Notes on History

Herodotus’s Inquiries is, at root, an inquiry into the ontological status of the Greeks and the Barbarians, the two great empires of antiquity. What delineates the one from the other? How did the East come to be separate from the West? To what extent are they clear and distinct cultures?

Herodotus proceeds with this esoteric inquiry by exploring the character of the Greeks on the periphery, from the outside, by reiterating the stories men tell themselves of both their enemies and their friends. For example, he begins Book I by recounting what the Barbarians tell themselves of the origins of the Persian Wars -by a series of unjust kidnappings of their women. However, this is qualified by his acknowledgement that these cannot be verified. Almost immediately, the text is a presentation of the subtle skepticism Herodotus has for logoi in the form of rumors, though Herodotus does not deny the importance of these stories. One can apprehend a great deal about a culture by analyzing the stories its people tell, one can comprehend a great deal about a culture by understanding the stories its outsiders tell.

He marvels at the great wonders of the world: such as the prediction of an eclipse, the mores of the Asiatic and Egyptian peoples, the geographic distinctions, the Oracle’s ability to be bribed or convinced, and so on. His text is not a dogmatically skeptical piece, not constricting in this way as when one reads Descartes, Hume, or even Gibbon. Like Homer, he recounts the many wonders from around the world, however Herodotus removes himself from the poets to a degree, but merely restating the fanciful stories, making little commentary on their validity or believability. His project is not an attempt to disprove or dismantle the stories men tell themselves, indeed some have been proven to be deeply fruitful as in the case of the Gyges story, a Greek story told about Barbarian mores.

Aristotle made the famous delineation between poetry and history: history tells of what has come to be, and poetry tells of what might come to be. In this way, according to Aristotle, poetry is superior to history because it is more serious and philosophical (Poetics 1451b). However, on this point Herodotus draws swords with both Homer and Aristotle. In his opening passage, he acknowledges that his inquiry will be a “showing forth” of things that had come to be, including the tall tales of the poets, but he tests their falsifiability by presenting the varying differences of stories across cultures. Like Odysseus, Herodotus is a wanderer. However unlike Odysseus, he does not seek loot and ladies and adventures, but rather he seeks to comprehend the known world through open eyed inquiry (see Eva Brann). His project is an autopsia, which like many Greek words adopted in the modern sense, has degenerated from meaning “seeing-for-oneself” to the inspection of corpses. Herodotus is the first person that we know of who ventures forth just to see for himself, though we may speculate about the subtext for Odysseus’s piracy.

To the ancient mind, history was not dead or bygone, but rather alive and influential in the present. Time was much more fluid, rather than a numerical recording of things past. Herodotus notes that while many ancient cities that were once great are now small, and vice versa, acknowledging that human fortune or happiness do not endure, he will take an equal account of both, the great and the small cities.

As with the varying rumors abounding in Dostoevsky’s great work The Brothers Karamazov, Herodotus’s inquiries unearth the multiplicity of logoi in order to exoterically reaffirm their status as believable by many people, and also to provide an antidote in the form of conflicting stories or accounts given. Herodotus acts as the judge, relying on his authority to discern between the wise or the likely stories. Ironically, he is said to have recited his great work while living in an Athenian colony before moving to Italy where he died, echoing his accumulation of stories, both verifiable and according to Herodotus’s authority.

What Is History?

Our inquiry into the great books has brought us to the fruits of Herodotus’s masterful Histories praising the greatness of ancient men. Cicero, rather dubiously, once called Herodotus the pater historaie or the “father of history”, and also the “father of lies”. Even today, many modern scholars and archaeologists search for ways to ‘disprove’ Herodotus’s account of the world -as if the criteria for proof is his chief concern in the book.

Before we inquire further, we must ask the fundamental Socratic question: What is history? How did Herodotus understand this term? How is it different from our understanding of history? Our modern word, after all, comes to us from the title for Herodotus’s enduring text. The word history had originally meant “inquiry” in Attic Greek. History is not necessarily an account of the past, but rather it is an inquiry into something, perhaps an event that has passed. What is Herodotus exploring in his book? What are his inquiries?

