Herodotus of Halicarnassus: The History
(or Histories, or Inquiries)
Outline summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1996

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the University of Chicago edition  transl. David Grene 1987.  Numbers provided in square brackets or parentheses refer to the page numbers in this edition.

Overall Impression: This is a thoroghly enjoyable and entertaining book, a "must" read in the Western canon.  I also recommend the excellent introduction and the translation provided by David Grene. 

Overview (partially extracted from the Grene text and prepared for a woman's book discussion group) 

To read The History (Herodotus' only book) is to seek one's roots as a member of Western democratic civilization. It is in part a gripping and much revered tale of colossal confrontation between freedom-loving Greek-speaking peoples (the Athenians, Spartans, and others) and the seemingly unstoppable forces of the Persians. The Asiatic "Great King" Xerxes, who followed in the footsteps of Cyrus and Darius and assembled a military force numbered in the millions, was intent on enslaving the Greeks as he had so many other countries in the region- Egypt, Asia Minor, Syria, Babylonia, etc. The heroic battles near Athens- at Marathon (490 BCE), Thermopylae, Salamis, and finally Plataea (479 BCE) were classical Greek's crowning military achievements, and Herodotus was determined to record these great deeds for future generations (particularly in view of the ignominious and disastrous Peloponnesian Wars that followed). 

Yet his writing is remarkably even-handed, providing many examples of good and evil acts on both sides. He is a great humanist who sees and respects the universal in the experience and actions of humankind underlying the idiosyncracies of regional customs and religious beliefs. This was apparently the first recorded work to which the name "history" was applied- in fact the English word "history" derives from the similar Greek word meaning "research" or "inquiry" because of this work. Herodotus tries in 700 pages to sum up all that a well-informed Greek such as himself could learn about the real world, at least its geography, nations, cultures, flora and fauna, and mythical origins. He often speaks from firsthand experience gleaned from his extensive travels, and supplements where necessary with secondary sources, always carefully distinguishing the two. Many of his "facts" are fantastical or bizarre (and can be enjoyed as fables or tall tales). Yet much of what he describes has apparently stood the test of time, particularly when it is recognized that Herodotus places great emphasis on the importance of myth as a shaper of civilizations, regardless of its objective "truth". His descriptions of ancient and extraordinarily diverse cultures are remarkably detailed and just plain fun to read, and in many instances, are the only source of written knowledge left for future generations. This is a lengthy work, and some of the sections describing various peripheral cultures perhaps might be skimmed, yet the substantial time required to read it carefully will be amply rewarded. He sees a great interconnectedness in the events of history and begins in mythical times in order to explain the roots of his own civilization and what led up to the Persian Wars.

There are many fine and sobering morality tales to be enjoyed, such as that of Croesus, King of Lydia, who was advised by the oracle: "if he made war on the Persians he would destroy a mighty empire." Rivaling any best-selling potboiler of today, there are numerous depictions of savage and barbaric acts, of arrogance and hubris winning out over caution, of rage, envy, lust, greed, corruption, insanity, and other human failings that make up the fabric of history. Who can forget the despot Xerxes- ordering the waters of the Hellespont to be whipped and harnessed with a yoke of fetters (after a storm wrecks his vital bridge), or commanding that Pythias' son be sliced in half and left behind (after Pythias asks for the son's release from the army to care for him in his old age.) But there are also tales of love, passion, suffering, spirited debate, innovation and invention, heroism, devotion to duty, determination, and self-sacrifice- tales which can inspire and guide us even after these many centuries.  Women do not play much of a role in this book written some 2420 years ago [c. 425 BCE]. There are a few great Queens, priestesses, and heroines, and some villainesses and seductresses, but for the most part this is a story about the deeds of men, and women tend to be depicted more as property and accessories than as principals. He is writing from the male perspective at a time when humankind was viewed as subject to the unknowable mysteries of Divine purpose and fate, and life was pretty grim even for the men. Take the time to study the maps in the back of Grene's translation as you read this book, in order to make sense of the sometimes arcane geographical details that are so important to the full understanding of The History. I hope you enjoy this great work as much as I have.

