Battle of Gaugamela 331 BCE

Battle of Gaugamela (October 1, 331 BCE): decisive battle in the war between Macedonia and the Achaemenid Empire, fought in northern Iraq. The outcome was influenced by a celestial omen that announced the imminent downfall of the Persian king Darius III Codomannus and the succession by Alexander the Great.

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Herodotus of Halicarnassus

The Greek researcher and storyteller Herodotus of Halicarnassus(fifth century BCE) was the world’s first historian. In The Histories, he describes the expansion of the Achaemenid empire under its kingsCyrus the Great, Cambyses and Darius I the Great, culminating in kingXerxes’ expedition in 480 BCE against the Greeks, which met with disaster in the naval engagement at Salamis and the battles at Plataeaand Mycale. Herodotus’ remarkable book also contains excellent ethnographic descriptions of the peoples that the Persians have conquered, fairy tales, gossip, legends, and a very humanitarian morale. (A summary with some historical comments can be found here.)

This is the first part of an article in eight pieces.


Herodotus of Halicarnassus hereby publishes the results of his inquiries, hoping to do two things: to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of the Greek and the non-Greek peoples; and more particularly, to show how the two races came into conflict.

These are the confident opening lines of Herodotus’ Histories, and the Greeks who heard them must have been surprised. Preserving the memory of the past by putting on record certain astonishing achievements was not unusual, but the bards who had been singing legendary tales had been less pretentious. Even the great poet Homerhad started his Iliad in a more modest way:

Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles, that brought endless harm upon the Greeks. Many brave men did it send down to the Underworld, and many heroes did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures. In this way, the counsels of Zeus were fulfilled, from the day on which Agamemnon -king of men- and great Achilles first fell out with one another. And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel?

The similarity between these two prologues is obvious: we are about to hear a tale about a terrible conflict and the speaker wants us to understand how the two sides came into conflict. The difference is striking, too: Homer invites a goddess to relate the story; Herodotus does not need divine aid. Who was this man, who so proudly gave his personal opinion about the past?

Herodotus’ life

Not much is known about Herodotus’ life. The only reliable source we have is the book he wrote, known as The Histories, and this remarkable text gives us some clues that enable us to sketch the outlines of its writer’s life. As its prologue shows, Herodotus was born in a town called Halicarnassus: modern Bodrum in southwestern Turkey. Not far from Herodotus’ native city is the island Samos, which figures so prominently in The Histories, that it has been argued that Herodotus spent several years on it. The same argument applies to Athens: Herodotus may have spent some time in the leading Greek city of his age., the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
The theater and acropolis of Halicarnassus. Photo Marco Prins.
Halicarnassus / Bodrum

It is unknown when or why he left his home town. Two or three centuries after Herodotus’ death, scholars from Alexandria assumed that the historian was banished because he had been involved in an abortive coup attempt. Unfortunately, there are many ancient historians who were forced to spend part of their lives abroad after a political failure (e.g., Thucydides, Theopompus of Chios, Timaeus, and Polybius of Megalopolis). Probably, it is safer to ignore this piece of scholarly speculation.
The famous Macedonian philosopher Aristotle of Stagira (384-322 BCE) must have heard or read The Histories. In his book on Rhetorics, he quotes its first line:

Herodotus of Thurii hereby publishes the results of his inquiries…
[Rhetorics 1409a27]
An easy way to explain this variant reading of Herodotus’ opening line is that Aristotle was simply mistaken. However, the philosopher’s infallibility has been axiomatic for centuries, and many scholars -ancient and modern- have tended to believe that Herodotus was one of the settlers in the South-Italian city Thurii, which was founded in 444 BCE. A medieval dictionary, the Suda, mentions Herodotus’ tomb on the market of Thurii (Suda H536); this was a high honor, only attributed to the (often legendary) founders of new cities. Of course it is possible that Herodotus was the founder of Thurii, but probably we are better advised to take the Suda’s statement with a grain of salt, especially since Athens and Pella (in Macedonia) also claimed his tomb. It is imaginable that the Thurians have invented theirs after reading Aristotle.

