Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Histories discussion: Book Eight: Salamis

Sea Fight at Salamis, Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868
Picture source

As Themistokles was saying this, Adeimantos the Corinthian again attacked him, ordering him to be silent since he had no fatherland, and forbidding Eurybiades to allow any man who had no city to propose a motion for a vote. He told Themistokles that when he could demonstrate that he had a city, then he could contribute his opinions. This reproach against Themistokles referred to the enemies’ capture and current occupation of Athens. This time Themistokles replied at length, and with venom directed against Adeimantos and the Corinthians; he declared that in fact the Athenians’ city and land were greater than theirs, as long as they had 200 ships of their own, fully manned, for none of the Hellenes could repulse them if they were to launch an assault.

- paragraph 61. All quotes and spellings are from The Landmark Herodotus with translation by Andrea L. Purvis.

“O Salamis, how hateful is thy name!
And groans burst from me when I think of Athens.”

“The walls of Athens are impregnable,
Their firmest bulwarks her heroic sons.”

- from The Persians by Aeschylus, translation by Robert Potter

I wanted to cover topics surrounding the battle of Salamis (for which I’m limiting to paragraphs 55 through 112 in Book Eight). This site provides a good summary of the battle itself.

Despite his heroics, Themistokles manages to be displayed in a mixed light again. When chiding the other allies to fight instead of flee, he says the Athenians will move to Italy if the Persian fleet is not engaged at Salamis. While this may have been one of his many bluffs or ruses, he comes across like a petulant child threatening to take his ball and go home if the game is not played his way. It’s easy to overlook this threat since it occurs during a bracing and rousing speech, yet it is this threat that motivates Eurybiades (the Spartan commander of the entire fleet) to action. Themistokles' speech to Adeimantos in the quote at the top of this post provides a new concept, or possibly echoing Aeschylus’ thought—Athens exists in the hearts of its citizens, not in the physical buildings that had just been destroyed.

Though it's a mixed light shown on Themistokles, he appears brighter than his counterpart for the Persians, Xerxes. While I’m not sure I buy Herodotus’ rationale for the Persian king’s flight (general fear amplified by concern that the Greeks would destroy the Hellespont bridge, thus stranding his army), the appearance of Xerxes leaving Greece after the loss at Salamis seems demeaning for someone ruling much of the world. In addition, Herodotus seems to relish having Xerxes follow a woman’s advice to flee Greece, even if that woman was Artemisia (who I’ll talk about later in this post).

Through Themistokles, Herodotus echoes several of his themes in The Histories: “For it is not we who have achieved all this, but the gods and heroes; they were jealous that one man should become king of both Asia and Europe, particularly an ungodly man who is doomed by his own folly.” (from paragraph 109) This comes from the speech that Themistokles delivers to the Athenians in order to persuade them to return to Athens and allow the Persians safe conduct back to the Hellespont. While this is consistent with the wishes of the other Greek commanders, Herodotus paints this as a ploy on Themistokles’ part in order to curry favor with the Persians in case he needs their help at some later date. This charge seems to ‘backdate’ Themistokles’ defection to the Persians. Also unclear are the charges of Themistokles’ greed in extorting money, both for public and private gain, from nearby islands after the battle of Salamis. These accusations echo the bribery charges before the battle of Artemesion.

Hellenic unity
Unity among the Greek cities also appears in a mixed light. On one level, the cooperation Herodotus seems to pine for did happen. Athens put aside its pride and let Sparta lead the army and the fleet, even though Themistokles practically usurped the fleet commander’s role. Aegina set aside its long-standing feud with Athens and proved to be one of the stars during the battle at Salamis. Themistokles works with his political enemy Aristeides in the prelude to the battle. Several cities that had originally offered earth and water to Persian envoys as a mark of subservience later recanted once the Hellenic league formed, showing that they had capitulated more out of concern for survival than any belief that life would be better under the Persians.

Yet there is a dark side of Hellenic cooperation with the Persians. Several cities and areas, such as Thessaly (mentioned in the previous post), joined the Persians in order to revenge themselves on their neighbors. As Xerxes army progresses through Greece, Herodotus mentions that the Persian numbers did not diminish since many Greeks joined the Persian cause. While the reader will not find any of Churchill’s fiery contempt for such Quislings, Herodotus opines on the cities and people refusing to fight: “[B]ut if I may speak freely, they were in effect medizing by remaining neutral.” ( from paragraph 73) He also admits that few Ionians lessened their attack after Themistokles’ propaganda (following the battle of Artemesion), describing that many of the Ionians fought lustily.

The reversal of natural phenomena and the confusing role of the Ionians (as posted here) reach their fruition through the character of Artemisia. An Ionian leader (she hails from Herodotus’ city of Halicarnassus), she was the only commander to counsel Xerxes not to engage the Greek fleet at Salamis, saying his armies would be successful without having to engage in battles on the seas. During the battle of Salamis, she sinks one of the Persian ships while trying to escape which causes confusion on both sides. The Greeks recognize that a Persian ship has been sunk but think it is one of their own reponsible for it. Xerxes celebrates because he recognizes her ship as one of his own, but doesn't see that she sunk another of his fleet. This action seems to put an exclamation point on the confusion of how to view the Ionians (as well as possibly undermining Herodotus’ geographic world view?). Xerxes punctuates his feeling toward the topsy-turvy world he has created during his invasion by exclaiming “My men have become women, and my women, men!” (paragraph 88) Herodotus notes, tongue firmly in cheek, that no one from the ship that Artemisia rammed survived in order to accuse her of deliberate sabotage. She later provides Xerxes sufficient rationalizations for leaving Greece with no loss of face and she is charged with escorting Xerxes’ sons back to Ephesus.

The story of Hermotimos (also spelled Hermotimus) of Pedasa remains one of the most brutal acts of vengeance in all of The Histories. While presented partially as a personal revenge story, Hermotimos' anecdote also invokes the gods’ demand for justice. I haven’t mentioned any of the various portents in this section that would lead someone to believe the gods were watching over or spectrally involved in humans’ lives, but here is a specific sign that mortals viewed the gods as watching and paying attention. Hermotimos appears when Herodotus mentions that he goes with Artemisia as Xerxes’ sons’ guardian back to Ephesus. Here is a quick recap of his story:
Hermotimos had been a prisoner of war and his captors eventually sold him to Panionios of Chios, a seller of eunuchs. Hermotimos, after being castrated, ends up in Sardis as a gift to the king. Eventually he earns Xerxes' esteem and serves as a honored and trusted part of Xerxes' court. While carrying out business for Xerxes, Hermotimos runs into Panionios. Hermotimos thanks Panionios for what he did to him since many possessions and blessings have come his way. In addition, he invites Panionios and his family to live with him so he would provide many of the same benefits he has received (you see where this is going already, don’t you?). Panionios accepts and moves his family in with Hermotimos. I’ll let Herodotus finish the story:

When Hermotimos had him there with his whole family, he said, “Of all men up to this time you are the most impious in your livelihood, which you earn by the most ungodly deeds! What evil did I—myself or any of my people—do to you or yours that you would render me a neuter instead of a man? You thought that the gods would not notice your practice, but they do observe justice, and they have surreptitiously led you, the performer of ungodly deeds, right into my hands; and so you cannot find fault with the just penalty you will receive from me.” After he had cast these reproaches at him, he had Panionios’ sons—all four of them—brought before them, and then compelled Panionios to cut off the private parts of his sons; and because he was forced, he did it. Then, when he had finished, his sons were forced to castrate him. So it was that vengeance at the hands of Hermotimos came to Panionios.
- from paragraph 106

Picture source

No comments: