13 Bizarre Descriptions of the Ancient World According to Herodotus's Histories

iStock.com/shishic
iStock.com/shishic

Widely considered one of the first serious works of history, Histories—written in the 5th century BCE by the Greek scholar Herodotus—is a highly influential account of the Greco-Persian wars, and offers one of the best glimpses into ancient cultures. Herodotus was remarkably scrupulous with his research, traveling across Europe and the Middle East to interview countless people. “[M]y rule in this history is that I record what is said by all as I have heard it,” he’d write.

Unfortunately, many of those people, it appears, lied to his face: Despite its merits, Histories is stuffed with whimsical inaccuracies. Consequently, some scholars have given Herodotus—dubbed the “Father of History”—a second sobriquet: “The Father of Lies.” As Tom Holland, a Herodotus translator, told The Telegraph: “The Histories are a great shaggy-dog story.” Here are some colorful passages (some of which may stretch the truth).

1. It was an honor to be eaten after your (sacrificial) death.

Herodotus had this to say of the Massagetae, a group who lived east of the Caspian Sea. “[W]hen a man is very old, all his relatives give a party and include him in a general sacrifice of cattle; then they boil the flesh and eat it. This they consider to be the best sort of death. Those who die of disease are not eaten but buried, and it is held a misfortune not to have lived long enough to be sacrificed.”

2. Egyptians loved cats so much they’d save them from a burning building.

Any devout cat-lover can imagine the following scene: “What happens when a house catches fire is most extraordinary: Nobody takes the least trouble to put it out, for it is only the cats that matter: every one stands in a row, a little distance from his neighbor, trying to protect the cats.”

3. In fact, they mourned their pet's death by shaving their eyebrows.

Perhaps the Egyptians loved their pets a little too much: “All the inmates of a house where a cat has died a natural death shave their eyebrows, and when a dog dies they shave the whole body including the head.”

4. In Babylon, women were auctioned into marriage based on looks.

“Once a year all the girls of marriageable age used to be collected together in one place, while the men stood round them in a circle; an auctioneer then called each one in turn to stand up and offered her for sale, beginning with the best-looking and going on to the second best as soon as the first had been sold for a good price.” (However, Herodotus noted that this practice was obsolete by his time; as with his other "facts," the veracity is debated.)

5. The desert was full of gigantic, terrifying ants.

Herodotus had this to say about India: “There is found in this desert a kind of ant of great size bigger than a fox, though not so big as a dog … These creatures as they burrow underground throw up the sand in heaps, just as our own ants throw up the earth, and they are very much like ours in shape.” (In 1996, a team of explorers theorized that Herodotus's ants, which were also said to dig up gold, were actually large marmots—which have been known to kick up gold dust in an area near the Indus River as they build their burrows.)

6. And hippos were basically a big, leathery horse.

Consider this description of a hippo, which Herodotus clearly never saw: “This animal has four legs, cloven hoofs like an ox, a snub nose, a horse’s mane and tail, conspicuous tusks, a voice like a horse’s neigh, and is about the size of a very large ox. Its hide is so thick and tough that when dried it can be made into spear-shafts.” (To say the least, Histories is not a very good biology resource.)

7. In Babylon, strangers were required to give you unsolicited medical advice.

Babylon sounds like an ill introvert’s nightmare: “They have no doctors, but bring their invalids out into the street, where anyone who comes along offers the sufferer advice on his complaint, either from personal experience or observation or similar complaint in others … Nobody is allowed to pass a sick person in silence; but one must ask him what is the matter.”

8. The Persians were extremely good at delivering mail.

“No mortal thing travels faster than these Persian couriers," Herodotus writes. "The whole idea is a Persian invention, and works like this: riders are stationed along the road, equal in number to the number of days the journey takes—a man and a horse for each day. Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time—neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness.” (If that sounds familiar, it's because these lines inspired the USPS’s unofficial "neither snow nor rain ..." motto [PDF]).

9. Some women in Libya wore adornments indicating their number of sexual conquests.

Herodotus describes the Gindane people of Libya like this: “The women of this tribe wear leather bands round their ankles, which are supposed to indicate the number of their lovers: each woman puts on one band for every man she has gone to bed with, so that whoever has the greatest number enjoys the greatest reputation because she has been loved by the greatest number of men.” (Incidentally, Herodotus also believed the Gindanes lived among the mythical Lotus Eaters, who were famous for their apathy.)

