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Herodotus and the invention of history
Herodotus and the invention of history

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1.3 The first account (1.1.1–1.5.4)

As you have just seen from his trailer, Herodotus’ primary aim is to answer the question why two sides came into conflict – which is the question posed at the beginning of the Iliad too. In the Iliad we receive an immediate answer: the god Apollo (referred to in the poem as ‘the son of Leto and Zeus’) was the cause of the quarrel between the heroes Agamemnon and Achilles. In Herodotus, the reader is similarly given an immediate answer, though in a way that makes us pause. In the next activity you will find out how hard that ‘in a way’ is working in the last sentence, and how Herodotus’ first account prepares us for thinking historically.

Study note: terminology for non-Greeks

In his opening pitch Herodotus writes that he will preserve the deeds done by Greeks and non-Greeks. The term he uses for non-Greeks is barbaroi (singular barbaros). This term derives from the Greek view that to their ears other peoples spoke gibberish, i.e. ‘bar bar’ (like the English ‘blah blah’). How much other baggage to attach to term ‘barbaros’, namely whether or to what extent these foreigners are, or should be seen as, different from Greeks (i.e. as ‘barbarians’), is a question that this course will get you to ponder.

The first episode of the Histories (1.1.1–1.5.4) throws us straight into a story that is supposed to answer why the two groups, Greeks and barbarians, came into conflict. It includes a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between various places and peoples. Since it can be rather bewildering, a map of those places and peoples, colour-coded according to whether they are Greeks or non-Greeks is provided (see Figure 6). While this episode is short on detail, the thematic thread linking the various movements concerns the abduction of women. If you are likely to find this section distressing, please consider carefully when and how you might want to engage with it. You can find suggestions in the Guidance on studying emotive topics and developing emotional resilience [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , from The Open University.

Activity 4

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes for this activity

First, using the text supplied, skim read Herodotus 1.1.1–1.5.4 to get a sense of what’s going on. Then, using both the map and the text, jot down some notes in answer to the following questions:

  1. Where does the first event (1.1.1–1.1.4) take place? Who is involved and what happens?
  2. Where does the second event (1.2.1) take place? Who is involved and what happens?
  3. Where does the third event (1.2.2–1.2.3) take place? Who is involved and what happens?
  4. What is the pattern that’s emerging?
  5. What is different about the fourth event (1.3.1–2)?

Herodotus, The Histories, Book 1 Sections 1–5


(1) Men skilled in arguments among the Persians say that the Phoenicians were the cause of the division. For these men (the Persians say) came from what’s called the Red Sea to our sea [the Mediterranean], and, once they had settled in the land in which they live to this day, they immediately began to embark on long voyages. They carried their Egyptian and Assyrian merchandise to many places before arriving in Argos. (2) Argos at this time was preeminent in every way in the land now called Hellas [Greece]. Arriving in Argos, (the Persians say) the Phoenicians set out their wares. (3) On the fifth or sixth day after they had arrived, when nearly all had been sold, there came to the seashore many women, chief among them the daughter of the king. Her name — and on this the Greeks say the same — was Io, daughter of Inachos. (4) As these women stood about the stern of the ship, bargaining for the wares that they had set their hearts on, (the Persians say) the Phoenicians incited one another to assault them. Most of the women escaped, but Io, along with some others, was abducted. Throwing her into the ship, the Phoenicians sailed off to Egypt.


(1) In this way, Io arrived in Egypt say the Persians (though not the Greeks), and that this was the first injustice done. After this, they say that some Greeks (the Persians aren’t able to recount the name) landed at Tyre in Phoenicia and abducted the king’s daughter Europa. (These Greeks would have been Cretans.) Up until now it had been like for like; but after this point it was the Greeks (the Persians say) who were guilty of the second injustice. (2) For Greeks sailed in a long ship down to Aea in Colchis and to the river Phasis; then, once they had completed the business on account of which they had come, (the Persians say) they abducted the king’s daughter Medea. (3) The king of the Colchians sent a herald to Greece to demand both a penalty for the abduction and his daughter back. But the Greeks (the Persians say) replied that, since those other men hadn’t paid any penalty for the abduction of Argive Io, nor would they pay a penalty to the Colchians.


