Herodotus on Persia and the Persians

[Excerpted from Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, George Rawlinson, tr., vol. 1 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1885), bk. 1]

The customs which I know the Persians to observe are the following. They have no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, and consider the use of them a sign of folly. This comes, I think, from their not believing the gods to have the same nature with men, as the Greeks imagine. Their wont, however, is to ascend the summits of the loftiest mountains, and there to offer sacrifice to Jupiter, which is the name they give to the whole circuit of the firmament. They likewise offer to the sun and moon, to the earth, to fire, to water, and to the winds. These are the only gods whose worship has come down to them from ancient times. At a later period they began the worship of Urania, which they borrowed[1] from the Arabians and Assyrians. Mylitta is the name by which the Assyrians know this goddess, whom the Arabians call Alitta, and the Persians Mitra.[2]

To these gods the Persians offer sacrifice in the following manner: they raise no altar, light no fire, pour no libations; there is no sound of the flute, no putting on of chaplets, no consecrated barley-cake; but the man who wishes to sacrifice brings his victim to a spot of ground which is pure from pollution, and there calls upon the name of the god to whom he intends to offer. It is usual to have the turban encircled with a wreath, most commonl of myrtle. The sacrificer is not allowed to pray for blessings on himself alone, but he prays for the welfare of the king, and of the whole Persian people, among whom he is of necessity included. He cuts the victim in pieces, and having boiled the flesh, he lays it out upon the tenderest herbage that he can find, trefoil especially. When all is ready, one of the Magi comes forward and chants a hymn, which they say recounts the origin of the gods. It is not lawful to offer sacrifice unless there is a Magus present. After waiting a short time the sacrificer carries the flesh of the victim away with him, and makes whatever use of it he may please.[3]

Of all the days in the year, the one which they celebrate most is their birthday. It is customary to have the board furnished on that day with an ampler supply than common. The richer Persians cause an ox, a horse, a camel, and an ass to be baked whole[4] and so served up to them: the poorer classes use instead the smaller kinds of cattle. They eat little solid food but abundance of dessert, which is set on table a few dishes at a time; this it is which makes them say that "the Greeks, when they eat, leave off hungry, having nothing worth mention served up to them after the meats; whereas, if they had more put before them, they would not stop eating." They are very fond of wine, and drink it in large quantities.[5] To vomit or obey natural calls in the presence of another, is forbidden among them. Such are their customs in these matters.

It is also their general practice to deliberate upon affairs of weight when they are drunk; and then on the morrow, when they are sober, the decision to which they came the night before is put before them by the master of the house in which it was made; and if it is then approved of, they act on it; if not, they set it aside. Sometimes, however, they are sober at their first deliberation, but in this case they always reconsider the matter under the influence of wine.[6]

When they meet each other in the streets, you may know if the persons meeting are of equal rank by the following token; if they are, instead of speaking, they kiss each other on the lips. In the case where one is a little inferior to the other, the kiss is given on the cheek; where the difference of rank is great, the inferior prostrates himself upon the ground.[7] Of nations, they honour most their nearest neighbours, whom they esteem next to themselves; those who live beyond these they honour in the second degree; and so with the remainder, the further they are removed, the less the esteem in which they hold them. The reason is, that they look upon themselves as very greatly superior in all respects to the rest of mankind, regarding others as approaching to excellence in proportion as they dwell nearer to them; whence it comes to pass that those who are the farthest off must be the most degraded of mankind.[8] Under the dominion of the Medes, the several nations of the empire exercised authority over each other in this order. The Medes were lords over all, and governed the nations upon their borders, who in their turn governed the States beyond, who likewise bore rule over the nations which adjoined on them.[9] And this is the order which the Persians also follow in their distribution of honour; for that people, like the Medes, has a progressive scale of administration and government.

There is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians. Thus, they have taken the dress of the Medes,[10] considering it superior to their own; and in war they wear the Egyptian breastplate. As soon as they hear of any luxury, they instantly make it their own: and hence, among other novelties, they have learnt unnatural lust from the Greeks. Each of them has several wives, and a still larger number of concubines.