In Book I, he gives two clues as to the purpose of his inquiries: he says he is seeking the causes that led to the Persian Wars against the Athenians, and he is also writing his perspective down so that the acts of great men are not forgotten. His history is not prejudicial -he demonstrates (or “shows forth”) the great and powerful deeds of all men, both barbarian and Greek. He also gives multiple accounts of these stories from many different people -some of them diametrically opposed to one another. He presents these differing rumors, and weighs their merits based on independent criteria. We might compare Herodotus to a modern cultural anthropologist, however what he demonstrates is an account of things past, events that have now concluded. For what reason?

Perhaps a second clue can be ascertained at the closing of Book IX (the final book) in which we are reminded of the wisdom of Cyrus who discourages his Persian compatriots from moving their families to more comfortable regions of their vast empire, where they might more easily grow their crops, however Cyrus claims this act produces weak men who stand for hardship in the place where their countrymen live. Herodotus, at root, is presenting an account of things past to incite the people that are living not to become soft or weak. Examples of great men are Leonidas of Sparta, a man who rejected a Spartan religious festival alongside 300 men to give his life and delay the Persians at the pass of Thermopylae; Cyrus the Great in his diverse empire; Solon and his sage advice to Croesus the Mede in looking to the end of a man’s life in order to properly judge his happiness and wealth, and Themistocles in his persuasion to the Hellenes to stand their ground at Salamis.

Perhaps the purpose of the inquiries is to present a picture of human greatness, one that might be imitated. For one cannot imitate an image of human greatness without recalling the deeds of great men. His text is also not an explicitly ‘anti-war’ argument, but rather it is necessary for those who would act with foresight in the world to recall the successes and failures of nations that have come and gone. Unlike Homer, whose Iliad presents ‘rage’, specifically the ‘rage of Achilles’ and how this rage led to his swift-footed death and decline to an unsatisfied life as a shade in Hades, and also of a ‘man’ the cunning tactician Odysseus whose guile led to the winning of the Trojan War. The Homeric works are not analyses. However, in Herodotus, his inquiry is an explicit analysis, scribed in prose rather than sung in the ancient poetry of Homer.

On the other hand, one consistency between Homer and Herodotus concerns the question of fate. Does fate govern history? What role do the gods play? Herodotus’s assumption is that men can learn of causes in order to portend the events of the future, like the Pythia at Delphi. If Historia is guided by fate, or perhaps divine revelation, then men will not be made strong -to seek excellence in great deeds that will not be forgotten. The wisdom of these words begins with Solon, the Archon of Athens, as he advises Croesus, who is later taken as an advisor to Cyrus and his son Cambyses, the insane emperor. This is in contrast to the Spartan defector who serves as an inferior guide to Darius’s son Xerxes as he tried to reconquer the Hellenes. The latter failed while the former flourished.

Courage and bravery in the face of death is the greatest quality the men of Herodotus’s world can exemplify. Perhaps we, too, can see vague traces of this Inquiry in our own modern world, distant as we are from the ariston valued by all of ancient Greece. After all, recall that the Greeks shocked the Persians in their ceaseless quest for excellence at the Olympic games when word reached the Achaemenids that the Greeks competed only for an olive wreath rather than riches.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

Xerxes, Thermopylae, and Salamis: Books VII – IX

In Book VII of Herodotus’s Histories, Herodotus details the anger of Darius who was unable to seek vengeance on Athens and also Egypt that was revolting against the Persians. However, infighting between the sons of Darius began and Xerxes won out, thanks to the superior skills of persuasion he received from a Spartan defector.

Xerxes consults with his loyal followers about his plans to create an empire under which the sun does not set. Mardonios flatters Xerxes and tells him that the Hellenes are weak and inferior. Artabanos, however, reminds Xerxes of the failure and embarrassment of the Battle of Marathon. Xerxes responds that Artabanos is a coward and punishes him for his insolence. The first fleet of Persians failed in shipwreck around Mount Athos under Mardonios. However, Xerxes is visited by three visions encouraging him to attack Hellas, and also visiting Artabanos the skeptic, the final vision showing that the world will become slaves under Xerxes.

