Female Revenge Stories in Herodotus’ Histories
Women’s stories, undoubtedly, give a unique colour to Herodotus’
Women participate in all activities that
form the body of the historian’s work: they are associated with war either as
victims or as warriors, they rule countries, they preserve ethnic identity, they
act as protectors of their families, they give oracles, and they take
representation of women in the Histories
much attention at different times, with different methods of approach.
Regardless of the
varying approaches, though, the majority of scholars tend to agree that the
presence of women in Herodotus’ Histories
related to nomos.
After all, a major theme in the Histories
is the role of nomos
(‘a custom of such impact as to function as a natural law
within a community’ 
determining human attitudes and behaviour.
This role of nomos
becomes more prominent in
four accounts of individual female characters: the stories of Candaules’ wife
(1.8–15), Nitocris of Babylon (1.185–187), Tomyris (1.205–215), and Amestris
(9.109–111). All these women appear to punish males when they act against the
and overstep moral boundaries. What
is more, the act of revenge in these stories seems to follow a certain pattern,
unique in its form in the Histories.
At first we see a
king inflamed by a certain passion. This passion proves to be so irrational that
it leads him to overstep certain moral codes and harm a royal lady herself or a
member of her family. The woman notices what is happening in a remarkably
intelligent way and finally devises an artful plan for revenge that the king is
unable to foresee.
In this paper I set out to examine this pattern, focusing on one of these
accounts due to the paper’s limited length. This is the story of the queen
Tomyris, who is portrayed as a woman capable of avenging her son’s death in the
most brutal way, by killing the great king of Persia, Cyrus. The same female
character is also found in other accounts of ancient Greek literature; yet I
will show that only in Herodotus does she demonstrate the cleverness and ability
to take her own revenge. This fact speaks for the originality of the female
revenge motif that Herodotus employs in this story.
Before telling us about Tomyris, Herodotus explains the reason why Cyrus wished
to advance with his army against the nation of the Massagetae:
πολλά τε γάρ μιν καὶ μεγάλα τὰ ἐπαείροντα καὶ ἐποτρύνοντα
ἦν, πρῶτον μὲν ἡ γένεσις, τὸ δοκέειν πλέον τι εἶναι ἀνθρώπου, δευτέρα δὲ
ἡ εὐτυχίη ἡ κατὰ τοὺς πολέμους γενομένη· ὅκῃ γὰρ ἰθύσειε στρατεύεσθαι
Κῦρος, ἀμήχανον ἦν ἐκεῖνο τὸ ἔθνος
There were significant reasons that
motivated him and which led him to face this prospect with confidence: the
first of these was his birth, which seemed more than human, and the second
the good fortune that had always attended him throughout his campaigns, for
wherever he had waged war, he had encountered only nations who had proved
incapable of resisting his conquest.
Herodotus 1.204.2 (Purvis
The reader is thus informed about Cyrus’ passion for war and expansion. Cyrus
wants to expand more because, whenever he aims to advance with an army, no
nation is able to contrive a way of escaping. But does this overconfident and
ambitious aggressor have any limits? Or could it be that his will to expand his
kingdom makes him insatiable?
After offering this picture of Cyrus, Herodotus goes on to inform his readers
about the king’s proposal to the queen of the Massagetae. Tomyris however
understood that Cyrus’ only purpose in wishing to marry her was to gain her
throne and enslave the Massagetae, and thus turned him down. As Herodotus
explicitly tells us, the queen appears to be well aware of what Cyrus really
wants ( συνιεῖσα,
1.205.1). In this way, the
reader has the first indication that this queen also has the ability to
understand, without too much thinking or the need for explanations. She needs no
more evidence; Cyrus’ proposal is enough for her to understand his devious
plans. She also has the courage to refuse even the king of Persia himself.
