The word geographers in our title is correct but misleading and requires an explanation. We shall deal mainly with four men,⁷²⁰ the leaders of naval expeditions; these men were explorers, adventurers, not geographers in the narrow sense. The purpose of their expeditions was political and economic, but their main result from our point of view was an increase in the knowledge of the earth’s surface. The reality of those four expeditions is plausible but not certain.

Of these four navigators two, Scylax and Sataspes, sailed under Persian auspices; the two others, Hannon and Himilcon, were Carthaginians, who were de facto, if not de jure, the allies of Persia against Greece, for there was an intense rivalry all around the Mediterranean Sea between the Greek settlements on the one hand and the Phoenician and Carthaginian settlements on the other. The explorations that we are going to describe represent the scientific front in the fifth century of the perennial conflict between the East and the West.


Let us listen to Herodotos:

Most of Asia was discovered by Darios. There is a river Indus, in which so many crocodiles are found that only one river in the world has more. Darios, desiring to know where this Indus issues into the sea, sent ships rhanned by Scylax, a man of Caryanda, and others in whose word he trusted; these set out from the city Caspaty-ros and the Pactyic country, and sailed down the river toward the east and the sunrise till they came to the sea; and voyaging over the sea westward, they came in the thirtieth month to that place whence the Egyptian king sent the Phoenicians afore-mentioned to sail round Libya. After this circumnavigation Darios subdued the Indians and made use of this sea. Thus was it discovered that Asia, saving the parts toward the rising sun, was in other respects like Libya.⁷²¹

This Scylax was thus a man of Caryanda,⁷²² who flourished in the time of Darios I (king of Persia, 521–485). One would like to know how this Carian found himself in Afghanistan (a long way off), but there is nothing improbable in that. The Persian governor established in the region of the upper Indus may have wished to know exactly where the river opened into the sea and how it was connected with the Western world. If Scylax was lucky (with regard to the monsoons),⁷²³ the navigation from the Indus delta to the head of the Red Sea was difficult and tedious enough but not impossible, even for very small ships. Arab dhows ⁷²⁴ have repeated it innumerable times. The possibility of Scylax’s voyage is confirmed by an inscription of Darios in Suez, wherein the king declares that he had dug a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea and had given orders for ships to sail from Suez to Persia.⁷²⁵

Scylax’s voyage is quite plausible. An account of it may even have been written and transmitted to later writers, for example, to the author of the Periplus of Scylax of Caryanda. The Periplus describes the navigation all around the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, etc. We might call the author Pseudo-Scylax, for the Periplus is certainly a later compilation; it can be dated c. 360—347. The existence of that apocryphal work confirms that of the original Scylax of Caryanda and of the latter’s navigation across the Arabian Sea.

We may add that whatever doubts might exist in our minds would concern Scylax the man rather than the navigation, for we may take it as certain that many people had sailed down the Indus, across the Arabian Sea, and up the Red Sea before the fifth century. Scylax is the earliest of those navigators to be recorded.


According to Herodotos, Sataspes was a Persian belonging to the royal family, his mother being Darios’s sister. Having ravished a noble girl he was condemned to be impaled, but his mother besought the new king, Xerxes (king from 485 to 465), to change the punishment into another, which according to her was heavier, for he should be compelled to sail round Libya, till he completed his voyage and came to the Arabian Culf. Xerxes agreeing to this, Sataspes went to Egypt, where he received a ship and a crew from the Egyptians, and sailed past the Pillars of Heracles. Having sailed out beyond them, and rounded the Libyan promontory called Soloeis,⁷²⁶ he sailed southward; but when he had been many months sailing far over the sea, and ever there was more before him, he turned back and made sail for Egypt. Thence coming to Xerxes, he told in his story how when he was farthest distant he sailed by a country of little men, who wore palm-leaf raiment; these, whenever he and his men put in to land with their ship, would ever leave their towns and flee to the hills; he and his men did no wrong when they landed, and took naught from the people but what they needed for eating. As to his not sailing wholly round Libya, the reason (he said) was that the ship could move no farther, but was stayed. But Xerxes did not believe that Sataspes spoke truth, and as the task appointed was unfulfilled he impaled him, punishing him on the charge first brought against him.⁷²⁷

Herodotos’ story is full of tantalizing details. In the first place, Sataspes’ mother definitely spoke of the circumnavigation of Africa, and she did not exaggerate when she spoke of it as a very hard undertaking. All the Mediterranean sailors feared the mysterious dangers of the ocean. Second, Sataspes is said to have hired an Egyptian ship and crew; it is probable that he hired in Egypt a Phoenician ship and crew; there had been commercial relations between the two nations from time immemorial and Phoenician galleys were already sailing up the Nile under Thutmose III (fifteenth century). Third, how far down the west coast of Africa did Sataspes actually sail? After leaving Soloeis he sailed southward “for many months,” until his ship “could move no farther, but was stayed.” Did he reach the equatorial doldrums on the latitude of Cape Verde? Or was he stopped by the tradewinds and northward current off the Guinea coast? One reason for believing that he reached the Guinea coast is the strange account of the “little men who wore palm-leaf raiment.” At any rate, even if he went as far as that (say 10° N), he was still exceedingly far from the goal, but the ancients could not possibly imagine the immensity of the African continent.⁷²⁸

About the beginning of the fifth century, the Carthaginian government decided to explore the Ocean, or rather the Oceanic coasts, and to send two expeditions which were to sail out of the Straits of Gibraltar and proceed respectively to the left and right. The first expedition was intrusted to Hannon and the second to Himilcon.


Sataspes’ navigation along the west coast of Africa took place during the rule of Xerxes (486–465). It is remarkable that a similar expedition was undertaken at about the same time, if not a little earlier, under Carthaginian auspices.⁷²⁹

The suffete ⁷³⁰ Hannon left Carthage with a fleet of sixty 50-oared ships carrying 30,000 men and women.⁷³¹ The Carthaginians’ plan, therefore, was not simply exploration, but colonization; they probably meant to continue their old method of establishing in convenient harbors a string of trading stations (factories), which would insure their commercial needs and supremacy.⁷³² After his return to Carthage, Hannon wrote in the Punic language an account of his journey which was inscribed on a tablet placed in the temple of Melkarth. A Greek version of that Punic text has come down to us under the title of the Periplus of Hannon.

Their first important landing place was the island of Cerne, which was about as far distant from the Straits as Carthage was on the other side; this helps us to identify it with the island now called Herne, at the mouth of the Rio de Oro. Having established a base in Cerne, the Carthaginians made two other expeditions from there, the first of which took them to the Senegal River and the second to Cape Verde (Dakar) and the Gambia River, the Bay of Bissagos, and Sherbro Sound (in Sierra Leone; 7°30’ N). I quote modern names, not those used in the Periplus, for the identification of each term would require separate discussion, and we are not concerned with topographic details. The main point is that Hannon followed the West African coast, about 2,600 miles of it, perhaps as far as Cape Palmas, where the coast turns eastward. Did Hannon go farther south than Sataspes? Possibly, but it does not matter. We may credit both navigators (or at least one of them) with the reconnaissance of the northwest coast of Africa. To measure their achievement it suffices to remember that the exploration of the African coast was not continued farther south until almost 2000 years later, by the Portuguese navigators about the middle of the fifteenth century.

How can we believe Hannon’s report? Simply because it includes facts that tally with modern observations and could not possibly have been invented. It is true that no identification of a place or river is completely certain, but all the identifications constitute a coherent pattern which we may trust to be substantially accurate. The anthropologic facts are equally convincing (as a whole), including the reference to bush burnings and to hairy people, called gorillas in the Greek text (Pygmies or Negritos, or real apes?); they captured three females and flayed them for the skins. The report was too short and was misunderstood by later writers, for example, Pliny (1–2), who told that Hannon had sailed all the way to Arabia. That misinformation was generally accepted even by prudent men such as Henry the Navigator and Richard Hakluyt.⁷³³


Himilcon is known to us only through a brief reference by Pliny (I–2),⁷³⁴ who brackets him with Hannon, and a Latin poem of Avienus (IV–2), which is the translation of the Greek poem of Dionysios Periegetes (I–2). Pliny and Dionysios take us back to the first century and this leaves a large gap in the tradition; yet we have no reason to doubt the reality of Himilcon’s voyage. One of the ultimate sources of Avienus and Dionysios was probably the account of a Massiliote captain who had visited Tartessos ⁷³⁵ toward the end of the sixth century and had some knowledge of the Spanish coast. Himilcon’s voyage took place soon after the destruction of Tartessos, that is, about the beginning of the fifth century.

