Thoughts on Book 9 of the Histories of Herodotus

Sharp-eyed readers will note that I never got around to writing something about the final book of the Histories, which we read in an HON 301 course this past spring (the other posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). The end of the semester is always busy, you must understand. You’ll find some scribblings below, but I’d also like to say that I just finished off my summary of the work, which is now on its own page – see the link above. The Histories is very long, very detailed, and not always straightforward in its narrative, so last summer, in preparation for my CIC seminar at the Center for Hellenic Studies, I started summarizing each chapter as I read it, which forced me to pay attention to the contents, and which produced a document I could review if I needed to. Events got ahead of me, however, and so I couldn’t get it done until now. In Herodotean fashion, I dedicate the fruit of my labors to the service of humanity.

As for Book Nine, the main event, of course, is the battle of Plataea (479 BC), the last major episode in the Persian Wars. Following the Persian defeat at the naval battle of Salamis the previous year (detailed in Book Eight), the Persian King Xerxes hightails it back to Asia, leaving his general Mardonius in charge of the war. After wintering in Thessaly, Mardonius moves south into Attica to try to bribe the Athenians into becoming allies, but the Athenians have once again retreated to the island of Salamis for safety. In the meantime, the Spartans are building a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth to guard the Peloponnese; the Athenians are worried that the Spartans will abandon them, and suggest to the Spartans that they just might take up the Persian offer. Fortunately, the Greek alliance holds, and the Spartans, the Athenians, and other non-Medized Greeks march out to face the Persians and their allies in Boeotia, and the Battle of Plataea ensues. It is not pretty, but the Greeks are ultimately victorious, and that is the end of the Persian attempt to conquer Greece. In an edifying parallel development (which Herodotus claims happens on the same day as Plataea), the Greeks fight another battle across the Aegean Sea at Mycale, defeating the Persians there and freeing Ionia once again. 

Herodotus does not shy away from depicting how fractious the Greek alliance is. Athens and Sparta and perennially suspicious of each other, and the squabbling between the Athenians and Tegeans (at 26-27) about which of them would get the place of honor on the wing at Plataea is a marvel to behold. Herodotus gives overall credit to the Spartans for the victory, but he also illustrates that this battle is no Thermopylae – the Spartans voluntarily give up fighting directly against the Persians (the Athenians, they acknowledge, have more experience in this activity), and when they find that the cavalry attacks are too much for them, they are only too willing to retreat to “the Island,” a defensible hill between two streams (although one Spartan captain, Amompharetus, refuses to go, and a mighty quarrel ensues between him and the Spartan general Pausanias about this). Emboldened by this apparent Spartan cowardice, Xerxes orders an attack, and at this point the Spartans rise to the occasion: “In spirit and strength, the Persians were the equals of the Greeks, but they had no armor, and they were unskilled besides and no match for their enemies in cunning. They made their charges singly or in tens… and so they were destroyed” (62).

But I think that the Greek fractiousness serves a literary purpose. Herodotus is not necessarily trying to show how a plucky underdog or a lovable band of misfits can ultimately be victorious over a superior foe, although I’m sure there is some of that. Rather, he is contrasting the Greek penchant for debate with the Persian custom of obedience. When the Athenians and Tegeans argue about placement on the wing, they each present numerous reasons why they themselves should get it. The Athenians are more convincing, and the rest of the Greeks shout their approval of the Athenian position. This is how the Greeks conduct themselves – they debate their issues in public. Compare this to the Persian “debate” prior to their attack at Plataea – in a war council, Artabazus suggests that the Persians retreat to Thebes, and from there attempt to bribe the various Greeks into Medizing. Mardonius, however, fearful that the longer they wait, the stronger their opponents will get, is in favor of attacking right away, contrary to the results of the sacrifices by the prophet Hegistratus. “Against this argument of his, no one took a stand, and so his plan won out. For he and not Artabazus had the supreme power of command from Xerxes.” When Mardonius asks his commanders if any of them knows of any oracles about Persian defeat in Greece, the commanders “kept silent, some because they did not know the prophecies, some because, though they knew them, they did not think that opening their mouths was a safe thing to do” (42). Thus does their leader pull rank, and they are all obliged to follow him to destruction.

Of course, public debate is not always the best way to determine policy, especially in times of war. But the overall message, I think, is the same one that the US tried promulgating during World War II and the Cold War: totalitarian societies always look terrifying from the outside, projecting as they do this image of unity and efficiency. But it’s all an illusion, and based on fear of being sent to a concentration camp or Gulag. The US was a “nation of joiners,” in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. – that is, American “civil society” was made up of a lot of voluntary groups that people joined because they wanted to, or because there was some tangible benefit to them (e.g. professional organizations, churches, service clubs, choirs, bowling leagues, etc.). It might look like a mess from the outside, that all of society is not moving forward in lock step to some goal, but it gives people a stake in their own country, and when moved to, they will all get together and defeat their enemies. And it is certainly edifying that many of the Medized Greeks abandon their loyalty to Persia the minute they think it is safe to do so.

The utility of public debate is not the only piece of pro-Hellenic propaganda in Book Nine. In numerous places, the Persians (and their allies like the Thebans) believe that all they need to do is to use their wealth to bribe the Greeks into taking their side (e.g. in 4, 41, 87, or 120). They don’t seem to realize that, to most Greeks, there are more important things than money. This lesson is underlined when, after the battle of Plataea, Pausanias orders Mardonius’s servants to prepare a meal in the Persian manner, and his own servants to prepare a meal in the Spartan manner. The contrast cannot be more stark – the Persian meal is a model of decadent luxury, while the Spartan meal is very simple indeed – prompting Pausanias to declare that the Persian king is foolish: given that he is used to such extravagance, what good can he possibly derive from conquering the poor Greeks? (The final chapter of the book [122] further emphasizes that “from soft countries come soft men. It is not possible that from the same land stems a growth of wondrous fruit and men who are good soldiers.”) Finally, there is the elaborate story (at 108-113) about how Xerxes falls in love with the (unnamed) wife of his brother Masistes, and so he contrives to marry his own son with Masistes’s daughter Artaynte, hoping that this tie will bring him closer to his sister-in-law. Instead, he falls for Artaynte, and conducts an affair with her, his own niece. This affair is discovered by Xerxes’s wife Amestris, who places the blame for it on Masistes’s wife; Amestris thus has Masistes’s wife mutilated. As a result of this outrage, Masistes leaves for Bactria in order to raise a revolt there, but Xerxes’s troops overtake him and kill him before he gets there. Now, Herodotus certainly deals with Greek misbehavior and malfeasance throughout The Histories, but to close out his work with such a story of incest and intrigue at the Persian court is surely a deliberate attempt to impress upon the reader who the bad guys are.

