HERODOTUS: The History [Book VII]

The History by Herodotus


  • Book VII is named after Polymnia, the Greek muse of sacred poetry, hymn, dance, eloquence, agriculture, and pantomime.Her name means many hymns. “She brings distinction to those writers whose works have won for them immortal praise.”
  • The following bullet points provide a concise summary and can be found on Wikipedia. I have expanded upon the points where I thought additional information was required.
  • The following website also provides a concise summary of all the books, and even some insightful commentary: http://www.moellerhaus.com/Persian/Historie_7.html
  • The amassing of an army by Darius after learning about the defeat at Marathon.
  • The quarrel between which son should succeed Darius in which Xerxes I of Persia is chosen. A former Spartan king, Damaratus, who had been exiled from Sparta, instructed Xerxes that it was Spartan custom that the first-born son of a man after he ascended to the throne was considered the legitimate heir despite the man having other sons before his reign. Xerxes used this argument to persuade Darius to identify him as his heir. Herodotus writes that Xerxes would have received the crown because his mother hold total sway over Darius.
  • The death of Darius in 486 BC. He died while making preparations for the war against Egypt and Greece.
  • The defeat of the Egyptian rebels by Xerxes
  • The advice given to Xerxes on invading Greece: Mardonius for invasion, Artabanus against
  • The dreams of Xerxes in which a phantom frightens him and Artabanus into choosing invasion
  • The preparations for war, including a canal and Xerxes’ Pontoon Bridges across the Hellespont
  • The offer by Pythius to give Xerxes all his money, in which Xerxes rewards him
  • The request by Pythius to allow one son to stay at home, Xerxes’s anger, and the march out between the butchered halves of Pythius’s son
  • The destruction and rebuilding of the bridges built by the Egyptians and Phoenicians at Abydos
  • The siding with Persia of many Greek states, including Thessaly, Thebes, Melia, and Argos
  • The refusal of aid after negotiations by Gelo of Syracuse, and the refusal from Crete
  • The destruction of 400 Persian ships due to a storm
  • The small Greek force (appox. 6000) led by Leonidas I, sent to Thermopylae to delay the Persian army (~5,283,220 (Herodotus) )
  • The Battle of Thermopylae in which the Greeks hold the pass for 3 days. The Phocians guarded the path that was discovered to the Persians by Ephialtes. When the Persian force met the Phocian guard, they drove them to the top of the mountain with arrows, and then proceeded down the mountain to attack Leonidas’ force. The Phocian guard thought that the Persian force had come to attack them, not to flank the Spartan army, and therefore ought not to receive censure for retreating to the top of the mountain. According to Herodotus, the Phocians were determined to die at the top of the mountain.
  • The secret pass divulged by Ephialtes of Trachis in which Hydarnes uses to lead forces around the mountains to encircle the Greeks
  • The retreat of all but the Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans (forced to stay by the Spartans).
  • The Greek defeat and order by Xerxes to remove Leonidas’s head and attach his torso to a cross


“From the day on which I mounted the throne, I have not ceased to consider by what means I may rival those who have preceded me in this post of honour, and increase the power of Persia as much as any of them.”


“It seems to matter little whether a man is wise himself or willing to hearken to such as give good advice.”


“There came upon me a sudden pity when I thought of the shortness of man’s life, and considered that of all this host, so numerous as it is, not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by.”


“Short as our time is, there is no man so happy as not to have felt the wish that he were rather dead than alive. Death, through the wretchedness of our life, is a most sweet refuge to our race.”


“Fear not all things alike, nor count up every risk. For if in each matter that comes before us thou wilt look to all possible chances, never wilt thou achieve anything. Far better is it to have a stout heart always, and suffer one’s share of evils, than to be ever fearing what may happen, and never incur a mischance. Moreover, if thou wilt oppose whatever is said by others, without thyself showing us the sure course which we ought to take, thou art as likely to lead us into failure as they who advise differently; for thou art but on a par with them. And as for that sure course, how canst thou show it us when thou art but a man? I do not believe thou canst. Success for the most part attends those who act boldly, not those who weigh everything, and are slack to venture. Thou seest to how great a height the power of Persia has now reached- never would it have grown to this point if they who sate upon the throne before me had been like-minded with thee, or even, though not like-minded, had listened to councillors of such a spirit. ‘Twas by brave ventures that they extended their sway; for great empires can only be conquered by great risks.”


