A Source Book in Geography

Author: Herodotus  | Date: 1940

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Greek Travelers’ Reports

Herodotus describes the Royal Road of Persia, the Caspian Sea, Egypt, Libya, and the land of the Scythians

About Aristagoras and his map

Aristagoras, then, tyrant of Miletus, arrived at Sparta when Cleomenes held the government; and he went to confer with him, as the Lacedæmonians say, having a brazen tablet, on which was engraved the circumference of the whole earth, and the whole sea, and all rivers. And Aristagoras, having come to a conference, addressed him as follows: "Wonder not, Cleomenes, at my eagerness in coming here, for the circumstances that urge are such as I will describe. That the children of Ionians should be slaves instead of free is a great disgrace and sorrow to us, and above all others to you, inasmuch as you are at the head of Greece. Now, therefore, I adjure you, by the Grecian gods, rescue the Ionians, who are of your own blood, from servitude. It is easy for you to effect this, for the barbarians are not valiant; whereas you, in matters relating to war, have attained to the utmost height of glory: their mode of fighting is this, with bows and a short spear; and they engage in battle, wearing loose trousers and turbans on their heads, so they are easy to be overcome. Besides, there are treasures belonging to those who inhabit that continent, such as are not possessed by all other nations together; beginning from gold, there are silver, brass, variegated garments, beasts of burden, and slaves; all these you may have if you will. They live adjoining one another, as I will show you. Next these Ionians are the Lydians, who inhabit a fertile country, and abound in silver." As he said this he showed the circumference of the earth, which he brought with him, engraved on a tablet. "Next the Lydians," proceeded Aristagoras, "are these Phrygians to the eastward, who are the richest in cattle and in corn of all with whom I am acquainted. Next to the Phrygians are the Cappadocians, whom we call Syrians; and bordering on them, the Cilicians, extending to this sea in which the island of Cyprus is situated; they pay an annual tribute of five hundred talents to the king. Next to the Cilicians are these Armenians, who also abound in cattle; and next the Armenians are the Matienians, who occupy this country; and next them this territory of Cissia, in which Susa is situated on this river Choaspes, here the great king resides, and there are his treasures of wealth. If you take this city, you may boldly contend with Jupiter in wealth. But now you must carry on war for a country of small extent, and not very fertile, and of narrow limits, with the Messenians, who are your equals in valour, and with the Arcadians and Argives, who have nothing akin to gold and silver, the desire of which induces men to hazard their lives in battle. But when an opportunity is offered to conquer all Asia with ease, will you prefer anything else?" Aristagoras spoke thus, and Cleomenes answered him as follows, "Milesian friend, I defer to give you an answer until the third day." On that day they got so far. When the day appointed for the answer was come, and they had met at the appointed place, Cleomenes asked Aristagoras how many days’ journey it was from the sea of the Ionians to the king. But Aristagoras, though he was cunning in other things, and had deceived him with much address, made a slip in this; for he should not have told the real fact if he wished to draw the Spartans into Asia; whereas he told him plainly that it was a three months’ journey up there. But he, cutting short the rest of the description which Aristagoras was proceeding to give of the journey, said: "Milesian friend, depart from Sparta before sunset; for you speak no agreeable language to the Lacedæmonians in wishing to lead them a three months’ journey from the sea." Cleomenes having spoken thus, went home. But Aristagoras, taking an olive branch in his hand, went to the house of Cleomenes, and having entered in, as a suppliant, besought Cleomenes to listen to him, having first sent away his little child; for his daughter, whose name was Gorgo, stood by him; she happened to be his only child, and was about eight or nine years of age. But Cleomenes bade him say what he would, and not refrain for the sake of the child. Thereupon Aristagoras began promising ten talents if he would do as he desired; and when Cleomenes refused, Aristagoras went on increasing in his offers, until he promised fifty talents; then the girl cried out, "Father, this stranger will corrupt you unless you quickly depart." Cleomenes, pleased with the advice of the child, retired to another apartment; and Aristagoras left Sparta altogether, nor could he get an opportunity to give further particulars of the route to the king’s residence.