Among the deliberations in taking course to Athens, Artabanos and Xerxes exchange sentiments on the pitiable short length of human life, reminiscent of the despair Gilgamesh feels after the death of Enkidu, followed by short tempered Xerxes declaring that men who take action are far more successful than those who strategize endlessly. Xerxes, the youngest brother, clearly does not read the Homeric texts as advancing Odysseus’s tactical superiority. Artabanos is once again rejected by Xerxes for advising that he consider that fear is important for success, and that the end f every matter is not revealed in perfect clarity at the beginning, echoing Solon to Croesus much earlier. Xerxes, however, changes the scope of his war to the end goal being the “common good of all” rather than an empire under which the sun never sets.

The Hellenes learn that the Persians are marching through the Hellespont and decide to defend their cities at Thermopylae, the narrow pass that would bottleneck the Persians. Herodotus estimates that in the various fleets, the Persian men totaled 2,317,210; plus men from Asia bringing the total to 5,283,220 men. Leonidas leads his small Spartan force of 300 to Thermopylae, along with other small groups of Hellenes to fight the coming Persians, the rest of the Spartans were held back due to the sacred religious festival of Karneia for the month of September, the same festival they were delayed with for the Battle of Marathon ten years earlier.

Upon finding the few numbers of Hellenes at the pass of Thermopylae, Xerxes is alarmed at how few there are. He sends out small groups of Medes and Persians, but both fail. Therefore, the Persians come over the mountains and outflank the Hellenes by night. As they do so, Leonidas sends the other Hellenes away to gain glory for the Spartans alone -Herodotus praises the men and claims to know the names of the 300 men. Leonidas fell in battle and his corpse was dragged away by the Lacedaemonians to be brought back to Sparta -a stone lion was later erected at the pass in his memory. Another man Herodotus considers to be “the most valiant man of all” is Dienekes who upon hearing that the Persian forces block out the sun when their arrows fly replied that this was good news for they would fight in the shade. The men hold the pass for three days.

Xerxes consults with the defector, Demaratos, about how to Lacedaemonians might best be defeated. Demaratos advises Xerxes to attack the other Hellenes and weaken them before proceeding to the Spartans. However, Achaimenes advises Xerxes to attack the Spartans now while  they are weak after Thermopylae -Xerxes unwisely chooses the latter. Meanwhile, Demaratos sends a warning to the Spartans with a secret message pressed in hot wax.

Themistocles leads the Athenians -he calculates that if they can separate the Ionians from the barbarians, the Hellenes can defeat the Persians. The Persians are amazed at the Olympic games being celebrated by the Hellenes because they compete not for riches, but for excellence alone, an olive wreath.

As the Persians advance, Athens is evacuated save for a few who stay behind to defend the Acropolis, at first, until they capture the hill and burn the Acropolis. Still today, one can see the early construction of a Persian temple at the Acropolis in Athens. It was kept to never forget the sacrilege done against the Athenians. Themistocles persuades the Hellenes to stay put at Salamis to meet the Persians head on. The Greeks conduct the battle in a superior fashion due to organization and also their capacity to swim. Xerxes, embattled, returns to Asia but allows the general Mardonios to continue the battle until he is killed at the battle of Platea which Herodotus calls the “finest victory we have yet known” (9.64). They chase the Persians back to their walls and slaughter 3,000 of them.

The Greeks erected a column at Delphi commemorating their victory over the Persians and listed the cities that banded together to win. It was moved 800 years later by Constantine to Constantinople to adorn the Hippodrome where it stands today. It is composed of two coiled snakes wrapped around the pole.

Immediately following, the Hellenes inflict vengeance on the Thebans for their treachery and the Athenians take their hoards of treasure home. Though Herodotus hails from Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, he is clearly an Athenian at heart.

