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

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2.2 Candaules’s wife

Having introduced Croesus, Herodotus springs another surprise that sheds light on his way of writing historically. He takes another step back to explain how it was that Croesus’s family held power in Lydia in the first place (1.7.1). Croesus may have been ‘known’ to Herodotus’ reader, but now the author promises special insight by exploring the origins of his power. Incidentally, by doing this, Herodotus also demonstrates that the question of cause – or origins or blame: the Greek aitia (Herodotus 1.1.1) captures all of these senses – can always be pushed back further into the past. In this case Herodotus traces the question of why Croesus’ family held power in Lydia back to a certain Candaules.

The photograph depicts oblong ruins in the foreground, made up of very large stone blocks. At the crest of a low hill stand six columns, two of which stand at their full height, each capped by a volute (a stone that looks like a scroll or the curved horns of a goat). In the background are wooded hills and some terracing.
Figure 15 The Temple of Artemis outside Sart (ancient Sardis), Türkiye.

Activity 9

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes for this activity

Below are extracts from the beginning of Herodotus’ account of Candaules, who some five generations before Croesus was ruler of the kingdom of Lydia, whose capital city was Sardis. Read the following extracts from Herodotus at least once, and then answer the following questions:

  1. What background information to Candaules does Herodotus provide?
  2. What is the core feature of this account?
  3. What action does Candaules decide upon?
  4. In what ways does Herodotus get his reader to believe this account?

Herodotus 1.7.2, 4

Candaules, whom the Greeks call Myrsilos, was the ruler of Sardis and a descendant of Alkaios the son of Heracles....The descendants of Heracles, the Heraklidai, ruled for twenty-two generations or five hundred and five years, with the son receiving the rule from the father, until Candaules the son of Myrsos.

Herodotus 1.8.1–2

This Candaules was in love with his own wife, and, because he loved her, he thought that she was by far the most beautiful woman in the world. And, because he was thinking this, he kept praising his wife’s appearance to his favourite personal guard, Gyges the son of Daskylos. For it was with this Gyges that Candaules used to discuss his most important affairs. After a little while had passed (for things with Candaules were destined to end badly), he said to Gyges such things as these: ‘Gyges, I don’t think that you believe me when I tell you about my wife’s looks – and it’s true that people tend to believe their ears less than their eyes. So, you must find a way to see her naked.’

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As usual with reading Herodotus, there’s a lot going on! You may have jotted down the following points:

  1. Herodotus provides a genealogy going back to the Greek hero, Heracles, that establishes Candaules as the legitimate ruler of Sardis.
  2. Candaules thinks his wife is so beautiful that he wants his bodyguard, Gyges, to recognise her beauty too.
  3. Candaules decides that Gyges should spy on his wife.
  4. There are various ways in which Herodotus invites his reader to believe his account. He includes Candaules’s alternative Greek name, as if to demonstrate to his Greek reader his superior knowledge. Similarly, his very specific identification of the length of time is designed to gain trust. He also uses direct speech, as if he were there to record Candaules’s conversation!
This decorative plate is fully coloured and glazed. It depicts the interior of a house, with a tiled floor, a back wall of bricks and a window, a wall to the right as the viewer looks at it, made of slightly larger bricks and a bigger window, and wooden beams for a ceiling. On the left is a four-poster bed, with drapery. Standing beside the bed is a woman half-dressed in a saffron coloured robe (wrapped around her waist and flowing to the floor); she is looking directly at a pair of men on the opposite side of the room. The one, dressed in a short blue robe which covers his chest and loins, is talking to a second man while gesturing with both of his hands towards the woman. The second man is naked, except for a covering over his groin area. He is looking at the woman and has an arrow in his left breast, shot by a cupid figure hovering in the centre of the plate.
Figure 16 Dish with King Candaules exhibiting his wife Nyssia to Gyges. Earthenware with tin glaze, between around 1540–1550 CE, Urbino, Italy. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. ID: 48.2031.

This use of direct speech is another feature that Herodotus takes from Homeric epic, since he couldn’t possibly have known the precise words that were spoken. It allows him to bring the story to life, as if we were there eavesdropping on this intimate exchange. It also allows the character of individuals to be revealed through what they say and how they say it, rather than simply through a narrator’s description. But the use of direct speech additionally introduces other voices into the narrative: these aren’t the words of Herodotus (as the narrator) but of a figure in his narrative. Like our earlier observation on sources, this is another strategy for demanding that we read carefully and not simply accept what is being told to us.

You may also have noticed the rather odd-sounding expression with which Herodotus introduces the key idea motivating this episode: that ‘Candaules was in love with his own wife’. A clue to how to think about it comes in the next sentence when Herodotus writes that Candaules used to discuss his most important affairs with Gyges, especially his wife’s appearance. Candaules’ desire, even if it’s for his own wife, is a problem because it dominates his thinking: when he should be ruling, he’s instead singing her praises. This is a story about power. So much becomes clear as the episode continues. First, Candaules succeeds in forcing Gyges to spy on his wife. Then, because she notices him spying on her, she later confronts Gyges and gives him a stark choice: either he must kill Candaules, or be killed himself for seeing what he ought not have (Herodotus 1.11.2). Unsurprisingly, Gyges opts for the former and kills his master. Through this story we learn how the throne of Lydia came into the possession of the family of Croesus.

