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.