He was sent to explore the west coast of Europe, and he reached a group of islands called the Oistrymnides and a cape of the same name, this is, the Armorican peninsula (Bretagne) and some of the islands off it. He refers to the industry and skill of the islanders, who are excellent sailors in spite of the fact that they have no wooden ships (like the Phoenicians) but only “vessels with skins sewn together” (coracles); they sail to the islands of the Hibernians and of the Albions (Ireland and England). Phoenician sailors used to go to those islands for trade (the tin trade).⁷³⁶ It may be that on his way to Brittany and beyond, or on his way back, Himilcon was blown away to a part of the ocean where there were no winds and where “amidst the swirl of waters seaweed rises up straight and often holds back a ship as brushwood might.” ⁷³⁷ This has been understood by some historians as a reference to the Sargasso Sea, a large body of relatively still water in the Atlantic where weeds accumulate as they would under similar conditions in a river; it is a little difficult to accept that, because the Sargasso Sea is very distant from Europe.⁷³⁸ It is possible that Phoenician navigators reached the Fortunate Islands,⁷³⁹ but it is difficult to believe that they reached the Azores and the Sargasso beyond it.⁷⁴⁰

To sum up, these four accounts of navigation across the Arabian Sea and along the Atlantic coast of Europe and North Africa are more interesting than surprising. Such achievements as have been described above are far less remarkable than, say, Greek cogitations on infinity or arithmetic irrationality. What the Greeks did in the mathematical field was truly astounding, for they proved themselves superior not only to their contemporaries but also to a great many of our own. On the other hand, we fully expect the early navigators, especially the Phoenicians and their offspring the Carthaginians, to do many things comparable to those described or even more daring, and to have done them not only in the fifth century but long before. To consider only the sailing along the Moroccan coast and the planting of factories in Soloeis and other places, it is clear that this required more courage than knowledge. The Carthaginian art of navigation was quite sufficient for such purposes and it would have sufficed even to carry them step by step much farther south along the African coast, and to anticipate the Portuguese achievements of the fifteenth century. The development of Carthaginian colonization was stopped, however, by the life-and-death struggle between Carthage and Rome, which immobilized the Carthaginian navy in the Mediterranean or close to it, and ended with the death of Carthage in 146.

One final remark: what is most surprising in the four accounts is not so much the achievements that they report as the fact that they reached us. We must assume that many other attempts of the same kind, or superior to them, were made in ancient times. The tales did not reach us, because the adventurers died and did not return, or because they did not want any publicity or were not sufficiently articulate to tell their story. The psychology of sailors and adventurers is very different from that of writers; in fact, most of them could not write at all or compose a clear account. Scylax and Sataspes, Hannon and Himilcon must be regarded as the few representatives of a much larger body, the surviving symbols of ancient navigation. ⁷⁴¹

Two of the reports were saved for us, thanks to Herodotos, and his history contains a good many other facts of geographic interest; a few of these will be discussed when we speak of him presently. The main geographic event of the century occurred at the very end of it (in 401), when Xenophon led the Ten Thousand Greek mercenaries who had been left stranded on the upper Tigris across the mountains of Armenia and Cappadocia to Trapezus (Trebizond) on the Black Sea.⁷⁴² That retreat, so vividly described by Xenophon, is one of the outstanding events of its kind in the memory of mankind. Xenophon’s Anabasis, written c. 379–371, is one of the masterpieces of historical and geographic literature. Though the purpose was not geographic, the Anabasis is the earliest description, sufficiently elaborate, of a large district and of the people living in it; it is not only one of the best books of its kind, but the first one.⁷⁴³


The second half of the century witnessed the birth of historiography, that is, the birth of a new branch of science, concerned with the accurate description of man’s experience. Some people have argued that historiography cannot be called a science, because historical truth is too uncertain and elusive, and have blamed me for giving so large a place to it in my Introduction. Their objections are unfounded, because what characterizes scientific efforts is the purpose to find the truth, as much of it as is available, and to come as close to it as circumstances permit. The approximation that is attainable or is actually attained varies from field to field. The scientific nature of our efforts is determined by the quality of our purpose and methods, not by the degree of approximation of our results. Historical facts are uncertain, yet in the fifth century they were less obscure and less wobbly than the great majority of physical facts.


Herodotos, son of Lyxes and Dryo, was born at Halicarnassos in Caria, c. 484.⁷⁴⁴ Caria (in the southwest corner of Asia Minor) had been colonized by the Dorians but much influenced by the more advanced culture of the Ionian cities of the neighborhood; in the fifth century the Greek-speaking people of Caria were speaking the Ionian dialect. About the time of Herodotos’ childhood the dynasty ruling Caria was enfeoffed to the Persian empire. Political troubles obliged the young Herodotos to leave his native country; he spent some time in Samos, then traveled considerably. He visited Athens and got to know Pericles and Sophocles. He spent the end of his life in Thurii (founded in 443) and died there about the beginning of the Peloponnesian War (431–404), say c. 426. In ancient times (down to the third century of our era) he was often called Herodotos of Thurii.

His travels were extensive: he visited Egypt and went up the Nile as far as Asw n and Elephantine; ⁷⁴⁵ he probably went to Cyrene; he was in Gaza and Tyre and traveled down the Euphrates to Babylon. He was acquainted with the northern Aegean as far as Thasos. What is most remarkable of all, he visited Scythia, the country north of the Black Sea, and must have spent some time at Olbia, near the mouth of the Hypanis (Bug), and higher up the river. Many of the facts mentioned by him were witnessed by himself; others were obtained by hearsay. In some places, like Athens and Delphi, he would come across people from every part of the Greek world.

Cicero called him the father of history;⁷⁴⁶ that title of honor has stuck to him ever since and is well deserved. This does not mean that he was the first to write history. Not to mention Hebrew historians like the author of the Books of Samuel (VII B.C.), there had been many chroniclers in the Greek world, We have already spoken of another Persian subject, Hecataios of Miletos, whom Herodotos criticized as freely as he used him, and there were other “logographers,” meaning annalists, chroniclers. Herodotos was the first, however, to write a book that was well composed and readable; in fact, he composed the first masterpiece of Greek prose (Fig. 67).⁷⁴⁷

Fig. 67. Herodotos, editio princeps (folio; Venice: Aldo Manuzio, September 1502); page showing colophon and register of gatherings. That register explains that the book is made of 17 quaternions marked AA, BB, . . . , RR and one duernion marked SS, thus making a total of (16 × 17) + (8 × 1) = 280 pages; this includes the title page and the last page containing the printer’s name, Aldus, and his mark. The page reproduced is the last page but one. [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.]

Let us now examine that great work,

It is an account of the past and present of Greece, Egypt, and Asia Minor. The main purpose is to explain the gigantic conflict between Asia and Greece, from the time of Croisos (king of Lydia, 560–546) to that of Xerxes and the end of the Persian wars, more exactly to the capture of Sestos (479–78).⁷⁴⁸ The History was divided into nine books, each bearing the name of one of the muses; ⁷⁴⁹ that division was probably made by Alexandrian grammarians; it existed already in the time of Lucianos (120–200). When Herodotos referred to his own work, he never mentioned any book, but called his work logos.⁷⁵⁰

His general purpose is well explained in his own words, the first paragraph of the work:

What Herodotos the Halicarnassian has learnt by inquiry is here set forth: in order that so the memory of the past may not be blotted out from among men by time, and that great and marvelous deeds done by Greeks and foreigners and especially the reason why they warred against each other may not lack renown.

That simple statement is as impressive as it is instructive. His purpose is to record for posterity the great deeds accomplished not only by the Greeks but also by the barbarians.⁷⁵¹ This is the more remarkable, because some of the foreigners dealt with were or had been recently the enemies of Greece in a terrible war which was ending at the very time when Herodotos was engaged in the composition of his work. What was the matter with him? Did he lack patriotism? He was a civilized man, trying honestly and gently to understand the men of other nations. It must be added that his cosmopolitan point of view was more natural to him than it would have been, say, to a Theban or an Athenian, because he belonged to a nation, Caria, founded by Dorians but submitted to strong Ionian and Persian influences; it was half Orientalized.⁷⁵² The ruling dynasty was non-Hellenic; Queen Artemisia I, of whom Herodotos speaks favorably,⁷⁵³ was a vassal of Xerxes, and she accompanied him in his expedition with five ships which were reputed the best in his fleet, next to those of Sidon. Plutarch (I–2) wrote a book (De malignitate Herodotis) in which he accused the father of history of being philobarbaros, which would mean almost the same as “cosmopolitan” in the Soviet nations of today. He accused him of being unfair, because Herodotos was not sufficiently prejudiced. He reminds us of some fanatics of our own day who suspect every man whose patriotism is not as blatant as theirs. Add this new item to the list of Greek miracles. The first Greek history was written by a man who had witnessed many episodes of the terrible conflict between Persia and Greece, yet was able to speak of it gently, fairly, without race prejudice.⁷⁵⁴

After having underlined, as was proper, this fundamental virtue of Herodotos’ mind, let us consider more carefully his purpose and methods.

First, a few more words about his sources. The main source was, of course, the information he had collected during his travels in the three continents.⁷⁵⁵ He was as critical as people could be in his time. We could not expect him, for instance, not to believe in divination, but he shows that such belief was not unconditional; oracles were not always accepted at their face value; one might consult many oracles and choose among them. Divination, then as now, was often a kind of thinking aloud and mutual suggestion. Herodotos often expressed his incredulity, or he covered himself with such remarks as ”I told the story as it was told to me”; sometimes he quoted different traditions, leaving it to the reader to choose between them. He was a great storyteller; it has been suggested that he earned his living that way, but there is nothing to prove that. How he did earn it we do not know; perhaps he was a merchant (emporos); he was certainly interested in trade, as most Greeks were.⁷⁵⁶ His book is full of anecdotes and short stories which could be detached from it, pleasant digressions that he loved to add in the manner of a good raconteur. It is possible that he handled documents and saw inscriptions, but he depended chiefly on oral tradition, and was skillful in cross-examining witnesses and checking their testimonies. He helps us to see those witnesses and to hear their very words, then spreads his own reflections, which are good-natured, often shrewd, and make us sometimes think of Montaigne.

