Document # : The Persians According Herodotus

Questions to consider:

  1. How do the Persians see themselves in relation to other peoples? Is this the same or different from how the Greeks relate to other peoples?


Hearing about the approach of the Persian Army and Cyrus’ intent to absorb Lydian into his empire, Croesus sent delegations to a variety of oracles throughout the Mediterranean. After reviewing their responses, he decided to listen to the Oracle of Delphi, which he considered to be the most reliable. He sent gifts and sacrifices for Apollo, and then asked if he should go to war. The Pythia’s response to his question, should Lydia go to war, was ‘If you go to war with Persia, you will destroy a great empire.’ The oracle further advised the Lydians to ‘seek an alliance with the Greatest of the Greeks’.

Because he had failed to grasp the true meaning of the oracle, Croesus  [the king of Lydia] was busy with his invasion of Cappadocia [a region to the east of Lydia that had already submitted to Persian rule], convinced that he was bound to crush the power of Cyrus and the Persians. in the midst of these preparations, however, he received some advice from a Lydian named Sandanis, a man who had a reputation for intelligence. ‘My Lord,’ he said, ‘bear in mind the kind of men you are planning to attack. Men who wear leather wrapped around their legs — indeed, who wear nothing but leather. Men whose native land is so unforgiving that they do not consume, they merely subsist. Men who drink no wine but only water, who never so much as nibble on a fig, who possess nothing worth having at all. Nothing will come of nothing — so even if you defeat them, what is there in it for you? But should they defeat you, well then — just think how much you stand to lose! Give them a taste of how well we live and see how they will resist all attempts to keep them away. Be grateful to the gods, I say, that they never put into the Persians’ heads to launch a war of aggression against us!’ And Sandanis was right, for although Croesus did not take his advice, it is perfectly true that it was indeed the conquest of Lydia [546 BC] which provided the Persians with their first experience of those luxuries which together go to make up the good life. (35)

[INTERESTING: Persians quickly did develop a taste for ‘the good life’, especially the grape wine that they discovered in the Greek world. When Darius I built Persepolis he decreed that only grape vines be planted and cultivated in the royal precinct. These royal vineyards produced the vast quantities of wine consumed by the Persian court.]

Following the Battle of Pteria, a stalemate, Croesus withdrew to his capital of Sardis and disbanded much of his army, expecting to wait until the Spring to renew his offensive. Cyrus however, perceiving the opportunity to catch Croesus at his weakest, unexpectedly advanced into Lydia. The Persian army marched to the doorstep of Sardis.

Despite the fact that Croesus now found himself in desperate straits, with all the assumptions on which he had based his strategy in ruins, he still led the Lydians out to battle. Not for nothing was this an era when the Lydians stood unrivaled for courage and prowess in war among the peoples of Asia… . The slaughter on both sides was prodigious; but it was the Lydians who finally withdrew and fled, back behind the walls of their city, where they now found themselves cooped up by the Persians and put under blockade. So it was that the invaders settled down to the siege. (39-40)

Sardis was captured by the Persians when a Persian soldier spied a helmet falling from a high-point on the battlements, at a seemingly unassailable point where the city walls rose above sheer cliffs. Because this spot was considered impregnable, it was unguarded by the Lydians. The Persian soldier had witnessed a Lydian soldier climb down from the walls and retrieve his helmet, proving that there was indeed a way up the face of the cliff. He led a group of Persian soldiers up and over the walls; more followed. Fortress Sardis was breached and the Persians sacked the city. As foretold by the Oracle of Delphi, Croesus went to war and had indeed destroyed a mighty empire — his own. The Persian defeat of Lydia put it in control of all of the entire Middle East, with the exception of Babylon. and brought Persians into contact with the Greeks for the first time along the Ionian coast of what is now Turkey.

As regards nations, the Persians rank their own immediate neighbors as the fittest to be graced with respect… this reflects their presumption that they are the greatest people on the face of the earth, and that the quality of other peoples diminishes the further one travels from Persia, until in the end, on the very margin of things, there is nothing but savagery…

Distinctive as well is the Persians’ relish for adopting the customs of foreign peoples. For instance, they will wear Median fashions rather than their own because they consider them more stylish, and in battle they might sport Egyptian-style armor. They only have to learn about some new kind of pleasure and they will start to indulge themselves in it. Among the Persians, it is prohibited so much as to mention that it is forbidden them to do something. The worst offense of all that a man can commit, they think, is to tell a lie; the next, to fall into debt. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is their conviction that any man who owes money is bound to end up telling lies.

Emperor Cambyses II follows his father, Cyrus, as emperor. He rules from 530 to 522 BC.


After the conquest of Egypt, Cambyses’ next step was to consult with his advisers on the viability of three separate ventures: one against the Carthaginians, one against the Ammonians, and one against the long-lived Ethiopians who inhabit Libya, beside the Southern Sea. Cambyses decided to dispatch a war-fleet against the Carthaginians, and to send a portion of his army against the Ammonians, but to unleash a campaign of espionage against the Ethiopians. Under cover of taking gifts to the Ethiopian king, his spies were to reconnoitre all that they could. He dispatched them to to the Ethiopians with instructions as what to say and loaded with gifts: a purple robe, a necklace of twisted gold, bracelets, and alabaster box of myrrh and a jar of palm wine. It is said that the Ethiopians are the tallest and most handsome men in the world. Their customs are reported to be very different from those of other peoples, and none more so than the one which determines who will be king. The man in their city who is judged the tallest and strongest, he is considered worthy of the throne.

These, then, were the people visited by Cyrus’ spies, who duly handed over their gifts to the king, and said: ‘Cambyses, the King of the Persians, desirous as he is of tying the knot of friendship and mutual hospitality with you, has sent us to come here for talks, and to make a gift to you of these things in which he takes most delight.’ But the Ethiopian knew they were spies and told them so. ‘You are nothing but liars, come here to spy on my realm! As for these gifts and your king, he has no sense of what is right. How otherwise do you explain this longing for lands that are not his and his making of slaves peoples that never did him wrong? You are to give him this bow, and repeat these words: “From the King of the Ethiopians to the King of the Persians, some advice. Only when the Persians can easily draw bows of equal size should you think to lead an army against the long-lived Ethiopians, and even then only if you outnumber us. Meanwhile, you should feel gratitude that the gods have never turned the minds of the sons of Ethiopia to conquering other lands.” ‘ With that he unstrung the bow and handed it over to his visitors and sent them home.

So angry did this report make Cambyses, that he immediately launched an attack on the Ethiopians without any serious planning at all. The army had not traveled even a fifth of the way before its provisions ran out and the war machine broke down. Cambyses, however, took no account of what was happening and pressed on regardless, forcing his men to eat grass to stay alive.. When the army arrived, starving, at the region of sands, some of them did a truly terrible thing: they cast lots and ate every tenth man.

The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland and adapted for use at STA by Robert Shurmer.


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