Previous |Contents |Next

THE SKYTHIAN CAMPAIGN

Those who wanted to discredit Herodotos as a responsible historian found that the best way was to concentrate their criticism on his report of the campaign conducted against the Skythians by King Dareios of Persia around 513 B.C. This report occupies most of the Fourth Book (Melpomene) of Herodotos' Histories (1-144); the balance of this book (145-205) consists of a survey of Africa west of Egypt and, hence, can be presumed to be infantile like all things that concern Africa.(87)

If this entire book contains preposterous data, it will be proved that an entire ninth of Herodotos' work is the product of an irresponsible and confused mind, with the result that the rest of his work must be presumed to be unreliable, unless the contrary is specifically proved.(88)

The account of the Skythian campaign is an essential transition in the scheme of Herodotos' narrative: Whereas the first three books present the Persian Empire as a great rational construction based on the scientific and cultural achievements of the preceding monarchies, the Fourth Book describes how the Persian Empire used the military strength inherent to its structure in relation to foreign territories, so that this book sets the technical frame of reference for the presentation of the military campaigns of King Dareios and King Xerxes against Greece, the main concern of the last five books. Herodotos intends to explain the historical phenomenon that the Greek city states were able to challenge a state organization based on the rational exploitation of the physical and intellectual resources of a territory embracing a great part of the inhabited earth. The narrative of the Skythian campaign reveals how people willing to make extreme sacrifices for the defense of their liberty could take advantage of favorable geographical factors to frustrate even the boldest and most imaginative plan to make them crumble under the weight of Persian power. Thereby it prepares the reader to understand why Dareios' successor, Xerxes, did fail in his attempt to crush the Greeks. This, however, is an historical problem that does not exist for many modern historians because they reduce the proportions of the Persian campaign against Greece to about those of the campaign of Lord Kitchener against the Sudan.

The proper understanding of the nature and development of the Persian campaign against Skythia permits to understand the causes of what we know as the Persian Wars. The scorned Book Four of Herodotos is essential in the general structure of his historical work. But even without considering the later historical consequences, the campaign of King Dareios proves to be one of the greatest military enterprises of all times. It was more dramatic and more grandiose in its development and scope than the campaign of Napoleon and the campaign of Hitler. It was not a whimsical sortie conceived by a monarch who could act irresponsibly because of his absolute power; its account is not provided by a storyteller who in his childish imagination pursued details that are both fictitious and inconsequential. In political and military matters King Dareios was one of the most powerful organizing minds of all times, certainly not inferior to Alexander the Great or to Caesar, and his greatness found a worthy interpreter in an historian who, although the first to write universal history, well understood the dynamics of the great historical developments. It was the main purpose of Herodotos to explain what were the might and weakness of the great imperial states of the Orient, in contrast with the nature of the Greek city states, and he certainly succeeded. He also tried to explain how ancient imperial states were compelled by their own structure and purpose to follow a given course of action; it is this inner compulsion that caused the Persians to engage first in the unsuccessful war against the Skythians and as a sequel in the equally unsuccessful wars against the Greeks.

The criticism of the narrative of the Skythian campaign is of central significance for those who intend to belittle the achievements of ancient science and try to prove that the predecessors of the Greeks were prelogical and that the Greeks themselves did not emerge from the prelogical mentality, except for the individual contributions of some specific thinkers, most of whom belong to the Hellenistic age.

In two essays, the first of which was presented in 1811,(89)

Niebuhr stated that Herodotos was so "uneducated and simple-minded" as to believe that Skythia had the shape of a square bounded by the sea to the south and to the east.(90)

The west side of the square would be formed by the Danube, believed to be running north-south, from about the latitude of Kiev to the Black Sea. Niebuhr relates that this last point was suggested to him by Ideler, who was the first scholar to claim that the length of the circumference of the Earth was not known in pre-Greek times.(91)

According to Niebuhr, Herodotos would have placed the mouth of the Don at the north-eastern corner of the square at the same latitude as the source of the Danube which, as I have said, he claimed had been placed in the area of Kiev. Niebuhr does not submit a single example of textual analysis in order to prove that Herodotos had concocted this geographical monstrosity, but declared that the work of Herodotos is full of data about measures and distances that do not fit reality. He asserted that Herodotos is wanton when he uses figures, but did not submit these figures to a single test. To discredit the geography of Herodotos means to discredit the scientific value of his entire work, because geography provides the structural framework of the presentation. Herodotos created the science of history by writing a universal history which took as starting model works of universal geography, such as that of his fellow Ionian, Hekataios of Miletos. Hekataios had written a Periegesis, "journey around the world," in which in the form of what we would call social geography, he included a good deal of historical information.

