The monumental work of Herodotus, the Greek historian, titled The Histories, is considered to be one of the founding historical works in the world. It was written in approx. 440 BC. The book mainly focuses on the Greco-Persian wars, but it also provides detailed and rich descriptions of geographical, political, and cultural characteristics of the cultures he had approached and observed. The significance of the book is indisputable, as it has provided a clear standard of how historical works should be written. Although the book was written 2,500 years ago, it is still honored by historians as one of the main sources about the Persian Empire and the causes of the Greco-Persian Wars.
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This paper aims to discuss and compare the descriptions of Egypt in Herodotus’ book with more contemporary scholarly and historical descriptions of this civilization to understand the degree of accuracy of the descriptions recorded by the great Greek historian.
Egypt: Geography of the State
The detailed descriptions of Egypt begin in the second part of the book (other editions and translations of the book have the title Euterpe (The Muse of Flute Playing) but the original book apparently was not separated into these parts and had no titles linked to the names of the Muses.
The City of Memphis
In the first chapter of the second book, Herodotus makes quick remarks about some cultural and historical features of Egypt, which will be discussed in the section about the culture of Ancient Egypt. One interesting note that Herodotus provides about the history of Ancient Egypt is its earlier geography: “…the whole of Egypt… was a marsh and the whole present country below the lake of Moeris… was under water” (Waterfield and Dewald 96). It appears that the statement he heard from the Egyptians he had encountered is true. King Menes, who is called Min by Herodotus, is credited with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, as well as the establishment of the capital city Memphis (Gad 91). Nevertheless, modern historians argue whether Memphis was indeed established by King Menes or if it had existed before his regimen.
For example, even the name of the city can refer to different locations; that is why it is not easy to understand which Memphis was described by Herodotus and how accurate these descriptions were. Love points out that the name Memphis can refer to various places such as the pyramid town, the capital, the royal necropolis, etc. (71). The necropolis can be defined by the two pyramids, the northern one and the southern one. The capital city of Memphis is known today as Mit Rahina; ancient ruins are the landmarks that define the capital (Love 72). Gardiner supposed that Memphis was located at the foot of a pyramid devoted to King Pepi I (Love 72). Herodotus’ descriptions of Memphis are assumed to correspond to the location of the modern Mit Rahina. However, argues Love, Herodotus did not explicitly call the city a capital (72).
Moreover, Herodotus’ description of the founding of Memphis is very brief; the ancient historian mentions that the first ruler of Egypt had built a dam that was able to protect the city from the floods (Waterfield and Dewald 128). Herodotus also states that the establishment of the city was possible because King Menes ordered the draining of the land by the diversion of the river (Waterfield and Dewald 128). Love notices that the main reasons why Memphis was associated with Mit Rahina are due to Napoleon’s expedition in 1798 and the significant number of pharaonic remains in the area (75). Nevertheless, other historians also associated Memphis with the Giza pyramids.
The disputes continue about the size of Memphis as well: Mit Rahina is an area of six square kilometers, which some believe to be too small to fit into the definition of a great capital (Love 74). It was also assumed that Memphis could be the area that covered both Mit Rahina and the royal necropolis (Love 76). Memphis could also be an urban conglomerate that was so wide it extended over the entire region (Love 79). The connection between Memphis and Giza is possible due to various archeological findings in the area (domestic ceramics, mud brick architecture, animal bones, etc.). Thus, Herodotus’ descriptions are too vague to determine where Memphis was located. It is possible to assume, however, that the pyramids, although not mentioned by the historian, were an inseparable part of the city or even defined its boundaries.
