Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Histories discussion: Book Seven: Thermopylae as Homeric epic

Jacques-Louis David, "Leonidas at Thermopylae" (1814)
Picture and poem shamelessly lifted from Stephen Pentz


Honor to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they are rich, and when they are poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honor is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that in the end Ephialtis will make his appearance,
that the Medes will break through after all.

- C. P. Cavafy

I exaggerate in the title when I say Herodotus relays the Thermopylae battle as Homeric epic but not by much. In the previous post I looked at the way Herodotus heightened the tension in the narrative with the increasing sense of doom from the Delphic oracles as well as his explanation as to why Xerxes did not send heralds to Sparta or Athens. While not intending to be a comprehensive list, I want to look at content that echoes The Iliad in addition to identifying several smaller notes, most used in other places of The Histories but that here accumulate to recall Homer.

(An outline of Book Seven, including the battle of Thermopylae, can be found here.)

Echoes from The Iliad
Herodotus’ detail of Xerxes’ army, cavalry, and fleet echoes Homer’s catalogue of ships in Book Two of The Iliad. While the focus of Herodotus may be slightly different, descibing the armor the different troops wore as one example, this detail has the feel of Homer. So does the fight over the fallen body of Spartan king Leonidas, where it takes his comrades four tries to recover the corpse. That such a struggle could not have happened in hoplite warfare seems irrelevant since the image leaps from the page.

Some echoes may seem minor or coincidental, but their accumulation adds to the Homeric feel. Just as Helen sat on the wall at the Scaean Gates and identified warriors for Priam, Demaratos (the former king of Sparta) explains the actions of the Spartans to Xerxes. When Leonidas decides not to leave Thermopylae after finding out that they have been outflanked, Herodotus gives one of the reasons as “wanting to gain future glory for the Spartans alone”, sounding the theme of kleos with which Achilles had to wrestle. Up to this point Herodotus has mostly avoided the gory details of battle, which is one of The Iliad’s defining features. His prior avoidance of such detail makes his inclusion of men being trampled in battle or Spartans defending themselves with their teeth stand out that much more.

The most significant shift from previous Books centers on Herodotus’ role as omniscient narrator. This change stands out most in the battle section since there was no Greek survivor (a single Spartan was sent home early due to an eye injury or disease and all other Greek soldiers left or fled before the final battle). So where did Herodotus get the information? Xerxes’ response during the battle could have only come from the Persians, which is a possible source for the final battle. But there is a lot of description of what went on in the Greek camp without any hedging of facts or explanation of where Herodotus got his facts. I’m not saying he makes things up, but it seems clear he is playing the role of a bard at this point.

Other Homeric links
There are other items that, taken by themselves, don’t imply much but taken in aggregate cast Thermopylae as Homeric epic. Herodotus paints the coming conflict as the culmination of every East/West conflict to this point, including the Trojan War. Here is Herodotus’ take on the number of Xerxes’ troops:

In fact, of all the expeditions we know of, this was by far the largest. Darius’ expedition against the Scythians looks like nothing in comparison with that of Xerxes, and the same is true of the Scythian expedition when the Scythians chased the Cimmerians into Media and then subjugated and occupied almost the whole interior of Asia, which was the reason Darius later attempted to punish them. Nor can we compare the expedition of the sons of Atreus against Troy, according to the traditional account, nor that of the Mysians and Teukrians before the Trojan War, when the had crossed over to Europe at the Bosporus, subjugated all the Thracians, advanced down to the Ionian Sea, and marched as far south as the Peneios River. All these expeditions combined, even with others added to them, could not possibly equal the size of this expedition of Xerxes, for what nation of Asia did Xerxes not lead to Hellas?
- from paragraphs 20 and 21

By casting Xerxes’ march into Europe as a culmination of all previous conflicts between East and West, Herodotus adds to the apocalyptic tone of his narration. The tension mentioned in the previous post continues to get rise as we learn Xerxes force is so large that they drain dry entire rivers and lakes. Xerxes escalated the conflict beyond initial aims of subservience or revenge, turning it into a battle of survival just as the Trojan War moved well beyond seeking the return of Helen. The superhuman fighting of the Spartans and allies, killing somewhere between 3 and 10 Persians for every casualty of their own, calls to mind the heroic fighting scenes in The Iliad.

One area Herodotus cannot mimic Homer lies with the use of the gods. Homer shows us what happens on Mount Olympus and as well as describing the gods' interaction with humans. For the most part, the closest Herodotus comes to involving the gods comes from his use of omens, oracles and dreams. Xerxes’ has a dream where a corporeal entity talks to him, akin to god-inspired dreams in Homer. But Herodotus does something indirectly to invoke a tie-in with the gods—he details several relationships with Herakles in this Book. This isn’t the first time Herakles has been mentioned in conjunction with the Persian/Greek conflict. Before the victory at Marathon, the Athenians had camped at what was called “the precinct of Herakles”. Near Thermopylae is a temple to Herakles in addition to the spot where his death and apotheosis allegedly took place. While this may be viewed as a coincidence, Herodotus makes sure that the reader/listener understands the connection. Also, Herodotus traces Leonidas’ genealogy back 20+ generations to Herakles, mentioning that relationship several times. By keeping Herakles firmly in the reader’s mind, Herodotus is able to indirectly include the use of the gods in his narrative.

There are several other minor occurrences that recall either The Iliad in the buildup as well as during the battle of Thermopylae, but I don’t want to overstate the case. I have seen some debate focusing on Herodotus’ work as history, as literature, as both, or something altogether different. Since these terms would have been anachronistic to Herodotus, any conclusion restricting itself to these terms would seem to miss the mark. Maybe another way to look at what he accomplished should focus on what he does differently as opposed to when he relies on earlier conventions. The section leading up to the Persian invasion may reflect hints of Homer but the battle of Thermopylae owes a great debt to his epics. Does his reliance on the older style coincide with areas where there are gaps in facts or inquiries? Or has the tradition of the Thermopylae legend already overwhelmed the facts at the time Herodotus was writing and he felt he was limited on what he could say? There are several possibilities here for his change in style and maybe there are multiple reasons for the change. Whatever the reason(s), the change in style accompanying the battle of Thermopylae, with the many Homeric and epic references, proves to a highpoint of The Histories.

Update (10 May 2013): Dr. Jeremy McInerney presented a lecture on Thermopylae, the Battle for Europe? on May 1, 2013. I have a summary of the lecture and a few notes available. Also, here's the YouTube video:

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