Since Herodotos' account of Skythia was used to justify a revolution in the interpretation of ancient thought, it is worth observing that the interpretation of his words was a distorted one, since not many years after Niebuhr's first writing Arnold Hermann Heeren provided a sensible interpretation of the geography of Skythia according to Herodotos. It is expressed in these words:

The boundaries which Herodotos assigns to Skythia are as follows: on the south, the coast of the Black Sea, from the mouth of the Danube to the Palus Maeotis [Sea of Azov]; on the east, the Persian gulf and the Don, or Tanais, to its rise out of the lake Ivan, which Herodotus was acquainted with; on the north, a line drawn from this lake to that out of which the Tyras, (or Dniester) flows. . . the western boundary was a line from thence to the Danube.(92)

Heeren had proved that Herodotos' text could be taken as having a reasonable meaning if one wanted to; but Niebuhr was speaking in the terms of the spirit of the age and his opinion carried an immense prestige, even though the perusal of his writings does not provide anything but gratuitous assertions.

Among the commentators of Herodotos, only George Rawlinson dared to question outright the interpretation of Niebuhr and to uphold that of Heeren. Rawlinson expressed this opinion: "We seem to see in Herodotus a remarkable knowledge of leading geographical facts, combined, either really or apparently, with mistakes as to minutiae."(93)

But Rawlinson wrote before 1880, before the great turning of the tide in ancient studies. Specialists of ancient geography have on the main accepted Niebuhr's view, except for some minor modifications that are more charitable to Herodotos.

It is regrettable that specialists of ancient geography have accepted the statement of historians of science about the low level of ancient geographical science, so that they have never tried to ascertain why Herodotos based his calculations on a square. Greek geographers repeatedly mention an entity called sfragis, but this term is not explained except by saying superficially that it means "seal," although Greek papyri indicate that sfragis is an entity to which plots of land are related in cadastral surveys. However, it can be gathered from the contexts that when geographers speak of sfragis they mean a geodetic square. All that specialists of ancient geography have achieved is to try to give interpretations of Herodotos' geography of Skythia that are somewhat more charitable than that proposed by Niebuhr.

As a result John L. Myres tries to propound that, in spite of all the criticism, Herodotos still has some virtues as an historian, when it comes to the question of Skythia, argues again, after evaluating the several interpretations, that Herodotos saw this land as being a square surrounded by the sea on two sides.(94)

According to Myres, Herodotos' geographical conceptions were all extraordinarily infantile. The method used by Myres to prove his contention is essentially that followed by Niebuhr, namely, to give a concrete material meaning to mathematical concepts. By this method it could be argued that geographers of our age are so primitive and superstitious as to believe that the world begins at Greenwich and that across the Pacific there runs a line such that by crossing it one can move backwards in time.

A facile writer of history, Bishop Connop Thirlwall, who now is entirely forgotten but in his time was most influential because he was a popularizer of Niebuhr's ideas and wrote in consultation with him, declared that Dareios' "adventures in Scythia elude every attempt to conceive their real nature and connection."(95)

But no sample of a possible attempt was submitted. Bishop Thirlwall asserted that all that the Persians did was to engage in a campaign for the conquest of Thrakia in the course of which they conducted a foray across the Danube in order to intimidate the Skythians from molesting the newly acquired territories. Thirlwall's theory has been accepted by the majority of historians among which I may quote Beloch, De Sanctis, and G. Grundy in his book on the Persian Wars, and their preliminaries.

Others, while willing to believe that there actually took place a campaign against the Skythians, treat the matter as not serious, dividing the blame between Herodotos and King Dareios: the campaign was an occasional adventure expressing the whim of an Oriental potentate about which Herodotos reported a tale spun with Oriental fantasy. Interpreters have read Book Four so as to make both Dareios and Herodotos appear as irresponsible children, one for thinking of the enterprise and the other for weaving such lengthy and pointless tales about it; but they emerge as two giants of the human spirit, one as a statesman and a warleader and the other as the worthy historical interpreter.

Most historians of Greece and of Persia dispose of the Skythian campaign in a passing page. It has become traditional to be flighty about this campaign: Gustave Glotz in his authoritative great treatise of ancient history sums up the events after the crossing of the Danube in these words: "Then, says Herodotos, the army trundled towards the interior, without provisions, without preparation."(96)

Of course, Herodotos does not say anything of the sort.

It is assumed that the marches and countermarches of the Persian army do not need to be considered, since it was Herodotos who pushed this army back and forth across the vastness of Russia, in order to fit the military operations to his insane geography. Rawlinson, since he found the geographical description of Skythia to be comprehensible, protested against the view of those who qualified Herodotos' narrative as "illustrative fiction"; but Rawlinson was speaking to the desert.