The Land and the Coastline
The descriptions of the land provided by Herodotus are quite interesting and provide copious details about Ancient Egypt. The historian uses the local measurement system to describe it: “the coastline of Egypt [is] proper sixty schoeni” (Waterfield and Dewald 97). He proceeds to explain that schoeni are used by those whose land is of huge amount. Sixty schoeni is thus 3,600 stades, concludes Herodotus (Waterfield and Dewald 97). Herodotus estimates the coastline to be approx. 300 km. He then compares the length of the route from the coastline to Heliopolis, which is 1,500 stades; the route from Athens to Pisa is fifteen stades shorter (Waterfield and Dewald 97). The historian also provides estimations of the length of the mountains located on the Arabian side: according to Herodotus, it takes two months to travel from the eastern point of the mountains to the western extreme (Waterfield and Dewald 97). South of Heliopolis the land narrows but then widens again; a journey from Heliopolis to Thebes would take nine days as the way between the cities extends to 4,860 stades (869 km) (Asheri, et al. 249). According to Asheri, et al. Herodotus’ estimations are not correct here, possibly due to incorrect calculations or a slip of memory, as the correct number is 722.5 km (249).
Evidence that Herodotus considers as important is the fact that the river rose a minimum of eight cubits during King Moeris’ regimen; in the times of Herodotus it rose up to fifteen or sixteen cubits (Waterfield and Dewald 99). However, his estimates here are also wrong as they describe the rises in the different parts of the countries – the levels of the floods were not similar throughout Ancient Egypt (Asheri, et al. 251).
In the following chapters (14 to 27) Herodotus describes the problem of the floods caused by the Nile, provides three various theories that he finds inconsistent, and provides his own theory about the floods. Asheri, et al. notice that Herodotus used data gathered from the north to describe his estimations; the authors state that these estimations are quite correct and fit well with the modern data (254). He is correct in his suppositions about the moisture and the evaporation being the causes of the floods (Asheri, et al. 256). However, it is also reasonable to mention that Herodotus bases his theory on the fact that the sun is moved by storms and into the Libyan interior (Waterfield and Dewald 104). Although the base of the theory is false, its conclusion is still surprisingly accurate and corresponds with the recent data about the Nile floods.
Herodotus also deals with a second conundrum of the Nile, mainly the sources of the river. He points out that he traveled the river himself and therefore possesses the necessary evidence, however some of his remarks and notes are wrong. He identifies an island on which half of the inhabitants are Ethiopians and the other half are Egyptians; here, he confuses Tachompso with Philae (Asheri, et al. 259). Near this island, Herodotus describes a lake that is too dangerous to cross with a boat; therefore, he takes a journey of forty days and later takes a boat to arrive at the city of Meroë (Waterfield and Dewald 106). One day’s journey by land was approx. 30 km or 150 stades, argue Asheri, et al. (260). Therefore, a trip of forty days would be 1074 km; Herodotus’ estimations are almost correct, as it takes 966 km to reach Abu Hamed where it is possible to re-embark (Asheri, et al. 260).
Herodotus provides a story about sources of the Nile that are believed to flow beyond Egypt to the uninhabited lands where the heat is so intense that no living thing can survive it (Waterfield and Dewald 107). However, he also recalls a story from the Ammonian King Etearchus: a Libyan tribe, the Nasamones, once sent the sons of the tribe’s chiefs to explore the uninhabited lands and find the source of the Nile. As they crossed the deserts, they were captured by a group of small men who took them to a town located on a “sizeable river” (Waterfield and Dewald 108). According to Asheri, et al., the route described in the story is Aguila-Fezzan-Tibesti; the route finds it end in the Bodele Depression (located in the Sahara Desert). As compared to the current data, the characters of the story apparently traveled to Chad, which is quite far away from the Nile’s source, Lake Victoria. Nevertheless, it is still an interesting piece of evidence that displays how the territories and the uninhabited lands were perceived in ancient times.
