Against the Grain

From Slate Star Codex, notice of an interesting book by the same guy who wrote Seeing Like a State:

Why should cereal grains play such a massive role in the earliest states? After all, other crops, in particular legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, and peas, had been domesticated in the Middle East and, in China, taro and soybean. Why were they not the basis of state formation? More broadly, why have no “lentil states,” chickpea states, taro states, sago states, breadfruit states, yam states, cassava states, potato states, peanut states, or banana states appeared in the historical record? Many of these cultivars provide more calories per unit of land than wheat and barley, some require less labor, and singly or in combination they would provide comparable basic nutrition. Many of them meet, in other words, the agro-demographic conditions of population density and food value as well as cereal grains. Only irrigated rice outclasses them in terms of sheer concentration of caloric value per unit of land.

The key to the nexus between grains and states lies, I believe, in the fact that only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and “rationable.” Other crops—legumes, tubers, and starch plants—have some of these desirable state-adapted qualities, but none has all of these advantages. To appreciate the unique advantages of the cereal grains, it helps to place yourself in the sandals of an ancient tax-collection official interested, above all, in the ease and efficiency of appropriation.

The fact that cereal grains grow above ground and ripen at roughly the same time makes the job of any would-be taxman that much easier. If the army or the tax officials arrive at the right time, they can cut, thresh, and confiscate the entire harvest in one operation. For a hostile army, cereal grains make a scorched-earth policy that much simpler; they can burn the harvest-ready grain fields and reduce the cultivators to flight or starvation. Better yet, a tax collector or enemy can simply wait until the crop has been threshed and stored and confiscate the entire contents of the granary.

Compare this situation with, say, that of farmers whose staple crops are tubers such as potatoes or cassava/manioc. Such crops ripen in a year but may be safely left in the ground for an additional year or two. They can be dug up as needed and the remainder stored where they grew, underground. If an army or tax collectors want your tubers, they will have to dig them up tuber by tuber, as the farmer does, and then they will have a cartload of potatoes which is far less valuable (either calorically or at the market) than a cartload of wheat, and is also more likely to spoil quickly. Frederick the Great of Prussia, when he ordered his subjects to plant potatoes, understood that, as planters of tubers, they could not be so easily dispersed by invading armies.

The “aboveground” simultaneous ripening of cereal grains has the inestimable advantage of being legible and assessable by the state tax collectors. These characteristics are what make wheat, barley, rice, millet, and maize the premier political crops. A tax assessor typically classifies fields in terms of soil quality and, knowing the average yield of a particular grain from such soil, is able to estimate a tax. If a year-to-year adjustment is required, fields can be surveyed and crop cuttings taken from a representative patch just before harvest to arrive at an estimated yield for that particular crop year. As we shall see, state officials tried to raise crop yields and taxes in kind by mandating techniques of cultivation; in Mesopotamia this included insisting on repeated ploughing to break up the large clods of earth and repeated harrowing for better rooting and nutrient delivery. The point is that with cereal grains and soil preparation, the planting, the condition of the crop, and the ultimate yield were more visible and assessable.

Scott Alexander comments further: “In this model, the gradual drying-out of Sumeria in the 4th millennium BC caused a shift away from wetland foraging and toward grain farming. The advent of grain farming made oppression possible, and a new class of oppression-entrepreneurs arose to turn this possibility into a reality. They incentivized farmers to intensify grain production further at the expense of other foods, and this turned into a vicious cycle of stronger states = more grain = stronger states.”

Mad Dog Mattis

My colleague Judi Irvine alerts me to an interview this morning on NPR with Gen. Jim Mattis, former Secretary of Defense, whose book Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead has just been published. Whatever one might think of the Iraq war, or about American policy in the Middle East in general, one should find Mattis’s use of history to be sound.

***

NPR: The general describes his own detailed planning in bring troops into Iraq. In 2003, he read thousands of years of history, Alexander the Great and others, who invaded that region before him. What could a multi-thousand year old battle teach you that would be relevant in the twenty-first century?