By the middle of the last century George Grote could write without bothering to document his extreme contention that what happened after Dareios' crossing of the Danube "if tried by the tests of historical matter of fact, can be received as nothing better than a perplexing dream"(97); in Herodotos' account "we find nothing approaching to authentic statement, nor even what we can set forth as the probable basis of truth on which exaggerating fancy has been at work -- all is inexplicable mystery."(98)

Philippe-Ernest Legrand, the author of a comprehensive commentary to the writings of Herodotos, has followed the line of attack indicated by Niebuhr: as a first step he published an essay on Herodotos' account of the Skythian campaign. Herodotos would have invented the Skythian campaign of King Dareios in order to have a device to string together the pieces of information that he had collected on the customs and practices of several nations. Geographical lines and the Persian army would have been made to follow the needs of a colorful presentation of ethnological data. Legrand sums up his thought with this exclamation: "I do not believe that in other parts of Herodotos' work there could be found another example that reveals his flippancy (desinvolture) in so striking a manner." He concludes his essay by the qualification that the Skythian campaign is an exception and that usually la fantaisie d'Herodote is kept within narrower limits.

Legrand accepts the view held by the majority of scholars that all that King Dareios did was to lead an incursion against some Skythian tribes who lived just north of the Danube. Although "the long tours that Herodotos ascribes to Dareios do not have an historical character," Legrand hesitates in calling Herodotos an outright prevaricator. The Greek historian would not have been in bad faith when he related that the Persians advanced to the Volga: some travelers would have seen Skythian tombs in the form of kurgans in the area of the Volga and, knowing that the king had been in Skythia, would have called them "castles of Dareios"; on the basis of this Herodotos would have built the story of a Persian advance to the Volga and the construction of a fortified line. Concerning the geography of Skythia, Legrand, although granting that Herodotos' words indicate that he had a map before his eyes, repeats Niebuhr's assertions beginning with the one that Herodotos believed that the Danube flows in a north-south direction. Herodotos had some correct information about the coastal areas of the Black Sea, and for the rest he "embroidered"; names of tribes like the Androphagoi and the Melanchlainoi would have been invented in order to populate a terra incognita. Such is the opinion of a scholar who considers himself a defender of Herodotos' sincerity against more radical critics.

The alleged geographical absurdity of Herodotos' description of Skythia is used as evidence not only against Herodotos, but also against the Persians. In summing up the accepted views, Robert Cohen declares that one of the main causes for King Dareios' failure in his campaign was "his ignorance of geography."(99)

The truth could not be more in flagrant opposition to these beliefs of the academic world. An ignorance of geography would have been impossible according to the Persian conception of the cosmological function of their world empire. The Persians were neither ignorant of scientific geography nor indifferent to it. When King Dareios, in order to sanction the establishment of his Empire, founded a new capital, Persepolis, he placed its sacred area exactly at latitude 30 degrees 00 minutes North and at a longitude calculated exactly to the minute in relation to Egypt (3 units of 7 degrees 12 minutes east of the Main Axis of Egypt) so as to be at the point considered the middle of the Oikoumene, the inhabited earth.

But, leaving out of consideration general issues, there is specific textual evidence about the method by which the Persians proceeded to gather information about Skythia. Ktesias (fr. 13, Jacoby) relates that, in preparation for the Skythian expedition, Ariamnes, satrap of Kappadokia, was instructed to cross the Black Sea with a small fleet and to conduct raids on Skythia in order to carry off as prisoners possible informants. One of these, the brother of a Skythian king, proved a valuable source of intelligence. The fleet did not consist of triremes, as might be expected, but of 50 penteconters, which may have been chosen in order to ascend the Russian rivers.

King Dareios did not start his Skythian campaign before having gathered a mass of exact and systematic geographical information that would have been a feat of scientific achievement even a couple of centuries ago. In the first half of the last century Europeans were not as precisely informed about the geography of Central Africa, as King Dareios was informed about the geography of Central Russia. It is true that Herodotos had some difficulty in reporting exactly the mathematical elements of the Persian geographic survey, but the very fact that he tried to cope even with the aspects of ancient geography that were taxing him because of their technicality, prove how well he grasped the importance of geographical information.

In order to plan their campaign, the Persians proceeded to a geographical survey of the Skythian territory. Following what was ancient practice, the survey started by establishing a geodetic square. This geodetic square had an extension of 10 degrees by 10 degrees and included the area from the mouth of the Danube to the mouth of the Don and extended in latitude from the northern coast of the Black Sea to almost the latitude of Moscow. Since Herodotos considered that geography and distances were the main factor in the Skythian campaign, he built his narrative around the data obtained by the construction of this geodetic square. Since he provides exact information about the geography and the distances of the Skythian area in terms of the geodetic square, the first step in understanding the military operations of King Dareios and the presentation by Herodotos, is to locate this square on the map.(100)

If this is not done the account by Herodotos becomes incomprehensible and so do the actions of the King. When interpreters throw overboard the data of mathematical geography, they are left with a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Herodotos, who is considered to unfold his narrative without a forethought, dedicates several chapters in the part that immediately precedes the account of the Skythian campaign (III 134-138) to explain by a concrete example, as is his style, how the Persians proceeded to gather geographical information. While the Persian leaders were planning their Skythian campaign, the question was raised by some of them whether action should be taken against the Greek mainland before attacking Skythia. King Dareios, leaving the main issue open, immediately ordered that as a preparatory step fifteen prominent Persians should conduct a survey of the coasts not only of Greece proper, but also of that part of Italy where there were Greek colonies.

