How Accurate is Herodotus’ Description of Egypt?

Answer (in French) by Typhaine Haziza, English translation by Emma Dyson

The question you ask is very interesting, but more complex than it might seem at first glance. It depends on what we mean by “accurate” and, what is more, the answer varies over time and depends on which expert you ask and how we understand Herodotus’ work. Your question also raises the further issues of reliability and the method of Herodotus’ own sources. For the sake of simplicity, let us say that Herodotus preferred to trust what he saw in order to compose his account (which does not rule out errors of judgment), though that is certainly not possible for all subjects. When this was not possible, he favoured what he heard (which presents the problem of the quality and reliability of his interlocutors), passing the information he gathered through the filter of critical judgment. If this method allows his account a certain rationality, it introduces equally Herodotus’ own point of view, subjective and marked by Greek culture.

I will limit myself here to a single concrete example: the account of the pyramid – and the reign – of Cheops, for which Herodotus says he based his account on what he heard from “priests” and an “interpreter” who translated an Egyptian inscription for him (2.124-126). The description of the biggest pyramid of Giza occupies a large part of the section dedicated to Cheops by Herodotus, who is struck by the edifice’s imposing nature. If, in general, it offers a picture relatively true to reality in its detail, there are numerous inaccuracies: the number of workers (100,000 men) for the construction of the pyramid is certainly excessive; on the other hand, the assessment of the time the work took (twenty years for the pyramid itself and ten years to build the causeway and the underground rooms) seems reasonable. The cost of the “purchase of radishes, onions, and garlic for the laborers” (sixteen hundred talents of silver) comes from an incorrect translation of an inscription on the pyramid which might be a list of offerings made to the deceased king. Herodotus mentions certain adjoined buildings, of which his description is accurate, but certain details (in particular the question of rooms “built on an island”) are surprising. He seeks to give precise dimensions in order to show the enormity of the construction, but these are excessive. On the origin of the materials used for the construction, Herodotus mentions the stone quarries in the Arabian mountain range (Tura), which in fact provided for the pyramid’s casing material, but he does not distinguish the casing from the main structure, which comes from the quarries of the Giza plateau. As for construction techniques, his analysis of the different steps of construction proves accurate, but he errs in anachronistically bringing in Greek leveraging techniques. Herodotus well understood the funerary function of the pyramid, but he does not stop there. He emphasizes much more strongly the project’s size and staggering cost.

Herodotus’ description of Cheops’ pyramid is therefore not entirely accurate, but, through his report, the inquirer gives his Greek listeners or readers who do not know the building a good general idea of this extraordinary monument. In other words, if the pyramid had disappeared today, we could, thanks to Herodotus’ testimony, preserve a relatively accurate picture of its function and the feat of its construction. The situation is the same for many passages from Book 2 concerning monuments or natural wonders and even for the customs or ways of life that the historian was able to observe. But, in this last case, Herodotus’ description can be rendered inaccurate by a poor understanding of what he witnessed, or by his desire to make his account more accessible to his Greek public by translating the strangeness that he saw into more familiar terms.

It is more difficult to answer your question when it comes to the passages from Book 2 in which Herodotus addresses Egyptian history or beliefs, or even when he describes partly imaginary places. Many of Herodotus’ stories in fact seem fictionalized or even legendary. This quality has led to virulent critiques of the historian since antiquity. Today, we tend to consider these allegedly fanciful passages to be invaluable sources of local legends, either Greek (coming from the Greek community of Egypt, which was sizable at the time when Herodotus visited the region around 450 BCE), or Egyptian, whether Herodotus was informed by the priests or whether he was able to obtain stories that were circulating among the Egyptian population. There are in fact points of connection between the stories reported by the historian and certain fables found in Demotic literature (that is, Egyptian literature from the seventh century BCE onward). This is the case, for example, for the Herodotean story of the reign of Pheros (2.111), which is very close to a Demotic story identified recently.

To return to the example of Cheops’ pyramid, Herodotus accompanies his rational description with a final anecdote that we can consider to be completely fabulous. The historian reports that Cheops had forced his daughter to prostitute herself to finance a part of the colossal cost of the pyramid. (How big a part? “That is a point on which they did not inform me”, says Herodotus). She had asked each of her visitors to make her a gift of a stone in order to construct a small pyramid, displayed in front of her father’s. According to Joachim Friedrich Quack, this story might be explained by the evolution of the Egyptian language, since the word “small” was used more often in the Late Period to signify a prostitute. Stories would thus have arisen to explain the new sense of the expression “small pyramid”, understood henceforth as “the prostitute’s pyramid”. Herodotus’ fabulous anecdote can thus document how king Cheops, constructor of the largest pyramid, was perceived in this era. Herodotus presents for us a portrait that transmits both an undoubtedly negative Greek perception of a construction considered to be excessively large and an ancient Egyptian tradition already carrying a negative image of the sovereign.

As we can see, the interest Herodotus holds exceeds the simple question of the accuracy of his information, because even the most fabulous passages can be invaluable sources on another reality: that of imagination and illustration, a field of passionate study…

For further reading, see:

  • A. Grand-Clément, 1999, ‘Les pyramides de la IVe dynastie vues par les auteurs classiques. Le site de Gîza revisité’, Égypte, Afrique & Orient 15: 57-64.
  • T. Haziza, 2009, Le Kaléidoscope hérodotéen. Images, imaginaire et représentations de l’Égypte à travers le livre II d’Hérodote. Paris.
  • T. Haziza, 2012, ‘De l’Égypte d’Hérodote à celle de Diodore: étude comparée des règnes des trois bâtisseurs des pyramides du plateau de Gîza’, Kentron 28: 17-52.
  • A. Lloyd, 1975-1988, Herodotus Book II. Leiden.
  • L. Coulon et al. (eds.), 2013, Hérodote et l’Égypte. Regards croisés sur le Livre II de l’Enquête d’Hérodote. Lyon.