His book is a treasury of Greek and Near Eastern folklore. It is comparable to the books of other great travelers, such as Marco Polo (XIII–2) and Ibn Ba a (XIV–2), and his fate was comparable to theirs. The stories they told were so extraordinary that many people refused to believe them; they would smile and say, “se non è vero . . .” Uncritical readers swallowed miracles and myths without demur, but the true stories seemed incredible to them. We shall give a few examples presently.

Herodotos was a master of simple Greek prose, the first author to make the Greek people realize that prose might be as beautiful and as moving as poetry. This was observed by another Halicarnassian, Dionysios (I–2 B.C.). His style is very easy without mannerisms of any kind; his tales are straightforward; he loves digressions and introduces them deliberately, as Homer did. He was influenced by the latter, as every Greek was, but also by the tragedians. Generous, candid, moderate, prudent, he could be as curious and naïve as a child. Picturesque details appealed to his fancy; he indulged in them in some of his digressions, chiefly in his catalogue of all the nations impressed into Xerxes’ army and fleet, the men being armed and dressed differently, each according to his race and customs. That catalogue covers no less than thirty-eight chapters,⁷⁵⁷ beginning with the Persians and ending with Queen Artemisia I and the Carian ships.

His philosophy of history was the same as that of the great poets and playwrights of his time. The fundamental idea is that of the vicissitudes of fortune; it is illustrated throughout his work, which begins fittingly with the history of Croisos and ends with that of Xerxes. In each case, we witness the implacable nemesis chastening insolent pride (hybris). The idea of providence also occurs in Herodotos, ⁷⁵⁸ as it did in Sophocles and Euripides.⁷⁵⁹ Therefore, in spite of his simplicity and good nature, Herodotos was very much in earnest. I would like to complete my portrait of him with a comparison that surprised me: ”Herodotos suffered the fate which befell Mozart. His charm, wit and effortless ease have diverted attention from the note of profound sadness and pity sounded not seldom in his history.” ⁷⁶⁰ A comparison between two men as distant in time, space, and manners as Herodotos and Mozart is of course very hazardous; yet this one appealed to my imagination, for I love them both.

The history of the ancient Near East is extremely complex, and, even for us who have maps, synoptic tables, and dictionaries to guide us at every step, it is sometimes very hard to unravel the skeins of events and to understand what happened. We cannot expect an early historian to explain such complicated matters to us clearly and exactly. Herodotos’ history contains a large number of important data, but it is not, and could not possibly be, a history comparable to those available today, which are the fruit of centuries. In particular, his history of Egypt is a mess; it begins to be valuable only when he deals with the Twenty-sixth (or Saitic) Dynasty (663–525), founded by Psametik I (ruled 663–609), and with the Persian conquest. Egypt remained a province of the Persian empire from 525 to Alexander the Great (332). It was natural enough for Herodotos, born a Persian subject, to visit Egypt, and the innumerable wonders of that country excited his curiosity. He was impressed by the enormous temples, covered with long inscriptions which he could not read, and was at the mercy of dragomans who could not read them either yet were ready to explain them. His account of Egypt is nevertheless exceedingly precious, because it is the only one we have that was composed by a Greek witness, an intelligent outsider, full of sympathy.

His account of Babylonia deserves similar criticism. His knowledge of Babylonian antiquity must have come close to that of an educated Babylonian of that time, who might have definite ideas about the traditions of his people, yet could not possibly know the history of the old dynasties as well as we do.

The story that Herodotos tells ⁷⁶¹ about Fsametik is typical of his credulity mixed with criticism. Some people claimed that the Phrygian culture ⁷⁶² was older than the Egyptian. In order to find the truth, Psametik entrusted newbom children to a shepherd to be brought up among his flock. The children were to be well fed, but nobody was to speak to them. Finally, one of them uttered the word becos (meaning bread), which is Phrygian. Psametik concluded that the Phrygian culture was the older. Herodotos collected other traditions relative to the same story in Memphis, Thebes, and Heliopolis. He heard many other stories concerning the gods, but remarked,⁷⁶³ “I do not wish to relate them, save only the names of the gods, for I believe that no man knows about the gods more than another.”

The philosophic and religious pattern at the back of Herodotos’ mind was a combination of Pythagorean with Oriental ideas. He ascribed the belief in metempsychosis ⁷⁶⁴ to the Egyptians, adding that some of the Greeks, whom he could name, shared it. This is quite plausible, but those Greeks were more likely to have obtained it directly or indirectly from India (sams ra) than from Egypt. He confused Demeter and Dionysos, rulers of the lower world, with Isis and Osiris, but that was natural.

He had no mathematical training and his astronomy was poor. He noticed the luxuriance of the Egyptian’s astrology and divination,⁷⁶⁵ appreciated their measurement and division of the year, (30 × 12) + 5 = 365 days of 24 hours each. ⁷⁶⁶Yet one of his own calculations ⁷⁶⁷ would give to the year an average length of 375 days! He describes⁷⁶⁸ an eclipse that was seen before the battle of Salamis, yet no eclipse occurred in that year (480).

As his history is encyclopedic, there is no end to the remarks that could be made concerning his mention (or omission) of this or that item of the three kingdoms of nature.⁷⁶⁹ We must restrict ourselves to a few samples.

He had noticed the method used in Babylonia for insuring the fructification of palm trees, and he had also observed the caprification of the fig trees. In his account ⁷⁷⁰ he mixes the two methods; this proves that he had heard of both and perhaps witnessed both without clear understanding, and later his memory had betrayed him.⁷⁷¹ The matter was better explained by Theophrastos (IV–2 B.C.). It is one of the most interesting stories in the whole history of science, combining folklore with religion, and evidencing the curious inertia of the human mind. It will suffice to remark that the sexual theory of the fertilization of higher plants was not clearly explained in scientific terms until 1694, and was not generally accepted without considerable resistence. The caprification of the fig tree was not explained until much later.⁷⁷²

In his description of the Scythian rivers Herodotos speaks ⁷⁷³ of the “great spineless fish, called sturgeons,” ⁷⁷⁴ found at the mouth of the Hypanis, which are used for salting, but he does not mention the caviar obtained from them, though it is difficult to believe that the Scythians or the Greek colonists had not yet discovered some form of it.

Herodotos observed the Nile and the land of Egypt and concluded with his often-repeated phrase, that Egypt is a gift of the river (d ron tu potamu), a statement which he justified. He could not explain properly the yearly flood but noticed the yearly deposit of silt. He observed petrified sea shells in the hills and concluded from them and from the coat of salt on the ground that those parts had once been covered by sea water.⁷⁷⁵ Lower Egypt was once under water; the river brings more and more sediments and its delta projects into the sea.⁷⁷⁶ He observed displacements of land and water also in Thessaly, and he ascribed the formation of the defile of Tempe (in northern Thessaly) to an earthquake.

The Thessalians say that Poseidon made this passage whereby the Peneios flows; and this is reasonable; for whosoever believes that Poseidon is the shaker of the earth, and that rifts made by earthquakes are that god’s handiwork, will judge from sight of that passage that it is of Poseidon’s making; for it is an earthquake, as it seems to me, that has riven the mountains asunder.⁷⁷⁷

That is excellent, a curious combination of precocious geologic wisdom with mythology. He recognized that the landscape can be modified by earthquakes, but those earthquakes were caused by Poseidon. This is less astonishing, perhaps, when one recalls the many geologic oddities of the Greek region — hot and mineral springs, narrow gorges, underground rivers, earthquakes — yet most people take the wonders of nature as a matter of course and make no attempt at explanation. Herodotos combined scientific with mythologic interpretation; many men do that even today; their rationalism is always conditional and limited.

Herodotos was not a geographer in the scientific sense; for one thing, his mathematical knowledge was insufficient for true geographic understanding, and his mind was bent in another direction. Yet he had traveled considerably in the three continents, and his experience, completed by the experience of others, enabled him to have a pretty good idea of the inhabited world (the oicumen ). He did not wish to generalize and rationalize that knowledge, and remarked:

It makes me laugh when I notice that many before now have drawn general maps of the earth, but nobody has set the matter forth intelligently; for they draw the Ocean flowing all round the earth, which they make as circular as if fashioned with compasses, and they draw Asia equal in size to Europe.⁷⁷⁸

This first book of history might be called also the first book of human geography, for it includes geographic descriptions of the known earth in general and of many of its parts. These descriptions always take the people into account, for Herodotos had more curiosity about them than about abstractions; he was more interested in human than mathematical geography, and more in human than in natural history. As he had no maps, certainly no good ones, it is not surprising that his account is frequently erroneous; it is rather surprising that the errors are not deeper and more frequent. In many cases, he was aware of his lack of information and did not wish to commit himself. For example, he says:

Concerning the farthest western parts of Europe I cannot speak with exactness; for I do not believe that there is a river called by foreigners Eridanos issuing into the northern sea, whence our amber is said to come, nor have I any knowledge of Tin Islands [Cassiterides] whence our tin is brought. The very name of the Eridanos bewrays itself as not a foreign but a Greek name, invented by some poet; nor for all my diligence have I been able to learn from one who has seen it that there is a sea beyond Europe. This only we know, that our tin and amber come from the most distant parts.⁷⁷⁹