10. In Bulgaria, death was a cause for celebration!

According to Herodotus, the Trausi, a tribe living in the Rhodope mountains of southeastern Europe, celebrated birth and death a little differently: “When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.”

11. Ethiopia was full of hole-dwelling people who shrieked like bats.

The Garamantes were a tribe in Libya. According to “The Father of History,” they passed their time by hunting quick-footed trolls: “[They] hunt the Ethiopian hole-men, or troglodytes, in four-horse chariots, for these troglodytes are exceedingly swift of foot—more so than any people of whom we have information. They eat snakes and lizards and other reptiles and speak a language like no other, but squeak like bats.”

12. Egyptians overcame baldness with the power of the sun.

“I noticed that the skulls of the Persians are so thin that the merest touch with a pebble will pierce them, but those of the Egyptians, on the other hand, are so tough that it is hardly possible to break them with a blow from a stone. I was told, very credibly, that the reason was that the Egyptians shave their heads from childhood, so that the bone of the skull is hardened by the action of the sun—this is also why they hardly ever go bald, baldness being rare in Egypt than anywhere else.”

13. Sea nymphs could save the day! (Maybe.)

Even for Herodotus, some stories were just too crazy to accept—like this tale describing a naval fleet caught in a rough weather: “The storm lasted three days, after which the Magi brought it to an end by sacrificial offerings, and by putting spells on the wind, and by further offerings to Thetis and the sea-nymphs—or, of course, it may be that the wind just dropped naturally.”

There you have it: If you want to know where Herodotus draws the line, it’s weather-conjuring sea-nymphs.

9 Facial Reconstructions of Famous Historical Figures

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Why look at a painting of a historical figure when you can come face to face with one? Forensic facial reconstruction using scans of skeletal remains allows researchers to create 3D models of the face through a combination of science, history, and artistic interpretation. The results may be somewhat subjective, but they’re fascinating anyway. Here are nine facial reconstructions of famous people.

1. Richard III

In 2012, King Richard III’s skeleton was found below a parking lot in Leicester, England, where in 1485 he was hurriedly buried after dying in battle. A reconstruction (above) shows a young man, only 32 years old, with a gentle, approachable face. It’s a far cry from the child-murdering villain portrayed by Shakespeare and other writers. One thing they said does seem accurate, however: The skeleton had a curved spine from scoliosis, suggesting that Richard’s humpback may have been real.

2. Bach

J.S. Bach’s bust has sat on innumerable pianos for centuries, but he only posed for one portrait in his lifetime. So this reconstruction of his face—which was taken from a bronze cast of his skull—offers an interesting glimpse into the man beneath the 18th century wig. You get the same thick neck, underbite, and stern brow you see in the painting, but the reconstruction’s friendly, confused stare lacks the soul of the real man … and his music, for that matter.

3. Shakespeare

Apparently, no one knows anything about Shakespeare for sure—his hair color, his sexual orientation, how he spelled his name, whether he liked his wife, etc. Some people aren’t even sure whether he wrote his plays or not. So this rendering, taken from a death mask found in Germany, is bound to be controversial. But if it is Shakespeare, it’s pretty intriguing. It shows a man who suffered from cancer and had a sad, soulful face.

4. Dante

Maybe it’s because The Divine Comedy dealt with the ugliness of sin that Dante Alighieri is usually depicted as unattractive, with a pointy chin, buggy eyes, and enormous hooked nose. But a reconstruction done from measurements of the skull taken in 1921—the only time the remains have been out of the crypt—reveals a much more attractive Dante. The face has a rounder chin, pleasant eyes, and smaller nose than previously thought. It’s a face with character.

5. King Henri IV

The mummified head of France’s King Henri IV was lost after the French Revolution until a few years ago, when it showed up in a tax collector’s attic. In his day, Henri was beloved by everyone except the Catholic fundamentalists who murdered him in 1610. The hard-living king looks a bit old for his 56 years, but there’s a twinkle in his eyes. What the model cannot show, however, was how much the king stank—apparently he smelled of ”garlic, feet and armpits.”

