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.

The Geography of Arabia

It is a convention of historians to begin the history of a region with its geography. They do so partly because the drama of history is played out in the “theater” of its geographical backdrop; and partly because of the factor known in geopolitics as the “determinism of geography.”

It has been said that not only institutions but geography, climate, and many other conditions unite to form the influences which acting through successive generations, shape up the character of individuals and nations, and character plays a vital role in shaping up their history.

The Arabian peninsula is the cradle of Islam. Islam was “born” in it, and “grew up” in it, and was already “full-grown” when it came out of it. It was in the Arabian cities of Makkah and Medina that the classic Islamic identity was evolved, and Islam actually “jelled.” A grasp of the geography of Arabia, therefore, is necessary for the understanding of the drift of its history.

Following is a synopsis of the geography of the Arabian peninsula:

Arabia, like any other region, has the kind of terrain that molds and modifies those who live in it and move through it. It’s a stern, grim and inhospitable land, and is or was, until the obtrusion of oil, a constant challenge for survival to the wits of man. His survival in it depended upon his ability to come to terms with it.

Contrary to popular notions, Arabia is not all a wilderness of sand. It has considerable variety in the configuration of its surface, the salient features of which are broiling sand, mauve mountains, jagged gulches, grotesque peaks spiking a copper sky, friable rocks, flinty plains, startling geometrical and conical shapes of crags, constantly shifting sand dunes and oases, and mirages of lakes, streams and gardens.

Though most of the surface of the desert is bleak and desolate, Arabia has many parts which are highly photogenic. They possess a peculiar, rhythmic, haunting, elusive and illusive beauty – the beauty of textured sand, which like the waves of the sea, is forever in motion.

This beauty is even more evanescent than the beauty of the patterns of fern and feather in frost, and even more ephemeral than the cosmetic of freshly-fallen snow. The ripples of sand extend as far as the horizons and beyond, in a world of silence and emptiness. The sun makes bright scales on the sand, and the wind makes strange, surrealistic, and “futuristic” patterns in it only to obliterate them a few moments later.

Thus the wind is constantly creating, destroying and recreating beauty. And this beauty, in all its infinite similitudes, is born to blush unseen in the desert air, and to perish and vanish unsung. In the immensity of sand, the landscape keeps changing and assuming forever newer and more fantastic shapes, and keeps erratically “moving” from one place to another. Sand can be piled up into massive dunes which can rise more than 150 meters above bedrock.

Depending on the direction and force of the wind, the dunes assume a variety of shapes like the spectacular crescent moon or long parallel ridges or great pyramidal massifs which may be called sand mountains.

If the desert has many faces, it also has many moods, and most of them are unpredictable. One moment it may be deceptively benign and tranquil but the very next moment, it may become vicious, temperamental, menacing and treacherous like a turbulent ocean. Whole caravans of men, camels and horses, are said to have disappeared in it, devoured, as if, by the cruel and hungry sands.

In a sandstorm which can last for several days, the sun, the moon, the stars, the contours of the landscape and the horizons are all obliterated, and towering columns of dust spin crazily, flashing surreal shadows over the surface of the roiling desert.

In summer, the vertical sun generates thermal whirlwinds which scorch the land as if with a torch, and the desert becomes a composite of two elements – heat and sand. Sometimes a dust storm is followed by a brisk shower which sports a “double-rainbow” – a full rainbow inset with a smaller one. Thus horror and beauty both fit strangely into the “life-cycle” of the desert.

But through it all and forever, the desert remains remote, silent, sinister, savage, forbidding and formidable; and it remains overwhelming in its vast and awesome loneliness. Some people believe that the brooding desert has its own “mystique” which profoundly affects men. It is against this backdrop that the Arab – the son of the desert – played out his life.

Arabia is the world’s largest peninsula but the Arabs themselves call it Jazirat-ul-Arab (the Island of Arabia), which in a sense it is. Bounded on the east by the Persian Gulf, on the south by the Arabian Sea, and on the west by the Red Sea, it is bounded on the north by the great “sand sea” of the Syrian desert.

In outline, Arabia is a quadrilateral with an area of 1.2 million square miles. The Red Sea littoral from the Gulf of Aqaba in the north to the Bab-el-Mendeb in the south, is 1200 miles long; and the distance from Bab-el-Mendeb in the west to Ras-el-Hadd in the east is roughly the same.

