Ancient and modern

Herodotus in Sochi

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

As a result of Russian laws against propagating homosexuality, there are calls to boycott the 2013 Winter Olympics in Sochi and 2018 Fifa World Cup due to be held there. The West’s first historian Herodotus (5th century bc) would not have sympathised.

Herodotus’ magnificent Histories of the wars fought between the Persians and the Greeks (491-479 bc) regularly digress into lengthy discussions of the culture and customs of the peoples with whom the expanding Persian empire came into contact. The subject thrills him. He is amazed at the discrepancies beween different cultures. Sex and marriage are of especial interest.


Babylonians, for example, gather all girls of marriageable age in the square and sell off the beauties to the highest bidder. The money raised is offered as a ‘dowry’ to encourage the sale of the less attractive. A failed marriage is annulled and the money returned. Herodotus contrasts this ‘excellent’ custom with a ‘shameful’ one. On one day of her life, each Babylonian woman must go to the temple of Aphrodite and offer herself to a man. Tall, handsome women soon return home; ugly ones can wait up to three or four years to fulfil the requirement.

Among the pastoral tribes of Libya, the Adyrmachidae take every girl about to be married to see the king. Many depart, a maid no longer. The Nasamones use wives in common; at the marriage ceremony, the bride is passed round among the male guests. Women of the Gindanes wear leather bands round their ankles, one for each man they have slept with. Women with the most are held in high esteem. Males of the Garamantes tribe avoid all intercourse with men. Women of the Auses tribe are again common property; when a child is fully grown up, the men hold a meeting and judge by its looks to whom it belongs.

Herodotus concludes ‘everyone believes his own native customs to be the best, so that it is unlikely anyone but a madman would mock at such things… the poet Pindar was right to call custom “king of all”.’ One wonders what he would have made of the idea of ‘global human rights’.

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  • willshome

    Hmm. Great variations indeed, except in the fact that what should be done to and by women was decided by men. Perhaps without the loosening of the bonds binding females (a feature particularly noted by visitors to Early Modern Britain) there would have been no “human rights”.

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