Ancient History & Civilisation

Appendix 1

The Invention of History: Herodotus and Other Ancient Sources

There was no Herodotus before Herodotus.

A.D. Momigliano, Studies in Historiography, 1966

Herodotus was dubbed by Cicero in the first century BCE ‘the Father of History’. Less flatteringly, he was known also as ‘the Father of Lies’. He wrote, as Edward Gibbon charmingly put it, sometimes for school-children, and sometimes for philosophers. He spun ripping boys’ own yarns, in other words, and told the tallest of tall tales, but he also penetrated in a most grown-up way deep beneath the surface froth of events, raising the biggest of historical issues and touching upon human philosophical universals. Not the least of his major themes was the relationship between the mundane world of mere mortals and the inscrutably chancy sphere of the immortal and the divine. ‘Everything is random’, he makes one of his favoured characters, the Athenian Solon, claim (Herodotus 1.30). Another such, ex-King Croesus of Lydia, likens the course of human history to the turning of a giant wheel (1.207). On either view, the best policy for humans is to adopt a studied prudence. Statesmen and politicians must remember above all else that great cities and states and empires were once small – and must act on the settled assumption that ones now great will one day inevitably be small again (1.5).

One preoccupation Herodotus fully shared with our other principal contemporaneous Greek written source for Thermopylae, the poet Simonides. It was their common concern to preserve the fame of great deeds for the benefit of posterity. In this respect, as in others, both were indebted ultimately to the path-breaking example of Homer. Aptly, an ancient literary critic labelled Herodotus ‘most Homeric’. He inherited, for instance, Homer’s concern to project an aura of authenticity and devotion to truth-telling, even – or especially – when the subject-matter was as blatantly fictitious as the story in Odyssey Book 9 of the uncivilized brutes called Cyclopes (‘Circle-Eyes’, because they had just one large round eye in the middle of their foreheads).

Herodotus opens his exposition of the results of his enquiry (standardly historia, or in Ionic dialect historiê) with a Homeric claim: that he will aim to preserve from being lost to fame the great deeds of both Greeks and non-Greeks (meaning above all Persians). Some later Greeks, however, such as the moralizing biographer and essayist Plutarch, considered that he had succeeded all too well in preserving the fame of their ancestors’ barbarian adversaries, and objected that he had been less than even-handedly generous in his treatment of some of his fellow Greeks. Plutarch, as a Boeotian from Chaeronea, was particularly incensed by what he saw as Herodotus’s malignant presentation of his fellow Boeotians of Thebes as out-and-out ‘medizers’. But methinks Plutarch protested too much. That he could stoop to label Herodotus quite mistakenly a philobarbaros(roughly, ‘wog-lover’) demonstrates how far Herodotus was above writing mere official, pro-Greek history.

It is sometimes said that he should yield up his title of ‘Father of History’ to the anonymous authors of the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles. But this is to confuse a simple recounting of possibly accurate historical facts with history proper. For besides the due preservation of fame, Herodotus announces also in his prooimion, or preface, an overall goal that is much more original and ‘scientific’: aitiê, which could mean either cause/explanation or assignation of responsibility. Herodotus said that he was concerned especially to discover, through historiê, the aitiê whereby and wherefor the Greeks and the non-Greeks had come to fight the Graeco-Persian Wars. Since he does not in fact concern himself particularly with the assignation of moral praise or blame to whole communities, it is probably better to allow him to mean ‘cause’ and ‘responsibility’ in his programmatic preface. But his original readership or audience, schooled in tragic drama, would have understood there to be an inescapable nexus between cause, responsibility, guilt and blame.

Originally, historia meant ‘research’, or ‘enquiry’ – a meaning it still has in English in the phrase ‘natural history’ (the enquiry into nature). But for Herodotus it was a term of art; and by using the word prominently in his preface he was showing off a new way of looking, feeling, and above all thinking. It is very noticeable, on the other hand, that Thucydides, Herodotus’s greatest successor, does not use the word historia at all. Why? Because according to a characteristically Greek mode of interpersonal behaviour Thucydides saw himself as a rival of Herodotus and did not want to betray even the merest hint that they might both of them be engaged in doing the same sort of thing. He was engaged in an agôn (contest) for priority; at stake was the cherished title of prôtos heuretês, ‘first discoverer’.