Major Themes

(1) Relatedness and unity of historical events over many generations
(2) Variety and universality of human experience and existence
(3) Incomprehensible destiny and interrelationships among diverse things
(4) Respect for others beliefs and in the sacred
(5) Desire to preserve the great events of heroism
(6) Disunity of the Greeks
(7) Triumph of free peoples over slaves
(8) Folly of empire building, hubris, and ignoring cautionary warnings


Book 1
Lydia, Medes, Persia, Cyrus

Mythical Origins of Conflict between Greeks and Asiatic peoples
* Phoenicians abduct Io (Isis) daughter of king of Argos to Egypt (or did she go willingly?).
* Abduction of Tyre (in Phoenicia) king's daughter Europa by Greeks (Cretans) 
* Abduction of Colchis king's daughter Medea by Greeks (Jason)
* Abduction of Helen of Lacedaemonia by Alexander (Paris) of Troy and subsequent destruction of Troy [34]
Croesus Of Lydia (560-546)
* First to subdue and enslave Ionians, Aeolians, and Dorians in Asia Minor. Ruled at peak of Lydian empire from Sardis
* Predecessor Candaules displays his wife to Gyges, who kills Candaules at her insistence
* Delphic Pythia foretells vengeance in the 5th generation of Gyges descendants [38]
* Tale of Arion saved by the dolphin [42]
* Visit of Solon of Athens: Tales of the men "most blessed of all" [45] "So, Croesus, man is entirely what befalls him... To me it is clear that you are very rich ..., but I cannot say of you of yet until I hear that you have brought your life to an end well."[47] Croesus sends him away.
* Croesus' son Atys killed by Adrastus accidentally in boar hunt, after Atys insists in going along. [51]
* Croesus seeks oracle whether of invade Persia- Delphi replies that "if he made war on the Persians he would destroy a mighty empire" [55] and that "whenever a mule [Cyrus] become sovereign king of the Medians" he should flee.
* Croesus inquires of status of Greek cultures to win friendship with- digression on Athenian Pisistratus [57-61] & Lacedaemonians/Spartans [61-5]
* Croesus ignores warning [65]
* Cr invades Syrian Cappadocia & is captured by Cyrus {546} [66-69]
* Tale of Scythians feeding Cyaxeres boy's meat and fleeing to Lydia [67]
* Sardis captured [72], Croesus' dumb son speaks out to save his father [73]
* Cyrus spares Croesus life when he calls out "Solon" on the burning pyre and tells his story [73]
* Croesus counsels Cyrus
* The Pythia clarifies the oracles [76-7]
* Lydian customs and "facts"
Assyrian/Median/Persian History
* Assyrians ruled 1229-709
* Medes revolt & is united by Deioces ruling from Ecbatana (modern Iran) {704-647}
* Phraortes {647-625}
* Cyaxeres {625-585} (Scythians rule for 28 years {634-606})
* Astyages (Median, rules {585-529}) fears a dream and marries his daughter to a Persian, Cambyses. Astyages orders her son (Cyrus) to be slain by Harpagus, but he turns Cyrus over to a shepherd.
* Young Cyrus acts like a king, is brought to Astyages. Harpagus is fed his son when Astyages learns of the deception.[88]
* Harpagus incites Cyrus to revolt against Media {559}
* Persian customs
Persian Empire Expansions:
* Cyrus threatens the 12 Ionian cities of Panionium, first attacking Phocaea (attack led by Harpagus)- they flee to Corsica.[107]. Ionia enslaved by 545.[110]
* Carians, Caunians, Lycians
* Cyrus attacks Assyria including Babylon (established 612 after fall of Nineveh, captured 538)
* Babylonian rulers: Semiramis, Nitocris
* Babylonian customs- compulsory sex at the temple of Aphrodite
* Cyrus attacks the Massagetae (on the Asian steppes W of the Caspian); their customs (get drunk on fruit). Queen Tomyris warns Cyrus as does Croesus, but he ignores them and is slain (529) 

Book 2
Egyptian And African History, Customs, Geography

* Cambyses, son of Cyrus, assumes rule in Persia. Attacks Egypt
* Egyptian religious beliefs [132]
* The Nile delta is the gift of the Nile- silting over geologic time periods [135].
* Why does the Nile flood? [139]
* Source of the Nile = "Libya" [141] 
* Unusual African customs [145]
* Gods- Isis [148], phallic procession, Greek gods came from the Egyptians [153] and some rituals from the Pelasgians. Homer and Hesiod 400 yrs earlier [155]
* Skepticism of magic
* Festivals of Bubastis, Ares, Busiris [158]
* Animals [160]- hippos, crocs, Phoenix, winged serpents [163]
* Astrology, funeral customs [165]
* Ancient history [171]
* Circumcision came from Egypt.[173]
* Helen in Egypt acc. to the Egyptians with Proteus- tale rejected by Homer [178]
* The thief steals from King Rhampsinitus [181] and is trapped, his body is rescued by his brother, is married to the kings daughter
* Immortality of the soul through a 3000 yr cycle [185]
* Pyramids of Cheops [186]
* Mycinergus' incest with his daughter
* Invasion by Ethiopia
* Sennacherib of Assyria defeated by mice [193]
* Psammetichus {663}, Necos {609} (tries to build canal to Red Sea), Psammis, Apries
* Amasis {569} loved the Greeks and granted the town Naucratis

