Wednesday, August 18, 2010


The Alkmeonids were illustrious among the Athenians from their very beginnings, but became even more so because of Alkmeon and later Megakles. For Alkmeon son of Megakles enthusiastically assisted and proved himself an avid supporter of those Lydians who used to come from Sardis, being sent by Croesus to the oracle at Delphi. When Croesus learned from the Lydians who regularly visited the oracle that Alkmeon was serving him well, he sent a message for him to come to Sardis; and when Alkmeon arrived there, Croesus offered him a gift of as much gold as he could carry away on his person at one time. So Alkmeon devised and carried out an effective way to deal with such a gift. He put on a large tunic, leaving a deep fold hanging down from it, and high boots, the widest he could find, then entered the treasury to which he was led. Diving into the heap of gold dust, he first packed as much gold along his shins as his boots could hold; next, he filled the entire fold forming a pocket with gold, sprinkled the hair on his head with gold dust, put some more into his mouth, and finally left the treasury, barely able to drag his boots along with him, resembling anything but a human being, with his mouth full and puffed out! When Croesus saw him, he was overcome with laughter and offered to give Alkmeon not only all that he had with him but an additional amount equal to that which he was now carrying. That is how the house of the Alkmeonids became extremely wealthy, and in this way Alkmeon became rich enough to keep a four-horse chariot and team, with which he won an Olympic victory.
- Book Six, paragraph 125

(Quote from The Landmark Herodotus, translation by Andrea L. Purvis)

Although the timeline doesn’t match (Alkmeon was supposed to have done this around 590 BC while Croesus’ reign was from 560 to 546 BC—see here for a family tree), it still remains a wonderful story. I can picture Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton cast in a silent movie as Alkmeon.

Still, the story raises a few questions as I’m beginning to look at Herodotus’ agendas behind his inquiries. The Alkmeonids started at a disadvantage since they could not trace their family back to a god or hero, although they did claim to have descended from Nestor of Gerenia. Herodotus provides the Alkmeonids family history in order to argue against charges of attempting to betray Athens when the Persians were anchored off the Athenian port after the battle of Marathon. But in paragraph 123 Herodotus makes this statement: “The Alkmeonids, on the other hand, if they were truly the ones who bribed the Pythia to proclaim in her prophecies that the Lacedaemonians should free Athens (as I indicated earlier), were the real liberators of Athens.”

The reference to ‘earlier’ is Book Five paragraph 63, where Herodotus reports that Athenians say the members of the Alkmeonid family bribed the Pythia (priestess at Delphi) to “urge all Spartans who came to consult the oracle, whether on private or public missions, to liberate Athens.” This seems to be a rather shocking statement to make—corrupting religious practices is not only easy but acceptable in certain circumstances.

Herodotus’ views on religion can be difficult to pin down. While he rarely shows or tells of the gods directly in The Histories he does include the presence of immortals through dreams, oracles and omens. While not appearing agnostic, Herodotus seems to have a practical view of religion, noting elsewhere that the Pythia could be persuaded to provide desired answers.

Herodotus’ agenda when looking at Athens and other Greek cities is easier to understand. I have mentioned in earlier posts about an undercurrent wishing for a unified Greece, not under a common ruler but under a common cause. That wish and religious purity come behind Athenian freedom. Herodotus reports several characters saying (or having them say) that a free Athens will be second to no other Greek city. This is the purity he seeks since he sees tyranny or submission, no matter how benign the ruler, as a debased state. As shown in the Book Five post, Herodotus isn’t afraid to point out flaws in Athenian-style democracy, but even with the drawbacks he sees freedom to be preferred to everything else.

Even while pointing out good and bad in people, Herodotus strikes me as having a “glass half full” outlook. I look forward to comparing his attitude to Thucydides later this year.

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