Two Links

I wanted to share these before I left:

1. The British Parliament has advertised for a new Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. My friend Hannes Kleineke sketches the history of this office:

To most people taking an interest in the work and procedures of the British Parliament, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (or ‘Black Rod’ as he is known in popular parlance) is an immediately recognisable figure from the part he plays in the ceremonial surrounding the annual State Opening. The ceremonial is, however, only a small part of the duties of the modern ‘Black Rod’, who has overall administrative charge of much of the palace of Westminster.

This was no forgone conclusion: the office of Black Rod was originally that of usher to the King of England’s principal order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter, and for several centuries had no direct connection with Parliament. The Parliament Chamber, that is, in modern understanding, the House of Lords, was instead in the care of a different officer, the usher (or porter) of the Parliament Chamber. While the usher controlled access, and was thus able to command fees from intending suitors, his office also had a less glamorous side. The usher’s responsibilities included the preparation of the Parliament chamber and the maintenance of its furnishings, down to the provision of mundane items such as ‘canvas, corde, hamer, nailes, cordes, crochetes, worstede and other thinges’, as the account of John Frampton and William Welles, ushers in 1470, shows. The ushers had to think ahead, particularly when Parliament met away from Westminster: the items provided by Richard Baron and Simon Edward for the meeting of Parliament at Leicester in April 1450 included ‘a chair for the King to sit in’.

More at the link.

2. Moira Lavelle interviews the great Mary Lefkowitz (hat tip: Alex Lesk). My favorite bit:

Q: Some would say you are best known for your book Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth As History, arguing against the idea that all classical civilization started in Egypt. This is a bit of a departure from your other scholarship. How did this change the course of your academic career

A: In a way it isn’t a departure from my other scholarship. I’ve always been interested in how people get things wrong, so it wasn’t totally a detour. Though it was a detour to learn a lot about Egypt and Afrocentrism, which is a concept white people can zoom along and never know about.

In the ’90s Afrocentrism had this moment. There were linguistic efforts to show that Egyptian was the same as other African languages which it’s not. But Martin Bernal’s work had a moment of chic among people who didn’t know much about archaeology and Ancient  Egyptian history— there was this idea that ‘isn’t it wonderful, now classics can be so relevant, we can be connected to African civilization’. Not that I have any objection of classics being connected to anything. If we ever discover a large body of Egyptian philosophy very similar to Artistotle and Plato, that would be just fine with me. I just don’t think we will. The Egyptian philosophy of that time was very metaphysical, very hard to understand for us.

The other thing that threw me about Bernal’s work was he would always throw in false etymologies of words or places. He argued the word Parthenon came from Egyptian, Pr thn meaning ‘house of crystal’.  But the Parthenon has no crystal in it. It doesn’t make any sense on any etymological level. What etymologists have come up with is a very good list of loan words from Egyptian into Greek from even the 8th century, but these are just occasional loan words. Bernal didn’t know all that, and he just made up etymologies. And so few classicists even knew about linguistics that they believed the stuff.

The reason I got into the whole thing was I was asked to do a review by the New Republic and there was the concept of Afrocentrism, and I had known nothing about it. I remember writing this review and thinking maybe this was the most important thing I’d ever done. There was a whole mythology there that wasn’t recognized as mythology. It’s very interesting in it’s own right as way of gaining a kind of foundation myth. Just like in the early stages of the women’s liberation movement the Goddess Cult idea was very popular. But to say there was a matriarchy in classical religion to begin with is just false.

More at the link.

Jews in Antiquity

I find it interesting that in all of the Histories of Herodotus, there is no overt mention of Jews or Judaism. Herodotus describes the Persian conquest of Babylon (539 BC), an event of great significance in Jewish history, but there is no notice that the Jews were ever in captivity there, or that Cyrus allowed them to return to Jerusalem. In all of Herodotus’s anthropological investigation of the various peoples of the world in the fifth century BC, there is no notice of the Jews at all (unless they are the “Palestinian Syrians” who supplied some ships for Xerxes’s invasion of Greece in 7:89). Come to think of it, there is no mention of the Jews in Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander (second century AD), even though Alexander (d. 323 BC) had besieged the Phoenician city of Tyre, and then headed down to Egypt to found Alexandria (and to receive word that he was divine at the oasis of Siwa).

