Herodotus and the Logioi of the Persians

Gregory Nagy
[This essay was originally published in No Tapping around Philology: A Festschrift in Honor of Wheeler McIntosh Thackston Jr.’s 70th Birthday (ed. A. Korangy and D. J. Sheffield) 185–191. Wiesbaden 2014. In this online edition, the original page numbers of the print edition will be indicated within braces (“{” and “}”). For example, “{185|186}” indicates where p. 185 of the print edition ends and p. 186 begins.]

The argument

In this essay, I argue that the term logioi as used by Herodotus applies not only to ‘the Persians’ but also to Greek masters of prose like Herodotus. And the word logioi, I further argue, means ‘masters of prose’, referring to the medium of Herodotus himself.

The background

At the beginning of his Histories, Herodotus says that the logioi of the Persians claim that the cause of the great conflict between the Greeks and the Persians, which is the main subject of the Histories, must be attributed to the Phoenicians—so, not to the Persians, nor to the Greeks. According to the logioi of the Persians, it was the Phoenicians who were aitioi ‘responsible’: Περσέων μέν νυν οἱ λόγιοι Φοίνικας αἰτίους φασὶ γενέσθαι τῆς διαφορῆς· ‘the logioi of the Persians say that it was the Phoenicians who were responsible [aitioi] for the conflict’ (Herodotus 1.1.1).
According to these same logioi of the Persians, Herodotus goes on to say, it was the Phoenicians who had once abducted a heroine named Io from the Greek city of Argos and brought her to Egypt (1.1.1–4). By contrast, as Herodotus emphasizes, the Greek version of the myth is different: it was the Egyptians themselves and not the Phoenicians who abducted the heroine Io from Argos and brought her to Egypt (1.2.1).
Returning to “the Persian version,” Herodotus goes on to say further that the Greeks reacted to this act of wrongdoing by abducting a heroine named Europa from the Phoenicians, specifically from the Phoenician city of Tyre (1.2.1). So the retaliation of the Greeks is symmetrical, since they abduct a heroine from the Phoenicians, not from the Egyptians, even though the Phoenicians had brought the heroine Io to Egypt and not to Phoenicia. This way, the symmetry of action and reaction sets up a rhetorical dichotomy between Europe as represented by Greeks and Asia as represented by Phoenicians, and this dichotomy is ironically made permanent by way of naming the name of the heroine who is abducted from Asia, Europa, since Herodotus bases the very concept of Europe on the name of this heroine from Asia.
So far, according to the logic of the logioi of the Persians, things are ‘even Steven’—isa pros isa, as Herodotus reports (1.2.1). But now we are about to see a new cycle of wrongful actions—and of retaliatory reactions. And, this time, it is Greeks who started it (1.2.2). If we continue to follow the logic of the logioi of the Persians, there is a wrongful action that has now been started by Europeans, not by Asiatics, and it is this: the Greeks abduct a heroine named Medea from Colchis in the Far East and bring her to a place vaguely defined as Hellas, imagined as the heartland of Europe (1.2.2–3). When the Asiatics react by demanding not only the return of the heroine Medea but also compensation for her {185|186} abduction, the Europeans refuse, offering the excuse that Hellas had never been compensated for the original abduction of the heroine Io by the Phoenicians, nor had Io been returned to Europe (1.2.3). Then, at a later time in the heroic age, the Trojan hero Paris, also known as Alexandros, abducts the heroine Helen from ‘Hellas’ and brings her to Troy in Asia; now it is the Hellenes who react by demanding not only the return of Helen but also compensation for her abduction, and now it is the Asiatics who refuse, offering the excuse that they in turn had never been compensated for the abduction of Medea by the Hellenes (1.3.1–2).
In the preceding paragraph, I must note, I have started to use the word ‘Hellenes’ instead of ‘Greeks’, following the usage of Herodotus, who has of course been using the word Hellēnes ‘Hellenes’ from the start. My reason for making this switch from saying ‘Greeks’ to saying ‘Hellenes’ will become clear in the next section.
At this point, as the report of Herodotus about the Persian version continues, the conflict between Hellenes and Asiatics escalates, since the Hellenes undertake a military expedition against Troy in order to retaliate for the abduction of Helen; and, in so doing, they commit a grave provocation (1.4.1). In Hellenic terms, of course, this expedition is the Trojan War, which is the core narrative of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey.
In Persian terms, by contrast, this expedition of the Hellenes is a grave military provocation that calls for military retaliation, and that is why the Persian Empire will launch its massive military attacks against Hellenes in Hellas. Those attacks are of course the core narrative of the Histories of Herodotus.
But here is where Herodotus starts interposing his own perspective. He notes a fundamental assumption on the part of the logioi of the Persians, which is this: Persians recognize that the abduction of women may be immoral, but they do not consider such an act to be a grave provocation that is worthy of a military expedition (1.4.2–4). And the attitude of the Phoenicians, as also described by Herodotus, is even more pronounced: this attitude, expressed presumably by their own logioi, is that Io, the first woman to be abducted in this chain reaction of abductions, was not really abducted but rather had intercourse willingly with the captain of the Phoenician ship; when she got pregnant, she was ashamed to tell her parents and willingly sailed away to Egypt along with the Phoenicians (1.5.1–2). And here we see a big difference between the Hellenes on one side and the Persians and Phoenicians on the other: the Hellenes do consider the abduction of women to be a grave provocation that calls for the waging of war. That is why, ostensibly, the Hellenes escalated the hostilities. And it is this war, according to the logioi of the Persians, that ultimately justified the war about to be waged by the Persian Empire against to Hellēnikon ‘the Hellenic thing’ (1.4.4).

