Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.01.14 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.01.14

László Török, Herodotus in Nubia. Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 368.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2014.  Pp. xiv, 163.  ISBN 9789004269132.  $136.00.  

Reviewed by Stanley M. Burstein, California State University, Los Angeles (


Herodotus in Nubia is a significant addition to the burgeoning scholarly literature on Herodotus. Unlike most recent Herodotean scholarship, however, it does not focus on the study of the Histories as a work of literature. Instead, it belongs to an older tradition of Herodotean scholarship that uses archaeological and textual evidence to evaluate the historical reliability of Herodotus’ ethnographies, specifically in this case, his account of Aithiopia, ancient Nubia.

A detailed study of Herodotus’ account of Aithiopia is overdue. The Aithiopian sections of the Histories can well be described as the orphans of Herodotean studies. Perhaps because of their brevity —barely two thousand words in total— only two comprehensive studies were devoted to Herodotus’ remarks about Aithiopia during the last century: an unpublished Hamburg doctoral dissertation by Detlef Herminghausen1 and an eccentric monograph by I. Hofmann and A. Vorbichler.2 Neither work was easily accessible to scholars. Even if they were better known, however, they would not have been of much help to students of Herodotus seeking reliable information about the history and archaeology of Nubia. Since both studies were written before publication began of the results of the multi-national UNESCO archaeological rescue campaign of the 1960s that have made Nubia archaeologically the best-known region of Sub-Saharan Africa, they were based on the same outdated scholarship that Herodotus in Nubia is intended to replace. László Török is ideally suited to fill this gap in Herodotean scholarship.

During the past half century Nubian studies has become a recognized international field of study with regular conferences attended by hundreds of archaeologists and historians. Török is the author of numerous articles, monographs and books including the fundamental The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilization3 and one of the new discipline’s leading figures. His goal in Herodotus in Nubia is deceptively simple: to evaluate Herodotus’ account of Aithiopia in terms of current knowledge of Nubia with particular emphasis on its relationship to “the Kushite Myth of the State,” the legendary account of the origin of the Kushite state that provided ideological legitimization of the Kushite monarchy. A central contention of the book is that knowledge of this ideology survived among the priests of the temple of Ptah at Memphis, and that traces of it can be detected in Herodotus’ account of the Long-Lived Aithiopians.

Herodotus in Nubia is a brief monograph. Of its five chapters the first two are introductory. The first chapter is a well-informed survey of recent Herodotean scholarship, highlighting the tendency of even the best scholars to rely on outdated Egyptological works such as those of E. A. W. Budge in commenting on the Aithiopian passages of the Histories. Török recognizes the importance of recent work on the literary character of the Histories and the consequent limitations of old style Quellenforschung. At the same time, while he admits, for example, the cogency of D. Fehling’s arguments against Herodotus’ visiting Upper Egypt, he eschews Fehling’s contentious general conclusions concerning the fictive nature of Herodotus’ source citations. A serious and surprising omission in his discussion of contemporary Herodotean scholarship, however, is consideration of the recent publication of Demotic papyri paralleling some of Herodotus’ Egyptian tales, particularly a fragmentary papyrus published by K. Ryholt4 that strongly suggests the existence of an Egyptian source for one of the most important sections of Herodotus’ account of Aithiopia, his story of the deserters called the Asmach. An excursus containing a brief but thoroughly documented overview of the history of Kush from the eighth to the mid-fifth century BCE closes the chapter.

Passages from Herodotus are cited throughout the monograph in English translation. The principal texts concerning the Aithiopians, however, are collected in the second chapter. For most of the texts Török reprints the translation of Tormond Eide published in the first volume of Fontes Historiae Nubiorum.5 Passages that are not included in FHN are cited in the familiar translation of A. de Sélincourt as revised by J. Marincola with the exception of Herodotus 3.97, for which Török follows my translation.6

The third and fourth chapters form the core of the monograph. The first considers the function of the Aithiopian passages in Herodotus’ overall narrative and the second systematically compares his image of Aithiopia with current knowledge of the historical reality of ancient Nubia.