With respect to this road, the case is as follows: There are royal stations all along, and excellent inns, and the whole road is through an inhabited and safe country. There are twenty stations extending through Lydia and Phrygia, and the distance is ninety-four parasangs and a half. After Phrygia, the river Halys is met with, at which there are gates, through which it is absolutely necessary to pass, and thus to cross the river: there is also a considerable fort on it. When you cross over into Cappadocia, and traverse that country to the borders of Cilicia, there are eight-and-twenty stations, and one hundred and four parasangs; and on the borders of these people you go through two gates, and pass by two forts. When you have gone through these and made the journey through Cilicia, there are three stations and fifteen parasangs and a half. The boundary of Cilicia and Armenia is a river that is crossed in boats: it is called the Euphrates. In Armenia there are fifteen stations for resting places, and fifty-six parasangs and a half; there is also a fort in the stations. Four rivers that are crossed in boats flow through this country, which it is absolutely necessary to ferry over. First, the Tigris; then, the second and third have the same name, though they are not the same river, nor flow from the same source. For the first mentioned of these flows from the Armenians, and the latter from the Matienians. The fourth river is called the Gyndes, which Cyrus once distributed into three hundred and sixty channels. As you enter from Armenia into the country of Matiene, there are four stations; and from thence as you proceed to the Cissian territory there are eleven stations, and forty-two parasangs and a half, to the river Choaspes, which also must be crossed in boats: on this Susa is built. All these stations amount to one hundred and eleven: accordingly, the resting places at the stations are so many as you go up from Sardis to Susa. Now if the royal road has been correctly measured in parasangs, and if the parasang is equal to thirty stades, as indeed it is, from Sardis to the royal palace, called Memnonia, is a distance of thirteen thousand five hundred stades, the parasangs being four hundred and fifty; and by those who travel one hundred and fifty stades every day, just ninety days are spent on the journey. Thus Aristagoras the Milesian spoke correctly when he told Cleomenes the Lacedæmonian that it was a three months’ journey up to the king’s residence. But if any one should require a more accurate account than this, I will also point this out to him, for it is necessary to reckon with the above the journey from Ephesus to Sardis: I therefore say that the whole number of stades from the Grecian sea to Susa (for such is the name of the Memnonian city) amounts to fourteen thousand and forty; for from Ephesus to Sardis is a distance of five hundred and forty stades. And thus the three months’ journey is lengthened by three days.

The Caspian Sea

The Caspian is a sea by itself, having no communication with any other sea; for the whole of that which the Grecians navigate, and that beyond the Pillars, called the Atlantic, and the Red Sea, are all one. But the Caspian is a separate sea of itself, being in length a fifteen days’ voyage for a rowing-boat; and in breadth, where it is widest, an eight days’ voyage. On the western shore of this sea stretches the Caucasus, which is in extent the largest, and in height the loftiest of all mountains; it contains within itself many and various nations of men, who for the most part live upon the produce of wild fruit trees. In this country, it is said, there are trees which produce leaves of such a nature that by rubbing them and mixing them with water the people paint figures on their garments; these figures, they say, do not wash out, but grow old with the wool, as if they had been woven in from the first. It is said that sexual intercourse among these people takes place openly, as with cattle. The Caucasus, then, bounds the western side of this sea, which is called the Caspian; and on the east, toward the rising sun, succeeds a plain in extent unbounded in the prospect.

