Egyptian and Persian wisdom: Plutarch on the “barbarian-lover” Herodotos (early second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptian and Persian wisdom: Plutarch on the “barbarian-lover” Herodotos (early second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 4, 2024,

Ancient authors: Plutarch (early second century CE), On the Malice of Herodotos 1, 12-18 (link; link to Greek).

Comments: Among the reasons for Plutarch’s dismay at Herodotos’ Histories (link) is Herodotos’ supposed favouritism towards “barbarians” in his narratives and the supposed misrepresentations of Greeks and others that followed from this. Plutarch famously labels Herodotos a “barbarian-lover” (philobarbaros). One could easily question the accuracy of Plutarch’s own characterizations of Herodotos and the spins he puts on Herodotos’ narratives, but the point here is that we catch a glimpse into Plutarch’s take on notions about wise “barbarians.” Overall, Plutarch is among those Greeks who steer away from giving (what they consider) too much credit to non-Greek peoples, although perhaps Plutarch does not go as far as Diogenes of Laertes who, later, seemingly rejects the possibility of barbarian wisdom altogether (link). Plutarch’s perspectives on foreigners here should also be compared to his discussion of Egyptian matters in Isis and Osiris (link), where a somewhat positive take on certain wise Egyptians in nonetheless accompanied by denigration of Egyptians for engaging in animal worship.



(1) The style of Herodotos as being simple, free, and easily suiting itself to its subject, oh Alexander, has deceived many people. Even more is the notion of a persuasion of his dispositions being equally sincere. For it is not only, as Plato says, an extreme injustice, to “seem just when one is not just” [Republic 361a], but it is also an act of extreme malice to pretend to be simple and mild while in the mean time being really very malicious. Now since he mainly uses his malice against the Boiotians and Corinthians, though without sparing any other [Greek population], I consider myself obliged to defend our ancestors and the truth against this part of his writings, since those who would detect all his other lies and fictions would need to write many books. But, as Sophokles has it, “persuasion by her glance quells us,” especially when delivered in good language and in a way that has power to conceal both the other absurdities and the poor character of the author. King Philip told the Greeks who revolted from him to Titus Quinctius that they had got a more polished but a longer-lasting yoke. So the malice of Herodotos is indeed more polite and delicate than that of Theopompos. Still, it pinches closer and makes a more severe impression – not unlike to those winds which, blowing secretly through narrow passages, are sharper than those that are more diffused. Now it seems to me very convenient to delineate, as it were, in a rough draught, those signs and marks that distinguish a malicious narration from an honest and unbiassed one, applying afterwards every point we will examine to the ones that pertain to them. . . [omitted paragraphs].

[Herodotos as barbarian-lover]

. . . (12) Herodotos is such a barbarian-lover (philobarbaros) that he acquits Bousiris from the sacrifice of human being and the murder of foreigners (xenoktonia) for which he is accused. He attributes extreme piety and justice to the Egyptians by his testimony and he tries to cast that abominable wickedness and those impious murders on the Greeks. In his second book [Histories 2.119], Herodotos says that Menelaos, after receiving Helen from Proteus and after honoring by him with many presents, showed himself a most unjust and wicked man. Since Menelaos wanted a fair wind to set sail, he found out an impious technique and, having taken two of the inhabitants’ boys, consulted their entrails. Since he was hated and persecuted for this crime, he fled with his ships directly into Libya. I have no idea what Egyptian told this story because, on the contrary, many honours are even at this day given by the Egyptians both to Helen and Menelaos.

(13) The same Herodotos, sticking to his routine, says that the Persians learned to have sex with boys from the Greeks. And yet how could the Greeks have taught this sexual excess to the Persians, amongst whom, as is confessed by almost everyone, boys had been castrated before Persians ever arrived on the Greek seas?

Herodotos also writes that the Greeks were instructed by the Egyptians in their processions, solemn festivals, and worship of the twelve gods [Histories 2.4.2]; that Melampos also learned the name of Dionysos from the Egyptians and taught it the other Greeks [2.49.1]; that the mysteries and rites of Demeter were likewise brought out of Egypt by the daughters of Danaos; and, that the Egyptians were accustomed to beating themselves and making great laments, and yet Herodotos himself would “not tell the names of their deities, but concealed them in silence” [2.61.1]. As to Herakles and Dionysos, whom the Egyptians named gods, and the Greeks very aged men, he nowhere feels such scruples and hesitation. Although he also places the Egyptian Herakles amongst the gods of the second rank, and Dionysos amongst those of the third rank, as having had some beginning of their being and not being eternal, and yet he pronounces them to be gods [2.43]. However, to the Greek Dionysos and Herakles, who were mortal and now considered heroes, he thinks we should perform yearly solemn rites but not sacrifice to them as gods. He said the same thing about Pan, overthrowing the most venerable and purest sacrifices of the Greeks by the proud vanities and mythologies of the Egyptians.

