“When they are going to risk their lives, they make their heads beautiful.”
Leonidas at Thermopylae, 1814
Herodotus, at the very outset of The History, makes manifest his intentions:
I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another. (1.1)
It is ostensibly an account of the war between the Greeks and the Persians (the barbarians), in which the latter suffer a decisive and humiliating defeat, putting to end their imperial ambition of annexing the free Greek city-states. For Herodotus, it was more than a military victory; it was the triumph of Western liberty against Eastern slavery, of Athenian democracy over Oriental barbarism. (H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe, 1935, p. 28)
For the Greeks, it was either freedom or death, rather than the yoke of a master however benevolent. Both Spartans and Athenians had occasions to make terms with the Persian king, who was indeed often magnanimous to those he conquered, but had refused tempting offers of vassalage with lofty speeches in defense of liberty.
Hydarnes was the Persian who was general over the peoples of the seacoast in Asia. He entertained the Spartans hospitably and, in his place as host, asked them, “You men of Lacedaemon, why do you avoid friendship with the King? You see how the King knows how to honor good men; you can take as your standards myself and my fortunes. So, too, if you put yourself in the King’s hands, you will be judged by him as good men, and each of you might hold office in Greece under the King’s mandate.” They then answered the Persian: “Hydarnes, your advice with relation to us comes from something less than an equality of position. You counsel us as one who has tried one condition but knows nothing of the other. You know what it is to be a slave, but you have no experience of freedom, to know whether it is sweet or not. If you had had such experience, you would bid us fight for it, not with spears only, but with axes as well.” (7.135)
The Athenians made their answer to Alexander: “We know of ourselves that the power of the Mede is many times greater than our own; therefore, you need not throw that in our face. Yet we have such a hunger for freedom that we will fight as long as we are able. Do not try to induce us to make terms with the barbarian, for we will not listen to you. Now tell Mardonius that this is the word of the Athenians: So long as the sun keeps his wonted track where even now he is going, we will never make terms with Xerxes, but putting our trust in our gods and our heroes we will go out to fight him in our defense. He had scant regard for those gods and heroes when he burned their homes and their images. And for the future do not make your appearance before the men of Athens with propositions like these, nor, seeming to do us a service, advise us to do what is against all law for us; for we would not have anything untoward happen to you at the hands of the Athenians–you who are our consul and our friend.” (8.143)
The History, however, is more than a history. It includes travelogues, ethnography, politics, and tabloid gossip. It is “history” only in the original sense of being inquiries, and attests to the author’s inquisitive and omnivorous mind. Herodotus mixes mythic accounts with eye-witness reports (to Thucydides’ consternation), makes long digressions for sensational stories (e.g., the scandalous stripper dance of Hippoclides), and eschews passing judgment on other people’s customs.
[If] there were a proposition put before mankind, according to which each should, after examination, choose the best customs in the world, each nation would certainly think its own customs the best. Indeed, it is natural for no one but a madman to make a mockery of such things. That this is how all men think about their customs one can see from many other pieces of evidence and from the following case in particular. Darius, during his own rule, called together some of the Greeks who were in attendance on him and asked them what would they take to eat their dead fathers. They said that no price in the world would make them do so. After that Darius summoned those of the Indians who are called Callatians, who do eat their parents, and, in the presence of the Greeks (who understood the conversation through an interpreter), asked them what price would make them burn their dead fathers with fire. They shouted aloud, “Don’t mention such horrors!” These are matters of settled custom, and I think Pindar is right when he says, “Custom is king of all.” (3.38)
A well-travelled cosmopolitan, he is both chatty and charming, someone who would make a very entertaining dinner guest, like an explorer back from wondrous adventures. He would describe head-hunters and cannibals with the same unflinching nonchalance as the pot-smokers and free-love hippies of antiquity.
Now, they have hemp growing in that country that is very like flax, except that it is thicker and taller. This plant grows both wild and under cultivation, and from it the Thracians make garments very like linen. Unless someone is very expert, he could not tell the garment made of linen from the hempen one. Someone who has never yet seen hemp would certainly judge the garment to be linen. The Scythians take the seed of this hemp and, creeping under the mats, throw the seed onto the stones as they glow with heat. The seed so cast on the stone gives off smoke and a vapor; no Greek steam bath could be stronger. The Scythians in their delight at the steam bath howl loudly. (4.74-75)
The Agathyrsi are the ones who live most delicately of these peoples; they wear gold jewelry a lot. They enjoy all their women in common, so that they may all be brothers and so, being all kinsfolk of one another, have neither envy nor hatred against one another. In their other usages they are very close to the Thracians. (4.104)
The spirit to whom the Taurians make the sacrifice they themselves say is Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon. In the case of such enemy warriors as they capture they do as follows: each man cuts off his enemy’s head and takes it home, where he sets it on top of a great pole, which projects far above the roof of his house–for the most part, above the chimney. They say that these heads hang aloft there as sentinels over the house. (4.103)
The Man-Eaters have the most savage manner of life of all men; they believe in no justice nor use any law. They are nomads, wear clothing like that of the Scythians, but have a language all their own. They are the only one of these people who eat human flesh. (4.106)
Herodotus’ riveting storytelling can be seen in the account of Pythius of Celaenae, a city in Phrygia where Xerxes’ army encamped on their march to Greece. Tension builds up like a scene in a Quentin Tarrantino film (think of Xerxes as Samuel L. Jackson) where you know shit hits the fan at the end.