(1) In the second generation after this, they say, Alexandros, the son of Priam, got to hear about these events and decided to get himself a wife by abducting one from Greece. He was completely convinced that he wouldn’t have to pay any penalty, since the others hadn’t. (2) So, he abducted Helen. The Greeks first resolved to send messengers to demand both Helen back and a penalty for the abduction. But, when these measures were proposed, they (the Trojans) brought up the abduction of Medea and the fact that they (the Greeks) wanted justice from others, though they had not paid any penalty or given up what had been demanded of them.


(1) Up until this point it was a matter only of abduction on both sides. But after this the Greeks (the Persians say) were the cause of an escalation: for the Greeks first launched an invasion against Asia before they launched one against Europe. (2) The Persians consider abducting women an action of unjust men, but to be out for revenge when an abduction has happened nonsensical. Level-headed people have no concern for abductions, for (the Persians say) it is clear that the women wouldn't have been abducted, had they not wanted it themselves. (3) The Persians say that for their part they made no account of the abductions of women. But the Greeks, on account of a single woman from Lacedaemonia, gathered a massive army, came to Asia, and tore down the power of Priam. (4) Ever since then the Persians have considered the Greek to be an enemy. For the Persians think of Asia and the foreign peoples living there as their own, but Europe and the Greek people they consider separate from themselves.


(1) This is what the Persians say happened. And they trace the beginning of their hatred of the Greeks to the sack of Troy. (2) About Io, though, the Phoenicians do not agree with the Persians. For they say that they did not use force to carry her off to Egypt. Rather, she had sex with the captain of the ship while still in Argos. When she learned that she was pregnant, she was ashamed for her parents, and so she willingly sailed off with the Phoenicians before her shame became visible. (3) These are the things that the Persians and Phoenicians say. For my part, I’m not going to say whether these things happened in this or some other way. Rather, I’ll identify and speak about the person who I know first wronged the Greeks, as I march on farther into my account, going through both small and great cities alike. (4) For those cities that were once great have now become small, while those that were great in my time were before small. Knowing that human happiness doesn’t stay in the same place, I’ll mention both alike.

The map shows the eastern part of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The largest fonts read ‘Europe’ (on the land above the Aegean Sea) and ‘Asia’ (below the Black Sea). Words in smaller font indicate ‘Hellas’ (in green, where modern-day Greece is located), ‘Assyria’ (north-east of Cyprus), ‘Persia’ (modern-day Iran), and ‘Aegyptos’ (the Nile Delta). There are four places marked in green (Argos, Sparta, Crete, and Halicarnassus), and four in red (Troy, Colchis, the river Phasis, and Tyre). Troy and Halicarnassus are located on the same Ionian coastline (now modern-day Türkiye).
Figure 6 A map of the places and peoples mentioned in Herodotus 1.1.1–1.5.4, with the settlements of Greeks or Greek majority populations in green.
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Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


These are some points you may have noted:

  1. The first event takes place in Argos, when some Phoenicians abduct Io, the daughter of the king, and take her back to Egpyt.
  2. The second event takes place in Tyre, when some Greeks abduct Europa, the daughter of the Phoenician king.
  3. The third event takes place in Colchis, when some Greeks abduct Medea, the king’s daughter.
  4. The common element in each episode is the abduction of a woman by outsiders (both Greeks and non-Greeks).
  5. The fourth episode is different because we are given an insight into the thinking of the aggressor, Alexander (otherwise known as Paris), before he carries out an abduction.
Photograph of a rectangular mosaic floor. The central panel shows a scene from mythology, as the young woman Europa is carried off on the back of a bull (the god Zeus in disguise) across the sea (represented by fish). Geometric patterns frame the scene.
Figure 7 The Kidnapping of Europa. Mosaic, between first and second centuries CE. Zeugma Mosaic Museum, Gaziantep, Türkiye.

In fact, Alexander uses the evidence from the other episodes to suppose that he too can abduct a woman (in this case, Helen) without facing any consequences. But he’s wrong and the Greeks send an army against Troy to get her back. In this way, this opening account acts as both the context for Homer’s Iliad and a kind of precedent for the war between Greeks and ‘foreigners’ that is the focus of Herodotus’ enquiry. Or to put that differently: Herodotus here provides a brief sketch of how events from the past (including those represented in the Iliad) could be seen to have led to the war between the Greeks and the Persians of his lifetime.