One final observation. In Book Nine, there are numerous instances of “prophets,” like Hegistratus, making sacrifices – but these sacrifices are not just to propitiate some god, but to determine his or her will. I suppose this is a form of haruscipy – the examination of the entrails of an animal to see what the future holds – perhaps a replacement for augury, the practice of discerning the will of the gods by the flight patterns of birds (as Calchas does in Book One of the Iliad). So if you don’t have time to consult the Oracle at Delphi (or that of some other well-known shrine like Dodona), you can have a personal seer providing answers to immediate questions. I must say that the Greek faith in such customs is something that has always puzzled me about them, or at least serves as the strongest counter-example to the notion that they are “rational.” Of course, the Oracle isn’t stupid, and often gives ambiguous answers so that whatever happens, it’s always right. But why no one ever saw through this (at least, Herodotus gives no evidence of any skepticism either on his own part or the part of any of his subjects) is a mystery to me. I suppose we have to wait until the fourth century and the further development of Greek philosophy under Plato, Aristotle, and others, before we encounter doubt about Fate.

Thoughts on Book Eight of the Histories of Herodotus

Book Eight centers on the battle of Salamis. If Thermopylae, the inspiring defeat, is the better-known battle, Salamis was an actual victory, won through superior Greek tactics, in a venue where Greeks feel particularly at home: the sea. The Homeric-style ship catalogues in 8.1 and 8.43 are a nice touch, and the divine interventions are also reminiscent of Homer, such as a storm destroying the Persian fleet in 8.12 (“done by a god, that the Persian armament might be made equal to that of the Greeks and not much greater”), or the miracles at Delphi (8.37), in which arms moved themselves, and lightning struck and chunks of cliff fell on the enemy. Themistocles himself in 8.109 attributes the victories to “gods and heroes” who desired that one man should not rule both Europe and Asia.

The Olympic games are characteristically Greek and used by Herodotus to burnish the Greeks’ reputation. First, there is the passage in 8.26 when the deserters from Arcadia explain to the Persians that the Greeks compete in the games for an olive crown, to which Tigranes exclaims, “What sort of men have you led us to fight against, who contend, not for money, but purely for the sake of excelling?”, a pro-Hellenic sentiment if there ever was one. In 8.59, discussions in the Greek council of war refer to the games: Admiantus says that “those who get off the mark too soon are whipped,” to which Themistocles replies, “but those who get left behind never get crowned.” (One can imagine any number of sports metaphors expressing similar ideas today, e.g. Wayne Gretzky’s observation that “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”). Finally, Eurybates and Themistocles received actual victors wreaths from the Spartans. Thus does the Greek athletic spirit inspire a successful fighting spirit, and illustrates the superiority of the Greeks to the barbarians. (8.86: “Proper discipline and ordered ranks” vs. “no order and no… sense of purpose.”)

Herodotus does deal with some Greek cleverness that does not necessarily reflect well on their side. Artemisia may have escaped from Salamis through subterfuge (8.87), but Themistocles himself convinced the Greeks not to pursue the Persians, intending “that this act should be as a reserve to his credit with the Persians, that he might have a refuge if, one day, trouble overtook him” (8.109), which indeed came to pass.

As for his own sources, Herodotus indicates that there is slight disagreement between the Athenians and the Aeginetans about the progress of the battle of Salamis (8.84). He indicates that the Delphians told him things directly in 8.39. But he cannot bring himself, in 8.8, to name the source of the story of Scyllias of Scione, the best diver in Greece, who allegedly swam ten miles underwater: this exploit is treated with the passive voice (“it is told” and “it is said”), and Herodotus is deeply skeptical of “other stories” about him. No miracles here.

Thoughts on Book Seven of the Histories of Herodotus

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.

The main event in Book Six in the Battle of Marathon, which of course was an Athenian victory. The Spartans must have been envious that they didn’t share in the glory, and nervous that their rival city-state got all the credit.

But Sparta gets its own back in Book Seven. The main event of Book Seven, of course, is the battle of Thermopylae, during which an elite force of 300 Spartans, accompanied by Thespians (fighting voluntarily) and Thebans (fighting involuntarily), hold off the mighty Persian army at a narrow coastal pass just south of Thessaly on the Greek mainland. The narrow pass at Thermopylae negated the Persian numerical advantage, but more importantly the Spartans had greater bravery and greater fighting skill, allowing them to repel wave after wave of Persian attacks. Only when the Persians discovered a way around Thermopylae were the Spartans encircled and defeated. But even knowing this, the Spartans never retreated, and died to a man. So Thermopylae represents a defeat, but a very inspiring one. Tactically the Spartans delayed the Persian advance so that other Greeks had time to dig in, so some tangible good, and not just inspiration, did come out of it.