On Egypt

But as concerns human affairs, they agree with one another in the following account: That the Egyptians were the first to discover the year, which they divided into twelve parts; and they say that they made this discovery from the stars: and so far, I think, they act more wisely than the Grecians, in that the Grecians insert an intercalary month every third year, on account of the seasons; whereas the Egyptians, reckoning twelve months of thirty days each, add five days each year above that number, and so with them the circle of the seasons comes round to the same point. They say also that the Egyptians were the first who introduced the names of the twelve gods, and that the Greeks borrowed those names from them; that they were the first to assign altars, images, and temples to the gods, and to carve the figures of animals on stone; and most of these things they proved were so in fact. They added, that Menes was the first mortal who reigned over Egypt, and that in his time all Egypt, except the district of Thebes, was a morass, and that no part of the land that now exists below Lake Myris was then above water: to this place from the sea is a seven days’ passage up the river. And they seemed to me to give a good account of this region. For it is evident to a man of common understanding, who has not heard it before, but sees it, that the part of Egypt which the Greeks frequent with their shipping is land acquired by the Egyptians, and a gift from the river; and the parts above this lake, during a three days’ passage, of which, however, they said nothing, are of the same description. For the nature of the soil of Egypt is of this kind: when you are first sailing to it, and are at the distance of a day’s sail from land, if you cast the lead you will bring up mud, and will find yourself in eleven fathoms water: this so far shows that there is an alluvial deposit.

The length of Egypt along the sea-coast is sixty schœni, according as we reckon it to extend from the Plinthinetic Bay to Lake Serbonis, near which Mount Casius stretches: from this point then the length is sixty schœni. Now, all men who are short of land measure their territory by fathoms; but those who are less short of land, by stades; and those who have much, by parasangs; and such as have a very great extent, by schœni. Now, a parasang is equal to thirty stades, and each schœnus, which is an Egyptian measure, is equal to sixty stades. So the whole coast of Egypt is three thousand six hundred stades in length. From thence, as far as Heliopolis, inland, Egypt is wide, being all flat, without water, and a swamp. The distance to Heliopolis, as one goes up from the sea, is about equal in length to the road from Athens—that is to say, from the altar of the twelve gods to Pisa and the Temple of Olympian Jupiter. For whoever will compare these roads will find, by computation, that the difference between them is but little, not exceeding fifteen stades; for the road from Athens to Pisa is only fifteen stades short of one thousand five hundred stades, but the road from the sea to Heliopolis amounts to just that number. From Heliop-olis upward Egypt is narrow, for on one side the mountain of Arabia extends from north to south and southwest, stretching up continuously to that which is called the Red Sea. In this mountain are the quarries whence the stone was cut for the pyramids at Memphis; here the mountain, deviating, turns to the parts above mentioned. But where its length is the greatest, I have heard that it is a two months’ journey from east to west; and that eastward its confines produce frankincense. On that side of Egypt which borders upon Libya extends another rocky mountain, and covered with sand, on which the pyramids stand; and this stretches in the same direction as that part of the Arabian mountain that runs southward. So that from Heliopolis, the territory which belongs to Egypt is not very extensive; but for four days’ sail up the river it is very narrow. Between the mountains before mentioned the land is level, and in the narrowest part appeared to me to be not more than two hundred stades in breadth, from the Arabian mountain to that called the Libyan; but above this Egypt again becomes wide. Such, then, is the character of this country. From Heliopolis to Thebes is a voyage up of nine days; the length of this journey is in stades four thousand eight hundred and sixty, which amounts to eighty-one schœni. Now, if we compute these stades together, the coast of Egypt, as I before explained, contains in length three thousand and six hundred stades: how far it is from the sea inland as far as Thebes I will next show, namely, six thousand one hundred and twenty stades; and from Thebes to the city called Elephantine, one thousand eight hundred stades.