JM: Well there’s enduring aspects of leadership, plus geography doesn’t change. So when you read about the challenges they faced it gets you thinking about your own. I knew we were going to be operating very deep inside the Middle East and I had to decide what was the right manner in which I wanted the troops to go in. So I used words from antiquity, from a Roman general I used, “No better friend, no worse enemy.” We were going in to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam. We were not going in to dominate them, I didn’t want triumphalism. I wanted to go with a sense of “first do no harm.”

NPR: So you read thousands of pages and then try to boil it down to a few phrases or in some cases even a word that you could pass on to thousands of people?

JM: Well that’s a leader’s job, to clearly set the vision…

JM: I think we need to have a more rigorous establishment of strategy, a more clearly enunciated policy, something we can sustain from Republicans to Democrats, like in the Cold War. I think that the biggest challenge we face in all the western democracies, not just America, is that we don’t study history in a way that we can apply it, and we’re not rigorously applying ourselves to strategy. There’s too much of a short-term view.

Adjectives, Classical

Teaching Classical Civilizations again this semester has inspired me to compose one of my Lists – in this case, English adjectives that derive from classical places, people, mythology, or other phenomena. Of course, any noun can be made into an adjective, with “of or relating to [noun]” as a definition, but I was getting at something a little different: adjectives that have entered into English referring to a specific quality, like “Orwellian” or “Kafkaesque,” to pick two modern examples.

I would wager that there is a Wikipedia page listing these and all the other ones that I have missed. But I have deliberately avoided looking for one – what’s the fun in that?!

If you can think of any more I’d be pleased to know them!

Persons

draconian – from Draco, Athenian ruler in the seventh century BC, whose laws were especially harsh.

Pyrrhic – from Pyrrhus of Epirus, opponent of the Roman Republic during the Pyrrhic War of 280-275 BC. He scored two victories against Rome, but they were so damaging to his own forces that he is alleged to have said “one more victory like that and I’m finished.” Thus a “Pyrrhic victory” is a victory so costly that you might as well not have had it.

thespian – from Thespis of Icaria, a famous actor.

Petronian – from Petronius (d. AD 66), author of the Satyricon. Often used to describe a gaudy, ostentatious nouveau-riche style, after the wealthy ex-slave Trimalchio, a character in the Satyricon (I guess “Petronian” is easier to say than “Trimalchian”).

pharisaic – more biblical than classical, but the Pharisees were certainly active in the Roman Empire. According to the New Testament, the Pharisees, a sect of Judaism characterized by strict adherence to the Torah and to the oral tradition that surrounded it, were self-righteous and hypocritical, which is somewhat unfair to them. But they’re no longer around to take offense, so I guess we can use this word in good conscience (unlike, say, “jesuitical”).

Philistine – “a person hostile or indifferent to the arts,” although apparently this sense dates from the early nineteenth century, when in the midst of a town-gown conflict at the University of Jena, a sermon was preached on Judges 16, which includes the line “The Philistines are upon you.” Thereafter the uncultured townies were tarred with the epithet “Philistine.”

Sapphic – From Sappho, the most famous Archaic-age lyric poet of all, a woman who expressed love for other women. So “Sapphic” is another way of saying “Lesbian” (q.v.).

Places

Lesbian – the metaphoric use of this word is so common in English that people forget that it’s actually a demonym, referring to an inhabitant of the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea. But since Sappho lived there, “Lesbian” has become synonymous with “female homosexual.”

sybaritic – Sybaris, a Greek colony on the instep of Italy, was so wealthy and its inhabitants so self-indulgent that “sybaritic” became a byword for hedonistic.

Corinthian – from Paul Fussell, BAD (1991), 20:

For years Chrysler has been unloading its troubling surplus inventories by insisting that its leather upholstery is not just any old leather, of the sort you might make a volleyball or lederhosen out of, but “Corinthian Leather.” The company finally confessed in the Wall Street Journal that the leather comes not from Corinth but from Newark. The name was chosen because a reference book suggested that Corinthian connotes rich desirability, appealing to people who are, if “dissolute,” at least lovers of “luxury, as the people of Corinth were said to be” – which is why, by the way, Saint Paul selected them to receive one of his loudest moral blasts. He told them, “it is reported commonly that there is fornication among you….” Pressed, the Chrysler Corporation would have to admit that Corinthian Leather is just words and never saw Corinth at all.

But according to the dictionary widget for my computer, “Corinthian” means “involving or displaying the highest standards of sportsmanship.” Wiktionary claims “elaborate or ornate” (as in the Corinthian architectural order – see below).

Chrysler should have called it “sybaritic leather.”

spartan – the citizens of the Greek polis of Sparta were famously tough and eschewed luxury, thus the modern meaning of this word.

laconic – the area around Sparta was called Laconia, and because the Spartans valued using as few words as possible, “laconic” has come to mean a personal style that is extremely economical in speech.

Olympian – the gods lived atop Mount Olympus, as Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. “Olympian detachment” thus indicates some combination of superiority, aloofness, or disinterest.

roman – denotes a number of things, including the alphabet and by extension non-italic typefaces.

alexandrian – from the schools of literature and philosophy of ancient Alexandria, which were apparently “derivative or imitative rather than creative; fond of recondite learning.”

byzantine – overly complex, opaque, and/or treacherous, as the court of the Eastern Roman Empire allegedly was.

Philosophy

The three main schools of popular philosophy in the Hellenistic era were those of the Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans, which have given us adjectives cynical, stoic, and epicurean, which are not quite accurate representations of the spirit of these philosophies.

Platonic (love), Socratic (method), Aristotelian (logic), Hippocratic (oath), Pythagorean (theorem), and Ptolemaic (universe) are similarly reductive.

Mythology

Sisyphean – Sisyphus was punished in Hades by being forced to roll a stone up a hill; when he got it to the top it slipped out of his hands and rolled back down, and he had to start again. Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus found in this myth a metaphor for the human condition. In everyday English it refers to a never ending task, like grading or picking up the trash on our road.

tantalizing – from Tantalus, who suffered an inventive punishment: tortured with hunger and thirst, he still could not take a drink of water of the river he was standing in (it would instantly lower itself if he bent down), or help himself to the fruit of a branch hanging above him (which the wind would blow out of his grasp).

promethean – “rebelliously creative and innovative,” like the demigod Prometheus who stole fire and bequeathed it to humanity.

herculean – from Hercules, who had to perform twelve seemingly impossible tasks as punishment for killing his wife and children in a fit of madness. “Herculean” is usually paired with “effort.”

oedipal – Oedipus killed his father and married his mother – quite unwittingly, which is why Freud’s use of this myth to describe a stage of childhood development is somewhat inapt. From this use, though, “oedipal” has come to indicate a rebellious attitude against one’s father or forebears, for deep-seated psychological reasons.

terpsichorean – Terpsichore was the muse of dance, and thus “terpsichorean” is an adjective referring to dance.

Apollonian/Dionysian- if Apollo represents order and rationality, Dionysus represents disorder and irrationality. I think that the Greeks realized that you needed both to be fully human. “Bacchic,” from the god Bacchus (the Roman equivalent of Dionysus), is a synonym of Dionysian, especially with regard to the consumption of wine.

Adjectives from other gods:
mercurial – from the Roman god Mercury, referring to a person “subject to sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind.”
venereal – from Venus, which becomes Veneris in the genitive. Venus is the Roman goddess of love, so “venereal” relates “to sexual desire or sexual intercourse,” and especially to a disease you can contract from this activity.
martial – from Mars, the god of war.
jovial – from Jove, a variant of Jupiter, the chief Roman god. “Jovial” means cheerful and friendly, but not because this was an attribute of Jupiter. It is an attribute of those born under the sign of the planet named after Jupiter.
saturnine – from the Roman god Saturn, father of Jupiter. Again, Saturn was not himself slow and gloomy, moody and mysterious, but people born under his planet were.