From Herodotus’s description, we can tell that this battle meant a great deal to the Greeks. Such details as the recitation of King Leonidas’s extensive genealogy, the Spartans combing their long hair in preparation for battle, and Pantites’ committing suicide out of shame, because he had missed the battle while he was delivering a message, all suggest that this was something special, even sacred. The epigram ascribed to Simonides:

Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie

further helps to cement the place of this battle in Greek history. (“Go tell the Spartans,” I discover, is the title of a 1978 Viet Nam war movie.) Even the witty contribution of Dieneces was deemed worthy of inclusion in The Histories: Dieneces is the Spartan who, when told that the Persian arrows were so numerous, that they blocked out the sun, replied that “If the Medes hide the sun, we shall fight them in the shade.” Herodotus claims that Dieneces made many such sayings, and if this is the case it would make him especially Spartan, for the Spartans valued the Laconic phrase – dry wit, expressed in as few words as possible. (In Book 3, Herodotus tells of the arrival of a Samian embassy to Sparta. The Samians give a long speech. The Spartans say that they have forgotten the beginning and can’t understand the end. So the Samians return with a sack, saying “the sack needs grain.” The Spartans reply that the word “sack” is redundant.)

The archetypical Laconic phrase is a reply to Xerxes’s demand that the Spartans give up their weapons. The Spartan King Leonidas replied simply with “Come and take them” (μολὼν λαβέ). Alas, this gem of a riposte does not appear in The Histories. But it does appear in Plutarch’s Moralia, and it is inscribed on the base of the statue of Leonidas that we find at Thermopylae today.



This expression echoes down the ages: it has resonance in American gun culture for obvious reasons, and one sees it as a decal on cars. It’s a slightly classier way of saying “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” The Michigan State Spartans also use it in their marketing, as though to reply to the opponent’s request to give up the football.

Book Seven reminds me of our visit to Texas this past summer, when I discovered the existence of the Gonzales Flag, an artifact of the opening salvo in the Texas Revolution. In 1831, the Mexican government had given the Anglo residents of Gonzales a cannon for their defense. In 1835, however, as it became clear that Anglo loyalty was highly questionable, the Mexicans sent a force to take it back, and the Gonzalans replied with a suitable Laconic phrase, embroidered on an improvised flag. The Battle of Gonzales was the first military engagement in the Revolution, and inspiring for Texans, as the Mexicans were forced to retreat without their cannon. An even better known episode in the Battle of the Alamo, when, following a 13-day siege, the Mexicans under Santa Anna stormed the Mission San Antonio de Valero and killed all of its defenders. This defeat served precisely the same purpose as the Battle of Thermopylae 2300 years earlier – to inspire other Texans to keep fighting. (Although the number of deaths at the Alamo was about a third lower than the number of Spartans killed at Thermopylae, I was pleased to discover that the street address of the Alamo is 300 Alamo Plaza – a nice classical reference there.)

To return to Sparta: why did they act this way? The Spartan king Demaratus, exiled to the court of Xerxes, is a very useful literary device for Herodotus, who can use Demaratus to explain Spartan motivation. In 101, Demaratus presciently claims that the Spartans will fight no matter what the odds because, as he tells Xerxes:

fighting singly, they are no worse than any other people; together, they are the most gallant men on earth. For they are free – but not altogether so. They have as the despot over them Law, and they fear him much more than your men fear you. At least they do whatever he bids them do; and he bids them always the same thing: not to flee from the fight before any multitude of men whatever but to stand firm in their ranks and either conquer or die.

This contrasts utterly with the Persian custom of forcing their soldiers forward by whipping them. In a similar vein, in 135, the two Spartan hostages, Sperthias and Bulis, who volunteer to travel to the Persian capital Susa and offer themselves as compensation for the Persian herald whom the Spartans have earlier killed, meet Hydarnes, the Persian satrap of the Asian seacoast. He asks why the Spartans won’t seek the friendship of Xerxes, because the king knows how to honor good men, and suggests that the Spartans might hold an important position in a Persian administration of Greece. Their reply is that:

Your advice with relation to us comes from something less than an equality of position. You counsel us as one who has tried one condition but knows nothing of the other. You know what it is to be a slave, but you have no experience of freedom, to know whether it is sweet or not. If you had had such experience, you would bid us fight for it, not with spears only, but with axes as well.

It’s a nice detail that Sperthias and Bulis refuse to bow to Xerxes when they arrive in Susa.

So yes, Thermopylae matters, as does the Greek conception of freedom and the rule of law. More than Marathon, Salamis, or even Plataea, Thermopylae is the battle that people remember. Of course it does help that the Greeks ultimately won, validating and justifying Thermopylae, and it helps that the Spartans inflicted huge numbers of casualties prior to their own defeat. It is true that a tactical retreat is often a better option than a noble sacrifice: In IDS 305 today, we talked about the French Order of the Star, founded in 1351 and severely weakened the next year at the Battle of Mauron, when ninety members, sworn not to turn their backs on the enemy or retreat more than four steps, consequently lost their lives, to no useful purpose.

But sometimes it isn’t.


Jacques-Louis David, Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814), via Wikipedia.

Thoughts on Book Six of the Histories of Herodotus

• The main subject of Book Six is the Battle of Marathon in 490, when the Athenians defeated a Persian naval invasion. Marathon is some 26 miles from Athens and yes, it is the inspiration for that particular race today. Every time you run a marathon, you are celebrating the legendary run of Phidippides, the “day-runner” who ran back to Athens from Marathon, proclaimed “Nike!” (“Victory!”), and promptly fell down dead. (Presumably his pronouncement is the namesake for Phil Knight’s brand of shoes.) This story, however, does not appear in Herodotus. What we do read is that Phidippides runs from Athens to Sparta to request its aid in fighting the Persians. The Spartans refuse, however, as they are celebrating the Carneia, a religious festival in honor of the god Apollo, and cannot leave until the next full moon. As Phidippides is returning from Sparta to convey this message to Athens, he passes by Tegea, and actually meets the god Pan:

Pan shouted his name, “Phidippides,” and bade him say this to the Athenians: “Why do you pay no heed to Pan, who is a good friend to the people of Athens, has been many times serviceable to you, and will be so again?” This story the Athenians were convinced was true, and when they Athenians fortunes had again settled for the good, they set up a shrine of Pan under the Acropolis and propitiated the god himself with sacrifices and torch races, in accord with the message he had sent them.