Egypt: Society, Culture, Economy and State
Herodotus’ notes on Egyptian society, as well as his descriptions of its features and differences from Greek society, are interesting to read as they also provide the reader with a hidden comparison of the Greeks to the Egyptians. For Herodotus, Egyptians are different; their customs are “the opposite of those of everywhere else” i.e. Greece (Waterfield and Dewald 108). Herodotus claims that women in Egypt retail goods and men weave, while the roles are different in Greece (Waterfield and Dewald 108). However, Asheri, et al. point out that men did go to the market, too (262). Herodotus is also surprised that Egyptian weavers push the weft upwards, while Egyptians push it downwards (Waterfield and Dewald 108). This can be explained by the form of the loom that the Egyptians used (Asheri, et al. 263). When comparing the way that Egyptians and Greeks use toilets, Herodotus stresses that it is embarrassing for Egyptians to relieve themselves outside (109). However, although toilets are indeed known to have existed in Ancient Egypt, chamber pots were used in Greece, too, so it is unclear why Herodotus believes there is such a great difference between the countries (Asheri, et al. 263).
Herodotus’ observation of the Egyptian priests is detailed. He notices that, unlike priests in other countries, they have short hair and shave their heads regularly (Waterfield and Dewald 109). When somebody dies, they grow their beards and hair. There are no female priestesses, and all gods and goddesses are served by men. This is true, as women could not be priestesses in Ancient Egypt; they were only allowed to assist during the rituals (Asheri, et al. 263). As the people in Egypt are very religious, cleanliness is highly encouraged: priests shave their bodies, and the cloaks they wear are always clean as they wash them almost every day (Waterfield and Dewald 109).
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These statements seem to be true as they line up with the theory that ritual purity was demanded from the priests (Asheri, et al. 264). According to Herodotus, priests also received various benefits, such as wine, cooked meals, goose meat, and beef. Asheri, et al. confirm these statements and add that the priests received a regular stipend from the temple authorities (263). Contrary to the rules that existed in Greece, the temples in Egypt could have several priests at the same time, while in Greece only one priest could be appointed (Asheri, et al. 265). It is also true that a priest’s son could become a priest after his father’s death; however, the pharaoh had the right to choose and appoint any priest that he found suitable for the position (Asheri, et al. 265).
The sacrifice of an animal, i.e. a bull, was a specific procedure that had to be performed according to various prescriptions. As Herodotus states, the bull had to be examined to ensure that no black hair was present on the bull; otherwise, the animal was considered unclean (Waterfield and Dewald 110). However, this was apparently done to ensure that the bull did not have any markings of Apis, an Egyptian sacred animal (Asheri, et al. 265). If the bull was clean, its horns were wrapped with papyrus that was sealed with clay marked by the priest’s signet ring (Waterfield and Dewald 110). In Roman times each sealing was taxed; other sources claim that a certificate on the fulfillment of the law needed to be presented to the central administration (Asheri, et al. 266).
The ritual is described in detail but also includes some hidden remarks about the Egyptians’ attitude towards the Greeks. For example, as Herodotus states, the animal’s head was cursed upon and then brought to the Greek traders if there were any around (Waterfield and Dewald 110). Thus, although trade between Egypt and Greece flourished, personal relationships were often rancorous. The reason behind such practices was to summon the evil that might befall the priest or the whole country in the head of the animal (Waterfield and Dewald 110). However, the evidence of this practice is supported by only one Egyptian source and the context in it is different.
Herodotus also describes other sacred animals of Ancient Egypt, such as cows, goats, and even snakes. The sacredness of these animals is explained in their connection to the gods. However, pigs are considered to be impure. As Herodotus points out, because pigs were regarded as unclean, swineherds were prohibited from entering temples. They also usually married other swineherds since nobody else wanted to be their spouse (Waterfield and Dewald 115). However, apparently, it is an exaggeration, as it was common for people to marry someone equal to their socio-economic status (Asheri, et al. 271). Before the festival that praised Dionysus, the citizens slaughtered a pig and returned it to the swineherd, claims Herodotus (Waterfield and Dewald 115).
