Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Histories discussion: Book Nine: Mycale and Herodotus' ending

This post covers Book Nine from Paragraph 90 through the end of the work, covering the battle of Mycale, the siege of Sestos, and the final anecdotes.

The Greeks had sailed to Delos under the command of the Spartan Leotychidas. Messengers from Samos urge the Greeks to travel to their island to attack the Persians and ignite an Ionian revolt. The Greeks decide to sail to Samos but the Persians, learning that the Greeks were on the way, retreat to Mycale (just across a narrow neck of water to the mainland) to rely on their troops instead of their fleet. The Greeks follow and find the Persians have built a fortress. The Persians, because of the Samians’ recent behavior in releasing Greek prisoners of war, no longer trust the Ionians. Needless to say, the Persians’ treatment of the Ionians helps fulfill their traitorous potential. The Persians, while fighting valiantly, are undermined by the Ionians and overwhelmed by the Greeks.

One of the themes surrounding Mycale centers on the unified Greek forces and decision-making of the many poleis. The Athenians and other Greeks breach the Persian line and move into their camp while the late arrival of the Spartans (by design) finishes off the last of any resistance. In addition, the Ionians assist in attacking the Persians directly and indirectly. A few stray thoughts about this section on the battle of Mycale…

With both the Persians and Greeks relying on favorable signs before undertaking an attack, what does that tell a soldier when he sees the other side beginning a charge? Even worse, what if his omens are still unfavorable? This could help explain one component of rapid collapses in ancient battles I had not thought of until this section—the belief in something akin to divine abandonment. Tied in with omens is Herodotus’ theme of the gods’ vengeance for unjust penalties by recounting the story of the famous Greek diviner Euenios. While guarding the sacred flock of Helios at Apollonia, Euenios falls asleep and wolves kill about sixty of the flock. The Apollonian court haa Euenios blinded and immediately their sheep ceased to give birth. Several oracles are consulted and each tell how the gods are seeking vengeance for Euenios’ unjust punishment since it was they, the gods, who had set the wolves on the flock. Once the Apollonians tried to fix things Euenios possesses the power of divination. The current seer for the Greek fleet, Deiphonos, claims to be Euenios’ son, although Herodotus casts some doubt on his claim. (There’s something reassuring in seeing con men 2,500 years ago, although I’m not completely sure why--maybe it's knowing that human nature hasn't changed.)

By inciting the Ionians to revolt, Leotychidas brings the story full circle since the revolt in Ionia, supported by Athens, proved to be a major reason behind the Persian invasions of Greece. In his speech to Ionians, Leotychidas gives them the password “Hera” so they could identify themselves as loyal to the Greeks. I’m not sure if that was chosen for a particular reason (and some scholars believe the text says “Hebe”), but to me Hera is closely tied to revenge, an appropriate choice for any Ionian wanting to repay the Persians for crushing the earlier revolt.

Herodotus claims that the battle of Mycale happened on the same day as the battle of Plataea. Furthermore, he claims that
“there are indeed many clear proofs that the divine is present in what happens, and certainly one would be that on the day of the defeat at Plataea and on which the defeat at Mycale was about to occur, a rumor of the earlier victory reached the Hellenes at Mycale and greatly encouraged them, increasing their confidence and their willingness to undergo the dangers of battle with great zeal than before.

- from paragraph 100, all quotes and spellings are from The Landmark Herodotus with translation by Andrea L. Purvis.

Herodotus frames this as a rumor, leaving some plausible deniability on actual knowledge of the other battle. Yet this seems to be one of his strongest validations of “the divine”. He has not shied away from saying that the gods assist in victories or in other events, but here he decidedly portrays the gods as not just being present but interactive with humans. It’s a minor point but it stands out because his presentation of direct human/god direct interactions are rare.

The battle of Mycale and the subsequent battle of Sestos seem more like harbingers of the upcoming de facto Athenian empire through the Delian League than a conclusion to the Persian invasion. Athens insists on establishing alliances with the Ionians and nearby islanders as well as going on the offensive against Persian fortifications while the Spartans (and others from the Peloponnese) decide the original mission has been completed and sail home, a hint of things to come. The expansion of Athenian power will prove to be an important factor in the various wars with Sparta down to the time Herodotus was finishing The Histories.

Before telling about the siege of Sestos, Herodotus goes into detail about Xerxes’ romantic woes shortly after his return to Persian lands. Xerxes’ wife has the woman she thought was having an affair with Xerxes horribly mutilated. Why is this anecdote in here? If nothing else, the story proves to be a cautionary tale on several fronts. It presents Xerxes as a weak, feckless man. The story shows power wielded in an arbitrary manner, benefitting the rulers while damaging perceived enemies. The anecdote seems to say “look at what the Greeks would have had to put up with” had Xerxes triumphed. In addition, it fits in nicely with the “changing fortune” theme—one minute you’re on top of the world. The next minute your wife is mutilating potential lovers.

The last action of The Histories revolves around the siege of Sestos and leads into Herodotus’ final anecdote. I remember the first time I read the ending of The Histories. I thought “What in the …?” Herodotus does not end The Histories in any manner we are used to seeing a history account conclude, but there are many previous themes recalled here in addition to implied facts that Herodotus’ audience would understand and find relevant.