Next to prowess in arms, it is regarded as the greatest proof of manly excellence, to be the father of many sons. Every year the king sends rich gifts to the man who can show the largest number: for they hold that number is strength. Their sons are carefully instructed from their fifth to their twentieth year, in three things alone, - to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth.[11] Until their fifth year they are not allowed to come into the sight of their father, but pass their lives with the women. This is done that, if the child die young, the father may not be afflicted by its loss.

To my mind it is a wise rule, as also is the following - that the king shall not put any one to death for a single fault, and that none of the Persians shall visit a single fault in a slave with any extreme penalty; but in every case the services of the offender shall be set against his misdoings; and, if the latter be found to outweigh the former, the aggrieved party shall then proceed to punishment.

The Persians maintain that never yet did any one kill his own father or mother; but in all such cases they are quite sure that, if matters were sifted to the bottom, it would be found that the child was either a changeling or else the fruit of adultery; for it is not likely they say that the real father should perish by the hands of his child.

They hold it unlawful to talk to anything which it is unlawful to do. The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is to tell a lie; the next worst, to owe a debt: because, among other reasons, the debtor is obliged to tell lies. If a Persian has the leprosy [12] he is not allowed to enter into a city, or to have any dealings with the other Persians; he must, they say, have sinned against the sun. Foreigners attacked by this disorder, are forced to leave the country: even white pigeons are often driven away, as guilty of the same offence. They never defile a river with the secretions of their bodies, nor even wash their hands in one; nor will they allow others to do so, as they have a great reverence for rivers. There is another peculiarity, which the Persians themselves have never noticed, but which has not escaped my observation. Their names, which are expressive of some bodily or mental excellence, all end with the same letter - the letter which is called San by the Dorians, and Sigma by the Ionians. Any one who examines will find that the Persian names, one and all without exception, end with this letter.[13]

Thus much I can declare of the Persians with entire certainty, from my own actual knowledge. There is another custom which is spoken of with reserve, and not openly, concerning their dead. It is said that the body of a male Persian is never buried, until it has been torn either by a dog or a bird of prey.[14] That the Magi have this custom is beyond a doubt, for they practise it without any concealment. The dead bodies are covered with wax, and then buried in the ground.

The Magi are a very peculiar race, different entirely from the Egyptian priests, and indeed from all other men whatsoever. The Egyptian priests make it a point of religion not to kill any live animals except those which they offer in sacrifice. The Magi, on the contrary, kill animals of all kinds with their own hands, excepting dogs[15] and men. They even seem to take a delight in the employment, and kill, as readily as they do other animals, ants and snakes, and such like flying or creeping things. However, since this has always been their custom, let them keep to it. I return to my former narrative.

Herodotus, History. Book III

Thus was Darius, son of Hystaspes, appointed king; and, except the Arabians, all they of Asia were subject to him; for Cyrus, and after him Cambyses,[16] had brought them all under. The Arabians were never subject as slaves to the Persians, but had a league of friendship with them from the time when they brought Cambyses on his way as he went into Egypt; for had they been unfriendly the Persians could never have made their invasion.

And now Darius contracted marriages[17] of the first rank, according to the notions of the Persians: to wit, with two daughters of Cyrus, Atossa and Artystone; of whom, Atossa had been twice married before, once to Cambyses, her brother, and once to the Magus, while the other, Artystone, was a virgin. He married also Parmys, daughter of Smerdis, son of Cyrus; and he likewise took to wife the daughter of Otanes, who had made the discovery about the Magus. And now when his power was established firmly throughout all the kingdoms, the first thing that he did was to set up a carving in stone, which showed a man mounted upon a horse, with an inscription in these words following: - "Darius, son of Hystaspes, by aid of his good horse" (here followed the horse's name), "and of his good groom Oebares, got himself the kingdom of the Persians."

