Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Histories discussion: Book Seven: Miscellaneous

Xerxes at the Hellespont, Jean Adrien Guignet

I exercised my kingship on condition that I led a hard, sober and industrious life, just like that of my people. I was king solely to defend my fatherland and to ensure the rule of law. My kingship gave me the power to do good without permitting me the license to do evil.

- François Fénelon in Dialogue XL, comparing the rule of Leonidas of Sparta with Xerxes

Book Seven begins with Darius’ anger at the loss of the Battle of Marathon, covers the buildup for Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, and ends with the Persians’ costly victory at Thermopylae. Herodotus’ pace slows down dramatically at this point as he seems to relish building up the tension in his narrative. See this detailed outline for the specific points included in Book Seven. There are a few additional topics (in addition to the Book Seven posts I’ve already made) I wanted to cover.

Literary devices
In the January 1939 Classical Philology, Richmond Lattimore discusses Herodotus’ use of the “wise adviser” motif (a topic posited earlier in that decade by Heinrich Bischoff). This is an important literary device Herodotus uses many times which should mean anyone assessing his history should do so with great care. “The warner, as such, is a motif, a mode of understanding history, in the mind of Herodotus; it is not that the stories and situations adhere to the great names, it is the names that adhere to them.” Lattimore provides two categories of wise adviser although he cautions that the distinction should not be pressed too rigidly: the tragic warner and the practical adviser. The tragic warner “is the sage elder who tries to halt headstrong action in a chief; he is in general pessimistic, negative, unheeded, and right.” The practical adviser usually provides “a method of coping with a given situation. Both types of advisers have been used previous to Book Seven but important examples work throughout this Book. Artabanos, Xerxes’ uncle who had previously advised his brother Darius not to invade Scythia, provides good advice several times to Xerxes regarding the invasion of Greece. Even though his initial advice persuaded Xerxes to temporarily postpone the invasion, additional factors work against the advice being followed. Artabanos also advises to leave the Ionians behind but Xerxes includes them in his army, which he will later regret.

In addition to wise advice, Xerxes also receives bad guidance. Mardonios argues that the Hellenes are weak and disorganized as well as waging war foolishly. Artabanos warns against attacking Greece, but he also frames his advice as simply presenting an additional side to the argument. He reminds Xerxes about what happened to his father when Darius ignored Artabanos’ advice not to invade Scythia, as well as the vulnerability of crossing into Europe via a bridge. Artabanos makes additional points that reflect the wisdom he has gained over the years, learning the lessons from the failure of others.

An interesting twist with Herodotus’ use of this device is that Croesus, who lost his kingdom by ruling foolishly by ignoring the good advice of others, becomes a wise adviser to others. As Lattimore puts it, “Fallen kings drop their delusions with their power.” This device allows Demaratos to become a sage after fleeing Sparta while allowing Herodotus to sidestep the issue of traitorous behavior on the exile’s part. An interesting interpretation might be to see Demaratos as a failed ethnographer (in comparison to Herodotus?), unable to educate Xerxes on Spartan and Greek behavior.

There are other literary devices Herodotus uses throughout The Histories. While some of these devices would be expected in providing a historical narrative, others stand out as effective storytelling. Herodotus’ statement that Themistokles came to prominence only when the oracles are being interpreted is contradicted not only by the fact that he had been a general at Marathon and an archon of Athens before that. It also clashes with Herodotus’ story of Themistokles’ swaying the Athenian government to build up its fleet years before the threat of the Persian invasion. Delaying the introduction of Themistokles until the interpretation of the Delphic oracles proves to be a great narrative touch.

Xerxes, the central character of Book Seven, exercises erratic behavior throughout this section, vacillating between wise and foolish behavior. Part of that may be because of his youth and inexperience. In addition, his actions are guided by pride and a sense of what he feels he must do as leader of a grand empire.

His impetuous behavior runs in all directions. He provides excessive praise and generosity to Pythios for his subject’s kindness but then demonstrates extreme cruelty when Pythios, spooked by an eclipse, asks that one of his five sons be spared from the army. Xerxes, angered at this request, has Pythios’ eldest son cut in two and places the remaining halves on each side of the road where the army must march. The essential message Xerxes sends with most of his directives, whether they are good or bad, boils down to “You are my slave.” This behavior carries over to mastering nature, as his treatment of the Hellespont when a storm destroys a bridge demonstrates: Xerxes has the waters lashed and symbolically imprisoned with shackles thrown into the sea.

Xerxes’ pride gets the better of his behavior many times, not just with subjects but in his projects as well. Herodotus does not hold back his opinion of Xerxes’ ordering the Mount Athos canal: "From what I can gather, Xerxes ordered the canal to be dug because of his arrogant pride. He wanted to display his power and leave behind a memorial to himself.” (from paragraph 24, all quotes from The Landmark Herodotus with translation by Andrea L. Purvis) Yet his benevolence at times makes perfect strategic or political sense, showing a maturity not present at other times. In reprieving Greek spies from death, he allows them to return home in order to report his massive army buildup. Their reporting provided the what many Greek cities needed to hear in order to join the Persian side.