I believe this is the only instance of the appearance of a god in Herodotus. Oracles are inspired, dreams act as portents, gods cause earthquake or storms, and statues of gods speak (or refuse to be moved), but only Pan actually appears and has a conversation with a human, like some Homeric god. (I suppose it helps that Pan is a non-Olympian god, and appears on his home turf in Arcadia.) The renewal of his cult at Athens reminds me of the introduction of the cult of Cybele to Rome during the Second Punic War.

I was pleased to learn in our online discussion last night of the existence of the Spartathalon, a race commemorating the real route of Phidippides, from Athens to Sparta. It is about 153 miles long; the record time is held by Yiannis Kouros at 20:25.

• Right near the end of Book Six, Herodotus records a curious episode between Athens and Lemnos, an island in the north-central Aegean. The Pelasgian Lemnians

laid an ambush with their penteconters for the Athenian women when they were celebrating the feats of Artemis at Brauron. They snatched many women from this and sailed off with them and, bringing them to Lemnos, had them as their concubines. These women had children in great numbers, and they taught the children the Attic speech and Athenian ways. Their children would have nothing to do with the children born of the Pelasgian women, and if any one of them was truck by a Pelasgian child, all the others came to his assistance and so succored one another. And the Athenian-born children absolutely claimed to rule the others and were far more authoritative. The Pelasgians took note of this and considered. In their consideration, a strange and terrible thought overcame them: if these Attic-born children even now were making a distinction by coming to the help of their fellows against the more lawfully born, and were trying outright to rule them, what would they do when they grew up? So they determined to kill the children of the Attic women, They did that and then killed the mothers into the bargain. From this act and from that other, when the women killed their own husbands, along with Thoas, it has grown to be a custom throughout Greece to call atrocious deeds “Lemnian.”

This is atrocious, especially given how other people in Herodotus, sent to kill ill-fated children, can’t bring themselves to do it. But it does raise an interesting point about genes and culture. Traditionally, woman-stealing is what a tribe would do if it was stuck in a demographic bottleneck. If there were too few nubile women available for the propagation of their genes, they kidnapped them from elsewhere. And why not, women are just vessels, right? Except that they aren’t. Humans have culture, and women are vehicles of culture – more powerful than men, in fact, as they’re generally the ones raising the kids as well as giving birth to them. So what happens when you steal some foreign women for the purposes of passing on your genes… and your kids inherit their culture, making them strangers to you? How did the Romans manage to inculcate Roman-ness, even as they abducted the wives of their neighbors the Sabines?

I seem to remember reading something about Wilhelmine Germany, where Polish men were allowed to marry German women, but not the other way around. On the surface this seems like the world turned upside down – we’re letting the Poles have our women?! And we’re not allowed to have theirs? But the rationale was that the German women would teach German ways to their offspring, thereby spreading superior German culture at the expense of the Slavs. There are theories that something similar allowed the final triumph of the English language in fourteenth century England.


From The Vintage News:

The Ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t wear pants because they found them ridiculous and considered them to be barbarous garments

Anyone who has watched the social, political and religious satire movie, Life of Brian probably remembers the scene where Reg (John Cleese) asks “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” This scene is probably the best demonstration of how the Romans influenced the world we know today.

However, the Romans looked to another great civilization of the time, the Greeks. They began to adopt Greek ideas and their educational system relied heavily on Greek writers. The Greeks influenced Romans’ architecture, mythology, government, language and even clothing….

Apparently, Romans loved Greek culture and as we mentioned above, the Greeks even influenced Romans’ clothing. They often borrowed the trends and some styles from Greece and adopted their ideas of clothing styles.

The Ancient Greeks wore simple, light, loose, homemade clothes, made to get the most usage. While no clothes have survived from this period, Greek vase paintings and sculptures show that the fabrics were colored and decorated with ornate patterns.

Women were clothed in tunics (peplos) that were made from a big square piece of linen or wool and an extra fold of cloth over the upper half of the body. It was a full-length garment that was fastened at the shoulders with a pin or brooch. They also wore a strophion as an undergarment around the middle of the body, with the purpose to protect the skin from the itchy and uncomfortable fabric.

Men in ancient Greece also wore tunics (chiton), made of a much lighter material, normally linen, as they were often outdoors and needed more comfortable clothing. It was usually draped over one or both shoulders. During winter period they wore a himation over their tunics, made of wool in order to protect themselves from cold weather.

The Ancient Greeks never wore pants and equated the wearing of pants with savagery. Pants were originally associated with the Persians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Eastern and Central Asian peoples. The Greeks used the term anaxyrides for pants and thought that wearing pants was a sign of barbarism and they even found them ridiculous.

Just like the Greeks, the Ancient Romans wore very simple clothes draped around the body or fastened with clasps and brooches. Usually made of wool, the tunic, just like in Ancient Greece, was the most basic item of clothing in Ancient Rome.

Only male citizens of Rome were allowed to wear togas, a large piece of cloth around 18 feet long and 6 feet wide, draped across the shoulders and around the body, over a plain white linen tunic. Made out of wool, togas were extremely expensive and not a very practical garment.

Women in Ancient Rome also wore the tunic but while men’s tunics reached the knees, women’s were longer and reached the ankles. Married women wore a simple garment known as a stola, kept in place by two belts, one around the waist and the other under the breasts.

Pants, just like in Greece, were considered to be barbarous garments by the Romans.

However, as soon as the Empire started extending beyond the Mediterranean, pants became common among Roman soldiers and would continue to remain popular throughout the Byzantine period and beyond.


Just discovered this interesting tidbit from the March 2016 Atlantic:

Off With Their Beards!

