Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Histories discussion: Book Eight: The last chapters

The Athenians first answered Alexandros as follows: “We ourselves are already well aware that the forces of the Mede are many times greater than our own, so there is no need to admonish us about that. Nevertheless, we shall defend ourselves however we can in our devotion to freedom. So do not attempt to seduce us into an agreement with the barbarian, since we shall not be persuaded. Report back to Mardonios that the Athenians say: ‘As long as the sun continues on the same course as it now travels, we shall never come to an agreement with Xerxes. Trusting in the gods and heroes as our allies (for whom he showed no respect when he burned their homes and images), we shall advance against him and defend ourselves.’ As for you, Alexandros, in the future, do not appear before the Athenians with speeches such as this one, nor pretend to be doing us a favor while encouraging us to commit deeds that violate all tradition. For we would not want you, our proxenos and friend, to suffer anything unpleasant at the hands of the Athenians.”

After giving this answer to Alexandros, they turned to address the messengers from Sparta: “It was quite natural for the Lacedaemonians to fear we would come to an agreement with the barbarian, but nevertheless, we think it disgraceful that you became so frightened, since you are well aware of the Athenians’ disposition, namely, that there is no amount of gold anywhere on earth so great, nor any country that surpasses others so much in beauty and fertility, that we would accept it as a reward for medizing and enslaving Hellas. Besides, even if we were willing to act that way, there are many serious considerations which would prevent us from doing so. First and foremost of these is that the images and buildings of the gods have been burned and demolished, so that we are bound by necessity to exact the greatest revenge on the man who performed these deeds, rather than to make agreements with him. And second, it would not be fitting for the Athenians to prove traitors to the Greek people, with whom we are united in sharing the same kinship and language, with whom we have established shrines and conduct sacrifices to the gods together, and with whom we also share the same way of life. So understand this now, if you have not learned it before: as long as even one Athenian still survives, we shall make no agreement with Xerxes. But we do commend your foresight and appreciate your consideration for us, especially in recognizing that we are in such a state of ruin that you have volunteered to support and maintain the members of our households. Your kindness has been more than sufficient. We, however, will persevere in whatever way we can, without troubling you. But now, since the situation is as it is, do send out an army as quickly as possible, for it is our conjecture that before long, indeed, as soon as soon as the barbarian hears that we have refused to do as he asked, he will be here invading our land again. And so now, before he reaches Attica, is the time for you to hasten to battle in Boeotia.” When they had received this answer from the Athenians, the messengers departed to return to Sparta.

- paragraphs 143 and 144, All quotes and spellings are from The Landmark Herodotus with translation by Andrea L. Purvis.

The remainder of Book Eight after the battle of Salamis covers the winter of 480/479 BC. Most of the Greek allies return to their homes, Mardonios keeps his chosen troops in Thessaly, and Xerxes travels home to Asia.

Xerxes’ trip back to Asia proves to be the opposite of his entry into Europe. Earlier in the year, he and his troops commanded nature: they bridged the Hellespont, drank rivers dry, and supported themselves from the land and prearranged stores of goods. On the return trip, the army ate grass and bark as they fought off starvation. They also had to deal with disease such as dysentery and some sort of plague. Crossing the Hellespont this time had to be done with ships—the pontoon bridges had been destroyed during a storm.

The Hellenic fleet retired to the Isthmus of Corinth in order to award “the prize of valor to the Hellene who had proved himself the most worthy throughout this war.” The commanders each cast two votes, one for first and one for second. A crack in the apparent Greek unity happens as each commander chooses himself with the first place vote--Herodotus describing this behavior as envy. Themistokles received every vote for second place (although if Themistokles voted, could he cast a vote for himself in both spots?). After the isthmus, Themistokles visited Sparta where he receives the same rewards as Eurybiades (the Spartan commander overseeing the entire Hellenic fleet). Upon his return to Athens, though, Themistokles is upbraided by Timodemos, who said that Themitokles receives these honors “because of Athens and not because of himself.” Themistokles, tiring of the constant attacks, replies “The fact is that if I were from Belbina, I would not have been honored this way by the Spartans, but neither would you, my friend, even though you are an Athenian.”

Artabazos escorted Xerxes to the Hellespont and took his time returning to the Persian winter camp in Thessaly, attacking and capturing cities that have rebelled against Xerxes. At least one instance attributed to divine retribution occurs during his march, where a flood tide kills many of his troops. Herodotus and the locals attribute this to the troops having profaned a nearby temple of Poseidon.

Over the winter the Greeks name new commanders: Xanthippos will be commander of the Athenians, while the Spartan Leotychidas will lead the Hellenic army and navy. Herodotus gives Leotychidas’ lineage and (if my count is correct) proves to be the third individual mentioned that is a descendent of Herakles. The first two were Kandaules (back at the very opening of The Histories) and Leonidas (Spartan leader at Thermopylae). If anyone runs across one I missed, please let me know. Herakles and a snake-goddess provided one possible origin of the Scythian race, but I’m interested to see if additional individuals are named.

Once again the Ionians prove to be the odd man out in the Greek world, at least for now. They send messengers to the Greeks to request assistance in achieving freedom but the Greeks provide lame and perplexing excuses on why they could not provide help. Was this payback for the Ionian revolt and Athens' help that some saw as triggering the Persian invasion?

Mardonios, in charge of the Persian troops in Greece after Xerxes left, sends Alexandros of Macedon as a messenger to Athens in an attempt to move Athens to his side. With Athens, Mardonios believes, he can control the seas. He assumes his troops will be victorious on land, an assumption only seriously tested at Thermopylae at this point. The opening quote of this post provides the Athenian answer to Alexandros’ appeal on behalf of the Persians. The terms are actually very generous, providing freedom as long as Athens joins Persia as a military ally. Before the opening quote, though, the Spartan’ entreaty to the Athenians includes a rebuke that echoes Herodotus’ feelings: “You are the ones that incited this war” that has spread to all of Greece. Sparta’s envoys also sound like Herodotus when they say that if Athens capitulates it will enslave the rest of Greece. The role of the gods and religious considerations are cited in the Athenian reasons for not accepting Xerxes’ offer—the first reason involves the need to revenge the destruction of their shrines while the second revolves around the shared religion with the other Greeks. The Athenians realize if they accept Xerxes’ offer, no matter how good the terms, it means the rest of Greece will be enslaved and, eventually, so will they.

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