The year of Herodotus’ death is unknown, but we have two clues. In section 137 of Book Seven of The Histories the execution of two Spartans in Athens is mentioned. From another source, The history of the Peloponnesian War by the Athenian historian Thucydides (2.67), it is known that the two were killed in the winter of 430/429 BCE. Therefore, Herodotus was still alive and writing in 429. Since it is also known that in the summer of 429 many Athenians were killed by the plague, it may be conjectured that Herodotus was one of the victims of this disease. However this may be, he must have died before 413, because he tells (Book Nine, section 73) that a certain village in the neighborhood of Athens, Decelea, was never plundered by the Spartans, something that did in fact happen in 413, as Thucydides tells us (6.93)
Assuming that Herodotus died between 429 and 413, it is reasonable to infer that he was born between 500 and 470. Perhaps we can be a little bit more precise: nowhere in The Histories does he claim to have witnessed the great Persian War (480-479 BC) that he is describing. Therefore, his date of birth can be estimated in the eighties of the fifth century BC.

The author of The Histories seems to have been a real globetrotter. If we are to believe him, he was no stranger in Babylon, where he interviewed the priests; he claims to have gone north to the Crimea and south along the Nile; he visited Sicily and knows the details of North-African topography. However, some doubts are possible: e.g., his description of Babylon is contradicted by archaeological evidence (see below). On the other hand, in his description of the Crimea, he mentions a king known to have lived around 460, which makes it likely that he really visited that part of the world.

That he was able to write, is a fact easily ignored. However, it tells us that his parents could afford a teacher and were well to do. Herodotus must have been a rich man, possibly a member of the old aristocracy. We may speculate that he fought as a heavy armored infantryman (a hoplite), like all Greek men of his class and age. This would explain why his descriptions of battles are always from a soldier’s point of view and sometimes confused. He was a soldier, not a general.

This is all we know about the Father of History: frustratingly little. Yet, there are only a few ancient writers that we know as well as Herodotus. Other authors wrote longer texts, were greater historians, or reached greater intellectual heights, but none of them is able to convey the same feeling of intimate friendship that we experience when we read Herodotus. We meet him when he is in a dark mood, share his surprise, know his religious opinions, hear him chattering, joking and babbling. There is no ancient author whose character we know so well as the man about whose life we know so little. The solution to this paradox lies in The Histories.

Herodotus’ originality

Today, The Histories are usually edited in one volume. In Antiquity, nine scrolls were needed to contain the entire text, and it is still usual to divide The Histories into nine ‘books’. As the Italian classicist Silvana Cagnazzi has pointed out, it is possible to subdivide every ‘book’ into three units, the logoi (overview). When a person reads one of these logoi to an audience, he or she needs about four hours, and it is likely that this is how Herodotus first ‘published’ the results of his inquiries: as a lecture. This idea corroborates an ancient story that he used to recite his work. (On one occasion, a boy started to cry: the future historian Thucydides, who was deeply moved by Herodotus’ narrative.)
It is likely that at one point Herodotus decided to collect his logoi in one continuous text. But now he faced a serious problem. His logoi were about very dissimilar subjects -e.g., a description of Egypt, a logos about Scythian customs, and a narrative about Persian diplomacy in the winter of 480/479- and it was likely that this collection of logoi would become a messy whole. Herodotus has recognized this problem, and decided to group everything around one single theme: the expansion of the Achaemenid (or Persian) empire between 550 and 479. Lectures on topography and ethnography now became integrated chapters of a historical chronicle., the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Homer. Glyptothek, M�nchen (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Homer (Glyptothek, Munich)
Stories about the past were something that the Greeks primarily knew from the beautiful epic poems of Homer, who had sung about the valiant deeds of past heroes in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Herodotus was heavily influenced by this example. Sometimes he quotes the legendary bard; or he uses words that any Greek would have recognized as homeric. The Iliad contains a catalogue of nations that took part in the Trojan War; in Book Three, Herodotus sums up all Persian provinces, and in Book Seven, he inserts a list of troops that took part in Xerxes’ expedition to Greece. Sometimes, Herodotus copies scenes from Homer. In his description of the Battle of Thermopylae, he tells how the Spartans and Persians fought about the body of Leonidas. This is impossible in a hoplite-battle (the type of warfare Herodotus is describes) but echoes a scene from the Iliad in which the Greeks and Trojans fight about the body of the hero Patroclus.

