Beyond Mainland Greece: Herodotus 3.118-119 and drama at the Persian court!

This week’s post features more student work from the module Beyond Mainland Greece (the second in our mini series!). Below, Ben Squire critically assesses an episode concerning the Persian court recounted by Herodotus. To introduce the piece Stephen Harrison (module co-ordinator) writes: Herodotus is one of the most important sources for studying the Persian Empire. Born in Halicarnassus, which at the time was part of the Persian Empire, Herodotus documented the military conflict between the Persians and Greeks at the start of the Fifth Century BC and invented a whole new genre of writing to do it – history. This assignment asked students to think critically about Herodotus’ account of drama at the Persian court…


Herodotus (trans. A. D. Godley), The Histories. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920.

[118] Of the seven men who revolted against the Magus, one, Intaphrenes, got his death through his own violence immediately after the rebellion. He wanted to enter the palace and speak with the king; and in fact the law was, that the rebels against the Magus could come into the king’s presence unannounced, if the king were not having intercourse with one of his wives. [2] Intaphrenes, as one of the seven, claimed his right to enter unannounced; but the gatekeeper and the messenger forbade him, telling him that the king was having intercourse with one of his wives. Intaphrenes thought that they were lying; drawing his scimitar he cut off their noses and ears, then strung these on his horse’s bridle and hung it around the men’s necks, and so let them go.

[119] They showed themselves to the king and told him why they had been treated so. Darius, fearing that the six had done this by common consent, sent for each and asked his opinion, whether they approved what had been done; [2] and being assured that they had no part in it, he seized Intaphrenes with his sons and all his household—for he strongly suspected that the man was plotting a rebellion with his kinsmen—and imprisoned them with the intention of putting them to death. [3] Then Intaphrenes’ wife began coming to the palace gates, weeping and lamenting; and by continuing to do this same thing she persuaded Darius to pity her; and he sent a messenger to tell her, “Woman, King Darius will allow one of your imprisoned relatives to survive, whomever you prefer of them all.” [4] After considering she answered, “If indeed the king gives me the life of one, I chose from them all my brother.” [5] Darius was astonished when he heard her answer, and sent someone who asked her: “Woman, the king asks you with what in mind you abandon your husband and your children and choose to save the life of your brother, who is less close to you than your children and less dear than your husband?” [6] “O King,” she answered, “I may have another husband, if a god is willing, and other children, if I lose these; but since my father and mother are no longer living, there is no way that I can have another brother; I said what I did with that in mind.” [7] Darius thought that the woman answered well, and for her sake he released the one for whom she had asked, and the eldest of her sons as well; he put to death all the rest. Thus immediately perished one of the seven.

Critical Assessment of Herodotus, 3.118-119 – Ben Squire:

Herodotus’ discussion of the death of Intaphrenes,1 while likely exaggerated and perhaps primarily fictional, is revealing of a very significant aspect of Persian royal ideology – access to the king, and ergo Persian social stratification. I intend to discuss this passage alongside two other sources that relate to access to the king, namely the book of Esther and Darius’ tomb at Naqs-e-Rustam.

Herodotus states that nobody was permitted an audience with the king unless he was announced, but Darius made exceptions for his co-conspirators who had almost unrestricted access. While we should be sceptical of such a claim due to the uncertain nature of Herodotus’ sources, we can see that the basic idea of restricted access to the king was reflected both in Persian sources and in the writings of other nations that were Persian subjects. In the book of Esther, there are two passages that relate to access to the king. The first of these is when Mordecai attempts to see the king, and the second is when Esther tells Mordecai of the consequences of seeing the king unsummoned.2 These verses show us that the poorest members of society were completely restricted from seeing the king, and that any attempt to see the king without permission would result in severe punishment. When compared with the Herodotus extract, we can see in both sources that access to the king is restricted to the upper echelons of society, especially to those whom the king especially favours, which is later seen in Esther when Xerxes grants Esther permission to approach him.3 Both sources also reveal that punishment could be expected if this custom was abused.4 The similarities in the discussion of the custom from a Greek source and a Hebrew source show that the idea of restricted access to the king had permeated throughout the empire in different ways, but the central components of stratification and restriction were universal, which is likely what the Persian kings intended. Even if we cannot be sure of the details of Herodotus, or indeed Esther, we can accept that the central idea of the extract is accurate due to its similarity with other sources.

This idea is also reflected in Persian archaeological sources, one of which is the relief on Darius I’s tomb. While Darius is supported by the peoples of his empire, I believe that a central aspect of the relief is that Darius cannot be seen nor accessed by these people. Darius is both invisible and untouchable to his subjects, showing us that the stories passed down through Herodotus and Esther were products of Persian royal ideology. Ultimately, access to the king is shown by all three sources as a privilege that many cannot attain, likely intended to place the king in a position of reverence. By examining Herodotus alongside these other sources, we can see how although our Greek sources may contain a degree of bias, they are revealing of Persian customs and ideology, especially when compared with other sources, both subaltern and Persian.

 1     Hdt. 3.118.

2     Est. 4:2 & 4:11.

3     Est. 5:2.

4     Hdt. 3.119.2.



Ancient Sources

Book of Esther, New International Version.

Herodotus, trans. Holland, T. (2014) The Histories, Penguin Books, London.