Finally, there are the three orders of Greek architecture: Corinthian (already mentioned), Doric, and Ionic. And there are a number of musical modes that take place-names, among them Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

Change over Time

Comparing Homer’s Iliad to Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, even just the opening lines of each work, is always revealing. Here they are:

Iliad: “Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.”

History of the Peloponnesian War: “Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.”

In just a few words we see certain differences, emblematic of shift from the Archaic Age to the Classical Age:

  Iliad History Peloponnesian War
Verb Sing Write
Author “goddess”
(i.e. the muse Calliope)
Thucydides himself
Actor Achilles Peloponnesians and Athenians
Subject Anger War
Promises Excitement Accuracy

Homer asks for divine help in performing a story for a live audience, while Thucydides writes in private and on his own authority (and, as revealed later, is really sweating over it, trying to determine what exactly happened). The gods make no appearance in the History of the Peloponnesian War – the human actors might perform rituals to them, but Apollo does not shoot his arrows at them, nor does Athena come down and prevent one person from killing another. It is a purely human story, but a wide-ranging one – it is an account of a war itself; the war does not function as a backdrop to a more personal conflict as it does in the Iliad (or in the movie Pearl Harbor, whose subject, according to one critic, was “a Japanese sneak attack on an American love triangle”).

Behold the rationality of the Classical Age! And the answer to one of the questions on the exam.

And for something slightly related, courtesy Tim Furnish:

History Repeating Itself

Helpful illustrative anecdotes for my Western Civ. lecture on Classical Greece:

• Every time you run a marathon, you are commemorating the legendary run of the messenger Pheidippides, who hightailed it from the site of the Battle of Marathon back to Athens, proclaimed the victory (“Nike!”), and promptly fell down dead. Hopefully you won’t fall down dead, and hopefully your Nikes will help you get the victory.

• The Battle of Thermopylae might have been a defeat for the Greeks, but it was an inspiring defeat. The 300 Spartans at the battle killed far more than 300 Persians, and they never retreated, dying to a man. Thus it became a rallying cry for the rest of the war, like the Alamo was during the Texas Revolution.

• Since no one knew if the Persians would attack again, Athens set up the Delian League, a defensive alliance where an attack on one was an attack on all. This is similar to how the United States set up NATO during the Cold War. We were telling the Soviets, “don’t even think of moving against West Berlin, because if you do you’ll be at war with Norway, Iceland, Greece… and the United States.” That NATO is still with us is a testament to the power of bureaucratic inertia.

(But none of my students knows about the Cold War. I might as well be talking about the Triple Alliance of 1882. Most of them guess that NATO stands for “North American Trade Organization.”)

• The trouble is that Athens started treating the Delian League as its plaything. They moved the treasury from Delos to Athens itself… and started spending money on other things than building triremes – like the Parthenon! This is the dirty little secret about that archetypical symbol of Classical Athens – it was built with embezzled money from the Delian League. This is probably a function of Athens being a democracy. Then, as now, what is the best way to get reelected? Spend money! Jobs for the lads! Where will the money come from? Wherever you can find it. This is what happed with Social Security. On paper, SS has trillions of dollars. In reality, SS revenues go directly into the general fund, where it is spent on more electorally pressing needs.

• The Hellenistic Age was Greek in all ways except the one that mattered – it was not based around the polis. Thus the Greek customs of political engagement, free speech, or outspoken speculation were vastly attenuated. Monarchs were not prepared to tolerate people making suggestions about how to run their kingdoms. This is reflected in drama. In Classical Athens, Old Comedy often took the form of biting satire – like a good Saturday Night Live skit. Hellenistic New Comedy concerned itself with love triangles and separated at birth stories. In other words, it was more like Seinfeld or Three’s Company – fun, but not really political.

