Thoughts on Book 9 of the Histories of Herodotus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Book 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.