Ctesias Corrects Herodotus
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Ctesias Corrects Herodotus

A view of Innsbruck looking south between trees over the river and town in the valley
What would Ctesias or Herodotus have made of Innsbruck? We do not have many kings or monsters, although I am told that one village once had a problem with giants.

“Ktesias ‘Korrigiert’ Herodot” is an article which is widely cited, but it first appeared in a Festschrift rather than a downloadable journal, and it is written in beautiful academic German and a somewhat associative style which makes it difficult for foreigners to follow. I recently made my way through it and thought I would write down my thoughts.

Bichler is interested in how to evaluate the Persica of Ctesias of Cnidus, who was very influential and disagrees with our other sources on many points. Ctesias’ work is lost except for one scrap of papyrus containing 27 lines, but he seems to have presented himself as a serious historian, interested in seeing things himself or hearing them from witnesses, and eager to criticize earlier writers for errors. He spent 17 years in the Persian empire as a prisoner and court physician, much of that time at court in Babylonia, Media, and Persis, and his presence is explicitly acknowledged by a contemporary (whereas the only evidence for Herodotus’ travels is Herodotus’ own words, and Herodotus never claimed to have travelled east of Sidon). And the problem is that most of what he says contradicts our other major sources like Herodotus and Xenophon. Since we have few ways to check the things which he and Herodotus say, a lot depends on who we decide to believe and what we think they were trying to do.

Bichler decides to study the summary of Ctesias by Photius, a 9th century patriarch of Constantinople. Photius was the last person to read an intact copy of the Persica and write down his thoughts.

If one takes the summary by Photius as a measure, and widens it with observations which the relevant fragments of other provenance- not least from Nicholaus of Damascus’ Histories– make possible, in my view the impression emerges that we have here a jester (Spaßvogel) at work, who wanted to place on the table before a knowing public a proper parody (Verriss) of Herodotus’ work. Now, it would certainly be mistaken to see Ctesias’ lush depiction as reduced to this single aspect. How much he was inspired to create a broad, romantic depiction through his own fantasy as well as through other literary traditions can be surmised from various fragments. However, what the Patriarch captures in his extremely reduced summaries for that part of the Persica, for which Herodotus’ Histories provide the standard contrast, can very much be described as a satirical rebuttal to Herodotus’ art of history. In that case, it would be a form of literary game, which presupposes knowledge of the object of the ‘contrast.’ (p. 107)

More specifically, Bichler notes that:

  • Herodotus’ Cyrus is the son of Astyages the king of the Medes, Ctesias’ is absolutely not
  • Bichler sees the personality of Oibares, Cyrus’ left-hand man in Ctesias, as a mix of Oibares the helper of Darius and Harpagus the Mede in Herodotus
  • In Herodotus, Astyages is put under house arrest and disappears from the story after his defeat (1.130). In Ctesias, Cyrus later calls for him, and Oibares has him murdered, only to see Amytis, the daughter of Astyages and wife of Cyrus, get her revenge.
  • In Herodotus, Cyrus invades the Saka after a long reign and kills their king, only for his mother Tomyris to rally the troops, defeat Cyrus, and kill him. In Ctesias, Cyrus invades the Saka early in his career, captures their king, and inspires their queen to raise a great army of men and women, defeat the Persians, and trade Persian prisoners for her husband.
  • Herodotus is interested in how Cyrus conquered Babylon, whereas nothing is recorded about what Ctesias said on the subject.
  • At least in Photius, Ctesias does not tell the story about Croesus asking Apollo of Delphi for advice before declaring war on Cyrus, but he does say that Croesus was imprisoned in the temple of Apollo and three time escaped his chains.
  • Ctesias’ stories about Cambyses focus on his invasion of Egypt and his killing of his brother who was replaced by an impostor, just like in Herodotus, but all the names and details are different.
  • In Herodotus, the defeated pharaoh is forced to drink bull’s blood and dies. In Ctesias, this does not happen, but instead Cambyses’ brother is forced to drink it.
  • In Ctesias, the false king is killed by a conspiracy of Seven Persians, but the names are different than in Herodotus and the Behistun inscription.
  • In Herodotus, the fight with the false king and his partner is short and tense and ends in desperate stabbing in the darkness, whereas in Ctesias the conspirators find the false king in bed with a Babylonian concubine, and he defends himself for some time with a broken chair. Bichler suggests that this could have been a slapstick scene, with the impostor desperately searching for weapons in one place after another, then using the chair as seven opponents try and fail to dispatch him and the poor Babylonian woman tries to keep out of the way.
  • In Herodotus, there is a great revolt in Babylon under Darius, in Ctesias it occurs under Xerxes (from the cuneiform sources, we know that there were several revolts under both kings, and that there was a very serious one in Xerxes’ second year as king).
  • While Ctesias talks about a revolt in Babylon at the beginning of Xerxes’ reign, we do not know whether he mentioned a revolt in Egypt like Herodotus did.
  • In Herodotus, Xerxes’ advisor Mardonius is young, while Artabanus is old. In Ctesias, Mardionius is portrayed as old, while nothing is said about Artabanus’ age. (Not everyone thinks that these two Artabani are the same person http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/artabanus-achaemenid).
  • In Herodotus, Xerxes leaves Artabanus behind when he invades Greece. In Ctesias, Artabanus comes along.
  • Photius tells stories of events in Xerxes’ invasion out-of-order compared to Herodotus. In Herodotus, Xerxes first tries to land on Salamis with his fleet, then tries to build a causeway from the mainland to the island, while in Photius’ summary of Ctesias, the causeway comes first. (Some people suspect that Ctesias did not structure his book according to a simple chronological narrative, and that he might have switched back and forth between the army and the fleet … it is also possible that Photius mentioned events as they occurred to him rather than in the order in which they occurred in Ctesias).
  • On the surface of his narrative, Herodotus alternates good (Cyrus, Darius) and bad (Cambyses, Xerxes) kings, whereas Ctesias presents Cyrus as shabbier, willing to work with the odious Oibares and eager to torture women and children. On the other hand, he attributes the story about robbing a queen’s tomb in Babylon to Xerxes, whereas Herodotus attributes it to Darius.

I could go on but I hope that the general approach is clear. Bichler sees the parts of the Persica which deal with the reigns of Cyrus, Cambyses, the Magus, Darius, and Xerxes not as independent accounts, but as twistings and reworkings of the stories told by Herodotus. He sees the differences as the products of a creative choice, and not stupidity or mistakes.

… in books seven, eight, ten, eleven, twelve, and thirteen he describes the history of Cyrus, Cambyses, and the Magus, and Darius and Xerxes- and this is different from the histories of Herodotus in almost every way and he exposes Herodotus as a liar in a number of matters and calls him a writer of fables.- Photius, Library, 72 tr. Llewellyn-Jones

I have complicated feelings about this article. Ctesias described the reigns of Cambyses, the impostor, Darius, and Xerxes in two books, whereas Herodotus devoted three just to Xerxes’ invasion of Greece. Thinking about this as a way of undermining Herodotus’ ‘great event’ seems helpful to me. It also seems plausible that if Ctesias had found more stories about the early kings, he would have described their careers at length, just like he spent four books on Cyrus the Great. I also like the idea that the original literary and social context of his works was quickly forgotten, because I see many hints that this is what happened to Xenophon.

On the other hand, I don’t have any trouble in believing that there were a wide variety of stories about the kings of old in circulation, and that many of these could be attached to different kings. I am also certain that Ctesias and Herodotus lived in a world with many written Greek accounts of history, only a few of which became ‘classics’ which were read and cited in Roman times. They were certainly engaging with far more traditions than those preserved to our times. Because humans are prone to availability bias, we should constantly remind ourselves that we are missing important parts of the context of these works.