A very short book excerpt:

The revolution that ended the reign of beards occurred on September 30, 331 b.c., as Alexander the Great prepared for a decisive showdown with the Persian emperor for control of Asia. On that day, he ordered his men to shave. Yet from time immemorial in Greek culture, a smooth chin on a grown man had been taken as a sign of effeminacy or degeneracy. What can explain this unprecedented command? When the commander Parmenio asked the reason, according to the ancient historian Plutarch, Alexander replied, “Don’t you know that in battles there is nothing handier to grasp than a beard?” But there is ample cause to doubt Plutarch’s explanation. Stories of beard-pulling in battles were myth rather than history. Plutarch and later historians misunderstood the order because they neglected the most relevant fact, namely that Alexander had dared to do what no self-respecting Greek leader had ever done before: shave his face, likening himself to the demigod Heracles, rendered in painting and sculpture in the immortal splendor of youthful, beardless nudity. Alexander wished above all, as he told his generals before the battle, that each man would see himself as a crucial part of the mission. They would certainly see this more clearly if each of them looked more like their heroic commander.

Adapted from Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair, by Christopher Oldstone-Moore, published by the University of Chicago Press in January.

Thoughts on Book 5 of the Histories of Herodotus

Book Five is the pivot in the whole work, for it is now that we learn of the revolt of the Ionian Greeks against the Persians, the event that prompted the Persian invasion of the Greek mainland and thus the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea, the subjects of each of the remaining four books. The revolt begins with a famous episode of steganography in 35: Histiaeus of Miletus, kept under watch in the Persian capital of Susa, sends a message to his son-in-law Aristagoras, whom the Persians have installed in his place at Miletus in Ionia. Since the roads are all guarded, Histiaeus shaves the head of one of his slaves, tattoos a message on it, waits for the hair to grow back, and sends the slave to deliver a message orally, which is simply to shave his head. The message: Raise a revolt! (Aristagoras has recently failed to take the island of Naxos for the Persians and so, fearing for his position, he is rather receptive to the message.)

Aristagoras does raise a revolt, declares an isonomic constitution, and then goes to the Greek mainland to seek help. At this point the narrative launches into a long disquisition on the history of Sparta, Athens, Corinth, and other Greek poleis. Aristagoras is rebuffed in Sparta (Spartans don’t get involved in that sort of foreign adventure) but the Athenians already dislike the Persians since they had suggested that the Athenians take the tyrant Hippias back (96), and respond to his message with an offer of twenty ships, which “were the beginning of evils for both Greeks and barbarians” (97). Even though the Athenians eventually abandon the Ionian revolt, their role in the burning of Sardis so enrages Emperor Darius that he calls for a bow and arrow, shoots the arrow into the sky, and prays to Zeus that he would have a chance to punish the Athenians. Darius also enjoins a servant always to remind him of Athens (103-105). The die is cast.

On the Greek mainland, even now we see some of the tension between Sparta and Athens that is later to break out in the Peloponnesian War. Sparta feels that Athens duped it into removing the Pisistratids (the tyrants of Athens), and the Oracle claims that if Athens is an oligarchy, Sparta would control it, but if Athens is a democracy, it would control Sparta (91). So Sparta becomes interested in Athenian politics. But it is in Book 5 that we see the installation of the democracy that Athens is so famous for. Herodotus seems to approve: in 66 he writes that “Athens had already been a large city, and now that it had rid of its princes it became bigger yet,” and in 78 he writes that:

Athens increased in greatness. It is not only in respect of one thing but of everything that equality and free speech are clearly a good; take the case of Athens, which under the rule of princes proved no better in war than any of her neighbors but, once ride of those princes, was far the first of all. What this makes clear is that when held in subjection they would not do their best, for they were working for a taskmaster, but, when freed, they sought to win, because each was trying to achieve for his very self.

That “princes” can be evil is emphasized in 92, which deals with Periander of Corinth, who is clearly suffering from some form of madness like Cambyses in Book 3. Periander kills his wife Melissa, has sex with her corpse, and buries her naked. The Oracle of the Dead informs Periander that on account of her lack of clothing Melissa feels cold, so Periander has all the women of Corinth appear at the temple of Hera in their finest clothing, then orders them to strip down, dedicates the pile of clothing to Melissa, and burns it. Only then does the Oracle fulfill Periander’s original request and tell him the location of some buried treasure.

Who would want a ruler like that? But Herodotus can’t resist noting, in 97, that:

It seems that it is easier to fool many men than one; Cleomenes the Lacedaemonian was only one, but Aristagoras could not fool him, though he managed to do so to thirty thousand Athenians. The Athenians were convinced and voted to send twenty ships to help the Ionians.

The “madness of crowds” was always the trouble with Athenian democracy…

If Athenian democracy functioned at all, however, the reforms of Cleisthenes had something to do with it. Cleisthenes, who took over upon the expulsion of the Pisistratids, reorganized the Athenian tribes, increasing the number from four to ten, and making sure that the entire Athenian population was evenly divided among the tribes (66, 69). This past summer, Greg Nagy pointed out that Martin Luther King did much the same thing when he was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. For the sake of social leveling, King organized parishioners by birthday month – and each month was in charge of raising a certain amount of money for church operations. In this way was King hoping to prevent the church from becoming the plaything of a few wealthy families.

Some other details from Book 5:

• Apparently the Oracle can be bribed! In 63, an Athenian faction convinced the Oracle to command Sparta to help them overthrow the Pisistratids, which indeed came to pass. I wonder how often such bribery took place?

• Perhaps this is why disputes were submitted to arbitration? Twice in Book 5, third parties are called in to rule on diplomatic disputes: in 28-29, the Parians help solve problems in Naxos and Miletus, and in 95, Periander of Corinth served as an arbiter between Athens and Mytilene. Why were these disputes not submitted to the Oracle? How was an arbiter selected anyway?

• Herodotus confirms that the Greeks derived their alphabet from the Phoenicians (58).