6. Cleopatra’s Sister

Cleopatra hated her half-sister Arsinoe IV so much she had her dragged out of the temple of Artemis and murdered. In 2013, researchers said they had discovered what may be Arisone’s body, based on the shape of the tomb, carbon dating, and other factors. The resulting facial reconstruction shows a petite teenager of European and African blood. And yeah, maybe this is closer to what Arsinoe would look like if she were trapped in The Sims, but since Cleopatra’s remains are long gone, this may be the closest we get to knowing what she looked like.

7. King Tut

King Tutankhamun, whose famous sarcophagus has traveled far more than the “boy king” did in his 19-year lifetime, had buckteeth, a receding chin, and a slim nose, according to 3D renderings of his mummy. His weird skull shape is just within range of normal and was probably genetic—his father, Akhenaten, had a similarly shaped head. Tut’s body also had a broken leg, indicating he may have died from falling off a horse or chariot.

8. Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus, who challenged the belief that the sun revolved around the earth, died in 1543 at age 70. When his body was found in 2006 in a Polish church and confirmed by matching DNA to strands of his hair left in a book, the Polish police used their forensic laboratory to make this portrait. They made sure to include Copernicus’s broken nose and the scar above his left eye. Who knew that the Father of Astronomy looked so much like the actor James Cromwell?

9. Santa Claus

The remains of St. Nicholas, i.e. Santa Claus, have been in a church in Bari, Italy, since they were stolen from Turkey in 1087. This reproduction, taken from measurements of his skull, reveal that St. Nicholas had a small body—he was only 5’6”—and a huge, masculine head, with a square jaw and strong muscles in the neck. He also had a broken nose, like someone had beaten him up. This is consistent with accounts of St. Nicholas from the time: It turns out that Santa Claus had quite a temper.

A version of this list was first published in 2013.

Fabric Allegedly From Queen Elizabeth I’s Only Surviving Piece of Clothing Is Going on Display

© Historic Royal Palaces Courtesy of St. Faith's Church, Bacton
© Historic Royal Palaces Courtesy of St. Faith's Church, Bacton

When Eleri Lynn, curator of historic dress at Historic Royal Palaces, first laid eyes on the Bacton altar cloth, she had a feeling that it wasn’t your typical 16th-century altar cloth. She had come across it online while researching Welsh connections to the Tudor court, and decided to pay a visit to St. Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire, England, to see it in person.

“I knew immediately that it was something special,” she told The Telegraph. “As I examined it, I felt as though I had found the Holy Grail, the Mona Lisa of fashion.” After a year’s worth of careful analysis, experts believe it was originally part of a dress that Queen Elizabeth I wore in the Rainbow Portrait of 1602. That makes it the only known surviving piece of clothing worn by the Virgin Queen.

Elizabeth I Rainbow Portrait
Isaac Oliver, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The cloth and Elizabeth I’s dress are both embroidered with roses, daffodils, and other flowers. The altar cloth shows animals like butterflies, frogs, squirrels, and bears, which Lynn thinks were added after the Rainbow Portrait was painted. Lynn also noticed that the altar cloth contains strands of gold and silver, which only the royal family could wear during Elizabeth I’s reign due to strict sumptuary laws.

Bacton altar cloth from Elizabeth I's dress
© Historic Royal Palaces Courtesy of St. Faith's Church, Bacton

Close-up on Bacton altar cloth from Elizabeth I's dress
© Historic Royal Palaces Courtesy of St. Faith's Church, Bacton

Since royal attire was so extravagant, it was often handed down to the next generation or reincarnated as upholstery. And, according to a statement from Hampton Royal Palaces, Elizabeth I sometimes gave her hand-me-downs to Blanche Parry, her Chief Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber and the woman who had nursed her from infancy. Parry, as it so happens, belonged to St. Faith’s Church. Lynn and her fellow historians posit that Elizabeth I may have even sent this particular fabric to St. Faith’s in memory of her companion.

While recycling or reusing clothing was sustainable, it has made it difficult for Lynn and her contemporaries to track down fashion relics from the Tudor dynasty. In addition to that, Lynn told The Telegraph, “Oliver Cromwell sold off every item of clothing in the royal stores, so the only things we have, including a hat which might have been worn by Henry VIII, have come back to Hampton Court after they have survived elsewhere.”

St. Faith’s has loaned the cloth to Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that oversees Hampton Court Palace, where you can see it on display along with the Rainbow Portrait and other Tudor artifacts from October 12, 2019, to February 23, 2020.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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