This he set up in Persia; and afterwards he proceeded to establish twenty governments of the kind which the Persians call satrapies, assigning to each its governor, and fixing the tribute which was to be paid him by the several nations. And generally he joined together in one satrapy the nations that were neighbours, but sometimes he passed over the nearer tribes, and put in their stead those which were more remote. The following is an account of these governments, and of the yearly tribute which they paid to the king: - Such as brought their tribute in silver were ordered to pay according to the Babylonian talent; while the Euboic was the standard measure for such as brought gold. Now the Babylonian talent contains seventy Euboic minae.[18] During all the reign of Cyrus, and afterwards when Cambyses ruled, there were no fixed tributes, but the nations severally brought gifts to the king. On account of this and other like doings, the Persians say that Darius was a huckster, Cambyses a master, and Cyrus a father; for Darius looked to making a gain in everything; Cambyses was harsh and reckless; while Cyrus was gentle, and procured them all manner of goods.

The Ionians, the Magnesians of Asia,[19] the Aeolians, the Carians, the Lycians, the Milyans, and the Pamphylians, paid their tribute in a single sum, which was fixed at four hundred talents of silver. These formed together the first satrapy.

The Mysians, Lydians, Lasonians,[20] Cabalians, and Hygennians paid the sum of five hundred talents. This was the second satrapy.

The Hellespontians, of the right coast as one enters the straits, the Phrygians, the Asiatic Thracians, the Paphlagonians, the Mariandynians, and the Syrians[21] paid a tribute of three hundred and sixty talents. This was the third satrapy.

The Cilicians gave three hundred and sixty white horses, one for each day in the year, and five hundred talents of silver. Of this sum one hundred and forty talents went to pay the cavalry which guarded the country, while the remaining three hundred and sixty were received by Darius. This was the fourth satrapy.

The country reaching from the city of Posideium[22] (built by Amphilochus, son of Amphiaraus, on the confines of Syria and Cilicia) to the borders of Egypt, excluding therefrom a district which belonged to Arabia, and was free from tax,[23] paid a tribute of three hundred and fifty talents. All Phoenicia, Palestine Syria, and Cyprus, were herein contained. This was the fifth satrapy.

From Egypt, and the neighbouring parts of Libya, together with the towns of Cyrene and Barca, which belonged to the Egyptian satrapy, the tribute which came in was seven hundred talents. These seven hundred talents did not include the profits of the fisheries of Lake Moeris, nor the corn furnished to the troops at Memphis. Corn was supplied to 120,000 Persians, who dwelt at Memphis in the quarter called the White Castle, and to a number of auxiliaries. This was the sixth satrapy.

The Sattagydians, the Gandarians, the Dadicae, and the Aparytae, who were all reckoned together, paid a tribute of a hundred and seventy talents. This was the seventh satrapy.

Susa, and the other parts of Cissia, paid three hundred talents. This was the eighth satrapy.

From Babylonia, and the rest of Assyria, were drawn a thousand talents of silver, and five hundred boy-eunuchs. This was the ninth satrapy.

Agbatana, and the other parts of Media, together with the Paricanians and Orthocorybantes, paid in all four hundred and fifty talents. This was the tenth satrapy.

The Caspians, Pausicae, Pantimathi, and Daritae, were joined in one government, and paid the sum of two hundred talents. This was the eleventh satrapy.

From the Bactrian tribes as far as the Aegli, the tribute received was three hundred and sixty talents. This was the twelfth satrapy.

From Pactyica, Armenia, and the countries reaching thence to the Euxine, the sum drawn was four hundred talents. This was the thirteenth satrapy.

The Sagartians, Sarangians, Thamanaeans, Utians, and Mycians, together with the inhabitants of the islands in the Erythraean sea, where the king sends those whom he banishes, furnished altogether a tribute of six hundred talents. This was the fourteenth satrapy.

The Sacans and Caspians gave two hundred and fifty talents. This was the fifteenth satrapy.

The Parthians, Chorasmians, Sogdians, and Arians, gave three hundred. This was the sixteenth satrapy.

The Paricanians and Ethiopians of Asia furnished a tribute of fourhundred talents. This was the seventeenth satrapy.

The Matienians, Saspeires, and Alarodians were rated to pay two hundred talents. This was the eighteenth satrapy.

The Moschi, Tibareni, Macrones, Mosynoeci, and Mares had to pay three hundred talents. This was the nineteenth satrapy.

