Academic journal article Helios

The Plot Unravels: Darius's Numbered Days in Scythia (Herodotus 4.98)

Academic journal article Helios

The Plot Unravels: Darius's Numbered Days in Scythia (Herodotus 4.98)

Article excerpt


  Every tragedy comprises of a binding and an unraveling. The binding
  takes place before the tragedy and often in the opening scenes; the
  unraveling is the rest.
  Aristotle, Poetics

  The pages falling off the calendar, the notches marked in a tree that
  no longer stands--these are the signs of the everyday, the effort to
  articulate difference through counting. Yet it is precisely this
  counting that reduces difference to similarities, that is designed to
  be "lost track of."
  Susan Stewart, On Longing

Not pages falling off the calendar, not notches marked in a tree, but knots unraveled from a length of string--this is the way that Darius chooses to count his days in Scythia. In Herodotus's Histories 4.98, Darius gives to the Ionians a leather strap with sixty knots in it, with orders that one knot should be untied each day for as long as he is gone. It is not the first time in the Histories we see a tyrant setting specific orders when it comes to counting. (1) But the incident with the strap, because it sets Egyptian and Scythian practices of measuring and marking at odds with one another, takes on a symbolic and as yet unrecognized force within Herodotus's work. I demonstrate in this paper that Darius sets up the knotted cord as a counting device that resembles an Egyptian system of measurement (the schoinos), but that he manifestly fails to comprehend the meaning of his cord in the context of Scythia. By showing how the brief but significant mention of knots and cords on the eve of Darius's invasion picks up on larger themes at work in the Histories, I argue that the knotted rope of 4.98 functions as a sign of Darius's misguided approach to conquest and empire through the principles of enumeration, quantification, and measurement.

As the two quotations from Aristotle and Susan Stewart at the head of this paper suggest, the incident with the knotted cord is also illuminating in relation to a topic of wider application in the Histories--the concept of plot and narrative progress. The implications of releasing a knot, on the one hand, and repetitively counting off a series of identical notches in sequence, on the other, are starkly in contrast in terms of the way that plots are supposed to "work" in both ancient and modern narrative theory. Under the auspices of the knotted cord that sets this section of the Histories in motion (4.98-144), Darius loses not only his way but also the linear thread of his story, as it begins to loop hopelessly in a series of tangles and deviations. (2) The complexities inherent in Darius's device of the knotted cord will go some way to explain why his invasion of Scythia is doomed to fail on narratological, as well as practical, grounds.

The details of Darius's expedition into Scythia in Book 4 are well known and may be summarized briefly here. The Persian king decides to invade Scythia to avenge the latter's twenty-eight-year occupation of Asia (4.1) and as a prelude to his planned attack against Greece (3.134). He assembles a vast army and marches to the Danube, where the Ionians have formed a bridge for him across the river. Once inside Scythian territory, however, things go increasingly wrong for Darius. He is led on a chase across the countryside by an elusive enemy and ends up retreating back across the river in defeat, once again by means of the reassembled Ionian bridge.

The Scythian expedition has been examined from many angles by scholars, and its importance within the Histories has rightly been stressed. (3) In particular, its strongly symmetrical and contrastive relationship to the Egyptian logos in Book 2 has provided rich material for discussion. (4) That material is of considerable importance to this argument, since it focuses on the contrasting ways that the topographies of Egypt and Scythia are mapped out within the larger frame of the Histories. (5) My reading of how the knotted strap is put to use as a measuring device, with quite different results within the two different countries, will underscore that distinction. …

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