“They are free, yet not wholly free: law is their master, whom they fear much more than your men fear you. They do whatever it bids; and its bidding is always the same, that they must never flee from the battle before any multitude of men, but must abide at their post and there conquer or die.”


“Thy counsel with regard to us is not equally balanced, for thou givest counsel having made trial indeed of the one thing, but being without experience of the other: thou knowest well what it is to be a slave, but thou hast never yet made trial of freedom, whether it is pleasant to the taste or no; for if thou shouldest make trial of it, thou wouldest then counsel us to fight for it not with spears only but also with axes.”


“If the Athenians had been seized with fear of the danger which threatened them and had left their land, or again, without leaving their land, had stayed and given themselves up to Xerxes, none would have made any attempt by sea to oppose the king. If then none had opposed Xerxes by sea, it would have happened on the land somewhat thus:—even if many tunics of walls had been thrown across the Isthmus by the Peloponnesians, the Lacedemonians would have been deserted by their allies, not voluntarily but of necessity, since these would have been conquered city after city by the naval force of the Barbarian, and so they would have been left alone: and having been left alone and having displayed great deeds of valour, they would have met their death nobly. Either they would have suffered this fate, or before this, seeing the other Hellenes also taking the side of the Medes, they would have made an agreement with Xerxes; and thus in either case Hellas would have come to be under the rule of the Persians: for as to the good to be got from the walls thrown across the Isthmus, I am unable to discover what it would have been, when the king had command of the sea. As it is however, if a man should say that the Athenians proved to be the saviours of Hellas, he would not fail to hit the truth; for to whichever side these turned, to that the balance was likely to incline: and these were they who, preferring that Hellas should continue to exist in freedom, roused up all of Hellas which remained, so much, that is, as had not gone over to the Medes, and (after the gods at least) these were they who repelled the king. Nor did fearful oracles, which came from Delphi and cast them into dread, induce them to leave Hellas, but they stayed behind and endured to receive the invader of their land.”


Artemisia was a female captain in the Persian navy. Unlike the 2014 movie “300: Rise of an Empire,” she obtained her post as captain when her husband died, who previously held the position.


There is a dialogue between Xerxes and Damaratus, the exiled Spartan King, in which Damaratus tells Xerxes that the Spartans will fight against overwhelming odds from a sens of duty to the laws of Sparta. Spartan resolve is very Kantian in that they do not seek after any external end – i.e. fame, glory, pleasures, wealth, etc. – but rather perform actions according to what they consider to be their duty. Of course, Kant would disagree about the principles of the Spartans, and vice versa.


Two Spartans voluntarily offer their lives to atone for Sparta’s murdering of Xerxes heralds. However, Xerxes does not execute the two Spartans who offer themselves to him because he does not wish to free the Spartans from their guilt and does not wish to do what he blames others for doing. Xerxes is a very admirable character, which is very unlike the arrogant god-man of the 300 movies.


Herodotus identifies the Athenians as the saviors of Greece If they had refused to fight Xerxes, then Xerxes would have owned the sea, and no matter what land bulwarks the Spartans might have erected, it would have proved ineffective because Xerxes controlled the sea. The Athenian defiance was even more admirable considering the dire portents they received upon sending to the Oracle at Delphi.


Leonidas married his niece. He did not expect to be king. He had two older brothers, but when both died, he assumed the throne. He married his oldest brother’s daughter. Leonidas did not anticipate the vast size of Xerxes’ army. He hastily sent for more troops before the battle to no avail.


Leonidas sends most of his force home upon learning of the Persian force that flanked them. Herodotus thinks that honor motivated Leonidas in his decision to send most of his force away. While reading this section of the Histories, I was reminded of King Henry V’s speech in Shakespeare’s play. The king declares that “the fewer men, the greater the share of honor,” and that he does not wish to die in “that man’s company who fears his fellowship to die with us.” The sentiments are the very same.

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