Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Histories by Herodotus

written between 450 and 420 BCE 

this translation by Andrea L Purvis in 2007

Book 7

The following peoples were serving in the army. There were the Persians, who were dressed and equipped in this manner: they wore soft felt caps on their heads, which they called tiaras, and multi-coloured tunics with sleeves, covering their bodies, and they had breastplates of iron fashioned to look like fish scales. On their legs they wore trousers, and instead of shields they carried pieces of wicker, which had quivers hung below them. They were armed with short spears, long bows, and arrows made of reeds. From their belts they fastened daggers, which hung down along the right thigh…

The Medes on the expedition were dressed and equipped in the same way, for this attire is actually Median, not Persian. … Long ago the Medes had been called Arians by everyone, until Medeia of Colchis came to them from Athens, and then, at least according to what the Medes themselves say, they, too, changed their name. The Kissians who had joined the expedition were dressed and equipped just as the Persians were in everything, except that they wore turbans instead of felt caps… The Hyrcanians were dressed and equipped just as the Persians were…

observations: This is the army of Xerxes on an expedition. (The entry should be read in conjunction with this earlier one.) The top picture,
 from the great audience hall in Persepolis, Xerxes’ ceremonial capital, is from the 5th century BCE, ie the right era. The Medes are apparently the ones with the round hats and boots.

Just before this listing of the army, there is a story about them trying to build a bridge across the strait of Hellespont. This is not going well, so Xerxes orders that ‘the Hellespont was to receive 300 lashes under the whip’. Even better, his men were to ‘say barbarian and insolent things’ as they were striking the water: ‘You are a turbid and briny river!’

It is well worth reading the book because of these splendid stories interrupting the more straightforward bits. It was a different time, with different standards: Herodotus casually mentions at the end of this anecdote that as well as this punishing of the sea, the supervisors of the project were all beheaded.

There is also the strange story of Polykrates, the man who was too lucky – his friend and ally Amasis eventually ends their friendship because everything must eventually go wrong for him, so
when severe and dreadful misfortune should finally strike Polykrates, Amasis’ spirit would not be tortured with anguish, as it would be for a friend and ally.

Links on the blog: More soldiers – the Napoleonic guard in John Le Carre, and this rather splendid major in Agatha Christie, whose name might have indicated she knew more than she should about Bletchley Park.

The picture of the reliefs at Persepolis was taken by Arad, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons. The other picture is a reconstruction of what the soldiers might have looked like, based on Herodotus.


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  2. Moira - Such an interesting look at that time and those people. It's not just the clothes and the cultural attitudes, it's a window onto that world. You're right - well worth reading.