The greater part of all this country, as the priests informed me, and as appeared to me also to be the case, has been acquired by the Egyptians. For the space between the above-mentioned mountains, that are situated beyond the city of Memphis, seem to me to have been formerly a bay of the sea; as is the case also with the parts about Ilium, Teuthrania, Ephesus, and the plain of the Mæander, if I may be permitted to compare small things with great; for of the rivers that have thrown up the soil that forms these countries, not one can justly be brought into comparison, as to size, with any one of the five mouths of the Nile. But there are other rivers not equal in size to the Nile, which have wrought great works; of these I could mention the names, and among them one of the most remarkable is the Achelous, which, flowing through Acarnania, and falling into the sea, has already converted one half of the Echinades Islands into continent. There is also in the Arabian territory, not far from Egypt, branching from the Red Sea, a bay of the sea, of the length and width I shall here describe: the length of the voyage, beginning from the innermost part of this bay to the broad sea, occupies forty days for a vessel with oars; and the width, where the bay is widest, half a day’s passage: and in it an ebb and flow takes place daily; and I am of opinion that Egypt was formerly a similar bay; this stretching from the Northern Sea toward Ethiopia; and the Arabian Bay, which I am describing, from the south toward Syria; and that they almost perforated their recesses so as to meet each other, overlapping to some small extent. Now, if the Nile were to turn its stream into this Arabian gulf, what could hinder it from being filled with soil by the river within twenty thousand years? For my part, I think it would be filled within ten thousand. How, then, in the time that has elapsed before I was born, might not even a much greater bay than this have been filled up by such a great and powerful river? I therefore both give credit to those who relate these things concerning Egypt, and am myself persuaded of their truth when I see that Egypt projects beyond the adjoining land; that shells are found on the mountains; that a saline humour forms on the surface so as even to corrode the pyramids; and that this mountain which is above Memphis is the only one in Egypt that abounds in sand: add to which, that Egypt, in its soil, is neither like Arabia or its confines, nor Libya, nor Syria (Syrians occupy the sea-coast of Arabia), but is black and crumbling, as if it were mud and alluvial deposit brought down by the river from Ethiopia; whereas we know that the earth of Libya is reddish, and somewhat more sandy; and that of Arabia and Syria is more clayey and flinty.

On the Nile

The Nile when it is in flood spreads over not only the Delta but also the region which is called Libyan, and the Arabian besides, in some places for a distance of two days’ journey on either side, and sometimes even more than this, and sometimes less. But on the nature of the river I was not able to get any information either from the priests or from any other person; and I was eager to learn from them through what cause the Nile comes down in flood for one hundred days beginning at the summer solstice, and when it has approached that number of days, goes back again with failing stream, so that during the whole winter it is constantly low until the return of the summer solstice . . . And I often inquired why it is that alone of all rivers it does not afford breezes blowing from it. Nevertheless certain Greeks desiring to become conspicuous for cleverness have given explanations of this water in three different ways. Two of these ways I do not think worthy of mention beyond my desire simply to indicate their nature. The one explanation says that it is the etesian winds which are the cause of the river’s flooding; they hinder the Nile from flowing out into the sea. But surely there is many a time when the etesians do not blow, and yet the Nile shows the same activity; and besides, if the etesians were the cause, it would needs follow that all other rivers also which flow against the etesians would be similarly affected with the Nile and with the same result; and all the more so in proportion to the fact that being smaller in size, they produce weaker currents; and there are many rivers in Syria, and many too in Libya which are affected in nothing like the same way as the Nile. The second explanation is based less on knowledge than the first mentioned, but one might really say it is more wonderful; it maintains that the river effects all this by flowing from the Ocean, and that the Ocean ’flows’ round all the earth. Then the third explanation, though it appears most reasonable, is the most false; for this also is no explanation at all, alleging as it does that the Nile flows from the melting snow—the Nile which flows from Libya through the midst of the Ethiopians and only then pours into Egypt! How could it possibly flow from snow, since it flows from the hottest regions to colder? On this point there are many arguments—at any rate to the man who is capable of reasoning about such things—showing that it is not even reasonable that it should flow from snow. The first and most cogent piece of evidence is provided by the winds in that they blow hot from the regions mentioned; the second is that the country continues constantly without rain and ice, whereas on a fall of snow, it must of utter necessity rain within five days, so that if it ever snowed in those regions there would be rain in them also; and the third is the fact that the people are black through the burning heat; kites and swallows are resident throughout the year and do not leave; and cranes, fleeing from the winter which sets in in Scythia, regularly visit these localities for wintering: if, then, ever so little snow fell on this country through which the Nile flows, and from which it derives its source, none of these things would happen.