This is strange considering how influential the Jews were later to become. Judaea was the trouble spot for the Romans. I suppose that the Jews had largely settled around Jerusalem (elevation: 750 m), while the road to Egypt passed along the coast – i.e. it was easy for people ignore the Jews in the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

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.

Color in Homer

An interesting article in Aeon magazine:

The sea was never blue

The Greek colour experience was made of movement and shimmer. Can we ever glimpse what they saw when gazing out to sea?

Homer used two adjectives to describe aspects of the colour blue: kuaneos, to denote a dark shade of blue merging into black; and glaukos, to describe a sort of ‘blue-grey’, notably used in Athena’s epithet glaukopis, her ‘grey-gleaming eyes’. He describes the sky as big, starry, or of iron or bronze (because of its solid fixity). The tints of a rough sea range from ‘whitish’ (polios) and ‘blue-grey’ (glaukos) to deep blue and almost black (kuaneosmelas). The sea in its calm expanse is said to be ‘pansy-like’ (ioeides), ‘wine-like’ (oinops), or purple (porphureos). But whether sea or sky, it is never just ‘blue’. In fact, within the entirety of ancient Greek literature you cannot find a single pure blue sea or sky.

Yellow, too, seems strangely absent from the Greek lexicon. The simple word xanthos covers the most various shades of yellow, from the shining blond hair of the gods, to amber, to the reddish blaze of fire. Chloros, since it’s related to chloe (grass), suggests the colour green but can also itself convey a vivid yellow, like honey.

The ancient Greek experience of colour does not seem to match our own. In a well-known aphorism, Friedrich Nietzsche captures the strangeness of the Greek colour vocabulary:

“How differently the Greeks must have viewed their natural world, since their eyes were blind to blue and green, and they would see instead of the former a deeper brown, and yellow instead of the latter (and for instance they also would use the same word for the colour of dark hair, that of the corn-flower, and that of the southern sea; and again, they would employ exactly the same word for the colour of the greenest plants and of the human skin, of honey and of the yellow resins: so that their greatest painters reproduced the world they lived in only in black, white, red, and yellow).”

How is this possible? Did the Greeks really see the colours of the world differently from the way we do?

Read more at the link. I was curious to discover that William Ewart Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of the UK in the nineteenth century, also wrote a book entitled Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (1858), in which he advanced the novel theory that “the visual organ of the ancients was still in its infancy, hence their strong sensitivity to light rather than hue, and the related inability to clearly distinguish one hue from another.”

Speaking of “wine-like,” here is Ian Johnston’s commentary on that most Homeric of epithets:

All similes are inherently ironic. For while they insist upon the similarities between two apparently different things, they also implicitly call attention to those differences. The effect of a simile depends upon an appropriate balance between these two contrasting tendencies. If the differences are too extreme (“heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together,” as Dr Johnson says of the Metaphysical poets) the comparison is too strained to work. If, on the other hand, the comparison is too familiar and obvious, the simile has become inert and trite, what we call a cliché. A successful simile retains enough difference to be fresh and enough similarity to be apt and, in the process, pulls the reader in different directions.

Consider, for example, Homer’s most famous comparison, the “wine dark sea.”  At once the metaphor suggests the rich attractiveness of the ocean, the fascination with the hidden emotional powers of nature. For the sea, like wine, benefits a man, tempts him, intoxicates him, and can overpower and kill him. On the other hand, the sea in many ways is not like wine at all. Wine is produced by human skill and has become an essential part of civilized life in homes and temples. It is an important part of those occasions where human beings celebrate among themselves. The sea, by contrast, follows its own whims and cannot be made a permanent and predictable part of anyone’s peaceful social existence. Its eternally bitter vintage arises from and works by some mysterious, ambiguous power uncontrolled by human beings. The complex paradox in this apparently simple metaphor simultaneously insists upon the similarity and the difference.

By calling attention to nature in this way, Homer’s style creates and sustains throughout the poem a constant ironic tension.

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…

Things I did not know until this year

• According to a drama major in one of my classes, a theater (-er) is a place, while theatre (-re) describes the acting profession. And here I thought it was just a British variant spelling still acceptable in the US.