(14) Nor was this impious enough for Herodotos. Tracing the ancestry of Herakles from Perseus, he says that Perseus was an Assyrian, as the Persians affirm. He says that “the leaders of the Dorians may appear to be descended in a right line from the Egyptians, reckoning their ancestors from before Danai and Akrisios” [Histories 6.53-54]. Here he has completely by-passed Epaphos, Io, Iasos, and Argos. He not only attempts to create an Egyptian Herakles and a Phoenician Herakles, but he places a third Herakles out of Greece and among the barbarians. However, among ancient learned writers, neither Homer, Hesiod, Archilochos, Pisander, Stesichoruo, Alkman, or Pindar makes any mention of the Egyptian or the Phoenician Herakles. Instead, everyone acknowledges this as our own Boiotian and Argive Herakles.

(15) Now regarding the seven sages (sophoi), whom he calls sophists (sophistai), he affirms Thales to have been a barbarian, descended from Phoenicians. Reviling the gods through the person of Solon, he has these words: “You, oh Croesus, ask me concerning human affairs, you who know that every one of the deities is envious and tumultuous” [Histories 1.32.1]. By attributing to Solon what Hereodotos himself thinks about the gods in this way, he joins malice to blasphemy.

After using Pittakos in some trivial matters not worth mentioning, he has passed over the greatest and best action that was ever done by him: when the Athenians and Mitylenians were at war around Sigaion, Phrynon, the Athenian general, challenging whoever would come out for single combat, Pittakos advanced to meet him, and catching him in a net, killed that strong and giant-like man. For this reason, when the Mitylenians offered him great presents, darting his javelin as far as he could out of his hand, he desired only so much ground as he would reach with that throw. To this day, the place is called Pittakeion. Now what does Herodotos do when he comes to this story? Instead of Pittakos’s brave act, he tells us the fight of Alkaios the poet who, throwing away his weapons, ran away from the battle [5.94-95]. By failing to write about such honorable actions and not passing over dishonorable ones, Herodotos gives evidence to those who say that that malice proceeds from the same place as both envy and celebrating when others are harmed.

(16) After this, Herodotos accuses the family descended from Alkmaion of treason, those who showed themselves generous men and delivered their country from tyranny. He says that they received Pisistratos after his exile and got him called home on condition that he would marry the daughter of Megakles. But the girl said to her mother, “Look, mama, Pisistratus does not have sex with me in a normal way.” At this point, descendents of Alkmaion were so offended at this behaviour that they expelled the tyrant [Histories 1. 59-61].

(17) Now that the Lakedaimonians [Spartans] might have no less share of his malice than the Athenians, look how he insults Othryadas, the man most admired and honored by them. Herodotos says that “as the only one remaining alive of the three hundred and ashamed to return to Sparta, and having lost his companions, Othryadas killed himself on the spot at Thyreai” [Histories 1.82.8]. Having previously said the victory was doubtful on both sides, Herodotos here, by making Othryadas ashamed, claims that the Lakedaimonians were vanquished. For it was shameful for him to survive, if conquered; but glorious, if he was a conqueror.

(18) I will now pass over how Herodotos characterized Croesus [king of Lydia] as foolish, pretentious, and ridiculous in every way, making him teach and instruct Cyrus while a prisoner [Histories 1.88.91], namely Cyrus who seems to have excelled all other kings in prudence, virtue, and magnanimity. Having testified to nothing else that was commendable about the same Croesus except his honoring the gods with many and great oblations, Herodotos shows that very act of his to have been the most impious of all. For he says that Croesus and his brother Pantoleon contended for the kingdom while their father was still alive, and that Croesus, having obtained the crown, caused a companion and familiar friend of Pantoleon’s to be torn in pieces in a fulling-mill and sent presents to the gods from his property [1.92]. Regarding Deiokes, the Median, who by virtue and justice obtained the government, he says that he got it not by real but pretended justice [1.96].

(19) But I now leave aside barbarian examples, since Herodotos has offered us plenty of examples from affairs among the Greeks . . . [omitted all the other “malicious” things that Herodotos wrote about Greeks].


Source of translation: W.W. Goodwin, Plutarch’s Morals, 5 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1874), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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