The last eight paragraphs are fairly straight-forward: The Greeks sail from Mycale to the Hellespont but find the bridge already destroyed by a storm. As mentioned earlier in the post, the Spartans and other allies from the Peloponnese sail home. The Athenians, under the leadership of Xanthippos, resolve to stay and attack nearby Persians in the city of Sestos. The Persian leader of this province was Artayktes, a man who had taken possession of and plundered the nearby tomb of Protesilaos. The siege takes many months but Xanthippos will not allow any of the disgruntled soldiers to return home until they take Sestos or Athens recalls them. The leading Persians attempt to flee Sestos but are caught and killed. Before being nailed to a plank and seeing his son stoned to death in front of him, Artayktes interprets a portent to mean that Protesilaos is revenging himself for Artayktes’ violation of his tomb. It turns out Artayktes had an ancestor that had proposed to Cyrus that the Persians should move to a better land since they were expanding their territory. Cyrus replied that soft places produce soft men for the “same land cannot yield both wonderful crops and men who are noble and courageous in war.” The Persians agree and “chose to dwell in a poor land rather than to be slaves to others and to cultivate the plains.” (from paragraph 121)

I will try to unpack some of what is going on in this ending because there is a lot in this brief section:

Tying the Trojan War to the Greco-Persian Wars
Protesilaos turns out to have been the first Greek ashore in addition to being the first killed in the Trojan War. From Ian Johnston’s translation:

Troops from Phylace, flowering Pyrasus,
shrine of Demeter, Iton, where flocks breed,
Antrum by the sea, and grassy Pteleum—
brave Protesilaus had led these men, while still alive.
Now the black earth held him. In Phylace,
he left behind a wife to tear her cheeks in grief,
home half complete. Some Dardanian killed him,
as he jumped on Trojan soil, the first on shore,
far ahead of all Achaeans.
(Book II, lines 696-704)

Artayktes tells Xerxes that Protesilaos was a “Greek man who waged war against your land and died, thus paying his just penalty. Give his house to me, so that all may learn not to wage war on your land.” (from paragraph 116) While being clever in his description, Artayktes compresses the timeline so that the land in Asia is Xerxes’ land and any transgression against it, regardless of when it happened, is a transgression against Xerxes. In doing so, he ties together the Trojan War with the Greco-Persian Wars, showing that the recent battles between Greece and Persia are a sort of culmination of East-West hostilities. Also, Artayktes’ description of what happened with Protesilaos echoes Herodotus’ opening descriptions of female abductions (Io, Europa, Medea, and Helen of Troy) narrated by the Persians where legends are transformed into an unrecognizable form. Herodotus has tied previous East-West conflicts, particularly the Trojan War, with the Greco-Persian wars in several places such as his catalogue of troops and ships in Book Seven. The location of Artayktes’ death, where Xerxes bridged the Hellespont, heightens the symbolism. So in just a few lines we have Herodotus mingling Homeric epic (with Protesilaos) and legendary characters (from a few generations back, like Cyrus) with Persian Wars heroes (Xanthippos). This compression of time includes characters in Herodotus’ day, which I'll mention later.

While in custody, Artayktes sees guards roasting salted fish that spring to life and wriggle as if just caught. He interprets this portent to mean that Protesilaos, even though “dead and dry as a salted fish” has the “power from the gods to pay back the person who wrongs him.” (from paragraph 120) Vengeance or retribution has been a steady theme throughout The Histories, many of which take place here at the end of Herodotus’ work. But vengeance for divine sacrileges takes on additional meaning and penalties, such as Cambyses’ stabbing of the Apis cow and then fatally wounding himself in the same spot. The coda brings yet another example into the narrative. Herodotus had mentioned in Book Seven, paragraph 33, that Artayktes had been killed for committing “the unlawful deeds of bringing women into the sanctuary of Protesilaos at Elaious” (something not mentioned at this point). In addition, the theme of the crimes of the father being visited on later generations manifests itself many times in The Histories. Here Artayktes watches his son stoned to death in front of him while going to the very start of the book we see Crosesus’ downfall tied to his ancestor’s behavior. That poot judgment assists in their downfall seems to be an accompanying fact to something that has already been decided will happen. (Sidenote: was the “crime” of Artembares’ suggestion--see below--visited on the descendent Artayktes? Now I’m seeing relationships where they probably don’t exist.)

The tragic warner
Having Cyrus provide the final words of The Histories brings the work full circle. Artayktes’ ancestor Artembares is the one that suggested to Cyrus that the Persians should move to better lands since their holdings were expanding. Even though Cyrus won the argument here and the Persians decide to “dwell in a poor land”, Herodotus' audience knows that would not be the case for long as Persian opulence became a cliché. Recall paragraph 82, as quoted in the previous Book Nine post which displays how far the Persians strayed from Cyrus’ advice. Further irony comes in recalling the fact that Cyrus fails to heed his own advice and dies attempting to expand his empire. Herodotus has hinted at the differences between Greece and the East, going all the way back to the wonderful literary device of having Croesus and Solon meet. This anecdote seems to be a warning aimed at Greece in general and Athens in particular. The link between the past and Herodotus' day conmes from the appearance of Xanthippos, the Athenian general at Sestos. He is the father of Pericles, the Athenian leader during the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. While tying in these characters across the ages, Cyrus warns not just the Persians of his day but speaks across time to the Greeks (in general) and Athenians (in particular) about the risks involved in the expansion of power and the danger inherent in such growth.

1 comment:


Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.