What were the Persian ambitions is indicated by the circumstance that more than twenty years later the Greek Histiaios, the tyrant of Miletos, who was kept prisoner at Susa, promised King Dareios, in order to deceive him into letting him return to his homeland, that he would make him master not only of all the Greeks, but also of the island of Sardinia, which Histiaios described as the largest island of the Mediterranean Sea (V 106). The Persian reconnaissance mission left Phoenicia on two triremes and a large merchant ship loaded with material for gifts and, proceeding along the Greek coast "made a written record of the results of a careful survey of most and best known features of the coastal areas" (III 136). The mission continued beyond Greece to Italy where in Tarentum its members were arrested as spies. Herodotos does not explain who were the fifteen prominent Persians, but possibly they were magi, experts in astronomy who could calculate latitudes and longitudes.

In order to explain how the Persians tried to pool together all the intellectual resources of the Empire, Herodotos gives the example of a certain Demokedes, a Greek from Kroton in Italy, who was brought along in this mission under strict guard. On one occasion in which King Dareios, while at the capital of Susa, had dislocated his foot, he turned to Egyptian physicians who were part of his retinue, since Egyptians were reputed to have the greatest skill in the medical art; but when after seven days these Egyptians could not stop the pain in the ankle of the King, he caused Demokedes, who was considered the best physician of Greece, and who was then at Sardis where he had been in the retinue of the local satrap, to be brought to Susa. Demokedes, by following the principle primum non nocere of Hippokratic medicine, instead of the drastic methods of Egyptian medicine, was able to stop the pain and to cause the King to acquire again the normal use of his foot. Demokedes succeeded also in curing Queen Atossa of a cancer of the breast. As a result Demokedes was treated with the highest honor, but was not allowed to leave the King's court, until the Queen who was in favor of a campaign for the conquest of the Greek mainland in preference to the Skythian campaign, persuaded the King to send the exploratory mission to Greece and Italy, taking along Demokedes "as the best man to provide guidance and information in all that concerns Greece" (III 134).

The story of Demokedes is used by Herodotos also to convey the opinion that King Dareios would have been better advised if he had attacked Greece instead of Skythia. Queen Atossa was the daughter of King Kyros, the founder of the Persian Empire, whom the Greeks considered superior in wisdom to his successor. In the tragedy Persians Aischylos presents Queen Atossa as pointing out to Dareios' successor, Xerxes, the strategic and political errors that caused the Persian disaster in the campaign against Greece in 480 B.C.

All this indicates that the Greeks considered that the Persian rulers in their planning made some erroneous decisions, but not because of lack of rational thinking, nor because of lack of accurate geographical information. Once the geographical data are properly reconstructed, the Persian strategy in the Skythian campaign becomes perfectly clear and Herodotos' account of the events become simple and unequivocal.(101)

87. See below, Part II: "Herodotos on the Sahara."

88. This proposition was advanced explicitely by Macan.

89. "Untersuchungen ueber die Geschichte der Skythen, Geten, und Sarmaten," lecture of 1811, and "Ueber die Geographie Herodots," lecture of 1812, in Kleine historische und philologische Schriften (Bonn, 1828).

90. Ibid., p. 355.

91. Ibid., p. 356. Cf. J. Ludwig Ideler, Historische Untersuchungen ueber die astronomische Beobachtungen der Alten (Berlin, 1806).

92. A. H. Heeren, Historical Researches into the Politics, Intercourse, and Trade of the Principal Nations of Antiquity (Oxford, 1833) vol. II, p. 257, note 4. Heeren conceived of the square as extending as far north as to include the Czarist administrative districts of Riazan and Mogilev.

93. History of Herodotus, fourth edition, (New York, 1880), p. 206.

94. Herodotus, The Father of History (Oxford, 1953), pp. 171-172.

95. The History of Greece, (London, 1855), Vol. II, p. 223.

96. Histoire Grecque Vol. II (Paris, 1931), p. 17. 97. George Grote, History of Greece, (London, 1862), Vol. III, p. 229.

98. Ibid., p. 226.

99. R. Cohen, La Grece et l'hellenization du monde antique, p. 162.

100. See below, Part II: "The Geodetic Square of Skythia."

101. See Part II: Geography.


Previous |Contents |Next