The Histories by Herodotus

Written between 450 and 420 BCE 

This Translation by Andrea L Purvis in 2007 

Book 5

[Following on from an attempted raid by the Athenians on Aegina]

Only one Athenian returned home to Attica safe and sound…Actually that one man did not survive long either, but perished in the following way. After he had returned to Athens he reported the disaster, and when the wives of the men who had served with him against Aegina heard of it, they became outraged that of all the men, he alone had come back safely. They took hold of him on all sides and, as they all asked him where their own husbands were, they stabbed him with the pins of their cloaks; and so that is how he too died. To the Athenians, what the women had done seemed an even more terrible disaster than the loss of the army. They could find no other penalty to impose upon the women except to make them change their style of dress to the Ionian fashion. Prior to this, the Athenian women had worn Dorian clothing, which most resembles the Corinthian style, but now they changed to wearing a linen tunic, so that they would have no pins to use.

observations: Sometimes it’s hard to believe you are reading something 2400 years old, and sometimes it isn’t. Certainly Herodotus does not tell a story in the same way a modern writer would; he tends to say that something happened, then follow that with the narrative, and so there is no tension or holding back the end. So in this case he tells you right off that the man died. He has just told us the differing versions of this disastrous raid - one side think they destroyed the other, while ‘the Athenians attribute the loss of the army to a divine force.’ He is very straight-faced, it's hard to tell what he thinks of that. Herodotus is the Father of History, so I suppose it is fair enough that he hadn’t read anyone else’s versions, and couldn’t be on trend.

It is not a truly riveting read on every page, but just as you’re yawning through some long description of warring tribes and politics, a story like the above one will pop up – it ends with the Athenians' enemies increasing the size of the women’s cloakpins by 50%:

And so on ever since that time, even down to my own day, the Argive and Aeginetan women have been wearing larger pins than they had earlier, all because of the strife with the Athenians.

He also tells stories he has heard about the customs, people, animals and geography of an area, a complete mishmash of likely, unlikely and rubbish. He also likes to tell some striking tale then say immediately that of course this isn’t true, thus having his cake and eating it.

There is a good stuff on the Spartans, and talking laconically, and a Solomon-like story about twin boys – which is the first-born and thus the king? See which one the mother likes best…

Links on the blog: Another Greek vase photo here.

The pictures, of  Athenian women pictured on a vase from roughly the time Herodotus was writing, are from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.


  1. Moira - I know what you mean about the writing style. Still, this is really interesting about the clothespins and about the linen tunics. I love that history lesson and the vase is lovely.

  2. I've only dipped into this book on and off but I find the stories fascinating. And Greek vases give us so much information about that period.


Post a Comment