Herodotus, “On the Customs of the Persians” (5th century BCE)

Prof’s Notes on the Source

Herodotus: Background

Herodotus (484-425 BCE) was a Greek historian in the 5th century BCE and is often considered the “father of history.” He was among the first writers in the world to pursue historia, the Greek word meaning “research,” regarding human events instead of natural phenomena. Herodotus valued critical inquiry about events and created his accounts based on eyewitness testimony. He was dedicated to telling stories as accurately as possible and often included multiple accounts of events in an effort to help readers see from every angle.

True, myths and legends abound in the Histories (the longer work from which your reading comes today). Herodotus was a marvelous storyteller and not above including a tale just for the fun of it. Deities, prophecies, and fate are also present because Herodotus was a man of his time; everyone believed supernatural forces played a role in the world.

About “On the Customs of the Persians”

In sum, Herodotus’s work was rigorous, reliable, and engaging for its time and remains a valuable source of information for many ancient cultures. Herodotus is especially valuable for our knowledge of the Persians. We do have primary sources from the Persians. They left behind monuments praising their kings, complex religious texts, and precise tax records for their extensive empire. The Persians did not leave us any form of intentional history, however, and the best chroniclers of their customs were the Greeks — not the Persians themselves.

Herodotus probably did not travel within the boundaries of the Persian Empire, but he did live on the borders. He was born in Halicarnassus, a Greek colony in modern-day Turkey, and would have been about five when the Greco-Persian War ended. The city was populated by Greeks, Carians, and Persians which means Herodotus in his youth and later travels had access to people who were Persians or who knew Persians.

Herodotus is writing about the Persians as an outsider but is relatively free of the bitterness we might expect from someone writing about a recent enemy. He praises some things about the Persians and denigrates others; he misunderstands on occasion but is aiming for the truth. As you read, it’s good to keep an eye out for his tone, positive/negative language, and where Herodotus seems most certain or uncertain about his story.

“On the Customs of the Persians”

Now the Persian nation is made up of many tribes. Those which Cyrus assembled and persuaded to revolt from the Medes were the principal ones on which all the others are dependent. These are the Pasargadae, the Maraphians, and the Maspians, of whom the Pasargadae are the noblest. The Achaemenidae, from which spring all the Perseid kings, is one of their clans. The rest of the Persian tribes are the following: the Panthialaeans, the Derusiaeans, the Germanians, who are engaged in husbandry; the Daans, the Mardians, the Dropicans, and the Sagartians, who are nomads.

The customs which I know the Persians to observe are the following: they have no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, and consider the use of them a sign of folly. This comes, I think, from their not believing the gods to have the same nature with men, as the Greeks imagine. Their wont, however, is to ascend the summits of the loftiest mountains, and there to offer sacrifice to Zeus, which is the name they give to the whole circuit of the firmament. They likewise offer to the sun and moon, to the earth, to fire, to water, and to the winds. These are the only gods whose worship has come down to them from ancient times. At a later period they began the worship of Urania, which they borrowed from the Arabians and Assyrians. Mylitta is the name by which the Assyrians know this goddess, whom the Arabians call Alitta, and the Persians Mitra.

To these gods the Persians offer sacrifice in the following manner: they raise no altar, light no fire, pour no libations; there is no sound of the flute, no putting on of chaplets, no consecrated barley-cake; but the man who wishes to sacrifice brings his victim to a spot of ground which is pure from pollution, and there calls upon the name of the god to whom he intends to offer. It is usual to have the turban encircled with a wreath, most commonly of myrtle. The sacrificer is not allowed to pray for blessings on himself alone, but he prays for the welfare of the king, and of the whole Persian people, among whom he is of necessity included. He cuts the victim in pieces, and having boiled the flesh, he lays it out upon the tenderest herbage that he can find, trefoil especially. When all is ready, one of the Magi comes forward and chants a hymn, which they say recounts the origin of the gods. It is not lawful to offer sacrifice unless there is a Magus present. After waiting a short time the sacrificer carries the flesh of the victim away with him, and makes whatever use of it he may please.

Of all the days in the year, the one which they celebrate most is their birthday. It is customary to have the board furnished on that day with an ampler supply than common. The richer Persians cause an ox, a horse, a camel, and an ass to be baked whole and so served up to them: the poorer classes use instead the smaller kinds of cattle. They eat little solid food but abundance of dessert, which is set on table a few dishes at a time; this it is which makes them say that “the Greeks, when they eat, leave off hungry, having nothing worth mention served up to them after the meats; whereas, if they had more put before them, they would not stop eating.” They are very fond of wine, and drink it in large quantities. To vomit or obey natural calls in the presence of another is forbidden among them. Such are their customs in these matters.

It is also their general practice to deliberate upon affairs of weight when they are drunk; and then on the morrow, when they are sober, the decision to which they came the night before is put before them by the master of the house in which it was made; and if it is then approved of, they act on it; if not, they set it aside. Sometimes, however, they are sober at their first deliberation, but in this case they always reconsider the matter under the influence of wine.