Xenophon

Interesting article on Aeon (hat tip: Donald Leech):

The Anabasis is the first military memoir in the history of Western literature, and it recounts Xenophon’s experiences in the Persian campaign of Cyrus against his brother King Artaxerxes, and the long march ‘up country’. Since Xenophon waited several decades to commit these memories to writing, some have argued that they cannot be accurate. But as anyone who has listened to combat veterans will know, there’s a lot about the remembrance of past tours of duty that time cannot soften nor the years wear away.

Xenophon also wrote histories, portraits of leaders, practical treatises on horse training, hunting and running a household, among other things. An enduring theme that runs through much of his writing, and which has received scholarly attention in recent years, is that of leadership. What makes a good leader? What kind of leader can induce humans to endure hardships and expend effort toward a common goal? What exemplary traits mark out a leader and allow him or her to execute the requisite tasks with skill, induce a harmonious fellowship among those for whom he is responsible, maintain loyalty and mission clarity among the ‘troops’, whomever they might be? It is not difficult to see the formative roots of these questions, and of Xenophon’s answers to them, in that literally death-defying, embattled 2,000-mile march up-country to the sea.

Xenophon also wrote down his remembrances of a local philosopher named Socrates. Those who know Socrates mainly through the writings of Plato – Xenophon’s near-exact contemporary – will find Xenophon’s Socrates something of a surprise. Plato’s Socrates claims to know nothing, and flamboyantly refutes the knowledge claims of others. In the pages of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, however, Socrates actually answers philosophical questions, dispenses practical life advice, provides arguments proving the existence of benevolent gods, converses as if peer-to-peer with a courtesan, and even proposes a domestic economy scheme whereby indigent female relatives can become productive through the establishment of a textile business at home.

Read the whole thing.

Catholics and Evangelicals

My friend Andrew Reeves makes his popular-press debut:

In 1960, Billy Graham visited Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the city where Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified, died, and rose again. As far back as the late third and early fourth centuries, Christians had held that a hill where the Roman Emperor Hadrian (who ruled from 117–138) had constructed a temple to Venus was the site of Christ’s crucifixion and death, and a nearby tomb, the site of his burial and resurrection. Shortly after Constantine legalized Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was erected on that site. Although this church would endure several periods of damage and reconstruction, for the entirety of its history Christians throughout the world have regarded it as the site of Christ’s tomb.

Billy Graham did not visit the Holy Sepulcher. In the 19th century, the celebrated British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon carried out his own investigation of the areas in the environs of Jerusalem, believing that the Holy Sepulcher’s claim to be the site of the Easter event was incorrect. Through his investigation, he found what he believed was a hill that seemed closer to the New Testament’s description of Calvary and an adjacent tomb. This hill and tomb, generally known as Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb, have served as a site of pilgrimage for evangelicals who wish to avoid the Holy Sepulcher’s associations with Catholic Christianity. When the Reverend Billy Graham, the most prominent Baptist in recent history — and indeed the face of American evangelical Christianity through the 20th century — made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he went not to the Holy Sepulcher, but to Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb.

Read the whole thing (at Arc).

Troy and Gallipoli

Wikipedia.

The Hellespont, also known as the Dardanelles, connects the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara; the Bosporus connects the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea. These Turkish Straits are the only maritime route from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Our notions of geography lead us to designate one side of this route as as “European” and the other as “Asian,” but of course, since both sides are nowadays ruled by Turkey, there is culturally nothing distinguishing one side from the other. The passages themselves remain of vital strategic interest. Maritime transit through them is governed by the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits (1936), which gives Turkey ultimate control but guarantees free passage of civilian vessels in peacetime. Warships are another matter, and post-WWII Soviet obstreperousness on the issue was one of the reasons why Turkey joined NATO in 1952. (With Turkey threatening to leave this alliance, will the Russians finally realize their dream of controlling the route?)

