Herodotus, the first Greek historian, has been called the father of history” by some and “the father of lies” by others. He was born in 485 B.C.
Herodotus was born into a wealthy family in Halicarnassus, Asia Minor. However, he was exiled to Samos shortly after his birth due to his family’s opposition to Persian domination in Ionia. During his youth, he traveled extensively, studying the customs, religions, and manners of the people he met. His histories consist of tales told to him by individuals from Egypt, Syria, Babylon, Colchis, Paeonian, and Macedonia. Several ancient writers criticized him for creating stories and presenting them as truth. Nevertheless, Herodotus is most renowned for the nine books he wrote on the rise of the Persian Empire, the Persian invasion of Greece in 490 BC and 480 BC, and the final Greek victory.
Although it received a lot of praise and is still considered a masterpiece, its trustworthiness has been questioned both in ancient and modern times. The story I’m covering is of Rhampsinitus and the Thief (pg. 277). This is a tale that Herodotus learned in Egypt, and many believe that Egyptian priests told him this anecdote, claiming it to be a true story. Herodotus himself didn’t actually believe this particular story, but he felt it was his duty to report what he was told.
Now, for those of you who didn’t read it, I’ll quickly give a brief synopsis of the story. A dying father tells his two sons how to break into the king’s vault, which he himself built. The father then dies, leaving the family with no way to support themselves. So the two sons begin their thieving. They manage to escape with the treasure three times before the king sets up a trap, in which one of the brothers gets caught. At his captured brother’s urging, the other brother cuts his sibling’s head off, taking it with him so the family’s identity would not be known.
The next day, the king was bewildered at the sight of a headless thief. He then ordered his sentries to hang the body on the outer wall and arrest anybody seen mourning the headless corpse. The two thieves’ mother, absolutely distraught over the death of her son, threatened her surviving son, saying that if he didn’t collect his brother’s body, she would turn him in herself. With that, he quickly devised a plan. He got two donkeys and filled some skins with wine, draping them over the animals’ backs.
When he reached where his brother was hanging and where the sentinels were standing guard, he pulled down the corners of the skins, letting the wine pour to the ground. He then pretended to panic, unsure of what to do. The guards saw the wine running freely and ran with buckets in hand to collect it, intending to drink it all themselves. The thief, pretending to be furious, began to scream and yell at the guards. The guards, wanting to keep their wine and avoid a scene with the boy, invited him to drink with them.
Then the guards became too drunk to stay awake and passed out, leaving the thief to take down his brother’s body and shave each of the guards’ beards, ridiculing them. The king was furious at what the thief had done, so he ordered his daughter to be locked in a room and to consort with all the men who came to her. However, before they could enjoy her, she had to compel each man to tell her the cleverest thing they had ever done. If a man told a story similar to that of the thief, she was to hold him and not let him get away. The thief, seeing through the king’s trap, wanted to surpass the king in resourcefulness.
He then cuts the arm off a freshly dead man and takes it with him under his cloak. He then meets with the king’s daughter and confesses to the theft and murder of his brother. The daughter reaches to grab him, but the thief slips away, leaving her with a dead man’s arm. The king is so astounded by the wit and daring of the thief that he sends word to every city of immunity and a promise of a great reward if the thief comes forward.
The thief trusts the king’s word and goes to the palace. Rhampsinitus, the king, admires the thief so greatly.