Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course


Download this course

Share this free course

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

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2.3 Reading historically

Now you’ll think about what lessons we can learn about reading history from the way Herodotus begins his account here. You may have noticed that in all of these passages the woman remains anonymous: she’s simply described in relation to her man. This may suggest the difficulty of precisely naming all the figures who were involved in past events, particularly those in the background. More pointedly, it may also reflect the subordinate role of women in cultures where the king is preeminent.

We should, however, note that the woman here has some agency. It’s she who takes control. When Candaules’ wife spies Gyges, she not only inverts the hierarchy of who’s looking (she, not Gyges) and who’s being seen (Gyges, not her); through this act she also subverts the power dynamics of the episode. Instead of the anticipated scenario of the stage manager (Candaules), where his ideal spectator (Gyges) is able to freely observe an actor performing an assigned role (the wife), it is the wife who both observes and takes control. It is particularly striking that she instantly realises what has occurred, recognises that her husband has betrayed her faith, and demands (and secures) instant payback.

Close up of a woman. She is naked to the waist, with her back to the viewer, though her head is turning back to look over her shoulder towards the viewer. Her eyes are half open and there seems to be a slight smile on her face. Her hair is mainly covered by a richly embroidered night cap that falls down to her shoulders. She also wears a pearl necklace. The background is made up of the folds of rich red draperies.
Figure 20 Close up of King Candaules of Lydia Showing his Wife to Gyges. Oil on canvas, by Jacob Jordaens, 1646, Nationalmuseum Sweden, ID: NM 1159

Equally, however, she turns the problem of viewing back on the spectator. Most obviously, the spectator implicated in what they’re viewing is Gyges, who quickly finds that he cannot escape from the scene unscathed. He has to get involved in the power struggle. But potentially too the reader is implicated. Herodotus also stands us in a scene of great intimacy to witness what goes on behind closed doors; we too may feel the wife’s gaze. Of course, unlike Gyges, we’re able to escape from the power struggle in the bedroom. We’re not in any physical danger! And yet the story demonstrates that there is no ideal or stable position from which to view an event. The onlooker becomes implicated in events simply by virtue of looking on. This bedroom drama is not only the first episode of the Histories; it enacts the problem of doing history. Herodotus makes his writing of history a problem for reading historically.