• “Thespian” to describe an actor derives from Thespis of Icaria; “Thespian” as a demonym describes someone from Thespiae in Boeotia. These Thespians were with the Spartans at Thermopylae (not that the movie 300 shows them).

Thoughts on Book 4 of the Histories of Herodotus

Of all the people described by Herodotus, the Scythians seem the most “barbaric,” in both senses of that word (according to 46, though, they are quite “clever”). The Scythians are to the Persians what the Picts are to the Romans, or the Mongols to the Chinese: semi-nomadic invaders from the north, who cause nothing but trouble. Unfortunately their barbarian nature makes them hard to conquer, or so Darius discovers.

The Scythians are not the only people detailed in Book 4. Along with Scythian neighbors (such as the Budini, Issedones, and Hyperboreans), the reader is also treated to some details about Libya – in Herodotus, a general name for Africa, or at least North Africa. Herodotus explicitly compares Scythia with Libya in 29-30, through the lens of climate: Scythia is cold, and Libya is hot, and this affects the growth of animal horns: in Libya they grow quickly, and in Scythia hardly at all (also 129: “there is not in the whole country of Scythia an ass or a mule at all, because of the cold”; see also Herodotus’s remarks on the thickness of Persian and Egyptian skulls in 3:12). At this point, Herodotus invokes “the testimony of Homer,” citing a line from the Odyssey about horn-growing Libyan sheep as “correct” evidence for his theory. One certainly gets the sense here that Herodotus is aware of Homer’s prestige, but that he is writing a different sort of work; he cites the poet, but minimizes his overall importance. (Interestingly, Herodotus does not cite Homer when discussing the Libyan Lotus-Eaters in 177, even though they appear in book nine of the Odyssey.)

In 151, the Oracle tells the Thereans to colonize Libya, and they found Cyrene, to the west of the Nile, under Battus. After a rocky start the Oracle recommends a Mantinean commissioner for reform (in 161), to help the Cyreneans organize themselves as a proper polis. They have an influence on their Libyan neighbors, like the Asbystae, who “more than any others of the Libyans, are drivers of four-horse teams to the chariot, and in most of their customs they imitate the Cyrenaeans” (170). Otherwise, Libyans are strange: among the Auschisae it is the custom for “each man to have many wives, but their enjoyment of them is in common” (172). The Garamantes “avoid everyone and the company of anyone. They have no warlike arms at all, nor do they know how to defend themselves” (174). The Auseans “enjoy their women in common. They do not live in couples at all but fuck in the mass, like cattle” (180).

The successful Greek colonization of Cyrene contrasts with the unsuccessful Persian attempt against the Scythians. Herodotus reveals his bias in this book – and suggests that he is better than Homer, or at least a worthy successor.

Thoughts on Book 3 of the Histories of Herodotus

I gave a short lecture this evening on Book 3; my comments are reprinted below:

Book 2 deals largely with Egypt, and Book 3 marks a return of Persia to the narrative, although we get the usual Herodotean diversions, including Samos and Corinth in the Greek world; and India, Arabia and Ethiopia on the periphery. Of course, the farther afield you go, the more exotic the people’s customs, like the Ethiopian crystal coffins or the Indian use of ants to collect gold.

An important episode in Book 3 is the so-called Constitutional Debate, starting at section 80. A group of seven Persian conspirators has deposed and killed the Magi who have usurped the throne. They then hold a debate on what sort of constitution they should adopt for their new regime. Otanes goes first, and speaks in favor of popular government (isonomia, or equality before the law), although this speech is more anti-monarchical than pro-democratic and reminds me of Samuel’s speech on the dangers of monarchy in 1 Samuel 8. Essentially, by giving monarchs absolute power, it absolutely corrupts them. Equality before the law acts as a check on this tendency. Megabyzus then speaks in favor of oligarchy, or rule by a few, on the principle that the masses are fickle and feckless. Oppression by kings is bad, but at least kings act deliberately; mobs do not. The next best thing is to adopt a constitution favoring rule by a few – included, of course, would be all the conspirators themselves. Finally Darius speaks in favor of monarchy. It is best to have one ruler – provided he is the best. Oligarchy leads to violent quarrels among the members of the ruling clique, from which a victor, and thus a monarch, emerges – so why not just pick a monarch right off the bat? Democracy, too, leads to faction and partisanship, and then the advent of a people’s champion (a monarch again) who promises to break it up. And anyway, says Darius, Persia has always been a monarchy – why change now? The remaining four conspirators find this speech convincing, and vote for it. So Persia does indeed remain a monarchy.