• Periander’s antics in 92 are not the only example of the regulation of women’s clothing. In 87-88, Herodotus relates a story about how a group of Athenian women, angry that their husbands had been killed in a military expedition, enviously murdered the sole survivor with their brooch-pins. To punish them for this grave misdeed, the Athenians compelled their women to abandon their Dorian dress for Ionian, which had no pins. Thus were they downgraded in fashion, and compelled to suffer a loss of identity.

• As with Oedipus and with Cyrus, so with Cypselus, who grew up to rule Corinth and who fathered Periander. Ill omens were told of the baby and a team was sent to kill him, but they just couldn’t bring themselves to do such a wicked deed, so they just made the claim that they had.

• This is probably nothing, but the tattooed slave’s head is not the only tattoo in Book 5. In 6, we learn that being tattooed in Thrace is a mark of high birth. In a similar vein, the swarm of bees that made its home in the severed head of Onesilius (114) were foreshadowed by the great numbers of bees that the Thracians claim live north of the River Ister.

• An interesting vignette from 95, about Alcaeus of Mytilene (b. 620), one of the canonical nine lyric poets of the Archaic Age:

All sorts of events took place during this war, and among them the case of the poet Alcaeus. During an encounter that the Athenians were winning, he took to his heels and escaped; but the Athenians got his arms and hung them up in the temple of Athena in Sigeum. Alcaeus made a poem about this, which he sent to Mytilene, which he sent to his his friend Melanippus.

It seems that Alcaeus was taking after another lyric poet, Archilochus of Paros (680-645) (who was not one of the nine). From Richmond Lattimore’s Greek Lyrics:

Some barbarian is waving my shield, since I was obliged to leave that perfectly good piece of equipment behind under a bush. But I got away, so what does it matter? Let the shield go; I can buy another equally good.

Poets, eh? Just abandoning their arms and running away?! (We’re a long way from the Iliad, for sure.)

• I am invested in the notion that the Christian cult of saints did not grow out of the pagan cult of heroes but I can’t help but notice certain similarities between the two phenomena. For instance, in 67, Cleisthenes (ruler of Sicyon and grandfather of his Athenian namesake) made war on Argos, and so attempted to expel from Sicyon the shrine of the Argive hero Adrastus. The Oracle would not let him, so he imported from Thebes a shrine to Melanippus, who had been Adrastus’s enemy. Cleisthenes then transferred all honors given to Adrastus to Melanippus. In 114, the Oracle orders the Amathusians to bury the head of Onesilius the hero in a shrine and perform annual sacrifices to it, so that all would be right with them. Images of heroes are important as well: in 75, the Spartans institute a new rule that their two kings cannot go on campaign at the same time, and one of the two images of Castor and Pollux has to stay back in Sparta. In 80, the Thebans ask the Aeginetans for help, and the Aeginetans send the Aeacidae (i.e. the images of the sons of Aeacus and of Aeacus himself, according to the editor). One can’t help but think about Greek icons here.

• In Book 5, statues of gods or personified qualities perform miracles as well. In 72, Cleomenes of Sparta enters the shrine of Athena at Athens; the goddess actually stands up and tells him to go back to Sparta. Then there is (from 82) the interesting story about how Athens and Aegina came to be enemies. The Epidaurians are having trouble growing crops, and the Oracle recommends that they fashion images of “earth” and “increase” out of olive wood. The Epidaurians ask the Athenians for some wood, and the Athenians agree, in return for yearly offerings to Athena Polias and Erechtheus. Aegina, subject to Epidaurus, revolts, and steals the images of “earth” and “increase.” They set them up in Aegina, and perform sacrifices and choruses to them. So Epidaurus stops sending payment to Athens. The Athenians are annoyed, but Epidaurus tells them to contact Aegina. They do so, but Aegina disavows any obligation. The Athenians send a trireme with men to get the images back – but for some reason the men are unable to move them! So they tie ropes around the images, and as they pull there is a thunderstorm and an earthquake. The men pulling go mad and start killing each other.

One could imagine a medieval hagiographer telling a similar story about a saint’s statue…


Early Christianity offered its adherents contact with the divine, community with fellow believers, and the promise of eternal life in heaven. But the religion was suspicious to the Romans for a number of reasons:

• It was not classy: it was a novelty (Romans respected antiquity in religion), and attractive to those on the lower end of the social pyramid, e.g. slaves, women, and merchants. Plus, they worshiped an executed criminal! As I like to say, it was like Scientology without the celebrities.

• Christians also met privately in people’s homes for their religious rituals. What were they up to? Romans practiced their religion in public, and the Twelve Tables forbade people meeting at night. If Christians had nothing to hide, then surely they wouldn’t be so secretive? It may have been a caricature of anti-Christian sentiment, but the notions of one Caecilius Natalis, a character in the Octavius of Minicius Felix (d. ca. 250), probably reflect a certain strain of opinion:

I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion, a worthy and appropriate religion for such manners. Some say that they worship the genitals of their pontiff and priest, and adore the nature, as it were, of their common parent. I know not whether these things are false; certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites…

Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily – O horror! they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence.

You can see how the liturgical consumption of bread and wine, designated the “body” and “blood” of Jesus, might lead to this accusation of ritual murder and cannibalism. (Ironically, Christians would accuse Jews of doing much the same thing during the Middle Ages.)

• Perhaps most important, the religion was monotheistic. Or rather – Christians claimed to be monotheists, and spent a good deal of mental energy attempting to save this particular appearance, even though their God had three different aspects in a complex relationship. But they were not tolerant of any other gods, and unlike the Romans, who were religiously broad-minded and instinctively syncretic, Christians refused to acknowledge even the possibility that other deities existed. The Romans, for their part, could not understand this. They didn’t care what you actually believed; participating in the state sacrifices was like standing for the national anthem. Just do it! Then go and do whatever else you want. But when Jupiter looks down and sees that not all the people in the city are honoring him, he might get cranky and punish it. So Christianity was sporadically persecuted by the Roman authorities, not because of anything that the Christians believed, but because of their refusal to participate in the state sacrifices. They represented a security risk.

