Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Histories by Herodotus

Written between 450 and 420 BCE

This translation by Andrea L Purvis in 2007

Book 9




After some time had passed, however, their affair became known, in the following manner. Amastris the wife of Xerxes wove a great embroidered robe which was quite spectacular, and gave it to Xerxes. He put it on with delight and went to see Artaynte [his mistress] while wearing it. He was so pleased with her, too, that he told her to ask him for whatever she wanted in return for her services… Once he had given his oath, she fearlessly asked for the robe. Xerxes did all he could to make her change her mind… [as Amastris] would now discover for certain what was going on. He offered Artaynte cities, gold in great abundance, and an army which no one but she would command (and an army is a very generous gift for a Persian to give), but he could not persuade her. Finally he gave her the robe and she, overjoyed with this gift, put it on and gloried in it.





observations: These men never learn do they? Never, never offer a blind promise or oath, and never say ‘I swear you can have whatever you want.’ In the Bible there’s Jephtha, finding he has promised God to kill his daughter (who doesn’t even get a name), and after that we’ll have Salome asking Herod for the head of John the Baptist.

This particular story is even more complicated because the mistress, Artaynte, is the daughter-in-law of Xerxes, (married to his son Darius) and he at first was in love with her mother – whom his wife will blame for this imbroglio. But she is also his niece: his brother Masistes is her father, and thus the husband of the other woman desired by Xerxes. Yes, it is complicated, and hard to keep the family tree and the details in order.

I particularly like the helpful note about offering an army as a gift, in case the reader didn’t realize its value.

SPOILER: This is not going to end well for Masistes, or for any of his family, and there is another example here of Herodotus’s distance from modern narrative methods. Masistes hears threats from Xerxes – who is, after all, the supreme ruler – and goes away, 

saying only 'My lord, you have not destroyed me yet.' 

So we anticipate considerable resistance from and perhaps victory for Masistes (whose wife is being horribly mutilated even during this conversation.) And no doubt that might have happened, Herodotus tells us. Only it didn’t in fact: Xerxes sent after him and he, his sons and his army are killed by the end of the next paragraph. ‘So that is the story of Xerxes’ passion and the death of Masistes.’ Too bad.

Links on the blog: In Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, there’s an involved story about a man giving his lover a blouse and his wife finding it. More from Herodotus here (the extraordinary story of the cloakpins) and here (those who served in the army).

The top picture is of a relief of Xerxes in his palace in Persepolis, and was taken by Jona Lendering. The other picture is of a Shah of Iran about 2000 years later, but plenty of embroidered robes. The image is from the Walters Museum in Baltimore.

4 comments:

  1. I might read McEwan's book, but the ancient Greeks and Romans don't really do it for me I'm afraid. I'm more of a Danny King fan myself.
    BTW - I can't find a review for your King read.

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  2. Reading Danny King pre-dated the blog - I should go and ask my son if I can read it again. He will be surprised...

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  3. Greeks were fascinated by what Persians wore, particularly those articles of
    clothing most exotic from a Greek point of view, such as trousers and the tiara
    , a type of cap alternately called kid(t)arisor kurbasia by sources.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you - very interesting. In Mary Renault's The Persian Boy (on the blog here http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/the-persian-boy-by-mary-renault.html) she goes in to some detail about the clothes differences. Her book is the reason I became interested in reading Herodotus.

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