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

39 throughout

39 throughout the Histories; it is begun by the Lydians and inherited by their new overlords the Persians. When Cyrus attacks the Massagetae it is because of his overconfidence stemming from his miraculous birth and good fortune in war, much like Croesus’ false assurance of an oracle that is favorable to his campaign (1.75). Even Croesus’ advice and presence does not prevent Cyrus’ defeat, and his same experience is repeated. Rivers: The Final Frontier As we have seen, Herodotus shows how the Egyptians and Scythians treat the land in their own particular style, the former digging into the soil to grow crops, and the latter using it to graze and to their military advantage. As integral parts of their geographies, their respective great rivers, the Nile and the Ister, also help define the character of their cultures. A sedentary, agricultural society, the Egyptians rely completely on the Nile to feed them. The Scythians too find the Ister and other rivers useful for their meadows for cattle-grazing, fishing, and drinking water (4.53), but do not rely on them nearly as much to sustain their nomadic way of life. The way Herodotus shows the Persians’ dealings with the land, and particularly rivers defines the Persian character as well, in a way very different from the Egyptians and Scythians. As the belligerent in many wars of conquest across Eurasia, Herodotus makes it clear that Persian culture encourages war and imperialism. Aside from his Persian ethnography, Herodotus frames the Persians primarily as conquerors, and this is thoroughly supported by their encounters with rivers. Rivers, rather than nurturing and enriching, are often obstacles to imperial conquest, and like the peoples the Persians intend to subjugate, rivers as natural obstructions are overcome with the same aggression.

40 Even before we see the Persian response to the rivers they encounter, we can observe how Herodotus portrays rivers not only as physical obstructions, but also as political boundaries. In the Histories, Herodotus makes it clear that much peril lies in crossing these boundaries. His first mention of such boundaries occurs right away in Book One, in which he writes that Croesus’ empire consists of all the people that live west of the Halys, a river that cuts across Anatolia southwards, then loops up in an easterly direction. (1.06). He fatefully crosses the river with his army in order to head off the Persians before they become a threat, his confidence bolstered by a prophecy that tells him that a “great empire will fall” if he goes to war (1.53). Croesus’ subsequent destruction at the hands of Cyrus’ army is a powerful foreshadowing of the dangers the Persians will face as they cross river after river to reach their foes, pushing past boundaries that should not be passed. This foreshadowing is realized in the invasion of the Massagetan lands (1.204). When Cyrus is preparing to bridge the Araxes River, the Massagetan Queen Tomyris offers them the option of fighting either on her soil or to fight on Persian land, either way saving them the trouble of bridging the river. At first, Cyrus and his fellow Persians see no reason not to fight on their own soil and not bother with the construction of bridges. However, Croesus convinces him not only to cross the river, but to trick the Massagetae and slaughter them, a tactic we will discuss soon. And so it is after crossing the Araxes, that Cyrus is killed and his army destroyed (1.205-214). The Araxes river acts as the barrier between life and death as those who are remain behind escape the carnage of Cyrus’ defeat. Croesus and the nobleman Hystaspes, father of Darius, both “crossed the Araxes and returned to Persia” (1.210). Confronting another river, Cyrus gives us the first example of a Persian trademark throughout the Histories, that is using technology to harness natural forces. Their approach is