of possible causes. If I believed that avoiding sugar and eating offal would bestow good health and an advanced civilization, I’d have to wonder why the Eskimos and !Kung Bushmen lived lived like beasts and had lifetimes that fall short of our own.

    Of course, diet and health are important, but there are many healthy species of brute beasts I should not wish to emulate. Socrates famously observed that, while most people live to eat, he ate to live. Life is more than physical existence or a healthy body short on tooth decay. I’d rather have rotten teeth with something to live for beyond health than vice versa.

    There is little evidence to support the thesis that luxurious diets are the cause of the decline of the elites, less evidence than Gibbon had in blaming Christianity for the collapse of the Roman Empire. The purpose of studying history, it seems to me, is to escape from formulas and theories and to confront real people. The Greeks after Alexander did not eat refined sugar and, so far as we know, pretty much consumed the ancient Mediterranean diet, lots of grains, fresh vegetables, fish, and meat when they could get it. Their culture endured, but they lost a good deal of the courage that had made them what they are. To blame the change on bad diet is to fall into a materialist heresy.

    Herodotus actually takes quite a practical view. Borrowing from the Hippocratic tradition, he argues near the end of the work that soft climates produce soft people and more than hints that the Persian great mistake was to search for pleasant climes and easy living. The Spartan general, Pausanias, whom Herodotus appears to dislike, after Plataea ordered a luxurious Persian banquet and had his Spartan officers sit down to their coarse meal, observing how mad the Persians must be to leave a life of luxury to rob the Greeks of their poverty.

  16. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    But the problem begins with a moral disorder.

  17. Michael Strenk says:

    I accept all of what you say here. As a general thesis of the root cause of decline, moral disorder is far and away the most important cause, with an excessive attachment to luxury being an important symptom. Poor diets, however, whether too sweet or calorie deficient create great social complications, whether through erratic behavior at the top or social upheaval at the bottom. In our current situation I see a largely rootless immoral society completely addicted to their pleasures and unwilling to suffer any thought of being deprived in any way, much less of depriving themselves of anything immediately gratifying. This is one of many reasons why the medical system in this country is collapsing. The late great agricultural journalist Charles Walters often wondered in print whether the standard American diet was suitable to producing people who were in any way capable of enough intellectual power to maintain a free society, much less conceive of one. I suspect that he knew well before his death the answer to his question. It is perfectly possible for a person to be intellectually capable on a poor diet, but not when this lasts for generations as it has here.
    I won’t address the suggestion of heresy as I don’t see any of what I wrote above as touching on my faith.
    I am into Herodotus but far behind. I look forward to what he has to say at the end and at every point in between.

  18. Tim Dooley says:

    Mr. Strenk: Every so often I see a report concerning a correlation between obesity and impaired cognitive function. Such reports are, I understand, always contested, but I have to smile to think we are “eating ourselves stupid.”

  19. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I don’t at all disagree with you about the American diet and the potential for disastrous effects. I don’t recall eating a fast-food hamburger until I was nearly 20, and I loathed it. For decades we have eaten about 1/4 lb meat about five days a week and hardly ever buy processed food. I like ham, bacon, sausage etc but eat any of it only 2-3 times a week. On the other hand, I have known quite bright and responsible people who were rather overweight or ate badly and I have known a variety of vegans and food Puritans who are immoral cretins who vote straight ticket Democrat. Mens sana in corpore sano remains a good maxim, but if I had to choose, it would be mens over corpus.

  20. Michael Strenk says:

    We eat quite a bit more meat and a lot of cheese and yogurt and thrive on it, but are very careful of sourcing it from farmers who use practices that allow the animals to live in a healthy environment on feed which is appropriate to the species i.e. grass for cows but an omnivorous diet for pigs and chickens all outside for as much of the year as is appropriate to the species and rotated constantly through pastures. This is a mouthful, but it is now less difficult for us to shop than when we were regularly shopping in supermarkets or wholesale clubs and we get far superior and healthier food. We know our farmers well and have become close friends. They look to us for ideas and are very responsive to constructive criticism. I share your opinion of vegans. We have met plenty of them and without exception they all seem to be suffering from some mental or physical debility. I don’t mean to imply any moral or intellectual deficiency in people who don’t eat responsibly. Most people don’t even think about food except as something that gets them from A to B or as entertainment or an accompaniment to entertainment. I suppose we were like this at one time, but severe illness in my wife a decade and a half ago forced either complete submission to the medical industry which offered only to manage her illness and death not a cure or a complete change in the way we lived, especially how we ate. We did cure her illness and so we feel obligated to share where appropriate what we learned, so please forgive me if I ride my hobby horse from time to time. Incidentally, the key to her cure was overheard at the last Institute convivium in South Carolina, some time before we knew that we would need it, but the journey from that is too convoluted and, no doubt dull to many, to recount here.