Candaules’ wife: What strong women mean in Herodotus’ Histories

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In Herodotus’ histories, the first wife to appear in the Histories is the unnamed wife and Queen of Candaules. Her namelessness may suggest the seriousness of the crime committed against her and sanctions her to stand as a respectable woman who was subjected to ridicule and shame induced by her husband’s actions. In this episode, Candaules, believing his wife’s beauty surpasses the beauty of all the women, arranges for Gyges, his guard and advisor to gaze upon his wife’s naked body in secret. In doing this, Candaules generates his own death and the end of his reign as Gyges is caught and his wife gives him a choice “kill Candaules and seize the throne, with me as your wife; or die yourself on the spot.”

Herodotus brings us to the idea of women as agents, as it is in the Queen’s own mind that she chooses to have her husband murdered and marry the man who gazed upon her; making him King of the Lydians and changing the course of linage. Here, Candaules’ wife proves herself to be resourceful and intelligent, she plans to avenge herself from her husband’s pride and shamefulness, showing herself to be a force to be reckoned with despite her husband’s idea of her: “there is nothing to be afraid of, either from me or my wife….I promise she will do you no harm.” Consequently making her stand out as an individual. Herodotus further draws out her individuality by pointing out the unusualness of this episode; she is a woman acting independently and on her own behalf which allows for Herodotus to display other women similarly. Immerwhr, Long and Lateiner however, point out that Herodotus uses repetition in the structure of his narrative as the beauty of Candaules’ wife is used again in other incidents found in the text.

Peisistratus reinstates himself as tyrant by displaying a woman dressed in armour, deceiving the Athenians into thinking she is the goddess Athena (1.59-60). In book V, two Paionian brothers dress their sister up and send her out doing multiple tasks simultaneously to deceive Darius (5.13-15) and Xerxes mistakenly admires Artemisia in book VIII. These three examples reveal how Herodotus uses women in theatrical sense to explore how they affect male political power, which is jeopardized by the way these men use and view these women. Dewald furthers this idea adding that Herodotus sees the action of a wife is a structural one as “men and women alike abuse political systems that permit improper concentrations of power.”

Candaules loses power as a result of his display of his wife, the Athenians fall under tyranny, the brothers cause the Paionians to be uprooted and bought to Asia and Xerxes loses a ship. In Anhalt words: “in their use of theatrical display {they} underscore the vulnerability of political power.” This recurrent treatment of women in the Histories demonstrations the various ways a beautiful woman can be exploited by the men they are connected to. In addition, Herodotus displays the influence a woman can have because of her appearance.

With this reflection of Candaules’ wife, Amestris, wife of Xerxes comes to mind in framing the action of women acting as agents against their husbands. In this tale, Amestris takes control of her husband’s infidelity by destroying his brother’s wife, the mother of her husband’s mistress, Artaynte. Like Candaules, Artaynte shows exhibitionism that costs her and her family their lives. Herodotus says she “was doomed to come to a bad end, together with her and all her house.” This is a fate Herodotus had also spoken over Candaules.

In both stories, these husbands trigger events that are disastrous as they consider their wives as mere property to do as they wish with. It is because of this, that these women gain an upper hand as they do not behave according to the conceived ideas that their husbands place on them, rather they act out in their own strength, honour and intelligence. It is clear that Herodotus uses women as a frame at the beginning and the end of the Histories, as they are parallels who mark the destruction of men and their power and give birth of new dynasties. Wolff suggest that Herodotus writes these women as parallels that help the overall structure of the Histories as a narrative while Tourraix also adds that women act as intercessors between the generations and the overall notion of history and therefore add to the fact that the strength of these women have no bounds, as they are willing to go to any lengths to achieve their goals.


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