13 Bizarre Descriptions of the Ancient World According to Herodotus's Histories

iStock.com/shishic
iStock.com/shishic

Widely considered one of the first serious works of history, Histories—written in the 5th century BCE by the Greek scholar Herodotus—is a highly influential account of the Greco-Persian wars, and offers one of the best glimpses into ancient cultures. Herodotus was remarkably scrupulous with his research, traveling across Europe and the Middle East to interview countless people. “[M]y rule in this history is that I record what is said by all as I have heard it,” he’d write.

Unfortunately, many of those people, it appears, lied to his face: Despite its merits, Histories is stuffed with whimsical inaccuracies. Consequently, some scholars have given Herodotus—dubbed the “Father of History”—a second sobriquet: “The Father of Lies.” As Tom Holland, a Herodotus translator, told The Telegraph: “The Histories are a great shaggy-dog story.” Here are some colorful passages (some of which may stretch the truth).

1. It was an honor to be eaten after your (sacrificial) death.

Herodotus had this to say of the Massagetae, a group who lived east of the Caspian Sea. “[W]hen a man is very old, all his relatives give a party and include him in a general sacrifice of cattle; then they boil the flesh and eat it. This they consider to be the best sort of death. Those who die of disease are not eaten but buried, and it is held a misfortune not to have lived long enough to be sacrificed.”

2. Egyptians loved cats so much they’d save them from a burning building.

Any devout cat-lover can imagine the following scene: “What happens when a house catches fire is most extraordinary: Nobody takes the least trouble to put it out, for it is only the cats that matter: every one stands in a row, a little distance from his neighbor, trying to protect the cats.”

3. In fact, they mourned their pet's death by shaving their eyebrows.

Perhaps the Egyptians loved their pets a little too much: “All the inmates of a house where a cat has died a natural death shave their eyebrows, and when a dog dies they shave the whole body including the head.”

4. In Babylon, women were auctioned into marriage based on looks.

“Once a year all the girls of marriageable age used to be collected together in one place, while the men stood round them in a circle; an auctioneer then called each one in turn to stand up and offered her for sale, beginning with the best-looking and going on to the second best as soon as the first had been sold for a good price.” (However, Herodotus noted that this practice was obsolete by his time; as with his other "facts," the veracity is debated.)

5. The desert was full of gigantic, terrifying ants.

Herodotus had this to say about India: “There is found in this desert a kind of ant of great size bigger than a fox, though not so big as a dog … These creatures as they burrow underground throw up the sand in heaps, just as our own ants throw up the earth, and they are very much like ours in shape.” (In 1996, a team of explorers theorized that Herodotus's ants, which were also said to dig up gold, were actually large marmots—which have been known to kick up gold dust in an area near the Indus River as they build their burrows.)

6. And hippos were basically a big, leathery horse.

Consider this description of a hippo, which Herodotus clearly never saw: “This animal has four legs, cloven hoofs like an ox, a snub nose, a horse’s mane and tail, conspicuous tusks, a voice like a horse’s neigh, and is about the size of a very large ox. Its hide is so thick and tough that when dried it can be made into spear-shafts.” (To say the least, Histories is not a very good biology resource.)

7. In Babylon, strangers were required to give you unsolicited medical advice.

Babylon sounds like an ill introvert’s nightmare: “They have no doctors, but bring their invalids out into the street, where anyone who comes along offers the sufferer advice on his complaint, either from personal experience or observation or similar complaint in others … Nobody is allowed to pass a sick person in silence; but one must ask him what is the matter.”

8. The Persians were extremely good at delivering mail.

“No mortal thing travels faster than these Persian couriers," Herodotus writes. "The whole idea is a Persian invention, and works like this: riders are stationed along the road, equal in number to the number of days the journey takes—a man and a horse for each day. Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time—neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness.” (If that sounds familiar, it's because these lines inspired the USPS’s unofficial "neither snow nor rain ..." motto [PDF]).

9. Some women in Libya wore adornments indicating their number of sexual conquests.

Herodotus describes the Gindane people of Libya like this: “The women of this tribe wear leather bands round their ankles, which are supposed to indicate the number of their lovers: each woman puts on one band for every man she has gone to bed with, so that whoever has the greatest number enjoys the greatest reputation because she has been loved by the greatest number of men.” (Incidentally, Herodotus also believed the Gindanes lived among the mythical Lotus Eaters, who were famous for their apathy.)

10. In Bulgaria, death was a cause for celebration!

According to Herodotus, the Trausi, a tribe living in the Rhodope mountains of southeastern Europe, celebrated birth and death a little differently: “When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.”

11. Ethiopia was full of hole-dwelling people who shrieked like bats.

The Garamantes were a tribe in Libya. According to “The Father of History,” they passed their time by hunting quick-footed trolls: “[They] hunt the Ethiopian hole-men, or troglodytes, in four-horse chariots, for these troglodytes are exceedingly swift of foot—more so than any people of whom we have information. They eat snakes and lizards and other reptiles and speak a language like no other, but squeak like bats.”

12. Egyptians overcame baldness with the power of the sun.

“I noticed that the skulls of the Persians are so thin that the merest touch with a pebble will pierce them, but those of the Egyptians, on the other hand, are so tough that it is hardly possible to break them with a blow from a stone. I was told, very credibly, that the reason was that the Egyptians shave their heads from childhood, so that the bone of the skull is hardened by the action of the sun—this is also why they hardly ever go bald, baldness being rare in Egypt than anywhere else.”