The Indians, who are more numerous than any other nation with which we are acquainted, paid a tribute exceeding that of every other people, to wit, three hundred and sixty talents of gold-dust. This was the twentieth satrapy.

If the Babylonian money here spoken of be reduced to the Euboic scale, it will make nine thousand five hundred and forty such talents; and ifthe gold be reckoned at thirteen times the worth of silver,[24] the Indian gold-dust will come to four thousand six hundred and eighty talents. Add these two amounts together, and the whole revenue which came in to Darius year by year will be found to be in Euboic money fourteen thousand five hundred and sixty talents, not to mention parts of a talent.[25]

Such was the revenue which Darius derived from Asia and a small part of Libya. Later in his reign the sum was increased by the tribute of the islands, and of the nations of Europe as far as Thessaly. The great king stores away the tribute which he receives after this fashion - he smelts it down, and, while it is in a liquid state, runs it into earthen vessels, which are afterwards removed, leaving the metal in a solid mass. When money is wanted, he coins as much of this bullion as the occasion requires.

Such then were the governments, and such the amounts of tribute at which they were assessed respectively. Persia alone has not been reckoned among the tributaries - and for this reason, because the country of the Persians is altogether exempt from tax. The following peoples paid no settled tribute, but brought gifts to the king: first, the Ethiopians bordering upon Egypt,[26] who were reduced by Cambyses when he made war on the long-lived Ethiopians, and who dwell about the sacred city of Nysa, and have festivals in honour of Bacchus. The grain on which they and their next neighbours feed is the same as that used by the Calantian Indians. Their dwelling-houses are under ground.[27] Every third year these two nations brought - and they still bring to my day - two choenices [28] of virgin gold, two hundred logs of ebony, five Ethiopian boys, and twenty elephant tusks. The Colchians, and the neighbouring tribes who dwell between them and the Caucasus - for so far the Persian rule reaches, while north of the Caucasus no one fears them any longer - undertook to furnish a gift, which in my day was still brought every fifth year, consisting of a hundred boys, and the same number of maidens. The Arabs brought every year a thousand talents of frankincense. Such were the gifts which the king received over and above the tribute-money.


1. The readiness of the Persians to adopt foreign customs, even in religion, is very remarkable. Perhaps the most striking instance is the adoption from the Assyrians of the well-known emblem consisting of a winged circle with or without a human figure rising from the circular space. This emblem is of Assyrian origin, appearing in the earliest sculptures of that country (Layard's Nineveh, vol. i. chap. v.). Its exact meaning is uncertain, but the conjecture is probable, that while in the human head we have the symbol of intelligence, the wings signify omnipresence, and the circle eternity. Thus the Persians were able, without the sacrifice of any principle, to admit it as a religious emblem, which we find them to have done, as early as the times of Darius, universally (see the sculptures atPersepolis, Nakhsh-i Rustam, Behistun, etc.).

2. This identification is altogether a mistake. The Persians, like their Vedic brethren, worshipped the sun under the name of Mithra. This was a portion of the religion which they brought with them from the Indus, and was not adopted from any foreign nation. The name of Mithra does not indeed occur in the Achaemenian inscriptions until the time of Artaxerxes Mnemon, but there is no reason to question the antiquity of his worship in Persia. Xenophon is right in making it a part of the religion of Cyrus (Cyrop. viii. iii. Section 12, and vii. Section 3).

3. At the secret meetings of the Ali Allahis of Persia, which in popular belief have attained an infamous notoriety, but which are in reality altogether innocent, are practised many ceremonies that bear a striking resemblance to the old Magian sacrifice.

4. It is a common custom in the East at the present day, to roast sheep whole, even for an ordinary repast; and on fete days it is done in Dalmatia and in other parts of Europe.

5. At the present day, among the "bons vivants" of Persia, it is usual to sit for hours before dinner drinking wine, and eating dried fruits, such as filberts, almonds, pistachio-nuts, melon seeds, etc. A party, indeed, often sits down at seven o'clock, and the dinner is not brought in till eleven.

6. Tacitus asserts that the Germans were in the habit of deliberating on peace and war under the influence of wine, reserving their determination for the morrow.

