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 moral good, 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 Herodotus. But it does appear in Plutarch, 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 refused to bow to Xerxes when they arrived 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. Furthermore, sometimes a tactical retreat really is a better option than a noble sacrifice. (In IDS 305, we talked today 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.

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.