Google maps.

The shortest distance across the Hellespont appears to be from the vibrant city of Çanakkale on the Asian side to a small town called Kilitbahir on the European.

Kilitbahir from Çanakkale harbor.

I had fun imagining that this is where Xerxes built his pontoon bridge (Herodotus, The Histories, Book 7), although it was probably built elsewhere, and regular ferry service now obviates the need for such an expedience.

In the late Bronze Age, of course, entrance to the Hellespont was guarded by the city of Troy, on the Asian side (the “Troad”). One iteration of Troy was besieged and ultimately destroyed by Mycenaean Greeks around 1250 BC, although the city was soon rebuilt. The story of this Trojan War is one of the great themes of Western literature, and Troy itself became one of the great sites of nineteenth-century archaeology.

Walls of Troy VII (late Bronze Age), commonly seen as the Troy of the Trojan War.

I enjoyed walking around the site, which was more extensive than I was expecting, although it’s a bit of a hodgepodge. Troy kept getting destroyed and rebuilt from the early Bronze Age until the Byzantine era, when any status it had as the guardian of the Straits was superseded by Constantinople (and enervated by a retreating coastline). This means that there are any number of layers to the site, but they are all mixed together – or at least that is how they now appear after a century and a half of archaeology, and you really have to use your imagination to perceive how each successive settlement may have appeared in its day. But I would say this activity is preferable to getting your photo taken at the reconstructed Trojan Horse near the entrance.

As my friend Mark Skoczylas pointed out, “You’d think the stairway would have tipped them off.”

Actual artifacts from the site (i.e., what Schliemann allowed the Turks to keep) are on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. (You’ll have to go to Moscow to see the rest of this horde.)

On the other side of the Hellespont is the Gallipoli Peninsula, a name that has become synonymous with a military campaign that took place there over three thousand years later. During the First World War, the Ottomans had allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary against France, Britain, and Russia. Britain (specifically, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty) thought it would be a good idea to land troops at Gallipoli, march on Constantinople, and secure the Bosphorus for Russia. We’re used to thinking of the Ottoman Empire as the sick man of Europe, but they were competent enough in 1915 to repel the allies’ naval attack, and pin their troops on the beach for ten months, despite repeated attempts at breaking through. The whole thing has gone down as another futile campaign in a futile war.

Diorama, Gallipoli Battle Museum, Eceabat.

However, even the futility has become meaningful. The sacrifices made by Australian and New Zealand (“Anzac”) troops at Gallipoli are solemnly commemorated in those countries every April 25, the day when Anzac troops first landed. The location of the battle, and its ineffective progress, have also drawn specific comparisons to the Iliad, the chief literary representation of the Trojan War, which does not dwell on the ultimate Greek victory but the endless and apparently pointless killing that had to transpire first. The ostensible reenactment of this at Gallipoli “served as a military origin myth” for Australia, and could “contextualize the nation and its people within the continuous mythical and historical narrative of Western Civilization.”

A silver lining of sorts.

Ari Burnu Cemetery, Anzac Cove, Eceabat.

On the Turkish side, of course this campaign launched the career of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was a great morale boost during the war, and set the stage for the Turkish War of Independence. It wouldn’t surprise me if it also contributed to the contemporaneous Armenian Genocide, although the Turks would never admit to that. (Wikipedia is blocked in Turkey on account of the article on the Armenian Genocide, which has been protected from Turkey’s manic insistence that the atrocity never happened, or that it wasn’t as great a crime as claimed, or that it was never their intention to kill so many people, etc., etc. Why the Turks feel they have to do this has always baffled me. Quite apart from the blatant pigheadedness of denying reality, why bother, when it was the Ottomans who carried it out, not the Nationalists?)

Akbaş Şehitliği (Akbaş Martyr’s Memorial), Eceabat.

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.