European Greeks and Asiatic Greeks

In this new section, I have reached the point where I can explain why I started saying ‘Hellenes’ instead of ‘Greeks’ in the previous section. Herodotus, in reporting the argumentation of the logioi of the Persians about the hostilities between the Hellenes on one side and the Persians along with the Phoenicians on the other side, speaks of these hostilities in terms of an opposition between Europeans and Asiatics (1.4.1, 3–4). Our first impression is that Hellenes were all Europeans while non-Hellenes were all Asiatics. But {186|187} what about all the people who spoke the Greek language in places other than European Hellas? I am thinking here especially of the Greeks in Asia Minor and in such major outlying islands as Chios and Samos. For the moment, let me refer to these Greeks by using the blanket term ‘Asiatic Greeks’. In terms of the formulation made by the logioi of the Persians, as reported by Herodotus, these Asiatic Greeks are not Hellenes. They are Asiatics, just like the Persians and the Phoenicians. In terms of this same formulation, it is only the Greeks of the Helladic mainland, that is, of Hellas, who are Hellenes. [1]
From the pluralistic standpoint of the Persian Empire, the Greeks of Asia Minor and of the outlying islands were not Hellenes but Aeolians, Ionians, and Dorians. I list these Asiatic Greeks here in roughly geographical order, proceeding from north to south. And the same nomenclature applies in the earlier era of the Lydian Empire, superseded later by the Persian Empire. When Herodotus gives his own explanation of the causes of the great conflict between Greeks and Persians (1.5.3–1.6.3), he actually starts with the Lydian Empire in general and with the Lydian king Croesus in particular: it was this Croesus, Herodotus reports, who first succeeded in subjugating the Ionians and the Aeolians and the Dorians ‘in Asia’ (1.6.2). The historian evidently lists these Asiatic Greeks here in order of political and cultural importance, and the Ionians take pride of place.
But it is anachronistic for Herodotus to refer to the Asiatic Ionians and Aeolians and Dorians as ‘Hellenes’ in the historical context of the era when the states of these Greeks were tributaries of the Lydian Empire (1.5.3, 1.6.2, 1.6.3)—even if the term surely applies in the context of the later era when these same Greek states became tributaries of the Athenian Empire. In other work, I analyze in some detail the proleptic references of Herodotus to the Athenian Empire as a successor to the Persian Empire and to the earlier Lydian Empire in dominating the Ionians and Aeolians and Dorians of ‘Asia’ after the victory of the Hellenes over the forces of the Persian Empire in 480 and 479 BCE. [2] Here, I simply insist on the anachronism of applying the term ‘Hellenes’ to the Asiatic Greeks at a time when the Persian Empire was waging war against the Athenians and other fellow ‘Hellenes’, as they called themselves.
Herodotus is in fact quite cautious in his attempts to steer clear of the term ‘Hellenes’ with respect to the countless Asiatic Greeks who had been recruited by the Persian Empire to fight against the European Greeks—that is, against the Athenians and other ‘Hellenes’ on the Helladic mainland whose states had not already chosen to side with the Persians. In his description of the naval battle of Salamis, for example, where the navy of the Persian Empire was comprised of a massive number of Ionians as well as Phoenicians and other non-Greeks, Herodotus finds ways to maintain a distinction between the ‘Hellenes’ on one side and the ‘Ionians’ on the other side of the sea battle (the most telling passages are at 8.10.2 and 8.90.1). {187|188}

