This is the first of two articles quoting and briefly putting in context mentions of Palestine in two modern translations of “The Histories” of Herodotus of Halicarnassus(c. 484 – c. 425 BCE), ‘The father of history’.
The five mentions are mostly geographical, but include mythical and historical material. As is typical with Herodotus, the closer he is to his own time, the more firm is his grasp. Yet unlike with the Greek historians who followed him and were mostly concerned with the history of their own lifetimes, Herodotus’ historical reach at best extends to about 650 BCE. Before that time history gives way to mythology in his writing.
In this article we are using a revised edition of Aubrey de Sélincourt’s(1896-1962) translation from 1954, published by Penguin in 2003. The revision was done by John Marincola(b. 1954).
The first mention of Palestine in this translation comes up in the context of the invasion of Asia Minor by the nomadic Scythians from the Pontic Steppe in pursuit of their foes the Cimmerians, during the reign of Psamtik I (655-610 BCE) of the 26th dynasty of Egypt, who were met by him in Palestine:
The Scythians next turned their attention to Egypt, but were met in Palestine by Psammetichus the Egyptian king, who by earnest entreaties supported by bribery managed to prevent their further advance. They withdrew by way of Ascalon in Syria. The bulk of the army passed the town of without doing any damage, but a small number of men got left behind and robbec the temple of Aphrodite Urania – the most ancient, I am told, of all the temples of this goddess. The one in Cyprus the Cyprians themselves admit was derived from it, and the one in Cythera was built by the Phoenicians, who belong to this part of Syria. The Scythians who robbed the temple of Ascalon were punished by the goddess with the infliction of what is called ‘the female disease’, and their descendants still suffer from it. This is the reason the Scythians give for this mysterious complaint, and travellers to the country can see what it is like. The Scythians call those who suffer from it ‘Enarees’. (49)
Palestine comes up next in the description of the conquests of the mythical, composite figure of king Sesostris of Egypt who is likely based on two historical kings separated from each other by a gulf of six centuries – Senusret III(1878-1839 BCE) of the 12th dynasty and Ramses II(1279-1213 BCE) of the 19th dynasty:
Whenever he encountered a courageous enemy who fought valiantly for freedon, he erected pillars on the spot inscribed with his own name and country, and a sentence to indicate that by the might of his armed forced he had won a victory; of however, a town fell easily into his hands without a struggle, he made an addition to the inscription on the pillar – for not only did he record upon it the same facts as before, but added a picture of a woman’s genitals, meaning to show that the people of that town were no braver than women…
Most of the memorial pillars which King Sesostris erected in the conquered territories have disappeared, but I have seen some myself in Palestine, with the inscription I mentioned, and the drawing of a woman’s genitals. (134-135)
Palestine comes up again in the list of new satrapies and their taxation during the re-organization of the Persian Empire by Darius I(521-486 BCE):
Fifth: from the town of Posideiium, which was founded by Amphilochus, son of Amphiaraus, on the border between Cilicia and Syria, a far as Egypt – omitting Arabian territory, which was free of tax – came 350 talents. This province contains the whole of Phoenicia and the part of Syria which is called Palestine, and Cyprus. (212)
In Herodotus’ geographical description of Asia and Europe Palestine comes up very briefly:
Between Persia and Phoenicia lies a very large area of country; and from Phoenicia the branch I am speaking of runs along the Mediterranean coast through Palestine-Syria to Egypt, where it ends. It contains three nations only. Such is Asia from Persia westward…
The final time Palestine comes up in de Sélincourt’s translation is in the list of troops Xerxes I of Persia(486-465 BCE) gathered for his invasion of Greece in 480 BCE, which would end with failure after the battles of Salamis(480 BCE) and Plataea(479 BCE):
The Phoenicians, with the Syrians of Palestine, contributed 300. The crews wore helmets very like the Greek ones, and linen corslets; they were armed with rimless shields and javelins. These people have a tradition that in ancient times they lived on the Persian Gulf, but migrated to the Syrian coast, where they are found today. This part of Syria, together with the country which extends southward to Egypt, is all known as Palestine. (445)
Herodotus: The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. Revised with an Introduction and Notes by John Marincola. London: Penguin Books 2003.
PHOTO: Fragments of thr eight-meter tall colossi of Psamtik I excavated from Matariya neighbourhood of Cairo, ancient Heliopolis, in 2017.