Now it is highly unlikely that this debate actually occurred. Herodotus himself claims that “some Greeks refuse to believe the speeches took place, nevertheless they did” – without providing any further evidence. It is easy to see why people would be skeptical. Discussing the ideal constitution was a Greek pastime (as the works of Plato and Aristotle confirm), and really only applicable at the level of the polis, where one could afford such constitutional experiment. Ancient democracy, or even oligarchy, did not really scale up; empires required emperors. So of course Darius won the day with his vigorous defense of the traditional arrangements – as though there was ever really another choice.

We have talked about how Herodotus is genuinely curious about and even respectful of other peoples’ customs. But it seems to me that ultimately The Histories is pro-Hellenic, since ultimately it is a Greek history of the Persian Wars. It makes sense that the Persians should choose the form of government that suits them – as Herodotus says in 38: “if anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably, after careful consideration of their relative merits, choose those of his own country.” But I would say that Herodotus, the Greek, in this case ultimately looks down on the Persian system. Darius claims that monarchy is good if the king is “the best” – but how does one guarantee this? Does monarchy really serve Persia well when someone like Cambyses is on the throne? Cambyses of course is the Persian successor to Cyrus, and defeats the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus, thereby incorporating Egypt into the Persian empire. He executes numerous Egyptians who offer him resistance, humiliates the family of Psammetichus, burns the body of the Pharaoh Amasis in defiance of both Persian and Egyptian custom, and in a fit of anger sends his men on an expedition into Ethiopia without proper supplies, leading to the loss of most of them. But his greatest crime is the impious killing of the Apis bull in Memphis, for which the gods punish him with madness. In this state he kills his brother and sister, shoots a boy through the heart with an arrow, arbitrarily buries twelve Persians upside down, kills the men who had not carried out an order that he had come to regret, and many other crimes. He is put out of his misery when a self-inflicted wound becomes gangrenous.

This is the major drawback of monarchy. There is no guarantee that you’ll get the best man for the job.

Karl Marx proposed that history always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. He was referring to the advent of Louis-Napoleon in nineteenth-century France, but he might as well have been referring to Book 3 of the Histories. As we read, it is Darius, the defender of monarchy, who becomes monarch. Having agreed that they should have one king, the conspirators devise a method to see which one of them should assume the office. Rather than selecting the one most likely to rule well, they essentially cast lots for the job by seeing whose horse would neigh first at dawn. Of course, this process is gamed by Darius through the judicious use of the pheromones of a mare in heat. Herodotus can’t resist a story of cleverness, and perhaps, he implies, such skills are precisely what a monarch needs to have. But I can’t help but feel that the whole thing makes the Persian monarchy into a sort of joke.

Darius does not die until Book 7, and enjoys certain successes throughout his reign. But before Book 3 is out he is already executing his co-conspirators and their families because he has grown suspicious of them. This is another drawback of monarchy.

Thoughts on Book 2 of the Histories of Herodotus

Book 2 of the Histories largely concerns itself with Egypt. Herodotus is not just the father of history,* he is also the father of ethnography, and his description of the Egyptians suggests that they often do the opposite of whatever the Greeks do: in Egypt, women pee standing up, men sitting down; Egyptians, “preferring cleanliness to comeliness,” practice circumcision; women go to market and are employed in trade, while men stay home and do the weaving (which they do downwards, not upwards). But the Egyptians are not so odd that they have nothing in common with the Greeks. Although they may not be the oldest people in the world (the pharaoh Psammeticus ran a language deprivation experiment and determined that the Phrygians were older), they are certainly older than the Greeks. And Herodotus, being the lumper that he is, matched up Greek with Egyptian gods – and assumed that the Greeks derived their gods from the older Egyptians. (Elsewhere he suggests that the Greeks learned geometry and other things from the Egyptians as well.)

