The end of Herodotus' Histories

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.480-c.429 BCE): Greek researcher, often called the world's first historian. In The Histories, he describes the expansion of the Achaemenid Empire under its kings Cyrus the Great, Cambyses, and Darius I the Great, culminating in Xerxes' expedition to Greece (480 BCE), which met with disaster in the naval engagement at Salamis and the battles at Plataea and Mycale. Herodotus' book also contains ethnographic descriptions of the peoples that the Persians have conquered, fairy tales, gossip, and legends.


Of course it is possible to write a book about the Second World War that begins with the unification of Germany in 1870 and ends in the winter of 1942/1943 with the battles at El Alamein, Stalingrad, and Guadalcanal. It would be unusual, of course, but the war had been decided – the Axis Powers had started to retreat – and the contours of the post-war era had become visible after the signing of the Atlantic Charter and the agreements of Casablanca.

The contemporaries were aware of it. Already in May 1943, the illegal newspapers in occupied Europe knew that the Soviet Union and the United States would become the superpowers, that the colonial empires would come to an end, and that a form of European cooperation was to be created in which Germany would also participate.

Such a history of the Second World War could thus exist, but most readers will be left with an unsatisfied feeling. After all, the violence did not cease before the capitulation of Japan in August 1945. One might even say that the war came to an end only after the establishment of the NATO and COMECON. If these matters are missing, the reader will wonder whether the historian died prematurely.

Herodotus' unfinished Histories

Something similar is the case with the Histories of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which is dedicated to the war between the Persian Empire and the Greek city states at the beginning of the fifth century BCE. Beginning with the unification of the Iranian tribes by the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 559 BCE, it continues with an account of Persian imperialism: the conquest of Lydia, Babylonia, Egypt, Thrace, and Libya.

We have already read two thirds of the Histories when the Persians attack the Greek towns for the first time, in 492. Two years later the Persians conquer the Aegean Isles but fail to subdue Athens (in the battle of Marathon). After this first war, there is a pause, but in 480 king Xerxes invades Greece. It is only now, at three quarters of the text, that the real war begins. The story breaks off after the battles at Salamis (480), Plataea, and Mycale (both in 479), although the war was not over yet and Herodotus has not offered an explanation for the fact that the Persians did not return to the west.

Probably, the Histories are unfinished. There are clues that Herodotus wanted to proceed beyond the year 479 BCE. For example, in 7.213 he announces that he will describe the fate of the Greek traitor Ephialtes, but he fails to do so.

What is missing?


In a book about the war between Persians and Greeks, we would have expected the Greek expeditions to the Bosphorus and strategically important Cyprus (478). The Spartan campaign against the Thessalian collaborators of the same year, the founding of the Delian League in the winter of 478/477, the death of Ephialtes (477), and the fall of the last Persian fortress in Europe, Eion, would have been part of the full story as well (476).

We would have expected all this: a general account of the war until its logical ending. In addition, there are two clues about the more specific traits of what Herodotos had in store. At the beginning of his work, in 1.106 and 1.184, he announces that he will return to the ancient history of Mesopotamia or, as he calls it, Assyria with its capital Babylon. We may perhaps, perhaps reconstruct the good story that Herodotus missed out on.

Return to Babylon

After Xerxes’ accession to the Persian throne (in 486 BCE), there were insurrections and one of these took place in Babylonia. The rebels were named Bēl-šimānni and Šamaš-eriba.note Although their revolt was suppressed within five months, the author Arrian states that Babylonia remained unquiet: Xerxes suppressed a revolt on his return from Greece.note Ctesias confirms this: he mentions that Xerxes returned to Persis after a visit to Babylon.note It is possible that Xerxes was forced to break off the Greek war because he had to return to the heartland of his empire. That would also explain why Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale were the last battles.

If Herodotus had mentioned the second Babylonian revolt, that would have made the end of the Histories symmetrical with the beginning. The rise of the Persian Empire had begun when Cyrus had captured Babylon; at the end of the Histories, we would have seen another capture of that city, this time indicating the transience of a Persia that had for the first time been defeated.