Herodotus then mentions that Cyrus, since he did not succeed by trickery
( ὡς οἱ δόλῳ οὐ προεχώρεε
started his campaign against Tomyris openly ( ἐκ τοῦ
, 1.205.2). Thus, Herodotus’ audience has the first proof
that Tomyris was right in thinking that Cyrus’ only intention, when he proposed
to marry her, was to enslave the nation of the Massagetae.
When Tomyris was informed that Cyrus had started his campaign against the
Massagetae by building bridges in order to cross the frontier river, she gave
him her first warning. In this warning she told Cyrus three times to stop the
campaign against her country ( παῦσαι σπεύδων τὰ
σπεύδεις; παυσάμενος δὲ βασίλευε τῶν σεωυτοῦ; ἡμέας ἀνέχευ ὁρέων ἄρχοντας
τῶν περ ἄρχομεν , 1.206.1). In this way, the reader’s attention is
drawn to her intelligence and foresight.For it is as if the queen were telling
Cyrus: “you have to listen to what I am telling you.” As it appears, the queen
not only sees through Cyrus’ intentions, but also knows his character well: 
it would be hard for
Cyrus to listen to her and think seriously about a woman’s warning. Furthermore,
the reader also learns that not only is the queen seen as a woman clever enough
to see through Cyrus’ plans; she is also shown to have the courage to challenge
him even in his own territory, if he will not follow her advice to remain at
As the narrative goes on, Cyrus is presented as even less clever than the queen. That is because after Tomyris’ message, we reasonably expect an immediate answer
from Cyrus. But instead Cyrus, unlike Tomyris who decides on her own accord,
asks for his counsellors’ advice ( ταῦτα δὲ ἀκούσας ὁ
Κῦρος συνεκάλεσε Περσέων τοὺς πρώτους,
συναγείρας δὲ τούτους ἐς μέσον σφι προετίθεε τὸ πρῆγμα, συμβουλευόμενος
ὁκότερα ποιέῃ , 1.206.3).
He follows the counsel of Croesus, according to which the
battle must take place in the territory of Tomyris, because it would be a shame
to give ground to a woman ( χωρίς τε τοῦ ἀπηγημένου
αἰσχρὸν καὶ οὐκ ἀνασχετὸν Κῦρόν γε τὸν Καμβύσεω γυναικὶ εἴξαντα ὑποχωρῆσαι
τῆς χώρης , 1.207.5). In the following lines, the reader is
surprised once more. For Cyrus follows Croesus’ suggestion of using a trick
(1.207.6–7). He therefore agrees with Croesus that it would be a shame to give
ground to a woman, but he does not think it is also shameful to defeat a woman
According to Croesus’ plan, the Persians would take advantage of the Massagetae’s
unfamiliarity with wine. While Cyrus sends a message to Tomyris telling her that
they are going to fight in Persia, the Persians prepare a banquet with plenty of
undiluted wine. Thus, when the Massagetae attack and take the camp, they
celebrate their victory with a feast. Once the Massagetae are drunk and asleep
the Persians return, kill many of them, and take others as hostages, among them
Tomyris’ son Spargapises. Once more, the reader cannot but observe the
difference, in terms of both cleverness and morality, between the king and the
queen. Cyrus is going to act based on trickery for the second time, and the
reader knows that the first one was completely unsuccessful.
Tomyris’ second warning comes when she finds out that her son is being held
captive. Again, the reader cannot but admire her calmness. Through this warning
she reminds Cyrus that he is overstepping certain moral codes. For, as she tells
him, her son has been enslaved by trickery and not because he was defeated in
battle ( τοιούτῳ φαρμάκῳ δολώσας ἐκράτησας παιδὸς τοῦ
ἐμοῦ, ἀλλ’ οὐ μάχη κατὰ τὸ καρτερὸν
1.212.2). Tomyris declares
through her warning that her patience has its limits, and that she will fill
Cyrus with blood if he does not release her son ( ἦ μὲν
σε ἐγὼ καὶ ἄπληστον ἐόντα αἴματος κορέσω
, 1.212.3). Thus she
reveals herself as a woman capable of revenge.