His most curious and worst errors concern the general course of the Danube and of the Nile. As the Danube flows across Europe from west to east, he thought that the upper Nile also flowed in the same direction, and moreover he confused it with the Niger. His confusion is more excusable if we remember that it continued in various forms until the end of the eighteenth century.⁷⁸⁰ Nowhere is the value of atlases and of the accumulation of knowledge that they represent more obvious. At present, any child looking at a good but simple map of Africa can follow the courses of the great rivers — Nile, Niger, Congo — from their sources to the sea, and appreciate immediately their mutual relation. There is for him neither difficulty nor ambiguity.⁷⁸¹

The Persian empire was divided into twenty satrapies or provinces. The Royal Road of Persia from Sardis to Susa is described in detail.⁷⁸² The total length was 450 parasangs, or 13,500 stadia (1 parasang = 30 stadia), or 90 days (150 stadia to a day).⁷⁸³ Resting stages were provided. The distance from Ephesos to Sardis is 540 stadia. Hence, the total distance from the “Hellenic sea” to the capital was 14,040 stadia or 93 days. Herodotos’ description contains various errors, but such as it is, the existence of a royal road crossing the empire and divided into definite stages suggests that some kind of postal service was already organized; indeed, without such service, restricted to official use and combined with “spying and intelligence,” the government of so large an empire would have been impossible. The road described by Herodotos was far longer and more circuitous than it might have been, partly because it followed the course of much older roads (Hittite).⁷⁸⁴

Herodotos’ account of India, the remotest satrapy of the empire, was of indirect origin; it hardly extended beyond the Indus and was very incomplete; yet, such as it is, being the earliest in Greek literature, it is very interesting.⁷⁸⁵ Perhaps the most interesting item is the first mention of cotton.⁷⁸⁶ In India, says he, “there grows on wild trees wool more beautiful and excellent than the wool of sheep; these trees supply the Hindus with clothing.” “The Hindus [in Xerxes’ army] wore garments of tree-wool.”

The main glory of Herodotos, however, lies in his description of men of different nations and of their manners and customs. He may not be the father of history, but he is certainly the father of ethnology.⁷⁸⁷ The main value of his description is ethnologic, for considering his sources of information (direct observation, oral tradition) the chances of error were smaller in that field than in the recording of ancient historical events or of complex geographic relations (say the general lay of rivers and mountains). When he speaks of barbarians, he observes the type of food they eat, their marriage and other sexual customs,⁷⁸⁸ the nature of their dwellings, their language and religion. The best example of ethnologic description is that of the Scythians, dwelling north of the Black Sea; the description is very detailed and is as fundamental a document for the history of Russia as the description that Tacitus (I–2) gave us five and a half centuries later is for the history of Germany. Herodotos begins with a general survey of the country and the climate; then he tells us about their gods, giving the names in the Scythian language (which we hardly know otherwise),⁷⁸⁹ describes religious rites and sacrifices, military usages, methods of divination, the manners of medicine men, execution of criminals, methods of burial. Herodotos’ descriptions have been checked by ethnologists and archaeologists and confirmed on every point. His account of the burial of Scythian kings and of the things buried with them has been proved correct by the modern excavation of such graves. The Scythians used hemp very much as other people use flax, and throwing hemp seeds on red-hot stones they enjoyed intoxicating steam baths.⁷⁹⁰ This is the first reference to a plant (Cannabis sativa, indica) which has been used and abused extensively by the men of many nations (especially in the Near and Middle East) from the most ancient days down to our own. The history of cannabis is one of the longest chapters in the study of man’s desire for intoxication.

Let us consider briefly a few other examples. A new branch of prehistoric archaeology was initiated in 1854 by the Swiss Ferdinand Keller — the study of lake dwellings (lacustrine archaeology).⁷⁹¹ Now, Herodotos described lake dwellings in Lake Prasiad, Macedonia, and the manner and customs of lake dwellers; a shorter note on lake dwellers in Colchis (eastern end of the Black Sea) was written by his contemporary, Hippocrates of Cos.⁷⁹²

Herodotos mentions Pygmies in Lybia.⁷⁹³ This was not a novelty, but Herodotos’ account is more complete and convincing than previous ones. The existence of pygmy races (negrillos) has been fully and repeatedly proved by modern explorers (Du Chaillu, Schweinfurth, Stanley).⁷⁹⁴

He notices blood covenants: “These nations [the Lydians and the Medes] make sworn compacts as do the Greeks; moreover, they cut the skin of their arms and lick each other’s blood.” ⁷⁹⁵ This custom has been frequently observed by modern ethnologists.⁷⁹⁶

He speaks of sacred tattooing: “There was on the coast [near the Canopic mouth of the Nile] and still is, a temple of Heracles, where if a servant of any man take refuge and be branded with certain sacred marks in token that he delivers himself to the god, such a one may not be touched.”⁷⁹⁷ One might argue that branding should be distinguished from tattooing.

He describes the Egyptian worship of animals.⁷⁹⁸ The stories related are not fables; they have been confirmed by archaeologic evidence and by studies on totemism, a branch of ethnology that dates only from the last quarter of the last century.⁷⁹⁹

There is no need of multiplying these observations. The ethnologic remarks constitute the most original part of Herodotos’ work, so original that they were not properly appreciated until our own day. The very best commentators of the last century overlooked them, because ethnology did not yet exist, or was not sufficiently formulated, and whatever existed of it was not known to them. They were classical scholars, archaeologists, students of ancient politics and religion, and could not recognize the value of ethnologic facts when they came across them. The facts that ethnologists of today classify readily under such topics as animism, tabu, totem, lake dwellings, and so forth,⁸⁰⁰ were discarded as oddities or inventions. Herodotos had laid the foundation of a science which fell into neglect soon after his death; it is not that the Greeks lacked interest in men; they were deeply interested in the riddles of life, but under the influence of Socrates and Plato, they were led to pay more attention to man’s inner nature, to his ethical and political problems, and to neglect the study of his manners and customs. How do men live and solve their everyday problems? How do they feed themselves? What kind of garments do they make and wear and what kind of houses do they build? What are their sexual habits and family connections? Why do they behave as they do? How do they pass from childhood to adolescence, from celibacy to marriage, from manhood to old age? How do they treat the sick and the insane? How do they dispose of the dead? ... Herodotos tried to answer such questions, but few of his successors did. Some interest in “ethnology” was developed in the eighteenth century, but the science of ethnology was hardly established before the end of the last century and the beginning of our own. Many of the facts related by the father of history, which seemed irrelevant to our grandparents, have been verified by modern ethnologists and, being the first examples of their kind, have obtained considerable value. As one of the leading ethnologists of our time remarked: “Hérodote gagne de jour en jour.”⁸⁰¹ The father of history has often been called the “father of lies,” but many of the lies imputed to him were not inventions of his but gaps in our own knowledge. His stature increases in proportion as our ignorance of ethnology decreases.


We have hardly spoken of Sparta, because it is possible to write the history of Greek science without mentioning Sparta and without essential loss. It is well to speak of it briefly, however, not for its own sake, but for the better understanding of its great rival and enemy, Athens.

Sparta (or Lacedaimon), in Laconica, was the chief city of the Peloponnesos. It had been invaded by Dorians, who became the leading class, reducing the natives to secondary importance and even the mass of them to slavery. At the time of the Persian invasion they were the strongest nation in Greece, yet the victory was largely due to Athenian initiative, and it helped to increase the growth of Athens. During the half century of relative peace that followed Salamis (480), the Athenian empire developed and her moral supremacy was established. This became gradually unbearable to the Lacedaimonians, and was the main cause of the Peloponnesian War (431–404).

Or one might say that the main cause was deeper — absolute incompatibility of temperament and ideals between Sparta and Athens. It was a conflict between Ionians and Dorians, or between democracy and oligarchy, or between maritime and territorial power. The two rivals tried to bolster their strength by enlisting some of their neighbors as allies, and gradually two systems of alliances covered all of Greece and Ionia; the world was divided into two hostile groups and the difference of potential between them was steadily increasing; a discharge was bound to occur sooner or later, and the war would be on. It was a war to the death which crippled both and, in the end, destroyed Greek independence. We have no space to enter into many details, but the story of the war might be summarized as follows.

At the beginning, Athens seemed to hold all the winning cards; her empire was held together by overwhelming sea power. That initial advantage was lost, because of the occurrence of the plague (430—29) which decimated the Athenian population and left the survivors demoralized. The first ten years of continuous war (431—421) were concluded by the Peace of Nicias.⁸⁰² That peace was to last fifty years, but it proved to be hardly more than a suspicious and precarious armistice. The Sicilian expedition undertaken by the Athenians in 415 (134 triremes carrying 4000 hoplites) ended with complete disaster to the Athenian navy and army at Syracuse in 413. The last ten years of the war, 413–404, led to the surrender and humiliation of Athens.

Athens was prostrate and Sparta triumphant. In the light of eternity, however, Sparta did not win and Athens is immortal. The victory of Sparta did not stop the intellectual development of Athens (as we shall show in the following chapters), and Athens remained the school of Greece and of Europe. The glory of Greece is the glory of Athens, not of Sparta.

