I have now reached a point at which I am compelled to declare an opinion that will cause offense to many people, but which nevertheless appears to me to be true, so I shall not restrain myself. If the Athenians had evacuated their land in terror of the danger approaching them, or if they had not left their land but remained and surrendered themselves to Xerxes, no one at all would have tried to oppose the King at sea. And if no one had then opposed Xerxes at sea, this is what would have happened on land. The Peloponnesians, even if they had covered over their isthmus with walls, would have been abandoned by their allies, who, seeing their cities conquered one by one by the barbarian fleet, would have been forced to submit against their will. Finally those thus deserted, now all alone, would have performed great feats and died honorably. Of course that might not be their fate if they had earlier seen how the rest of the Hellenes were medizing and would have come to an agreement of their own with Xerxes. Thus, either way, Hellas would have been conquered by the Persians. For I cannot discern what advantage could have been derived from walls extended across the isthmus if the King had control of the sea. So anyone who said that the Athenians proved to be the saviors of Hellas would not have strayed from the truth. For whichever course they chose to follow was certain to tip the scales of war. They chose that Hellas should survive in freedom; and after rousing to that cause all the other Hellenes who had not medized, they repelled the King with the help of the gods. Indeed, not even the frightening oracles they received from Delphi threw them into a panic or persuaded then to abandon Hellas. Instead, they stood fast and had the courage to confront the invader of their land.
- Book Seven, paragraph 139, all quotes from The Landmark Herodotus with translation by Andrea L. Purvis (emphasis mine)
Why will this statement be offensive to some? Does it have to do with the flattering statements made on behalf of the Athenians? Or the nice things said about the Spartans? Both? While Book Eight contains strong hints showing not all was well in the Hellenes between the various poleis and Athens, those intimations surface in this Book as well. In lining up allies to fight, many of the Hellene poleis would rather submit to Persia than allow Athens to lead either the army or the fleet in war (even excluding Argos and Syracuse, whose demands to lead were only a ruse to avoid participation). In addition, Herodotus’ statement may reflect the attitude toward Athens or Sparta by many Greeks when Herodotus was writing this section (which was probably after the Peloponnesian War began in 431BC). Or is something else going on in Herodotus’ statement?
Even with all the praise for the Athenians there is also the recognition that they did not do it alone—they had help from Greek allies and the gods. Herodotus also has many good things to say about the Spartans despite the conjecture they would have heroically lost or ultimately capitulated to the Persians. The latter would occur, Herodotus speculates, if and only if Athens had lost the sea to the Persians and all other allies had medized.
Herodotus outlines two different reasons for the Persians’ invasion of Greece (which I’ll cover in a separate post), one of which centers around Xerxes' desire to conquer Europe. Several times he highlights the belief that if Greece fell, no one remaining in Europe would resist. At one point he even puts this belief into the mouth of Xerxes:
…Xerxes then summoned the most eminent of Persians and, when they had come into his presence, said to them, “I have assembled you, Persians, to make a request of you. I ask you to prove yourselves to be noble and courageous men and to not disgrace the earlier achievements of the Persians, which are great and very worthy indeed. … I command you, therefore, to persevere in this war with all your might, because I hear that we are marching against men who are noble and courageous, and that if we conquer them, no other army in the world will ever oppose us. And so, after praying to the gods who hold Persia in their charge, let us cross over to them.”
- from Book Seven, paragraph 53
Still, it is the second highlighted statement in the initial quote in this post that stands out to me. Is there a wistful note or possibly a mild rebuke in Herodotus’ voice, something that remembers a time when Athens stood for Hellenic freedom? While I don’t think Herodotus means The Histories to be a longing for “the good ol’ days”, I think he does include some rebuke of Athens and how far they strayed from the ideals they fought for against Persia. Whether Herodotus is thinking of subsequent Athenian exploitation of the Delian League or other aggressions leading to the Peloponnesian War cannot be certain but there does seem to be some reproach included with the praise. Maybe it is simply regret that I am hearing in this passage, a sadness that the two great cities that have saved Greece were at war with each other while he wrote The Histories. That may be the reason he believes his statement will cause offense--he is able to differentiate between the Athens of 480 BC and of the 430s BC, while others may not.
Herodotus' views on Athens and Sparta after the war with the Persians remain elusive. For example, does he mean for the recurring theme of changing fortune to apply to these poleis? Since there is a reference to an event in the Peloponnesian War in Book Seven, he may very well have had the expected destruction of one or both of the city/states in mind. Herodotus rarely links his themes with his post-Persian War views on Athens and Sparta, but adding his comment from Book Six, paragraph 98 lends support to seeing a rebuke in the opening quote.
For in three successive generations, during the reigns of Darius son of Hystaspes, Xerxes son of Darius, and Artaserxes son of Xerxes, more evils befell Hellas than in all the other generations prior to that of Darius. Some of these evils were caused by the Persians, but others by the leading states of Hellas waging war for political domination among themselves.