Five Reasons Herodotus is Hilarious (Number Six Will Surprise You! Get It?)

Last week I wrote about the serious reason why I’m going to continue reading historical works this year. Today, though, I want to share some of the tidbits that made me guffaw.

Guffaw is such a great word. And I really never thought I’d be the type to laugh at history, but here you go. Here are the stories Herodotus recounted that I liked so much, I typed them down for you.

Cancel culture is nothing new.

So goes the story that when Miletus, a city in ancient Greece, was taken over and captured, the Athenians who lived nearby were so sad for their neighbours that they tolerated little about the fact. When Phrynichus, a playwright, put on a play called The Fall of Miletus,

So close to home were the evils about which he reminded them that the entire audience fell to weeping and fined the writer 1,000 drachmas. They banned the play from ever being staged again (p. 396).

Herodotus. (2013). Herodotus: The histories. Viking Press.

People weren’t afraid to stick to their guns.

Mighty ruler-man (Periander) kills wife. Younger son (Lycophron) finds out. Younger son is angry to the point of refusing all palace life and running away. Ruler-man decides that Lycophron shows more spunk than his passive older brother and tries to woo the younger son back into the palace so that he has a good heir to take on the throne.

Lycophron runs away to many places but his father sends orders each time for the harbouring city to give up his son, and so eventually Lycophron has nowhere to go except for back home. He remains outside the pallisades, Since Lycophron still wouldn’t speak with his father, his father eventually issues a proclamation that anyone who might shelter or even speak with his son will have to pay money to Apollo.

Lycophron is a stubborn beast and earns the pity of many, including his siblings and his father. Refusing all service and luxury as would befit the prince of a city, he is bedraggled, worn, and he stinks. Finally, ruler-man deems the situation serious enough that he comes out to berate his son. In a length speech, he pleads with the son to come back to his rightful place and questions if the suffering is worth anything at all. (That the problem was with him originally killing the mother wasn’t much of a talking point). Lycophron’s response?

You owe the god a fine for having come into conversation with me (p. 214).

Ibid.

Hippocleides , handsome man and favoured suitor, was another guy who demonstrated some bullheadedness. Cleisthenes, a very rich man, decided to host a year-long competition to judge suitors for his daughter. He built a stadium where men of impeccable lineage gathered from cities far and wide to train and compete. Proof of Cleisthenes’ wealth lay in the fact that he was able to host so many men at his own expense. The event was known as the Judgment of the Suitors

Hippocleides was most favoured among these men, and yet, a wild end-of-the-year party changed Cleisthenes’ opinion of him entirely. The problem began when the music started, as with each new round of song, Hippocleides began a new dance routine. Initially he danced in the style of the Laconians, and then in the style of the Attics. In the last round, he turned himself over, and in a prolonged headstand, moved his feet to the rhythm as though they were his hands.

During the first and second of these dance routines [Laconian dance moves, and then Attic turns], Cleisthenes bit his tongue; appalled though he now was—witnessing such a shameless display of dancing – at the notion of having Hippocleides as his son-in-law, he did not wish to make his displeasure public. The sight of Hippocleides pumping his legs in the air to the music, however, was the final straw.

‘Son of Tisander,’ he declared, ‘you have danced away your marriage.’

To which Hippocleides retorted: ‘Hippocleides could not care less!’ And that was how the celebrated phrase first came to be uttered (p.438).

Ibid.

On a side note, I had a co-worker in China who could probably have played the part of Hippocleides. He was a super fit guy — blond hair, blue eyes — who was into eating healthy and running P90X sessions in the gym after school. He was also known for his robotic dancing. I think of him every time I read this passage.

Finally, there’s King Cyrus, who was so enraged at losing a stallion to a river crossing (in the course of trying to invade Babylon) that he swore to enfeeble the river. Instead of setting up over the summer to besiege the city, he organized his army to dig 360 trenches (180 on either side of the river) so that the river was indeed tamed to the point that a woman could cross it easily “and emerge with her knees perfectly dry” (p. 93, Ibid).

And people knew how to send a lasting message.

Nitocris, one of two queens who ruled Babylon in its entire history, was reportedly a brilliant strategist with a sharp wit. One significant act was to organize thousands in the reshaping of an entire river, originally straight in path, into a winding barrier that would stall any approaching troops. After she died, she was entombed in the very fabric of Babylon’s famed wall, over the most frequented gate in the city. She ordered the following engraved:

SHOULD ANY KING WHO ASCENDS THE THRONE OF BABYLON AFTER ME FIND HIMSELF SHORTOF TREASURE, THEN LET HIM OPEN MY TOMB AND TAKE AS MUCH AS HE WANTS. ONLY POVERTY, HOWEVER, WILL SUFFICE AS JUSTIFICATION. NO OTHER WILL DO – AND BETTER FOR HIM NOT TO PRESUME OTHERWISE!

Ibid.

Babylon was later taken over by Cyrus, who always thought it stupid that an assumedly massive amount of treasure lay there for the taking. So he cracked open the tomb, only to find it empty with the exception of these last words from the queen.

SO THIS IS THE MEASURE OF YOUR LUST FOR TREASURE, AND OF THE DEPTHS TO WHICH YOUR GREED HAS PLUNGED YOU, THAT YOU THINK NOTHING OF FORCING THE TOMB OF THE DEAD.

Ibid.

Snap!


Anyway, I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did, or at least in some part. Thanks, Herodotus. It’s been fun.

Featured photo by Patrick on Unsplash

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