In configuration, Arabia is a vast plateau rising gently from east to west. Except for Yemen and the valleys interspersed in the western mountain ranges, the whole country is sandy or rocky, and dry and barren.

Following are the political divisions of the Arabian peninsula (1992):

1. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

2. The Republic of Yemen

3. The Sultanate of Oman

4. The United Arab Emirates

5. The State of Qatar

6. The State of Bahrain

7. The State of Kuwait

Following is a brief description of each of these seven political units:

1.The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia accounts for 850,000 square miles of the Arabian peninsula. Its population is estimated at ten million, and its capital is Riyadh.

The “maritime” provinces of the Kingdom are Hijaz and Aseer on the Red Sea. The narrow coastal plain of Tihama runs parallel to the Red Sea.

The twin cities of Makkah and Medina are in the province of Hijaz. Hijaz, therefore, is the holy land of Islam. The population of Hijaz is estimated at two million, and its area is 135,000 square miles. Other cities and towns in Hijaz are Jeddah, the port of Makkah, and the country’s major commercial center; Yenbo, the port of Medina; Ta’if, a hill station in the south-east of Makkah, and the summer capital of the kingdom; Khyber, Tabuk and Tayma.

The “Great Design” of Islam was perfected in Hijaz, and the history of its birth and growth is inextricably bound up with this province which makes it the hub of the Muslim world.

Aseer is the relatively fertile strip of coastal plains and mountains in the south-west, north e\!O[cen, with some peaks rising as high as 10,000 feet, and sufficient rainfall to permit terraced farming. The famous hill station of Abha and the important agricultural settlement of Jizan are in Aseer. Jizan is the port for Aseer.

Najd is the central highland of Arabia with a mean elevation of 3000 feet. The dominant feature of its topography is the mountain system called Tuwayq. Riyadh, the capital of the kingdom, is in Najd. The oases of Buraydah and Hayil are in the northern part of Najd.

Al-Hasa or the Eastern Province is on the Persian Gulf. All the oil and gas of the kingdom are found in this province. It also has the important oases ofHofuf and Qatif. The leading commercial centers of the province are Al-Khobar and the port city of Dammam. Other important cities are Dhahran and Ras Tanura.

The Ruba’-al-Khali (the Empty Quarter) in the south is the largest continuous body of sand in the world, and covers an area of 250,000 square miles. To the Arabs, it is known simply as “Ar-Ramal” (the Sands). It is an almost lifeless desert, and is one of the most isolated and desolate regions of the world.

An-Nufud in the north of the peninsula is the second largest desert in Arabia. It is 30,000 square miles in area.

2. The Republic of Yemen

The Republic of Yemen is in the south and south-west of the Arabian peninsula, with a population of 11 million and an area of 190,000 square miles. It is the only part of the peninsula that receives monsoon rains, making it the most fertile and populous part of the area. The highest mountain of Arabia, An-Nabi Sho’aib, is in Yemen, and reaches a height of 12,350 feet.

Sana’ais the capital and the largest city in the country. It is at an elevation of 7200 feet, and is noted for its healthful climate. Aden is the commercial capital. Al-Mocha, Al-Hodaydah, Ta’izz, and Mukalla are other cities. Sayun and Shibam are towns which are famous for their skyscrapers.

3. The Sultanate of Oman

The Sultanate of Oman occupies the south-east corner of the Arabian peninsula and consists of the regions of Oman and Dhofar. It has a population of one million and an area of 90,000 square miles. Muscat is the capital and Matrah is the largest town.

4. The United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates comprise the seven states of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Sharjah, Fujairah, Ras el-Khaimah, and Umm el-Quiwain. They add up to a total of 32,000 square miles, and a population of 500,000. The capital of the Union is Abu Dhabi which is also the largest and most important city of the Emirates.

5. The State of Qatar

Qatar has an area of 4250 square miles and a population of 200,000. Its capital is Doha. Qatar has the smallest population of any Arab state.

6. The State of Bahrain

Bahrain is a group of 30 islands, with a total area of 240 square miles, and a population of 300,000. Manama, the capital, is on Bahrain Island, and Muharraq is the second largest city in the group of islands.