Moreover, the Spartans did not retain their material hegemony very long, for they were beaten by the Thebans at Leuctra in 371, and a generation later the disunited Greeks were obliged to yield to the Macedonians, when they were beaten by Philip II at Chaironea in 338.

We might thus say that while the Persian Wars saved Greece from barbarism, the Peloponnesian War prepared its decadence and fall.

The first wars had inspired Herodotos; the second introduced another great historian, one of the greatest of all time, Thucydides.

Thucydides, son of Oloros, was an Athenian. We know his character exceedingly well, but not the circumstances of his life. We cannot even say exactly when he was born and when and where he died. The most likely dates are c. 460, c. 400 (or a little later for both, 455–395). He suffered from the plague but recovered; this shows that he was in Athens in 430–29. We may assume that he was a man of substance, for he possessed the right of working gold mines in Thrace,⁸⁰³ and he must have enjoyed sufficient economic independence to devote his life to the writing of his history. Part of his time must have been devoted to political and military affairs, for in 424 he was appointed strat gos (general). He did not keep that office very long, for in the same year he failed to relieve Amphipolis and was banished for twenty years;⁸⁰⁴ this gave him leisure for historical work; he may have spent part of those twenty years traveling for documentation; it is possible that he remained most of the time at Scapte Hyle, where he felt at home and was sufficiently remote from the war to consider it with some degree of aloofness and work in peace. If he wrote there the history of the civil war, as we believe he did, Scapte Hyle is a sacred place. We gather from his own words, however, that he had undertaken his work soon after the beginning of the war (431) and was still engaged in it after the Athenian disaster (404). Thus, even if he spent the years 424 to 404 (or the greatest part of them) in Scapte Hyle, his history was begun before and completed after his exile.

The history begins as follows (Fig. 68):

Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war waged by the Peloponnesians and the Athenians against one another. He began the task at the very outset of the war, in the belief that it would be great and noteworthy above all the wars that had gone before, inferring this from the fact that both powers were then at their best in preparedness for war in every way, and seeing the rest of the Hellenic race taking sides with one state or the other, some at once, others planning to do so. For this was the greatest movement that had ever stirred the Hellenes, extending also to some of the barbarians, one might say even to a very large part of mankind.

Fig. 68. Thucydides, editio princeps (folio; Venice: Aldo Manuzio, May 1502). Note that the first Greek editions of Herodotos and Thucydides are both “Aldine” editions of the same year, 1502. We reproduce the first page of the text proper, beginning with the famous words translated in our own account: “Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war...” The blank space, top left, was left to allow the limner to add a large ornamental initial, a small theta being printed for his guidance. [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.]

The author fully realized the great importance of his task; he could realize it at the very outset, because the war had been so long in preparing. It was more than the civil war of one nation, for it involved many other nations (the Spartans finally won with the help of Persia). To the philosopher, every war is a civil war; this was especially true of the Peloponnesian War, which cut mankind asunder. After 404, Thucydides revised his work and wrote a kind of new preface:

The history of these events has been written by the same Thucydides, an Athenian, in the chronologic order of events, by summers and winters, up to the time when the Lacedaemonians and their allies put an end to the dominion of the Athenians and took the Long Walls and Peiraieus. Up to that event the war lasted twenty-seven years in all; and if anyone shall not deem it proper to include the intervening truce in the war, he will not judge aright. For let him but look at the question in the light of the facts as they have been set forth and he will find that that cannot fitly be judged a state of peace in which neither party restored or received all that had been agreed upon . . . so that, including the first ten-years’ war, the suspicious truce succeeding that, and the war which followed the truce, one will find that, reckoning according to natural seasons, there were just so many years as I have stated, and some few days over. He will also find, in the case of those who have made any assertion in reliance upon oracles, that this fact alone proved true; for always, as I remember, from the beginning of the war until its close, it was said by many that it was fated to last thrice nine years. I lived through the whole war, being of an age to form judgments, and followed it with close attention, so as to acquire accurate information.⁸⁰⁵

The history remained incomplete, for in spite of the statement just quoted, Thucydides did not carry his account beyond the year 411. The division of it into eight books was probably made by Alexandrian scholars. The genuineness of book VIII has been questioned; the text as we have it has been ascribed to Thucydides’ daughter, to Xenophon, and to Theopompos of Chios. It is certain that the two last-named wrote Hellenica, in continuation of Thucydides; Theopompos’ lost work told the story from 411 to 394; Xenophon’s work, which is preserved, deals with a longer period, from 411 to the second battle of Mantinea, 362. Book VIII has all the marks of Thucydides’ authorship, except that it does not include speeches.

The first twenty-three chapters of book I are an introduction dealing with archaeology, describing rapidly the events of the years 479 to 440, connecting his history with that of Herodotos, and explaining the genesis of the new war. The rest of the work is devoted to the war itself, the vicissitudes of which are told with moderation and objectivity in strict chronologic order. The first year of the war (431) is determined by naming the eponymic magistrates of Athens and Sparta, but this being done, the years are no longer identified except as the first year, the second year, etc., of the war, and the Athenian months are not named. The various calendars in use in Thucydides’ time were a source of confusion, and he paid no attention to them. For each year, he distinguishes the good season (theros) and the bad one (cheim n), and when further precision is needed he refers to agricultural events such as the awakening of spring, the wheat in the blade, the shooting of it into the ear, the vintage, the last beautiful days. His account is completely included within this rigid chronologic frame. He is often obliged to move suddenly from one part of Greece to another, and this annoys the reader, but we recognize that he was right; he subordinated topographic unity to chronology, which is the best guide and protection of the scientific historian. I use the word scientific deliberately, for Thucydides was in the full sense of the word a scientific historian, the first in the world’s history. His book is the first masterpiece of Attic prose (Herodotos’ was written in an Ionian dialect), but it is more than that: it is the first attempt to describe a war, its causes and vicissitudes, as a trained man of science would do, or say, as a physician would describe the ups and downs of a disease. He avoided the fables and ambiguities; as he proudly put it:

It may well be that the absence of the fabulous from my narrative will seem less pleasing to the ear; but whoever shall wish to have a clear view both of the events which have happened and of those which will some day, in all human probability, happen again in the same or a similar way — for these to adjudge my history profitable will be enough for me. And, indeed, it has been composed, not as a prize-essay to be heard for the moment, but as a possession for all time.⁸⁰⁶

The last words in the English translation, corresponding to the Greek ct ma es aiei, have often been quoted, or rather they have been misquoted as if the word used were mn ma (memorial) and as if Thucydides had exclaimed like Horace, “Exegi monumentum aere perennius.” It is not that at all. Thucydides is not thinking of his own glory, but, like a good scientist, of the validity of his work; he has taken immense pains to obtain results of permanent value.

His sources were his own experience and the knowledge he had obtained from other witnesses; in some cases he made use of definite documents which he inserted into his narration; for example, the treaty of Nicias is quoted in extenso,⁸⁰⁷ and also a treaty of alliance between the Athenians, Argives, Mantineans, and Eleans.⁸⁰⁸ A part of that treaty was found in 1877 by the Archaeological Society of Athens upon a marble slab near the Acropolis; the text of that inscription tallies, as far as it goes, with the text given by Thucydides and is a magnificent justification of him. In spite of his devotion to Pericles, he was not a party man; or let us put it this way: his partisanship was moderate and he always remained capable of hearing and understanding the views of the other side and of explaining them with honesty and even with sympathy. The liberal education given by the sophists had trained Athenians to see both sides of a question, and the many sides of each personality. Of course, not every Athenian could benefit from such training, but the soul of Thucydides was exceedingly well adapted to it.

His essential purpose was to be as truthful as possible at all costs. He knew the feelings of a scientist who must describe unfortunate experiments; the failure is vexing, yet there is some pleasure in explaining it truthfully. He draws excellent portraits of the leading men; his portrait of Pericles is our best source for the study of the latter’s character and policy, chiefly during the final years (433 to 429); it shows us a man who seemed to be able to achieve the impossible, for he could restrain the people without limiting their freedom;⁸⁰⁹ that is, he could inspire them to accept the needed discipline as if they had chosen it themselves. It was pleasant for Thucydides to explain the political genius of Pericles, whom he admired so much, but he could do justice to the men whom he did not like so well, describe the violence of Cleon, the timid honesty mixed with superstition, of Nicias, the brilliant recklessness of Alcibiades. His opinion of men was largely independent of their success or lack of it; a good man might be out of luck, yet his character would tell.

His nonpartisanship, objectivity, and honesty appear at their best in the discussion of the fundamental issue: the comparative values of Athenian democracy and Lacedaimonian totalitarianism. Democracy is magnificently defended in the funeral oration made by Pericles,⁸¹⁰ one of the noblest political discourses ever made. It is an immortal credit to the memory, not only of Pericles who pronounced it but also of the Athenians who listened to him, and to their mother, the city of Athens. How great were the men, fit to be given and to receive such a generous message! It is too long for full quotation but I cannot resist offering a few samples:

For we are lovers of beauty yet with no extravagance and lovers of wisdom yet without weakness. Wealth we employ rather as an opportunity for action than as a subject for boasting; and with us it is not a shame for a man to acknowledge poverty, but the greater shame is for him not to do his best to avoid it. And you will find united in the same persons an interest at once in private and in public affairs, and in others of us who give attention chiefly to business, you will find no lack of insight into political matters. For we alone regard the man who takes no part in public affairs, not as one who minds his own business, but as good for nothing.⁸¹¹

And his final words:

I have now spoken, in obedience to the law, such words as I had that were fitting, and those whom we are burying have already in part also received their tribute in our deeds; besides, the state will henceforth maintain their children at the public expense until they grow to manhood, thus offering both to the dead and to their survivors a crown of substantial worth as their prize in such contests. For where the prizes offered for virtue are greatest, there are found the best citizens. And now, when you have made due lament, each for his own dead, depart.⁸¹²

Americans cannot read those sublime words without thinking of the Gettysburg address of Lincoln, and it is to the eternal honor of both statesmen — so distant in time and space — that their two funeral orations are so close in nobility and equanimity.