Book 3
Cambyses Conquers Egypt; Cambyses' Death; Smerdis; 
Darius; 20 Persian Satrapies

* Cambyses conquers Egypt and Amasis' son Psammenitus, ostensibly because Amasis sent him a spurious daughter for marriage. {525}
* The captured King Psammenitus shows pity on a beggar [216]
* Cambyses failed expedition against Ethiopia [219]
* Cambyses goes mad, kills his brother Smerdis and his sister-wife, has epilepsy, slays Prexaspes' son, tries to kill Croesus, opens tombs
* Greek vs. Indian funeral custom- burying vs eating the dead. [228]
* Polycrates of Samos, allied with Amasis of Egypt, is attacked by Lacedaemonians, invites alliance with Cambyses. Polycratres sends untrusted exiles to Egypt ostensibly to help Cambyses. They instead escape to Lacedaemonia & plead for help to the taciturn Spartans.
* Sparta sends expedition against Samos (first Laced. exped. to Asia). Corinthians join because of grudge over Samian rescue of Corcyrean boys being sent to Persia for castration by Periander of Corinth (Corinth had colonized Corcyra) [233].
* Periander's despotism, kills wife, exiles his son Lycophron, who is later killed by Corcyreans
* Magis plot against Cambyses with a false Smerdis
* Cambyses wounds himself and dies; "Smerdis" succeeds but later is discovered because he has no ears.
* Prexaspes reveals the deception and kills himself.
* Darius slays the magis and Smerdis
* Debate over whether to have a democracy or a tyranny [247]. Darius is elected king by his horse! {521} [251]
* 20 Persian satrapies summary- Indians eat their dead, ants as big as foxes, ...
* Oroetes of Sardis (a Persian) kills Polycrates [264] and is later killed on the order of Darius.
* Greek doctor Democedes heals Darius' twisted ankle
* Atossa, Darius' wife, urges him to attack Greece. He sends a spy mission to Greece- Democedes escapes.
* Darius orders attack against Samos. Otanes slaughters citizens after Charilaus fights back. Maeandrius of Samos appeals to Sparta for help to no avail.
* Babylon revolts and is recaptured by Darius thanks to Zopyrus' heroism and self-sacrifice by self-mutilation

Book 4
Europeans; Darius Fails To Conquer Scythia; 
Greek Colonies In Libya (Cyrene, Barca); Persia Invades Libya

* Scythia, nomadic, dependence on horses, mythical origins (Heracles and the half-woman half-snake have son Scythes), conflicts with Cimmereians and Massagetae. Other peoples: Issedones, Hyperboreans [290], goat-footed men, harsh winters, snow [290], 
* Herodotus' world view, Phoenicians circumnavigate Africa [296], the Ister (Danube) [298], 
* Scythian customs [302]- human sacrifice, scalping, blood oaths, funeral of the kings, cannabis, fear of Greek culture
* Darius invades Scythia (N of the Black "Euxine" Sea & N of the Danube-Ister) [311]. Bridging the Bosporus with boats (Euxine Sea> Bosporos> Propontis> Hellespont). The Taurians [318], Neuri werewolves, Man-Eaters [319], Amazons [321], warrior women Sauromatians. Scythians stay ahead of Darius [325] and taunt him [327]. Darius sneaks back to the Ister. Histaeus prevents the Ionian guards from breaking up the bridge over the Ister (urged by the Scythians) and Darius escapes [311].
* Libyan colonial history [332]. Theras of Lacedaemonia colonizes Thera (in Cyclades); Battus of Thera colonizes Libyan coast 7th century - Cyrene.
* Conflict between Cyrene and Libyans, Arcesilaus killed [343], his mother Pheretime appeals to Persian viceroy of Egypt Aryandes for help
* Sexual promiscuity of Libyans [344], Lotophagi [346]
* Inland Libyans: Ammonians, ..., Atlantes (near Mt Atlas); nomadic customs [350]
* Aryandes sends an expedition to conquer Libya [354], besieges Barca. Pheretimes commits atrocities and meets a bad end.