Later, the reader finds out how harsh the queen can be. As soon as Tomyris learns
of her son’s death, she confronts Cyrus and his army in battle. The Persians are
defeated by the Massagetae, and Cyrus is killed during the fighting. When
Tomyris finds his body, she puts his head in a skin filled with human blood. In
this way she fulfils her last threat to him and avenges her son’s death. At
last, when she finds her dead enemy’s body, she is the one who has the last
laugh at Cyrus, for she fulfils her last threat to fill him with blood.
Gould has argued that the fact that Tomyris surpasses the Persians in violence
and bloodthirstiness is indicative of what female power means to Herodotus.
Yet on the other hand
it could be said that Herodotus emphasizes not so much female violence, but
rather completely justified female revenge. This becomes especially clear if we
consider more carefully the structure of his description of Tomyris’ revenge,
and accordingly Cyrus’ death, for Herodotus narrates step by step the queen’s
reaction to Cyrus’ intentions. She gives him two warnings, o f which the second
reveals her loss of patience. Later on, Herodotus makes it obvious that she
resorts to violence only when she is given no other choice: Τόμυρις δὲ, ὥς οἱ Κῦρος οὐκ ἐσήκουσε, συλλέξασα πᾶσαν τὴν
ἐωυτῆς δύναμιν συνέβαλε Κύρῳ
Lastly, when she finds her dead
enemy’s corpse, she says: σὺ μὲν ἐμὲ ζῶσάν τε καὶ
νικῶσάν σε μάχῃ ἀπώλεσας παῖδα τὸν ἐμὸν ἑλὼν δόλῳ. σὲ δ’ ἐγὼ, κατὰ περ
ἠπείλησα, αἵματος κορέσω (1.214.5). She is telling Cyrus that
although she still lives and although she has conquered him, he has destroyed
her, by killing her son by guile. She leaves no doubt that it is not her power
that counts after all, as she has been destroyed because of her son’s death. Thus the queen herself minimizes the significance of her power but does not
forget to emphasize her revenge: “I will fill you with blood as I threatened
you.” It is her revenge that counts most of all, not her power, and it is that
very fact that causes the audience’s surprise.
Herodotus thus presents Tomyris not only in her role as queen, but also as the
mother who will go to any length to save her son’s life, and if this does not
succeed, to avenge his death. But whatever her role is, the reader cannot but
observe Tomyris’ calmness and intelligence throughout the whole episode. She has
the cleverness to see through Cyrus’ plans and intentions and the prudence to
warn him that his deeds may not work to his advantage. Being confident of
herself and her power, she has also the boldness to threaten him and give him a
choice when she is the one threatened with invasion and war. When her patience
reaches its limit, she finally reveals herself as a woman capable of taking
revenge when she is harmed.
Other Accounts of Tomyris and Cyrus’ Death
In 1.214.5 Herodotus writes: τὰ μὲν
δὴ κατὰ τὴν Κύρου τελευτὴν τοῦ βίου πολλῶν λόγων λεγομένων ὅδε μοι ὁ
πιθανώτατος εἴρηται (“ Of the many stories told about the death
of Cyrus, this account seems to me to be the most credible version ”)
. We learn thus that Herodotus could have
narrated Cyrus’ death differently. Indeed, Ctesias ( FGrH
688 F 9) says that Cyrus died after he was wounded by the
Indians, and Onesicritus ( FGrH
134 F 36) that he
died of a broken heart when he heard of his son Cambyses’ misdeeds. Moreover, according to Xenophon ( Cyropaedia
died peacefully in his bed.
