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 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.

Molon_labe

Wikipedia.

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.

leonidas

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.

The Green Knight

From the anonymous fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Fit I, lines 136-150, trans. Bernard O’Donoghue):

a monstrous apparition strode in the door,
one of the tallest creatures in the whole of the earth.
So square and powerful from neck to waist,
his thighs and his forearms so muscly and long
you’d think that he was some kind of half-giant.
But I think what he was was the hugest of men,
the most pleased with his size of anyone living.
For, though his back and his chest were incredibly big,
his stomach and waist were fashionable trim,
and all his features in proportion, given his size, exactly right.
They were shocked by his colour though,
apparent at first glance;
what was most uncanny was
he was green from head to toe!

Later on in the poem it is revealed that this Green Knight is in fact Lord Bertilak, Gawain’s host, transformed through the magic of Morgan le Fay.

Thus I believe that I have discovered the origins of Marvel’s Incredible Hulk. The Hulk is also entirely green, the monstrous alter ego of a regular human and, when transformed, has a much broader chest than waist (the Hulk’s shirts would always rip off, but never his pants).

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…

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.