Once upon a time – not all that long ago, actually – historians who like me were interested in the origins of their craft would have unhesitatingly ranked Thucydides above Herodotus. Thucydides was, so to say, the historian’s historian, according to a view that had held sway from at least the Italian Renaissance.* More recently, beginning in the later nineteenth century, the comparison between Herodotus and Thucydides was made in terms of ‘science’, that being the dominant intellectual paradigm of our own modern times. Thus Thucydides’s historiography was considered ‘scientific’, whereas Herodotus’s quite simply was not. Herodotus was, admittedly, a brilliant teller of tales, but that was all: too often his tales were merely tall ones. Moreover, he was in general far too credulous, even gullible, so far as his sources of information were concerned, and also (and not least) far too theological in explaining what he was told, and what he believed, had happened in the past.

One of the more positive effects of the so-called postmodern turn in historical studies is that the semi-automatic judgement in favour of Thucydides and against Herodotus has been severely questioned, even turned on its head. From the more recent scholarship on Herodotus – of which there has been an enormous amount – has emerged a very different historian from the one that was current even in the 1970s. Now, Herodotus’s methods of enquiry and his reporting of the results of those enquiries are regularly seen as being entirely appropriate for negotiating the kind of contexts in which information about the past was handed on to him, and for handling the type of subject-matter he chose to research. Moreover, what Herodotus does, and Thucydides famously (or notoriously) does not do, is enable the reader to see that the past is a complex, indeterminate and messy affair, that people’s perceptions of it differ greatly, being often hazy and always interested, and that history is therefore always more or less invented – by the historian – and is more or less a contemporary construction. There are no ‘laws’ of history to be discovered, tested or assumed.

It is important not to misunderstand the nature of Herodotus’s ‘research’. This was not, chiefly, a matter of delving in dusty archives or even of reading published official documents. The Greek world of his day and the relevant generations before then were not particularly document-minded, let alone archivally sophisticated. The oriental world, by comparison, was so – but Herodotus apparently could neither read nor speak any other language than his own Greek. He was dependent for gathering his oriental information either on Greek-speaking oriental informants or on Greeks who knew one or more of the key oriental languages – Persian, Aramaic or Babylonian, for instance. That he did somehow gain access to genuine oriental documents is unquestionable, but how, precisely, we cannot say. One very sceptical school of modern scholarly thought, known by its opponents as the ‘Liar School of Herodotus’, even questions whether he really did go to the places in the orient that he said he went to – Egypt, for example, or Babylon. (The same sort of scepticism has been applied to Marco Polo, with equally small justification.) But the majority of scholars more coolly believe that, though he did indeed go to, say, Memphis in Egypt or Babylon, his reporting of what he saw and the nature of what he was told were far from entirely accurate and realistic.

So far as his Greek informants were concerned, we have no good reason to doubt that he travelled far and wide to seek them out: as far west as to southern Italy, on the other side of the Greek world from his own native Halicarnassus in Caria in south-west Asia Minor (modern Bodrum in Turkey). Nor should we doubt that he questioned them long and hard. He practised a combination of what he called theoriê (critically informed travel) and historiê, and he exercised his gnômê (judgement) in evaluating the oral testimony he garnered. But his informants were sometimes no better than they ought to be, and Herodotus as a socially elite Greek would have mixed chiefly with his peers in other cities, not all of whom had an unswerving commitment to telling him the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So the outcome of his research could vary in its historicity quite considerably.

Moreover, Herodotus, like any creative artist, had an agenda of his own, and viewpoints that he wished to make his chosen sources serve. He claimed with apparent transparency that he ‘related the things that were told to him, though he had no obligation to believe everything he was told’ (7.152). But in hard fact the logoi (both narratives and speeches) that he wrote up were his own compositions. It was Herodotus who decided how, and when, to make, for example, his Spartans or his Persians speak, and how they should speak to each other. Throughout his work he shaped his narrative according to a highly sophisticated form of moral patterning.

In Book 7, in the preamble to the narrative description of the Battle of Thermopylae, Herodotus behaves very much as a dramatist might. He takes his readers – originally, of course, his hearers – backstage, and into the inner sanctum of the council chamber of Great King Xerxes himself. One of Xerxes’s most favoured Greek advisers on the campaign, according to Herodotus, was a Spartan. Not just any old Spartan, but the Spartan ex-king Demaratus, who had gone over to the Persian side after being deposed from his hereditary kingship and virtually forced into exile in about 490. So at one level Demaratus was straightforwardly a traitor – a traitor to the cause of the freedom of Greece which Herodotus himself pretty clearly espouses. Yet Herodotus does not choose to represent and castigate Demaratus as such. His discourse is much richer and more subtle.