The other side of the argument was given by Thucydides in the words of

Cleon son of Cleainetos who had been successful in carrying the earlier motion to put the Mytileneans to death. He was not only the most violent of the citizens, but at that time had by far the greatest influence with the people.⁸¹³

Said Cleon:

On many other occasions in the past I have realized that a democracy is incompetent to govern others,⁸¹⁴

and he went on to explain that democracy and empire are incompatible. Thus, the Athenians of the end of the fifth century were facing the same dilemma as the British, the French, the Dutch, and the Americans of our own day. It is poignant to read Pericles and Cleon today when democracy is facing a new test, greater than any previous one. We ought to meditate the immortal words of Pericles but pay some attention to the conservative warnings of Cleon.

Thucydides helped his contemporaries, and he still helps us, to understand the fundamental differences obtaining between men, some of which are innate, others due to circumstances, yet deep seated. His own duty was to compare the two inveterate enemies, Athens and Sparta. The Athenians were characterized (for example, in the funeral oration) by their intellectual eagerness and curiosity, their expansiveness, hospitality, elegance and taste, generosity, and restlessness; the Lacedaimonians were comparatively poor, earnest, self-centered, slow and quiet, conservative, cautious, jealous, tenacious, and patient; it was terrible to have such men (who might be good men in their own way) as enemies. The two types still exist, and the fight between Athens and Sparta is not yet finished, and perhaps never will be. The scientific description which Thucydides has provided is more dramatic than one which might have tried to be more impressive but would have been like a lawyer’s plea, less objective and less impartial. In the long run there is nothing more moving than the truth.

One may regret that Thucydides was so determined in his purpose that he left all the rest out, and gave no account of the society of his time, nor of the incomparable achievements of the Greek artists and thinkers. This was one of the golden ages, and how precious would have been the description of it by a contemporary as intelligent and sensitive as Thucydides. He was a man of science, however (I cannot help harping on this), who knew that a scientific investigation must have an object that is not too large and is clearly limited. Thucydides did not give us a picture of Athens’ golden age, but he gave us, with as much precision and truthfulness as were in his power, a description of her life-and-death struggle with an implacable enemy. That was his job and nothing must distract him from it.

It has been argued that Thucydides’ method or outlook changed during the thirty years of composition; philologists have tried to prove that by internal analysis. If one bears in mind that Thucydides kept revising his work, and that a part of book I may have been revised as recently as a part of book VII, it is clear that such analysis is unreliable. Yet we are willing to accept the general statement. Thucydides was clearly mature when he began his work but his experience increased, and the failure of Nicias’ peace and of the Sicilian expedition must have disillusioned him; he cannot have been quite the same before and after those awful deeds. It must have been with him as it is with every scholar engaged in a long undertaking: he cannot help changing as life passes and his work grows.

We must come back for a moment to the first chapters of Thucydides’ book, the archaeologic introduction. It is highly significant that he considered it necessary to write it. The point is that Thucydides (like Hippocrates of Cos, as we shall see later) was a modern; he was just as conscious of his modernity and up-to-dateness as we are of ours, and he was conscious of the long past that had gradually created the present situation. Therefore, a summary of past experience was necessary, but we are astonished to find that he made it to some extent (considering his means) as we would do ourselves. For example, he assumed that Homer’s account of the Trojan War, however embellished it might be by his poetic imagination, must be based on realities. Speaking of the Aegean islands, he remarks:

Still more addicted to piracy were the islanders. These included Carians as well as Phoenicians, for Carians inhabited most of the islands, as may be inferred from the fact that, when Delos was purified by the Athenians in this war and the graves of all who had ever died on the island were removed, over half were discovered to be Carians, being recognized by the fashion of the armor found buried with them, and by the mode of burial, which is that still in use among them.⁸¹⁵

Thucydides is the only ancient writer who used archaeologic evidence to illustrate Greek origins. He might be called the father of archaeology, even as Herodotos was called the father of ethnology. The introduction throws some light also on his philosophy of history. For his account reveals a conception of progress opposite to the idea of regress expressed by Hesiod, which was the more usual point of view down to the seventeenth century. Yet his statement⁸¹⁶ quoted above suggests the possibility of repetitions in human affairs; Thucydides does not expand that suggestion and therefore one has no right to compare it with the Platonic idea of the recurrence of cycles (or periods) and of eternal return. He might mean simply what the scientist means: if similar circumstances recur we may expect similar results. Among the circumstances that the historian must necessarily consider are the passions of men, and these do not vary greatly from time to time or from place to place. The study of the past may thus help historians to foresee the consequences of human conflicts even as the study of clinical reports helps physicians to foresee the probable evolution of diseases.

The impartiality and objectivity of Thucydides extended to himself: he hardly spoke of his own condemnation and exile, made no apology. Was that disdain? Or the reaction of a good and proud conscience? Or scientific objectiveness? Perhaps in this case it was the three combined, but chiefly the third.

Where did Thucydides obtain his scientific outlook? The qualities of objectivity and impartiality that made that outlook possible were no doubt in himself, yet they might have been encouraged or discouraged by external circumstances. They were favored by his education. He sat at the feet of Antiphon of Rhamnos and of other sophists. Sophistry has become so obnoxious to us that we may find it difficult to realize its helpfulness in the fifth century. To begin with, we must remember that most Athenians had of necessity a forensic conception of truth. The members of a public assembly must determine the respective validities of different pleadings. How will they do it? How will they choose between two orators defending opposite points of view in a political controversy? It is rare that one party is pure white and the other pure black. Matters are not so simple as that. Party men of course would vote blindly for their own party. Now, the sophists, at least the better ones, were educating young people to avoid party prejudices and other preconceived opinions, to despise lies and superstitions. This was good preparation for rational and scientific thought. The men who taught the relativity of truth were not necessarily cynics or skeptics; thanks to their political experience, they were keenly aware of the special difficulties caused by prejudice and by the lack of open-mindedness. In purely scientific controversies it is relatively easy to follow the right path, but in political matters the first condition for discovering the truth is sufficient objectivity, tolerance, and sympathy for the adversary. Thucydides was eminently well prepared by his own genius to understand such teaching, and he became as open-minded and objective as it was possible to be.

His love of truth enabled him to see the actualities, to record them candidly, and to classify them (as any man of science classifies his observations and reduces them to order); he was able to see things as they are, yet sub specie aeternitatis. In general, he did not consider the morality of events; it sufficed to describe them. Yet he reported the corruption that followed the plague, and the one caused by the other vicissitudes of the endless conflict — a theme familiar enough to the students of any war.

His style was as honest and austere as his mind; he wrote with earnestness, brevity, precision, clearness, and vigor. The details were as accurate as he could have them and the general account well balanced. Macaulay, himself one of the greatest English historians, did not hesitate to declare, “There is no prose composition, not even the De corona,⁸¹⁷ which I place so high as the Seventh Book of Thucydides. It is the ne plus ultra of human art” (that book VII deals with the ill-fated Sicilian expedition, the main cause of Athens’ ultimate defeat). What more could one say? And who could say it with greater authority?

One aspect of Thucydides’ method of composition has been discussed with painful iterativeness and prolixity by every critic, that is, his habit (which he shared with other historians of antiquity) of including actual speeches in his narrative. Let us listen to him:

As to the speeches that were made by different men, either when they were about to begin the war or when they were already engaged therein, it has been difficult to recall with strict accuracy the words actually spoken, both for me as regards that which I myself heard, and for those who from various other sources have brought me reports. Therefore the speeches are given in the language in which, as it seemed to me, the several speakers would express, on the subjects under consideration, the sentiments most befitting the occasion, though at the same time I have adhered as closely as possible to the general sense of what was actually said.⁸¹⁸

Is not that clear enough? Once it was understood that the speeches should not be taken literally, it made little difference whether they were written directly or indirectly, with or without quotation marks. The writing of the speeches as such was a convention that deceived nobody. It was a necessary convention, or at least a justifiable one, because the ancients could not know the ipsissima verba unless they had been present and had a retentive memory; the convention would be unjustifiable today, because literal reports of speeches can easily be obtained.⁸¹⁹

A final question that the thoughtful reader might well ask is this: How was it possible for a patriotic Athenian to describe with such impassivity the tragic events that led to the abject defeat of his country? The answer has already been given, or at least a part of it. Thucydides was a patriot, to be sure, an enthusiastic lover of Athenian democracy, but he was also a man of science; his loyalty to truth was greater than any other. In the second place, so deep was his faith in democracy that he did not accept the defeat of Athens as final. After that defeat Athens remained — or could remain — what she had been hitherto: the school of Greece (t s Hellados paideusis⁸²⁰). As Pericles had explained it in the funeral oration, the main fruit of democracy was not efficiency but education. In spite of terrible vicissitudes Athens did continue to educate Greece and the whole Western world; the faith of Pericles and Thucydides was amply justified.