Herodotus gives two different reasons for the Persian invasion of Greece: world domination as well as revenge for the Athenian asseisted sack of Sardis. In Xerxes’ speech to Persians as to why he wants to attack Greece, the fear of his being judged inferior to his predecessors surfaces, as well as his estimation of Greece as the only obstacle in subduing all of Europe. These competing reasons sometimes ring hollow, maybe apocryphal, but they consistently fit with Herodotus assigning historic events to individual desires and actions.

Xerxes’ interaction with Demaratos, the exiled king of Sparta, not only allows a chance for Xerxes to find out about the Greeks, the Spartans in particular, but provides Herodotus a springboard to tout the rule of law over the rule of man. Demaratos, in response to Xerxes’ question about the people he will be fighting, tells him

The Lacedaemonians are in fact no worse than any other men when they fight individually, but when they unite and fight together, they are the best warriors of all. For though they are free, they are not free in all respects, for they are actually ruled by a lord and master: law is their master, and it is the law that they inwardly fear—much more so than your men fear you. They do whatever it commands, which is always the same: it forbids them to flee from battle, and no matter how many men they are fighting, it orders them to remain in their rank and either prevail or perish.
(from paragraph 104)

Athens as initiator of war
Several times Xerxes points out that Athens was the aggressor since they assisted the Ionians during their revolt and helped sack Sardis. Xerxes says there is no middle ground since he believes the Greeks will want to conquer all of Persia. While this seems like projection on the part of the Persian king, Herodotus does nothing to mitigate the claim that Athens wronged Persia first. Herodotus may tacitly think such aggression was OK since the goal was to overthrow tyranny but he doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that the Greeks are constantly at war, mostly with each other. Is this intended as a criticism of the Greeks? It’s helpful to remember that Herodotus is writing at least part of The Histories during the Peloponnesian War, where the outcome is unknown and the winner between Athens and Sparta will likely annihilate the loser. Is pointing out that Athens was an aggressor in the Ionian revolt a rebuke to Athens for subsequent behavior as well? There are several such moments in The Histories which seem to point in that direction. More on these points later...

The establishment of a Hellenic league allows for Herodotus to make a few more potential digs at Athens’ expense, not only showing what can happen when the various cities work together but also from the fact that all of Greece was in danger because of Athens’ behavior. From paragraph 145:

And now those Hellenes who wanted what was best for Hellas gathered together, engaged in discussions, and exchanged pledges. As they deliberated, the first of the matters they decided was that all existing hostilities and wars between one another were to be brought to an end. For wars had been stirred up between some Hellenes and others—the most serious of them being that between the Athenians and the Aeginetans. … They did this [send envoys to Greek cities] in the hope that if they put their heads together and worked toward a common goal, Hellas could then somehow unite into a single state, since the invasion threatened all Hellenes alike.

Reversal of 'natural' phenomena
During Xerxes’ invasion, many natural phenomena become reversed. This upsetting of what Herodotus views as the natural order lends support to his theme against the crossing of natural boundaries. Four years before the invasion commenced, Xerxes ordered the construction of the Mount Athos canal, the point where his uncle's attempted invasion in 492BC foundered. This canal turned part of the mainland into an island and essentially turned land into water. (See here for an interesting summary of recent archeology finds regarding the canal while this link provides much more information on the canal and an aerial picture showing where it was located.)

Xerxes also turns water into land when he bridges the Hellespont with multiple bridges. After the weather destroyed the first bridging attempt, Xerxes had the supervisors decapitated. The next pontoon bridges proved to be more reliable. The bridge used for the animals was covered with dirt and leaves in order to fool the animals that they were still walking on dry land. Once again, the symbolic crossing of a natural boundary between continents upsets the order of things. In his ethnographies on Egypt and Scythia, Herodotus took pains to show how things were backwards or disordered from what he would view as the 'normal' Greek way. As we will see as the Persian invasion continues, things will become even more topsy-turvy for everyone involved.

While I don’t necessarily have a problem with this theme or device that Herodotus uses, I am confused on his view of the Ionian Greeks. By his definition, they are Europeans (or from European stock) living in Asia. Is it because their settlements were peaceful that they stand outside what would be considered disorientation or abnormal? I’ll hold that thought (but place it here as a reminder) because some of the upcoming problems directly reflect on this question.


The most valiant are sometimes the most unfortunate. Thus there are triumphant defeats that rival victories. Nor did those four sister victories, the fairest that the sun ever set eyes on -- Salamis, Plataea, Mycale, and Sicily -- ever dare match all their combined glory against the glory of the annihilation of King Leonidas and his men at the pass of Thermopylae.

- Montaigne, On the Cannibals (1580)

In the interest of actually getting something written and posted, I’ll defer additional discussion on Thermopylae for now (reserving the right to post more on it later). Such an iconic event deserves more thought than I have time to devote to it at the moment. And with that, I’m on to Book Eight.

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