Herodotus uses Demaratus as a ‘warner’ figure, a sort of male Cassandra who knows the future but is not believed when he foretells it to Xerxes. He therefore has to present a Demaratus who is not wholly bad, and not wholly unsympathetic to Sparta and its ideals. This is a positive view of him that Herodotus may well have received in interviews with descendants of Demaratus still living two generations later in the Troad (the area of north-west Anatolia around Troy). The important point is that, for whatever reason, Herodotus chose to believe it and to represent it, and so his most important Demaratus narrative, or logos (7.101–4), is in part a version of a favourable tradition extolling the virtues of the Spartan military ethic.

Yet at the same time it is much more than that. For though Herodotus was not a fervent or uncritical admirer of Athenian democracy, he did enrich his Histories generally, and his Demaratus narratives specifically, with a peculiarly Athenian democratic tradition of political discourse. This rabidly anti-tyrannical tradition had originated at the foundation of the democracy in 508/7, and it found the Persian monarchy particularly congenial as grist to its mill: Xerxes, for example, was stereotyped (or caricatured) as the typical oriental absolutist tyrant. Herodotus reflects some of the colour and flavour as well as the basic ingredients of that rich concoction.

On top of the Spartan and Athenian elements in his Demaratus narratives he has added a third dimension to the mix, one that was peculiarly his own: panhellenism. This ideology was rooted in common Greek religious practices and other shared cultural customs, not least a common language, and went back many years, even centuries. Thanks largely to the Graeco-Persian Wars, it acquired an ethnocentric, almost ‘racist’ edge. Greek values were now contrasted, entirely favourably, to non-Greek and especially Persian values. Herodotus was by no means a simple, let alone simplistic, ‘panhellenist’: he could exhibit and indeed advocate quite exceptional tolerance for deeply alien non-Greek habits, practices and beliefs (see Appendix 3). But he did believe it to be a wholly good thing that the Greeks (only some Greeks, actually) had won the Graeco-Persian Wars. He went out of his way, in fact, to emphasize that this was a combined Greek, above all Spartan and Athenian, victory. Hence his use of a Spartan, even a questionably patriotic one, to express some of Herodotus’s own most cherished panhellenist sentiments and tenets. This extreme subtlety and richness of discourse make Herodotus a particularly rewarding literary artist, but not an easy or straightforward historian to interpret.

He was also exceptionally adept at handling time and – for the most part – causation.* He starts his main narrative in what we call the 540s BCE. This was partly because the conquest of Lydian King Croesus by Cyrus of Persia entailed the first subjection of Greek cities to Persia, and so was the first instance of his overall theme of Greek–Persian relations. But it was also the furthest point in time at which Herodotus, using his oral method of enquiry, could hope to get back to reliable eyewitness testimony to events. The year 545 is roughly two generations before Herodotus’s birth, or three before his maturity. Three generations, so the anthropologists tell us, is pretty much the maximum span of time over which a living oral tradition is likely to survive in anything like its original form so far as its basic factual content is concerned.

Herodotus puts the same point in another way, which would have made particular sense to his Greek hearers and listeners. Polycrates of Samos, he says (3.122), was ‘the first of the so-called generation of men’ to be a ruler of the sea. Herodotus has heard of the sea empire allegedly controlled long long ago by the fabled Cretan King Minos (builder of the labyrinth at Cnossos). But, for him, Minos belongs to the time of myth, to prehistorical time, well outside the limits of the ‘three-generation’ rule.*

Herodotus’s handling of causation was not always impeccable. For example, his explanation of the breach between Polycrates and the Egyptian Pharaoh Amasis (Ahmose) in 525 seems to put the cart before the horse. It was not, as Herodotus has it, Amasis who broke off his alliance with Polycrates on the suspiciously Greek moral-theological grounds that Polycrates seemed to him to be too prosperous, but rather Polycrates who renounced his engagements to Amasis when he saw that Egypt was to be the next target of Persian imperial expansion, under the generalship of Cyrus’s son Cambyses. But overall his explanations of Greek–Persian relations from 545 to 479 tend to command respect, and the linkage between the various key stages or moments (545, 525, 499, 490, 484) is made acceptably and plausibly clear.

