The Theme of Punishment in Herodotus’s The Histories

The stories of The Histories, written by Herodotus, have the theme of punishment scattered throughout. Many of the stories are based upon punishment and cruelty, partly because this book tells the story of how the Greek city states fight off the Persians time and time again. However, it is not only in battle it cruelty and punishment seen; the idea of punishment and cruelty for power, revenge, and control is seen throughout the entire work. Among the stories of The Histories, the punishments that Herodotus includes are astonishing in their cruelty or initiative.

This is particularly true of certain longer sections including the feast that Astyages prepared to punish Harpagus’ disobedience (1. 118–119) or Hermotimus castrating Panionius and his sons in revenge for his own mutilation (8. 105). Elsewhere, however, startling punishments are evidence of the variety of human accomplishment, though not always admirable, show the desire for revenge. Such desires can lead to terrible tragedies, which Herodotus recognizes as part of the historical record.

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Herodotus may dwell on horrors like Hermotimus’ punishment, perhaps to suggest that the tragic cannot be incorporated into the narratives of cities and national politics. Herodotus’ interest in other cultures is evident not only when he records national origins, diet, dress, and other things, he also notes the unusual laws and their corresponding punishments. Herodotus’ record of such punishments tends to highlight what is unique about a particular group of people or culture, as seen especially within the Egypt stories.

The Egyptian society, which cultivated the Nile valley and raised many impressive monuments, is reflected in laws that punish idleness with death. The law established by Amasis, that every man, once a year, must go before the provincial governor and declare their source of livelihood, was brought back to Athens by Solon. If the man was unable to prove that his source or income was an honest one, he would be sentenced to death (2. 177). Criminals and prisoners of war were also punished by means of hard labor.

Sesostris punished the prisoners by forcing them to carry the stones that were going to be used to build the temple of Hephaestus or by making them dig the various irrigation ditches throughout the country from the Nile (2. 108). Similarly, the religiousness of Egyptians is demonstrated in their practice of executing any who kill a sacred animal. If one was to sacrifice a bull, which are considered to be the property of the god Epaphus, they risk a punishment of death (2. 38). Other punishments seem to suggest that some peoples are more cruel than others.

The Scythians use barbarianism as revenge for “treatment which they considered undeserved” (1. 73). As revenge against Cyaxares, the Scythians kill one of his young pupils and serve him as dinner. Cyaxares, believing this to be game meat of some kind, ate the meat of his student, and the Scythians were able to get their revenge (1. 73). The imperial Persians also use cruelty and punishment. Herodotus notes the Persian custom of “netting” a conquered island in order to kill or deport its inhabitants (6. 1). He also describes the Persian practice of collective deportation, which brought so much suffering to several Greek communities in the aftermath of the Ionian Revolt. Most notably, the Persian use of mutilation will be seen in the final punishment of Masistes’ wife. This section, however, seems to be more about cruelty rather than punishment. The punishment of Masistes’ wife is taken to an extreme level, and she receives a punishment that she does not deserve.

Her entire body is mutilated by dogs, on the orders of Amestris, who believes it to be Masistes’ wife’s fault that her husband has begun an affair with Masistes’ daughter (9. 110-113). Another function of punishments in The Histories is to illustrate the violence that can accompany tyranny and the politics of dictatorship. The “barbarian” tyrants provide the majority of the punishments in The Histories. Croesus rose to power and wealth partly by violence by torturing Pantaleon in order to gain control of the throne (1. 2). The Egyptian queen Nitocris got revenge on all the Egyptians that were involved in her brother, the king’s, death. She came up with the plan to drown the people that were involved in his death using the river (2. 100). Apries the Pharaoh cut off the ears of Patarbemis solely because he was the bearer of bad news (2. 162). Cyrus is introduced as a boy-king, ordering Artembares’ son to be whipped mercilessly during a game of “Kings,” because Artembares’ son had refused to do his bidding (1. 14). Cambyses desecrated the corpse of Amasis, and then proceeded to burn what was left of the corpse, which was considered extremely unholy to the Persians and Egyptians (3. 16). He also executed those he considered liars, both priests and common Egyptians alike, because of a festival was going on when he returned to Egypt after losing a large portion of his army in battle (3. 28). He even murdered the Apis calf, which is considered to be almost a god to the Egyptian people (3. 29).

These sections of pure violence by the kings and rulers show that there is truth to what Otanes was saying about monarchy. He says that the “time has passed for any one man amongst us to have absolute power. Monarchy is neither pleasant nor good. ” It seems from these sections that Otanes is indeed correct and the idea of having one man or woman with absolute power seems to play a major role in the destruction of that ruler and lead to an increase in the violent acts he or she participates in (3. 80).

For Herodotus the historical process as a whole can almost be reduced to a series of crimes and punishments. Punishment—and crimes of jealousy, revenge, justice—serve Herodotus’ most central purpose of explaining the relation between events and showing why things occurred as they did. As shown at the very beginning of the work when Herodotus’ discusses the abductions of Io, Europa, Medea, and Helen, he shows how one injustice brings about an attempt at revenge. Agamemnon’s story, for instance, seems to be a disproportionate retaliation for a minor piratical raid (1. ). The events of world history are seen as bound together in one long sequence of crimes, punishments, and counter-punishments. The mythical abductions of the goddesses; the Lydian kings’ wars on Ionia; Croesus’ aggression against the Greeks, inherited by Cyrus and the Persians; the “netting” of Aegean islands (6. 31); the burning of temples in Athens and many smaller Greek cities. In other regional histories, the desire to punish is one factor that raises armies, destroys cities, and changes people.

One of Croesus’ reasons for attacking Cyrus was to punish him for overthrowing Astyages, Croesus’ ally and brother-in-law. Cyrus had dethroned Astyages and it is because of this that Croesus felt it was necessary to get revenge on Cyrus. Croesus had the desire to expand his territories into Cappadocia, however, the desire for revenge against Cyrus was another reason for his attack there (1. 73). Cambyses’ invasion of Egypt was partly due to an Egyptian eye-doctor’s desire to avenge himself on Amasis. Cambyses vowed to Cassandane that he will “turn Egypt upside down for [her]” (3. 1).

Similarly, peoples previously isolated are typically brought into contact not by trade or travel but by war and the “injustice” of unprovoked invasion. Croesus, after attacking various other city states, built a fleet of ships in order to attack the Aegean islanders, who had done nothing to provoke the attack (1. 27). Cyrus attacks the Massagetae after Tomyris, the queen, refuses his hand in marriage. This is hardly a reason to attack a group of nomadic people; however, Cyrus still finds in necessary to do so and attacks. By attacking these people, he will not gain much at all, yet he still decides to attack them.

The Massagetae had done nothing to provoke this attack, but they still must fight Cyrus and his army (1. 206-209). Throughout the stories in The Histories, the underlying theme of punishment and cruelty is evident. Whether the reason behind the cruelty is because of revenge, or a quest of power and land, the punishment is still evident. The fact that this book is written mainly about the history of the Persian desire to conquer the Greeks makes violence an extremely prevalent theme, there is still an overwhelming amount of cruelty and punishment seen throughout the book

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The Theme of Punishment in Herodotus’s The Histories. (2018, Jan 28). Retrieved from