A very important borrowing from Homer is the circular composition. More than a hundred times, Herodotus interrupts his narrative to digress on a subject. The longest digression is Book Two: Herodotus announces that the Persian king Cambyses wanted to conquer Egypt, and then begins to talk about the geography, the customs and the history of the ancient country along the Nile. Finally, at the beginning of Book Three, Herodotus resumes his narrative and describes the Persian invasion.
The digressions belong to the most entertaining parts of the Histories. For example, we read an interview with an employee of an Egyptian mummy factory, an astonishing anecdote about the first circumnavigation of Africa, a hilarious tale about Indian goldmining, a report about the sources of the Nile and the Danube (see below), a reconstruction of the language of the prehistoric Greeks, a cautionary tale about deposits, and lots more.

Modern bust of Herodotus, Bodrum (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering.
Modern bust of Herodotus, near the Museum of Bodrum

A final point of similarity between Herodotus and Homer is the impartiality of the narrative: Homer’s heroes are the Greeks, but his Trojans are no villains, and in the same way Herodotus portrays his Greeks and Persians – he treats both parties without partiality or hatred, but with genuine sympathy. It is interesting to compare this with the historiographical texts from the oriental monarchies: the Persian shah -e.g., the Behistun inscription- and the Egyptian pharaoh leave no doubt about the wickedness of their opponents.
But Herodotus is more than just a pupil of Homer who added geographical and ethnographical bits and pieces to his unbiased epic tale. A first difference is that Homer was a poet using a complex meter, whereas Herodotus composed his logoi in prose. But the greatest difference is the fact that Herodotus was a real researcher, an empiricist. (In fifth century BC Greek, the word historia still meant ‘research’; it was Herodotus’ achievement that the meaning of the word changed.) He traveled a lot in order to investigate the cities and opinions of man. Where Homer claimed to be speaking the truth depended on his inspiration from the muses, Herodotus based his narrative on research. It is a tribute to the quality of Herodotus’ geographical descriptions that the works of his predecessors are now lost.

As a corollary of Herodotus’ empiricist method, he is interested in the recent past. Homer had told about distant, legendary antiquities; Herodotus was interested in events that were in living memory and could be verified. For example, he seems to have interviewed the survivors of the Battle of Marathon. Admittedly, interviews are an unreliable source, but it must be said that Herodotus did a remarkable job: when we can check The Histories, it often turns out to be trustworthy. Even though Herodotus makes some serious mistakes, he managed to give a pretty accurate description of the century before his birth.
As it turned out, Herodotus invented a new literary genre: history. He did so by integrating the results of empiricist ethnographic and topographic research into epic, and writing this in prose. This combination was revolutionary.

Thucydides. Mosaic from Jerash, now in the Altes Museum Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. Thucydides; mosaic from Jerash (Altes Museum, Berlin)
It is odd that he was hardly appreciated in Antiquity. People admired his entertaining way of telling stories, but they did not believe them. The first to criticize the Father of History was Thucydides, who rejected Herodotus’ religious explanation of what was happening (below). In later times, nobody dared to believe what Herodotus told about strange customs. For almost two thousand years, people considered him just a teller of (excellent) tales and thought that all these strange customs were merely inventions. His never ending stream of tall, short and winding tales earned him -as Salman Rushdie would say- not one but two nicknames: to some, he was the Father of History, but to others, he was the Father of Lies. Only when, after the discovery of the Americas, the Europeans learned to know the customs of hitherto unknown people, the reappreciation of Herodotus started. But even today, many of his claims are the subject of debate.