By stating that there are other stories regarding Cyrus’ death apart from his
own version, Herodotus himself tells us that he is using his own judgment in
choosing which version to include in his work. Thus, he explains to his
reader his first step: he chose the story according to which the Persian
king was killed by a woman. Nevertheless, we know today that there are also
several other sources where Tomyris is also presented as being involved in
the king’s murder as it happens in Herodotus. Most of these sources preserve
only scant information and mention nothing about how and why Tomyris killed
Cyrus: e.g. Theophilus ( Ad Autolycum
Κύρου οὖν βασιλεύσαντος ἔτεσιν κηʹ καὶ
ἀναιρεθέντος ὑπὸ Τομύριδος ἐν Μασσαγετίᾳ
Only two of those sources are
somewhat more detailed. The first is Diodorus Siculus (2.44) who says that
Cyrus was imprisoned and then crucified by the queen.
The second is told by Polyaenus
(8.28) who, like Herodotus, reports that Cyrus died at the hands of Tomyris. In this version, however, Tomyris is the one who employs the trick that
Cyrus used in Herodotus’ story, following Croesus’ advice. In other words,
the queen is presented as the one who made the Persians drunk, imprisoned
them, and killed their king.
It is apparent, I think, that both in these sources and in Herodotus’ Histories,
this particular woman is depicted as an
independent and powerful queen. Otherwise she could not have the courage to
fight against the Persian army, and defeat and kill one of the most
outstanding Persian kings. Nevertheless, the importance in Herodotus’
account lies in the fact that Tomyris does not simply kill Cyrus; she also
avenges her son’s death. In the other accounts Tomyris does not gloat over
her vengeance on Cyrus. It is nowhere else mentioned that her reason for
attacking and then killing Cyrus was her desire to take revenge for her
son’s death. Only Herodotus gives his reader a reason for Tomyris’ cruelty,
for in his narrative, Tomyris’ decision to kill Cyrus comes only after her
son’s death. Herodotus, in other words, is the only writer who gives his
reader a carefully planned description of an instance of female revenge.
To conclude, the pattern of female revenge can be summarized thus: in 1.204
Herodotus informs us about Cyrus’ great passion for power, and his intention
to subdue the Massagetae either by marrying Tomyris or by force. In both
cases Tomyris understands his intentions immediately, in contrast with the
king who needs the help of his counsellors to decide. When the king
oversteps the moral codes of fair fighting and, by a trick, becomes the
reason for the death of Tomyris’ son, she takes her bloody revenge. Thus the
figure of Tomyris, as presented by Herodotus, is unique in her
acute-mindedness in foreseeing every intention of Cyrus and her
inventiveness in conceiving and executing a plan for revenge.
It goes without saying that there are several more stories of female revenge
in other parts of Herodotus’ Histories 
obviously, Herodotus does not provide a ready model for all of them. After
all, as has already been pointed out in my introduction, there is an
abundance of women’s stories in the Herodotean world, and their
representation in the Histories
is usually related
to the law ( nomos
) or custom.So if, as
Lateiner has argued, “Herodotus differs from his predecessors and successors
both in his organization of subjects and in his literary and scientific
attitudes towards the material,” 
then the question arises whether he also differs in his
attitudes toward the women that appear in the Histories.
I think that this paper answers at least a small
part of this question. Herodotus’ representation of some women indeed
evinces some literary patterns that we can hardly find anywhere else in the
ancient Greek literature.
Bakker, E. J., I. J. F. de Jong, and H. van Wees,
eds. 2002. Brill’s Companion to
2002. “Women in Herodotus’
Histories.” In Bakker et al. 2002:225–242.
Cameron, A., and A. Kuhrt, eds. 1983.
Images of Women in Antiquity. London.
Deacy, S., and K. F. Pierce, eds. 1997.
Rape in Antiquity. London.
1981. “Women and Culture in Herodotus’
Histories.” In Foley 1981:91–125.
1987. The Archaic Smile of
Foley, H. P., ed. 1981. Reflections of Women in Antiquity. New York.
Georgiou, I. E.
2002. Women in Herodotus’
1997. Warrior Women. The Anonymous
Tractatus De Mulieribus. Leiden.