But in one of the most remarkable reversals in history, Emperor Constantine (306-337) called it all off (his predecessor in office, Emperor Diocletian, was a particularly enthusiastic persecutor of Christians). Constantine’s mother was a Christian, and the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312) sealed the deal: he claimed that God gave him the victory, so he became the patron and protector of Christianity over the course of his long reign. Not only that, but he established a Christian dynasty; following Constantine, all emperors were Christian (except for Julian the Apostate, who reigned for only two years in the 360s). Thus, over the course of the fourth century, the Roman Empire was increasingly Christianized, and its traditional paganism increasingly denigrated. The two classic documents to illustrate this trend are Edict of Toleration of 313, which granted protection to Christians and restored their expropriated property, and the Theodosian Code of 380, which essentially outlawed paganism.

Needless to say, this shift profoundly changed the Roman Empire. But it also changed Christianity – for good and for ill. If nothing else, Christians had to go from hating the empire to defending it, which was psychologically discombobulating. They had to imagine that the conversion of the empire was all part of God’s plan all along. Now it is safe to say that this phenomenon is why Christianity exists today. If the conversion had not occurred, Christianity may very well have gone the way of Mithraism or the cult of Isis. So some people see the conversion of the Empire as a profound triumph. Others see it as an example of someone gaining the world but losing his own soul. In the third century, there were certain benefits to being a Christian, but you stood a very real chance of dying for your faith if you became one. So you had to mean it. Now that Christianity had the backing of the state, people started to convert opportunistically, and so it lost some of its fervor. You didn’t need to be a Christian to get a job with Constantine, but it sure helped. So people became Christians, but did they really mean it? At the same time, Constantine may have been Christian, but he was still the emperor, meaning that he had to do all the political things that emperors do, like executing criminals, waging war, cheating people to reward others, etc. Like a political party out of power, at one point Christians could afford to be ideologically pure, but once they got their hands on power, they needed to make all sorts of compromises. (Right from the start! Does the God of the Christians really make his will known by the results of battles?)

Some other effects of the conversion of the fourth century include:

• A concern with orthodoxy (“correct belief”). The longer that Christianity went on, and the wider it spread, the more likely it was that different people would adopt different opinions about what it all meant. When the state was persecuting Christians, these differences were of secondary importance, but once the state started to favor Christians, they immediately started sniping at each other and jockeying for position. Constantine, embarrassed by this, personally called the Council of Nicaea (325) to sort out the question of whether “there was a time when Jesus was not.” (Answer: No! Don’t be fooled by the titles “God the Father” and “God the Son” – the one did not give rise to the other, as the names would suggest; both of them, along with the Holy Spirit, existed from before all time.) Since Christianity is not tied to a particular ethnic group, there is nothing to distinguish the Christian from the non-Christian except belief, expressed through the Creed (from credo, “I believe”). Christianity acted like Communism, with a party line that you had to adhere to. If you didn’t, you were a heretic (from the Greek word for “choice,” which was invariably a wrong choice). The early Christians did not “celebrate diversity” the way we do – “following the devices and desires of our own hearts” will lead straight to Hell, and people need firm guidance to in order avoid it. Other opinions declared heretical around this time included Pelagianism (the idea that you can work your own salvation), Donatism (the idea that the sinfulness of a priest renders the communion he performs inoperative), and Monophysitism (the idea that Jesus had only one divine nature while on earth, instead of two).

• A concern with theology. When educated pagans converted to Christianity, they were appalled at its intellectual poverty. Thus did St. Augustine (354-430) and other so-called Doctors of the Church attempt to provide some philosophical heft to the religion. Augustine’s City of God, for instance, provided a Christian interpretation of all world history. In one of his letters to the Corinthians, St. Paul had declared that the world’s wisdom was foolishness. After the fourth century, this was no longer the case.

• A reimagining of the concept of sainthood. At the very start, I understand, Christians called each other “saint” (“holy”) in the same way that Communists used to call each other “comrade.” Members of the LDS church still adhere to this custom. Soon the title was reserved for martyrs: people who had been witnesses for their faith, even unto death. Martyrdom was a one-way ticket to heaven and martyrs were hugely prestigious for the Christian communities that produced them. Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”; a more contemporary way of putting this would be “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” But with the conversion of the empire, there were no more martyrs being created. Some people felt relieved about this, I’m sure. Others were deeply disappointed, as though they were always hoping to achieve this happy state. The disappearance of martyrdom did not lead to a withering of the concept of sainthood, however: other servants of the church like competent and well-loved bishops, generous church patrons, or learned theologians could all became saints, and did.

• The advent of the intercessory power of sainthood. With the conversion of the empire, it was easy to figure heaven as parallel to the imperial court. Just as a supplicant could not approach the emperor directly, but had to go through one of his courtiers, so also Christians started to think that it was presumptuous to pray directly to God. It was much better to go through a saint, who was in heaven with God and who had his attention, but who had once been human and was familiar with human concerns. The saint could pass your prayer on to God; he might even be deputized to answer prayer himself. Thus did certain saints come to exercise particular competencies, which were often suggested by details from their lives: if St. Lawrence was executed on a gridiron, he could become the patron saint of cooks; if St. Lucy had her eyes gouged out, you should pray to her if you’re experiencing eye trouble.

• An emphasis on relics and pilgrimage. Some people claim that the Christian veneration of relics (the bones of saints, and other things they left behind) grew out of the pagan cult of heroes. Indeed, there is an interesting story in book one of the Histories of Herodotus, when the Spartans asked the Oracle at Delphi whether they should go to war again against Tegea, and the Oracle replied they should acquire the bones of Orestes, son of Agamemnon – which they did, and which helps to explain the Spartan advantage in war. But the pagans were nowhere near as obsessed with relics as Christians were, and to my mind the Christian interest in relics derives from their doctrine of the resurrection of the dead – in the Last Days, the dead will be raised for the final judgment. Saints retained a certain connection with their earthy remains, which Christians treated with the utmost respect. (All the same, I suppose the notion of relics holding power would be something that a newly-converted pagan would understand.) Prayers to saints were particularly effective in the presence of these relics, so people would sometimes travel long distances to make their requests (or to give thanks for prayers already answered). This is known as pilgrimage and it was a distinctive feature of medieval Christianity.

