Ancient Egypt: Herodotus' description of some of the pharaohs
Herodotus on the pharaohsHerodotus was born about 490 BCE at Halicarnassos in Carien and died in the late 420's. His travels took him to Asia and northern Africa. At Athens he became a friend of Pericles and Sophocles. In 444 BCE he went to Thurii in Italy where he died. The second volume of his Histories describes Egypt's geography and people. He also relates stories about a number of pharaohs.
He has often been accused of not being very truthful or, at the very least, of being wrong, gullible or both. Diodorus Siculus explains his criteria for including material in his own Historical Library
We will pass over the baseless news of Herodotus and other writers about Egyptian history, who instead of the truth wanted to present us rather with tales of wonder and entertaining inventions; in contrast we will report after attentive scrutiny what the Egyptian priests themselves wrote in their documents.But for a man who spent just a short time in any place, did not know much about its history and culture, could neither read nor speak the native language, Herodotus seems to have done a pretty fair job of reporting.
In the case of the life stories of the pharaohs he had to rely almost wholly on hearsay. He could see with his own eyes monuments, public inscriptions and buildings, but his interlocutors had to explain to him relationships and meanings.
Hitherto my own observation and judgment and inquiry are the vouchers for that which I have said; but from this point onwards I am about to tell the history of Egypt according to that which I have heard, to which will be added also something of that which I have myself seen.The unification of Egypt had taken place 2500 years previously. The Great Pyramids had been standing in the desert for two millennia. Egypt had reached the height of its power, politically and culturally, seven hundred years before.
Given this timescale even the priests' knowledge of their own past could not have been very profound. They probably had oral traditions and writings lost to us now, but they never made any scientific study, did not undertake excavations nor correlate the material they had.
The closer to his own time events happened, the more reliable are Herodotus' accounts of them - generally speaking. But one may wonder how he counted eighteen Ethiopian pharaohs, when we know of only five.
The chronology of Herodotus is at times rather shaky too, provided our identification of the kings is correct. For instance, if Rhampsinitos was indeed Ramses III (20 dynasty), then Cheops (4th dynasty) could hardly have followed him.
Down to the time when Rhampsinitos was king, they told me there was in Egypt nothing but orderly rule, and Egypt prospered greatly; but after him Cheops became king over them ...Herodotus may have left out the less interesting parts of what he heard, after all he was telling stories and not compiling laundry lists for future historians. Many of his tales can be compared with other sources, generally favourably. On the whole he could have done a good deal worse. And even if scientifically not very reliable, they make for a fascinating read.
|Moeris (Amenemhet III, 1817-1772 ?)|
|Rhampsinitos : An Ali Baba story|
|Sethos (Shebitku ?, 697-689)|
|Psammetic I, 656-609|
|Necho II, 609-594|
|Psammetic II, 594-587|
|Ahmose II, 569-526|
|Darius I, 522-486|
|The geography of Egypt through the eyes of Herodotus|
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