Cyrus Cylinder

First Charter of Human Rights

I am Kourosh (Cyrus), King of the world, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of the land of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters, son of Camboujiyah (Cambyases), great king, king of Anshân, grandson of Kourosh (Cyrus), great king, king of Anshân, descendant of Chaish-Pesh (Teispes), great king, king of Anshân, progeny of an unending royal line, whose rule Bel and Nabu cherish, whose kingship they desire for their hearts, pleasure. When I well -disposed, entered Babylon, I set up a seat of domination in the royal palace amidst jubilation and rejoicing. Marduk the great god, caused the big-hearted inhabitations of Babylon to ……………… me, I sought daily to worship him. At my deeds Marduk, the great lord, rejoiced and to me, Kourosh (Cyrus), the king who worshipped him, and to Kaboujiyah (Cambyases), my son, the offspring of (my) loins, and to all my troops he graciously gave his blessing, and in good sprit before him we glorified exceedingly his high divinity. All the kings who sat in throne rooms, throughout the four quarters, from the Upper to the Lower Sea, those who dwelt in ………………., all the kings of the West Country, who dwelt in tents, brought me their heavy tribute and kissed my feet in Babylon. From … to the cities of Ashur, Susa, Agade and Eshnuna, the cities of Zamban, Meurnu, Der as far as the region of the land of Gutium, the holy cities beyond the Tigris whose sanctuaries had been in ruins over a long period, the gods whose abode is in the midst of them, I returned to their places and housed them in lasting abodes.

I gathered together all their inhabitations and restored (to them) their dwellings. The gods of Sumer and Akkad whom Nabounids had, to the anger of the lord of the gods, brought into Babylon. I, at the bidding of Marduk, the great lord, made to dwell in peace in their habitations, delightful abodes.

May all the gods whom I have placed within their sanctuaries address a daily prayer in my favour before Bel and Nabu, that my days may be long, and may they say to Marduk my lord, “May Kourosh (Cyrus) the King, who reveres thee, and Kaboujiyah (Cambyases) his son …” Now that I put the crown of kingdom of Iran, Babylon, and the nations of the four directions on the head with the help of (Ahura) Mazda, I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them until I am alive. From now on, till (Ahura) Mazda grants me the kingdom favor, I will impose my monarchy on no nation. Each is free to accept it , and if any one of them rejects it , I never resolve on war to reign. Until I am the king of Iran, Babylon, and the nations of the four directions, I never let anyone oppress any others, and if it occurs , I will take his or her right back and penalize the oppressor.

And until I am the monarch, I will never let anyone take possession of movable and landed properties of the others by force or without compensation. Until I am alive, I prevent unpaid, forced labor. To day, I announce that everyone is free to choose a religion. People are free to live in all regions and take up a job provided that they never violate other’s rights.

No one could be penalized for his or her relatives’ faults. I prevent slavery and my governors and subordinates are obliged to prohibit exchanging men and women as slaves within their own ruling domains. Such a traditions should be exterminated the world over.

I implore to (Ahura) Mazda to make me succeed in fulfilling my obligations to the nations of Iran (Persia), Babylon, and the ones of the four directions.

Achaemenian Dynasty Civilizations

559-530 BC — Cyrus the Great established the Persian Empire in 550 BC, the first world empire. His respect for local traditions, laws, languages, and religions set the foundation of a relatively benevolent empire.

539 BC — Babylonia surrendered peacefully to Cyrus the Great. Welcomed as a liberator because of his compassionate policies, Cyrus freed the Jews from captivity and assisted them to migrate to their homeland and to reconstruct their temple in Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, in the Book of Isaiah, Cyrus is hailed as the Shepherd of the Lord. I am Cyrus, King of the World. When I entered Babylon I did not allow anyone to terrorize the land. I kept in view the needs of its people and all its sanctuaries to promote their well being. I put an end to their misfortune. The great God has delivered all lands into my hand, the lands that I have made to dwell in peaceful habitation.