The text closes with a recollection of Cyrus, the “wise”. As the Athenians put a man named Artayktes on a plank and stone his son before his own eyes because they were Persians living in Thrace who attempted to buy the Athenians for their freedom, Herodotus notes that this man was the descendant of Artembares, a man who brought a proposal to Cyrus that they should move out to an easier part of the vast empire where the climate and soil is more favorable. However, Cyrus says that if they do this, they should expect not to be rulers any longer, but rather to be ruled by the people who live there for “soft places tend to produce soft men” and “the same land cannot produce wonderful crops and men who are noble and courageous in war” (9.122). The men chose to dwell in a poor land rather than be slaves to others and cultivate the plains.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

Darius and the New Persian Regime

In Book III of Herodotus’s Inquiries, we encounter a problem among the Persians. The untimely death of the insane king Cambyses has led to a power vacuum filled by the corrupt Magi. When the Persians finally instill a revolt against the Magi, a conspiracy of seven men decides to storm the palace and regain power. However, the problem remains for the future of Persia: what form of government should be established? How will it be decided? What is the most just regime?

The first to declare the best means forward, Otanes, encourages the men to place the government in the hands of all Persians, a democracy. He says this in reaction to a monarchical form of government wherein the regime is neither “pleasant nor good,” and as justification he reminds the men of the terrible monarchs, Cambyses and the Magus, to demonstrate that a Monarchy is unnatural and short lived. Additionally, in presenting his case, Otanes asks: how could a monarchy be coherent and harmonious when the ruler is accountable to no one? Otanes seeks for accountability and a more pleasant regime. He makes the claim that even the “best of men” will go insane by the immense amount of power placed in him, which spawns envy and arrogance, in which all evil lies, and human nature is incapable of overcoming these in the position of a tyrant. However, the rule of the majority has the most “beautiful” name of all -Equality. All actions are drawn by lot and are held accountable by the many, everything is held to an audit. Nothing is left unseen. The masses can become like Gyges and see the truth. Therefore, Otanes proposes elevating the masses of men to a ruling position, because “in the many is the whole”. As is the nature of democracy, or a rule of the people, Otanes is concerned primarily with numbers. Like the shape of a square, he longs for a mathematical equality that can be apportioned to the “whole” so as to present a safe option that does not risk corruption.

Next, Megabyzos, defends an oligarchic regime. He agrees with Otanes’s criticism of a monarchy, however he states that nothing can be more worthless than an effectual mob, which is the natural tendency of democracy. In escaping the arrogance of a tyrant, the Persians must not seek salvation in the undisciplined and uneducated common people (here, Megabyzos employs the word demos meaning common people or demes, districts located outside the center of the polis, the Acropolis. Otanes had previously employed the use of plethos, meaning a majority or koinon meaning the authority of the public or the common people). Megabyzos accuses the masses of men of behaving like an undiscerning torrent -this is a good option for the enemies of the Persians but not for the best of men among the Persians. He ends his apologia stating that the present company will be included among the future oligarchs, in the rule of the few.

Finally, Darius comes forth in defense of a Monarchy. In his central argument, he asks the men to consider the best possible regime for each -democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. Undoubtedly the perfect man, the best of all men, is the ideal ruler who rules justly, like a philosopher king. In the rule of the few, an oligarchy on the other hand, private men’s quarrels turn to public hostilities as power is grappled for and this naturally results in a monarchy. On the other hand, in a democracy, when the people rule, they will always do so incompetently, so that the people must form compacts or friendships with one another to keep the regime alive until the people elevate one man who they much admire, capable of keeping the regime from collapsing into anarchy. Therefore, democracy necessarily results in a monarchy as does an oligarchy. Both a democracy and an oligarchy must be forcibly instated by means of a revolution, however an oligarchy is the most naturally occurring regime. Darius concludes by providing justification for the regime in that freedom for the Persians came from one man, and they should therefore preserve this inheritance by preserving their own traditional cultural values.

As in the opening sequence of Plato’s Republic wherein Socrates encounters Polemarchus and returns to the house of Cephalus, we are presented with competing visions of a city in speech. The irony of the context in which the men discuss these three regimes, as in the case of the Republic, is that they embody the various regimes. Three of the best men present defenses, putting on trial the three forms of government, however ultimately the new monarchical regime is chosen by casting of lots, Otanes is outvoted. The result is a monarchy that comes under the rule of Darius in Persia, following the rumors of divine circumstances in which lightning breaks the moment his horse whinnies outside the city, as well as subtle lies by Darius and his comrades who rig the situation (as he had alluded to earlier in Book III, foreshadowing his Machiavellian tendencies). Persia, the best polis of the barbarians, has therefore also formed the best politeia.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.