1 year ago

The Old and the Restless - The Egyptians and the Scythians in Herodotus' Histories by Robert J. Hagan

11 surrender of

11 surrender of the Egyptian kingdom, it seems that Herodotus might have intended a link between geography and national character. 4 Wilderness Egypt and Scythia are alike in their vastness. While they contain some continuously populated areas, much of both countries is erêmos, empty space. Although we know now that there were other civilizations far beyond these lands, to Herodotus and others, the wildernesses at their borders were essentially the ends of the populated world. Concerning what lies in the far north, Herodotus "cannot get information from anyone who claims to have firsthand knowledge" (4.16). Regarding the use of their land, each race makes a distinctly different choice: one cultivates crops, the other lives in the saddle and on their wagons. How do they reach these divergences? In the case of Egypt, Herodotus relates the story of the legendary king Sesostris, who upon bringing back prisoners from war, sets them to work digging extensive canals. In doing so, he makes horses and carts useless in Egypt (2.108). Under these conditions nomadism would become impossible, even if it were desired. Sesostris also divides up the land into square plots for each man, effectively creating a permanently sedentary people (2.109). By binding themselves to the land, the Egyptians reject the wandering that the desert fosters in favor of economic development and stability. 5 The great monuments of Egypt, requiring much money and a permanent labor source, are a testament to their sedentary, even fixed nature (2.35). 4 Lateiner, D., The Historical Method of Herodotus, 159. 5 Lloyd A.B., Herodotus: Book II, vol 3, 31.

12 From the very beginning of Herodotus' narrative on the Scythians he contrasts them with the Egyptians in their management of settlement. His first ethnographic note therein describes how the Scythians blind their slaves and employ them in milking horses (4.02). This is a far cry from the great works the Egyptians extracted from their slaves, from canal digging to the construction of the pyramids. Lacking the fixed structures to house slaves, the Scythians blind their prisoners to work to support their way of life, which reflects their firm entrenchment in nomadism. And while there are Scythians who practice agriculture, "the crops they cultivate are for them to sell, rather for their own consumption" (4.17). The way they both use the land in time of war is also a point of contrast. Scythian history begins (in one version given by Herodotus) with the Scythian invasion of Cimmerian territory. Faced with this incursion, Herodotus tells that "the opinion of the general populace would be for them to leave and not run the risk of staying for the sake of what was no more than dust" (4.11). This foreshadows the confrontation with Darius, which concludes similarly with flight through the countryside. The ability to flee rather than engage is only possible for a nomadic people, and Herodotus gives it high praise, writing "For when men have no established cities or fortresses but are still house-bearers and mounted archers, living not only by tilling the soil but by cattle rearing and carrying their dwellings on wagons, how should these not be invincible and unapproachable?" (4.46). The Egyptians, however, embrace the land, and cling to it when confronted by Cambyses' army. After losing in pitched battle, they "shut themselves up in Memphis" (3.13), rather than regrouping or fleeing into Upper Egypt. This is because they have much to lose, their farms and cities, by retreating through their land. Moreover, it is evidence of an inability to properly mobilize in defense of their country. This deficiency proves to be their downfall, as Cambyses