During the festival of Dionysus, Egyptians also used phallic symbols, as did Greeks; however, the Egyptian women brought little moving dolls with exaggerated genitals that could be operated by strings (Waterfield and Dewald 115). This remark of Herodotus confirms that the festivals of Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece were similar, but, ultimately, the Greeks inherited this festival from Ancient Egyptians (Waterfield and Dewald 115). The phallic symbolism of the festival is confirmed by other sources as it was linked to the god’s fertility (Asheri, et al. 271). Possibly, the festival that Herodotus describes in his book is the Pamylia that was also described by Plutarch (Asheri, et al. 271). Herodotus also assumes that the names of almost all Greek gods came to Greece from Ancient Egypt, although there are no hero-cults in Egypt, states the author (Waterfield and Dewald 115). However, certain cults were identified in Greece in the early bronze age; hence, they were not completely inherited by Greeks from Ancient Egypt. It would be unreasonable to argue that the Greek cults were not influenced by foreign ones.
As it can be seen, religion and religious customs and cults played a particularly important role in Ancient Egypt. The state population consisted of peasants, artisans, priests, nobles, and, of course, pharaohs. In his third part of the second book, Herodotus describes the history of Ancient Egypt. Although some of the stories and tales seem to be untrue, the book also includes evidence about the economy of the state that is mostly omitted in the previous parts of the book. Thus, Herodotus mentions that one of the kings (Amasis) demanded from every man that had lived in Egypt to declare the sources of their livelihood (Waterfield and Dewald 288). The censuses conducted by the members of the authorities also considered the information gathered about the households and their heads (Muhs 152).
If any man’s sources of livelihood were not of an honest nature, this man was punished with death (Waterfield and Dewald 288). The citizens of Ancient Egypt had to pay many types of taxes. Barters were also common, as the economic system of Ancient Egypt allowed for such an approach to trade (Muhs 115). Another piece of information about the economy of Ancient Egypt that Herodotus brings is the regimen of Psammetichus I, who decided to settle Ionian and Carian mercenaries in the eastern delta of the Nile (Muhs 197). By that time, a garrison at Elephantine revolted; although there were attempts to suppress the revolts, they failed, and the leader of the revolts proclaimed himself a king (Muhs 197). As it can be seen, although the economic state and the relationships between the citizens and the state were stable (as Herodotus noticed), revolts also happened and were quite brutal.
Ancient Egypt was an agricultural state and its economy heavily depended on the harvests; moreover, grain from citizens was taxed and hoarded by the authorities in case of a bad harvest (Bard 33). Another explanation of the holiness of bulls and cows is that these animals were used for agriculture – killing the cattle that helped in cultivation seems to be unreasonable both from the ancient and from the modern point of view. Although Herodotus stated that priests did not eat fish, it was consumed in large amounts by other citizens, as the Nile provided plenty of fish (Bard 45). Nevertheless, it is not the fish and the plants that were synonyms of state wealth. The lands were the main source of money and provision; apparently, the pharaoh was the owner of all the land in Ancient Egypt. While some of it was given to the military and religious facilities, lands were also used to build royal cemeteries and tombs. As it was discussed in the first paragraphs of the paper, necropolises devoted to pharaohs and kings were common in Ancient Egypt and could cover many kilometers. Thus, the land was not only the source of prosperity but also played a particular role in sacred burials.
Although Herodotus’ notes are interesting to read and they provide valuable information on the geographical, economical, cultural, and political characteristics of the Ancient Egyptian state, many of those notes are incorrect or include incomplete data. Nevertheless, the book is a brilliant example of how historical evidence needs to be structured and provided; it has been used as a valuable document by thousands of historians for 2,500 years.
Asheri, et al. A Commentary on Herodotus. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Bard, Kathryn A. An Introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. John Wiley & Sons, 2015.
Gad, Abdallah. “Water Culture in Egypt.” Water Culture and Water Conflict in the Mediterranean Area, edited by Maroun El Moujabber, CIHEAM, 2012, pp. 85-96.
Love, Serena. “Questioning the Location of the Old Kingdom Capital of Memphis, Egypt.” Papers From the Institute of Archaeology [London, England], 15 Nov. 2003, pp. 70-84.
Muhs, Brian. The Ancient Egyptian Economy: 3000–30 BCE. Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Waterfield, Robin, translator, and Carolyn Dewald. Herodotus: The Histories. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.