Chapter three treats an essentially literary problem, namely, whether or not the references to Aithiopia scattered through the Histories are fragments of an unfinished Aithiopian logos. On the basis of a careful analysis of the narrative functions of these passages the author convincingly argues that Herodotus never intended to write an Aithiopian logos. Instead, the information in the Aithiopian passages was collected in order to support the narrative contexts in which they occur and from which they cannot be separated. Thus, the texts concerning Sesostris, Shabako, Asychis, and Psammis are integral to his account of Egyptian history, the account of the Nile in Nubia continues his description of the geography of Egypt, and the account of Cambyses’ Aithiopian campaign and the related description of the Long-Lived Aithiopians belongs to the history of Persia.

In chapter four the author argues that two images of Aithiopia — one real and largely confined to book two and one fictional and limited to book three — coexist in the Histories. Both, however, were based on “hearsay” evidence that Herodotus obtained from “Egyptian” sources, that is, from informants resident in Egypt, a conclusion that is strengthened by the fact that in this case he makes no claim to have consulted what D. Fehling refers to as the “most obvious source,” namely, Aithiopian informants. The focus of the discussion is Herodotus’ references to Aithiopian kingship, arguing that the passages in book two about Aithiopian kings and Egyptian kings active in Nubia, the influence of oracles on the action of Aithiopian kings, and the reference in book three to the election of the king of the Long-Lived Aithiopians contain information concerning the Egyptian Twenty-Fifth Dynasty preserved by the priests of Ptah at Memphis. Excurses on the priestly origin of Herodotus’ account of the sources of the Nile, the probable content of Nubian temple archives, and the relationship between Herodotus’ and Agatharchides’ accounts of the election of the king of Kush support the argument. A brief final chapter recapitulates the principal conclusions of the study, highlighting the ultimate source of Herodotus’ account of Aithiopian kings in twenty-fifth dynasty Kushite royal ideology and the essentially supportive role of the Aithiopian passages in his narrative.

Inevitably not all the book’s arguments are equally persuasive. Examples are the author’s limitation of Persian influence to Lower Nubia despite evidence to the contrary in Herodotus and Persian sources and his contention that Herodotus’ account of the city of the Long-Lived Aithiopians is an idealized description of Meroe, the principal royal residence of Kush. Overall, however, Herodotus in Nubia is a valuable addition to Herodotean studies, providing students of Herodotus with a reliable guide to relevant current scholarship on ancient Nubia and containing numerous perceptive comments on various aspects of Herodotus’ account of Aithiopia, particularly his discussion of Aithiopian kingship.


1.   Detlef Herminghausen (1964). Herodots Angaben über Äthiopien, Diss. Hamburg.
2.   I. Hofmann and A. Vorbichler 1979). Der Äthiopenlogos bei Herodot (Veröffentlichungen der Institut für Afrikanistik und Ägyptologie der Universität Wien 4, Beiträge zur Afrikanistik 3), Wien.
3.   László Török (1997). The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilization, Handbook of Oriental Studies: The Near and Middle East 31, Leiden: Brill.
4.   Kim Ryholt, “A Demotic Narrative in Berlin and Brooklyn concerning the Assyrian Invasion of Egypt (Pap. Berlin P. 15682 + Pap. Brooklyn 47.218.21-B) in: Verena M. Lepper (2012). Forschung in der Papyrussammlung: Eine Festgabe für das Neue Museum, Berlin: Oldenburg Akademie Verlag, 337-353.
5.   Tormond Eide et al (1994). Fontes Historiae Nubiorum, Vol. I: From the Eighth to the Mid-Fifth Century BC, Bergen: University of Bergen, Department of Classics, 302-331.
6.   Stanley M. Burnstein (1981). “Herodotus and the Emergence of Meroe,” JSSEA 11, 4.

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