The logioi of the Persians and Herodotus as logios

Given that the Asiatic Greeks were part of the Persian Empire during the war narrated by Herodotus, I argue that the logioi of the Persians were not Persians themselves but Asiatic Greeks who represented the world view of the Persian Empire, just as the Asiatic Greeks who fought for the Persian Empire in the war narrated by Herodotus must have called themselves not ‘Hellenes’ but Ionians or Aeolians or Dorians and so on. I link this argument with another argument, developed in earlier work. [3] In terms of this other argument, Herodotus too considered himself a logios. In linking these two arguments, I find it relevant to highlight the fact that Herodotus of Halicarnassus was an Asiatic Greek in his own right. And his symbolic filiation may have been Doric, though his language of public discourse was Ionic. So, yes, Herodotus too was an Asiatic Greek. But here is the big difference. Herodotus was not a logios of the Persians; rather, he was a logios of the ‘Hellenes’.
In order to pursue this line of argumentation, I start with the traditional form of Herodotean discourse, which can be described as prosimetrum. [4] By using this term, I mean that the medium of Herodotus can feature poetry—especially oracular poetry—framed within prose. More frequently, however, the poetry framed within the prose of Herodotus is also turned into prose, along the lines of the Life of Aesop tradition, where the fables embedded within the prose that tells the life of Aesop represent a poetic medium that has been turned into prose. [5] For example, Herodotus turns into prose the sayings of Solon, who figures as the most eminent of the Seven Sages in the poetic tradition that records their sayings, and the historian embeds these sayings within the framing prose narrative of the Histories. [6]
Here I repeat a point I have made in earlier work on the similarities between the media of Herodotus and Aesop. [7] These similarities are noted by Plutarch in his essay On the Malice of Herodotus (871d), where he notes wryly that the big difference between Herodotus and Aesop is that, whereas the fables of Aesop present us with talking apes and ravens, the Histories of Herodotus show more elevated talking characters who include not only humans such as Scythians, Persians, or Egyptians, but even the god Apollo himself in the act of speaking his oracular poetry. [8] The talking humans in this negative reference correspond to characters in a genre of fable known as Subaritikoi logoi ‘discourse from Sybaris’. As we learn from the scholia for the Birds of Aristophanes (471), Sybaritic fables are distinct from Aesopic fables in that they feature talking humans as the main characters, not talking animals. [9]
In the case of Plutarch’s comment about the talking characters of Herodotus, I draw attention to the fact that Plutarch here highlights Scythians, Persians, and Egyptians rather than {188|189} ‘Hellenes’. [10] The negative implication is that Herodotus is disingenuously applying to non-Hellenes what really applies to Hellenes. As I have argued, however, such a strategy of indirect application is what Herodotus himself had really intended: what is disingenuousness for Plutarch is in fact a refined sense of diplomatic strategy for Herodotus. [11]
The diplomacy of Herodotus in the use of ainoi as fables is a topic that I have explored at length in previous work. [12] And I will explore it further in a future project “Homo ludens and the Fables of Aesop,” especially with reference to the elements of fable inherent in the story of Hippokleides in Herodotus (6.126–130), which are cognate, in my view, with the elements of the fable of “The Dancing Peacock” as attested in the Indic Jātakas. [13]
The point I made earlier about the diplomatic use of ainoi as fables by Herodotus, where the speaking characters may be Scythians, Persians, or Egyptians even though the intended listeners are in fact ‘Hellenes’, is relevant to the use of the word logios by Herodotus, which we can translate loosely as ‘master of speech’ when it is a noun and ‘expert in speech’ when it is an adjective. [14]
That said, I return to my argument that Herodotus is a logios. This word logios, in terms of the argument, is applicable to Herodotus in his capacity as a master of prose performance. I say applicable, not applied, because Herodotus (1.1.1) applies the word not to himself but to those who identify themselves with the Persians, not with the Hellenes, and who are therefore representatives of a world view that is different. Examining all the Herodotean contexts of the word logios (1.1.1, 2.3.1, 2.77.1, 4.46.1), I argue that logioi are masters of discourse about different world views as represented by Persians (1.1.1), Egyptians (2.3.1, 2.77.1), and Scythians (4.46.1). [15] In terms of my argument, then, this word logios could apply only implicitly to Herodotus as a Hellene but it applies explicitly to non-Hellenes, just as the ainoi or fables of Herodotus could apply only implicitly to Hellenes but explicitly to Persians, Scythians, or Egyptians. [16]
In support of my argument that the term logios in the sense of ‘master of speech’ applies implicitly to Herodotus himself, I highlight the parallel semantics of the word logopoios ‘artisan of speech’, which Herodotus actually applies to Aesop himself (2.134.3), to be contrasted with the word mousopoios ‘artisan of song’, which he applies to Sappho (2.135.1). [17] As in the case of the word logios, Herodotus does not apply the word logopoios to himself, but he does in fact apply it to another Asiatic Greek who happens to be his rival, the historian Hecataeus of Miletus (2.143.1, 5.36.2, 5.125). By implication, then, Herodotus is a logopoios, an ‘artisan of speech’, just like Hecataeus. [18] And, as a logopoios, Herodotus is even like Aesop. {189|190}
In short, I interpret the word logios in the sense of a ‘master of speech’ to refer to mastery of prose in contrast to song, just as the word logopoios ‘artisan of speech’ as applied by Herodotus to Hecataeus refers to mastery of prose in contrast to the word mousopoios ‘artisan of song’ as applied to Sappho, which refers to mastery of song. [19]