• The rise of monasticism. If martyrdom was no longer an option, some people tried to become ascetic “living martyrs.” The entire empire was ostensibly Christian, but it was just as bad as it ever was, so some people wanted to withdraw from it. St. Anthony (d. ca. 356) was one such – he withdrew into the Egyptian desert, ate as little as possible, and prayed full time to God. (Unfortunately for him, he achieved such a reputation for holiness that he attracted great throngs of people seeking his advice.) His performance was designated “eremitical” monasticism, and it inspired numerous other people hoping to reach the same level of holiness. Not everyone was quite as dedicated as Anthony, however, and eventually some of these desert fathers began pooling their efforts – one person went to look for food, while the others stayed behind to pray or do other tasks. This represents the beginning of “cenobitical” monasticism, which achieved its most celebrated form in The Rule, a blueprint for establishing a community of monks, by St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547). Monks, especially Benedictine monks, became a regular feature of life throughout the medieval west.

Needless to say intercessory sainthood, relics, pilgrimage, and monasticism are not endorsed by the Bible and as a consequence were rejected by most Protestants in the sixteenth century. A lot of them were skeptical of the conversion of the empire.


• What caused the Bronze Age Collapse? Eric Cline, author of 1177, gives an interview about it:

The urge to find a single explanation as the cause for such calamitous events seems to come from a modern human need for an easy explanation as often as possible. Certainly some of the members of the general public who have left reviews of my book on Amazon seem to want that still, and are miffed that I even-handedly go through the evidence and then conclude that there isn’t a simple solution. I actually think that it is far more interesting to delve into a multi-causal explanation, because in this case Occam’s Razor (that the simplest solution is the most likely) just won’t cut it. Although I think it seemed very logical to early scholars like Gaston Maspero and others to blame the Sea Peoples, they originally formulated that hypothesis based on Ramses III’s inscription at Medinet Habu and not much else. But, it has long been clear that it took much more than a single cause to bring down the Bronze Age civilizations. As you point out, the mere fact that the inland empires like Kassite Babylonia, Elam, and Assyria also declined shows that we can’t just blame the Sea Peoples for everything, much as one might want to do so.

Thus, my main thesis is that there must have been a ‘perfect storm’ of calamitous events at that turning point in order to cause the Late Bronze Age civilizations to collapse shortly after 1200 BC. There is both direct and circumstantial evidence that there was climate change, drought and famine, earthquakes, invasions and internal rebellions, all at that approximate time. Of these, I would rank them in that specific order of importance: climate change; drought and famine; earthquakes; invaders; and internal rebellions. Although human beings have survived such catastrophes time and again when they come individually, such as rebuilding after an earthquake or living through a drought, what if they all occurred at once, or in quick succession?

• From the National Post:

Everyone was dead: When Europeans first came to British Columbia, they stepped into the aftermath of a holocaust

Everywhere they looked, there were corpses. Abandoned, overgrown villages were littered with skulls; whole sections of coastline strewn with bleached, decayed bodies.

“The skull, limbs, ribs and backbones, or some other vestiges of the human body, were found in many places, promiscuously scattered about the beach in great numbers,” wrote explorer George Vancouver in what is now Port Discovery, Wash.

It was May 1792. The lush environs of the Georgia Strait had once been among the most densely populated corners of the land that is now Canada, with humming villages, harbours swarming with canoes and valleys so packed with cookfires that they had smog.

But the Vancouver Expedition experienced only eerie quiet….

“News reached them from the east that a great sickness was travelling over the land, a sickness that no medicine could cure, and no person escape,” said a man identified as Old Pierre, a member of what is now the Katzie First Nation in Pitt Meadows, B.C.

After an emergency meeting, the doomed forebears of the Katzie decided to face the coming catastrophe with as much grace as they could muster: Every adult returned to the home of their parents to wait for the end.

“Then the wind carried the smallpox sickness among them. Some crawled away into the woods to die; many died in their homes,” Old Pierre told the anthropologist Diamond Jenness in 1936.

• Just over one hundred years ago, the steamer Eastland overturned in the Chicago River, killing some 800 people. From the History Channel website:

The disaster was caused by serious problems with the boat’s design, which were known but never remedied.

The Eastland was owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company and made money ferrying people from Chicago to picnic sites on the shores of Lake Michigan. When the Eastland was launched in 1903, it was designed to carry 650 passengers, but major construction and retrofitting in 1913 supposedly allowed the boat to carry 2,500 people. That same year, a naval architect presciently told officials that the boat needed work, stating unless structural defects are remedied to prevent listing, there may be a serious accident.

On July 24, employees of Western Electric Company were heading to an annual picnic. About 7,300 people arrived at 6 a.m. at the dock between LaSalle and Clark streets to be carried out to the site by five steamers. While bands played, much of the crowd—perhaps even more than the 2,500 people allowed—boarded the Eastland. Some reports indicate that the crowd may also have all gathered on one side of the boat to pose for a photographer, thus creating an imbalance on the boat. In any case, engineer Joseph Erikson opened one of the ballast tanks, which holds water within the boat and stabilizes the ship, and the Eastland began tipping precariously.

Some claim that the crew of the boat jumped back to the dock when they realized what was happening. What is known for sure is that the Eastlandcapsized right next to the dock, trapping hundreds of people on or underneath the large ship. Rescuers quickly attempted to cut through the hull with torches, allowing them to pull out 40 people alive. More than 800 others perished. Police divers pulled up body after body, causing one diver to break down in a rage. The city sent workers out with a large net to prevent bodies from washing out into the lake. Twenty-two entire families died in the tragedy.