1989. Herodotus. London.
1997. “Herodotus and the Ancient Greek
Idea of Rape.” In Deacy and Pierce 1997:185–208.
Hazewindus, M. W.
2004. When Women Interfere. Studies in the
Role of Women in Herodotus’ Histories. Amsterdam.
1989. The Historical Method of
1988. “Artemisia in Herodotus.”
1967. “Women in Charge: The Function of
Alternatives in Early Greek Tradition and the Idea of
Matriarchy.” Journal of the Warbyrg and
Courtauld Institutes 30:1–35.
Rossellini, M., and S. Said.
1978. “Usages de femmes et autres
nomoi chez les ‘sauvages’ d’ Hérodote: Essai de lecture
structurale.” Annali della scuola normale
superiore di Pisa 8:949–1005.
Sancisi-Weerdenburg, H. 1983. “Exit Atossa: Images of Women in Greek Historiography of
Persia.” In Cameron and Kuhrt 1983:20–33.
Strassler, R. B., ed.
2009. The Landmark Herodotus: The
Histories. Trans. A. L. Purvis. New York.
1976. “La femme et le pouvoir chez
Hérodote.” Dialogues d’ Histoire
1978. “Herodotus on Rape.” Arethusa 11:137–147.
1964. “Das Weib des Masistes.”
The first scholar who observes that Herodotus’ Histories are indeed saturated with female presence and
attempts to offer a broad account of women in the historian’s work is
Scholarship on women in Herodotus can generally be separated into two
categories: (1) Readers who regard Herodotus first and last as an
historian, though perhaps a highly imaginative one, and (2) readers who
follow a more literary point of view and lay the emphasis on Herodotus’
text. The first category includes Tourraix 1976, Dewald 1981, and
Lateiner 1989. The second category includes Wolf 1964, Pembroke 1967,
Rossellini and Said 1978, Walcot 1978, Sancisi-Weerdenburg 1983,
Harrison 1997, and Munson 1988. For a survey of the recent Herodotean
scholarship regarding women, see Blok 2002:225–242. Other works that
have influenced some of the ideas developed in this paper are Flory’s
useful study (1987) on the motif of the clever, vengeful queen in
Herodotus, Georgiou 2002, and Hazewindus 2004.
See Blok 2002:227–228.
The definition is given by Blok (2002:227).
See also Georgiou 2002:48.
Flory 1987:42–43 argues that Tomyris fills Cyrus with blood as he filled
her son with undiluted wine (1.212). Likewise, the insulted wife of
Candaules wanted her husband to be killed “in the same place” where he
first disgraced her.
Gould 1989:131. Gera 1997:188–189 has more rightly observed that
“Tomyris represents in her dealings with Cyrus a peculiar combination of
moderation and bloodthirstiness, wisdom and savagery.” Cf. Georgiou
As Hazewindus has it: “We see that not the fact that Cyrus invaded her
land is decisive but the fact that he did not listen to her demand to
return her son” (2004:173).
Note that in all the ancient sources, except Xenophon, Cyrus dies in a
battle while expanding his empire in the East. The remarkable
difference, therefore, regards the identity of the enemy.
Cf. also Georgius Syncellus Ecloga
Chronographica 282.18–19, Lucian Charon 13.15–18 (Lucian specifically reports that Tomyris
put Cyrus’ head in a skin full of blood, but again nothing is mentioned
regarding the reason why this happened); Chronicon
Paschale 269.15, Macarius Apocriticus 4.170.8–9; Suda s.v.
Diodorus does not mention the queen’s name. Furthermore, he regards the
female character who killed Cyrus as the queen of the Scythians and not
of the Massagetae. It is likely, however, that he is also talking about
Tomyris, as it seems the land of the Massagetae was often thought to be
Scythia. After all, Herodotus himself notes that the two nations have
several similarities (1.201, 215, 216; 4.11). It is therefore easy to
confuse them. See also Gera 1997:188n5.
See for example 1.145–146, 2.100, 6.138.