The Plague of Athens (430—29). A year after the beginning of the war, the invasion of Attica by the Spartans had driven its inhabitants into Athens. The city was overcrowded, sanitation was poor, and conditions were as favorable as could be for the spread of an epidemic. The epidemic occurred and was terrible. Let us quote Thucydides’ account, the first elaborate description of a plague in world literature:

At the very beginning of summer [430] the Peloponnesians and their allies, with two-thirds of their forces as before, invaded Attica, under the command of Archidamos, son of Zeuxidamos, king of the Lacedaimonians, and establishing themselves proceeded to ravage the country. And before they had been many days in Attica the plague began for the first time to show itself among the Athenians. It is said, indeed, to have broken out before in many places, both in Lemnos and elsewhere, though no pestilence of such extent nor any scourge so destructive of human lives is on record anywhere. For neither were physicians able to cope with the disease, since they at first had to treat it without knowing its nature, the mortality among them being greatest because they were most exposed to it, nor did any other human art avail. And the supplications made at sanctuaries, or appeals to oracles and the like, were all futile, and at last men desisted from them, overcome by the calamity.

The disease began, it is said, in Ethiopia beyond Egypt, and then descended into Egypt and Libya and spread over the greater part of the King’s territory. Then it suddenly fell upon the city of Athens, and attacked first the inhabitants of the Peiraieus, so that the people there even said that the Peloponnesians had put poison in their cisterns; for there were as yet no public fountains there. But afterwards it reached the upper city also, and from that time the mortality became much greater. Now any one, whether physician or layman, may, each according to his personal opinion, speak about its probable origin and state the causes which, in his view, were sufficient to have produced so great a departure from normal conditions; but I shall describe its actual course, explaining the symptoms, from the study of which a person should be best able, having knowledge of it beforehand, to recognize it if it should ever break out again. For I had the disease myself and saw others sick of it.

That year, as was agreed by all, happened to be unusually free from disease so far as regards the other maladies; but if anyone was already ill of any disease all terminated in this. In other cases from no obvious cause, but suddenly and while in good health, men were seized first with intense heat of the head, and redness and inflammation of the eyes, and the parts inside the mouth, both the throat and the tongue, immediately became blood-red and exhaled an unnatural and fetid breath. In the next stage sneezing and hoarseness came on, and in a short time the disorder descended to the chest, attended by severe coughing. And when it settled in the stomach, that was upset, and vomits of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, these also attended by great distress; and in most cases ineffectual retching followed producing violent convulsions, which sometimes abated directly, sometimes not until long afterwards. Externally, the body was not so very warm to the touch; it was not pale, but reddish, livid, and breaking out in small blisters and ulcers. But internally it was consumed by such a heat that the patients could not bear to have on them the lightest coverings or linen sheets, but wanted to be quite uncovered and would have liked best to throw themselves into cold water — indeed many of those who were not looked after did throw them-selves into cisterns — so tormented were they by thirst which could not be quenched; and it was all the same whether they drank much or little. They were also beset by restlessness and sleeplessness which never abated. And the body was not wasted while the disease was at its height, but resisted surprisingly the ravages of the disease, so that when the patients died, as most of them did on the seventh or ninth day from the internal heat, they still had some strength left; or, if they passed the crisis, the disease went down into the bowels, producing there a violent ulceration, and at the same time an acute diarrhoea set in, so that in this later stage most of them perished through weakness caused by it. For the malady, starting from the head where it was first seated, passed down until it spread through the whole body, and if one got over the worst, it seized upon the extremities at least and left its marks there; for it attacked the privates and fingers and toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, though some lost their eyes also. In some cases the sufferer was attacked immediately after recovery by loss of memory, which extended to every object alike, so that they failed to recognize either themselves or their friends.

Indeed the character of the disease proved such that it baffles description, the violence of the attack being in each case too great for human nature to endure, while in one way in particular it showed plainly that it was different from any of the familiar diseases: the birds, namely, and the four-footed animals, which usually feed upon human bodies, either would not now come near them, though many lay unburied, or died if they tasted of them.⁸²¹

This is not the end of the description, but we have given the essential, as far as the medical side is concerned. Note that the Athenians at first ascribed the plague to deliberate poisoning of cisterns by the enemy; that is a feature which recurs in many accounts of plagues down to the seventeenth century.⁸²² The medical description provided by Thucydides may seem clear to laymen, yet it is not sufficient for certain diagnosis. The epidemic was possibly new, that is, it was caused by the occurrence of a new microbe or virus against which the Athenian bodies were not yet prepared; this would explain its violence and deadliness (though overcrowding, semistarvation, and uncleanliness would explain much of it even if the microbe were not a newcomer). We know that diseases penetrating a virgin territory cause terrible havoc, as with the Black Death of the middle of the fourteenth century, syphilis at the end of the fifteenth,⁸²³ the epidemic of smallpox among the Aztecs in 1520,⁸²⁴ the European pandemic of cholera in 1831—32, the epidemic of measles in the Fiji Islands in 1875. Similar examples might be borrowed from the history of epidemics affecting plants and animals, such as the sudden and disastrous arrival of the gypsy moth in Massachusetts in 1889, the San José scale in the eastern states of the United States in 1893, the cotton boll weevil in Texas in 1894, and so on. It is quite possible that the plague of Athens was the first of its kind, and that it was never exactly duplicated; indeed, the reaction of a people virgin to a disease could never be duplicated by a people that has lost its virginity and has acquired some degree of inurement and immunity.

Many attempts have been made to identify the plague of Athens, and the multiplicity of the identifications illustrates their precariousness. None is convincing; it is a matter of a greater or lesser probability, not of certainty. Was it bubonic plague, smallpox, typhus fever, typhoid fever? The latest investigation, made by Shrewsbury⁸²⁵ suggests measles and is very plausible. His paper contains a long bibliography but does not mention the Thucydides of Finley.⁸²⁶ In this otherwise excellent book, the suggestion is made (or repeated) that the plague was not an infectious disease but ergotism.⁸²⁷ Measles is perhaps the best guess, but how could one be sure?

It is typical of the nonscientific-mindedness of many historians (even our own contemporaries) that they have considered Thucydides’ medical description of the plague as a kind of digression. To Thucydides’ scientific mind, this was no digression at all but the very heart of his subject. The physical consequences of the plague were terrible, the moral consequences worse; one might say that the plague was the earnest of the ultimate defeat of Athens. Was it not worth while then to find out what the plague was? How did it come about? How did it stop? Here was a clear case of prophasis, diagn sis, therapeia (the search for causes, diagnosis, and treatment). It was not Thucydides’ fault that his analysis was not more useful; at any rate he did his duty, the duty of a scientific historian.

It is typical that the greatest philosophic poet of antiquity, Lucretius (I–1 B.C.), recognized the intrinsic importance of that description. The terrifying account of the plague of Athens with which he brings the De rerum natura to a close⁸²⁸ follows the text of Thucydides.

The story of the plague has been told with some detail in the author’s own words, because it is almost the only part of his history that interests the historian of science immediately. A reference to fire signals across mountains ⁸²⁹ may interest historians of technology, but such simple telegraphy must have been practiced long before that time.⁸³⁰ Indeed, we know that many primitive people are accustomed to transmit messages by the use of fires or drums; in particular, the playing on drums permits the transmission of signals of great complexity.

Thucydides’ history also contains references to three eclipses — the solar eclipse of 3 August 431,⁸³¹ the annular solar eclipse of 21 March 424,⁸³² and the lunar eclipse of 27 August 413;⁸³³ these eclipses, which actually occurred, help to prove the author’s trustworthiness.


Having become acquainted with the two earliest and greatest historians of Hellas, we may pause a moment and compare them. Each was the prototype of his kind. It is remarkable that the same nation should have given both to mankind within the same half century.

Their spans of life were almost equal (both were sexagenarians at the time of their deaths) and they followed each other at an interval of twenty years; they were contemporaries in the sense that fathers and sons are. Twenty years made a difference in that heroic age, but not a very great one. The main difference between them, as far as outside circumstances are concerned, is that Herodotos was a child of the Persian War, while Thucydides was a witness of the Pelopponesian one; also, Herodotos was a Carian, writing in Ionian, while Thucydides was an Athenian, the founder of Attic prose. The former came from the borderland of Hellenism, the latter from its very heart.

Herodotos’ early training had been practical and perhaps commercial. Thucydides was a disciple of the Athenian sophists; as compared with his predecessor he was somewhat like a college man.

The contrast between their personalities, however, was much greater than that between their circumstances. Indeed, each of them had opportunities of experiencing the circumstances of the other. Thrace was as much a borderland as Caria. One war was as bad as another. Both had traveled and were acquainted with men of many types.

Of course, Herodotos had traveled considerably more and the frame of his travels set the frame of his work. He dealt with a much longer past and a wider world (the whole oicumen , in fact), and painted on a much larger scale. Thucydides is to him like a painter of miniatures to a painter of immense frescoes; he dealt with the Greek world only and with a period of twenty-seven years; barring the introduction, his large book covers not more than twenty years — twenty years as against thousands of years, and Greece instead of the whole inhabited world.