As Bichler says, Photius wants to show how Ctesias differs from Herodotus. So he may have left out things which do not appear in Herodotus, and focused on Ctesias’ versions of Herodotus’ stories. It is troubling that Photius moves straight from Cyrus’ birth to his conquest of Ecbatana and capture of Astyages. Nicholas of Damascus has a long story about how Cyrus rose from peasant to king which is usually taken to be based on Ctesias, but none of this appears in Photius’ summary. On the other hand, Nicholas of Damascus has nothing to say about Cyrus’ later career … the scribes who chose some stories from Nicholas of Damascus to copy picked one part of Cyrus’ life, while Photius chose another part. Presumably, if we had a third source, it would mention many things about Cyrus which neither Photius nor the excerpts from Nicholas of Damascus mention. Bichler wisely warns that since Nicholas of Damascus was a creative writer who does not cite sources, we should be careful about using him to understand Ctesias, but Ctesias devoted four books to Cyrus’ life, and all the other writers who tell stories about Cyrus mention his childhood and youth.

In LLJ’s edition of Ctesias, the only sources for Ctesias’ treatment of Xerxes are three pages of Photius and two brief anecdotes in earlier writers. I would not be comfortable with drawing any conclusions about stories from Herodotus which do not appear in these summaries (the Libyan campaign of Aryandes, the constitutional debate amongst the Seven), or the absence of material which is absent in Herodotus (such as Xerxes’ career after his return from Greece) as Bichler does. Photius was reducing 23 books into less than one, and to do that he needed to make hard choices.

Also, Ctesias does have some themes which are absent in Herodotus. He is very interested in naming court eunuchs and showing how they were involved in events, and in describing elaborate tortures. The eunuchs (a term which probably does not mean ‘castrati’) are very important in Near Eastern sources from the first millennium BCE. Herodotus mentions punishments which are well known from the cuneiform sources (beheading, impalement, burying alive), whereas Ctesias adds tortures (the “ashes,” the “boat”) which are first recorded in his works. These aspects are visible in Photius, but not as easy to explain with Bichler’s model.

Also, I think that these ideas could easily be abused. Bichler talks about attempts to save Ctesias (Rettungsversuchen) but a lot of criticism of Ctesias and Diodorus seem to be aimed at saving the trustworthiness of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. Many ancient historians are not happy that when we have two independent accounts of a period in ancient history, there are usually great differences between them. Sometimes scholars attack the ‘alternatives,’ discover that there is only one source left, and announce that they have been forced to trust it for lack of anything better. That is absolutely not Professor Bichler’s approach to Herodotus: he sees Herodotus as a creative storyteller not a literal-minded reporter, and is more interested in how his different stories and themes relate to one another than in which are true. But I can imagine someone using this article to explain why they are about to ignore Ctesias’ version of events (fair enough) and present Herodotus as basically trustworthy (danger, danger Will Robinson!)

Bichler mentions that Photius has very little to say about Babylon: he ignores the first six books of Ctesias which dealt with Assyrian and Median history, and moves straight to Cyrus and Astyages. Nor does he have much to say about the various wars in Babylonia which Herodotus describes, even though Ctesias visited the country and Herodotus almost certainly did not. I wonder if this tells us something about Ctesias, or about Photius and his interests.

Further Reading

Reinhold Bichler, “Ktesias ‘korrigiert’ Herodot. Zur literarischen Einschätzung der Persika.” in Herbert Heftner und Kurt Tomaschitz (ed.), Ad Fontes! Festschrift für Gerhard Dobesch. Wiener Humanistischen Gesellschaft: Wien, 2004. pp. 105-116 This has now been reprinted in Reinhold Bichler, Historiographie- Ethnographie- Utopie: Gesammelte Schriften, Teil 1: Studien Zu Herodots Kunst der Historie (Harrasowitz Verlag: Wiesbaden, 2007)

Reinhold Bichler, “Ktesias spielt mit Herodot,” in J. Wiesehöfer et al. (eds.): Ktesias’ Welt / Ctesias‘ World (Classica et Orientalia 1, Wiesbaden 2011), pp. 21-52.

You can find English translation of everything which ancient and medieval writers say about Ctesias, or seem to have cribbed from him, in Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Ctesias’ History of Persia: Tales of the Orient (seems to be available on academia.edu).

Edit 2023-02-25: fixed formatting broken when Wordpres introduced the block editor, added a blockquote tag

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