From the largely or wholly secular perspective that dominates modern historiography Herodotus can nevertheless be dismissed as too theological. He believed, self-confessedly, in the ‘hand of god’ (or ‘the gods’, or ‘the divine’) as a sufficient explanation of the phenomena of human history. The utterances of oracles, if straight forwardly authentic and not ‘bought’ or otherwise manipulated by crooked human forces, were, he maintained, to be believed on principle as truthful. When there was a choice between different types of explanation of exceptional human happenings – such as the extraordinary suicide of Spartan king Cleomenes I – Herodotus would always automatically plump for the theological rather than the humanistic or secular explanation.

This aspect of his personal psychology was crucial to his quite extraordinary toleration of the deeply alien religious beliefs and practices of various non-Greek peoples (see Appendix 3). It has an obvious bearing too on the general presentation and colouring of his narrative. For example, he regularly pictures the Spartans as a supremely religious people, who were prepared both collectively and individually to act in ways that seemingly ran counter to rational good sense. But was it really (for instance) their sense of religious duty that prevented them setting out from Sparta in 490 in time to fight shoulder to shoulder with the Athenians and Plataeans at the Battle of Marathon? Or was Herodotus too easily persuaded by the Spartans’ own religious rhetoric? If he was in fact right about Spartan religiosity – and right in part because he was a man of strong religious motivation himself – then this may be an important clue to explaining a series of what were by normal Greek standards unusually pious interpretations of civic obligation and duty.

That Herodotus was generally reliable and indeed a brilliant historian of Graeco-Persian affairs overall does not, unfortunately, rule out the possibility that he may be guilty of serious defects in his narration of events in detail.* This was partly due to the inherently defective nature of the sources available to him, but partly also to the use he made of them. Nevertheless, Herodotus in my view remains as good as it gets: we either write a history of Thermopylae with him, or we do not write one at all.

Simonides of Ceos the praise-singer,* the other main contemporary source for the events and processes centring on Thermopylae, had a phenomenal photographic memory. He is said to have been the first to codify the art of memory by formulating rules for getting it into shape in advance and applying it to perfection in practice. At one of his praise-singing performances in Thessaly, in honour of a leading baronial family of Crannon, an earthquake wiped out all his feasting audience. He himself was said to have been saved by divine intervention – an opportune summons from the banqueting hall by the Spartan Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, Helen’s twin half-brothers. Afterwards he was able to help bereaved relatives identify the crushed corpses of their loved ones by remembering where each had been sitting.

Working for hire as Simonides did attracted a certain opprobrium, not least from his rivals, for being allegedly the first praise-poet to compose for a strict fee. Yet Simonides’s younger rival Pindar surely ‘earned’ no less than he did in his very long career (from the 490s to the 440s). And Simonides’s nephew Bacchylides probably didn’t care whether what he received for his encomia was called ‘pay’ or ‘gifts’, just so long as he was remunerated and recompensed handsomely enough. (Herodotus too was allegedly rewarded handsomely, by the Athenians, for praising their decisive role in winning the Graeco-Persian Wars. But this would have been an ex gratia payment, and not cash that he had sought as a fee.)

In this as in other respects Simonides stood on the cusp between the traditional and the more modern ways of doing things. His memory rules, for example, suggest that he lived at a transitional moment in Greek culture between a predominantly oral era, when memory was the first and usually the sole resource for remembering salient facts of the past, and an era when written documents were more and more called into play to supplement or substitute for it. Yet from our standpoint Simonides looked back far more to Homer, who sang the ‘famous deeds of men’ (klea andrôn), than forward to the historiography of Herodotus and Thucydides, who sought to explain them as well as – or rather than – praise them.

Simonides wrote poems in a number of genres besides that of the encomiastic ode. He is said to have composed no fewer than fifty-six winning dithyrambs (a type of hymn in honour of Dionysus) for various Greek festivals, for instance, though not a single certain example survives. Simonides may well also be the author of an extant address to the goaty mountain god Pan (though the authorship of these lines is disputed as between him and Pindar):

Pan, lord of Arcadia

guardian of holy shrines …

Blessed one, whom the Olympians

call the ubiquitous hound

of the Great Goddess …

(trans. Richard Stoneman, slightly modified)

Pan played a particularly prominent role in Graeco-Persian affairs in 490. This concerned the remarkable long-distance runner Philippides, who brought a vital message to the Spartans, covering the 250 kilometres from Athens in under forty-eight hours. On his way either to or (more likely, I think) back from Sparta Philippides believed he was accosted by Pan himself in his native Arcadian uplands. Pan assured him that he would fight on the Athenians’ side against the Persians, and so he did, at Marathon, inspiring his eponymous panic among the oriental foe.*