Herodotos was a good-natured and remarkably well-informed storyteller, curious and childish, Pythagorean, half-Oriental, loving marvels and oddities; his style is easy, flowing, and delightful. Thucydides not only chose a small subject but restricted himself jealously to it. His mind and his style are equally austere; laughter is irrelevant. He is a political realist, a positivist, a man of science.

Their standards of accuracy were widely different. Herodotos did take some trouble to find the truth and he told it candidly, not without criticism; but how could anybody know the human geography of the whole world and the ancient history of the Near East? On the other hand, it was possible, if not easy, to relate exactly the military and political vicissitudes of the two leading nations of Greece during the brief interval of thirty years. Both were deeply interested in men — Herodotos in the way of an educated traveler, Thucydides more like a sophist and a politician.

The final result is curious. Herodotos’ history contains many more items of interest to the historian of science, while Thucydides’ history is of greater interest to the student of political history. The historian of science might be tempted to neglect it, but he would be wrong to do so. In its totality, the history of Thucydides is a monument of historical science, the application of scientific method to the study of the past, the first of its kind, and to this day one of the very noblest.

Leaving out of account the mathematical ideas and the medical research, the history of Thucydides is the greatest scientific achievement of that golden age.


It is well to introduce a third historian, Ctesias of Cnidos, far less important than either Herodotos or Thucydides and far less known, for while the works of these two have come down to us in their integrity, we have only fragments of Ctesias’; but his is a very remarkable personality in many respects. To begin with, he helps us to realize that Persia and Greece, however different and even inimical, were not completely separated, nor was Persia isolated from India. People were passing from each of these countries to the others, as they pass today, in spite of restrictions, from Russia to the West and vice versa.

Moreover, Ctesias was a physician. He was born in Cnidos,⁸³⁴ where a brilliant school of medicine was flourishing; not only was he a professional physician, but his father and grandfather had been so before him. He was taken prisoner by the Persians about 417, and became archiater at the Persian court. He was physician to Darios II (ruled 424–404) and to Artaxerxes II Mnemon (ruled 404–358). His main patron was Parysatis, queen and half sister of Darios, who remained very powerful as queen-mother. He assisted Artaxerxes at the battle of Cunaxa⁸³⁵ in 401, and soon afterward was sent as an envoy to the Greek rulers of Cypros.⁸³⁶ From Cypros he did not return to Persia but to his Cnidian home (c. 398), which was relatively near. It was in Cnidos that he wrote his works and probably spent the last years of his life. His works were thus written at the beginning of the fourth century, but we speak of him in this chapter, because they were the fruits of his Oriental experience, fruits gathered in the preceding century.

His main works are the Persica, a history of Assyria and Persia in twenty-three books, and the Indica, a single book dealing with India (Fig. 69). These books have been partly preserved by Diodoros of Sicily (I–2 B.C.), Nicholas of Damascus (I–2 B.C.), and others, but chiefly by Photios of Constantinople (IX–2). This may seem a very late witness, but the lateness does not matter so much, for it is obvious that Photios had the original writings in his hands. In his Bibliotheca or Myrio-biblon (finished before 857) he gathered summaries or reviews of some 280 works, many of which are lost. For example, his article on the Persica begins thus: “Read a work of Ctesias of Cnidos, Persica, in twenty-three books. The first six, however, tell the history of Assyria and other events prior to the Persian ones.” This review covers in the Greek text about 850 lines.

His account of the other work begins in the same way: “Read the Indica by the same author in a single book. In the writing of it he makes greater use of the Ionian dialect.” This review is shorter; the Greek text of it covers about 442 lines.

A very convenient Greek-French edition of Photios’ summaries has been given recently by Henry,⁸³⁷ but we really need a new critical edition of all the Ctesias fragments and of the doxography relative to him.⁸³⁸

The first six books of the Persica, devoted to Assyrian history, are more or less preserved by Diodoros of Sicily; to Nicholas of Damascus we owe the account of the defeat of Astyages, king of Media, by Cyros in 549 and the beginning of Persian domination. All the rest of the history of Persia (to 398) is summarized by Photios, who compared the author with Herodotos. Ctesias’ knowledge of the history of Persia was derived from Herodotos, whom he often criticized, but to that framework he added much information that he had obtained during his long residence at the court of Persia. We may imagine that stories were told to him by the king or his assistants, or by the domineering Parysatis and her ladies. Much of that, however, is nothing but gossip. His work is so lacking in criticism that we might call him not the father of history (like his rival) but the father of historical novels, which is not so good. We must make the best of historical novels, however, when purer materials are not available. The data collected by Ctesias are often very interesting, and when he contradicts Herodotos, we should not hastily conclude that the latter is right, though he is in general far more dependable.

Fig. 69. Ctesias, editio princeps (Paris: Henri Estienne, 1557); small size. This is the title page; as can be read on it, this is the first Greek edition not only of Ctesias but also of extracts from Agatharchides of Cnidos (II–1 B.C.), Memnon of Heracleia Pontica (first century?) and Appianos of Alexandria (II–2). Henri II Estienne (Paris 1531–Lyon 1598), editor as well as publisher of the book, was the scion of an illustrious French family of printers, humanists, and booksellers. [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.]

A good example of Ctesias’ utter lack of criticism is his account of the Behist n inscription.⁸³⁹ It was engraved in 516 and related the victory of Darios I over his rebellious vassals; it was written in cuneiform script, in three languages — Persian, Elamite, and Accadian. That monument is of immense importance to philologists, for the parallel inscriptions helped to decipher unknown languages; it has been called the Rosetta stone of cuneiform (or of Assyriology). Now Ctesias, who flourished hardly a century after the building of that monument, when traditions concerning it were still fresh, said that it was written in Syrian (Assyrian) letters and ascribed it to the Assyrian queen Semiramis! One would think that they would have known better at the Persian court, but the legendary Semiramis was the main heroine of his Assyrian romance.

Herodotos described the royal road of the Persian empire from Ephesos to Susa; Ctesias continued the account beyond Susa, to Bactria and India (his account is lost).

Another story told by Ctesias, which is trustworthy, is the one concerning the presence of asphalt and petroleum in Babylonia:

Although the sights to be seen in Babylonia are many and singular, not the least wonderful is the enormous amount of bitumen (asphaltos) which the country produces; so great is the supply of this that it not only suffices for their buildings, which are numerous and large, but the common people also, gathering at the place, draw it out without any restriction, and drying it bum it in place of wood. And countless as is the multitude of men who draw it out, the amount remains undiminished, as if derived from some immense source. Moreover, near this source there is a vent hole of no great size but remarkable potency. For it emits a heavy sulphurous vapor which brings death to all living creatures that approach it, and they meet with an end swift and strange; for after being subjected for a time to a retention of the breath they are killed, as though the expulsion of the breath were being prevented by the force which has attacked the processes of respiration; and immediately the body swells and blows up, particularly in the region about the lungs. And there is also across the river a lake whose edge offers solid footing, and if any man, unacquainted with it, enters it he swims for a short time, but as he advances towards the center he is dragged down as though by a certain force; and when he begins to help himself and makes up his mind to turn back to shore again, though he struggles to extricate himself, it appears as if he were being hauled back by something else; and he becomes benumbed, first in his feet, then in his legs as far as the groin, and finally, overcome by numbness in his whole body, he is carried to the bottom, and a little later is cast up dead.⁸⁴⁰

This is confirmed by Herodotos’ account⁸⁴¹ of the asphalt deposit of Is.⁸⁴²

The description of India is even more fabulous than that of Persia. At least Ctesias had lived many years in Persia, among Persians; he never visited India and his stories represent India as seen from a Persian window. India means chiefly the region of the Indus and the Hydaspes. It is curious that Ctesias did not refer to Taxila, which was then already the main city of that region (Punjab). The Indica are important, nevertheless, because they were for a long time the main source of Hindu lore in the West.

To come back to the physician, there is a chapter concerning the hellebore⁸⁴³ borrowed from Ctesias in the medical collection of Oribasios.⁸⁴⁴ The substance of it is:

My father and grandfather did not dare prescribe hellebore, because they had no idea of how to do it and of the correct dosage; if one gave somebody hellebore to drink, he advised the patient first to make his will. Among the people who tried it many were suffocated (apepnigonto) and few remained alive. At present its use has become quite safe.

This is highly instructive, for it reveals the growth of pharmocologic knowledge in Cnidos within the course of three generations; the physicians of Cnidos were making medical experiments and keeping track of the results.

Judging from the number of references to him in many Greek and Byzantine works, Ctesias seems to have been a favorite author; it is even possible that more people read him than read Herodotos. Even men like Plato and Aristotle were acquainted with him, and we may assume that Aristotle’s most famous pupil, Alexander the Great, read him too. Indeed, Alexander’s admiral, Nearchos (IV–2 B.C.) tells us that the king was deeply fascinated by the stories concerning Semiramis and Cyros.⁸⁴⁵ The imagination of men of action is more likely to be fired by myths than by scientific accounts; it may be that Herodotos was too scientific for the great king and that Ctesias was more attractive to him. Thus, Ctesias had a share of responsibility in the Asiatic campaigns of Alexander.

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