Three figures occupy the centre of this scene. To the left, as the viewer sees it, is a pale-faced woman, dressed simply but elegantly in a tall peaked black hat (with a veil falling down the back), a pale green top with an egg-white middle, and a pale red folded skirt that flows out to the floor. She is looking down at, and holding onto the head and shoulder, of a man. He is slightly lower and holds his hands out on either side in a gesture of defence. He is dressed in royal blue robes, with an embroidered cloak over his shoulders, and wears a golden crown on his head and a golden pouch around his waist. His mouth and eyes are wide open, as his head is being pulled back by the woman to expose his neck. A second man, dressed in the same-coloured pale red robe as the woman, and wearing a similarly shaped hat (this time egg-white with a golden cross), stabs the central figure in the neck with a knife held in his left hand. A four-poster bed, in the same royal blue as the robes of the central figure, is to the left of the group and a door on the right, which opens out to an outdoor scene with a city and its walls in the far distance.
Figure 17 Gyges kills King Candaules at the queen’s order. Illuminated manuscript of Cité de Dieu by Maître François, between 1475 and 1480 CE.

That is not all. This is also a story about Herodotus’ brand of history. At first glance, this episode, on which Herodotus leads on seems curiously trivial, even gossipy. Yet by taking us into the bedroom Herodotus promises insight into power dynamics that have repercussions for an entire kingdom and beyond. Much is at stake, and the switch to direct speech marks a key moment. Candaules’s description that ‘people tend to trust their ears less than their eyes’ (1.8.2) – or, as we might put it in English, seeing is believing – resonates strongly with Herodotus’ conception of history as enquiry, in which he actively hunts out eyewitnesses of an event or describes what he himself sees. But there is also a danger in taking a position from which to view events, as you will explore now.

In the passages below you’ll learn about what happens next and what’s important about it. Where before you’ve concentrated on reading in a way that captures the gist or identifies key features, with this activity you will be focusing on close reading.

Activity 10

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes for this activity

Compare and contrast two passages: Candaules’s instructions to Gyges; and Herodotus’ narration of what actually happens. First, read each passage to get a sense of what is going on. Then re-read them, this time comparing them to each other, by:

  • underlining at least three differences that you notice in the second text (the narration)
  • providing a one-line summary that explains the differences that you’ve noted
  • giving an example of the point that you have observed.

Herodotus 1.9.2–3 (Candaules instructs Gyges how he can spy on his wife without being seen)

I will stand you in the room in which we sleep, behind the open door. After I have entered, my wife will also be there for bed. There is a chair near the entrance. On this chair she will place her clothes as she slips them off, one by one, and you will be able to see her quite at ease. But, when she walks away from the chair to the bed, and you are behind her back, then take care that she doesn't see you as you go out the door.

Herodotus 1.10.1–2 (Herodotus narrates what actually happens when Gyges spies on Candaules's wife)

When he thought it was time for bed, Candaules led Gyges to the room, and directly afterwards his wife was there. Gyges saw her come in and set down her clothes. When he was behind the back of the woman as she was going to the bed, he withdrew, slipping out. But the woman saw him leaving.

(Translations are from Purves, 2014)
Richly detailed interior scene, full of warm colours. At the centre is a naked woman with her back to the viewer, in the process of lifting off her nightdress; her red robe lies on a chair next to her. Her head is slightly tilted towards the right: in line with the inclination of her head is a dimly lit, hooded figure, slipping out of the door. In front of the woman is a grandly decorated four-posted bed, in which lies a man, naked to the chest, also looking towards the open door.
Figure 18 Le roi Candaules (King Candaules). Oil on canvas, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1859. Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico
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These are points of comparison that you may have noted:

  • Candaules, when it was time for bed, led Gyges to the room, and quickly afterwards his wife entered. Gyges watched her come in and set down her clothes. When he was behind the back of the woman as she went towards the bed, he departed, slipping out. But the woman saw him going.
  • Most of the differences result from the translation of a (first-person) speech into (third-person) narration.
  • So, ‘Candaules’ replaces the ‘I’ in the first passage, and ‘Gyges’ the ‘you’.

In this translation of speech into narration, you may also have noted two other differences. First, the future tense verbs become past tense verbs when the episode is recounted: ‘I will stand you’ becomes ‘Candaules led Gyges’; ‘my wife will be there’ becomes ‘his wife was there’; and so on. Second, the speed of the narration varies. It’s quicker. In this way, even though Herodotus’ description essentially replays Candaules’ instructions – Gyges takes his place; the wife comes in; Gyges spies her; when she turns her back, he leaves – it’s not simple repetition. The narration feels different, more urgent somehow, and more tense.

It’s worth pondering what’s at stake in this shift. Candaules’ instructions map out the coordinates of his bedroom in some detail, mainly through the use of prepositions – behind, near to, on, away, towards, behind, through. Everything is neatly ordered, highly controlled. This is the master’s gaze. By contrast, in his narration of what happens, Herodotus homes in on a single idea: how Gyges gets in and gets out of the room. The description mirrors Gyges’ anxiety, as if we experience the scene through his eyes, and feel his desperation to leave, as if he’s the one under scrutiny.

And indeed he is, because the wife notices Gyges as he exits. This is the biggest difference between the two passages, and reveals the gap between expectation and outcome even in the best laid plans. Herodotus marks this concisely and effectively in the phrases that were italicised above: the wife ‘slips off’ her clothes; Gyges ‘slips out’ of the room – the same word (ekduō, in the Greek) is used in both cases. Where Candaules had emphasised the spectacle of Gyges seeing the wife ‘slipping out’ of her clothes, Herodotus highlights instead the critical moment when the wife sees Gyges ‘slipping out’.

An oblong clay tablet, standing upright in a portrait view. The tablet has been put together from at least 3 separate pieces. Lines run across these fragments, full of dense, tiny inscriptions.
Figure 19 Account of the Egyptian campaigns of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, and his reception of an embassy from Gyges, king of Lydia, Neo-Assyrian clay tablet with cuneiform script, c. 660 BCE, British Museum, ID: ME K2675