Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Histories discussion: Book Four

Following the capture of Babylon, Darius led an army against Scythia. For Asia was flourishing; it had both numerous fighting men and ample revenues, and Darius had developed a desire to punish the Scythians for having earlier invaded Media and having conquered those who had tried to oppose them; for in doing this the Scythians had been the unjust aggressors. (from paragraph 1)

According to the Scythians, theirs is the youngest of all nations…(from paragraph 5)

The Scythians were more clever than any other people in making the most important discovery we know of concerning human affairs, though I do not admire them in other respects. They have discovered how to prevent any attacker from escaping them and how to make it impossible for anyone to overtake them against their will. For instead of establishing towns or walls, they are all mounted archers who carry their homes along with them and derive their sustenance not from cultivated fields but from their herds. Since they make their homes on carts, how could they not be invincible or impossible even to engage in battle? (from paragraph 46)

- All quotes in this post are from The Landmark Herodotus with translation by Andrea L. Purvis

On the second time through The Histories, I bogged down once again in Book Four and I’m not sure why. There are many interesting parts and it marks an important turning point in Herodotus’ overarching narrative since it contains a Persian invasion into part of Europe. Herodotus provides examples for several of his themes (see the discussion of Book One for some of the themes), although many of these examples have some contradiction built into them. I’ll try and specify these inconsistencies at the end of the post. This Book includes many digressions while delving into Scythian history and ethnography, which may be part of my problem in working through the Book.

Herodotus goes into great detail on the Scythians—land, weather, customs, habits, warmaking, origins, etc. Scythia, located just north of the Black Sea, called itself the youngest of all nations which makes it an interesting comparison to the ethnography of Egypt (the oldest). For Herodotus, the further you move from a Greek-centric culture, customs and lands become increasingly different and more exotic. Scythia’s difference from Egypt, besides age, is location—Herodotus considers Scythia part of Europe. When Darius crossed the Thracian Bosporus and the Danube (Ister) River, the stage is set for his defeat. Fortunately for Darius, he does not meet the fate of his predecessors Cyrus or Cambyses when crossing “a river too far.” [Note: In the Landmark edition, the notes point out that Darius’ purpose for invasion probably centered on conquering Thrace and the Getai to gain access to a gold-producing region in modern Transylvania. That storyline obviously doesn’t provide such a grand tale as what Herodotus provides.]

I found myself liking the Scythians despite Herodotus’ less than flattering descriptions. He did not hold back in describing their savagery, such as turning the skulls of their enemies into drinking cups. Herodotus makes it clear that there is very little to admire about the Scythians. Their lack of towns or cities would imply to the Greeks a lack of civilization. Herodotus’ admiration is mostly limited to their tactics against the Persians and their desire not to be enslaved. After their neighbors decide not to assist in helping fight the Persians (some rejected help outright, others preferred to wait on the sidelines until they were directly attacked), the Scythians came up with the following strategy:

When these replies were reported to the Scythians they decided, now that these kings had refused to join them as allies, not to directly resist by giving battle, but instead to withdraw, and as they retreated, to destroy whatever wells and springs they passed and obliterate the grass from the earth. … Their plan was to retreat directly toward the lands of those who had rejected the alliance and thus to provoke them to go to war. They thought that since these peoples were unwilling to take upon themselves a war against the Persians, they would have to be forced into it against their will. (from paragraph 120)

The Scythians scorched-earth policy and delaying tactics, always staying just out of reach of direct conflict, successfully frustrated the Persians. Idanthyros, king of the Scythians, responded defiantly to Darius' command to stop and fight:

I will tell you why I do not engage you now: it is because we have neither towns nor cultivated land to worry about being captured or razed, which might induce us to engage you in battle sooner. … Instead of gifts of earth and water, I shall send you the kind of tokens you really merit. And in response to your claim to be my master, I tell you, “Weep.” That is your answer from the Scythians. (from paragraph 127)