522-486 BC — The reign of Darius the Great marked the zenith of the Persian Empire. Upholding the tradition established by Cyrus, Darius valued the rights of all people under his rule. The following inscription appears on his tomb: By the favor of the great God I believe in justice and abhor inequity. It is not my desire that the weak man should have wrong done to him by the mighty….Darius’ goal was to be a great law-giver and organizer. He structured the empire under the satrapy system (similar to national and local governments). He built many roads, ports, banking houses (the word “check” comes from Old Persian), elaborate underground irrigation systems and a canal to link the Nile to the Red Sea (an early precursor of the Suez Canal). In the 19th century, archeologists in Egypt discovered an inscription by Darius commemorating the completion of the canal: I am a Persian. I commanded to dig this canal from a river by name of Nile which flows in Egypt….After this canal was dug, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, thus as was my desire.

Darius revolutionized mankind’s economic activities by introducing one of the earliest (certainly the first on such a massive scale) forms of common coinage in history, the darik. This initiative, along with the standardization of weights and measures and the codification of commercial laws, stimulated world trade and elevated the Persian Empire’s economy to new levels of prosperity.

Reflecting the wealth and the multi-cultural dimension of the Persian Empire, Darius initiated the building of the Persepolis palace. For its construction, artisans and materials were gathered from different corners of the empire. Another project undertaken by Darius was the royal road, the world’s longest, extending 1,500 miles (see map). Due to an extensive network of relays, postmen could travel the road in six to nine days, whereas normal travel time was three months. The motto of the Persian postal service became memorable: stopped by neither snow, rain, heat or gloom of night. The US postal service also adopted this motto and the famous Pony Express mail delivery resembled the original Persian design. The origins of polo date back to this time. Persian nobility played an early form of polo for both sport and combat training.

490-479 BC — In their wars with Persia, the Greek city-states were never a threat to the Persian heartland. What Persia did not achieve through war, it obtained through diplomacy. After the Achamenian DynastyPersian-Greek wars ended, Persian kings successfully played the Athenians and Spartans against each other for 150 years. Persia’s financial and naval assistance was instrumental in Sparta’s victory over Athens in the Great Peloponnesian War. Afterwards, Persia began supporting the Athenians. The Persian influence over the two Greek city-states was such that the Persian King Artaxerxes II was asked to mediate between them, leading to the King’s Peace of 387 BC.

550-334 BC — The Persian Empire became the dominant world power for over two centuries. It made possible the first significant and continuous contact between East and West. It was the world’s first religiously tolerant empire and consisted of a multitude of different languages, races, religions and cultures. Prior to the rise of the Roman Empire, it set a precedent for the importance of the rule of law, a powerful centralized army and an efficient and systematic state administration. However, the greatest legacy of the Persian Empire was that it demonstrated for the first time how diverse peoples can culturally flourish and economically prosper under one central government.

What and Where is Persepolis?

Persepolis is the name of an archaeological ruin, part of the Achaemenid Dynasty of the Persian Empire, established by King Darius about 515 BC. The site is one of the best known archaeological ruins in the world, and probably the most important Achaemenid capital. Persepolis is located about 50 kilometers northeast of Shiraz and is open to visitors. Continue reading What and Where is Persepolis?

The Persian Nowruz

By : Iraj Bashiri


The oldest of Iranian traditions, Nowruz (also referred to as eyd-i sar-i sal and eyd-i sal-i now) recalls the cosmological and mythological times of Iran. Its founder is a deputy of Ahura Mazda on earth, a position that imparts to him and the celebration a spiritual dimension and a particular sense of secular authority. The celebration is organized according to the dynamics of love between the Creator and his creation, the material world. The annual return of the spirits of the departed to their homes is celebrated by their offspring according to primordial rites of which only a faint trace remains among the Persians and the Parsees of today. But that in no way diminishes the importance of the bond which is refreshed at every Nowruz. Continue reading The Persian Nowruz