On Libya

Libya commences from Egypt. Now in Egypt this tract is narrow; for from this sea to the Red Sea are a hundred thousand orgyæ, which make one thousand stades. But from this narrow neck the tract which is called Libya becomes very wide. I wonder therefore at those who have described the limits of and divided Libya, Asia, and Europe, for the difference between them is not trifling; for in length Europe extends along both of them, but with respect to width, it is evidently not to be compared. Libya shows itself to be surrounded by water, except so much of it as borders upon Asia. Neco, King of Egypt, was the first whom we know of that proved this; he, when he had ceased digging the canal leading from the Nile to the Arabian Gulf, sent certain Phœnicians in ships, with orders to sail back through the Pillars of Hercules into the northern sea, and so to return to Egypt. The Phœnicians, accordingly, setting out from the Red Sea, navigated the southern sea; when autumn came, they went ashore, and sowed the land, by whatever part of Libya they happened to be sailing, and waited for harvest; then having reaped the corn, they put to sea again. When two years had thus passed, in the third, having doubled the Pillars of Hercules, they arrived in Egypt, and related what to me does not seem credible, but may to others, that as they sailed round Libya they had the sun on their right hand. Thus was Libya first known.

On Scythia

All this country which I have been speaking of is subject to such a severe winter that for eight months the frost is so intolerable that if you pour water on the ground you will not make mud, but if you light a fire you will make mud. Even the sea freezes, and the whole Cimmerian bosphorus; and the Scythians who live within the trench, lead their armies and drive their chariots over the ice to the Sindians, on the other side. Thus winter continues eight months, and during the other four it is cold there. And this winter is different in character from the winters in all other countries; for in this no rain worth mentioning falls in the usual season, but during the summer it never leaves off raining. At the time when there is thunder elsewhere there is none there, but in summer it is violent: if there should be thunder in winter, it is accounted a prodigy to be wondered at. So should there be an earthquake, whether in summer or winter, in Scythia it is accounted a prodigy. Their horses endure this cold, but their asses and mules can not endure it at all; but in other places horses that stand exposed to frost become frost-bitten in the cold, waste away; but asses and mules endure it. On this account also the race of beeves appears to me to be defective there, and not to have horns; and the following verse of Homer, in his "Odyssey," confirms my opinion. "And Libya, where the lambs soon put forth their horns"; rightly observing that in warm climates horns shoot out quickly; but in very severe cold, the cattle either do not produce them at all, or if they do produce them they do so with difficulty. Here, then, such are the effects of the cold.

The selection on the Nile is from E. H. Warmington, Greek Geography, The Library of Greek Thought Series (New York, 1934), pp. 40–42. Published in the United States by E. P. Dutton, and reprinted by their permission. The other selections are from The Histories of Herodotus trans. Henry Carey (New York: Appleton, 1940), pp. 290–293, 79, 86–89, 224–225, 221–222.


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Chicago: Herodotus, "Herodotus Describes the Royal Road of Persia, the Caspian Sea, Egypt, Libya, and the Land of the Scythians," A Source Book in Geography, ed. E. H. Warmington and trans. Henry Carey in A Source Book in Geography, ed. George Kish (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 55–63. Original Sources, accessed April 13, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=NLL26V21H9GHLVP.

MLA: Herodotus. "Herodotus Describes the Royal Road of Persia, the Caspian Sea, Egypt, Libya, and the Land of the Scythians." A Source Book in Geography, edited by E. H. Warmington, and translated by Henry Carey, in A Source Book in Geography, edited by George Kish, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1978, pp. 55–63. Original Sources. 13 Apr. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=NLL26V21H9GHLVP.

Harvard: Herodotus, 'Herodotus Describes the Royal Road of Persia, the Caspian Sea, Egypt, Libya, and the Land of the Scythians' in A Source Book in Geography, ed. and trans. . cited in 1978, A Source Book in Geography, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.55–63. Original Sources, retrieved 13 April 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=NLL26V21H9GHLVP.