No handwringing or speculating what they did to cause this invasion, just determination and grit. The tokens to the Persians were a bird, a mouse, a frog, and five arrows. Darius tried to see these as gifts of earth and water (the symbol of submission and surrender to the Persians), reasoning that mice lived in the ground and frogs lived in water, but Gobryas (one of the seven conspirators that helped overthrow the Magi in Book Three) came to a different conclusion: “Persians, unless you turn into birds and fly up into the sky, or mice and descend underground, or frogs and hop into the lakes, you will be shot by these arrows and never return home.” (from paragraph 132) Darius comes to the same conclusion after seeing the Scythians, lined up against him in battle, break rank in order to chase a hare. Interpreting this display as a sign of their contempt, Darius plans a retreat, providing an anticlimactic ending to the Scythian campaign. The only remaining question is whether or not the Persians will cross the Ister (Danube) before the bridge is destroyed. (Some of the Ionians guarding the bridge will make later appearances during the Ionian revolt.)

The remainder of Book Four focuses on a revolt in Libya, the area west of Egypt. I found Herodotus’ section on Carthage interesting since I just finished Richard Miles’ book (discussed two posts down). Much of his focus is on their sailing experiences as Herodotus repeats their stories about trading with people on the west coast of Africa (“outside the Pillars of Herakles”). Herodotus’ descriptions of the people along the Mediterranean coast of Africa provides several interesting stories, like that of the Psylloi:

Adjacent to the Nasamones were the Psylloi, who perished in the following way. The south wind blew through their land and dried up their reservoirs of water, so that their whole country, which is situated within the Syrris, became devoid of moisture. They discussed the problem and together agreed to make war on the south wind (I am repeating what the Libyans say). And when they reached the desert sand, the south wind blew upon them and buried them. Now that they are gone, the Nasamones have their land. (paragraph 173).

Regarding the revolt in Libya, Herodotus provides another example of defiance against Persian rule. Aryandes, the governor of Egypt (answerable to the Persian king), sends a herald to the city of Barke in order to find out who had killed the ruler of nearby Cyrene. Instead of turning over those responsible, “the whole population of Barke assumed responsibility, for they said they had suffered much abuse at his hands.” (from paragraph 168)

The Persians capture the city of Barke by deception and the arbitrary cruel punishment which follows highlights a theme of Persian despotism which Herodotus has been building. An earlier example of this theme was provided when, about to leave Susa on his march to Scythia, Darius receives a request from Oiobazos “to leave behind one of his three sons who were serving in the army.” After saying all three sons could stay in Persia, Darius orders them executed. Later we will see even worse examples of this motif. Other themes mentioned in the Book One discussion come into play. The ‘inviolability of boundaries between the continents’ theme develops with Darius’ lack of success against Scythia, although the success in putting down the revolt in Libya could be said to contradict it. The theme involving man’s inability to escape his fate makes several appearances. Arkesilaos, the ruler of Cyrene murdered in Barke, consulted the Delphic oracle but after successfully fulfilling the first half of the prediction he acts in a manner to fulfill the prediction of his death by ignoring the second half. Herodotus points out “Thus Arkesilaos failed to understand the oracle, and whether intentionally or unwittingly, brought about the fulfillment of his own fate.” (from paragraph 164) Arkesilaos’ mother, Pheretime, brutally takes revenge on the inhabitants of Barke for the murder of her son, but in doing so exceeds what the gods will allow and, accordingly, dies a horrible death:

The final strands in the life of Pheretime were woven with misery, for as soon as she had achieved her revenge on the Barkaians, she left Libya and returned to Egypt, where she died a miserable death from worms which teemed within her body and crawled out from it while she still lived. Thus the gods manifest their resentment against humans who execute vengeance violently and excessively. (from paragraph 205)