7. The State of Kuwait

Kuwait is 6200 square miles in area, and has a population of 1.5 million. Kuwait City is the capital.


Although the Tropic of Cancer passes through the center of the Arabian peninsula, the land is not tropical. Its summers are long and extremely hot, with temperatures rising as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit in many places. Winters are short and cold. Rainfall is scanty, averaging four inches a year. The south-west corner, however, gets relatively heavy rainfall, as much as twenty inches.


Vegetation is generally very sparse due to lack of rain and due to the high salt content of the soil. True trees are rare, and shrubs are common. All plants have had to adapt themselves to the conditions of desert existence.

The date-palm grows wherever there is water. It is the most important cultivated tree in the whole peninsula. Date fruit is the staple of many Arabs, and the tree supplies valuable wood and other by-products. Tamarisk and acacia trees are also found in many parts of the country.

The principal cereals of Arabia are wheat, barley, oats, maize and millet. Coffee grows in Yemen; and cotton grows, in varying quantities, in Yemen and in Oman. The mango fruit has been successfully cultivated in the oases of Al-Hasa province of Saudi Arabia, and the coconut palm grows in Oman. Such “forests” as Arabia has, are a few clusters of junipers in the highlands of Yemen.

The Ecology of Arabia The most important component of the ecology of the Arabian peninsula is water. Its presence or absence has shaped its history to a great extent. Settlers were attracted to the site of Makkah in Hijaz by the presence of the spring discovered by Hajra, the wife of Ibrahim and the mother of Ismael, and was named by her as Zamzam. Assured by the availability of its tart waters in all seasons, they built the city of Makkah around it.

The hydrosphere of the region consists of wells, torrents and flash-floods. The whole area is devoid of rivers and streams with the exception of the sixty-mile long Hajar in the Republic of Yemen. But even this is not a perennial stream; it becomes a stream only when torrential rains fall in its basin.

A new and complex factor of tremendous geopolitical significance is the presence of vast reservoirs of oil in the Arabian peninsula. In 1900 the whole peninsula was thinly populated, and was desolate, poverty-stricken and isolated. It was one of the few regions in the world almost untouched by western influence.

Then came oil and everything changed. Saudi Arabia sold her first concession in 1923, and the first producing well was drilled in 1938. Within a few years, annual revenues from petroleum exceeded $1 million. The kingdom passed the $1 billion mark in 1970; the $100 billion mark in 1980.

Life in Saudi Arabia and in the other oil producing sheikdoms in the Persian Gulf was transformed by the effects of the new wealth – spectacular fortunes, rapid economic development, the arrival of foreign labor, international clout – perhaps more radically than life has been transformed anywhere else at any time in human experience.

The oil wealth is changing the face of the land in numerous parts of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms. It has made it possible to enlist modern technology to draw water from great depths or to convert sea water through desalination, and to bring barren lands under cultivation by using it for irrigation.

Reclamation of land for farming is also changing the demographic character of the peninsula. Nomadic tribes are striking roots in permanent settlements wherever availability of water is assured.Most sophisticated techniques are being applied in an attempt to control sand movement and to tame a hostile environment.

The most important animal in Arabia was the camel. The Arabian camel is the single-humped variety, or dromedary, as against the two-humped camel of Central Asia, the Bactrian. The dromedary has flat, broad, thick-soled cloven hoofs that do not sink into the sand, and it can travel long distances in the desert.

The milk of the camel formed an important part of the diet of the desert Arabs, and camel hair was used by them to make their tents. The camel, therefore, was indispensable for survival in the desert.

But amazingly and incredibly, the camel has almost disappeared from Saudi Arabia and all the sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. William J. Polk writes in his book, Passing Brave, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, in 1973:

“Shortly before his death in 1960, the great English desert explorer, St. John Philby, prophesied that within thirty years Arabia would have no camels. He was laughed at then but today it seems that his prophecy may have been overly generous. The camel and its parasite, the nomad, have almost disappeared from Arabia.

Thus the era which began about 3000 years ago with the domestication of the camel, is ending. The camel has played a major role in the rise of civilization.”

Diesel trucks, trains, and jet airplanes have taken the place of camels and camel caravans. Most Arabs now travel by automobile or by air. The camels and the camel caravans have become “obsolete” in Arabia.

Continue reading The Geography of Arabia