Praise-poets were expected to be didactic. (Simonides gets a mention on this account in Aristophanes’s comedy Frogs of 405.) One of the choicest of Simonides’s maxims was just three words long in its original Greek, but it spoke worlds about Greek political culture and gender stereotyping.Polis andra didaskei means literally ‘a [or the] polis teaches a man [an adult male]’. Its rich significance may be unpacked as follows: the uniquely Greek invention of the polis, or citizen-state, teaches an adult male how to be in the fullest sense a man – that is, a citizen of his polis. Simonides elsewhere qualified Sparta as damasimbrotos, ‘mortal-taming’ or ‘breaker-in of mortals’. The phrase was quoted by Plutarch in the very first chapter of his Life of the Spartan king Agesilaus II, who reigned from about 400 to 360 (Ages. 1). This was both a quintessentially apt, laconic epithet and wholly fitting for the only Greek city with a public programme of state-organized compulsory education for both boys and girls from the age of seven.

To tame is to civilize, to make the rough smooth (as in our ‘polished’ and ‘polite’). But it was also a word that in Greek carried powerful gendered implications: one Greek word for a wife was damar, ‘she who is tamed’. The taming in question, by the husband,was understood in exactly the same sense as the ‘breaking in’ of a wild animal, especially a horse. This was a particularly appropriate image for horse-loving Sparta. The whole psychology and ideology that goes with the breeding, selection and training of horses was dynamically fitted to Spartan eugenicist ideas. And many Spartans won races at both national (Olympic) and local athletic festivals with teams of horses that they had bred in their own stables. Euagoras, for example, won the victor’s crown at three Olympic Games running with the same team of mares, an extraordinary – and almost unique – feat (Herodotus 6.103). It was a Spartan woman too, Princess Cynisca, sister of Agesilaus II, who became the first woman ever to win an Olympic crown: not as a competitor, of course, since women were forbidden to compete against men (or even, with the exception of a single priestess, to watch them compete), but as the owner of the winning four-horse chariot team, first in 396 – and then again in 392.

Most famous and relevant of all Simonides’s many poems of praise are the three he wrote for or about Sparta in 480 and 479. The first was for all the Greeks who fell at Thermopylae, and was commissioned by the delegates to the council of the Amphictyonic League that managed the affairs of Delphi, the second most important site of pan-hellenic games after Olympia and even more important than Olympia as the spiritual home of religious hellenism. The Spartans were members of the League, but as representatives of the ‘Dorian’ branch of the Greek people, not in their own right as citizens of Sparta. Presumably, therefore, the eulogy was composed to be sung at Delphi, perhaps at the time when the famous Serpent Column victory monument was erected there in 479 after the Battle of Plataea. Here it is in full, in an elegant if free translation:

Great are the fallen of Thermopylae,

Nobly they ended, high their destination –

Beneath an altar laid, no more a tomb,

Where none with pity comes or lamentation,

But praise and memory –

A splendour of oblation

No rust shall blot nor wreckful Time consume.

The ground is holy: here the brave are resting,

And here Greek Honour keeps her chosen shrine.

Here too is one the worth of all attesting –

Leonidas, of Sparta’s royal line,

Who left behind a gem-like heritage

Of courage and renown,

A name that shall go down

From age to age.

(trans. T. F. Higham)

The special mention of Leonidas and the imperishable ‘gem-like heritage of courage and renown’ left by him are suggestive of a peculiarly Spartan affinity.* But the floridity and length of the eulogy for all the Greek fallen at Thermopylae are emphatically not Spartan. Contrast the elegiac couplet (a hexameter line followed by a pentameter), also commissioned by the Amphictyonic League of Delphi. This, as quoted by Herodotus and others with slight verbal variation, was for the Spartans alone:

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,

That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

The elegiac couplet (to quote Anna Davies’s brilliant commentary) ‘derives its amplitude from a fusion of straightforward syntax with poetic diction and metrical virtuosity. Music has become language carved on stone. The pressure of feeling has been controlled and transformed into two lines that contain an order to report what is neither a boast nor a fancy because it is a fact’. (Davies 1981). In detail, ‘their words’ translates the Greek rhêmasi, the dative plural of rhêma. The root of rhêma is the same as the root of rhêtra, a word with a peculiarly Spartan resonance. It means anything uttered, so has a range of applied meanings, from law to oracle. Simonides’s listeners would have picked up the echo of Sparta’s own great elegist Tyrtaeus (who had used the phrase eutheiais rhêtrais, ‘with straight rhetras’) and the allusion to the so-called ‘Great’ Rhetra (there were other, lesser ones) attributed to the famed – or more probably fabulous – Spartan lawgiver of yore, Lycurgus. The last word of the couplet is peithomenoi, a participle meaning ‘obeying’. Spartan obedience was in a sense the whole point of the ‘man-taming’ education system, the agôgê.