As I think back to the stories about the abductions of women as retold by Herodotus in the initial paragraphs of his Histories, I find there was an element of playfulness in the way he retells those stories, though of course the consequences of the storytelling lead to historical events that are very serious. Such playfulness reflects a delight in mimesis, which has the power to re-enact forms of verbal art that range from the fables of Aesop all the way to narratives about grim wars that determined the course of history. The war, recounted by Herodotus, was of course won by ‘Hellenes’, who made their name stick, especially in the context of the Athenian Empire. If the war had been won by the Persians, however, I doubt that Greek-speaking people would have persisted in calling themselves ‘Hellenes’. My guess is that they would call themselves Ionians. The Persians still call them that. {190|191}


Asheri, D., A. Lloyd, and A. Corcella. 2007. A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV (ed. O. Murray and A. Moreno; translated by B. Graziosi et al.). Oxford.
Kurke, L. 2011. Aesopic Conversations: Popular Traditions, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose. Princeton.
Luraghi, N. 2009. “The Importance of Being λόγιος.” Classical World 102:439-456.
Maslov, B. 2009. “The Semantics of ἀοιδός and Related Compounds: Towards a Historical Poetics of Solo Performance in Archaic Greece.” Classical Antiquity 28:1-38.
Nagy, G. 2009. “Hesiod and the Ancient Biographical Traditions.” Brill’s Companion to Hesiod (ed. F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, and C. Tsagalis) 271–311. Leiden.
Nagy, G. 2011a. “Asopos and his multiple daughters: Traces of preclassical epic in the Aeginetan Odes of Pindar.” Aegina: Contexts for Choral Lyric Poetry. Myth, History, and Identity in the Fifth Century BC (ed. D. Fearn) 41–78. Oxford.
Nagy, G. 2011b. “Diachrony and the Case of Aesop.” Classics@, Issue 9, “Defense Mechanisms.” 


[ back ] 1. On the politics of the term ‘Hellene’ (Hellēn) in its earliest phases, I offer an analysis in Nagy 2009:274–275. On the politics of the same term in its later phases, I offer further comments in Nagy 2011a:54n32, with references to recent discussions.
[ back ] 2. Nagy 1990:229–231 = 8§§22–23
[ back ] 3. Nagy 1990:221–225 = 8§§8–14; for background, see Asheri et al. 2007:74.
[ back ] 4. Nagy 2011b §§124, 133–134, 151–153.
[ back ] 5. Nagy 2011b §153.
[ back ] 6. Nagy 1990:248 = 8§50; 332 = 11§32.
[ back ] 7. Nagy 2011b §154.
[ back ] 8. Nagy 1990:332 = 11§19; 334 = 11§35.
[ back ] 9. Nagy 1990:324–325 = 11§21; 334–335 = 11§35.
[ back ] 10. Nagy 2011b §155.
[ back ] 11. Nagy 1990:324–325 = 11§21n59.
[ back ] 12. Nagy 1990 ch. 11.
[ back ] 13. I disagree here with Kurke 2011:417, who thinks that the Greek version of the story was somehow borrowed from the Indic version.
[ back ] 14. Nagy 2011b §157.
[ back ] 15. I offer a short commentary on these Herodotean passages in Nagy 1990:224 = 8§13n54.
[ back ] 16. Nagy 2011b §159.
[ back ] 17. Nagy 1990:224 = 8§13n54.
[ back ] 18. Nagy 1990:324–325 = 11§21
[ back ] 19. Nagy 2011b §160. There I highlight the attestation of an explicit contrast between logioi ‘masters of speech’ and aoidoi ‘singers’ in a song of Pindar (Pythian 1.92–94), where the word logioi occurs in a phraseological context that is parallel with what we find in Herodotus (1.1.1). There are also examples of logioi in other songs of Pindar (Nemean 6.45, Pythian 1.92–94) where the word occurs in phraseological contexts that are once again parallel to what we find in Herodotus (1.1.1). My synchronic study of the linguistic evidence showing collocations of these words in their attested contexts was the basis for my arguing, from a diachronic point of view, that these contexts are cognate with each other (Nagy 1990:221–225 = 8§§8–14). In Nagy 2011b (especially §161), I criticize what Kurke 2011 as well as Maslov 2009 and Luraghi 2009 have to say in their interpretations of the relevant Pindaric passages.