Book 5
Persia Conquers Thrace, Paeonians; 
Ionian Revolt Under Aristagoras Of Miletus; 
Former Athens-Sparta Conflicts; 
Athenian Tyrants & Democracy; 
Conflict Between Athens And Darius Begins

* Megabazus lead invasion of Thrace [357], the "biggest nation of all"
* Thracian customs- sacrifice of favorite wives
* Paeonians are enslaved and transported to Asia [361]
* Persians envoys are slain in the court of the Macedonian king Amyntas [364]
* Greek origins of the Macedonians [364]
* Darius moves to Susa
* Otanes succeeds Megabazus as general and captures Byzantium, Lemnos, etc.
* Ionian revolt: Begins in Naxos and Miletus: Aristagoras asks Artaphrenes of Persia to invade Naxos, led by Megabates. Megabates warns the Naxians. Aristagoras plans to revolt from the Persians, encouraged by a secret messenger from Histaeus of Miletus [371]. Arist. Heads to Sparta for help from Cleomenes
* Sparta history
* Sparta refuses to help Aristagoras invade Persia [375]
* The road to Susa [376]
* Aristagoras appeals to Athens [378]. History of Athens Pisitratids
* Origin of the Greek alphabet from Phoenicians [379]
* Past attacks of Sparta on Athens X4 [381-7], Athens attack on Boeotia and Chalcis
* Athens value democracy [389]
* Origins of Enmity of Aegina and Athens [390]
* Corinth- Periander [397] {625}, the corruption of absolute power
* Sparta tries to weakens Athens by forcing the return of the Pisistratid Hippias to power in Athens through Artaphrenes' intervention, but Athens refused and became enemies of Persia.
* Aristagoras appeals to Athens and wins their support to send ships fight the Persians. Aristagoras attacks and burns Sardis. 
* The Ionians are defeated and Athens gives up supporting them. [402]. Cyprus revolts, defeated {497}
* Darius vows revenge on Athens
* Aristagoras dies in Thrace

Book 6
Miletus Conquered & Ionian Revolt Quelled; 
Thrace, Athos, Macedonia Fall; 
Rivalry Between Spartan Clemenes & Demaratus; 
Athens-Aegina Conflict; 
Athens & Plataeans Defeat Persia At Marathon Under Miltiades

* Histiaeus flees from Darius to Chios
* Persians attack Miletus. Problems of democracy and amateur fighters vs. Persian Military discipline [413]. Samos falls to Persia. Miletus falls {494}, women and children enslaved and taken to Susa. Ionians for the 3rd time are enslaved
* Histaeus captured by Harpagus and killed [420]
* Miltiades, son of Cimon, rules the Chersonese 
* Mardonius launches land force {492}, enslaves Macedonia, shipwrecks at Athos, returns ingloriously
* Darius demands submission from Greeks- Aegina submits (gave earth and water)
* Digression on Spartan kings' rights [428], Spartan descent from Egypt ?, Spartan culture
* Rivalry of Demaratus and Cleomenes, kings of Sparta [432]. Demaratus flees to Persia [426] and Leotychides succeeds him. Cleomenes' madness [438]
* Athens-Aegina conflict {490-480}, war {488-6}
* Darius sends 600 warships under Datis and Artaphrenes son of Artaphrenes against Athens and Eretria, enslave Naxos, Delos, Eretria (on Euboea) [449]
* Battle at Marathon: Persians are guided by Hippias, son of Pistratus, to Attica, landing at Marathon. Athenians are led by Miltiades son of Cimon and 11 other generals. Athens appeals to Sparta [450], but they are preoccupied with a festival. Plataeans come to Athens aid. Miltiades persuades the other generals to fight. The Greeks charge the Persians at a run and win the victory {490}. Spartans arrive too late to help
* Lineage of the Alcmaeonidae [458]- Cleisthenes of Sicyon, Alcmaeon, Megacles, Cleisthenes, Pericles etc.
* Miltiades' futile attack on Paros, later dies

Book 7
Darius Dies--Xerxes King; 
Invasion Of Thrace, Thessalia; 
Athens And Sparta Unite; 
Shipwrecks Of Persians; 
Leonidas' Defeat At Thermopylae