13. Sea nymphs could save the day! (Maybe.)

Even for Herodotus, some stories were just too crazy to accept—like this tale describing a naval fleet caught in a rough weather: “The storm lasted three days, after which the Magi brought it to an end by sacrificial offerings, and by putting spells on the wind, and by further offerings to Thetis and the sea-nymphs—or, of course, it may be that the wind just dropped naturally.”

There you have it: If you want to know where Herodotus draws the line, it’s weather-conjuring sea-nymphs.

Save Up to 80 Percent on Furniture, Home Decor, and Appliances During Wayfair's Way Day 2020 Sale

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Wayfair

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7 Formidable Facts About the Tower of London

The Tower of London looms large within the city’s history.
The Tower of London looms large within the city’s history.
Vladislav Zolotov/Getty Images

The nearly 1000-year-old Tower of London inspires many reactions, among them awe, horror, and intrigue. William the Conqueror built the White Tower in 1066 on the River Thames as a symbol of Norman power and dominance. Over the centuries, the structure expanded into 21 towers. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a landmark in London that millions come to see every year.

The impenetrable fortress has played many roles over the years, serving as a royal palace, a menagerie, a prison, the Royal Mint, and a repository for royal documents and jewels (the royal jewels, including the Imperial Crown, housed here cost $32 billion). Here are seven facts you may not know about the Tower of London.

1. The Tower of London has held notable prisoners.

From royals accused of treason and religious conspirators to common thieves and even sorcerers, many people have been incarcerated in the Tower of London, but the experiences differed—some were tortured and starved, while others were waited on by servants. And, of course, there were executions. Three queens were beheaded at the tower in the 16th century. Elizabeth I was just 2 when her mother Anne Boleyn was condemned to death by her husband, King Henry VIII. The king later also beheaded his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. The third rolling regal head was of proclaimed queen Lady Jane Grey, also known as the “Nine Days’ Queen,” who was 17 when she was charged with high treason by Queen Mary I.

Queen Mary also imprisoned her half-sister Elizabeth I in in the tower in 1554, but she escaped her mother’s violent end due to lack of evidence. In 1559, when Queen Mary passed away, Elizabeth came back to the Tower, this time for preparations for her coronation.

The last execution took place more recently than you might think: It occurred in 1941, when German spy Josef Jakobs faced a firing squad. In 1952, gangster brothers Ronnie and Reggie Kray were among the last prisoners to be detained in the tower.

2. A Catholic priest escaped the Tower of London in 1557 using invisible ink.

During the reign of Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, the persecution of Catholics led to the incarceration and torture of Jesuit priest John Gerard. His escape is still a wonder—he sent notes to his fellow prisoner John Arden and outside supporters with an invisible ink made of orange juice, which revealed his secret messages when held to a heat source. He later used a rope to get to the boat waiting across the moat. HBO’s series Gunpowder depicts this prison break in the second episode.

3. The Tower of London once had a zoo that was home to a now-extinct subspecies of Barbary lion.

You won't find any live lions at the Tower of London today.petekarici/Getty Images

In the 1200s, King John started the royal menagerie in the Tower of London to hold the exotic animals gifted by other monarchs. It became an attraction for Londoners who came to see captive lions and the white bear, who was regularly taken to the Thames to hunt. The menagerie closed in the 1830s and the royal gifts were re-homed in the London Zoo. As a nod to this legacy, the Tower exhibits animal sculptures by artist Kendra Haste.

In 1936, excavations around the moat led to a fascinating discovery: two lion skulls dating to the medieval times. Genetic evidence suggests they belong to a subspecies of Barbary lion that once lived in Africa but disappeared a century ago.

4. In 2014, the Tower of London organized the Centenary Commemoration of World War I with 888,246 poppies.

Five million people came to see the art display of ceramic poppies in the moat, all created by artist Paul Cummins. Each poppy denoted a British military fatality in the war. They were sold for £23 million (each individual poppy was £25) to raise money for armed forces charities. However, a controversy arose when it was revealed that a whooping £15 million was spent on costs (Cummins made £7.2 million) and the charities only received £9 million.

5. In 2019, 500-year-old skeletons were unearthed under the Tower of London’s chapel.

Archeologists found two skeletons, an adult woman and a child, near the same spot where the headless body of Queen Anne was also laid to rest. The bones were thought to be buried somewhere between 1450 and 1550 and give an insight into the lives of the common folk who lived at the tower in the medieval times.

6. Beefeaters live in the Tower of London with their families.

A 19th-century illustration of the vibrantly clad Yeomen Warders at the Tower of London.duncan1890/Getty Images

The Yeoman Warders (also known as Beefeaters) have been guarding the Tower since the Tudor era. Clad in a sharp red dress, these 37 men and women give tours of the fortress. Every night at 9:53 p.m., they lock the tower, a 700-year-old tradition called the Ceremony of Keys. Beefeaters and their families, around 150 people in total, live in the supposedly haunted Tower of London, and also frequent a secret pub in the fortress.

7. There’s a superstition that if the ravens leave the Tower of London, the kingdom will fall.

According to legend, in the mid-17th century, King Charles II was warned that the Crown would fall if the ravens ever left the Tower of London—so he ordered that six of the birds be kept captive there at all times, as he believed they were a symbol of good fortune. (However, some sources claim this tale is Victorian folklore, while others maintain the legend was created even later, during World War II.) Today, there are seven ravens (one spare) living in an aviary on the grounds. The ravens’ primary and secondary wings are trimmed carefully, so they can fly but stay close to home, where they feast on blood-soaked biscuits and meat.

In the past, ravens have gotten away—one took flight to Greenwich but was returned after seven days, and one was last seen outside an East End pub. Now with fewer visitors after the coronavirus-induced lockdowns, ravens are getting bored and two adventurous birds have been straying from the Tower, much to the distress of the ravenmaster.