Herodotus, “The Histories”, and the Greco-Persian Wars
An old joke holds that historians are gossips with footnotes. This often seems true of Herodotus, the “father of history”. Curious about everything anyone tells him, at times, he can be a bit credulous and some of the stories he relates are what we would call tall tales. Nevertheless, his methodology- taking various accounts of past events and making decisions about which are the most plausible and what resulted from those events- is indeed historiography. Besides, it’s pretty hard not to enjoy the sort of historian who can write a sentence like, “There is a place in Arabia… where I went to try to get information about the flying snakes.”
The Persian Wars nearly ended the Greek experiment. Divided among themselves, not really prepared for a large war, and with many Greeks siding with the enemy, the eventual defeat of the Persian invaders by a handful of scrappy city states was one of the great victories in military history. It would define how the Greeks, particularly Athens and Sparta, saw each other and the outside world. The “histories”of Herodotus give a good sense of how they saw both the Persians and war itself.
He begins by looking back a few hundred years for the roots of the war. For some time, the Greeks and Persians bickered without much coming of it. Finally, Croesus of Lydia decides to attack the growing Persian Empire. Appealing to the oracles at Delphi, he is told that, if he attacks, a great empire will fall. Little does he know it will be his own. The theme of misunderstood oracles occurs throughout the story. The Greek states in particular cannot go to battle without first consulting the oracles, and Herodotus explains nearly every defeat by a failure to think deeply about what has been revealed.
Cyrus defeats Croesus but feels pity and spares his life. Herodotus tells the story of Cyrus’s childhood, which is strikingly similar to Oedipus: fated by an oracle to overthrow his father, who sends a servant to kill the child; the servant instead gives him to a distant farmer to bring up, but he eventually outs himself as the natural king. Cyrus then starts campaigns of conquest, taking the Medes, Ionians, Lycia, Babylon, and several others before dying in battle, according to Herodotus.
Cyrus is followed by Cambyses, the Magi, Darius and Xerxes, with rule becoming progressively more tyrannical, according to Herodotus. He shows the growing power of the Persian Empire as they conquer the Egyptians, Babylonians, Scythians, et cetera. As his story unfolds, he tells us the customs of each group of conquered people, moving into what we might call anthropology instead of history. These sections are a bit rambling but highly entertaining. But, they should be taken with a grain of salt as much of the information comes from word-of-mouth and local legends.
Herodotus is not above the sensational or salacious; I was tickled to discover recently that one group of fetishists takes as their avatar Candaules, the King of Sardis, who Herodotus tells us was overthrown due to his indecent desire to have a servant spy on his wife while she was bathing. Huge swaths of the Histories record gossip and rumor. Every Babylonian woman serves as a temple prostitute once in her life. In Egypt, women urinate standing up, men sitting down. In India, they train ants the size of dogs to dig for gold. The Massagetae are wife-swappers; someone should probably inform the wife-swapping community! The Persians have a custom of burying people alive. Typical of ancient Greeks, Herodotus is most interested in the Egyptians. The older, richer, and more stable kingdom was a subject of fascination. We should be skeptical though about his claims that Greek religion was imported wholesale from Egypt.
Why do nations wage wars? In truth, it’s quite often out of greed or paranoid self-interest. Most accounts give higher explanations. The chanson de geste talks about heroic good versus evil; we tend to talk about evil ideologies and cultures. Herodotus points quite often to hubris and power-hunger, but he also suggests that the Persians, especially Xerxes and Darius, saw tyranny as the natural state of things and underestimated the cohesion that could come from democracy. At times, this verges on cultural mythology, as when Darius asks a Greek ally how people who live free could fight so well, and gets the dramatic response, “They are free, yes, but not entirely free because they have a master- Law- which they fear much more than your subjects fear you.” Cue the trumpets! Exaggerated or not, this is a story asserting the natural defeat of tyranny by democracy. It is understandable why the story is still admired in the modern west.
Things changed for the Persians at the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE), one of the most stunning military victories in ancient history and a vote of encouragement for Greek confidence in the hoplite phalanx, the democratic reforms of Cleisthenes, and their own superiority over the barbarian. Some estimate Persian forces of 20,000 and, at best, the Greeks had half as many men; but the general Militiades (who had once fought for Darius) and a surprise running attack by the Greek phalanxes trapped the Persian forces and routed them. Herodotus puts the Persian deaths at 6400, which is probably not accurate, and the Athenian losses at 192, which actually is accurate.
Darius’s successor Xerxes dithers on responding to the humiliating defeat. Herodotus, characteristically, attributes his decision to attack the Greeks to goading by lousy subalterns and a series of prophetic dreams, misinterpreted. It is interesting that one of his best warriors and smartest advisors is a woman, and Herodotus lacks the misogyny or patronizing attitude we might expect.
Xerxes invades. The Battle of Thermopylae (480) has been immortalized by the movie 300; here that number of Spartans under Leonidas held off wave after wave of Persian forces, knowing they faced certain death. After the Persians were shown a narrow mountain path by which to attack from the rear, the battle was finished. The epitaph raised to the 300 by the Spartan state: “Go tell the Spartans, you who read: we took their orders, and are dead.”
The Battle of Salamis really kills the Persian invasion. Interestingly, Herodotus sees this as divine retribution for outsized human power. After a devastating storm: “God was indeed doing everything possible to reduce the superiority of the Persian fleet and bring it down to the size of the Greek.” A major theme of the Histories is that God will punish anyone, Persian or Greek, who becomes too powerful. As he writes, “Human life is like a revolving wheel and never allows the same people to continue long in prosperity.” This subtext about a vengeful God and human arrogance undercuts the slightly propagandist flavor of his take on Persian tyranny.
In other words, the Greek story is triumphant, but not yet triumphalist. The barbarians are prone to human failings, just like the Greeks. The idea that God might want to keep every nation from becoming too powerful is certainly plausible, given the history of every nation. Unfortunately, it’s not an argument one hears very often today.
Endnotes: Of course, we’re planning to read the Symposium by Wednesday. I’d also like to read Aeschylus’s take on the Persians, which I’ve never read. On the Persian kick, sometime in the future, I’d like to get to the Persian Book of Kings, the Shannameh. As for early histories, I’d like to get to Thucydides in the near future.