In this city there lay, awaiting the King, one Pythius, the son of Atys, a Lydian, who entertained the entire army of the King with every sort of hospitality, and Xerxes as well. This man also declared that he wished to contribute money to the war. When Pythius made this offer, Xerxes asked the Persians who were near him who on earth was this fellow Pythius and what money he possessed that he should make such an offer. They told him: “My lord, this is the man who gave your father Darius the golden plane tree and vine, and he is now the first of men for his wealth–after yourself–of any we know.”
Xerxes was surprised at this final comment, and so he in turn asked Pythius how much he possessed. He said, “My lord, I will not conceal anything from you, nor will I pretend not to know exactly my possessions. I know them and will tell you exactly; for as soon as I heard you were coming down to the coast, to the Greek sea, I made my inquiries because I wanted to give you money for the war; and on my reckoning I find that I have two thousand talents of silver, and, of Daric staters in gold, I have four million, lacking some seven thousand. All of these now I give you; for me the livelihood from my slaves and my estates will suffice.”
Thus he spoke. Xerxes was delighted with his words and in answer to them said, “My Lydian host, since coming from the land of Persia I have till this day never met with a man who would offer hospitality to my army, nor one who stood before me and of his own will was willing to contribute money to my war except yourself. You have entertained my army magnificently, and magnificent is the offer of money you have made me. So I will give you rewards to answer your gifts. I will make you my friend, and I will fill up your four million staters, giving you the seven thousand from my purse, that your four millions may not be lacking those seven thousands but that, thanks to me, you will have the full tale made up. Possess, then, that of which you stand possessed; know how to be ever such a one as now you are; for, if you do so, you shall neither now nor for all time to come repent it.”
That is what he said, and made the four million complete, and on he went, forward always. (7.26-30)
But as Xerxes’ army prepared to leave, an eclipse occurred that disturbed Pythius who thought it a bad omen. He thereby appealed to the king, confident in his good standing with his lord.
As Xerxes marched away, Pythius the Lydian, because he had been terrified by the appearance of the heavens and had been encouraged by the gifts the King had given him, came before Xerxes and said, “Master, I have a request for you, which I would greatly wish you could grant me; it is easy for you to do me this kindness, but for me it is a great matter.” Xerxes thought that he would ask for anything rather than what he did, and said, yes, he would do him the kindness, and only bade him tell him what it was that he needed. When Pythius heard that, he took heart and said, “Master, I have five sons, and it behooves them all to go with you to Greece. My lord, do you take pity on me, at the age to which I have come, and release one of my sons–the eldest–from your army, that he may be the caretaker of me and of my possessions. Take the other four with you, and may you come home again, having accomplished all that you intend.”
Xerxes was violently angry and answered, “Vile creature, I am myself marching to Greece, and with me are my children, my brothers, my household, and my friends, and you dare to speak of your son–you who are my slave, who ought, with all who live in your house, and your wife herself, to follow in my train? I would have you know that a man’s spirit dwells in his ears. When he hears what is good, it fills his body with delight; when he hears the opposite, it swells with anger. When you did good to me and offered more such, you will never boast that you surpassed your King in deeds of kindness. But now that you have turned to this shameless course, you shall not receive the full value of your deeds–no, it will be less than the full value. You and four of your sons will be protected by the hospitality you showed to me, but for this one son of yours, for whom you care so mightily–your request will cost him his life.” Such was his answer; and immediately he ordered those who were charged with such matters to find the eldest of the sons of Pythius and cut him in two and to set the two halves of the body on each side of the road, to the left and to the right, and the army should march between them. (7.38-39)
This self-contained episode is but a digression to the overarching narrative of Xerxes’ march towards Attica to punish the Athenians for aiding and abetting the Ionian revolt against Persian rule. These detours can sometimes be so long-winded, it can be difficult to know when he has gone back on track to the main story line. But what a fabulous tale! And what shocking, sensational ending! Still, it is not an entirely indulgent excursion. The story dramatically illustrates the life of an imperial subject of Persia as someone always on the knife edge of the arbitrary whims of an absolute despot.
The Persian subject lives and fights out of fear of their king, but for the free citizens of Greece courage is achieved “by a compound of wisdom and the strength of their laws.” Before the battle at Thermopylae, Xerxes consults Demaratus, a Lacedaemonian who switched to the Persian side, to inquire of the Spartan’s courage and strength of will to fight the hosts of Persia. Demaratus replied:
[Fighting] singly, they are no worse than any other people; together, they are the most gallant men on earth. For they are free–but not altogether so. They have as the despot over them Law, and they fear him much more than your men fear you. At least they do whatever he bids them do; and he bids them always the same thing: not to flee from the fight before any multitude of men whatever but to stand firm in their ranks and either conquer or die. (7.104)
Leonidas and his 300 men did stand their ground and die at Thermopylae. But they were avenged by the Persian defeat at Salamis, at Artemisium, and finally at Plataea. A flowering of Hellenic civilization followed from the space that freedom afforded with the defeat of the Persian empire. What transpired was thus, more than anything, a spiritual victory.
[The] real significance of the Greek victories in this great decade is to be found not so much in the field of politics as in the domain of spirit. A tiny people had defeated a great empire. Something spiritual had by the help of favouring gods, vanquished wealth, numbers, material strength. Insolence had been curbed; the pride of power had received a fall. The goddess Athena had protected her chosen people in the hour of need. The exaltation which ensued bred great designs and a body of achievement in literature and art so astonishing in its beauty, its variety, and the permanence of its human appeal, that of all the elements which have entered into the education of European man, this perhaps has done most for the liberation of thought and the refinement of taste.
(H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe, 1935, p. 31)
While the legacy of ancient Oriental empires live only as relics in museums, Greek thought as embodied in their art and literature, in their philosophy and politics, still informs the intellectual life of Western civilization.
(Translation of The History by David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1987)