7. The Persians are still notorious for their rigid attention to ceremonial and etiquette.

8. In an early stage of geographical knowledge each nation regardsitself as occupying the centre of the earth. Herodotus tacitly assumes thatGreece is the centre by his theory of "extremities" (iii. 115). Such was theview commonly entertained among the Greeks, and Delphi, as the centre of Greece, was called "the navel of the world."

9. It is quite inconceivable that there should have been any such system of government either in Media or Persia, as Herodotus here indicates. With respect to Persia, we know that the most distant satrapies were held as directly of the crown as the nearest. The utmost that can be said with truth is, that in the Persian and Median, as in the Roman empire, there were three grades; first, the ruling nation; secondly, the conquered provinces; thirdly, the nations on the frontier, governed by their own laws and princes, but owning the supremacy of the imperial power, and reckoned among its tributaries. This was the position in which the Ethiopians, Colchians, and Arabians, stood to Persia (Herod. iii. 97).

10. It appears from ch. 71 that the old national dress of the Persians was a close-fitting tunic and trousers of leather. The Median costume, according to Xenophon (Cyrop. viii. i. Section 40) was of a nature to conceal the form, and give it an appearance of grandeur and elegance. It would seem therefore to have been a flowing robe.

11. The Persian regard for truth has been questioned by Larcher on the strength of the speech of Darius in Book iii. (chap. 72). This speech, however, is entirely unhistoric. The special estimation in which truth was held among the Persians is evidenced in a remarkable manner by the inscriptions of Darius, where lying is taken as the representative of all evil.

12. With the Persian isolation of the leper, compare the Jewish practice (Lev. xiii. 46. 2 Kings vii. 3; xv. 5. Luke xvii. 12).

13. Here Herodotus was again mistaken. The Persian names of men which terminate with a consonant end indeed invariably with the letter s, or rather sh, as Kurush (Cyrus), Daryavush (Darius). But a large number of Persian names of men were pronounced with a vowel termination, not expressed in writing, and in these the last consonant might be almost any letter.

14. Agathias and Strabo also mention this strange custom, which still prevails among the Parsees wherever they are found, whether in Persia or in India.

15. The dog is represented in the Zendavesta as the special animal of Ormazd, and is still regarded with peculiar reverence by the Parsees.

16. The Phoenicians and Cyprians would be here alluded to - perhaps also the Cilicians.

17. Darius had married a daughter of Gobryas before his accession (vii. 2). He also took to wife his niece, Phratagune, the daughter of his brother Artanes (vii. 224).

18. Standards of weight probably passed into Greece from Asia, whence the word mina seems certainly to have been derived. That the standard known to the Greeks as the Euboic was an Asiatic one, is plain from this passage. If the (later) Attic talent was worth Pounds 243 15s. of our money, the Euboic (silver) talent would be Pounds 250 8s. 5d., and the Babylonian Pounds 292 3s. 3d.

19. There were two towns of the name of Magnesia in Asia Minor, Magnesia under Sipylus and Magnesia on the Maeander.

20. In the Seventh Book (ch. 77) Herodotus identifies the Cabalians and the Lasonians.

21. That is, the Cappadocians. (Vide supra, i. 72.)

22. Posideium lay about 12 miles south of the embouchure of the Orontes.

23. The district here spoken of is that between Gaza (Cadytis) and Jenysus (vide supra, ch. 5), which Cambyses traversed on his road to Egypt. Concerning the exemption of the Arabs from tribute, vide infra, ch. 97.

24. In Greece the relative value of gold varied at different times. Herodotus says gold was to silver as 13 to 1, afterwards in Plato andXenophon's time (and more than 100 years after the death of Alexander) it was10 to 1, owing to the quantity of gold brought in through the Persian war. It long continued at 10 to 1 (Liv. xxxviii. 11) except when an accident altered the proportion of those metals.

25. It is impossible to reconcile Herodotus' numbers, and equally impossible to say where the mistake lies.

26. These were the inhabitants of Lower Ethiopia and Nubia.

27. This notion probably arose from their having mud huts, so common in central Africa.

28. That is, about two quarts.