There are many other topics that could be discussed and hopefully I can cover some of them in the remaining sections. One area that had several mentions in this Book is the adoption of foreign customs, particularly regarding religious ceremony. I mention it here as a reminder for later discussion since Herodotus’ outlook on this topic grated on Plutarch. But then almost all of The Histories upset Plutarch. I did want to touch on some incongruities, major and minor, in some of Herodotus’ themes. I mentioned that the Persian success in putting down the Libyan revolt seems to contradict the border inviolability theme, although the victory was underwhelming (not to mention achieved through guile and treachery) and their march back to Egypt was a trial. Herodotus’ approach to geography and its symmetry can appear muddied at times, too. He seems to assume there must be a balance of some sort. In paragraph 36, for example, he says if there are Hyperboreans (“beyond the north wind”) then there must be Hypernotians (“beyond the south wind”). At the same time he dismisses true symmetry, acknowledging that the three continents (Asia, Europe, Libya/Africa) are not of equal size and each has unique features. Herodotus’ moving back and forth between assumptions (such as symmetry), facts, and hearsay provide a glimpse into his struggle for a systematic way of thinking.

Some of Herodotus’ inconsistencies appear minor, but I wonder if there isn’t a greater struggle going on underneath the surface. His mention of Homer, to this point, has been dismissive, especially when disputing whether there is a river Ocean circling around the continents. Yet in paragraph 29 he quotes a line from the Odyssey to “prove” a point. “Prove” is in quotation marks since the verse doesn’t support his point at all. There seems to be a continual struggle between Herodotus and the debt he owes to prior poets. While dismissive of poets and their exaggerations at times, he can approvingly quote them when it suits him (he did so with Pindar in Book Three). In addition, there are several ancient references to Herodotus’ work as an oral performance. As such, he uses many of the techniques of a lyric poet even though his work is in prose. Ultimately, though, his attitude toward the older poets seems to boil down to one simple question—could he use them as a source in his inquiries? Since the poet’s goal is entertainment and not accuracy (while Herodotus strives for both), Herodotus dismisses much of their content. Even though Herodotus includes material he could not personally verify, he usually (but not always) provided caveats. His inclusion of Homer in this Book, and Pindar earlier, occurs when he thinks their quotes support his point. His refusal to use epic poems as a source follows his treatment of them at the start of the book, providing what Persians say happened on some fairly important early Greek myths, in addition to his belief that Helen resided in Egypt during the Trojan War. In short, poets are suspect except when they aren't.

Two additional points on this Book, both with ties to the Greeks:

  • Those guarding the Ister (Danube) bridge were Ionians (Greeks in modern-day Turkey). The Ionian leaders at the bridge were tyrants, remaining in power through their support of Persia. Herodotus and the Scythians show contempt for these leaders and their willingness to remain in power through subservience to the Persian king.
  • Herodotus relates three Scythian origin stories. The first story, an autochthonous scenario with a son of Zeus and the river Borysthenes’ daughter as the parents of the Scythian race, is what Herodotus says the Scythians believe although he dismisses it. Herodotus says he believes the third scenario, a story about nomads settling in Scythia. But it is the second story Herodotus tells, one he says that the Greeks in the Black Sea area told him, that is the most interesting. In this scenario, Herakles mated with a snake-woman, female from the buttocks up and comprised of snakes below the buttocks. Herodotus passes no judgment and provides no comments on this version, so why present it? Was it just to be thorough? Or is it to leave a feeling of Greek/Scythian commonality in their heritage? Since Herodotus views the Scythians as part of Europe, in addition to painting the Persian defeat as a prefigurement of Greek triumph, it might be he wants to present any possible positive tie between Greece and Scythia.
  • At this point it is probably a good idea to recap what has happened to this point in The Histories since the digressions can obscure where Herodotus is going with the story. Persia has achieved a rapid rise to power, achieving a massive empire starting with Cyrus, following with Cambyses and continuing with Darius (despite the setback in Scythia). The Scythian loss seems to be part of a larger pattern for Persia, taking one step back after every two steps forward. Part of maintaining their empire involves putting down the many rebellions they've experienced as rapidly as possible. The stage is set for the Ionian rebellion and the ripple events it will cause.

    Persian empire around 513BC
    Picture source

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