* Darius is enraged at Athenian victory and vows to march on Greece
* Demaratus (from Sparta) promotes Xerxes to succeed his father Darius on Darius' death {485} Mardonius also promotes war on Greece.
* Egyptian revolt quelled
* Xerxes vows to conquer Greece. Artabanus counsels against this [471] - "for the god loves to thwart whatever is greater than the rest... there is good in hesitation...." Xerxes angrily denounces this advice.
* A vision call Xerxes to war [474] and also comes to Artabanus
* Campaign to Greece begun {480}. Out of arrogance, X. orders digging of a channel separating Mt. Athos from the mainland [478]. March to Sardis. Sends heralds to Greece demanding earth and water. Bridging the Hellespont at Abydos [482] ends in destruction. Xerxes punishes the waters with lashes and fetters and beheads the supervisors! Pythius the Lydian asks to have his son left behind, and X orders he be cut in half. X comes to tears as he meditates on the shortness of life while viewing his great army and ships. [486] Artabanus voice of caution, warning of the Ionians lack of loyalty. X prefers to take risks.
* Hellespont crossed [p. 489] {490}
* The army [492], the navy [498] includes Artemisia - 5,000,000 men in all [503]
* Thessaly [510], Thebans, Melians pledge loyalty to the Persians ("Medize")
* Spartans prefer freedom to slavery [513] but Herodotus ascribes the saving of Greece to the Athenians [514]
* Oracle says a wall of wood and Salamis will save Athens- Themistocles orders ship building
* Greeks peoples unite (mostly) [518] (Argos sides with Persia; Gelon of Syracuse (Sicily) refuses to help unless he can lead, which offends the Spartans, leading to his final refusal; Corcyra dissembles [528], Crete refuses)
* Greeks decide to fight (against overwhelming odds) at the narrow pass of Thermopylae
* Storm wrecks 400 Persian ships on coast of Magnesia [537]
* Battle of Thermopylae {480} c. 6000 Greeks (no Athenians) commanded by Leonidas, King of Sparta. Xerxes' spies are amazed that the Greeks are making their heads beautiful in preparation for war. Hydarnes leads forces around the mountains to encircle the Greeks. Free Greeks fight slaves [550]. Leonidas dies. Aristodemus of Sparta survives but is scorned at home.

Book 8
Battle At Artemesium; 
Attacks On Phocis, Boeotia, Delphi, Plataea, Athens; 
Victory At Salamis

* More Persian shipwrecks off Euboea. Sea fights near Artemisium (concurrent with Thermopylae) {480}
* Themistocles appeals to the Ionians and Carians fighting for Persians [564]
* Persians pillage Phocis, Boeotia Medizes [568]. Attack on Delphi [569]. Greeks flee Athens and navy gathers at Salamis. Thespiae and Plataea burned, Athens captured [573], Acroplis burned [574]
* Themistocles advocates battle at Salamis rather than Isthmus of Corinth
* Artemisia tries to stop Mardonius from wasting his ships in battle.
* Peoples of the Peloponnese [581]
* Battle of Salamis: Greeks debate their desperate situation [582], surrounded by the enemy at Salamis. {490}. Battle of Salamis. Artemisia rams her own allies but Xerxes thinks she has rammed an enemy. Xerxes fears for his safe return [591], sends ships to guard the bridge at the Hellespont. Greeks decide not to follow in pursuit.
* Xerxes retreats with his army, leaving Mardonius to winter in Thessaly and his ships to overwinter in Cyme and Samos
* Mardonius tries to persuade the Athenians to Medize

Book 9
Greek Victories At Plataea (Mardonius Killed); Greeks Attack Thebes; Victory At Mycale, Siege Of Sestos

* Mardonius reinvades Boeotia {479}, retakes Athens and burns it. Sparta delays in helping but finally sends troops under Pausanias
* Battle at Plataea {479} 110,000 Greeks against 700,000 barbarians + 50,000 allies. Greeks squabble. Mardonius' hubris. [638] Mardonius killed. Artabazus flees. Persians retreat to their fort and are massacred. Pausanius refuses to desecrate the body of Mardonius. The booty is divided, including concubines.
* Greeks attack Thebes because they had supported Persia
* Battle of Mycale won by the Greeks
* Xerxes wife Amestris' atrocities against Masistes' wife whom Xerxes had fallen in love with)
* Athenians besiege Sestos
* Athenians return home
* Recollection of warning from Cyrus not to overexpand the empire when advised to move his people from their rocky lands- "from soft lands come soft men"