When they meet each other in the streets, you may know if the persons meeting are of equal rank by the following token: if they are, instead of speaking, they kiss each other on the lips. In the case where one is a little inferior to the other, the kiss is given on the cheek; where the difference of rank is great, the inferior prostrates himself upon the ground. Of nations, they honor most their nearest neighbors, whom they esteem next to themselves; those who live beyond these they honor in the second degree; and so with the remainder, the further they are removed, the less the esteem in which they hold them. The reason is that they look upon themselves as very greatly superior in all respects to the rest of mankind, regarding others as approaching to excellence in proportion as they dwell nearer to them; whence it comes to pass that those who are the farthest off must be the most degraded of mankind. Under the dominion of the Medes, the several nations of the empire exercised authority over each other in this order. The Medes were lords over all, and governed the nations upon their borders, who in their turn governed the States beyond, who likewise bore rule over the nations which adjoined on them. And this is the order which the Persians also follow in their distribution of honor; for that people, like the Medes, has a progressive scale of administration and government.

There is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians. Thus, they have taken the dress of the Medes, considering it superior to their own; and in war they wear the Egyptian breastplate. As soon as they hear of any luxury, they instantly make it their own: and hence, among other novelties, they have learnt unnatural lust from the Greeks. Each of them has several wives, and a still larger number of concubines. Next to prowess in arms, it is regarded as the greatest proof of manly excellence to be the father of many sons. Every year the king sends rich gifts to the man who can show the largest number: for they hold that number is strength. Their sons are carefully instructed from their fifth to their twentieth year, in three things alone—to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth. Until their fifth year they are not allowed to come into the sight of their father, but pass their lives with the women. This is done that, if the child die young, the father may not be afflicted by its loss.

They hold it unlawful to talk of anything which it is unlawful to do. The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is to tell a lie; the next worst, to owe a debt: because, among other reasons, the debtor is obliged to tell lies. If a Persian has the leprosy he is not allowed to enter into a city, or to have any dealings with the other Persians; he must, they say, have sinned against the sun. Foreigners attacked by this disorder, are forced to leave the country: even white pigeons are often driven away, as guilty of the same offence. They never defile a river with the secretions of their bodies, nor even wash their hands in one; nor will they allow others to do so, as they have a great reverence for rivers. There is another peculiarity, which the Persians themselves have never noticed, but which has not escaped my observation. Their names, which are expressive of some bodily or mental excellence, all end with the same letter—the letter which is called San by the Dorians, and Sigma by the Ionians. Any one who examines will find that the Persian names, one and all without exception, end with this letter.

Thus much I can declare of the Persians with entire certainty, from my own actual knowledge. There is another custom which is spoken of with reserve, and not openly, concerning their dead. It is said that the body of a male Persian is never buried, until it has been torn either by a dog or a bird of prey. That the Magi have this custom is beyond a doubt, for they practice it without any concealment. The dead bodies are covered with wax, and then buried in the ground.

The Magi are a very peculiar race, different entirely from the Egyptian priests, and indeed from all other men whatsoever. The Egyptian priests make it a point of religion not to kill any live animals except those which they offer in sacrifice. The Magi, on the contrary, kill animals of all kinds with their own hands, excepting dogs and men. They even seem to take a delight in the employment, and kill, as readily as they do other animals, ants and snakes, and such like flying or creeping things. However, since this has always been their custom, let them keep to it. Buying and selling in a marketplace is a custom unknown to the Persians, who never make purchases in open marts, and indeed have not in their whole country a single market-place.

Discussion Questions

Coming Soon!


  1. Wikipedia offers a thorough primer on the Medes, rulers of the Median empire that preceded the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire.

  2. The Persian Empire is also called to as the Achaemenid Empire as Cyrus, the person who initially expanded Persian territory, was from the Achaemedidae clan.

  3. Don’t worry to much about the specific names here. The takeaway is that the Persians, like most ancient peoples, weren’t a homogenous group. The Persian Empire was forged through the unification of these clans.

  4. Do note his point of reference here – Herodotus compares the Persians’ worship practices to those of the Greeks.

  5. The Persians did not, in fact, primarily worship Zeus. The official state religion was Zoroastrianism, though there is strong evidence that the Persians adopted and worshipped other deities. We’ll talk about some examples in class.

  6. As in Lysistrata, “victim” refers to an animal to be sacrificed. (Not a human, as some students in the past have read it…)

  7. The Magi were a priestly class in Persian society. They are often associated with astrology and magic practices (i.e., practices intended to manipulate nature or fate). (The word “magician” derives from Magi)

  8. It’s unclear who “they” are, but this is a good example of Herodotus relying on oral tradition and eyewitness testimony.

  9. These are my kind of people… Here’s a brief (and probably very partial) history of birthdays from Huffington Post. (Note that the poor Persians are left off the list.)

  10. Most likely a reference to pederasty. Given the prevalence of the practice among Athenian elites, it’s unclear why Herodotus takes a negative tone here.

  11. There’s a great deal in this paragraph about Persians’ values. How would you characterize their values?

  12. This line surprises me every time – and I never know what to make of it. Is he being flippant? Tolerant? Superior? What does he mean here?