Scarcely less exciting than these two is a very recent find of another of Simonides’s poems, preserved incomplete on papyrus. This shows just how well his two Thermopylae poems had gone down in Sparta. For he was then commissioned, presumably by the Spartans or at any rate by aSpartan, to write a great epic about the Battle of Plataea in 479, the battle that finally decided the Persian Wars on land in the Greeks’ favour. The leitmotif of this poem was to depict the victorious Greeks as though they were Homeric heroes come back to life and, through the medium of the praise-poem, to confer upon them the sort of undying fame that Homer had conferred on Achilles and the other Greek heroes at Troy (see, for example, fragment 11.20–5). The unexpected recovery of this poem helps us to understand better the precise force of Thucydides’s reaction against the ‘mythical’ in history, even if it may have unduly prejudiced him against Herodotus’s unique discursive combination of the mythical and the historical.

No individual Spartan was more interested in having himself thus praised and immortalized than the overall Greek commander at Plataea, Spartan Regent Pausanias, and we learn from a later work attributed to Plato (Letter 2.311a) that the association of Pausanias with Simonides was much talked of. This gives especial pungency to the advice that Simonides was already known to have given to Pausanias before this new poem was rediscovered – ‘remember that you are mortal’. This, however, was advice that Pausanias seems not, in the event, to have heeded.*

To sum up, Simonides was hired to give the best possible spin in memorable verse to the famous deeds of his employers and paymasters. The more they paid, presumably the more lavish – if not necessarily the more poetic – was his praise. But he was not bound by the historian’s requirements of objectivity and balance.

Two other ancient sources offer something substantial on the Thermopylae campaign. One of these passes muster as a historian: Diodorus, a Greek from Sicily who wrote a huge, compendious and oddly titled Library of History in the second half of the first century BCE. The other does not: Ctesias, a doctor by profession, who hailed from Cnidos in south-west Asia Minor (one of the two major Greek medical centres, the other being Hippocrates’s island of Cos not far away off the same coast).

Ctesias served as court physician to Great King Artaxerxes II (405/4–359/8 BCE) and travelled with him on campaign and other missions. His memoirs of life at the Persian court were racy and scurrilous enough to attract both attention and preservation. His general account of Graeco-Persian history was still found amusing or instructive enough to be excerpted in the eighth century by the learned Byzantine patriarch Photius. It is his epitome that offers us a skeletal version of Ctesias’s clearly overweight and overblown original. But it was presumably an original error of Ctesias’s, and not just his abridger’s economy, that caused the complete omission of the traitor Ephialtes from the account of Thermopylae. Gaffes like that render his account almost worse than useless, because there are other details in the epitome, not found in Herodotus, that may, just possibly, be accurate.

Diodorus, however, is a different matter. He was never better than the sources he chose to follow, excerpt and – rhetorically – adapt, and for his account of the fifth century he by and large followed Ephorus. The latter ambitiously composed a universal history of Greece in thirty books. This began with the return of the descendants of Heracles to the Peloponnese (a mythical event to be dated to the early twelfth century on our system of chronography) and continued down to his own day, the mid-fourth century BCE. Ephorus was a native of Cyme in Ionia, which for part of his lifetime was incorporated within the Persian Empire, and he may have been a pupil at the rhetoric school of the leading speechwriter and pamphleteer Isocrates (436–338) at Athens. The question of Diodorus’s authenticity and validity boils down, therefore, to this: what sources did Ephorus follow, if not Herodotus? And the major interpretative issue is how seriously we ought to take any significant detail recorded by Diodorus that is not in Herodotus.

Now, there is indeed one such detail of potentially enormous significance that Diodorus/Ephorus does include in his account of Thermopylae and that is not in Herodotus. It concerns a supposed night attack by loyalist Greeks on Xerxes’s camp in the very middle of the Thermopylae campaign, with the aim of assassinating the Great King and so removing at least a major part of the raison d’être of the Persian campaign. What are we to make of this report? For my own – thoroughly sceptical – view, see Chapter Seven.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!