This is a touchy subject. If modern Europeans looked back on the Greeks with admiration, African scholars, in riposte, idealized the Egyptians. There is nothing essentially wrong with this, but the Herodotean notion of cultural priority was emphasized quite a lot by so-called Afrocentrists, including Marcus Garvey, George James, and Cheikh Anta Diop, and was developed into the charge that the Greeks stole everything from the Egyptians – just as nineteenth-century Europeans colonized Africa and expropriated its resources. (When I lecture on this topic I try to say that it is silly to hold the past hostage to present day concerns. Greeks are not stand-ins for “Europe,” nor is Egypt symbolic of “Africa.” They were different people in a different time, and interacted in various ways that may bear little resemblance to our current age. They should be studied as much as possible on their own terms.)

Herodotus is still our main source for Egypt’s Twenty-Sixth Dynasty (664-525 BC), but not for nothing is he called the “father of lies.” It seems that he can’t resist a good story, and I often get the distinct impression that his informants are pulling his leg, while he earnestly writes down everything they tell him. His theory of Egyptian cultural priority is an example of another characteristic: he often draws logical inferences from the facts as he discovers them, which may not actually be borne out by further investigation. Martin Bernal in Black Athena (1987) suggested that Europeans abandoned Herodotus’s Egyptian theory in the nineteenth century because their racism couldn’t bear the thought that the Greeks weren’t original, but Mary Lefkowitz in Not Out of Africa (1997) points out another reason: the decipherment of hieroglyphics in the 1830s meant that we no longer solely dependent on Herodotus for our information on ancient Egypt. As a consequence, we started to discover just how original the Greeks really were, and how Herodotus was simply wrong on this count.

*Patrick Wadden of Belmont Abbey College noted that Herodotus’s extensive discussion of the geography of Egypt, and how it has changed over time, is a topic that historians have only recently returned to.

Thoughts on Book 1 of The Histories of Herodotus

I am currently teaching a multi-institutional course on Herodotus through Sunoikisis, “a national consortium of classics programs.” Combined with the Council on Independent Colleges’ seminar on Herodotus that I participated in last summer at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC, I have been learning quite a lot about this most fascinating of ancient authors. Here are some notes on Book 1; others may follow.


“I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history.” Thus it begins: the father of history designates himself as the author of his own prose work, winning glory (and presumably taking responsibility for any errors that he may commit). Such a move, of course, contrasts with Homer’s call to the muse to help him sing of gods and heroes at Troy, in dactylic hexameter. So just as Herodotus puts himself forward as the author of his own work, the gods themselves play little direct role in the Histories – although the actors reverence gods in various ways, and frequently consult the Oracle, which is never proven wrong.

Herodotus, for the most part, acts as his own authority. He narrates events, including direct speech, as though he were a witness to them (e.g. 84: “This is how Sardis was captured”). But we know that he was not – how then did he get this information? He claims direct observation for his ethnographic descriptions (131: “I speak from personal knowledge [about Persian customs]”), and this we can accept, even if we are skeptical of some of the more outlandish stories he relates. We can assume therefore that his major source was simply conversations with various people in order to collect information about their past, and indeed he occasionally reveals that he has heard things, particularly when he encounters contradictory information, or when he disagrees with it. (20: “So much I know, for I heard from the Delphians that this was how it was. But the Milesians add this besides…”; 76: “I do not accept… the general report of the Greeks”; 172: “personally I believe that the Caunians have always lived in the same country though they themselves say they are from Crete”). But these are simply groups; he does not list any one person as a source.

(One instance of him consulting a historical record as such comes at the very beginning, when he invokes “Persian chroniclers.” He proceeds to dismiss them, however (5: “For my part I am not going to say about these matters that they happened thus or thus.”) A poem of iambic trimeters by Archilochus of Paros is also cited as corroborating evidence of the story of Gyges and Candaules in 12.)

Whether Herodotus is “true” is a question for which we would dearly love corroborating evidence of our own. We are heartened, however, to read that the author is unafraid, at least occasionally, to employ reason to test the veracity of his stories.